How to Think About John Demjanjuk

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J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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27 Responses

  1. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    What I found so shocking about Browning’s excellent book (unfairly attacked by Goldhagen in my opinion) was simply that revelation that they were given the option of abstaining if they didn’t have the stomach for it. Certainly there were plenty who were revolted but succumbed to peer pressure. And yet that’s very different from one’s life being at risk, which I think we often assume was the case.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Rufus F. says:

      I’m not familiar with what Goldhagen wrote, but I agree with your reaction — it’s a revelation that these groups weren’t organized, perhaps, the way we thought or would expect, AND that this difference in expectation and reality is at once reassuring (that there was dissent; that they weren’t all killers or transformed into such, etc.) and tremendously disconcerting (the typical abstention rate from gunning down old men and women at only 10%? — though, if it were regularly significantly higher, I doubt there would have been nearly as much tolerance).Report

    • Avatar Steve in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Rufus, I’m curious what Goldhagen wrote about Browning, as, if I remember correctly, he wrote pretty much the same thing regarding the Police Battalions having the option to abstain. And, Mr. Wall, that last paragraph is brilliant. I hear that cackle all the louder as memory fades, and images blur. I feel more and more that we utterly failed at Nuremberg, and didn’t just fall short in our search for justice.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Steve says:

        That was what was so weird about it- their books are using the same sources and coming to similar conclusions, but Goldhagen really trashed Ordinary Men in the New Republic and supposedly saw Hitler’s Willing Executioners as a sort of rebuttal. The main difference between the two is that Goldhagen places much more emphasis on the German cultural tradition of anti-Semitism for the centuries beforehand. So these are not just ordinary men, but ordinary German men. He basically faulted Browning for not dealing more with that.Report

  2. Avatar J. Otto Pohl says:

    Demjanjuk was acquited of any crimes by the Israelis themselves back in the 1980s. Back then people like Wall claimed Demjanjuk was at Treblinka not Sobibor. Then OSI was found to have perpetrated “fraud upon the court” with regards to the Demjanjuk case. For decades the Soviet government, OSI, and other zelots have pursued this man claiming he was Ivan Grozny from Treblinka. The Sobibor story only came up after the Israelis acquited Demjanjuk. Given the total fabrication of the Treblinka story, I find the Sobibor one hard to believe as well.

    In contrast Jewish warcriminals such as Solomon Morel, Nachman Dusanski, and others were allowed to go to Israel in the 1990s to be safe from Polish and Lithuanian justice. Of course given that much of the Israeli government consists of current war criminals the fact that Stalinist warcriminals from the 1940s find haven there is no surprise. There is an incredible double standard here. Indeed Mr. Wall just had two posts definding, justfiying, belittling and essentially denying the Nakba with its attendent massacres like Deir Yassin. The constant harping about Ukrainian and Baltic Nazi collaborators rings hollow. Some of the worst criminals in world history were ethnic Jews working for Stalin like Lazar Kaganovich, Genrikh Liushkov, Genrikh Yagoda, Matvei Berman, and others, yet it is considered ill mannered to mention this fact. By the way these were very high ranking officials in the Stalinist regime. Liushkov was head of the NKVD in the Russian Far East, Yagoda head of the NKVD, Berman head of the Gulag, and Kaganovich a member of the politburo. This is a much greater level of collaboration in crimes against humanity than any Balt or Ukrainian occupied under the Nazis.

    When will Morel and Dusanski be extradited by Israel to stand trial in Poland and Lithuania? The claim by their Jewish defenders is that they are too old and the crimes were too long ago. The exact same arguments Wall would deny to men accused of collaborating with the Germans. As I said the last time I commented on one of Mr. Wall’s screeds, “Never Again” only means never again will Jews be victims of genocide. It has nothing what so ever to do with universal human rights. Indeed he just had two posts justifying their denial to the Palestinians.Report

    • Avatar Pub Editor in reply to J. Otto Pohl says:

      When will Morel and Dusanski be extradited by Israel to stand trial in Poland and Lithuania?

      Well, Morel died in 2007 and Dushanski died in 2008, so their extradition at this time will be difficult.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to J. Otto Pohl says:

      A few notes:

      1) I didn’t go into his prior conviction and then appeals victory in much detail because, as I wrote and revised, this post moved in a direction that was more and more focused on “the Gray Zone” (to use Levi’s term) than one that would benefit from my non-attorney evaluation of evidence I’m not intimately familiar with. Had my copy of Roth’s OPERATION SHYLOCK not been a few hundred miles away at the time, I might have gone into a discussion of the original trial/acquittal in light of that novel, but probably in another post. (I did hunt through my apartment before resigning myself to the fact that it’s still on a shelf in Louisville.) I’m willing to grant the court the benefit of the doubt, as I typically am, but I’ll confess that the prior record also adds some to my discomfort. But even without it, the discomfort I described would still be there.

