THE RIGHT WRONG MAN by Lawrence Douglas


John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial
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Nailing a Nazi-era “faceless facilitator of murder.”

Legal scholar and author Douglas (Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought/Amherst Coll., The Vices, 2011, etc.) conveys the important precedent in the conviction of John (Ivan) Demjanjuk by the Munich court in May 2011, after being acquitted 16 years before by a Jerusalem court for mistaken identity as “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka. By that time, the courts had come a long way in recognizing the special nature of the crime of genocide as separate from conventional murder. In this finely wrought work, Douglas traces this crucial legal “self-correction.” After bouncing around several displaced persons camps in Germany following the war, Demjanjuk came to America in 1952, became a union “lifer” mechanic and machinist near Cleveland, Ohio, and an American citizen in 1958. Placed on a U.S. war criminals list in the mid-1970s, he was eventually denaturalized and deported to Israel as Ivan the Terrible for the first sensational trial dominated by many anguished survivors’ accounts. However, mistaking Demjanjuk for another guard underscored the unreliability of memory, and as the pool of survivors diminished over time, the rise of historians’ meticulous research took prominence at the next trial. The German prosecution was able to make several crucial breakthroughs about the defendant, who was taken as a POW in 1942 and pressed into the SS service as a guard at Sobibor and elsewhere. The prosecution argued that there were no grounds to the “question of duress” of SS guards suffering punishment if they refused their killing duties and that since Sobibor, in particular, was a “pure extermination facility,” the job of the guards was by definition as accessory to murder. While some of the legal subtleties might elude lay readers, Douglas ably delineates the legal evolution in atrocity cases.

An excellent legal-minded elucidation of the long trail toward the conviction of a notorious concentration camp guard. Pair with Richard Rashke’s Useful Enemies (2013).

Pub Date: Jan. 26th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-691-12570-1
Page count: 360pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2015


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