Demjanjuk: Nazi war criminal or innocent man falsely accused?

With news of the death of John Demjanjuk over the weekend, I thought it would be apt to post an essay I wrote on the man last year for a class on the Holocaust. It is unfortunate that the full truth will never be known.


The story of John Demjanjuk is a long one, stretching for nearly half a century. Demjanjuk has long been the bane of Nazi hunters’ existence, and his supposed involvement in the Holocaust and the subsequent trials against him have engendered much controversy. Here is what is known for sure: Demjanjuk is a Ukrainian national who was conscripted to fight for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in World War II. He was captured by Germany in May 1942 at the battle of Kerch and was held as a prisoner of war. After the war, in 1952, Demjanjuk moved to the United States and settled in Ohio, working at a Ford auto plant. He was an American citizen from 1958 until his citizenship was revoked in 1977.[1] Beyond this, the case of John Demjanjuk begins to get messy.

The United States began investigating Demjanjuk in 1975, based on an investigation of the camp at Sobibor, with which Demjanjuk was linked, and the testimony of a Soviet named Ignat’ Danil’chenko.[2] However, initially, Demjanjuk was not tried for any actions taken place at Sobibor; instead he was charged, on the basis of Holocaust survivors’ testimony, with being a ruthless killer at the camp at Treblinka. This guard, whom Demjanjuk was alleged to be, was so ruthless that he was nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible.” This Ivan was so terrible that he would whip and maim Jews sheer moments before their actual slaughter, who took joy in adding to Jews’ pain beyond even what a normal camp guard would administer. After the U.S. investigation, Israel requested Demjanjuk be extradited to the country to stand trial on charges of war crimes, crimes against persecuted individuals, murder, crimes against the Jewish people, and crimes against humanity. Demjanjuk was only the second man to be tried for these charges in Israel, joining the ignominious company of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust.

The trial began on February 16, 1987. The prosecution argued thusly: Demjanjuk was captured as a prisoner of war by Nazi Germany in 1942 and volunteered, along with other Ukrainians who sought a lighter sentence, to join an arm of the SS, an auxiliary police force that trained at Trawniki Training Camp in fulfillment of a Nazi operation known as Operation Reinhard. Operation Reinhard was a large aspect of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” including the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the “Holocaust by Bullets” in the Ukraine and the Baltic states. Operation Reinhard encompassed the killing centers in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, and the Trawniki forces were the manpower by which this operation was carried out. “The Trawniki Training Camp,” historian Peter Black explains, “had provided subservient and ruthless manpower under determined leadership during the peak years of the Final Solution.”[3] These “Trawniki men” were often prisoners of war, though “German police recruiters sought ethnic Germans, German-speakers, soldiers of non-Russian nationality who presumably hated the Communist regime.”[4] They performed the dirty work for the Nazis, serving as guards for killing centers and labor camps.[5] The government’s main source of evidence for this charge, in addition to survivor testimony, was Demjanjuk’s Trawniki camp card, which was found in a Soviet archive. Oddly enough, the card did not place Demjanjuk at Treblinka; it placed him at an SS estate in Ozkow, near Chelm, in September 1942, and at Sobibor from March 1943 to the end of the war. The evidence, though directly at odds with survivor testimony, was a key aspect of the charges, as it was the only piece of evidence proving Demjanjuk as being at Trawniki. “I will not say that the investigative procedure was a farce,” psychologist Willem Wagenaar said, “but a total farce could have violated only a few more rules.”[6] Demjanjuk denied the charges, claiming that he had spent the duration of the war in a POW camp near Chelm and calling the Trawniki identification card a Soviet-inspired forgery.

Despite the case’s inconsistencies, the Israeli court found Demjanjuk guilty, and, on April 25, 1988, sentenced him to death. Demjanjuk appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, and the case arrived on the high court’s docket just as the Soviet Union disintegrated and thousands of pages of documents flooded the prosecution and defense. These documents revealed Ukrainian testimony admitting the existence of an Ivan — just not the Ivan the prosecution was hoping for. This testimony identified “Ivan the Terrible” as Ivan Marchenko, another Ukrainian whose acts of brutality at Treblinka matched the description of the Jewish survivors. This created enough reasonable doubt for the Israeli Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s conviction. “The complete truth,” Chief Justice Meir Shamgar wrote in pronouncing Demjanjuk innocent, “is not the prerogative of the human judge.”