      2) Re: Soviet criminals of Jewish extraction: I’m not familiar with the details of the cases you mentioned, but if there was sufficient evidence to meet the standard for extradition, and Israel refused with no genuine, substantiated concerns for a fair trial/safety/etc., then that was clearly wrong, and clearly inappropriate. But they are, in fact, dead, so the point about their future extradition is moot.

      3) “Indeed Mr. Wall just had two posts definding, justfiying, belittling and essentially denying the Nakba with its attendent massacres like Deir Yassin.”
      I had a post up that was questioning the authenticity of the narrative of Assad’s Times op-ed. I don’t doubt that his family, and many others, fled their homes out of fear; I do doubt, in large part because of his own past discussions of the matter, that they were forced out by the evil Zionist army, which is the impression the Times article gave. I’m skeptical of the narrative in which the current iteration of the Nakba is embedded, and I’m skeptical of many of the ways in which it is commemorated, but I do not deny that a large number of Palestinians left and/or were forced from their homes over the course of 1948-9: some of them were forced out by Jewish soldiers; others by Arab soldiers (again, refer to Mr. Assad’s own accounts of the initial flight); and others still of their own, uncoerced choice. (To quote myself, “it was a war and I will not assert that the hands of either side were clean. War, after all, is hell.”) If implying that the right of return will have to limited to a new Palestinian state as part of an agreement is a screed… then Obama must be some far-right Likudnik.

      3) “Some of the worst criminals in world history were ethnic Jews working for Stalin like Lazar Kaganovich, Genrikh Liushkov, Genrikh Yagoda, Matvei Berman, and others, yet it is considered ill mannered to mention this fact. By the way these were very high ranking officials in the Stalinist regime. Liushkov was head of the NKVD in the Russian Far East, Yagoda head of the NKVD, Berman head of the Gulag, and Kaganovich a member of the politburo.”
      And those men are one mass shande. However, their guilt does nothing to absolve the guilt of those who worked with the Nazi regime.

      4) “This is a much greater level of collaboration in crimes against humanity than any Balt or Ukrainian occupied under the Nazis.”
      If we’re talking about levels of individual crimes… then perhaps. But at least half of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust were killed at gunpoint in the forests of eastern Europe, not in the camps. The groups used to carry out these murders were, very frequently, Ukrainian conscripts — indeed, Browning’s book, mentioned above, examines the behavior of precisely these men. Both the gulags and the lagers were evil, but I’d hold that they were different types of evil. Regardless, I’d see nothing wrong with looking to convict former Soviet officials of crimes against humanity — and I continue to fail to see how this means that former Nazi collaborators oughtn’t be.

      5) “The claim by their Jewish defenders is that they are too old and the crimes were too long ago. The exact same arguments Wall would deny to men accused of collaborating with the Germans.”
      At risk of quoting myself too many times in a response, I’ll leave you with what I wrote in the post above:
      “And yet, murder and crimes against humanity are not subject to a statue of limitations, and it is difficult to believe that this is not as it should be. To expand Yitz Greenberg’s standard beyond the Holocaust and the burning children, could one say, in the presence of any murder victim, that it had been “too long” to try those responsible for his or her death?”Report

  3. Avatar J. Otto Pohl says:

    Fine, but why were they never tried? Is there not a double standard? Why are human rights not universal? Should not those guilty of crimes against humanity be tried even if the victims are Lithuanian or German and the criminals Jewish?Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to J. Otto Pohl says:

      I don’t know; if there is, then their cases only show that it existed in their cases; they are, and ought to be; yes, emphatically.

      The purpose of this post was not to distract from Jewish Soviet criminals, or from Israel and Palestine and the mess that pervades that situation, but to discuss, in light of a recent event, the continuing effect (and successes?) of the Nazi camps to utterly destroy meaningful categories of morality and right, at least within their physical bounds, and the difficulties of applying those categories to anyone involved, except those most clearly and heinously guilty. THIS for me, is the ongoing challenge of the Holocaust — because that imposition of utter meaningLESSness is the vacuum out of and against which the moral imperative (or Commanding Voice, if you’re into Fackenheim) of Auschwitz booms/whispers. The Holocaust demands the existence of meaning, but the evil of the lagers was so wholly unique that it renders the application of meaningful categories immensely problematic — and that subsequent imperfection of previously stable categories is what the “laughter” I mentioned refers to.

