Coincidentally, just as I am completing watching the Netflix documentary “The Devil Next Door,” another former Nazi prison guard has begun trial on charges that he was an accessory to 5,230 murders at a German concentration camp in Poland during World War II. “The Devil Next Door” engrossingly tells the strange story of a Ukrainian immigrant named John Demjanjuk who appeared to be a model U.S. citizen, respected neighbor and beloved husband and father in Cleveland before the U.S. decided he was really a former Nazi camp guard nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” for his sadism and brutality at the Treblinka Nazi death camp in Poland. Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and tried in Israel from 1986 to 1988 for crimes against humanity. A three judge panel convicted Demjanjuk and sentenced him to hang after a dramatic (and troubling) trial, but the former Ford auto-worker died while his appeal was pending. Under the doctrine of abatement ab initio, he is still presumed innocent.
As I have written here before, I have many ethical problems with the concept of war crime trials, but “Ivan the Terrible” certainly tests them. Whether or not Demjanjuk was Ivan, the Treblinka gas chamber operator was a monster even by SS standards, torturing the camp’s Jewish victims before their extermination. In the United States, I cannot imagine that that Demjanjuk would have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt: the evidence was compromised, the eye-witnesses often contradicted themselves and appeared confused (“Some were liars, some were senile, and some were liars and senile” is how Demjanjuk’s Israeli lawyer puts it on camera). The most damaging testimony against Demjanjuk was his own, and in the U.S. he never would have been allowed to testify.
Was he “Ivan”? All one can say is “probably.” The case was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, not even close to it.
At the time, it was widely believed that Demjanjuk’s would be the last Nazi war crimes trial, but now Bruno Dey, 93, a prison guard in the Stutthof camp near what’s now Gdansk, Poland, is being tried in Hamburg, Germany.
Unlike Demjanjuk, whose defense was that he was never a death camp guard, Dey admits that he saw Jews taken into gas chambers at the camp, heard their screams and heard the rattling of locked steel doors, and “didn’t see anyone come out.” At the same time, he claims that he didn’t understand what was going on. Here is the ethics fly in the ointment for Dey: he is being tried as a juvenile because he was 18 when he began work at the camp. In Germany, the age of majority is 21.
Should a teenager forced to assist in the death camps’ murders be tried and punished after all these years? In Bruno Dey’s case, my objections to war crime trials are alive and well. So is my conviction that there has to be accountability when terrible wrongs have occurred. My most recent combination of the two macro-ethics issues was here, when I wrote,
In 1865, the end of the Civil War brought shocking photographs of barely living Northern prisoners of war in the Confederacy’s Andersonville, Georgia, prison. The images were beyond horrible, nightmare pictures of living skeletons, and the subsequent accounts of the abuse and neglect the men suffered made many readers physically ill. Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, the man left in charge of running the prison, was tried by a military tribunal in the first official war crimes trial, found guilty, and hanged. He was a convenient villain, a German immigrant with a thick accent, an unimaginative functionary who followed orders in an impossible situation. Everyone on the tribunal, in all likelihood, knew that Wirz could have no more prevented his charges from starving than he could flap his arms and fly; indeed, they knew that conditions at Northern prison camps were equally inhuman for the Confederate prisoners warehoused there. They also knew that had they been in Wirz’s place, they probably would have acted no differently than he did. It didn’t matter, certainly not to the public screaming for “justice.” The photographs showed that there had been an intolerable and obscene crime against humanity, and somebody had to pay. Somebody had to hang, in fact, and unfortunately for Henry Wirz, it was him.
The ethics conflict between accountability and fairness is one of the most difficult there is. It is dangerous to society’s values to allow responsibility for a massive disaster and human tragedy to be diffused through so many actors and agents that in the eyes of history, no one is held accountable. Yet in situations where the responsibility really is complex and diffuse, a collision of bad management, human error and chance, representing it to be otherwise is unfair and unjust to the designated villains. Admiral Kimmel wasn’t responsible for Pearl Harbor. Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski wasn’t to blame for Abu Ghraib. Henry Wirz didn’t cause the prisoner abuse at Andersonville. The Nuremberg defendants couldn’t have stopped the Holocaust, and George W. Bush wasn’t the reason for the housing meltdown in 2008. Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine weren’t the cause of the BP oil rig explosion and spill, either.
But somebody’s got to go to jail.
OK, but many Nazis have been tried and executed for their role in the Holocaust. Is it really necessary, or fair, to extend accountability to teenagers like Bey, who, to be realistic, didn’t have any autonomy or power in the matter? This seems like gratuitous vengeance to me.
Let’s poll it: