“The smallest of the small fish.” This is how the Dutch law professor Christian F. Rüter has described John Demjanjuk and his role in the Nazi death camp system. Rüter is the co-editor of the projected 50 volume Justiz und NS-Verbrechen or “Nazi Crimes on Trial,” a comprehensive collection of trial judgments handed down by German courts in Nazi capital crimes cases. Once upon a time, it was thought that Demjanjuk, born Ivan Demjanjuk in Ukraine, was “Ivan the Terrible,” a particularly sadistic Ukrainian guard at Treblinka. Israel even tried and convicted Demjanjuk for the crimes of Ivan. And then released him five years later after evidence emerged that Demjanjuk had been a victim of mistaken identity: he was not that Ivan, after all. “Nobody would pay any attention to Demjanjuk,” Rüter told the German daily Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) , “If the rumor had not stuck to him that he was ‘Ivan the Terrible’ — which he demonstrably is not.”
Even the very description of Demjanjuk as a suspected “Nazi war criminal” is misleading — to say nothing of the wildly exaggerated ranking of him as the “number one” Nazi war crime suspect. In the sense that every cog in the machinery of the Nazi camp system was somehow involved, Demjanjuk may well have been involved in Nazi war crimes. Based solely upon the evidence of an identity card whose authenticity has long been contested, German investigators claim that he served as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp. But even if this should be true, Demjanjuk was not a Nazi, much less an SS man, as is commonly suggested. Demjanjuk was in fact himself a Red Army soldier who was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1942 and interred at a Soviet POW camp at Chelm in occupied Poland. If Demjanjuk served the Germans at all, he did so as a so-called SS “Hilfswilliger,” which is to say, a “volunteer helper” of the SS.
Moreover, the “voluntary” character of these “volunteers” must be regarded as a highly relative matter. The brutality displayed by the Germans to Soviet prisoners of war is legendary. In keeping with the Nazi disdain for Slavs — or Slavic “sub-humans,” as the Nazis labeled them — captured Red Army soldiers were notoriously permitted to starve to death. It is estimated that over half of the Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans died in captivity. According to Friedrich Schmidt writing in the FAZ, investigators “are convinced that Demjanjuk offered his services as a so-called volunteer helper in order to save himself from starvation.” Indeed, the very fact that Demjanjuk is alive is regarded as proof of the falsity of his claim that he remained a simple POW, since “the conditions at Chelm suggest that he could not have survived there for so long.”
So why does Germany appear intent on trying Demjanjuk of all people? Why try a foreigner who was conscripted into service by the Germans under desperate circumstances and who is alleged to have participated in crimes that occurred on foreign soil? (Or do German prosecutors believe that the German occupation of Poland was legitimate and that the German so-called “Generalgouvernement” over Polish territory is still in place?) Germany’s pursuit of Demjanjuk creates the impression that Germany is extraordinarily thorough about prosecuting Nazi war crimes. And this indeed must be the point of the exercise — because the reality could hardly be more different.
Since the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, the German courts and the German legislature have displayed incredible indulgence toward Nazi war criminals, transforming the territory of the Federal Republic (i.e., from 1949-1990 “West Germany”) into a more or less safe haven for them. The Nazis in question are, however, Germans and hence real Nazis and not merely imaginary ones like John Demjanjuk.
As Christian Rüter has pointed out, it has in fact been the express policy of the German authorities responsible for the prosecution of Nazi crimes to refrain as a rule from bringing charges against “small takers-of-orders”: “like, for instance, members of firing squads [Erschießungskommandos].” The latter specification is included in a 1959 judgment of the District Court of Bielefeld. It should be underscored that it refers, of course, to Germans — i.e., persons who were unquestionably above the likes of John Demjanjuk in the command hierarchy and whose direct participation in murder is known. Millions of Jews and Soviet communist officials were killed by such “firing squads” on the Eastern Front: most notably, by the infamous SS Einsatzgruppen.