The Last Nazi War-Crimes Trial

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Professor Lawrence Douglas is reporting on the German trial of accused Nazi guard Ivan Demjanjuk for Harper's.

Sixty-five years after World War II, a trial now under way in Germany promises to be the last of the high-profile Nazi war-crimes proceedings. The defendant is 89-year-old Ivan Demjanjuk, who, after a quiet life as an autoworker in Cleveland, stands accused of serving as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland, where thousands of Jews died under his alleged watch in 1943. He has been charged with 27,900 counts of acting as an accessory to murder.

Amherst professor and legal scholar Lawrence Douglas was in the press gallery when the trial opened in November, and after wrapping up the fall semester at Amherst, he returned to the Munich courtroom, where he spent much of January reporting on the trial for Harper’s Magazine.

Douglas has long been interested in the law as a means by which society comes to terms with its past. Now the James G. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, he lived in Germany after college and wrote the 2005 book The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust, a close study of leading trials of Holocaust perpetrators and deniers. He also observed the Slobodan Miloševic trial.

The Harper’s assignment came about after Douglas wrote a 2009 article on Demjanjuk for a leading German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. That article explains that Demjanjuk was previously tried in Israel, where, in a case of mistaken identity, he was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka death camp. “They’d gotten the wrong guy,” Douglas says. “He was Ivan the Sort of Terrible from Sobibor.”

The defendant enters the Munich courtroom on a stretcher.

At the start of the Munich trial, Douglas attracted media attention when he described Demjanjuk’s sickly appearance: “When he was first brought into the courtroom,” Douglas told the BBC last fall, “he was in a wheelchair.... His eyes, by all appearances, were closed. Occasionally his mouth would open in this kind of silent moan.” Douglas came to believe that the defendant was healthier than he let on. “There’s playacting going on in the courtroom,” the professor says.

To Douglas, the Demjanjuk trial is, among other things, an attempt to rectify past failures in German courts. As such, the Harper’s article will explore whether the long effort to bring Nazis to justice has been successful. It will also consider the broad question of who deserves to be tried for mass atrocities. The defense has made the case that Demjanjuk was a low-level guard simply following orders—a weak argument, in Douglas’ view. In addition, the Harper’s article will raise the question of whether it’s fair to try perpetrators of extreme crimes so long after the fact. At the courthouse in November, Douglas met a man who broke down as he remembered the last day he saw his mother before she was killed at Sobibor. “Victims want to see this done,” Douglas says, “and it doesn’t matter if it’s 70 years after the fact.”

Top photo by Samuel Masinter '04

Bottom photo © Joerg Koch/Pool/EPA/Corbis