Saturday, 23 January 2010


Something of a break with my normal post content.
In the news recently is the trial of John Demjanjuk, who is accused of having been a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp.
Demjanjuk is 89 years old, he is sick, and is wheeled into the court.
He was sentenced to death by an Israeli court, in 1988, on the grounds that he had been a guard at Treblinka known as "Ivan the Terrible". It was alleged that he was one of the two Ukrainians who ran the gas chamber there.
He had been, for twenty five or so years, a car worker in Cleveland, Ohio. The people there saw him as an ordinary man, nothing to fear.
Yet he was extradited to Israel as a war criminal, a vile sadist, Ivan the Terrible. He was found guilty, sentenced to death...  and then acquitted, because, after all that, it was found he was NOT Ivan the terrible.
After  five years on death row, he was again in court to hear the Israeli Supreme court overturn his conviction, with clear evidence that "Ivan" was a different man, and papers that showed Demjanjuk in a different place at the time of the events of which he was accused. Some of those papers had been knowingly withheld from the courts previously by the U.S. government.
Anyway, Demjanjuk, who had been in the grip of various justice systems since the nineteen seventies was released. Not to return home to the U.S., though, it was clear that, even though he had been proved not to be Ivan, he had probably been, in 1943, at Sobibor.

A couple of days ago, a Sobibor survivor testified in court in Munich, to the terrible things that happened there. No, he couldn't identify Demjanjuk, but, he said, the Ukrainian guards were the worst, and if Demjanjuk was one, then he was guilty.
It seems to me that this witness' testimony would not normally have been accepted in most courts. It merely re-iterated what we already knew, that Sobibor was a place where people were murdered in large numbers. The witness had no knowledge whatsoever of the defendant.

 The key point seem to be "was this man at Sobibor?" if it can be proved that he was, then was he a guard? And if he was a guard, was he a war-criminal, was he guilty of mass-murder?

He's been, effectively, a prisoner, facing death, since the nineteen seventies. Whatever he did at Sobibor, under the orders of the SS, as a captured soldier in the Russian army, he did as a young man, not as the person he is now. He claims he worked there as a farm labourer, as a prisoner of war, not as a guard. No Sobibor survivor has identified him as a guard.
Following the war, "according to an article in news magazine Der Spiegel on the legacy of German guilt, of over 100,000 investigations that were carried out in postwar Germany into Nazi crimes, only around 6,500 people were convicted. Thirteen death sentences were passed, 167 life sentences, and the rest received shorter prison sentences or fines. Only a fifth of those convictions were for murder".
Generally, the courts went for those who had freely, of their own will, committed war-crimes, and subordinates, following explicit orders were treated as less culpable.
 Out of all those nazis, only 13 were sentenced to death at Nuremberg. The heaviest sanctions were for the persons who devised and oversaw the atrocities.  Yet now, we have an old man who nobody seems to be able to say more against him than that there is an identity card that appears to place him at Sobibor in 1943.

That seems to be it. No evidence as to what he might have done there, just an I.D.card which might be him, 1943.

It seems to me that post-war Germany was full of people provably involved, knowingly, in mass murder, who have not been pursued by the courts. That the Allies snapped up german personnel with direct links to slave-labour and death camps, Werner Von Braun being a prime example. German chemists were in great demand. The companies that made the poison gases used in the camps still exist, the railway workers who drove millions to their deaths, they were required to rebuild germany, as were so many with blood on their hands.

Some might remember another war, Viet-Nam, and the My Lai massacre. 2nd Lt William Calley ordered his men to destroy a village, and wipe out its inhabitants, a non-combatant village that offered no resistance. According to U.S. records 347 civilians were killed, though U.S. personnel made no body count at the time, Vietnamese records, and the names on the memorial there, say the number was 504. Men, women, children, babies.
Some of the women were gang-raped by members of c-company, bodies were found with "C-company" carved into their chests. People sheltering in a ditch were machine-gunned, others were burned in their huts, any who tried to escape were shot or bayoneted to death. The death toll would have been greater were it not for a helicopter crew who put themselves into the line of fire, and contacted headquarters, to protect survivors.
How did those men, clearly placed and identified as killers and rapists, as the committers of an atrocity, fare? There was no doubt there, Calley was there, he ordered the killings. C-Company carried them out. With gusto.
26 soldiers were charged with criminal offences. Only one, Calley,  was convicted, despite there being eye witnesses and photographic evidence.

Extract from the testimony of Paul Meadlo

"He  (Calley)said, "How come they're not dead?" I said, I didn't know we were supposed to kill them." He said, I want them dead." He backed off twenty or thirty feet and started shooting into the people -- the Viet Cong -- shooting automatic. He was beside me. He burned four or five magazines. I burned off a few, about three. I helped shoot ‘em.
Q: What were the people doing after you shot them?

A: They were lying down.

Q: Why were they lying down?

A: They was mortally wounded.

Q: How were you feeling at that time?

A: I was mortally upset, scared, because of the briefing we had the day before.

Q: Were you crying?

A: I imagine I was....

Q: What were the children in the ditch doing?
A: I don't know.

Q: Were the babies in their mother's arms?

A: I guess so.

Q: And the babies moved to attack?

A: I expected at any moment they were about to make a counterbalance.

Q: Had they made any move to attack?

A: No."

"Nineteen-year-old Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tuyet watched a baby trying to open her slain mother's blouse to nurse. A soldier shot the infant while it was struggling with the blouse, and the slashed at it with his bayonet. Tuyet also said she saw another baby hacked to death by GIs wielding their bayonets. Le Tong, a twenty-eight-year-old rice farmer, reported seeing one woman raped after GIs killed her children . Nguyen Khoa, a thirty-seven- year-old peasant, told of a thirteen-year-old girl who was raped before being killed. GIs then attacked Khoa's wife, tearing off her clothes. Before they could rape her, however, Khoa said, their six-year-old son, riddled with bullets, fell and saturated her with blood. The GIs left her alone then"

Lt William Calley was sentenced to Life Imprisonment with Hard labour, but in reality, he served four and a half months in jail at Fort Benning, and the rest of his three-year sentence under comfortable house-arrest at Fort Benning. And then he was freed.

Compare the evidence against these American soldiers, and the single sentence served, with the case of John Demjanjuk.
It seems to me that John Demjanjuk is being treated as a scapegoat, that Germany is focussing on him being Ukrainian, in an attempt to forget the truth, that Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, all those horrors and sins were created by Germany.
What is served, by this witch-hunt, where nobody alive can remember the defendant being there? Surely, it's time now to let it go, stop endlessly chasing revenge, 67 years have gone by.
Even if he was there, a guard, 67 years ago, isn't this time enough to say "Let God decide".

There was, and still is, a considerable support for Calley, many in the u.s.military were angry that any trial took place, witnesses were threatened. It was said that the experiences of soldiers in war made such events excusable.
Demjanjuk had been fighting in the Russian Red Army, on the eastern front. It is well documented that soviet captives were treated far more harshly than western allies.

I  realise that some readers will think I'm an apologist for the nazi cause, an anti semitic fascist.
I'm not.
It's just that this case has been in the news for the last week, and it got me to thinking about concepts of justice and revenge, and asking myself what the purpose is of this trial.


  1. James Cameron used the fanatical feelings that many still have over White People taking land away from Indigenous Peoples-events where everyone on all sides have been dead for some time.

    Bad things happen in wars, especially wars where one of the objectives is not to defeat an enemy but to wipe them from the face of the earth. See American's Manifest Destiny as well as Nazi Germany's Third Reich.

    Forgive and forget? Well, maybe, but how exactly are we to do that?

