Inglorious Bastards…in the courtroom

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November 30, 2009 by Katie.

John Demjanjuk is going to trial.  Again.  This time for the much-less-flashy accusation that he was a minior level figure at Sobibor death camp.  (Previously he was accused of being Ivan the Terrible from Treblinka death camp but was subsequently found innocent.)  The BBC has an interesting article that I think touches, albeit briefly, on a lot of the issues surrounding Holocuast retribution.

It’s obvious the guy’s old & sick.  What’s the point of giving him a 15-year-sentence that a) he probably wouldn’t live out even if he was healthy and b) is tantamount to a death sentence because he isn’t healthy?  Is it okay to take out retribution on an elderly man?  Point taken.  Even one of the Nazi-hunters (yes, sort of a la Inglorious Bastards except they work for recognized groups and organizations and probably don’t tote guns around) working on the trial admits his condition makes the situation a “little disappointing.”  But, let’s be frank here.  Did the Nazis care about elderly, sick men?  Um…no.  I’m pretty sure they worked them to death in the labor camps, sent them to the gas chambers straight off trains, or marched them to death in the snow, regardless.  If you want to go for the whole not-really-in-the-Bible, eye-for-an-eye thing…to the clanker!

Less vengefully, the legal system doesn’t make exceptions for age and physical health.  There have been several precendents set in the United States (Green River killer, anyone?) where elderly men were tried and accused of heinous murders long after they were committed and there wasn’t a peep out of anyone that these men shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions.

This begs the question: why, when it comes to to one of the most heinous crimes ever committed, do we suddenly *care* about the current state of its perpetrators?

Is there some deeper reason that we want to let Demjanjuk off so easily?  We don’t necessarily want to let him off morally, though by sympathizing with illness we certainly make him more likeable, but we *do* want to let him off legally.  This suggests the international community still has a lot of legal issues in dealing with these types of  crimes.  It also possibly hints at the international community’s deeper desire to avoid dealing with their own roles in the Holocaust or to avoid dredging up “bygones.”

On a purely legal basis, however, the trial has its faults.  As the BBC article points out, there are no living witnesses to back up any claims against Demjanjuk.  I presume there is some other evidence against him but the case is made a lot weaker by the fact that no one can pinpoint him.  No one can say, ‘I was at Sobibor and that man was also there.’  Can we really prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this man is a killer?  I guess the European legal system, in which one has to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are *not* the killer, makes the whole scenario a little easier but that idea is a little unsettling to the American legal conscience.  More complicatedly, it brings up further questions as to what, exactly, this trail represents.  Is part of the reason we can be so squeamish about sending a sick man to jail because we don’t actually care about the legal accuracy of the trail or the subsequent legal consequences of its findings?  Really, do we want to use a courtroom trial as a front for a public moral trial that we more desire but for which we have no outlet?

I definitely have more I could say on this subject – even from hinted at issues in the BBC article – but I am going to stop for now.  If you want more Holocaust retribution talk let me know and I’ll make another article!

It is also 1:30 in the morning and I don’t feel like getting out of bed to find the exact titles and authors of the Suggested Reading I have in mind so I promise that I will update the post in the next day or two with those links.

Okay – the stars of the show!!:

Suggested Reading:
Eichmann in Jerusalem – Hannah Arendt
Dreams of Peace and Freedom – Jay Winter (especially the chapter about 1968)
thanks to lovely Andrew at Shadow Gestalt for those suggestions!

Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals – Alan Rosenbaum: this gives a good overview of the International Military Tribunal, more commonly known as the Nuremburg Trials but those were actually something different, and, more importantly for this article, a good summary of the different legal arguments and precedents.
The Politics of Retribution in Europe – Istvan Deak, Tony Judt, Jan Gross

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