The Role Mistaken Identity Played in Germany’s Sudden Rush to Bring Elderly Nazi Collaborators to Justice

Blog by Shannon Heuston, Junior Associate

Whenever Germany charges another elderly Nazi for the role in the Holocaust, each news story claims they will be the last.  Yet they are never the last. The world seems to have an endless supply of Nazi collaborators approaching triple digits and beyond, who have lived the past seventy-eight years in relative obscurity, untroubled by participating in the Holocaust. All suffer from the infirmities of age, some declared unfit to stand trial,[1] or unable to withstand more than a few hours of testimony a day,[2] or carried into the courtroom as they lack the ability to walk into it under their own power.[3] They are figures of sympathy, appearing helpless and harmless.  To add to this impression, many are being charged as juveniles since they were under the age of twenty-one when they served the Nazi war machine.[4] And what everyone wants to know is, why now? Why not seventy-seven years ago?

The answer lies unbelievably with a retired Ohio autoworker, John Demjanjuk. In the mid-eighties he was accused of being notorious Ukrainian concentration camp guard Ivan the Terrible, stripped of his U.S. citizenship, and extradited to Israel, where he was convicted and sentenced to die in a dramatic, showy trial said to be the last great Nazi war trial.[5] The main piece of evidence against him was a Nazi identity card provided by the KGB which depicted a photograph of a Sobibor camp guard bearing a startling resemblance to Demanjuk, his birth date, the name of his hometown, his father’s name, and notations of several scars and identifying marks.[6] Five years later, his conviction was overturned, the Israeli court concluding that although they believed the record was authentic and he had served as a camp guard, Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible.[7]

Fast forward to 2009, when Demjanjuk, now considerably older, was extradited to Germany charged as an accessory in the murder of 27,900 Jews committed during the time he was a Sobibor concentration camp guard.[8] These proceedings were a stark departure from German precedent, which was that only someone directly responsible for the death of a named, specific victim could stand trial.[9] Demjanjuk was being prosecuted on a new theory-that merely evidence of having worked in the concentration camp was enough to make someone responsible for the killings that occurred.[10] His conviction in May 2011 under this theory established a new precedent, and the floodgates opened.[11]

Since the establishment of the new precedent, few if any of the convicted Nazi collaborators have spent time in prison. Most, like Demanjuk, die while their case is still being appealed.[12] Due to this, the trials are merely symbolic, serving as a reminder of our past and what we, as a society, still need to overcome.  Perhaps the last trials against the few remaining Nazis are what is needed at this time to help us remember the Holocaust, and that it should never happen again.


[1]AFP, German Court Drops Case Against Ailing Auschwitz Medic, ᴛɪᴍᴇs ᴏғ Isʀᴀᴇʟ, (September 17, 2017),

[2] David Courbet, Ex-Nazi Camp Guard, 100, Refuses to Discuss Atrocities at Trial in Germany, Tɪᴍᴇs ᴏғ Isʀᴀᴇʟ, (October 7, 2021), Ex-Nazi camp guard, 100, refuses to discuss atrocities at trial in Germany | The Times of Israel.

[3] Eliza Gray, Inside One of The Last Nazi Death Camp Trials, Tɪᴍᴇ, (February 12, 2016), Nazi Trials: The Case of Auschwitz Guard Reinhold Hanning (

[4] Tobi Raji, 98-Year-Old Charged for Role at Nazi Death Camp, Wᴀsʜ. Pᴏsᴛ, (September 6, 2023), 98-year-old man charged and accused of helping Nazi murders in Holocaust – The Washington Post.

[5] Robert D. McFadden, John Demjanjuk, 91, Dogged by Charges of Atrocities as Nazi Camp Guard, Dies, N.Y. Tɪᴍᴇs, (March 17, 2012), John Demjanjuk, Accused as a Nazi Guard, Dies at 91 – The New York Times (

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Eliza Gray & Simon Shuster, How The Last Surviving Nazis Could Be Brought to Justice, Tɪᴍᴇ, (January 20, 2016), Nazi War Criminals on Trial: The Race to Prosecute | Time

[10] Melissa Eddy, Why Germany Prosecutes the Aged for Nazi Roles it Long Ignored, N. Y. Tɪᴍᴇs, (February 9, 2021), Why Germany Prosecutes the Aged for Nazi Roles It Long Ignored – The New York Times (

[11] Id.

[12] McFadden, supra note 5.

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