  2. Descartes: I don't know anything about James Cameron, so I can't really respond to that, but the things I'm saying in the post have nothing, really, to do with either America's manifest destiny or the third reich, or only very tangentially.
    It's more about how we humans apportion blame and guilt. I think about it a lot. Had I been born in my father's era, I would have played some part in the second-world war. If I had been, for instance, a member of a bomber's aircrew, I would have been involved in dropping many tons of high explosives over people unknown to me. It's quite possible that a bomb set in motion by my actions might punch its way through a shelter, into the midst of women, children, and non-combatants.
    I'd get a few medals for my part in the campaign. I might kill as many as any single concentration camp guard. But unlike him, I'd leave the war as a hero.
    My father's war was a grim story. He was the emaciated prisoner. He was physically and mentally tortured, starved into a bundle of bones. Most of the men he knew did not come back.
    He had over sixty years of nightmares afterward. Yet he managed, to some extent, to forgive, though he never forgot.
    He did not seek vengeance.
    He met one of his former captors, near the site where so many of his friends are buried, and shook his hand, saying, "I forgive you", two old men, with tears pouring down their faces.

  3. There is so much to this post, and so much that could be argued - on many levels: ethics in war, I guess, being the one you choose to argue here, though you are saying much more than simply that. I know very well you are saying more than just that.

    Before I get into a lengthy philosophical discussion, and before I delve into theories, I must ask you a serious question, one that has no hidden agenda: how do you personally envision what Vietnam was like in 1968? Try to transport yourself into the body of an American infantryman, though that isn't really possible because of your different culture and life experiences and education (you would not have ever been in Vietnam, given your education, incidentally). But close your eyes and transport yourself into that time and place and tell me what you feel inside as an American soldier: pretty unschooled and drafted, maybe even your first time away from home, given speedy training because you were only fodder, trained mostly to obey officers no matter what. Maybe you were wet and weary and tired of being shot at by people you couldn't see; maybe you (because you knew the nature of your enemy was to be a villager and simple farmer during the day and dig up his weapons and fight during the night) were paranoid of everyone you came across - didn't care about ANYTHING anymore other than somehow surviving until your promised year of death was over, and you were living in the constant subspace of animal survival? You no longer care about "why" you are there or any noble cause, if you ever did. This is a serious question: I want to know what you see in your own mind right now. Do you see lush jungle? Palm trees? Rain? People riding smoking motorcycles? People shitting on the side of the road? Flies on water buffalo? What, exactly? What sounds do you hear? What do you smell? If this question is too intrusive, then I apologize. The purpose of my question is to get you a bit off the pedestal of 20/20 hindsight and righteousness, and try to tell me how you think the place was. Would you try and tell me? Then we can better get into the philosophy of the matter. I have my own opinions, but I want to wait and share them.

  4. James Cameron was the director who made the successful film Titanic and now Avatar, which perhaps is an analogy to some real people who had their land taken once. I haven't seen Avatar, so I don't know the premise. Guessing.

  5. Well, that was a completely unfair question, so I am not going to give you time to answer it until later, if at all. What I want to do is try to address your post and tell you that, not withstanding ANY situational circumstances, I believe Calley should have been executed by his field commander and not tried in the U.S. Also, I believe the individual troops in his command, regardless of any "excuse" for their barbarous mindset, should have stood courts-martial and some shot, some imprisoned, some set free. If only to serve as a disciplinary example to other soldiers and to remind them the U.S. does not commit acts of barbarism under any circumstances, and that is what sets us apart from some of our enemies. We are morally superior to them, or we are nothing. I am SO tempted to get into the subject of Gitmo right now. I won't.

    History, of course, does not bear out that high ideal. I am only telling you what I personally believe should have happened, and that I don't think ANY circumstance of fear or frustration or even paranoia allows deviation from what we live for and stand for as a people.

