The Rambling American: Improvising Justice

Three men in their late 80s are on trial in Germany for war crimes committed 64 years ago. Locke McKenzie confronts the logic and purpose behind these trials.

When you look at the picture that appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday, August 12, it’s hard to believe that the cowering 90-year-old German could have done something terrible enough to receive life imprisonment. But he did. On June 27, 1944, Josef Scheungraber ordered ten innocent Italian farmers to be locked in a church and burned.

For that, the Munich Regional Court has finally delivered Scheungraber his sentence. 64 years after the act, those ten dead farmers finally found justice.

Or did they?

Scheungraber’s sentence is just one of three cases dealing with Nazi war crimes that the German Courts are currently processing. Heinrich Boere, 88, will be tried at the end of October for supposedly shooting three Dutch civilians, and John Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old recently deported from the U.S., will face charges for aiding in the extermination of some 27,900 Jews in the Polish Concentration Camp Sobibor.

All three of these men will almost certainly be convicted for the atrocities they committed. If they did the things they have been charged with, then they certainly deserve to be, but I can’t help but wonder if these proceedings are going about things the wrong way.

The idea here is to find justice, correct? Certainly, Germany hasn’t put these men on trial in order to keep them from striking again.

Demjanjuk, who is ailing under kidney and bone-marrow diseases, was so ill at the time of deportation that the U.S. government had trouble getting permission to transport him. The even older (though already sentenced) Josef Scheungraber will remain undetained until they hear his appeal next year, if he is still alive.

For some, this is about hearing the truth about these men’s actions. For others, the proceedings are about judgment and punishment. But from what I have learned about these three cases, I don’t see how either of these goals are being met.

As Thomas Blatt, a Jewish author who was imprisoned in the Sobibor Concentration Camp, said, “I don’t care if [Demjanjuk] is released; I do care about his testimony.”

This argument reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings that occurred South Africa in the 1990s. In order to put the country back together after Apartheid, the government wanted to start with a clean slate. Putting everyone in jail was not going to solve this problem. Instead, they founded a committee.

The idea was that through repentance one finds truth and justice.

This is how I understand Blatt’s explanation of Nazi trials today. More than half a century after the fact, sentencing a 90-year-old man to life imprisonment doesn’t really accomplish anything. What’s important is admitting one’s crimes. It’s about showing respect to the victims and finding peace for one’s self.

This hasn’t happened. Scheungraber stated that he had “absolutely no knowledge” of the events described. Demjanjuk’s words were similar.

This is, admittedly, a terrible disappointment for the victims, but the implications of their denials are much wider than their lack of piety.

“There are many people right now who say the Holocaust never happened,” says Blatt.

To all those people who claim the Holocaust never existed, these men’s testimonies should have also proved that it did. By refusing to admit to their actions, Scheungraber and his compatriots have in a larger sense denied the Holocaust itself.

The second principle behind these war crime hearings is the notion that these men need to be judged and punished for their actions. Men like Demjanjuk may have assisted in the murder of thousands of innocent people. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung states, “All Nazi criminals must answer for their deeds.”

I have no problem with this statement. Granted, incarceration doesn’t seem like the most logical penalty 64 years after the crime, but if this is the punishment we find most appropriate, then sure, that’s fine. Everyone needs closure somehow. But the way these judgments are being carried out is all wrong.

If there is one thing we cherish in the U.S. in the legal system, it is the idea that every man deserves to be judged by a “jury of his peers.” These peers theoretically live in the same time, place, and culture under which a crime was committed. This means that those people can stand bravely in front of a criminal and say, “If I were in your shoes, I would/would not have done that.”

In this way, they have a right to judge.

As my housemate recently said to me, we live in a different time and different circumstances than those under which these men acted. Having never experienced the extremes of war, we both decided we did not have the right to say, “I would never have done that.”

Take Solomon Perel for example. Perel is a Jew who was captured by Nazis during the Second World War. His memoir, Ich war Hitlerjunge Salomon (I Was Hitler Youth Salomon), details his survival. Discovered by the Nazis, Perel denied his Jewish roots and went to a Hitler Youth School in Braunschweig. During his time there, he translated work from Russian to German, befriended Nazis (he even had a Nazi girlfriend), and aided in the capture of Joseph Stalin’s son. He maintained his charade until the Nazis were overtaken.

It was war. This was about survival. He wrote that he was ashamed of himself, but he had no choice if he wanted to live. Now he makes tours around Europe speaking about his experiences.

Many of those, including Demjanjuk, who have gone on to be tried for war crimes had changed their identity and were leading relatively normal lives. They had neighbors, families and jobs. Perhaps this means that – in a normal time in a normal world — they were actually normal people, just like you and me.

Just like Solomon Perel, it could have been the war that made them behave differently.

The idea that these men’s condemnation is coming from people born some twenty years after the war’s end doesn’t seem like true justice. It’s symbolic justice, but not much more than that.

I understand that a lot of people may disagree with me on this issue. It’s not hard to imagine why. The things that happened under the Nazi regime are not really to be defended. They are to be punished. End of story.

But these men were not high-ranking officials. They were not decision-makers, thinking up new strategies for mass-extermination and world domination. Their greatest sin was most likely getting caught up in something unimaginable in today’s world.

I simply ask that we think a little harder about what we are doing.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.