Tuesday, December 01, 2009

John Demjanjuk and Nazi War Crimes

Many years ago, back in the '70s, I knew an elderly woman who had a deep and abiding hatred of Germany and Germans because of the Second World War, and no doubt from reading about the First World War. Not having lived through the blitz and growing up with a rehabilitated Germany playing a key role in European affairs I didn't share her loathing but part of me could understand it. What I found I couldn't accept was that she had a stack of newspapers from 1939 to 1945 and, if she ever felt her hatred for all things German waning, she would take them out and read them to stoke up her venom.

I had a similar feeling yesterday when I read about 89 year old John Demjanjuk's trial starting in Munich. Demjanjuk has already been tried in Israel for war crimes and found guilty then had the conviction overturned, he was found innocent but had spent several years wrongly imprisoned. This time non of the co-plaintiffs in the trial can positively identify Demjanjuk as a guard at Sobibor concentration camp. In his first trial he was wrongly accused, yet found guilty, of being a guard at Treblinka known as "Ivan the Terrible".

The Germans forced many Red Army prisoners to become guards in camps to free up Germans to fight on the front. How many of us could raise our hands if asked whether, in 1942 or 1943, we would have stood up to the Nazis and refused to become guards, especially knowing the treatment you would have received for doing so?

Don't look back with 21st century glasses on either. We can only imagine the de-humanising effects on people of two barbaric philosophies, fascism and communism, going in a bloody and often primitive head-to-head, a fight for survival, a fight to the death. In those circumstances men will do things that they would never dream of under normal, civilised circumstances.

The trial of John Demjanjuk, an 89 year old in seriously ill health smacks of the civilised world behaving in the same way as that old lady I knew in the 1970s. Neither dignified nor civilised.

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