This article was last modified on March 14, 2009.

Case File: John Demjanjuk

John Demjanjuk was allegedly, according to American and Israeli prosecutors, at one time a Nazi prison guard known as Ivan the Terrible. He was brutal to his prisoners and was involved in war crimes. Furthermore, when he applied for citizenship to America, he did not reveal his involvement with the Nazis.

But there are doubts about this official version of the story. And even if true, were the laws used against him legitimate, and was his ultimate punishment justified and fair? In the name of justice, it is imperative we re-examine this case.

Is He Guilty?

The case against Demjanjuk is far from conclusive. Unlike other similar cases, John was not just a Nazi guard who lied on his forms — he has multiple pieces of evidence supporting his alibi of never being a Nazi at all.

John was originally a Soviet military man, joining in 1940 and being captured by the Germans in 1942. Was he then converted to a prison guard or was he a captive himself? His stories of being a captive were argued against by the prosecution because he had nothing to prove he was where he said he was. Though how one acquires documentation of being locked in Nazi prison fifty years after the fact is a mystery. And the prosecution seemed to be unclear as to where they thought he was: the American courts and Israeli courts presented two different cases — one said he was a guard at Treblinka prison, another presented a completely different facility.

One piece of evidence, an ID card, was never proven to be from the Nazis and was possibly Soviet propaganda. Either way, the man in the photo could not be identified as “Ivan the Terrible” by anyone.

During his Israeli trial, 32 former guards and five former prisoners said that “Ivan the Terrible” had the last name Marchenko, not Demjanjuk. This evidence lead to John getting freed from Israel’s death sentence and his American citizenship restored (until the government filed another case against him).

The people responsible for his current situation are now in his favor or discredited. A judge who originally ruled that John was Ivan the Terrible, Gilbert Merritt, now believes that he was “conspiratorially deprived of his constitutional rights by the Federal Government’s deliberate withholding of evidence in his favor”. The original prosecutor, Neal Sher, was disbarred after he was found embezzling from a Holocaust foundation.

I think that if the phrase “reasonable doubt” applies to any case, this would probably be the one.

Were the Israel Trials Legal?

The legality of the Israeli trials seems suspicious. First, there is a clear problem with jurisdiction. A crime is put to trial in the city, state or country that it was committed. Yet, this crime was prosecuted in Israel, a place the defendant had probably never been. What right do they have to prosecute a man who never committed a crime in that country and possibly not even against anyone with connections to that country? A trial can be made in America for his false documents. A case could be made in Poland, possibly, for crimes committed at the camps (German extermination camps such as Auschwitz were in Poland, not Germany). Or maybe a “world court”, not unlike the Nuremberg trials that prosecuted other alleged Nazis. But not Israel.

Also, he was prosecuted in Israel under the “Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950.” His crimes allegedly occurred in 1942 through 1945. There is something morally wrong about creating a law to punish someone for something they have already done. If the thing they did was legal at the time they did that act, there should not be any punishment for said act.

The Nuremberg trials in general suffer from this flaw. After the Nazis were rounded up, the courts decided not only who to prosecute but also invented the crimes they were to be charged with. This had the flaw of charging them with crimes that didn’t exist, but also gave Americans the unfair advantage of determining the crimes that could be invented, because they were the so-called winners (although in reality the only winners of World War II were Russia and Israel). People such as Albert Speer could be imprisoned, despite being primarily an architect. Others in Hitler’s cabinet who were “just following orders” were locked up. Yet, there was no decision to make carpet-bombing cities or dropping a nuclear bomb on a populated area a war crime because the Americans would have had to prosecute themselves. The majority of the higher-up Nazis were not involved in war crimes such as genocide at all, but simply were powerful people who would have risen up in any regime.

Is Deportation a Just Punishment?

Assuming that John was really a Nazi guard and the laws against him are valid, is it fair to deport him to the Ukraine? The United States has been his home for fifty years, having emigrated here in 1952. His family and occupation are here. And he is aged now (85 at the time of the court hearing), much too aged to start over. His lawyer John Broadley claims that, “Having marked Mr. Demjanjuk with blood scent, the government wants to drop him into a shark tank.”

Understandably, someone who does something against the government could be removed from the country. But after fifty years, and at such an age, does it seem to be fair to dump an old man into the Ukraine without money to attempt to start over with the few years he has left? Our Eighth Amendment is protection against “cruel and unusual” punishment. In this case, I think deportation is more outrageous than need be for lying on a few documents. Pol Pot killed two million Cambodians and all he got was house arrest. Surely we can find some middle ground.

Postscript: March 2009

While this case was seemingly put to rest, new charges appeared in 2009. On March 11, prosecutors in Munich charged Demjanjuk with 29,000 counts of accessory to murder. United States and German authorities allege that Demjanjuk worked in 1943 as a Nazi guard at the Sobibor concentration camp in what is present-day Polish territory. You’ll notice, of course, this is not the same camp he was charged with working out in the prior case.

If Demjanjuk is transferred to Munich, his case would likely mark Germany’s final major Nazi war-crimes trial. Although authorities say they are pursuing other targets, the few former Nazis still alive are in their 80s or 90s, raising doubts about their fitness to stand trial.

Demjanjuk’s family has maintained his innocence and argued that he is suffering from kidney and blood disorders and is too ill to survive the rigors of a lengthy prosecution in another country.

Some Jewish groups, which have criticized Germany in the past for moving too cautiously in the Demjanjuk case, praised the decision to issue the arrest warrant.

“We’re extremely pleased that the decision was finally made,” said Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Jerusalem office. “We’re talking about someone who was an active participant in mass annihilation.”

“If the Americans are legally able to deport him — let’s say they put him on a plane — the arrest warrant in Germany could be applied upon arrival here,” said Eva Schmierer, a spokeswoman for the German Justice Ministry in Berlin. “If that is not the case, it is quite a bit more complicated to go through formal extradition.”

Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, declined to comment on the next steps in the case. She said American officials have “been in close contact with our German counterparts on this matter, and we will continue to offer our support and assistance.”

While it appears that this case against Demjanjuk is considerably stronger than the “Ivan the Terrible” case, many of the same criticisms apply: is it too late to charge him? Is he fit to stand trial? Is it cruel and unusual? And, with the warrant specifying 29,000 charges, isn’t this a bit excessive?


Injustice is alive and well today in America, with new cases sprouting up daily. We must not let ourselves accept this as “how things are” but keep in mind that after they come for John, they might some day come for us.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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