Next to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, no prosecution of a Nazi criminal was more controversial than the conviction of John Demjanjuk in a German court in 2011. A Ukrainian by birth, Demjanjuk was drafted into the Soviet Army during World War II but was captured by the Germans and, as many other Russian soldiers did, volunteered to serve the German struggle against the Soviet Union. Demjanjuk was sent to the Trawniki camp where he was trained to be a concentration camp guard and subsequently sent to the Sobibor death camp, where he participated in driving Jews into the gas chamber. In 2011 he was found guilty by a German court as an accessory in the murder of 28,000 Jews. Prior to his deportation to Germany to stand trial, he was living in the United States, having emigrated from West Germany to the United States, where in 1958 he was granted citizenship.
Demjanjuk was identified by a number of Holocaust survivors as “Ivan the Terrible,” a sadistic guard at Treblinka, who committed acts of savage brutality against Jews. Based on eyewitness testimony by survivors and a photo card made available to the newly created Office of Special Investigations (OSI) by the Soviet Union, Demjanjuk was deported to Israel, where he was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death in 1988. However, upon review, the Israeli Supreme Court found that the court had convicted the wrong man: Demjanjuk was never in Treblinka. The witnesses confused him with the real Ivan who assisted in the gassing of Jews in Treblinka. In 1998, Demjanjuk’s American citizenship was restored and he returned to his home in Cleveland.
This, however, was not to be the end of the story. In 2001, Demjanjuk was detained again, on the grounds that he served as a guard at Sobibor and Majdanek, and deported to Germany in 2009 to stand trial.
In his indispensable history of the Demjanjuk case, Lawrence Douglas, the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College, delivers a reader-friendly history of this controversial case that provides a valuable understanding of how German law evolved from eschewing the legal principles established by the Nuremberg Tribunal to the 2011 Demjanjuk case, which marked the first time a German court had ever tried, let alone convicted, “one of the thousands of auxiliaries who served as foot soldiers of Nazi genocide.”