Demjanjuk Trial / Why Liberal Legal Systems Can't Try Nazis

In Israel, adhering to legal game's rules was more important than punishing the alleged death camp guard.

The Demjanjuk trial in Jerusalem showed Israelis what the Germans found out years before: The rules of the game in the liberal legal system are not suitable for bringing Nazis and their accomplices to justice.

If Israel had decided to try Demjanjuk for his part in the crimes at the Sobibor death camp, he may very well have ended his life hanging from a noose or in prison.

But his trial in Israel was a retelling of the horrific events of the Holocaust by the last of the survivors. Only a few people survived Sobibor, and it was not possible to base his prosecution on their testimony.

In contrast, the prosecution did have a number of survivors from Treblinka, and therefore the focus was on the story of that camp, although the main document the prosecution had connected Demjanjuk to Sobibor.

The outcome is known: In the end, the prosecutor, Michael Shaked, traveled to the Soviet Union and discovered documents that ostensibly strengthened the case in Demjanjuk's defense.

These documents were submitted to the court and Demjanjuk was acquitted on reasonable doubt. It is almost certain that he is in fact not "Ivan the Terrible," who operated the gas chambers at Treblinka, but he may have been one of the guards at the Sobibor death camp.

Either way, a number of his judges, among them two former presidents of the Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar and Aharon Barak, were left with the feeling that Demjanjuk was a criminal who had escaped punishment thanks to the exigencies of a fair justice system. Looking back, it may be said that the price was worthwhile: Keeping the rules of the legal game was more important than punishing Demjanjuk.

The Germans are trying Demjanjuk for his part in the crimes at Sobibor, but before they can convict him, they, too, will have to overcome a number of legal problems. The heritage of the Holocaust does not need this trial. The destruction of the Jews is planted deep in humanity's consciousness.

Nevertheless, this trial is important because anti-Semitism and other manifestations of racism are still not gone from this world.

Moreover, World War II did not put an end to war crimes, including genocide. These have returned repeatedly, in Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans and elsewhere.

From that perspective it cannot be said that humanity has sufficiently internalized the humanistic lessons of the Holocaust: the obligation to defend democracy and human rights, to fight racism in all its forms and remind all soldiers of their obligation to refuse a patently illegal order.

These lessons were not central to the Demjanjuk trial in Israel, and from that point of view, the trial missed an important opportunity.

If the Munich trial does stress these lessons - its importance may go beyond the bounds of the Holocaust and make a powerful contribution to the international fight against other war crimes.