John Demjanjuk – a former Nazi guard at Sobibor believed to be “Ivan the Terrible” – died before serving even one year of his five year prison sentence.
Demjanjuk, 91, was found guilty last May in a German court of assisting in mass murder as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland during WWII and sentenced to five years in prison.
Munich state prosecutors charged Demjanjuk as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 of the 167,000 Sobibor victims, and the court found the killings were motivated by racial hatred.
Demjanjuk- a native of Soviet Ukraine – denied the charges, arguing that he was a prisoner of war who was forced to do what the Nazis wanted.
Demjanjuk moved to the U.S. after World War II, raised a family and worked in the auto industry in Ohio. After a long legal battle, he was extradited from the United States in 2009 to face trial.
The U.S. Department of Justice first accused Demjanjuk of being a Nazi guard known as “Ivan the Terrible” in the 1970s. His U.S. citizenship was revoked in 1981, and he was extradited to Israel in 1986.
In 1988, Demjanjuk was convicted in an Israeli court and sentenced to death, but that conviction was overturned in 1993 amid evidence that someone else was “Ivan the Terrible.”
Although a U.S. federal court restored Demjanjuk’s citizenship after his 1988 conviction, his citizenship was revoked again in 2002 after a federal judge ruled that his 1952 entry into the United States was illegal because he hid his past as a Nazi guard.
Demjanjuk’s role as a Nazi guard at Sobibor is an unsettling reminder of the danger inherent in “group mentality.” His trial in Germany may be the last time that an accused Nazi-era war criminal stands trial. If so, it marks the culmination of a 65 year period of prosecutions that began with the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
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I find this case frustrating. It seems like Demjanjuk maintained plausible denial of his identity throughout the decades of litigation (and attempted prosecution)). Unlike Slobodan Milošević, who ultimately died in a detention center before the end of his trial, Demjanjuk died a free man, so there is no cold comfort that justice was nevertheless imminent. But these difficulties are routine in cases where the crime(s), taking place during war, occurred more than half a century ago. Memories fade, witnesses, victims, and perpetrators alike scatter and die, evidence disappears. However, I remain hopeful that we are truly in a new era of international law, in which the International Criminal Court is vigilant and increasing pressure is placed on governments to address the consequences of conflict within their territories.
This is a tough case, and definitely frustrating, as Jennifer has stated. Prosecuting a prison guard in the U.S. and Israel for crimes committed during a war that ended nearly 70 years ago is certainly difficult, since victims and most of the evidence against him is probably long gone. If he was, in fact, Ivan the Terrible, it is frustrating that he was never punished for what he did and that he somehow managed to lead an “ordinary American” life in the U.S. after his work with the Nazis was done. But how can we be completely certain that this man was Ivan the Terrible and not, as he said, a Nazi prisoner, when the crimes he committed happened 70 years ago in war-torn Germany? I, too, hope that the International Criminal Court and other international war crimes tribunals are more attuned to such atrocities and will vigilantly prosecute war criminals in the future.
In another twist to this bizarre saga, John Demjanjuk’s attorney has filed an appeal of a District Court Order denying Demjanjuk restoration of citizenship. The appeal alleges that the Government withheld Brady material; specifically, a key FBI document purportedly stating that the Nazi ID card used to identify Demjanjuk as a Sobibor prison guard is a Soviet made fake. The link below gives the full story and provides a copy of Appellant’s brief: