Germany Reopens Nazi War Criminal Investigations

In 1977, the family of retired autoworker John Demjanjuk was astounded when he was accused of having been a guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" at a Nazi death camp in World War II. His case was considered the last of the Nazi war crimes trials, but this week, prosecutors in Germany said they were reopening hundreds of investigations. Host Audie Cornish talks with historian Deborah Lipstadt about how that might play out.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: In 1977, the family of John Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker in Ohio, was astounded when he was accused of having been a guard, known as Ivan the Terrible, at a Nazi death camp in World War II. Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel to stand trial for war crimes, and so began a saga of legal battles that has lasted more than 30 years. The Demjanjuk conviction in Israel was overturned. He was later tried in Germany on other charges, and now at 91 is free while awaiting an appeal. The Demjanjuk case was considered the last of the Nazi war crimes trials, but this past week prosecutors in Germany said they were reopening hundreds of investigations in a last-ditch effort to prosecute remaining war criminals from World War II. Joining us to discuss this is historian Deborah Lipstadt, author of "The Eichmann Trial" and "Denying the Holocaust." Deborah Lipstadt, welcome to the program.

DEBORAH LIPSTADT: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: What's the central factor about the Demjanjuk case that has prosecutors thinking they can reopen more like it?

LIPSTADT: Well, Germany has made a decision to be willing to prosecute Nazi guards, even if they don't have specific information that on Tuesday, May 24, 1943, John Demjanjuk shot a specific Jacob Fishman from Lviv. Before, they limited themselves to having to find specific information, which of course meant that most of the guards - people we knew clearly, according to multitudes of sources and records, participated in the killing process - couldn't be prosecuted because we didn't have the specific information. And now, Germany has decided to reinterpret the way it looks at the law.

CORNISH: Now, prosecutors say they're reexamining hundreds of cases. And do we have a sense of how many people are still alive and would fit the bill and even be able to stand the trial?

LIPSTADT: The number that I've heard is a couple of dozen at the most that will. But these were the guards who were at the pure death camps - places like Sobibor, places like Treblinka, Belzec, where the only thing done there - unlike an Auschwitz, where there was both work and death - was just the killing factories.

CORNISH: Are there many people left who can serve as witnesses or help the investigation in other ways?

LIPSTADT: Not very many. And, you know, it's hard for someone who today would be in their 80s or 90s themselves to look at someone who's 90 and say I know that person was there. But what we do have, we have identity cards. Some of these identity cards come with fingerprints. And people who acknowledge that they were guards but said I never killed anyone. But the Germans are now saying you were part of the killing process, and that's how they convicted Demjanjuk.

CORNISH: It's taken more than 30 years to bring Demjanjuk to justice. I mean, he was tried in two countries, the conviction being overturned in Israel, waiting appeal in Germany. He's 91 and reportedly sick, so is this worth it at this point?

LIPSTADT: You know, worth it - it all depends on how you see justice. I don't see this as a matter of retribution. This is not going to give any survivor who's alive, or children of survivors, any sense of closure. I think people often say, oh, if we get a guilty verdict, we'll have closure. There's no closure. But I think it's a matter of justice, that you don't walk off scot-free. And amongst the victims at these death camps and many other places as well were old people of 91, 92, 93 and infants, little babies. They wanted to get rid of the old. They wanted to get rid of the young. There was no mercy for those people and it seems strange to suddenly now say I'm old and what harm, just let me live out my life. What they decide to do in terms of a sentence, that's a different thing.

CORNISH: One thing I do want to note, the defense attorney for Demjanjuk, he has often made the argument that his client is effectively a stand-in and a kind of scapegoat. That he essentially stood by and did nothing and participated, but that a great many Germans at that time did the same thing. And I guess I'm wondering what you feel about that assessment.

LIPSTADT: You know, yeah. On some level, the defense attorney may be right - Demjanjuk is in a way a stand-in. There were many other guards over the past 30 years who could have been brought to justice. And Demjanjuk was pursued because they had the facts, they had the documents. Sometimes people, in talking about genocide, think that if we just get the people who were at the very top who gave the orders, then everything else is all right. But I think if you go all the way down the levels, if there had been some individual, groups of individuals, who said, no, we won't do this, things would have been very different for victims of the Holocaust. To conduct a genocide, takes a lot of people, and I think those people have to be responsible and brought to justice.

CORNISH: Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LIPSTADT: Thank you, Audie.

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