Tag Archives: John Demjanjuk

The Close Scrutiny of History

Richard Evans, The Third Reich in History and Memory 

            Books about Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich continue to proliferate, filling the reading public’s seemingly insatiable desire for more information about one of history’s most odious regimes.  But spending one’s limited reading time on Hitler, the Nazis and the Third Reich is for most readers not a formula for uplifting the spirit.  Those who wish to broaden their understanding of the Nazi regime yet limit their engagement with the subject are likely to find Richard Evans’ The Third Reich in History and Memory well suited to their needs.  If Peter Hayes’ Why: Explaining the Holocaust, reviewed here earlier this month, was a vehicle to see the dense and intimidating forest of the Holocaust through its many trees, Evans’ work might be considered a close-up look at selected trees within the forest of the Third Reich.

          The Third Reich in History and Memory provides an indication of how broadly our knowledge of the Nazi regime has expanded in the first two decades of the 21st century alone.  The book is compilation of Evans’ earlier reviews of other studies of the Nazi regime, most of which have been previously published.  Evans uses the word “essay” to describe his reviews, and that is the appropriate term. The book consists, as he puts it, of “extended book reviews that use a new study of one or other aspect of the Third Reich as a starting point for wider reflections” (p.x). All reviews/essays were published originally in this century, most since 2010; the oldest dates to 2001. Evans, a prolific scholar who has been Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, President of Cambridge’s Wolfson College, and Provost of London’s Gresham College, is also the author of the Third Reich Trilogy, a three volume work that is probably the most comprehensive single study of Nazi Germany.

          The “Memory” portion of Evans’ title alludes to what he considers the most remarkable change in historical work on Nazi Germany since the late 20th century, the “increasing intertwining of history and memory,” (p.ix), reflected in particular in several reviews/essays that address post-war Germany.  It is now almost impossible, Evans observes, to write about the Third Reich “without also thinking about how its memory survived, often in complex and surprising ways, in the postwar years” (p.ix). But memory “needs to be subjected to the close scrutiny of history if it is to stand up, while history’s implications for the collective cultural memory of Nazism in the present need to be spelled out with precision as well as with passion” (p.x; the collection does not include a review of Lawrence Douglas’ The Right Wrong Man, reviewed here in July 2017, an account of the war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk and a telling reminder of the limits of memory of Holocaust survivors).

            The book contains 28 separate reviews, arranged into seven sections: German antecedents to the Third Reich; internal workings of the regime; its economy; its foreign policy; its military decision-making; the Holocaust; and the regime’s after effects.  Each of the seven sections contains three to six reviews; each review is an individual chapter, with each chapter only loosely related to the others in the section.  The collection begins with chapters on Imperial Germany’s practices in its own colonies prior to World War I and the possibility of links to the Nazi era; it ends with a chapter on post-World War II German art and architecture, and what they might tell us about the Third Reich’s legacy.  In between, individual chapters look at a diverse range of subjects, including Hitler’s mental and physical health; his relationship with his ally Benito Mussolini; the role of the Krupp industrial consortium in building the German economy in the 1930s and 1940s; and the role of the German Foreign Office in the conduct of the war.  In these and the book’s other chapters, Evans reveals his mastery of unfamiliar aspects of the Third Reich.

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            Germany’s pre-World War I colonies seemed an irrelevance and were largely forgotten in the years immediately following World War II.  But with the emergence of what is sometimes called post-colonial studies, historians “now put racism and racial ideology instead of totalitarianism and class exploitation at the center of their explanations of National Socialism [and] . . . the history of the German colonizing experience no longer seem[s] so very irrelevant” (p.7).  Evans’ two initial chapters, among the most thought-provoking in the collection, review two works addressing the question of the extent to which Germany’s colonial experience prior to World War I may have established a foundation for its subsequent attempt to subjugate much of Europe and eliminate European Jewry: Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History; and Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler.

          Germany’s pre-World War I overseas empire was short-lived compared to that of the other European powers.  It came into being, largely over Bismarck’s objections, in the 1880s, and ended abruptly with Germany’s defeat in World War I, after which it was stripped of all its overseas territories (along with much of its European territory).  But in the final decades of the 19th century, Germany amassed an eclectic group of colonies that by 1914 constituted Europe’s 4th largest empire, after those of Great Britain, France and the Netherlands.  It included, in Africa, Namibia, Cameroon, Tanganyika (predecessor to Tanzania), Togo, and the predecessors to Rwanda and Burundi, along with assorted Pacific Islands.

           In its relatively brief period as an overseas colonizer, Germany earned the dubious distinction of being the only European power to introduce concentration camps, “named them as such and deliberately created conditions so harsh that their purpose was clearly as much to exterminate their inmates as it was to force them to work” (p.6). Violence, “including public beatings of Africans,” was “a part of everyday life in the German colonies” (p.10). In a horrifying 1904-07 war against the Herrer and Nama tribes in Namibia, Germany wiped out half of the population of each, one of the clearest instances of genocide perpetrated by a European power in Africa. Germany alone among the European powers banned racial intermarriage in their colonies.  Yet Evans, writing both for himself and the two works under review, cautions against drawing too direct a line between the pre-World War I German colonial experience and the atrocities perpetrated in World War II.  German colonialism, he concludes, “does seem to have been more systematically racist in conception and more brutally violent in operation that that of other European nations, but this does not mean it inspired the Holocaust” (p.13).

