John Demjanjuk and the other half of justice

There is more than one way of making sure that Nazi-style horrors never happen again.
Carolyn Moynihan | 4 December 2009
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What is the point of the trial of John Demjanjuk? The elderly, Ukrainian-born, stateless ex-American has been extradited to Munich (where he once lived) to face charges that he is one of the Nazi guards responsible for the mass killing of Jews (and other prisoners?) at Sobibor death camp in Poland. He has been pursued by Holocaust survivor groups and the United States authorities for more than 30 years and there seems little doubt that he is guilty of war crimes. Twenty years ago he escaped a death sentence in Israel; now he faces ending his life in prison -- or in a prison hospital since he is already feeble -- if he survives the trial. He has lived with disgrace for a long time, so that will not be anything new.

Does he deserve all that? Probably. But having inflicted on him the maximum punishment possible at this stage of his life, what will have been achieved? If the aim is justice, how can retribution visited on one guilty old man for crimes that he would never have committed except in the company of a vast number of similar criminals and within a totalitarian system much bigger than all of them -- two such systems, actually, the Nazi and the Soviet -- significantly tip the scales of justice in favour of the victims?

The Israeli appeal judges who overturned Demjanjuk’s death sentence after the first trial said: "The facts proved the appellant's participation in the extermination process. The matter is closed — but not complete, the complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge.”

Neither is complete justice within the human prerogative, and the more monstrous the crime the less adequate retributive justice is. Nothing, humanly speaking, can make up for the Holocaust. Or for the Stalinist terror, or the Maoist terror, or any of the terrors that wiped out millions of people in the 20th century and turned the lives of millions of others into living deaths. Not only was the suffering too great, but the responsibility was too dispersed to allow more than the chief perpetrators to be formally tried and punished. The attempt to force retributive justice much further ends up looking more like revenge -- a false remedy that perpetrates other injustices.

Which is not to say that there are no remedies for such crimes at all. The deficit left by retribution has to be made up by a different kind of justice, one that brings the truth to light for the purposes of contrition and forgiveness -- and reparation as far as possible. Germany itself undertook this process of facing the guilt of its recent history in the 1950s following the initial period of denazification and continues to do so today. Many other countries have established truth and reconciliation commissions in the aftermath of civil wars or periods of political oppression in order to face the injustices as fully as possible and then move on.

Isn’t it time, after six decades, to let go of the desire for retribution for Nazi crimes and adopt the truth and reconciliation model for the guilty who are still alive? After all, guilt keeps surfacing in surprising places. Only three years ago the German writer Gunter Grass, who has been a critic of Germany’s treatment of its Nazi past, confessed that he was a member of the Waffen SS. He had his reasons at the time, as John Demjanjuk no doubt had his. This is part of the truth that needs to be taken into account in seeking reconciliation. This approach might also encourage some countries that have yet to face the horrors of their past squarely -- those of the former USSR, for example -- to do so.

In the end, the greater part of most crimes will have to be forgiven, whether those who committed them confess or not, are sorry or not, are punished or not. Not to forgive is to live in a kind of hell oneself and fail to achieve the constructive contribution that would make crimes against humanity less common. (Don't forget, there is one going on right now against the unborn child.)

A couple of years ago someone alerted me to a video online about Polish clergy imprisoned and killed at Dachau, much of it consisting of interviews with Archbishop Kazimierz Majdanski, a survivor and victim of medical experiments there. I don’t think I could bear to watch it again -- except for the end which concerns the trial of an SS doctor responsible for the experiments. The Archbishop was a witness at the trial, but, as a newspaper at the time reported, he forgave his former tormenter and crossed the courtroom to shake hands with him. “After all,” he said, “we may look into each other’s eyes. This should never happen again.”

If that doctor was not already full of remorse, he must have been after that encounter. There is nothing like forgiveness for converting people -- converting, not destroying. That is the other half of justice, for which any of us might be grateful before our lives are through.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

This article is published by Carolyn Moynihan and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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