Professor Lawrence Douglas in his office
Lawrence Douglas, Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought

It’s the stuff of a Hollywood movie.

An unassuming Ukrainian-born immigrant working as an autoworker in Cleveland is discovered to be a former Nazi death camp guard.

He stands trial for atrocities he allegedly committed during World War II.

He is found guilty, but the verdict is overturned when new evidence proves that the man was not the one the authorities thought him to be.  

Years later the man is finally convicted in Germany for his true role as a different guard assisting in the murder of 28,060 Jews during the Holocaust. He dies before his appeal can be heard by a judge.

As told by Lawrence Douglas, Amherst’s James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, in his new book The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, this improbable story is by turns riveting, heartbreaking and illuminating. The book started as an essay Douglas wrote for Harper’s magazine about the title character’s trial in Munich.

“In telling the narrative, I took a lot of pleasure in telling the story in a gripping fashion, but also in a fashion that was attentive to the twists and turns of a very bizarre case,” said Douglas, a leading war crimes scholar and author of five other books, who spent many hours in German courtrooms.

The work, a chronicle of Demjanjuk’s journey through the American, Israeli and German court systems, raises thought-provoking legal and moral questions.

What purpose does it serve, for example, to try old men for crimes committed decades earlier? To what lengths should a nation go to come to terms with and correct its own terrible history?

But it was how the court prosecuted Demjanjuk’s offenses and, in doing so, created a precedent for future war crimes trials that was Douglas’ main focus.

For decades, courts treated the act of state-sponsored genocide as if it were a single murder repeated thousands or millions of times, he explains in the book.  This made the prosecution of “cogs” in the Nazi killing machine almost impossible.

“To convict only on proof of personal viciousness is to treat the crimes of the Holocaust as acts of garden-variety villainy,” Douglas writes in The Right Wrong Man. “The courts in Munich and Lüneburg, by contrast, recognized the death camp as a site of organized destruction. Their verdicts understood that in judging state-sponsored atrocities, guilt is not to be measured by acts of cruelty or savagery alone; guilt follows function. Such was the simple, terrible and great insight of these courts.”

Learn more about the book and Douglas’ own experiences writing it in an illuminating video interview.

About Lawrence Douglas

Douglas is the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst.  He earned his J.D. at Yale Law School, his M.A. from Columbia University, his B.A. from Brown University and an honorary M.A. from Amherst College.

He is the author of six books of both fiction and nonfiction. His scholarly books include The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial and The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust. His novels include The Vicesa finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 2011, and The Catastrophist. His articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Guardian, The Irish Times, The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement and Harper’s

A recipient of major fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Institute of International Education, Douglas has lectured widely and has served as a visiting professor at the University of London and at Humboldt-Universität, Berlin.

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

Some Praise for The Right Wrong Man

The Right Wrong Man, from its summary title to its thoughtful postscript, is an impressive work, as well as a timely one....” New York Times Book Review

“The case of [Demjanjuk,] the death camp guard turned autoworker, related with authority and clarity.” New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice

“[A] masterful account…. [D]eftly delivers disquisitions on nuanced legal questions as if they were plot points in a thriller, making his demanding book a pleasure even for readers unschooled in the particulars of international law.” The Wall Street Journal

“Sophisticated and suspenseful, the book provides a trenchant analysis of the legal and moral dilemmas surrounding trials for genocidal crimes against humanity.”  The Jerusalem Post

“An excellent … elucidation of the long trail toward the conviction of a notorious concentration camp guard.” Kirkus

“… a superb book.” Trouw (Netherlands)

“…definitive.” The Irish Times

“[A] story that needed telling.” The Sunday Times (London)

“[An] indispensable history.” Jewish Book Council

“[Douglas] deftly weaves the ongoing battle of Demjanjuk’s [trial] with the evidentiary trail being followed by the sleuths in the U.S. Justice Department and elsewhere…. The Right Wrong Man is an important read about the accountability those who do wrong ultimately face.” San Francisco Book Review

“…behind this story lies a fraught web of issues that Douglas untangles with exceptional skill … a tour de force….” Foreign Affairs

Video Interview with Professor Lawrence Douglas

March 29, 2016

Lawrence Douglas, Amherst's James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, talks about his new book, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial.