John Demjanjuk (
by Steve Timmer
Nov 20, 2013, 12:00 PM

Therapeutic Nazi hunting, part one

Ivan the Supine: a reprise

Most of you remember John Demjanjuk, the retired Ohio auto worker who was convicted in an Israeli court of being Ivan the Terrible, a guard at Treblinka. Demjanjuk was stripped of his US citizenship in 1981 and sent to Israel for trial. There were people at the trial who ID’ed Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible.

Demjanjuk served five years in an Israeli prison, under a sentence of death, but then it was discovered that whoops!, he wasn’t Ivan the Terrible after all!

Demjanjuk had his U.S. citizenship revoked in 1981 after the Justice Department alleged he hid his past as the notorious Treblinka guard “Ivan the Terrible.” He was extradited to Israel, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1988, only to have the conviction overturned five years later as a case of mistaken identity. [This is from an AP story, which as we will see later, is ironic.]

There were a lot of people, including the Nazi-hunters in the Justice Department who looked rather foolish on that one. I mean, he’s gotta be guilty of something, right? Maybe he’s Vlad the Odious, or even Stas the Mildly Annoying.

Of course, the Israelis were leery of having anything more to do with Demjanjuk. Fool me once, shame on you; foot me twice, well you can’t get fooled again, as somebody recently said. So, the Justice Department apparently went shopping.

Enter the Germans with their spiffy ex post facto laws on war crimes. The Germans are, of course, embarrassed by the Nazis in their own closets and seem willing to help string up — really, there is no death penalty in Germany — anybody, especially if he’s from, say, Poland or the Ukraine, to help extinguish its own national guilt.

That is perhaps a controversial thing to say, but I stand by it.

So by some process or other, it is determined that John Demjanjuk, the Not Ivan the Terrible, was really somebody else, in a completely different place. He was charged with being a low level guard at the Sobibor camp, also in Poland. He was also a Nazi POW.

Now Demjanjuk is getting on in years at the time of this second prosecution; he spent a lot of court time on a gurney. Although the story at this link was written before he was convicted, Demjanjuk was convicted; he died while his case was on appeal.

In the second case, there weren’t any people who could even identify Demjanjuk, including a survivor of the camp who testified that it was a really bad place, which clearly it was. But no proof was offered that Demjanjuk had committed a war crimes offense. But that wasn’t a problem:

In the latest [sic, it should be “later;” there were only two] prosecution, Demjanjuk is accused of serving as a “Wachmann” or guard, the lowest rank of the volunteers subordinate to German SS men. It is the first time a conviction has been sought against someone so low-ranking without proof of a specific offense. [emphasis added]

It is probably worthwhile to mention again that Demjanjuk was a Nazi prisoner of war.

Without a single witness testifying about a single act, Demjanjuk was convicted of 27,000 — I’m sorry: 27,900 — counts of accessory to murder.

In later installments of this series, I’ll discuss the Afghan war and the Northern Alliance, and then the case of Michael Karkoc.

Thanks for your feedback. If we like what you have to say, it may appear in a future post of reader reactions.