Article — From the March 2012 issue

Ivan the Recumbent, or Demjanjuk in Munich

Enduring the “last great Nazi war-crimes trial”

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NOVEMBER 30, 2009

At 7:00 a.m. the city is quiet, the sky still dark, but the plaza in the Nymphenburger Straße teems with TV and radio trucks, their generators humming. Hundreds of journalists and spectators stand waiting outside the courthouse, bundled against the cold. A rumor circulates that press accreditations have been issued far in excess of what the courtroom can accommodate, and the jostling begins. A policeman shouts unintelligible instructions as reporters grouse about the staggering absence of organization. Instead of cordons and an orderly queue, the police inexplicably have created a crude funnel, its mouth leading to a single doorway. A sign marks off the Demjanjuk Sammelzone—the demjanjuk collection zone.

The fact that a crowd including Jews and a number of Holocaust survivors is being shoved in the direction of a single narrow portal creates resonances that can’t be ignored. Perhaps the Germans themselves find reassurance in the disorganization. The SS was terrifyingly efficient. Not so the Munich police. Incompetence signals benevolence. See, we have changed.

After four hours of delay, screenings, and pat-downs, I finally enter Gerichts­saal 101, the largest and most secure courtroom in Munich. A windowless octagon with a tented ceiling of poured concrete, it is part air-raid bunker, part drab Lutheran chapel. Curiously, one sees no flags, either national or municipal, no scales-of-justice iconography, to indicate a court of law. There is nothing adorning the walls but a simple wooden cross.

And yet the atmosphere in the room is festive, as journalists from around the globe hustle to interview Nazi-hunting luminaries and leading members of the European Jewish community. Serge Klarsfeld, the Frenchman who helped net and prosecute Klaus Barbie, chats with Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office. Holding forth to a pack of reporters is Michel Friedman, TV pundit and former president of the European Jewish Congress, wearing a black suit, shirt, tie, and an out-of-season tan.

The trial has been vaunted by the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung as the “last great Nazi war-crimes trial,” a designation that misleads on almost every count. The defendant stands accused of assisting the SS in the murder of some 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp, but not of being a Nazi. Nor does the trial involve war crimes, since the systematic extermination of unarmed men, women, and children had nothing to do with the purposes of war. Then there is the question of greatness. Compared with the Nuremberg trials, the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and the French trials of Barbie and Maurice Papon, the proceeding against Demjanjuk—a peon at the bottom of the exterminatory hierarchy—appears extraordinarily inconsequential. And given that the defendant is a seemingly frail near nonagenarian and that sixty-six years have elapsed since his alleged crimes, the most remarkable aspect of the trial is the fact that it is being staged at all. And yet in putting Demjanjuk on trial, Germany has assumed a radical risk. An acquittal would be a highly visible and final demonstration of the utter failures of the German legal system to do justice to Nazi-era crimes. But whatever this trial is, it is likely to be the last Holocaust case to galvanize international attention.

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s the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College. His most recent book, <em>The Vices</em> (Other Press), was a finalist for the 2011 National Jewish Book Award. John Demjanjuk <a href="http://www.nytimes.

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