         Almost all chapters in the book intersect in some way with the Holocaust and thus with Hayes’ work.  But that intersection is most evident in the sixth of the seven sections, “The Politics of Genocide,” where Evans reviews Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire and, in a chapter entitled “Was the ‘Final Solution’ Unique?,” a compendium of German essays addressing this question.  This chapter, itself originally in German but revised and translated into English for this volume, confronts the argument that the Holocaust was a crime without precedent or parallel in history, so appalling that it is “illegitimate to compare it with anything else” (p.365).  Evans dismisses this argument as “theological.”

          Comparison “doesn’t mean simply drawing out similarities,” Evans argues, it also means “isolating differences and weighing the two” (p.365).  If the Holocaust was unique, the “never again” slogan becomes meaningless.  Ascribing categorical uniqueness to the Holocaust may be rewarding for theologians, he writes.  But, sounding much like Hayes, he reminds us that the historian must approach the Holocaust in the “same way an any other large-scale historical phenomenon, which means asking basic, comparative questions and trying to answer them at the level of secular rationality” (p.365).  Asking comparative questions at this level nevertheless leads Evans to find a unique quality to the Holocaust, without parallel elsewhere: its sweeping, racialist ideological underpinnings.

          The Nazi genocide of the Jews was unique, Evans contends, in that it was intended to be geographically and temporally unlimited.  To Hitler, the Jews were a world enemy, a “deadly, universal threat” to the existence of Germany that had to be “eliminated by any means possible, as fast as possible, as thoroughly as possible” (p.381).  The Nazis’ obsessive desire to be “comprehensive and make no exceptions, anywhere, is a major factor distinguishing the Nazis’ racial war from all other racial wars in history” (p.376-77).  Young Turkish nationalists launched a campaign of genocide against the Armenian Christian minority in Anatolia.  But the Armenians were not seen as part of a world conspiracy against the Turks, as the Germans saw the Jews.  The 1994 assault by Hutus on Tutsis in the former German colony of Rwanda was also geographically limited.   Moreover, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany occupied Poland during World War II after the August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact (detailed in Roger Moorhouse’s The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41, reviewed here in May 2016).  The Soviet occupation of Poland, albeit brutal, was carried out to implement ideological goals but was “not an attempt to exterminate entire peoples” (p.367).

           This difference between the Soviet and Nazi occupation in Poland leads Evans to a severe reproach of Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder’s otherwise highly-acclaimed examination of the mass murders conducted by the Soviets and the Nazis in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic States during the 1930s and the war years, in which Snyder emphasizes similarities between the policies and practices of the two regimes.  Most prominent among Evans’ numerous objections to Bloodlands  is that its comparison of Hitler’s plans for Eastern Europe with Stalin’s mass murders in the same geographic areas “distracts attention from what was unique about the extermination of the Jews. That uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of its ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on” (p.396).  Bloodlands, Evans concludes, “forms part of a post-war narrative that homogenizes the history of mass murder by equating Hitler’s policies with those of Stalin” (p.398).  We “do not need to be told again about the facts of mass murder,” he petulantly intones, but rather to “understand why it took place and how people could carry it out, and in this task Snyder’s book is of no use” (p.398).

         Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire, the third work under review in the section on the Holocaust, draws a more sympathetic review. Mazower considered the policies and practices of the German occupation of much of Europe during World War II against the backdrop of the British and other European empires.  Hitler’s empire, Evans writes, was the “shortest-lived of all imperial creations, and the last” (p.364).  But for a brief moment in the second half of 1941, it seemed possible that the Nazis’ megalomaniac vision of world domination, taking on Great Britain and the United States after defeating the Soviet Union, might become reality.  The Nazis, however, had “no coherent idea of how their huge new empire was to be made to serve the global purposes for which it was intended” (p.358).  Mazower’s “absorbing and thought-provoking account,” Evans concludes, paradoxically “makes us view the older European empires in a relatively favorable light.  Growing up over decades, even centuries, they had remained in existence only through a complex nexus of collaboration, compromise and accommodation. Racist they may have been, murderous sometimes, even on occasion exterminatory, but none of them were created or sustained on the basis of such a narrow or exploitative nationalism as animated the Nazi empire” (p.364).

           Three of the works which Evans reviews will be familiar to assiduous readers of this blog: R.H. Douglas’ Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War (reviewed here in August 2015); Heike Görtemaker’s Eva Braun: Life With Hitler (March 2013); and Ian Kershaw’s The End: Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45 (December 2012).   All three earn Evan’s high praise.  Douglas’ book tells the little-known story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans, Volkdeutsch, from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania in 1945 and 1946, into a battered and beaten Germany.  It is one example of research on post-war Germany, where the “subterranean continuities with the Nazi era have become steadily more apparent” (p.x).

            Douglas breaks new ground by showing how the ethnic cleanings of “millions of undesirable citizens did not end with the Nazis but continued well into the years after the fall of the Third Reich, though this time directed against the Germans rather than perpetrated by them” (p.x).  His work thus constitutes a “major achievement,” at last putting the neglected subject matter on a scholarly footing.  Orderly and Humane “should be on the desk of every international policy-maker as well as every historian of twentieth century Europe.  Characterized by assured scholarship, cool objectivity and convincing detail,” Douglas’ work  is also a “passionate plea for tolerance and fairness in a multi-cultural world” (p.412).

