This Week in History: The first last Nazi trial

30-year-long effort to convict Demjanjuk is telling of the diligence that exists to hold accountable all Nazi war criminals.

Demjanjuk then and now 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Demjanjuk then and now 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
On February 17, 1988, the first trial of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk came to a close in Jerusalem. Under the assumption that he was “Ivan the Terrible,” a notoriously sadistic guard at the Treblinka concentration camp, the Ukrainian-born émigré was convicted and sentenced to death for crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity.
Eleven years prior, a legal saga that is still ongoing to this day began against the accused Nazi war criminal. The US Justice Department, convinced that he was Ivan the Terrible, started the process of revoking Demjanjuk’s citizenship under the premise that he had lied in his naturalization process about his role in the Nazi death camps. Identified in a photo lineup by Holocaust survivors as the notorious Ivan, a US judge ruled that he had in fact hidden his involvement in the WWII German death machine, leading to his extradition to Israel five years later.
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Demjanjuk was stripped of his US citizenship and extradited for trial in Israel on charges that he personally operated the gas chambers at Treblinka where tens of thousands of Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. In the trial, which lasted a year-and-a-half between 1986 and 1988, Demjanjuk claimed that the accusations against him were the result of a case of mistaken identity. Taunting the Israeli court, his lawyers said the legal process had “all the earmarks of the Dreyfus trial.” The court rejected his defense and Demjuanjuk was convicted of crimes attributed to Ivan the Terrible.
Five years after his conviction and death sentence, however, Demjanjuk’s claims that he was not in fact Ivan the Terrible were revisited by the Supreme Court and his conviction overthrown. The court said it believed he was a guard at another Nazi death camp, but not the operator of Treblinka’s gas chambers. The conviction and death sentence were overturned. To the dismay and anger of many Holocaust survivors, Jews and Israelis, then-attorney-general Yosef Harish chose not to retry Demjanjuk on new charges that he was a lower-level Nazi concentration camp guard. Following a petition in US Federal Court, his US citizenship was restored and he was repatriated to Ohio in 1993. He lived quietly in the US for another handful of years.
Determined to see Demjanjuk prosecuted, the US Justice Department restarted proceedings to revoke his citizenship in 1999. It took another five years before a US court ruled he could be stripped of his citizenship for the second time and yet another five years before efforts to have him tried in Germany were eventually successful. After a decade of exhausted appeals, John Demjanjuk was extradited to Munich in May of 2009, charged with 28,060 counts of accessory to murder.
Demjanjuk, now 90-years-old, is currently on trial in Germany for his alleged role in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews. A verdict is expected by the end of March this year. However, no matter what the outcome, this decades-long legal saga may not yet be finished. In January, a Spanish judge indicted Demjanjuk on charges of being an accessory to genocide and crimes against humanity. In this latest indictment, he was accused of working at the Flossenbuerg Nazi concentration camp in, Germany. The Spanish are expected to seek his extradition when the German trial ends.
The thirty-year-long effort to convict one accused Nazi war criminal is telling of the diligence, stubbornness and determination that exists to hold accountable all those who participated in the worst systematic instance of genocide every known to man kind. The case of Demjanjuk, as opposed to the famed trial of Adolf Eichman, has been the most legally challenging of those efforts. Perhaps sensing that Demanjuk may be the last Nazi to ever stand trial for the horrific crimes committed by the Nazis seven decades ago, prosecutors around the world have shown endless determination to hold him accountable.
Associated Press contributed to this report.