Deborah Lipstadt: Demjanjuk Trial May Be Last For Holocaust Crimes

Source: NPR, 5-18-11

John Demjanjuk was convicted in Germany on 28,060 counts of accessory to murder after four decades of legal battles. Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, wrote an op-ed describing the case as likely “the last Holocaust war crimes trial.”


When the United States in 2009 sent John Demjanjuk to stand trial in Germany as an accused Nazi war criminal, many wondered: What’s the point? Or as Deborah Lipstadt put it in a recent New York Times op-ed: Wasn’t there something comic, even shameful, about dragging a dying man across the Atlantic to stand trial for a crime he committed over half a century ago? Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations, even for genocide?

Deborah Lipstadt teaches modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, and joins us now from our bureau in New York.

And thanks very much for being with us today.

Dr. DEBORAH LIPSTADT (Jewish and Holocaust Studies, Emory University): Thank you, Neal. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: And part of that question line comes – this is a man who spent six months as a guard at a death camp called Sobibor. This was not Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust.

Dr. LIPSTADT: True. It was not, well, first of all, I don’t think Adolf Eichmann was the architect, but we can talk about that later.

CONAN: All right.

Dr. LIPSTADT: He’s one of the operating – chief operating officers. But John Demjanjuk was certainly not as important as an Adolf Eichmann. He was not as high-ranking. He was Ukrainian. He was a guard. But he knew exactly what was going on. And, in fact, the judge – the German judge who found him guilty of being an accessory to murder in 28,000-plus murders made that point, that he had to know what was going on. And as every guard – the judge said every guard at Sobibor knew he was part of an organization with no other purpose but mass murder. So to say it was only six months when people like Eichmann were there – were doing this for four or five years is not really an excuse.

CONAN: And interestingly, he and Eichmann had the same excuse. They said: We had no choice.

Dr. LIPSTADT: Kill or be killed. Well, the truth of the matter is that no defense attorney, including Demjanjuk’s, has ever been able to produce any evidence – defense attorney or historian – of someone actually being killed for refusing to participate. So the idea of kill or be killed is really, I think, a bit of a myth.

Moreover – they might have been sent to the Eastern Front. They might have been sent to do terrible jobs, more dangerous jobs to them, but they weren’t forced to do that. And even if they had been forced, I think there is a – an ethical law that they very happily ignored.

CONAN: And another criticism is there was no specific evidence against John Demjanjuk charged. He was charged as an accessory to murder in the more than 28,000 deaths that occurred at the time he was a guard at the death camp. And basically, the allegation was, yes, he knew, therefore he did nothing to stop, therefore he was an accessory in all of these murders, but no specific allegation.

Dr. LIPSTADT: Well, I think there were specifics. I think – we have to remember that this wasn’t the only court that heard the evidence. He actually had been tried in three different nations: Israel, the United -first the United States, then Israel, then Germany. And all three judicial systems found him – found that he wasn’t Ivan the Terrible, as he was originally accused of being…

CONAN: Falsely.

Dr. LIPSTADT: …falsely accused of being. He was a terrible Ivan. And, in fact, it pays to see what – pay attention to what happened in Israel. After he’s stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981 and extradited to Israel, he’s put on trial. The trial lasts 17 months, an inordinately long time. He gets a guilty verdict and sentenced to death. And then, eventually, that verdict is overturned by the Israeli High Court, the equivalent of our Supreme Court. And they issue a 405-page ruling in which they say, it’s clear to us. The evidence before us shows us that this man did terrible things. There is no question about that.

But he was brought here. He was extradited from the United States as being charged as Ivan the Terrible, a specific person. There is now very good evidence to say that’s not the case, that this was mistaken identity. And even though we find him to have done terrible things, we have to overturn his verdict, because you can’t switch indictments in the middle. And they let him go.

CONAN: And they let him go.

Dr. LIPSTADT: The attorney general refused to try him again. They say -he said the atmosphere was poisoned. And, again, the attorney general repeated that they had extradited him to the United States on the charge of being Ivan the Terrible and he wasn’t, and they couldn’t now charge him as something else.

And I think it’s quite extraordinary that here was the victims’ – the heirs to the victim, you know, the Jewish state saying we know you did a terrible thing but justice demands the legal system’s trials. We have that – you’ve had a trial. You’ve been part of a legal system. The legal system demands that we let you go….READ MORE

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