           The central question of Görtemaker’s biography of Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress (and his wife for 24 hours, before the newlyweds committed suicide in the Berlin bunker on the last day of April 1945), is the extent to which Braun was knowledgeable about, and therefore complicit in, the enormous war crimes and crimes against humanity engineered by the man in her life.  Evans finds highly convincing Görtemaker’s conclusion that Braun was fully cognizant of what her man was up to: “There can be little doubt that Eva Braun closely followed the major events of the war,” he writes, and that she “felt her fate was bound inextricably to that of her companion’s from the outset” (p.160; I was less convinced, describing Görtemaker’s case as based on “inference rather than concrete evidence,” and noting that Görtemaker conceded that the question whether Braun knew about the Holocaust and the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population “remains finally unanswered”).

            Ian Kershaw is a scholar of the same generation as Evans who rivals him in stature as a student of the Nazi regime — among his many works is a two-volume biography of Hitler.  His The End provides the grisly details on how and why Germany continued to fight in the second half of 1944 and the first half of 1945, when it was clear that the war was lost.  It is, Evans writes, a “vivid account of the last days of Hitler’s Reich, with a real feel for the mentalities and situations of people caught up in a calamity which many didn’t survive, and which those who did took years to overcome” (p.351).

            The remaining chapters in the collection address subjects equally likely to be unfamiliar yet of interest to general readers.  Of course, the advantage of a collection of this sort is that readers are not obliged to read every chapter; they can pick and choose among them.  One editorial weakness to the collection is the absence of any indication at the beginning of each chapter of the specific work under review and where it was first published.  Evans rarely mentions the work under review until well into the chapter. There is a list of “Acknowledgements” at the end that sets out this information.  But the initial entries are in the wrong order, adding confusion and limiting the utility of the list.

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            Evans’ reviews/essays are impressive both for their breath and their depth.  Throughout, Evans proves to be an able guide for readers hoping to draw informed lessons from recent works about the Third Reich.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 25, 2018

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Filed under European History, German History, History

Trial By History

 

 

 

Lawrence Douglas, The Right Wrong Man:

John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial 

          Among the cases seeking to bring to justice Nazi war criminals and those who abetted their criminality, that of Ivan Demjanjuk was far and away the most protracted, and perhaps the most confounding as well.  From 1976, up to his death in 2012, a few months short of his 92nd birthday, Demjanjuk was the subject of investigations and legal proceedings, including two lengthy trials, involving his wartime activities after becoming a Nazi prisoner of war. Born in the Ukraine in 1920, Demjanjuk was conscripted into the Red Army in 1941, injured in battle, and taken prisoner by the Nazis in 1942. After the war, he immigrated to the United States, where he settled in Cleveland and worked in a Ford automobile plant, changing his name to John and becoming a US citizen in 1958.

        Demjanjuk’s unexceptional and unobjectionable American immigrant life was disrupted in 1976 when several survivors of the infamous Treblinka prison camp in Eastern Poland identified him as Ivan the Terrible, a notoriously brutal Ukrainian prison guard at Treblinka. In a trial in Jerusalem that began in 1987, an Israeli court found that Demjanjuk was in fact Treblinka’s Ivan and sentenced him to death. But the trial, which began as the most significant Israeli prosecution of a Nazi war criminal since that of Adolph Eichmann in 1961, finished as one of modern history’s most notorious cases of misidentification. In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court found, based on newly discovered evidence, that Demjanjuk had not been at Treblinka. Rather, the new evidence established that Demjanjuk had served at four other Nazi camps, including 5½ months in 1943 as a prison guard at Sobibor, a camp in Poland, at a time when nearly 30,000 Jews were killed.  In 2009, Demjanjuk went on trial in Munich for crimes committed at Sobibor. The Munich trial court found Demjanjuk guilty in 2011. With an appeal of the trial court’s verdict pending, Demjanjuk died ten months later, in 2012.

        The driving force behind both trials was the Office of Special Investigations (“OSI”), a unit within the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice. OSI initiated denaturalization and deportation proceedings (“D & D”) against naturalized Americans suspected of Nazi atrocities, usually on the basis of having provided misleading or incomplete information for entry into the United States (denaturalization and deportation are separate procedures in the United States, before different tribunals and with different legal standards; because no legislation criminalized Nazi atrocities committed during World War II, the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution was considered a bar to post-war prosecutions of such acts in the United States). OSI had just come into existence when it initiated the D & D proceedings against Demjanjuk in 1981 that led to his trial in Israel, and its institutional inexperience contributed to the Israeli court’s misidentification of Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. Twenty years later, in 2001, OSI initiated a second round of D & D proceedings against Demjanjuk for crimes committed at Sobibor.  By this time, OSI had added a handful of professional historians to its staff of lawyers (during my career at the US Department of Justice, I had the opportunity to work with several OSI lawyers and historians).

             In his thought-provoking work, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, Lawrence Douglas, a professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College, aims to sort out and make sense of Demjanjuk’s 35-year legal odyssey, United States-Israel-United States-Germany.  Douglas argues that the expertise of OSI historians was the key to the successful 2011 verdict in Munich, and that the Munich proceedings marked a critical transformation within the German legal system. Although 21st century Germany was otherwise a model of responsible atonement for the still unfathomable crimes committed in the Nazi era, its hidebound legal system had up to that point amassed what Douglas terms a “pitifully thin record” (p.11) in bringing Nazi perpetrators to the bar of justice.  But through a “trial by history,” in which the evidence came from “dusty archives rather than the lived memory of survivors” (p.194), the Munich proceedings demonstrated that German courts could self-correct and learn from past missteps.

