John Demjanjuk case: Germany's surreal war crimes trial

John Demjanjuk arrives on a stretcher at the court building in Munich, Germany, 11 May 2011
Image caption John Demjanjuk's emotions are difficult to assess beneath his dark glasses and baseball cap

Witnessing the trial of John Demjanjuk is truly a surreal experience.

There the man lies, slumped in his wheel-chair in the corner of the court, his head back on a foam pillow with his face pointing at the ceiling.

It is a face which gives nothing away. He wears dark glasses and a baseball cap which mask whatever twitch of emotion there may be.

When there is a break, he is pushed down the corridor, presumably to the toilet. But lunch comes on a tray to the court. He eats there when everybody else heads for the canteen.

Everybody else being usually the families of those who were murdered at the camp where Mr Demjanjuk is alleged to have been a guard.

They crowd the other end of the small room, bare of ornament apart from a plain wooden cross above the line of seven judges who will decide on guilt or innocence.

This ritual of calm investigation is nearly at an end. The court, after about a hundred sessions of evidence, is about to reach a verdict.

Seven judges will decide if this sad and decrepit old man is the same person who, as a guard at the Sobibor death camp, was complicit in - or was an accessory to - the murder of around 27,000 people.

Incriminating card?

Image caption This ID card has become central to the case

The difficulty for the prosecutor trying to make the case is that there are no witnesses - Sobibor did not leave many witnesses.

What there is is an identification card, indicating that someone who looks very like a young John Demjanjuk and who bore that name was transferred to the camp. Not destined for the gas chambers, but as a Ukrainian prisoner-of-war, appointed by the SS as a camp guard.

But the document has come from the archives of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union and its "intelligence" arm, the KGB, was not known for straight dealing, particularly where black propaganda for the West might be involved.

And John Demjanjuk spent much of his middle years as a car worker in the United States, where the FBI expressed doubts about the authenticity of the ID card.

So a verdict of "guilty" is by no means certain.

More than a trial

That might not anger the people at the other end of the court as much as you might think.

Image caption The defendant lies with his head back on a foam pillow and his face pointing at the ceiling

The public benches are full of the relatives of those who died, and if you talk to them, they often do not express certainty that the man in the corner with the baseball hat is the man who herded their family members to their deaths.

For them, often, the important thing is that the trial has taken place. They feel that Sobibor and the sufferings of those murdered there need to be recognised. You detect that they think it is an under-reported horror story.

And that is what this trial is really about: putting memory straight; recognising what happened; giving truth its due.

This is important in Germany today. There is a view - often outside Germany - that the British in particular are obsessed by the war.

But Germans are too. There are two questions which they ask: firstly, how and why? And secondly, how did they react to it after the disaster?

Jobs for the Nazis?

Image caption For many in court, the most important thing is that the trial has taken place

There is another drama being played out in courts at the moment, albeit more slowly. The post-war files of Adolf Eichmann may reveal much about the attitude of the Federal Republic to its former Nazis.

The fraction of papers which have emerged from the vaults of the post-war German intelligence service indicate that it knew the whereabouts of the bureaucratic organiser of the Holocaust way before he was captured and tried in Israel.

Nazis, you see, sometimes got good jobs in post-war Germany and they were not overly zealous in the pursuit of their former comrades.

Or so the argument runs from the lawyers seeking the release of the Eichmann files.

The courts of Germany are the places where history is fought over, whether it be Eichmann or Demjanjuk.

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