However, this acquittal did not put to rest suspicions that Demjanjuk was in some way involved with the Holocaust and the mass killing of Jews. After his return to the United States, with his citizenship restored, the United States’ Office of Special Investigations, created in 1979 to investigate and take legal action against Nazi war criminals living in the United States[7], and now armed with thousands of Trawniki-related documents tracking Demjanjuk’s career as a Nazi official from 1942 to the end of the war, made its move to extradite Demjanjuk once again for crimes committed during the Holocaust. Only this time, it was for crimes committed at the killing center at Sobibor. After the acquittal, Israel decided not to retry Demjanjuk for any crimes he may have committed in Sobibor. Poland and the Ukraine opted not to hear the case either. Germany, however, jumped at the chance to hear the case. One newspaper columnist editorialized, “We must remind this old man of what he did. We owe it to the victims and ourselves — otherwise we would be a people without a memory.” One Sobibor survivor, Thomas Blatt, agreed: “I want to hear his testimony, for the sake of history — that’s more important than any punishment he could receive.”[8] Thus, in July 2009, German prosecutors indicted Demjanjuk on 28,060 counts of accessory to murder at Sobibor.

The trial itself is a troublesome one. “The purpose of a trial,” Hannah Arendt argued during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, “is to render justice, and nothing else.”[9] Indeed, even at Nuremberg there were acquittals. Though these trials were intended to be didactic in nature — Patricia Heberer and Jurgen Matthaus write, “Nuremberg was as much an exercise in setting the historical record straight as it was a means to establish the mechanism for enforcing the rules of law in a future international setting”[10]; Mark Wolfgram agrees when he writes, “The Allied prosecutors at Nuremburg set a two-track objective for the trial: They wanted to combine the prosecution of war criminals with the broader didactic goal of educating future generations about the nature of Nazi criminality”[11] — they did not descend to the idea of victor’s justice, precisely for the reason that actual documents are used as evidence and that there are acquittals. These trials also provided significant precedents for future war crimes trials. While the “following orders” defense could not absolve the defendant of any crimes committed, the fact could be taken into consideration by the court for a lighter sentence.

The prosecution had much at their disposal. Documentary evidence, Demjanjuk’s protestations of Soviet forgery to the contrary, strongly suggests that Demjanjuk, upon being captured by the Nazis, volunteered for their Trawniki program, and spent time at the training camp, as a guard at Sobibor, and as a guard at the Flossenburg concentration camp. The fact that Demjanjuk is Ukrainian also works against him. The Ukrainians were notorious anti-Semites. Even those who did not fight in the war, and thus were not Trawniki men, helped to murder millions of Jews in the Ukraine in the “Holocaust by bullets.” Father Patrick Desbois, after years of intensive research, discovered that most Ukrainians during the German occupation were forced to help the Germans dig pits, push down bodies, and find and even murder Jews. “I had thought that nobody could see inside the extermination camps,” Desbois remembered, “that they were like secret bases … Now, I realized that they were a part of everyday life.”[12] Entire Jewish villages and enclaves in the Ukraine were wiped out. Though none of this proves that Demjanjuk ever killed anyone, it is very convincing circumstantial evidence that Demjanjuk had to have done something.

However, many aspects of the latest trial of John Demjanjuk are unprecedented. Until Demjanjuk, Germany had not once tried a non-German for any murder committed at a death camp. And though there is documentation that Demjanjuk volunteered to serve at Trawniki and that at some point in time he was at Sobibor, there is, Demjanjuk’s son says, “not a scintilla of evidence he ever hurt a single person anywhere.”[13] In fact, the prosecution’s case rests on the theory that if Demjanjuk was present at the camp, he was a participant in the killing — the first time such an argument has been made in a German court. German prosecutors were not able to present one piece of evidence that Demjanjuk ever committed a crime. There is no survivor testimony, aside from that given by long-deceased Danil’chenko more than 30 years ago, and Sobibor survivors today have not been able to recognize him. “After sixty-six years I can’t even remember my father’s face,” Sobibor survivor Blatt says, “but I’m certain that Demjanjuk was just like the other Ukrainian guards.”[14] Regardless of this lack of evidence, presiding Judge Ralph Alt said, Demjanjuk “knew he was part of an organization with no other purpose but mass murder.”[15]