    Now, addressing the plight of the supposed Russian guard in a German camp: if you can't prove what he did or if he did, then let him go. Civilized people don't scapegoat stereotypes. If all that can be proven is he was in a certain place at a certain time, and simply being there was not a criminal offense, then he must be freed and compensated generously.

    So much, so much more to this subject. I must stop though.

    Perhaps the vividness of my question's wording may give you a clue that I may know first hand what I am talking about, but no need to go into that.

  6. Max:I don't know if I can give the depth of reply your comment deserves, or comments.. let's start with the easy bit. James Cameron director of Titanic.. Kate Twiglet and Lenny DiCaprio. I once saw bits of it, was never much tempted to see the rest, the bits I saw were so corny and clichéed. Avatar? Oh yes, I've seen the posters everywhere. Ugly people with blue faces. Top grossing, box-office sell-out etc. I didn't know what it was about though. It'll be about three years before I see it, I expect, on TV on a rainy day.
    I didn't recognise the name though.

    Now to your question, oh so difficult. I wasn't there, so I can never see it as a combatant saw it. if I visited Viet Nam now, went to some of those places, I still would not see it that way.
    What do I see? Apocalypse Now, Good Morning Viet-Nam, oh, all those movie images, overlaid with the Thai jungle, those parts I've seen.
    Dripping. Hard to see more than a few yards, everything seems to have thorns, there are trees that are covered in three-inch spikes, it smells of moist mossy rot, things slither and dart, you're warned that a scratch will fester, that leeches will climb you, brush onto you from foliage, or fall from above, that every insect or living thing should be assumed to be venomous... It's beautiful and claustrophobic all at once. The people? Well, in Thailand, they are not my enemy. But their lives and thoughts are so unlike mine, I'm not sure we understand each other ever. even if we say the same words we mean different things.
    So no. I can't see that world, that Viet-Nam, no matter how hard I might try, it's a stage- set, an illusion peopled by actors.

    But let's look at the soldiers, those mid-west farm-boys, city gangstas, construction workers, random kids swallowed by the military.
    Viet-Nam, in its way was like the first-world war, in that it had an insatiable maw into which young men were shovelled, and it cared little whether they understood why they were there, or what they were to do. it was a war without clear objectives, and, unlike in WW1, the other side did not line themselves up neatly in field-grey uniforms and awit the advance. Viet-Nam, however, held out the carrot of the year's end to you. World War one, to the man in the trench, was forever, or until you were blown to pieces, unless you could get lucky enough to be so badly wounded that you'd be sent home. After a while, certain types of wound could get you executed by your own side though, as they were suspected to be self-inflicted.

  7. I understand what you're saying about the young soldier with little schooling, no world view, limited intelligence, permanently afraid, living amidst sudden violence and brutality, and hating anything that didn't spell 'home'.
    This is where I insert my notional Ukrainian farm-boy, drafted into the red army, marched away from home, and taught to kill, to die, to march, shout, bayonet, shoot, kill, kill, without question. This boy's never seen a city, never seen more than a couple of hundred people, he'd like your mid-western farm-boy, maybe even less educated. He's got no idea what the war's about, they march him, fight him, feed him, he goes where they shout, he does as he's told, or he gets the rifle-butt beatings.
    Then he's captured. He knows the germans hate him, will kill him. He's beaten and starving and waiting to die.
    They say 'If you join our free-russian army, you'll get a plate of hot food. Warm clothes.
    And you'll live.One day you might see your home again.'
    So he takes the offer, it's not much of one, but there's food. and clothes. and obeying orders. much like before.
    And your job is guarding enemies of the state? the people who, you are told, caused this war, and every bad thing that ever happened. You're not sure if that's true, but you never had much schooling, and the person who tells you is an officer, so... So you do as you're told. And brutality, well it's how the world has been for some time,to you. you've seen things. Seen your friends change into... well, sometimes you got to bury them, sometimes... and you've lived for too long with the knowledge that at any moment, it could be you, turned into something else.
    just trying to make it, as far as tomorrow, that's your horizon.
    Under those circumstances, remote from anything that you recognise from your life before, all the old rules, customs, hopes, are gone. You do what you are ordered to do. And try to make it until tomorrow. Don't question, just do.