         The trial in Munich comprises roughly the second half of Douglas’ book. Douglas traveled to Munich to observe the proceedings, and he provides interesting and valuable sketches of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, along with detail about how German criminal law and procedure adapted to meet the challenges in Demjanjuk’s case.  The man on trial in Munich was a minor cog in the wheel of the Nazi war machine, in many ways the polar opposite of Eichmann. No evidence presented in Munich tied Demjanjuk to specific killings during his service at Sobibor. No evidence demonstrated that Demjanjuk, unlike Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka, had engaged in cruel acts during his Sobibor service. There was not even any evidence that Demjanjuk was a Nazi sympathizer. Yet, based on historical evidence, the Munich court concluded that Demjanjuk had served as an accessory to murder at Sobibor.  The camp’s only purpose was extermination of its population, and its guards contributed to that that purpose. As Douglas emphatically asserts, all Sobibor guards necessarily served as accessories to murder because “that was their job” (p.220).

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            Created in 1979, OSI “represented a critical step toward mastering the legal problems posed by the Nazi next door” (p.10; a reference to Eric Lichtblau’s incisive The Nazi Next Door, reviewed here in October 2015).   But OSI commenced proceedings to denaturalize Demjanjuk before it was sufficiently equipped to handle the task.  In 1993, after Demjanjuk’s acquittal in Jerusalem as Ivan the Terrible, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit severely reproached OSI for its handling of the proceedings that led to Demjanjuk’s extradition to Israel.  The court found that OSI had withheld exculpatory identification evidence, with one judge suggesting that in seeking to extradite Demjanjuk OSI had succumbed to pressure from Jewish advocacy groups .

            The Sixth Circuit’s ruling was several years in the future when Demjanjuk’s trial began in Jerusalem in February 1987, more than a quarter of a century after completion of the Eichmann trial (the Jerusalem proceeding against Eichmann was the subject of Deborah Lipstatadt’s engrossing analysis, The Eichmann Trial, reviewed here in October 2013). The Holocaust survivors who testified at the Eichmann trial had had little or no direct dealing with the defendant. Their purpose was didactic: providing a comprehensive narrative history of the Holocaust from the survivors’ perspective.   The Treblinka survivors who testified at Demjanjuk’s trial a quarter century later older had a more conventional purpose: identification of a perpetrator of criminal acts.

            Five witnesses, including four Treblinka survivors and a guard at the camp, identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible.   Eliahu Rosenberg, who had previously testified at the Eichmann trial, provided a moment of high drama when he approached Demjanjuk, asked him to remove his glasses, looked him in the eyes and declared in Yiddish, the language of the lost communities in Poland, “This is Ivan. I say unhesitatingly and without the slightest doubt. This is Ivan from the [Treblinka] gas chambers. . . I saw his eyes. I saw those murderous eyes” (p.51). The Israeli court also allowed the Treblinka survivors to describe their encounters with Ivan the Terrible as part of a “larger narrative of surviving Treblinka and the Holocaust” (p.81). The court seemed influenced by the legacy of the Eichmann trial; it acted, Douglas emphasizes, “as if the freedom to tell their story was owed to the survivors” (p.81-82).

            The case against Demjanjuk also rested upon an identification card issued at Trawniki, an SS facility in Poland which prepared specially recruited Soviet POWs to work as accessories, where they provided the SS with “crucial assistance in the extermination of Poland’s Jews, including serving as death camp guards” (p.52). The card contained a photo that unmistakably was of the youthful Demjanjuk (this photo adorns the book’s cover), and accurately reported his date of birth, birthplace, father’s name and identifying features. Trawniki ID 1393 listed Demjanjuk’s service at Sobibor, but not Treblinka. That, Israeli prosecutors explained, was because Sobibor had been his initial assignment at the time of issuance of card.

          Demjanjuk’s defense was that that he had not served at Treblinka, but his testimony was so riddled with holes and contradictions that the three experienced judges of the court – the fact finders in the proceeding; there was no jury – accepted in full the survivors’ testimony and sentenced Demjanjuk to death in 1988.  The death sentence triggered an automatic appeal to the five-judge Israeli Supreme Court (Eichmann was the only other defendant ever sentenced to death by an Israeli court). The appellate hearing did not take place until 1990, and benefitted from a trove of documents released by the Soviet Union during its period of glasnost (openness) prior to its collapse in 1991.

      The Soviet documents contained a “rather complete” (p.94) picture of Demjanjuk’s wartime service, confirming his work as a camp guard at Sobibor and showing that he had also served at three other camps, Okzawm, Majdanek and Flossenberg, but with no mention of service at Treblinka.  Moreover, the Soviet documentation pointed inescapably to another man, Ivan Marchenko, as Treblinka’s Ivan the Terrible. In 1993, six years after the Jerusalem trial had begun, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a 400-page opinion in which it vacated the conviction. Although the court could have remanded the case for consideration of Demjanjuk’s service at other camps, it pointedly refused to do so. Restarting proceedings “does not seem to us reasonable” (p.110), the court concluded.  OSI, however, took a different view.

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            Although Demjanjuk’s US citizenship was restored in 1998, OSI determined that neither his advancing age – he was then nearly 80 – nor his partial exoneration in Jerusalem after protracted proceedings was sufficient to allow him to escape being called to account for his service at Sobibor. Notwithstanding the rebuke from the federal court of appeals for its handling of the initial D & D proceedings, OSI in 2001 instituted another round of proceedings against Demjanjuk, 20 years after the first round. Everyone at OSI, Douglas writes, “recognized the hazards in seeking to denaturalize Demjanjuk a second time. The Demjanjuk disaster continued to cast a long shadow over the unit, marring its otherwise impressive record of success” (p.126). By this time, however, OSI had assembled a team of professional historians who had “redefined our historical understanding of the SS’s process of recruiting and training the auxiliaries who crucially assisted in genocide” (p.126). The work of the OSI historians proved pivotal in the second round of D & D proceedings, which terminated in 2008 with a ruling that Demjanjuk be removed from the United States; and pivotal in persuading a reluctant Germany to request that Demjanjuk be extradited to stand trial in Munich.

            The German criminal justice system at the time of Demjanjuk’s extradition was inherently cautious and rule bound — perhaps the epitome of what a normal legal system should be in normal times and very close to what the victorious Allies would have hoped for in 1945 as they set out to gradually transfer criminal justice authority to the vanquished country. But, as Douglas shows, that system prior to the Demjanjuk trial was poorly equipped to deal with the enormity of the Nazi crimes committed in the name of the German state. Numerous German legal conceptions constituted obstacles to successful prosecutions of former Nazis and their accomplices.

          After Germany regained its sovereignty after World War II and became responsible for its own criminal justice system, it “tenaciously insisted that Nazi atrocities be treated as ordinary crimes, requiring no special courts, procedures, or law to bring their perpetrators to justice” (p.20). Service in a Nazi camp, by itself, did not constitute a crime under German law.  A guard could be tried as an accessory to murder, but only if his acts could be linked to specific killings. There was also the issue of the voluntariness of one’s service in a Nazi camp. The German doctrine of “putative necessity” allowed a defendant to show that he entertained a reasonable belief that he had no choice but to engage in criminal acts.

            In the Munich trial, the prosecution’s case turned “less on specific evidence of what John Demjanjuk did than on historical evidence about what people in Demjanjuk’s position must have done” (p.218) at Sobibor which, like Treblinka, had been a pure exterminaton facility whose only function was to kill its prison population.  With Demjanjuk’s service at Sobibor established beyond dispute, but without evidence that he had “killed with his own hand” (p.218), the prosecution in Munich presented a “full narrative history of how the camp and its guards functioned . . . [through a] comprehensive historical study of Sobibor and its Trawniki-trained guards” (p.219).

          Historical research developed by OSI historians and presented to the Munich court demonstrated that Trawniki guards “categorically ceased to be POWs once they entered Trawniki” (p.226). They were paid and received regular days off, paid home leave and medical care. They were issued firearms and were provided uniforms. The historical evidence thus demonstrated that the difference between the death-camp inmates and the Trawnikis who guarded them was “stark and unequivocal” (p.226).  Far from being “glorified prisoners,” Trawniki-trained guards were “vital and valued assistants in genocide” (p.228). The historical evidence further showed that all guards at Sobibor were “generalists.” They rotated among different functions, such as guarding the camp’s perimeter and managing a “well-rehearsed process of extermination.” All “facilitated the camp’s function: the mass killings of Jews” (p.220).

         Historical evidence further demolished the “putative necessity” defense, in which the defendant entertained a reasonable belief that he would face the direst consequences if he did not participate in the camp’s activities. An “extraordinary research effort was dedicated to exploring the question of duress, and the results were astonishing: historians failed to uncover so much as a single instance in which a German officer or NCO faced ‘dire punishment’ for opting out of genocide” (p.223).  The historical evidence thus provided the foundation for the Munich court to find Demjanjuk guilty as an accessory to murder. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment but released to a Bavarian nursing home pending appeal. Ten months later, on March 17, 2012, he died. Because his appeal was never heard, his lawyer was able to argue that his conviction had no legal effect and that Demjanjuk had died an innocent man.

           The Munich court’s holding that Demjanjuk had been an accessory to murder underscored the value of years of historical research. As Douglas writes:

Without the painstaking archival work and interpretative labors of the OSI’s historians, the court could never have confidently reached its two crucial findings: that in working as a Trawniki at Sobibor, Demjanjuk had necessarily served as an accessory to murder; and that in choosing to remain in service when others chose not to, he acted voluntarily. This “trial by history” enabled the court to master the prosecutorial problem posed by the auxiliary to genocide who operates invisibly in an exterminatory apparatus (p.255-56).

          In the aftermath of Demjanjuk’s conviction, German prosecutors considered charging as many as 30 still living camp guards. One, Oskar Gröning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz, was convicted in 2015, in Lüneburg, near Hamburg.  Gröning admitted in open court that it was “beyond question that I am morally complicit. . . This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility” (p.258).  Gröning’s trial “would never have been possible without Demjanjuk’s conviction” (p.258), Douglas indicates. Camp guards such Demjanjuk and Gröning were convicted “not because they committed wanton murders, but because they worked in factories of death” (p.260).

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        Thirty years elapsed between Demjanjuk’s initial D & D proceedings in the United States in 1981 and the trial court’s verdict in Munich in 2011. Douglas acknowledges that the decision to seek to denaturalize Demjanjuk a second time and try him in Munich after the spectacularly botched trial in Jerusalem could be seen as prosecutorial overreach.  But despite these misgivings, Douglas strongly supports the Munich verdict: “not because I believe it was vital to punish Demjanjuk, but because the German court delivered a remarkable and just decision, one which few observers would have predicted from Germany’s long legal struggle with the legacy of Nazi genocide” (p.15).   Notwithstanding all the conceptual obstacles created by a legal system that treated the Holocaust as an “ordinary crime,” German courts in Demjanjuk’s case “managed to comprehend the Holocaust as a crime of atrocity” (p.260).  Demjanjuk’s conviction therefore serves as a reminder, Douglas concludes, that the Holocaust was “not accomplished through the acts of Nazi statesmen, SS henchmen, or vicious sociopaths alone. It was [also] made possible by the thousands of lowly foot soldiers of genocide. Through John Demjanjuk, they were at last brought to account” (p.257).

