Today, John Demjanjuk stands trial in Germany as an accessory to 27,900 murders. This is not the first time Demjanjuk has been tried for war crimes. In 1988, after the United States stripped him of his citizenship, an Israeli court convicted him of being a particularly brutal Nazi called Ivan the Terrible. The Israeli Supreme Court overturned the verdict after new evidence indicated Demjanjuk, though an SS guard, was not Ivan the Terrible. Israel did not pursue further charges against him and he was allowed to return to the United States.
Now, he once again faces charges as a war criminal. This new case has been developed by the Office of Special Investigations since 1999 with the cooperation of German officials and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Evidence indicates Demjanjuk worked as a guard from 1943 to 1944. The evidence in the current case against him seems to be very strong and is likely he will be convicted. What is interesting is when the Israeli Supreme Court freed Demjanjuk, it acknowledged he was probably a SS guard but had already served his time.
Before going on, I would like to take a moment to clarify a few things. The Holocaust was one of the largest human tragedies to unfold in the history of the world. The crimes committed by Nazi Germany were unspeakably horrific. To this day, Nazi atrocities still cause emotional responses. Anyone who has ever seen a Concentration Camp knows the sadness and horror that still hangs in the air. Holocaust survivors and their relatives are right to be angry; I am angry.
Even so, I have to ask if Demjanjuk’s trial is truly justice. I do not question the evidence against him. My question is whether it is worth prosecution. Anyone who played a significant role in the Holocaust has already been tried or has died. In fact, Demjanjuk is the lowest ranking Nazi to be charged for war crimes without being accused of a specific incident. It is true the Holocaust could not have happened without guards or the consent of the general populace. However, does that mean the courts should go after every German citizen who knew what was happening in the camps? Granted, Demjanjuk is more culpable than the average citizen but what is gained by prosecuting an 89-year-old man clearly on his last leg? His deportation was stayed twice because his ill health would have made it tantamount to torture under U.S. law.
From a broader perspective, is it really worth it to continue hunting Nazis over 60 years after the fact? At this point, Nazi hunting has transformed from a desire for justice to a thirst for revenge. How can one thrive in the present while focusing on revenge for the wrongs of the past? Throwing these old men who played minor roles in this disaster does not help correct wrong doings or serve the interest of justice. Many will disagree with this last statement because the Nazis are evil and therefore must pay for their sins. To this let me say, why are the Nazis so special? Why should every last Nazi be hunted while Japan’s and Russia’s war crimes go essentially unnoticed and unpunished? Why is Hitler considered so evil when Stalin was more ruthless and Pol Pot nearly as bad? Why should we think of every Nazi as less than human?
When speaking of the Holocaust people say never again will we let genocide happen. I too desire justice but not at any cost. Let men like Demjanjuk die in peace. True, many of the innocent men, women and children whom he guarded did not have that choice. But we are not Nazis; if we truly want to prevent another holocaust we must remember every single person on this planet deserves respect even if respect is not shown by that person. We must also remember justice not tempered by mercy or prudence is no virtue. In short we need to be better than the Nazis.
We have failed in another respect as well — genocides have happened since the Holocaust and have only drawn international attention after much of the damage had been done. Resources are finite and it is illogical to spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours bringing men like Demjanjuk to “justice” when millions around the world suffer and are in great need of resources.
If we truly want to fight injustice, prevent genocides and improve our world then we need to fight the evils of the present and stop focusing on those of the past. Fight for justice in North Korea, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, the DRC, just to name a few of the places where millions suffer daily. Above all, remember to act out of love and respect, not hate and revenge.
James Napier is a senior history major. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.