The Germans are responsible for the industrial-scale mass murder of 6 million Jews. But the collusion of other European countries in the Holocaust has received surprisingly little attention until recently. The trial of John Demjanjuk is set to throw a spotlight on Hitler's foreign helpers.
He's been here before, in this country of perpetrators. He saw this country collapse. He was 25 at the time and his Christian name was Ivan, not John; not yet.
Ivan Demjanjuk served as a guard in Flossenbürg concentration camp until shortly before the end of World War II. He had been transferred there from the SS death camp in Sobibor in present-day Poland. He was Ukrainian, and he was a Travniki, one of the 5,000 men who helped Germany's Nazi regime commit the crime of the millennium -- the murder of all the Jews in Europe, the "Final Solution."
He was part of it, if only a very minor cog in the vast machinery of murder. Ivan Demjanjuk stayed in post-war Germany for seven years before he emigrated to the US in 1952 with his wife and daughter on board the General Haan. Once he arrived, he changed his name to John. His time as a supposed DP or "displaced person," as the Anglo-American victors called people made homeless by the war, was over.
DP Demjanjuk had lived in the southern German towns of Landshut and Regensburg where he worked for the US Army. He moved to Ulm, Ellwangen, Bad Reichenhall, and finally to Feldafing on Lake Starnberg. Feldafing belongs to the area covered by the Munich district court, which is why Demjanjuk has been sitting in Munich's Stadelheim prison since he was deported from the US last week. His cell measures 24 square meters, which is extraordinarily spacious by usual prison standards.
He faces charges of aiding and abetting the murder of at least 29,000 Jews in Sobibor. The trial could start in late summer, provided Demjanjuk, now almost 90, is deemed fit to stand trial. Witnesses will be called to testify, but none of them will be able to identify him. The only evidence lies in the files, but that evidence is strong. Twice, in 1949 and 1979, former Travniki Ignat Danilchenko, who is now dead, stated that Demjanjuk had been an "experienced and efficient guard" who had driven Jews into the gas chambers -- "that was daily work."
Demjanjuk has denied this charge throughout. He says he was never in Flossenbürg or in Sobibor, never pushed people into the gas chambers. The ex-American has adopted the same tactic of denial as many other defendants who stood trial for war crimes after 1945.
But it's already clear that this last big Nazi trial in Germany will be a deeply extraordinary one because it will for the first time put the foreign perpetrators in the spotlight of world publicity. They are men who have until now received surprisingly little attention -- Ukrainian gendarmes and Latvian auxiliary police, Romanian soldiers or Hungarian railway workers. Polish farmers, Dutch land registry officials, French mayors, Norwegian ministers, Italian soldiers -- they all took part in Germany's Holocaust.
Experts such as Dieter Pohl of the German Institute for Contemporary History estimate that more than 200,000 non-Germans -- about as many as Germans and Austrians -- "prepared, carried out and assisted in acts of murder." And often they were every bit as cold-blooded as Hitler's henchmen.