Michael White, writing on the Guardian’s website, argues that John Demjanjuk, currently on trial in Munich, should not be. Demjanjuk is accused of involvement in the murder of thousands at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland during the war; Michael White’s argument is that it was all a long time ago, there’s nothing more to learn about the death camps, that Demjanjuk was at most a small cog in the murderous Nazi machine, and that he’s already been acquitted in Israel.
They’re fair enough arguments. In other circumstances, I might agree with him. What makes my view different is the fact that this trial is taking place in Germany. Can you imagine the reaction of liberal writers elsewhere had Germany decided it should not seek Demjanjuk’s extradition or prosecute him? People in Britain are in my experience very ready to point the finger at Germany and Austria if they show any apparent laxity in dealing with the Nazi past. I’m not troubled by that. But we can’t have it both ways, and also insist they go easy on the likes of Demjanjuk or David Irving when their severity troubles our liberal consciences. We must make up our minds whether or not we want Germany to compromise on this kind of thing.
I back any German measures aimed at tackling the Nazi past or neo-Nazism, and I am pleased this trial is taking place. As is clear from the DW World report I linked to earlier, Demjanjuk will be robustly defended and arguments based on his health and double jeopardy will be considered by the court. Michael White can also rest assured that, whatever else happens, Germany will not “string up” Demjanjuk.
Good post Head of Legal. I have never thought, and never will think, that war criminals ought to escape trial. It may well be a long time ago and they are now old but justice requires their pursuit and, if possible, conviction. The German trial process will offer him all the appropriate safeguards extended to defendants and, as you say, he will not be “strung up.” Justice will be administered properly. The efforts of many ensured that we did not descend into what Winston Churchill described as “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
It is also true that many thousands of war criminals got away with barbaric cruelty because the powers that be in many nations seemed to lose interest in pursuing them though the U.K. appears to have resurrected some interest in the early 1990s (War Crimes Act). Institutions such as Simon Wiesenthal never forgot. Nor should we.
new Dark Age made more sinister… by the lights of perverted science
is one of my fave Churchill quotes, as it happens. It’s right up there with
a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime
though the latter one was I think in his most important speech. People rarely think about how prescient those words were, 18 months before the Wannsee conference.
… and “So let us brace ourselves to our duty that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say this was their finest hour.” Our stance under Churchill’s leadership WAS our finest hour.
Well, bravo to the Germans for prosecuting an elderly (and already previously acquitted, albeit on different charges) Ukrainian American to the fullest extent of the law. It’s not wrong of them to do so, I guess; but, what a shame that when they had plenty of bona fide home grown war criminals of their own, they did so little to bring them to book. A full list would occupy several volumes, but how about the following participants in the Wannsee Conference who were either acquitted or never charged: Gerhard Klopfer; Friedrich Kritzinger; Georg Leibbrandt and Erich Neumann. And so often when convictions were obtained the sentences were derisory. It seems that the attempt to get serious will end with Demjanjuk.
H is right. As I also pointed out above, many thousands escaped. An interesting website is
The website sets out details of the trials of a considerable number of war criminals. The sheer effort of tracking down and bringing to justice as many of them as possible would, no doubt, have consumed considerable resources. That may be one reason why the victorious governments seemed to lose interest.