Memorial at Sobibor Camp, from Wikipedia (Author: Jacques Lahitte)
According to the indictment, Demjanjuk was a former Red Army soldier captured in 1942 and who then served as a camp guard under the SS.
The absence of eyewitnesses, and the relatively thin evidence, mean the case is probably going to be a hard one for the prosecution to prove. Interestingly, Demjanjuk is possibly the lowliest person put on trial for Nazi war crimes.
Demjanjuk denies he was ever at Sobibor. But if the court doesn't believe him he will be hoping his alternative defence impresses the court. That defence is controversial to say the least. From the Guardian:
Demjanjuk's lawyer shocked the courtroom by claiming that his client was just as much a victim as those imprisoned in the camp. Gasps came from the public gallery when Ulrich Busch compared Demjanjuk's situation, as a Red Army soldier who was taken prisoner by the Germans, to the victims of Sobibor.
Busch listed camp guards more senior than Demjanjuk, some of them members of the SS, who had been tried in the 1970s for their roles at Sobibor, or at the guards' training camp, Trawniki, but who had either received minimal sentences or been exonerated of any wrongdoing.
How, Busch asked, was it possible that a "subordinate", who had been forced to work for the Nazis as a prisoner of war, was standing trial? "He is as much a victim as those people who were imprisoned in the camp but he is being treated as if he was a mass murderer," he said.If Demjanjuk was at Sobibor, does what he did, assuming it was done under orders, become justifiable? Daniel Finkelstein, a Jewish columnist for the Times, thinks not.
Finkelstein writes about the famous Stanford social experiment in the 1960s and 1970s, where ordinary people were tested to see how easily they could be made to behave in abominable ways towards others:
“In a naive moment some time ago, I once wondered whether in all of the United States a vicious government could find enough moral imbeciles to meet the personnel requirements of a national system of death camps of the sort that were maintained in Germany. I am now beginning to think that the full complement could be found in New Haven.”
A few days after beginning his famous obedience experiments at the end of the summer of 1961, Stanley Milgram wrote these words in a letter from his office in Yale University to his fellow social psychologist Henry Riecken.
He told Riecken how his subjects had proved willing to administer what they had every reason to think was a fatal electric shock to a complete stranger. They had kept turning the dial up, ignoring the victim’s screams (which they did not realise was just play-acting), just because a man in a white coat had told them to. The “torturers” were ordinary New Haven residents who had been told they were testing the impact of pain upon learning. A large proportion obeyed orders, even when they thought they might be killing someone. The results, Milgram wrote, were “terrifying and depressing”.That experiment was followed by a "prison" experiment, where people designated in the experiment as "guards" fell easily into the habit of displaying sadistic behaviour towards "inmates". Some people argue these experiments prove ordinary people will revert to cruelty if the situation seems to require it, for example if someone orders them to be cruel. This is due to a desire to conform. The Stanford experiments have been used in part to justify the behaviour of some of the camp guards at Abu Ghraib prison.
Finkelstein rejects this defence:
Does this idea — that decent human beings can behave in an evil way just to conform — justify the Demjanjuk defence? Of course it does not.And:
In any case, it seem inherently unlikely that the goodness of people’s basic nature is invariable. And countless studies of the links between behaviour and genes support this. Why would we be the only animal whose behaviour was not evolutionary and genetic?The Demjanjuk case is an interesting one. Not just because it appears to be unprecedented for someone so relatively "low level" to be tried, but because of the moral dilemma the case potentially poses. Should you be held responsible for doing beastly things if you do it to save your own skin?*
Yet this makes the problem of the Demjanjuk defence worse rather than better. People have even less control over their personality than over their situation, after all.
Which leaves us with this. Whatever their nature or their circumstances, human beings retain a moral choice. The ability to judge people by the choices they make is the cornerstone of civilisation. The very basis of human co-operation is our insistence that others behave to us as we would to them. The progress of mankind involves ensuring that this standard is continually raised.
The ability, therefore, to distinguish between perpetrator and victim is one of the most fundamental abilities of all. Without it there can be no such thing as society.
* Of course, he may well have been a quite willing participant in mass murder. The trial may reveal to what extent he was coerced, if he was at all.