Lawrence Douglas and book cover, The Right Wrong Man
Lawrence Douglas (pictured here on right) is the James G. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought.

Book Excerpt

The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial

This article is excerpted from Douglas' book, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial and is reprinted by permission. © 2016 Princeton University Press

Amherst press release


Munich, Nov. 30, 2009, 7 a.m. The city is quiet and the early morning sky still dark, but the plaza in the Nymphenburgerstrasse teems with TV and radio trucks, their generators humming. Hundreds of journalists and spectators gather outside the courthouse, all of us bundled against the cold. Yesterday’s Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that press accreditations have been issued far in excess of what the courtroom can accommodate, and as the crowd swells, the jostling begins. A man in a tuxedo and kipah walks along the perimeter of the crowd, silently handing out candles; Noah Klieger, a retired Israeli journalist and Auschwitz survivor, turns to me and dryly observes, “These trials bring out the crazies.” 

A press release issued by the court had announced that doors would open for accredited journalists at 8 a.m., but a Polizist who is handed the statement stares at it blankly, as if seeing it for the first time. Another policeman shouts inaudible instructions. Although the police have had six months to prepare for this, the opening day of the trial of John “Ivan” Demjanjuk, they appear utterly bewildered, improvising on the spot. Soon the only topic of conversation among the journalists is not the trial about to start, but the staggering absence of organization. A letter of protest, hastily drafted, is passed through the crowd. “We, the undersigned, regret the absence of professionalism….” But to no avail. Two hours pass. A correspondent for Bavarian radio calls out, “As of 9:45 we will return fire!”—an allusion to Hitler’s words announcing the start of the Second World War. 

Instead of creating cordons and an orderly queue, the police now inexplicably herd the crowd into a crude funnel, its mouth leading to a single courthouse doorway. A sign marks off the Demjanjuk Sammelzone—the Demjanjuk Collection Zone. Is this someone’s idea of a joke? The Nazi era left the German language contaminated, inflected with dreaded associations, and Sammelzone suggests the collection areas where Jews were sent to be packed off to the killing centers. “The only thing missing,” comments one observer stuck in the throng, “are the train tracks.” 

For some, the fact that a crowd containing numerous Jewish journalists and several Holocaust survivors is being shoved toward a single narrow portal creates resonances that cannot be ignored. But others, and perhaps especially the Germans themselves, find reassurance in the disorganization. The SS, after all, was terrifyingly efficient. Not so the Munich police. See, we have changed.  

John Demjanjuk
Demjanjuk lived in a quiet suburb of Cleveland and became the only person in U.S. history to lose his citizenship twice. Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images


John “Ivan” Demjanjuk was born in the Ukraine in 1920 and entered the United States in 1952, settling in the Midwest and becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1958. By the late 1970s, American prosecutors had come to identify the Ford machinist living in a quiet suburb of Cleveland as a former Treblinka guard—and not just any guard. This was the man whose wanton acts of sadism had earned him the fearful sobriquet Ivan Grozny, “Ivan the Terrible.” 

In the most highly publicized denaturalization proceeding in American history, Demjanjuk was stripped of his citizenship and extradited to Israel, where he stood trial as Treblinka’s Ivan Grozny. Convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death, Demjanjuk idled in an Israeli prison for five years, while his appeals ran their course. 

Then, in the summer of 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court tossed out his conviction. Newly gathered evidence from the crumbling Soviet Union made clear the Israelis had the wrong Ivan. Demjanjuk returned to the United States a free man, bringing to a close one of the most famous cases of mistaken identity in legal history. 

But it hardly spelled the end of Demjanjuk’s legal travails. Resettled in suburban Cleveland with his American citizenship restored, Demjanjuk became the subject of a fresh denaturalization proceeding. While Demjanjuk might not have been Treblinka’s Ivan the Terrible, evidence showed that he had nonetheless been a “terrible enough Ivan” who served at Sobibor, an equally lethal Nazi death camp. In 2001, Demjanjuk earned the distinction of being the only person in American history to lose his citizenship twice. 