On May 12, 2011, Demjanjuk was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, to the joy of many and consternation of a few. Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, said, “The conviction … of Demjanjuk underscores the fact that even though the policies of the ‘Final Solution’ — the systematic murder of six million European Jews — were set and carried out by the German Nazi regime, the murder could not have taken place without the participation of myriads of Europeans on many levels. Their role was also criminal.”[16] Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said, “John Demjanjuk deserves to be punished for the unspeakable crimes he committed.”[17] On the other side, columnist Patrick J. Buchanan decried the decision: “John Demjanjuk, 91, after spending five years on death row for a crime he did not commit in a place he never was, is stateless and homeless in a Germany where veterans of the SS walk free. That is justice — in our world.”[18]

The Demjanjuk case is a very important one for understanding the Holocaust and what it means for the future. It is almost certainly the last Holocaust war criminal case. Depending on your point of view, it either ends a long history of rendering justice to men who committed some of the most brutal acts in the history of mankind, or it is a farce, a brutal example of victor’s justice, of Germany punishing others for its own sin. Either way, it solidifies the notion that all Nazi criminals — by precedent, criminals of future genocides as well — deserve to be punished for their actions. The lesser criminals, this case makes certain, will get their punishment right along with the larger ones. As Rudie Cortissos, the daughter of a woman killed at Sobibor, said, “[Demjanjuk] is a very small fish. But whether you are a whale or a sardine, someone who went wrong this way should be punished.”[19] Whether Demjanjuk was innocent or guilty is impossible to know — as Israeli Chief Justice Meir Shamgar wrote, “The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge.” But this trial, this human justice, aside from punishing the alleged Nazi criminal, serves a didactic purpose, keeping alive this horrible memory of the Holocaust and raising the stature of lesser-known atrocities, such as Sobibor, to that of Auschwitz.

[1] “John Demjanjuk: Prosecution of A Nazi Collaborator.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[2] All information re: the Demjanjuk trials is from: “John Demjanjuk: Prosecution of A Nazi Collaborator.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (accessed November 14, 2011); Raab, Scott. “John Demjanjuk: The Last Nazi.” Esquire. (accessed November 14, 2011); and Kulish, Nicholas. “Times Topics: John Demjanjuk.” The New York Times. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[3] Black, Peter. “Foot Soldiers of the Final Solution: The Trawniki Training Camp and Operation Reinhard.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 25, no. 1 (2011): 5. (accessed November 20, 2011).

[4] Ibid. 6.

[5] Ibid. 1-5.

[6] Munday, Roderick. “Identifying Ivan: A Case Study in Legal Psychology by Willem A. Wagenaar.” The Cambridge Law Journal  49, no. 2 (1990): 363-365. (accessed November 20, 2011).

[7] “Office of Special Investigations.” Yad Vashem. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[8] Raab, Scott. “John Demjanjuk: The Last Nazi.” Esquire. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[9] Heberer, Patricia, and Jurgen Matthaus. Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.) x.

[10] Ibid. xxiii.

[11] Wolfgram, Mark A. “Crimes of the Holocaust: The Law Confronts Hard Cases by Stephan Landsman.” The Journal of Politics 68, no. 3 (2006): 745-746. (accessed December 3, 2011).

[12] Desbois, Patrick. The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 23.

[13] Ewing, Jack. “Demjanjuk Convicted for Role in Nazi Death Camp.” The New York Times. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[14] Raab, Scott. “John Demjanjuk: The Last Nazi.” Esquire. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[15] Ewing, Jack. “Demjanjuk Convicted for Role in Nazi Death Camp.” The New York Times. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[16] “Yad Vashem Comment on Guilty Verdict in Demjanjuk Trial.” Yad Vashem. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[17] “Statement of the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the Deportation of John Demjanjuk.” Simon Wiesenthal Center. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[18] Buchanan, Patrick J. “The Persecution of John Demjanjuk.” Patrick J. Buchanan — Official Website. (accessed November 14, 2011).

[19] Ewing, Jack. “Demjanjuk Convicted for Role in Nazi Death Camp.” The New York Times. (accessed November 14, 2011).


4 thoughts on “Demjanjuk: Nazi war criminal or innocent man falsely accused?

  1. paolosilv,

    As far as I know, Demjanjuk’s defense rested on there not being any evidence for any crimes he may have committed. All of the documents that I have seen were on the side of the prosecution. Then again, those documents are sparse as well: his Trawniki camp card being the main source of solid documentary evidence.

    This is, admittedly, a very difficult case.

    Thanks for reading!

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