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

July 10, 2017

 

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Filed under German History, History, Israeli History, Rule of Law, United States History

Often Our Neighbors, Too Often Our Friends

 AmericanNazis

Eric Lichtblau, The Nazis Next Door:

How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men  

      Among those who served in Hitler’s killing machines and committed war crimes during the Second World War, a countless number escaped any punishment for their crimes after the war ended in 1945. Many were deemed critical to the rebuilding of Germany, both in the Soviet and Western zones, and were welcomed into the post-war structures and institutions needed for Germany’s rebuilding. Others escaped to foreign destinations, often with the assistance of the Vatican and Red Cross, with Latin America in particular a favored destination. Adolf Eichmann was one spectacular example, and one of the few who did not live out his life in Latin America in relative tranquility (see Deborah’s Lipset’s account of the Israeli capture and trial of Eichmann, reviewed here in October 2013).

     But, to a surprising extent, the United States was also a prominent and even welcoming destination for former Nazi war criminals, both Germans and collaborators from Nazi-occupied Eastern European countries. They ranged from camp guards to Nazi policymakers. They settled in all regions of the United States. Most lived unobjectionable lives in their adopted country as factory workers, businessmen, scientists, and even prominent religious leaders. In The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men, Eric Lichtblau, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, weaves together several cases of suspected Nazi war criminals living in the United States. Lichtblau spotlights how the cases came to the attention of U.S. authorities, how they were handled, and the personalities on each side, those seeking to remove ex-Nazi war criminals from the United States and those opposing their removal.

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     The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western powers that erupted almost simultaneously with the defeat of Nazi Germany was “always at the center of American’s calculations over what to do about the Nazis” (p.31), Lichtblau writes. By the early 1950s, Allen Dulles at the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, and a handful of other senior intelligence officials had in place around the globe a “formidable network of their own of loosely linked and far-flung ex-SS men and Nazi operatives. They were the spy agencies’ foot soldiers in the Cold War” (p.29). “Nobody hates the Commies more than the Nazis” seemed to be the justification U.S. agencies invoked, often shielding their sources from other US agencies interested in tracking down Nazi criminals and holding them accountable.

      Within the United States, the network of former Nazis grew by its own momentum.

One ex-Nazi agent recruited to work for the United States would lead to the next, and the next; one anti-Communist spy ring made up of scores of ex-SS men would produce another, and another. . . [H]undreds of Nazi officers who were the nation’s sworn enemies just years earlier were now ostensibly on America’s side as spies, informants, and intelligence “assets”; fed and housed; paid and protected; dispatched and debriefed; code-named; cleansed, and coddled by their American handlers. That they had once worked for Hitler’s Third Reich was of little concern (p.30).

     Many of the ex-Nazis whisked into the United States were scientists, operating under a top-secret project named “Project Paperclip.” Although officially closed to “ardent” Nazis who took part in wartime atrocities, this exclusion was what Lichtblau terms a “fig leaf, a bureaucratic cover that was routinely ignored, as the U.S. government brought in professionals with direct links to Nazi atrocities and helped them ‘cleanse’ their war record’” (p.10). American officials were “determined to claim the Nazi brain trust for themselves,” regarding recruitment of top Nazi scientists as a “matter of survival in the postwar world” (p.24).

      The project included not just rocket scientists like Werner von Braun but also “doctors and biologists; engineers and metallurgists; even a nutritionist, a printing pressman, and a curator of insects from the Berlin Museum” (p.25). The Soviet Union, the new enemy, was also enticing German scientists to its side with “all sorts of promises” and there were reports that Moscow was “kidnapping unwilling scientists and bringing them to the Russian occupation zone. The Americans wanted their share. For both Washington and Moscow, Hitler’s scientists had become the spoils of war” (p.24).

          Lichtblau estimates that over 10,000 immigrants with clear ties to the Nazi regime found refuge in the United States, although the precise number will never be known because the United States had made it “so easy for them to fade seamlessly into the fabric of the country” (p.228). America’s disinterest in identifying suspected Nazi war criminals after the war was “so prolonged, its obsession with the Cold War so acute, its immigration policies so porous, that Hitler’s minions had little reason to fear they would be discovered” (p.228). Yet, beginning in the 1970s, many were discovered, thanks to the work of a handful of individuals both within and outside the United States government.

      Within the government, Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman almost singlehandedly focused the attention of her legislative colleagues and American authorities on Nazi war criminals living in the United States. When Holtzman arrived in Congress, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had primary responsibility for the exclusion of Nazi war criminals, usually on the basis of having provided misleading or incomplete information for entry into the country (exclusion was the strongest sanction available to American authorities; no legislation criminalized Nazi atrocities committed during World War II, and the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution would have barred post-war prosecutions of such acts).

       In 1978, Holtzman spearheaded a major change to American immigration legislation – termed the “Holtzman Amendment” – making participation in wartime persecution of civilians an independent basis for denaturalization and deportation. The following year, Holtzman engineered the creation of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) as a unit within the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice. From that point, OSI led the government’s efforts to identify Nazis war criminals living n the United States and seek their removal from the country.

