How to Think About John Demjanjuk
If John Demjanjuk’s conviction is—as seems likely—the final act of an international quest for justice that began shortly after the first Allied troops gazed in horror at the newly “liberated” death camps, it will stand as a curious and potentially troubling counterpoint to those earlier triumphs of civilized legality. This was not the prosecution of German military officials, high and low, that took place at Nuremburg in the immediate aftermath of war, nor was it the arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann and his “banal” smile by a Jewish state. It even stands distinct from Demjanjuk’s deportation, trial, and conviction in the 1980s, when he was accused, stout and middle-aged, a happy escapee, of being Ivan the Terrible, the infamous and sadistic Treblinka guard. Instead, we have this image of the now 91 year-old convict:
Mr. Demjanjuk spent most of the proceedings, which lasted much of the day, lying on his back in a bed set up not far from where Judge Ralph Alt read the sentence in a sweltering courtroom. With his face hidden behind a blue baseball cap and dark glasses, Mr. Demjanjuk remained nearly motionless, occasionally lifting a knee or an arm but showing no reaction to the proceedings.
One pauses to wonder—is it, perhaps, so late that it was not worth the spectacle? How aware was Demjanjuk of the proceedings themselves? If he had been found not guilty, would it have been worth putting an innocent nonagenarian through another multi-year trial?
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? Now let us think, more narrowly, of the Shoah, of the children valued less than the expense of their murder, of the crime so vast Arendt paused to wonder whether it could even be understood in the language of murder. If John Demjanjuk was willingly complicit with the murders at Sobibor, then his ninety-one years provoke no sympathy from me, nor should they from you.
There is a problem, however, and it lies not in his age, or even in the idea of complicity—though his defense would not concede that he was at Sobibor, as a guard, they would not rule out the possibility—but in that adverb: “willingly.” How are we, standing in a world returned to civilization, supposed to peer into the world of the camps and determine willingness? Consider what the prosecution and defense agreed on:
Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian soldier in the Soviet Red Army, fighting against the Germans—killing Nazis—through 1942. Then he was taken prisoner, when he was twenty-two, and put in one of Hitler’s prisoner-of-war camps, places where people like him faced ill-treatment, hunger, disease, and a high death rate. (Again, there is no disagreement about this.) The prosecution says he got out of the P.O.W. camp by willingly volunteering to work as a guard at a death camp, knowing full well what that involved, and that the S.S. trained him. The defense won’t concede that he was at Sobibor, but says that, if he was, he was there as, essentially, a forced laborer. (The I.D. papers the prosecution produced say that he was ordered there.) No one says he was a member of the Nazi party.
And then consider that, even if the defense’s variant of this story is the accurate one—that he did not volunteer, but was forced, initially against his will, to work at Sobibor—it does not rule out the possibility of willingness. Here, Christopher Browning’s studies of Ukrainian (Nazi) Reserve Battalions are relevant: while “a significant minority … became eager killers as they were transformed by what they were doing,” the overwhelming majority of the others—the un-enthused—were not willing to refuse to participate in the explicit murder of unarmed civilians. (Browning puts the number of those who refused to participate—but “did not hinder or protest the killing process”—at around 10 percent.) These men would not have been willing, under other circumstances, to murder—but when compelled by the Nazis to participate, even when there were ways to evade participation in murder that would not have endangered their lives, they were not willing to opt-out. That John Demjanjuk, before and after the war, may have been a perfectly ordinary man does not mean he could not have been willingly complicit in extraordinary crimes during it.
But more to the point is that utilizing POWs and other prisoners as parts of the camp system was a Nazi policy. Jews were recruited to lead others into the gas chambers, and to cart the bodies to the crematoria; we are keenly aware of the Kapos and ghetto councils. Non-Jews were no exception to this policy—indeed, Demjanjuk, as a POW would have fit a necessary role. Primo Levi writes, in “The Gray Zone,” of Nazi attitudes toward their former enemies:
It is not enough to relegate them to marginal tasks; the best way to bind them is to burden them with guilt, cover them with blood, compromise them as much as possible, thus establishing a bond of complicity so that they can no longer turn back.
Whether or not Demjanjuk initially volunteered or was compelled, he was right where the Nazis wanted him, as a non-German and as a POW: complicit in the system of the extermination camp, guilty because he was there and helped to grease the wheels of a machine that was not designed for his annihilation. If he was a prisoner compelled to serve as a guard, as his defense held, then it was a classic example of the Nazi policy of involving even the powerless in the power scheme, so that there could be no innocence, so that everyone was complicit, so that they could, as Levi puts it, demonstrate their power to destroy souls as well as minds and bodies. If he came unwillingly, he may still have come to participate willingly. But if this is the case, if he was truly an unwilling participant in the system, but could not bring himself to sacrifice himself by refusing to perform a duty that did not, it seems, have him directly commit murder then it is much harder to pass judgment. As I asked, not expecting answer, when speaking of the accusation that George Soros was a “Jewish Nazi”:
[I]f survival requires that one take part [or], in some small way, participate in an evil system that seeks to destroy you, does survival become tainted by that evil? Does survival itself require expiation?
The court has found that he participated willingly, and that he was and remains guilty of participating in some 20,000 murders. But even with the verdict in, that blurring of innocence and complicity, even if only among others, even if not at all relevant to Demjanjuk’s life, hangs over the proceedings. And in the silence as we pause, trying to determine what causes that faint hesitation in ourselves, as we try to weigh out the facts of what happened in a world none of us can truly understand, that faint, hollow, sixty-five year-old cackling you hear in the distance is the last laughter of the Nazi hierarchy as it takes final pleasure in its ability to impose, for at least a time, utter meaninglessness upon the world.