Still protesting his innocence, he remained barricaded in his middle-class ranch house in Seven Hills, Ohio, while American officials searched fruitlessly for a country willing to accept him. After Poland and Ukraine declined, Germany, which had long resisted accepting alleged Nazi collaborators from the United States, somewhat surprisingly said yes. Demjanjuk was flown to Munich, arriving on German soil in the spring of 2009. 

John Demjanjuk leaving court
Demjanjuk emerging from court. His defense sought to unmask the proceeding as a political trial, attacking at every turn the 
motives, purpose, justification 
and fairness of the case. Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images


I was drawn to many aspects of the Demjanjuk case. Primary among them were how the vectors of law and Cold War politics converged in Demjanjuk’s trials, and how the case brought into stark relief the efforts of three different domestic legal systems—the American, Israeli and German—to address the vexed issue of collaboration in Nazi genocide. I was also interested in how the trial threw into stark relief the difference between treating state-sponsored extermination as a special challenge—one demanding legal innovation—and treating it as an ordinary crime. Finally, I wanted to explore how legal systems develop and learn from their mistakes, how doctrine responds to the pressures of politics, and how law accommodates, digests and frames the conclusions of history. 

My interest was less with Demjanjuk the person. No one familiar with the case can seriously doubt that Demjanjuk served as a camp guard—not just at Sobibor, but at Majdanek and Flossenbürg, too. All the same, no evidence has ever been adduced to suggest that Demjanjuk distinguished himself by his cruelty, and I am prepared to believe that he did not. I can also readily imagine how, by the end of his life, he had come to view himself as a victim—of the Germans, who took the young Red Army soldier as a prisoner of war, impressed him into guard service and ultimately brought him to trial; of the Israelis, who demonized and nearly executed him in a badly handled case of mistaken identity; and of the Americans, whose dogged determination to see him brought to justice must have looked like prosecutorial vindictiveness to an old man with deep reserves of self-pity. 

It is true that Demjanjuk never chose to be taken prisoner of war by the Wehrmacht or trained by the SS to become a death camp guard. But it is equally true that once assigned to Sobibor, Demjanjuk had a meaningful opportunity to avoid assisting in genocide. Life, particularly in times of historic upheaval, often thrusts us in situations not of our making. In such situations we must ask ourselves whether a difficult, or even terrible choice is the same as having no choice at all.

Demjanjuk passport
A copy of an ID card issued at the SS training facility Trawniki. It allegedly pictures a youthful Demjanjuk.


After four hours of delay—first the interminable wait in line, then screenings and pat-downs—I finally manage to enter Gerischtssaal 101. A windowless octagon with seats for 147 observers, its vaulted ceiling bears a Brutalist touch: massive decorative blocks of poured concrete loom overhead, seemingly ready at any instant to jar loose and crush anyone sitting below. 

 The courtroom is abuzz with correspondents from around the globe hustling to interview Nazi-hunting luminaries and other leading members of the European Jewish community. Serge Klarsfeld, the Frenchman who helped capture and prosecute Klaus Barbie, chats with Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, the world’s leading organization for tracking Nazi fugitives, which had listed Demjanjuk at the top of its most-wanted list. Journalists hover close by, scribbling down snippets of their conversation. 

The chatter in Gerichtssall 101 dies down as a door at the side of the chamber swings open. Flanked by two medical orderlies and a court-appointed doctor, the defendant is maneuvered into the courtroom in a wheelchair. A sky blue blanket drawn to his chin covers his legs and body, and a blue baseball cap juts low over his brow. His eyes are closed—it’s unclear whether he is asleep or just fending off the explosion of camera flashes. Photographers, cameramen and videographers clamor in front of the wheelchair, shooting away in a frenzy, as if Gisele Bündchen had just sashayed into the Munich courtroom. Demjanjuk’s mouth hangs open; he appears to mutter words or moan in pain. Cameras flash. A helpless octogenarian, wheelchair-bound, grimacing before a relentless onslaught of publicity: it is not a sight to burnish the criminal justice system’s reputation. The blanket briefly slips from Demjanjuk’s feet, revealing a pair of incongruously jaunty Puma sneakers. 