      The gulags were evil. I don’t dispute this. But their evil was not asymptotic.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to J. Otto Pohl says:

      Shorter J. Otto Pohl,

      You’re not allowed to talk about any atrocity unless you talk about my favorite atrocity.Report

  4. Avatar Matt says:

    Even if the prosecution’s case was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, even if JL Wall’s question about culpability and coercion was answered in the affirmative, and even if it we could be certain that justice is best served by making this man spend the last days of his natural life in this manner, another question would remain:

    Should the evidence against Dejmanjuk, such as it is, be admissible?

    The documents that place him at Sobibol were provided by the KGB. Even leaving aside the possibility of forgery, they have a filthy pedigree. We can be entirely certain that they weren’t offered out of concern for justice, in fact, they were made available by the group that is responsible for many of the worst human rights abuses of this century. Nothing gathered by the KGB could possibly have been gathered lawfully.

    Would western courts be as comfortable using internal Nazi Party documents in the prosecution of non-Nazi’s? I suspect that they’d all balk at doing so, because to use evidence is to offer a kind of endorsement of it’s source. Shouldn’t the same standard apply when the situation is reversed?Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Matt says:

      Regarding the KGB — I’m not familiar with the particular TYPE(S) of evidence they provided, both willingly (in the Ivan the Terrible trials — because the release of fuller records after the USSR’s fall freed him) and not (what with things that became available after the KGB itself was no longer picking and choosing what to release). Your questions were, in fact, raised during Demjanjuk’s trial in the late 80s — and turned out to be very much valid. But since the KGB has not been around for the last twenty years to forge records that put him at Sobibor, and since they DID, at the least, provide iffy/potentially forged evidence that put him elsewhere, I don’t know whether we should be more, less, or equally concerned than we should have been in the 80s. I’m willing to cast my lot with the judge’s rulings, because I like to give the benefit of the doubt to upholding justice in the absence of any evidence contrariwise.

      As for internal Nazi documents — I’d actually be interested to see whether this happened in the past. I think that the US/the West in the late 40s/50s would have been much more willing to use that evidence — perhaps in the process of ‘rooting out Soviet spies’ or something — than we would today.Report

  5. Avatar tom van dyke says:

    Matt, I doubt most of the evidence against bin Laden would be “admissible.” Welcome to the real world vs. the legal one.Report

  6. Avatar J. Otto Pohl says:

    Matt is right about the evidence against Demjanjuk originally being provided by the KGB and being questionable. The whole OSI set up of using civil trials to strip naturalized US citizens belonging to ethnicities hostile to the USSR based on evidence provided by the KGB including affidavits taken in the Soviet Union that could not be cross examined would never have been tolerated if it were for some other cause. Imagine if during the same time in the 1980s the US had used evidence provided by BOSS, South African, intelligence to strip Black South African immigrants or refugees of their US cititizenship and deport them back to South Africa for trial. That was the basic OSI set up and it included such illegal activities as deporting Karl Linnas from Estonia to the USSR. At the time the US and most other countries did not recognize the legal right of the Soviet Union to occupy Estonia yet alone try its citizens.

    As far as atrocities are concerned there really is no disagreement about the evils of Nazi Germany. It has been denounced and most of its surviving major perpetrators were tried and hanged in Germany after the war. In contrast there has been no such coming to terms with Stalinism and the crimes of Israel are still being committed on a daily basis. Stalin has been rehabilitated in Russia and that rehabilitation is based on claiming that all acts done were justified by defeating the Nazis because they were somehow uniquely evil, an opinion Wall shares, but does not explain. How is killing a Jew more evil than killing a Crimean Tatar, Chechen, Kalmyk, or Volga German, all nationalities that were deported in their entirety to areas with known lethal living conditions? The mortality rate for the Chechens during WWII in terms of percentage was around a third of the population. This is certainly a crime on the same moral level as the Holocaust.

    A big part of Stalin’s rehabilitation is based on claiming that peoples like the Ukrainians and Balts who resisted Soviet rule were Nazi collaborators. This was the whole point of the original Soviet case against Demjanjuk, to discredit Ukrainian national dissent as tied to Nazi Germany. One need only look at the neo-Stalinist propaganda coming out of Russia recently to see that the justification of things like the forcible deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar and Chechen populations to Central Asia is that they really were Nazi collaborators and that Khrushchev was wrong to denounce Stalin. One result of viewing the Holocaust as unique has been that other crimes are allowed to repeat themselves. Hence Yeltsin and then Putin were given free reign to pick up killing Chechens where Stalin left off.