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        Lichtblau’s case studies skillfully portray the personalities involved on all sides of the hunt for Nazi war criminals. Lichtblau begins with ex-Nazi SS recruit Tscherim “Tom” Soobzokov, and returns to Soobzokov’s improbable story at several subsequent points. From the North Caucuses (the area of today’s Russia between the Black and Caspian Seas, north of Georgia and Azerbaijan), Soobzokov was accused having been “Hitler’s henchman” who “turned on his own people” and “led roaming Third Reich ‘execution squads’ that gunned down Jews and Communists” (p.xiii). Some called Soobzokov the Führer of the North Caucuses.

        After the war, the CIA recruited Soobzokov. He served for a while as an agency source in Jordan and, with CIA assistance in cleansing his wartime record, came to the United States in 1955. He settled in Patterson, New Jersey where he became a mid-level county official and influential member of the local Democratic political machine. With his passionate anti-communism, Soobzokov was also recruited by the FBI and charged with keeping track of other North Caucuses immigrants with potential communist leanings. In the late 1950s, however, the CIA concluded that Soobzokov was an “incorrigible fabricator” (p.64) and cut its ties with him.

     But Soobzokov remained an informant for the FBI and his immigrant success story in Patterson continued unabated for another two decades, until 1977. That year, a best selling book, Wanted: The Search for Nazis in America, written by Howard Blum, a young investigative reporter for The Village Voice, identified Soobzokov as one of the leading ex-Nazis living in the United States. Written in a “suspenseful style and an outraged tone” (p.117, a description that could also be applied to Lichtblau’s work), Wanted was another crucial factor in focusing Americans’ attention on the Nazi war criminals living in their midst.

     The Justice Department opened a case against Soobzokov, seeking to strip him of his American citizenship and remove him from the country on the ground that, when first admitted into the United States he had “willfully concealed from the authorities his membership in the German SS during the war” (p.121). Soobzokov’s lawyers countered that Soobzkov had fully informed American authorities of the full extent of his SS involvement. To the dismay of the Justice lawyers, they were able to produce two State Department documents in CIA possession – after the State Department told Justice it maintained no records on Soobzokov — showing precisely what Soobzokov claimed, that prior to his admission into the country he had indeed fully informed American authorities of his role as an SS Nazi collaborator. Once the two documents had been authenticated, the Justice Department had no choice but to drop its suit against Soobzokov.

     Soobzokov also brought what seemed like an audacious libel suit against multiple individuals and entities, including the publisher of Wanted, an affiliate of The New York Times. Soobzokov’s libel suit turned out to be one of few that the newspaper agreed to settle. But before he could enjoy his apparent vindication, Soobzokov died of injuries suffered when a bomb went off in his New Jersey home. His case was never solved, even though all indicia pointed to the militant Jewish Defense League as responsible for the crime.

      Among the scientists included in Project Paperclip, the most famous by far was Werner von Braun, an admired figure in the United States despite having been what Lichtblau terms a “committed Nazi” who used “slave laborers in a mountain factory to build the V-2 rockets that bombed London” (p.10). Two decades later, with help from Walt Disney, von Braun became a “celebrated televangelist for space exploration” (p.93) in the United States and went on to play a prominent role with the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) in the 1969 Apollo moon-landing project. Von Braun was quite simply “too powerful and too revered to attack directly” (p.95) and his Nazi past never seemed to interest American authorities. This was not the case for the lesser known Dr. Hubertus Strughold, who rose to prominence at NASA as America’s leading expert on “space medicine,” the effects upon the human body of space travel.

        “Struggie,” as he was called in America, had been a colonel in the German Luftwaffe and director of a Berlin research institute. He was tied to grisly experiments on human reaction to extreme conditions, both at his research institute and at the infamous Dachau prison camp. One at Dachau locked prisoners in an airtight ball and subjected them to sudden changes in pressure to simulate rapid drops from high altitudes, with many dying. Another utilized what Nazi documentation termed “asocial gyspsy half-breeds” (p.103) to test the effects of drinking seawater on airmen shot down over water. Strughold’s name was mentioned 61 times during the Nuremberg trials, where 23 medical doctors were tried, with seven sentenced to death. Somehow, Strughold was not among those placed on trial at Nuremberg. Rather, he mysteriously showed up in the United States to launch a second career in his adopted country.

       When the INS began to focus on Strughold’s background in the early 1970s, Texas Congressman Henry Gonzalez came to his defense. The Congressman argued that Strughold was a “distinguished scientist of international reputation.” For the INS to subject him to public suspicion was “no better than the oppressors we abhor” (p.105). With the support of Gonzalez, the case against Strughold went away for about ten years until the Justice Department began to refocus upon him. But Sturghold died while the investigation was unfolding. In 2010, the Institute for Space Medicine finally ceased to label its yearly prize the “Strughold Award.”

     The most wrenching case Lichtblau presents involved Jacob Tennebaum, Jewish and a Holocaust survivor who lost most of his family to the Nazis, including his wife, infant daughter, and five siblings. Imprisoned by the Nazis, Tennenbam became a kapo, a camp overseer who, other prisoners recounted, brought unusual cruelty to the task. Tennenbaum seemed to “thrive on the power the Nazis had given him,” routinely beating Jewish prisoners “even when the SS officers were not watching” (p.195-96). The case which the Justice Department’s OSI brought against Tennenbaum “proved polarizing from the start” (p.197). The previous head of OSI, then in private practice, told his former colleagues that he considered the case “dubious as a matter of law” and “improper if not outrageous, as a matter of policy” (p.197).

