John Demjanjuk, Sobibor Nazi - AFP - 12.5.11
John Demjanjuk arriving at the courtroom on May 11, 2011 in Munich, the day before he was convicted of helping to murder 27,900 Jews and others while he guarded the Sobibor Nazi death camp. Photo by AFP
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There’s something grotesque about sentencing a 91-year-old man like John Demjanjuk to a life sentence, but at least a life sentence would have served to highlight the moral and educational value of his conviction.

Instead, Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. That’s even more grotesque, because a simple calculation shows that he will serve exactly one hour and 31 minutes for his part in the murder of each of the 28,060 Sobibor prisoners.

The sentence issued by the Munich court is the latest in a long and disgraceful line of non-punishments meted out to war criminals in Germany. Since the end of World War II, no more than 6,500 Nazi war criminals have been convicted there, only a few of them for their roles in murdering Jews. Most of them were given relatively short sentences, and many of them didn’t even serve out those.

Thus, the German judicial system doesn’t deserve high praise for seeing justice done, in contrast to Israel’s Supreme Court, which was widely praised for acquitting Demjanjuk of being “Ivan the Terrible” based on the existance of a reasonable doubt.

But the Munich court’s decision did seemingly justify what former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak said years after he helped acquit Demjanjuk: “If Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, then he was Ivan the not-so-terrible. He was there, he participated in the destruction.”

The court in Munich also determined that it was authorized to try Demjanjuk, even though neither he nor his victims were German citizens. There is universal importance to this decision, which is similar to the Israeli determination that it had the right to try Adolf Eichmann, even though Israel did not exist during the Holocaust era.

These decisions demonstrate the potential deterrence value of these trials: Their role is to illustrate to every young person in uniform that in all places, and under all circumstances, there are patently illegal orders that must not be obeyed, as Israeli law also asserts.

All who are accessories to war crimes must know that someday they are likely to find themselves in court and be forced to account for their crimes. And this will be so, even in a new world, whose values are different than the ones they knew, even in a country that was never theirs, even after seven decades.

Thus, trying Demjanjuk was indeed justified, not despite his advanced age, but because of it.