The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial

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The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial
By Lawrence Douglas
Princeton University Press, 2016
352 pp.

John Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian concentration camp guard who, after the war, made his way to Ohio. Thirty years later, he was discovered and prosecuted in the United States, Israel, and, ultimately, Germany. He died before he could appeal a five-year German prison sentence for the crime of “accessory to the murder of at least 28,060 Jews at the Sobibor death camp.” Behind this story lies a fraught web of issues that Douglas untangles with exceptional skill. These begin with the challenge posed to legal systems by the immensity of the Holocaust, a crime that no punishment could requite. Ideally, Douglas argues, atrocity trials should act as “didactic exercises.” Demjanjuk’s 1987 trial in Israel failed that test; his conviction was overturned because the Israeli prosecutors had wrongly identified him as a particularly monstrous figure from the Treblinka death camp. The book is a tour de force owing to Douglas’ piercing analysis of all the legal complexities: denationalization (which was the limited recourse the United States sought in Demjanjuk’s case), the impact of the Cold War on this and other trials, and, above all, the hopeless inadequacy of German law, which was partially redressed by the court’s innovations in prosecuting the Demjanjuk case.

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