Radio Freethinker

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Saturday Stub: A Controversial Post on Punishment

Posted by Ethan Clow on May 28, 2011

This week I have a contentious topic in mind. Recently, a German court heard the case of John Demjanjuk, a prison guard from the Nazi Extermination camp, Sobibor.

Sobibor, like other extermination camps were built by the Nazis in eastern Europe to enact the “final solution” to their Jewish problem. Of course anyone else who fit the description of being “wrong” in the eyes of the Nazis were murdered there as well, homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses…

Sobibor was built quickly in 1942, along with Belzec and Treblinka, these were the first of the Reinhard Camps, named after Reinhard Heydrich, who was assassinated by the Czech underground.

Sobibor wasn’t a huge camp, only around 1,312 by 1,969 feet, it was camouflaged in a swampy area and surrounded by a mine field.

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“After some experimentation, the camp authorities began regular gassing operations in May 1942. Trains of 40 to 60 freight cars arrived at the Sobibor railway station. Twenty cars at a time entered the reception area, where the camp guards ordered victims out of the trains and onto the platform. German SS and police officials announced that the deportees had arrived at a transit camp and were to hand over all valuables. The Germans ordered the Jews into the barracks and forced them to undress and run through the “tube,” which led directly into gas chambers deceptively labeled as showers. The women’s hair was shorn in a special barracks inside the “tube.” Once the gas chamber doors were sealed, in an adjacent room guards started an engine which piped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was repeated with the next freight cars.” – source

In 1943 around 600 prisoners at Sobibor staged an uprising that allowed 300 to escape. About 100 were recaptured and shot.

Demjanjuk was no stranger to courts about his past collaboration with the Nazis. He was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible” a sadistic guard from the Treblinka camp in 1977. He was stripped on his US citizenship and extradited to Israel facing execution. But in 1993, he was found innocent when it was revealed it was a case of mistaken identity. Demjanjuk returned to the U.S but was then accused of being a guard at Sobibor, he was once again stripped on his American citizenship and extradited to Germany for trial in 2009.

John Demjanjuk

So here’s where the controversy steps in, Demjanjuk is 91 years old. He has cancer. He’s going to die soon. What purpose does his trail serve? (Now that’s its already happened, did it serve a purpose?) What should his punishment be? His trial, which concluded last month, has called for 5 years in prison. His lawyers have appealed the ruling and in the meantime, the judge has let him go, citing his age and the fact that he’s no danger to society.  Proponents of his conviction are saying this is unfair, his victims never got this choice, why should he? Others are wondering if there’s much point in continuing this practice of convicting Holocaust collaborators since most of them are near death anyway.

Demjanjuk’s trial is continuing the trend which began in Nuremberg in 1945. War trials were, in the past (arguably the present) very dubious. Essentially the victors punish the defeated foe for their crimes while ignoring the harm the victors caused during the war. However, what set these trials apart was the Holocaust. No one had seen anything like it before and there was no precedent for it.

Some would argue that a symbolic conviction is all that’s needed (given his age) Sending him to jail at this point isn’t really required. But at least now there can be some closure to the situation. It’s a difficult question to answer.

What do you think?


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