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Trying the Foot Soldiers

The final wave of Nazi trials focuses on now-octogenarian pawns of the end game that was the Holocaust.

When a soldier from Sacramento helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, Austria, in 1945, he watched some of the prisoners turn in vengeance on their guards. "We actually saw a guard move into a house, and we chased him in," former Pvt. Burnett Miller says in Ken Burns' documentary, The War. "He was an officer, and the prisoners who were there tore him apart. Killed him right there."

Soldiers and guards, of course, did most of the killing. But until recently the guards rarely went on trial. German courts after the war pursued Nazis who handed down orders, rather than guards who obeyed.

That changed in the 1990s, according to Joerg Friedrich, a historian who wrote two controversial books in the early '80s arguing that German courts had ignored the foot soldiers of the Holocaust. "The actual murderers were always defined as Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann," he told Deutsche Welle last year, " — those that made the decision to instigate the Holocaust, or those that showed a personal motivation in the act."

A shift in focus by the German courts explains why John Demjanjuk is on trial in Munich at the age of 89. He belongs to a handful of men, including Heinrich Boere (87) and Adolf Storms (90), who are being tried as Nazi criminals in the twilight of the war generation. They were all members of the Waffen SS.

Demjanjuk's saga isn't brand new — since his U.S. citizenship was revoked in 1981, he's been extradited to Israel, tried there, had his conviction overturned and returned to the U.S. before he was extradited to Germany from Ohio in spring 2009. The case against him is awkward because he was a Soviet prisoner of war before the Nazis recruited him to be a guard at Sobibor, a concentration camp in eastern Poland. Demjanjuk isn't German. He's Ukrainian, and he's on trial as an accessory to 29,700 counts of murder — an estimate of the total who died at Sobibor during his second tenure as a guard. The prosecution claims it can prove that Demjanjuk led some of them personally to the gas chamber.

His story exposes the machinelike aspect of the Holocaust, the cold pragmatic system of camps that recruited prisoners as guards to save money in a wartime state and let the rest starve — or killed them outright — in part because the war-strained government couldn't spare the food. This mindless bureaucracy, rooted in anti-Semitism but separate from it, has been documented in detail by Raul Hilberg in his massive book The Destruction of the European Jews.

Once the Nazi machine began to roll, Hilberg argues, it had a momentum of its own. The vast archipelago of functionaries and bureaucrats, operating in a totalitarian system without much obvious personal will, is one reason so few men like Demjanjuk have been prosecuted.

Hilberg argues the Holocaust began with anti-Semitic laws in the early Nazi era but moved through stages to ever-more-efficient forms of destruction. Nazism and anti-Semitism were related but distinct, he said in a 2007 interview, and Nazi elites tried to distinguish themselves from the anti-Semitic rabble. "There was a sense that Nazism was something new," he said. "The anti-Semite had stopped at a certain point; the anti-Semite could talk about eliminating Jews, but did not know how to do it. The anti-Semite did not have the power, the anti-Semite was a propagandist. The Nazis were serious and this was a far different proposition."

In that sense, Demjanjuk's participation in the Holocaust matters profoundly. His lawyer argued in court in December that Demjanjuk was a "Holocaust survivor," a victim of the Nazi machine. That was scandalous, because recruited guards in Eastern Europe often had a fierce provincial anti-Semitism that could be relied on for savagery by German officers who didn't want to dirty their hands.

"The Ukrainian guards were worse than the [German] SS," one Sobibor survivor, Jules Schlevis, said at Demjanjuk's trial in December.

It can't be true that Demjanjuk is, by definition, innocent. 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.

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