       Although OSI nonetheless proceeded with the case, it allowed Tennebaum to stay in the United States because of his poor health. In exchange, Tennebaum gave up his American citizenship and admitted to “brutalizing and physically abusing prisoners outside the presence of German SS personnel” (p.197). The judge hearing the case, a war veteran who had been at Dachau after its liberation, was torn by its ethical complexities. “I have often wondered how much moral and physical courage we have a right to demand or expect of somebody in the position of Mr. Tannenbaum. . . I sometimes wonder whether I might have passed that test” (p.197).

       The most spectacular case — the most spectacular failure for OSI — involved John Demjanjuk, a retired Ukranian-American autoworker who changed his name from Ivan to John when he settled in Cleveland after World War II. In 1977, 18 survivors of the notorious Treblinka camp in Poland identified Demjanjuk as “Ivan the Terrible,” a guard at Treblinka trained by the Germans to operate gas chambers. Ivan was a man of “monstrous savagery . . . the barbaric executioner, a sadist who corralled women and children in the gas chamber, beating and torturing them as they went” (p.202-03).

      Largely on the basis of the Treblinka survivors’ identification, a court in Cleveland stripped Demjanjuk of his United States citizenship and extradited him to Israel, where he was the first ex-Nazi to be tried since Eichmann. After a lengthy trial, Demjanjuk was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death. But five years later, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction when new evidence, made available by the Soviet Union, indicated that Demjanjuk had been a less prominent guard at Sobibor, another prison camp in Poland, not Treblinka.

     The Demjanjuk case marked a low point for OSI. The federal appeals court in Cincinnati severely criticized the unit, suggesting that Jewish advocacy groups had unduly influenced its pursuit of the wrong man. OSI nonetheless proceeded with a second case against Demjanjuk for his role in the killing of 27,900 Jews at Sobibor. Demjanjuk was extradited a second time, to Germany in 2009, to face charges in a Munich court. In May 2011, the Munich court found Demjanjuk guilty and sentenced him to five years imprisonment. Demjanjuk died not long after being sentenced.

       In addition to the usual array of family members defending Demjanjuk, he also had on his side Patrick Buchanan. An advisor to presidents Nixon and Reagan and a writer and television commentator, the fiercely anti-communist Buchanan opposed the deportation of numerous individuals targeted by U.S. authorities for having participated in  Nazi war crimes. Over and over, Buchanan argued that the U.S. Nazi hunters were going after wrongly accused elderly men, who were defenseless and presumed guilty. Testimony from witnesses who survived the Nazis was deeply suspect, Buchanan contended, with a “Holocaust survivor syndrome” leading to “group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics” (p.194). Lichtblau does not delve into Buchanan’s psyche, but quotes Buchanan as having written that for all his faults, Hitler himself was an “individual of great courage” (p.194).

      Buchanan’s opposite was investigative journalist Chuck Allen. Before public attention turned in the 1970s to the issue of Nazi war criminals living in the United States, Allen more than any other individual kept the issue alive. A Swarthmore graduate with a Quaker background, the brash Allen was a “modern Don Quixote, armed with a poison pen instead of a lance. . . [who] tilted not at windmills, but at swastikas” (p.78). If Americans were blind to the Holocaust and its aftermath, Allen figured he would “strong-arm them into remembering” (p.78). Well ahead of other journalists and the United States government, Allen gained access to the Soviet Union’s treasure trove of documents and eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities. The Russians had “long accused the United States of going easy on Nazi collaborators, and so they were eager to help Allen in his research” (p.119). Although Allen’s journalistic pieces failed to gain much national traction, he paved the way for other journalists and U.S. government agencies to begin to shine a spotlight on “Nazi war criminals in our midst” (p.77), as Allen framed the issue.

      Among these agencies, the Department of Justice’s OSI, created in 1979 to energize the effort to identify and take legal action against ex-Nazis found in the United States, receives most of Lichtblau’s attention. Given its failed cases against Soobzokov and Demjanjuk, as well as the controversy surrounding the Tennenbaum case, readers might conclude that OSI fell far short of the objectives Congress had in mind when it created the unit. But OSI won most of the cases it brought, despite the difficulty in marshaling decades-old evidence and relying on traumatized and elderly witnesses to make cases against defendants who were themselves elderly and often in poor health. One small criticism to Lichtbau’s otherwise superb account is that he could have given greater emphasis to the extent of OSI’s successes in excluding former Nazi operatives from the United States.

      Today, the OSI mission of identifying and proceeding against former Nazi operatives is about at its end. Any putative Nazi war criminals still alive are almost certainly well into their 90s — a person 90 years old this year would have been only 20 when World War II ended in 1945 — and likely to die before protracted legal proceedings against them could be completed. OSI itself has become part of a unit termed Human Rights and Special Prosecutions, which has a broader mandate to seek sanctions against any human rights violators with connections to the United States.

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      Lichtblau’s readers are likely to be surprised to learn that in the years following World War II, key agencies such as the CIA and FBI, driven by Cold War imperatives, were entirely indifferent to notions of accountability for individuals living in the United States who had participated in wartime atrocities on behalf of Hitler’s Third Reich. It was not until the 1970s that the American government began to take such notions seriously. With few if any legal proceedings against Nazi operatives likely to unfold in the future, Lichtblau’s disquieting story serves as a timely summation of the United States’ uneven record in dealing with former Nazis living comfortably within its borders.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 3, 2015

 

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