    I would take Wall more seriously if his writing did not make special exceptions for certain atrocities. But, his denial of the Nakba is no more intellectually serious than Irving’s denial of the Holocaust. It is well established that the Haganah, Lehi and Irgun began the mass expulsion of Palestinian Arabs in 1947. If somebody wrote in Europe about the Holocaust the way he does about the Nakba he would be thrown in prison for Holocaust denial.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to J. Otto Pohl says:

      “Stalin has been rehabilitated in Russia and that rehabilitation is based on claiming that all acts done were justified by defeating the Nazis because they were somehow uniquely evil, an opinion Wall shares, but does not explain. How is killing a Jew more evil than killing a Crimean Tatar, Chechen, Kalmyk, or Volga German, all nationalities that were deported in their entirety to areas with known lethal living conditions? The mortality rate for the Chechens during WWII in terms of percentage was around a third of the population. This is certainly a crime on the same moral level as the Holocaust.”

      Killing a Jew is not more evil than killing any other person. The uniqueness (a blunt word, one I don’t quite like, but one I’ll work with because I have none better) of the Holocaust lies not in WHOM the Nazis killed, but the precise causes and manner—and, indeed, the efficacy—of that killing. The world of the camps was not merely centered on killing Jews, but on the total domination of the whole being—body and soul—of those imprisoned, and on the implication even of the victims in their murders; it was premised not merely on killing the physical being, but on the total domination* of the super-physical (soul, spirit, consciousness, free-will, individual, what-have-you) as well. That the “Special Squads,” the “crematory ravens” who led Jews into the gas chambers and then transferred their bodies to the crematoria were, at Auschwitz, composed almost exclusively of Jews was no accident. It was part of the design. Had the Nazi ideology become obsessed with another group, and had this obsession led to this same end, the “crematory ravens” would have been composed of members of that group.

      One could make the argument that this is the anti-ideal toward which all genocide and totalitarian labor camps strive. That the Holocaust, as it were, stands alone (at the moment) is not a testament to the value or the innocence of the Jews as opposed to all other people, but to the efficacy and nihilism of the Nazi regime and its machinery.

      *This is Arendt’s term, in fact. She didn’t think that the Soviets couldn’t get there, just that they weren’t there yet. Pairing Solzhenitzyn with Primo Levi should reveal what I mean by that—but also, as you point out, reveal the abstraction of this debate. Both were evil; the distinction between the two is, in great deal, a matter of theory and philosophical approach/understanding.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to J. Otto Pohl says:

      And just so we’re clear, I’ve put myself on the record as accusing Israel of being in violation of the Covenant between Jews and God, which, from me, toward other Jews, is a far more serious charge than being in violation of a UN resolution.  I went on the website of The American Conservative and repeated the charge (for a self-described Zionist to do this on the site of a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan is not an entirely comfortable act).  I’ve had my viewpoint assailed as one that shows I “don’t love Jews.”  And if my insistence that the Nakba was not wholly at the hands of the evil Zionists is the equivalent of denying that Arab Palestinians left their homes — yes! — including instances when they were forced out is the equivalent of denying that these people ever lived there, then ceased to, well…

      I’m not some shill for Bibi, and pointing out that Abbas’ English-language narrative does not match his Arab-language narrative does not make me David Irving, nor does opposing a solution that, erm, is in line with Hamas’ ideal.  (Which brings me to the point that — and I don’t believe that I feel like I have to say this in self-defense, but anyway — of course it shouldn’t be a crime to deny the Holocaust.  It should be enough to deny a history professor tenure, but not to lock one up.)  That’s what my so-called “screeds” said.  Politics is the art of the real.  Regardless of the point of whether there OUGHT to be a full right of return, it simply will not be part of any two-state solution.  That’s not revisionism; that’s reality.Report

  7. Avatar J. Otto Pohl says:

    If one measures evil by the efficiency of killing then the Nazis are going to have to take second place to the much better organized and faster Rwandan genocide. The killings in Rwanda by the Hutu power movement were more efficient than the Nazi killings in Eastern Europe. In about three months the regime killed some 800,000 people or about 80% of the country’s Tutsi population. It would have been 100% if the regime had lasted a little bit longer instead of being overthrown.

