Lawrence Douglas: The Face of Genocide

Roundup: Talking About History

Lawrence Douglas is James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought at Amherst College. He covered the Munich trial of John Demjanjuk for Harper’s magazine. His most recent book, "The Vices," was a finalist for the 2011 National Jewish Book Award.

The death of John Demjanjuk in a Bavarian nursing home brings to an end the most convoluted and lengthy case to arise from the crimes of the Holocaust. Demjanjuk’s legal odyssey began in 1977, when American prosecutors filed a motion to strip the Ukrainian-born émigré of his U.S. citizenship. It reached a conclusion of sorts last May, when a German court convicted the 91-year-old defendant of assisting the SS in the murder of 28,060 Jews at Sobibor, a death camp in eastern Poland.

The court’s verdict — Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years imprisonment only to be released pending appeal — aroused controversy, more here than abroad. Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles called Demjanjuk’s release “an insult to his victims and the survivors.” Yet the survivors and relatives of victims I spoke to generally expressed satisfaction with the Solomonic verdict. Little was to be gained by jailing the nonagenarian as his appeals wended through the court system. More important was the conviction itself, the fact that a German court had finally managed — nearly seven decades after the fact — to condemn one of the thousands of auxiliaries who served as the foot soldiers of genocide.

Germany rightfully enjoys the reputation as having succeeded in the difficult collective task known as Vergangenhetstbewältigung – confronting the past. While Turkey and Japan continue vehemently to dispute any responsibility for crimes of genocidal sweep, while Spain brings criminal charges against a local magistrate who dares to investigate Franco-era crimes, Germany has emerged as the poster boy for national self-reckoning, the land willing to face down its monstrous past. The casual tourist in Berlin cannot escape the public memorials to atrocity that dot the urban landscape with a mushroom-like plentitude. And when all else fails, German law serves as the muscle of memory, stepping in to prosecute those who would deny the Holocaust....

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