The Right Wrong Man: John Dem­jan­juk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial

  • Review
By – March 14, 2016

Next to the tri­al of Adolf Eich­mann in 1961, no pros­e­cu­tion of a Nazi crim­i­nal was more con­tro­ver­sial than the con­vic­tion of John Dem­jan­juk in a Ger­man court in 2011. A Ukrain­ian by birth, Dem­jan­juk was draft­ed into the Sovi­et Army dur­ing World War II but was cap­tured by the Ger­mans and, as many oth­er Russ­ian sol­diers did, vol­un­teered to serve the Ger­man strug­gle against the Sovi­et Union. Dem­jan­juk was sent to the Trawni­ki camp where he was trained to be a con­cen­tra­tion camp guard and sub­se­quent­ly sent to the Sobi­bor death camp, where he par­tic­i­pat­ed in dri­ving Jews into the gas cham­ber. In 2011 he was found guilty by a Ger­man court as an acces­so­ry in the mur­der of 28,000 Jews. Pri­or to his depor­ta­tion to Ger­many to stand tri­al, he was liv­ing in the Unit­ed States, hav­ing emi­grat­ed from West Ger­many to the Unit­ed States, where in 1958 he was grant­ed citizenship.

Dem­jan­juk was iden­ti­fied by a num­ber of Holo­caust sur­vivors as Ivan the Ter­ri­ble,” a sadis­tic guard at Tre­blin­ka, who com­mit­ted acts of sav­age bru­tal­i­ty against Jews. Based on eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny by sur­vivors and a pho­to card made avail­able to the new­ly cre­at­ed Office of Spe­cial Inves­ti­ga­tions (OSI) by the Sovi­et Union, Dem­jan­juk was deport­ed to Israel, where he was con­vict­ed of crimes against human­i­ty and sen­tenced to death in 1988. How­ev­er, upon review, the Israeli Supreme Court found that the court had con­vict­ed the wrong man: Dem­jan­juk was nev­er in Tre­blin­ka. The wit­ness­es con­fused him with the real Ivan who assist­ed in the gassing of Jews in Tre­blin­ka. In 1998, Demjanjuk’s Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship was restored and he returned to his home in Cleveland.

This, how­ev­er, was not to be the end of the sto­ry. In 2001, Dem­jan­juk was detained again, on the grounds that he served as a guard at Sobi­bor and Maj­danek, and deport­ed to Ger­many in 2009 to stand trial.

In his indis­pens­able his­to­ry of the Dem­jan­juk case, Lawrence Dou­glas, the James J. Gros­feld Pro­fes­sor of Law, Jurispru­dence, and Social Thought at Amherst Col­lege, deliv­ers a read­er-friend­ly his­to­ry of this con­tro­ver­sial case that pro­vides a valu­able under­stand­ing of how Ger­man law evolved from eschew­ing the legal prin­ci­ples estab­lished by the Nurem­berg Tri­bunal to the 2011 Dem­jan­juk case, which marked the first time a Ger­man court had ever tried, let alone con­vict­ed, one of the thou­sands of aux­il­iaries who served as foot sol­diers of Nazi genocide.”

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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