  8. This is how I see it.
    Calley? The transcripts paint a picture of a young officer obsessed with his own importance, who despised everything about Viet Nam, whose own men openly ridiculed him, whose superior officers disliked him.
    At My Lai, he unleashed all his fears and hates and frustrations. Over helpless women and children, for a while he had absolute power. No rules. And his men? He unleashed the worse in them. He threatened to shoot the unwilling.
    Calley should have had a field court-martial. And a field execution. His men? some should have gone the same way. At the very least, real jail, real hard labour, for a long time.
    And the message should have been made clear, across the forces.

  9. The object of war, to quote me, is to win.
    And by definition, war involves being unspeakably nasty to your enemies. And any person in uniform or otherwise, who opposes you is the enemy, to be neutralised, whether by death, injury, or capture.
    I understand that. Women and old people can be combatants, and frequently were, in Viet-Nam, some of the best Russian snipers were women. But for the most part, there is no reason to kill civilians, and none whatsoever to kill babies and small children.

    What I'm trying to understand is that sometimes war distorts reality so much that people behave in ways they'd never have considered before, or after.
    And people who, in their earlier lives would never be described as bad people, in war, can do unspeakably evil things.

    To sum up: Shit happens.
    Punishment should be swift.
    After sixty years, it's not possible for any trial to see the truth.
    Let him go. If there's a god, he'll be judged soon enough.

  10. You said it all, and very well. I agree with you. Thinking of Calley makes me very angry.

  11. I grew up in Ohio. I recall The arrest of Demnanjuk. My memories may fail me ( I was young), but I think the original arrest was suspect at best. It was doubtful that he was who they said he was at the time.

    Now, I work in Huntsville Alabama. That's where the US government set up VonBraun. Yes, I believe him far more culpable in war crimes than a guard, a suspected guard at that.

    You seem, to me, to be right on the mark here(pardon the pun?). Demanjuk is a scapegoat in all this. He was going down for something at that initial arrest...even if they had to make something up !

  12. I vaguely remember the original arrest, it was when the Israelis claimed to have identified him, without a doubt as being Ivan.

    Then when they decided he definitely wasn't Ivan, the U.S. authorities decided he was probably guilty of something or other, and decided he had lied on his immigration papers. Can't be seen to be harbouring a possible war-criminal, well, not one who's not a valued scientist anyway.

  13. Werner von Braun was instrumental in developing the V2 rockets that rained down on Britain.
    He used slave labor in developing these weapons. Von Braun claims no knowledge of the atrocities that occurred in the death camps. However, victims claim otherwise.

    But, you're right. Saving VonBraun from prosecution was a political decision by the US government. Had they not plucked him out of the jaws of justice, the US would surely not have fared so well in the Arms Race. NASA owes everything to the mind of a Waffen SS Major.

    I'm reminded of a Voltaire quote here:

    All murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.

  14. Good ol' Voltaire...I'm reading a book of his at the moment, translated to english by Tobias Smollett... It's pretty dry reading actually. But maybe I'll learn something.

    Von Braun was, say former prisoners, definitely aware that his rockets were built by expendable slave-labour. He and his wife were present just after an execution, and walked between the hanging bodies.
    But hey, he had something useful to trade.
    His SS status was pretty nominal, honorary, I suppose. but he was definitely a Nazi, and responsible for weapons of mass destruction.
    Mind you, our own Barnes Wallace, who developed the bouncing boms used to burst the Mohne and Eider dams, and the 1,000lb blockbuster bombs, had we lost the war, would without a doubt be called a war criminal by germany. Mind you, our factory workers were't imprisoned and starved.


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