It is being touted as the last great Nazi trial. In November, John Demjanjuk—now ﬁrst on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s list of most-wanted war criminals—will appear before a Munich court. He is charged with 27,900 counts of accessory to murder for his role as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Demjanjuk is 89, and those in favour of prosecuting him feel a sense of urgency. “It’s a race against time,” says Michael Scharf, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University who has worked on the trials of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. “They’re trying to close the book on justice before [his] life ends naturally.”
For the most vehement advocates of prosecution, it has been an agonizing wait. Demjanjuk moved to the United States soon after the war, and was able to live quietly for 25 years before evidence of a darker past was unearthed. In the 1980s, he was brought to trial, but his conviction was later overturned on grounds that he had been mistakenly identiﬁed as “Ivan the Terrible,” a notorious sadist at Treblinka death camp in Poland. Only in 2000 was another investigation initiated; even then, nine more years passed until German ofﬁcials issued a warrant for his arrest. In May of this year—some 30 years after the process began—he was deported to Germany, where his trial will begin on Nov. 30.
Given the passage of time, it may well prove to be the ﬁnal major set piece in the intense six-decades-long process of bringing former Nazis to trial. As such, Demjanjuk’s pending appearance in court, after so many hurdles, is being applauded by some. “To have the last big Nazi trial in Germany,” posits Christoph Burchard, law professor at the Universität Tübingen, will “show to the world that Germany can do it.” Still, as the opening day looms, others are uneasy. The current image of Demjanjuk—aged, wheelchair-bound, and cancer-ridden—is far removed from that of the archetypal Nazi demon of popular culture. That gap was clear in May when reporters gathered at the Munich airport as Demjanjuk’s plane flew in, only to snag photos of a frail man being carried onto German territory on a stretcher. It was clear again when Demjanjuk was ﬁrst brought to Munich’s Stadelheim prison, and transferred not to a cell but to a medical unit.
His family, ﬁghting to have charges against him dropped, released footage that showed Demjanjuk moaning through a medical examination—clearly in a great deal of pain. The U.S. Justice Department ﬁred back with secret footage of Demjanjuk walking capably and getting into a car unaided. Then again, everything about this case, and not just the extent of the accused’s currently frailty, is contested. Demjanjuk, a former Red Army soldier who was captured by the Germans, says he was nothing more than a prisoner of war. The authorities claim he volunteered to serve as a Nazi concentration camp guard—and that justice should be served no matter how much time has passed.
But for others, the gravity of the charges is not enough to justify this legal process. To these critics, the trial of the near-decrepit John Demjanjuk—who slumped down in his wheelchair and breathed heavily through a nasal tube as the charges against him were read in court—is bringing a once-purposeful legal process to a pathetic end.
That an era is drawing to a close is not in doubt; the passage of 60 years has made sure of that. There will be other trials: three alleged ex-Nazis, for instance, were recently indicted by Spain for their role as concentration camp guards. But time is running out. “Back then—an impossibly long time ago—these men who are now pushing 90 were in charge of keeping ‘peace and quiet’ in the slaughterhouse of world history,” wrote the German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Today they’re fragile, doddering and deaf.”
The stage was set in 1945-’46, when the ﬁrst Nazi trials opened in Nuremberg, Germany. The first of the series of tribunals, orchestrated by the Allies, brought charges against 24 of the most important surviving Nazis—like Albert Speer, minister of armaments and one of Hitler’s closest friends. It also marked the ﬁrst time that war criminals were tried before an international tribunal. For this reason, Nuremberg is often seen as the birthplace of modern international law. Only through those trials did the terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” become legally signiﬁcant.
But after the highest-ranking Nazis were dealt with, says Caroline Fournet, law lecturer at the University of Exeter, there was a kind of “pause.” Across Europe, the myth of the Resistance dominated, with many refusing to own up to their at least tacit collaboration with German occupiers. And within Germany, there was little enthusiasm among the public for turning friends and family over to authorities—not to mention the problem of the thorny political overlap between the Nazi regime and what followed. Reinhard Gehlen, for instance, rose to fame during the Second World War as chief of eastern front intelligence for the Third Reich. But after the war he was put in charge of the West German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), which he staffed with ex-Nazis.
In the ’60s, though, largely because of Israeli efforts, the process picked up steam. “Many scholars,” says Fournet, “have identiﬁed the Eichmann trial as the turning point.” Adolf Eichmann, known as “the architect of the Holocaust,” managed the logistics of the Final Solution: namely, he scheduled the trains carrying Jews to extermination camps. In 1960, Israeli Nazi-hunters found him in Argentina and brought him to Israel, where he was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes—and hung in 1962.