At 11:15 three robed judges, accompanied by two “jurors” and two alternatives, shuffle into the courtroom and find their places behind a raised semicircular table of dark walnut. We are instructed to take our seats, and the presiding judge, a bald 60-year-old jurist named Ralph Alt, politely calls the court to order. “I apologize in advance for the delay,” he begins. “We were unable to calculate the length of the entrance procedure.” Derisive laughter ripples through the audience. 

Bearded and bespectacled, Alt is soft-spoken and seemingly unaccustomed to speaking into a microphone, pressing the “on” button with needless vigor. A passionate chess player, he is known as a thorough, intelligent jurist with a strong understanding of white-collar crime. But he has never before presided over a trial involving Nazi-era crimes, least of all one attracting international attention. 

Through the entirety of the Demjanjuk trial, he will remain intent on treating it like any other criminal case before an ordinary German court. Whatever the shortcomings of such an approach—shortcomings revealed in the court’s very failure to plan for the first day’s throngs—they can hardly be described as idiosyncratic. Since the Federal Republic’s assumption of sovereignty, its legal system has tenaciously insisted that Nazi atrocities be treated as ordinary crimes, requiring no special courts, procedures or laws to bring their perpetrators to justice. 

It is an approach that will be tested, challenged and attacked at every turn by Demjanjuk’s defense. No sooner has Judge Alt apologized for the logistical snafu than Demjanjuk’s chief counsel, a towering, bearded and choleric criminal defense lawyer from Ratingen (on the outskirts of Dusseldorf) named Ulrich Busch, is on his feet. The indictment has not even been read, and Busch is seeking dismissal on the grounds of Befangenheit—prejudice. 

While motions alleging prejudice typically are brought against a specific judge for harboring a personal bias against the defendant, Busch’s opening salvo is directed against the entire German judicial system. It is an accusation he will repeat over and over: the German legal system is trying to make good on its pathetic record of dealing with Nazis by trying a man who is not a German and was never a Nazi. The charges against his client, Busch angrily declaims, represent a moral and legal double standard, a distortion of history and a bald violation of the German constitution. What of all the SS higher-ups who were either acquitted or never even charged in the first place? Let us not forget, Busch cries, that his client was taken as a prisoner of war by the Wehrmacht. The killing of Red Army POWs was the first Holocaust! Ukrainian auxiliaries and death camp guards had no more freedom of action than the Jews themselves! His client was never on the radar of German prosecutors until Americans forced them to take the case. New standards are being used against his client. The rules of the game are being changed.

Busch’s words tumble forth in seemingly tone-deaf fashion, and the parallel he draws between his client and the Jewish victims of genocide leaves spectators and journalists alike murmuring their disapproval. But his opening barrage clearly outlines the defense’s strategy, which is to challenge the very legitimacy of the proceeding at the most fundamental level. 

In normal criminal trials, the law operates in a safe zone in which the motives and purposes of the prosecution and the rationale for the imposition of a sanction remain beyond the terms of dispute. Criminal law draws a line between violence permitted by the state in the form of a punishment and violence prohibited by the state as a delict; and in the overwhelming majority of criminal cases, this distinction is never called into question—nor is the state’s authority to draw it. Not so with political trials. Political trials blur the distinction between state-authorized and state-prohibited force; they interrogate the purposes and procedures of prosecution. Busch will seek to unmask the proceeding as a political trial, attacking at every turn the motives, purpose, justification and fairness of the case. 

Clamorous disorder; the dramatic entrance of a suffering, wheelchair-bound defendant; and an inflammatory opening challenge by the defense: It is 11:50 a.m. Little more than half an hour old, the trial has already delivered exactly what a global news cycle craves from a legal spectacle.