A German court has convicted John “Ivan” Demjanjuk, a man with several lives — Ukrainian collective farmer, Soviet soldier, Nazi concentration camp guard, U.S. autoworker and then international symbol of justice delayed — of being party to taking 30,000 or so other lives during World War II.
Demjanjuk, now 91, has been entangled in the West’s legal systems since 1986, when the U.S. deported him for having lied about his wartime activities after he immigrated to America. He was shipped to Israel, tried, sentenced to death, released, returned to the U.S., and booted out again, this time to Germany. He’s been convicted again, sentenced to five years in prison, and is currently a free man as he awaits an appeal.
As our Michael Scott Moore wrote a year ago, on the dawn of the alleged “Ivan the Terrible’s” more recent court drama, his saga shows a change in the West’s legal systems toward prosecuting the “foot soldiers” who had escaped an accounting of their crimes at the end of World War II. Except for the show trials at Nuremberg (and Tokyo), which aimed to make examples of the big fish, most of these smaller fish swam away untouched. (We’ll leave out of the equation the fate of Axis troops captured by the Soviets; many of those small fish were filleted in the gulag.)
Some of those who have questioned the pursuit of aging war criminals argue that a combination of low- level responsibility, the necessity of “fitting in” as a price of survival, the passage of time and the likelihood that those actually tried are but an unlucky minority of the culpable means we should, in a sense, let sleeping dogs lie. Moore will have none of that, whether for Demjanjuk or Heinrich Boere or the late Adolf Storms.
“It can’t be true that Demjanjuk is, by definition, innocent,” he wrote. “He signed up to be a pawn. Whether the court can convict him is a separate matter; but he’s one example of how the Holocaust worked.”