Germans have to live with Nazi past a bit longer
Retired U.S. auto worker John Demjanjuk, 89, has been deported to Germany and prosecutors in Munich want to put him on trial for assisting to murder at least 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor extermination camp in 1943. With most Nazi criminals dead, it is likely to be the last big Nazi war crime trial in Germany.
The case raises a number of questions which affect the way Germans look at themselves and relate to the world around them. The deafening silence from politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, says a lot about how intent Germans are on viewing the case as a purely legal matter.
Demjanjuk’s health poses one problem. While his family says he is is too frail to stand trial, some Germans argue it will not do their justice system any good to have a sick old man in the dock and that he could even end up winning sympathy – a potentially embarrassing outcome.
Others simply ask what purpose his trial would serve. Born in Ukraine, Demjanjuk was a prisoner of war who, his defenders say, was forced to become a death camp guard. He played his part in the enormous horror of the Holocaust but many Germans are all too aware that other major war criminals have escaped justice. Some fled to live in exile and others received light sentences.
It is surprisingly difficult to pin down figures of the number of Germans tried or convicted of war crimes since 1945 but most experts agree with the Simon Wiesenthal Center that the number of criminals brought to justice is way below the total of those involved in the Holocaust.
Some reports say that of an estimated 200,000 Germans and Austrians involved in the Holocaust, about 106,000 were investigated by German prosecutors and of those, only 6,500 were convicted.
Although a series of war crimes did take place, thousands of war criminals either escaped prosecution or got away with light sentences and a 1968 law made it easier for defendants to argue that they had only been following orders.
Nazi hunters in Ludwigsburg are still looking for war criminals and Germans have done a good deal more than other countries, especially Austria, to confront its past but many experts say it is the knowledge of the failure to punish Nazis soon after 1945 that has led to cases like Demjanjuk drawing so much attention now.
To survivors and their families, it is a matter of principle that people like Demjanjuk are brought to justice, however old they are. Germany’s Central Council of Jews spelled this out, saying all living Nazi war criminals can have no mercy, regardless of their age.
In many ways, Germany has moved on from its past. It has sent soldiers on combat missions abroad and is getting more involved in world diplomacy. Young people here want to be part of a more self-confident state at the heart of Europe. There is relatively little public debate about the Demjanjuk case, just a weary resignation that it is happening.
But while people like Demjanjuk live, there will be no escape from the past forGermans.