    But, I thought that the whole idea of dismissing all cases of genocide other than the Holocaust as lesser evils had passed by now after its hey day in the 1990s. I guess I was wrong. As I have stated before I believe human rights should be universal. If certain acts are wrong they are equally wrong for all perpetrators regardless of the victims. Otherwise anything other than the Holocaust can be justified by pointing to the greater evil of the enemy, something that has been done recently in Russia. Something that is easy to do if the enemy’s evil is a uniquely greater than all other evilsReport

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to J. Otto Pohl says:

      1) I see I should have said “efficacy of destruction” (or some such thing) as opposed to “efficacy of killing.” The remainder of that paragraph should, however, make the point clear: that the distinction, for me, lies not in the physical act of killing itself, but in the act and method of total domination.

      2) It’s clear to me now that you’re insisting on mis-representing what I’m arguing. I nowhere “dismissed” other genocides; nor claimed that human rights are not universal, nor that “if certain acts are wrong they are equally wrong for all perpetrators regardless of the victims.” Indeed, I made that statement in my above comment, when I state, “Had the Nazi ideology become obsessed with another group, and had this obsession led to this same end, the “crematory ravens” would have been composed of members of that group.” Put otherwise, the degree of evil is not dependent on the victims.

      You are, it seems, an historian. We can, then, agree that no two historical events are precisely the same? That is, that there is at least a degree of uniqueness, of particularity, in all historical events. That every event, then, must be different to a degree from all others. I see no moral wrong in exploring the particularities of history to their full and necessary extent. I don’t see why you’re so terrified of that. But we’re clearly not going to agree.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to J. Otto Pohl says:

      I honestly can’t figure out what you’re going on about here. It takes a perverse “reasoning,” if it can be called that, to get anything from Wall’s post that suggests he’s excluding or denying any other genocide or crime against humanity, and as James said, you just seem to be saying that no one should talk about one genocide without talking about the ones that you’re interested in. I notice, though, that you haven’t once mentioned the Armenian genocide. Do you, sir, not think human rights are universal?! (See how silly that sounds coming from someone else?)Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to J. Otto Pohl says:

      Write a guest post! I’d love to read it. Talk about the Gulags, quote Solzhenitsyn, discuss the millions killed by famine, and talk about how there was a coordinated cover-up!

      And then, when folks show up in comments and explain how, well, you have to understand… no one is excusing the excesses of Stalin but there are a great many factors that went into making trains run on time and, besides, the Tsar was bad too *THEN* go nuts.

      Doing it before that point is a hair tacky.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

        I wonder if he’d mention that Stalin targeted Jews on more than one occasion.

        You know, it was official Soviet Policy not to talk about the extermination of Jews, specifically, by the Nazis, because it was thought that it would minimize the suffering of the other Soviet citizens. This is one of the reasons why Grossman’s Life and Fate was banned.

        An amazing book by the way, if you haven’t read it – the letter from Shtrum’s mother is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read. It looks like you can read all of it here: here, starting at page 80.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

          Instead of speculation as to whether his as yet unpublished guest post will cover the parts of the atrocity that you think ought to be covered, I’d instead suggest, you guessed it, a guest post!Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

            Hah, I wasn’t speculating, I was wondering. There’s a difference.
            My guest post would look exactly like this (feel free to move this to the front page):

            Dude, Stalin was really bad, and he killed millions of people, targetings several groups, including Ukrainians, Jews, and the officer corps. It really sucked to live in the Soviet Union under Stalin; even worse than it sucked to live in the Soviet Union under other leaders, which is saying a lot. And that’s assuming you lived. Did I mention that Stalin murdered or encouraged the murder of millions of people? Also, read Life and Fate.Report

        • Avatar WardSmith in reply to Chris says:

          @Chris, your link above doesn’t work, but in honor of your author I’ve linked this review

          @Lukas below, note that Demjanjuk isn’t German. Even in the German press (which you’ll have to have Google translate for you if you don’t read it), they complain about the government picking on “this foreigner”.Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to WardSmith says:

            Ugh, sorry about the link. I’ve always had trouble with Google Books links. Just Google “Life and Fate,” look in Google Books, and go to page 80.

            That review is wonderful as well. Thank you for posting it.Report

  8. Avatar lukas says:

    Germany didn’t prosecute its homegrown Nazis nearly severely enough post-war. Now, in an attempt to redeem itself, the German judicial system just seizes on whoever has participated in some way in the atrocities of the Nazi regime and is half-way fit for trial.

    Inevitably, that produces ridiculous stories such as the Demjanjuk case.Report