‘He was a part of the team at the Sobibor’

The likely trial of Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk may be one of the last times anyone is prosecuted for crimes committed during World War II.

'He was a part of the team at the Sobibor'
Demjanjuk's Nazi ID card. Photo: DPA

Demjanjuk’s extradition to Germany this week has sparked a new debate about whether the country has done enough to come to terms with and make restitution for its past. The Local spoke with Prof. Helgard Kramer, a specialist in cultural sociology and historical anthropology at Berlin’s Free University.

Hasn’t Germany come to terms with its past?

The confrontation with the country’s past picked up steam with the trial of [SS architect of the Holocaust Adolf] Eichmann in Jerusalem and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1963. Every generation has then had a new and different debate about it, like when Schindler’s List came out or [Daniel] Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Or even with the Wehrmacht exhibition about the crimes of the normal army. Right after the war there was silence but that changed in the 1960s and we’ve made good progress. In the 1980s, for example, a lot of memorials began cropping up.

Is this the right way to work through it?

It’s a past for which you can never get closure. And that isn’t even something to work toward. It’s a very difficult thing. It is one thing to learn about the Holocaust but it’s entirely different when it becomes personal. It’s hard to rectify your feelings for your grandparents and what you’ve learned about National Socialism and what some of them may have done. You always idealise your own family. The people who migrate here have a different view of the past but their children – the second and third generations – end up taking on the guilt as well.

What about Demjanjuk’s defence that he was forced to become a guard for the Nazis? It sounds almost plausible.

It’s been confirmed that he was a part of the team at the Sobibor [death camp]. In order for someone to be tried for murder in Germany you have to connect them to at least one death. The Nazis were very diligent record keepers and they can prove who died there while he worked there. The eyewitnesses don’t remember him but they have said that the Travniki guards there were very anti-Semitic and often used an extra dollop of sadism. Also he never took any opportunity to get away from the camp like some of his colleagues, albeit at a certain risk. If he never talks you’ll never be able to prove he was one of the more sadistic ones but he was there and he didn’t try to get away.

Even if they find other potential war criminals, they’re all getting very old. Will they be able to stand trial?

At their age it’s hard to say if they’ll be able to stand trial. The health of these criminals has a long history. So many cases in the ‘60s and ‘70s failed because they were able to get friendly doctors to testify that they were unfit for trial. These doctors were sometimes former Nazi doctors but their testimony was hard to contest. They would coach the criminals on how to feign various illnesses.

What else should Germany be doing to deal with this chapter of its history?

We have to ensure that the memories and confrontation take other forms. The conflict has to remain alive. There are a number of good initiatives. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin turned out very well and the cobblestone project here in Berlin [that places brass cobblestones with victims’ names in front of their former houses] is also a good thing.

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Driver in Bavaria gets €5,000 fine for giving the finger to speed camera

A driver in Passau has been hit with a €5,000 fine because he was caught by traffic police giving the middle finger.

Driver in Bavaria gets €5,000 fine for giving the finger to speed camera

The district court of Passau sentenced the 53-year-old motorist to the fine after he was caught making the rude gesture in the direction of the speedometer last August on the A3 near the Donautal Ost service area, reported German media. 

The man was not caught speeding, however. According to traffic police who were in the speed camera vehicle at the time, another driver who had overtaken the 53-year-old was over the speed limit. 

When analysing the photo, the officers discovered the slower driver’s middle finger gesture and filed a criminal complaint.

The driver initially filed an objection against a penalty order, and the case dragged on for several months. However, he then accepted the complaint. He was sentenced to 50 ‘unit fines’ of €100 on two counts of insulting behaviour, amounting to €5,000.

READ ALSO: The German rules of the road that are hard to get your head around

In a letter to police, the man said he regretted the incident and apologised. 

Police said it was “not a petty offence”, and that the sentence could have been “even more drastic”.

People who give insults while driving can face a prison sentences of up to a year.

“Depending on the nature and manner of the incident or in the case of persons with a previous conviction, even a custodial sentence without parole may be considered for an insult,” police in Passau said. 

What does the law say?

Showing the middle finger to another road user in road traffic is an offence in Germany under Section 185 of the Criminal Code (StGB). It’s punishable by a prison sentence of up to one year or a fine.

People can file a complaint if someone shows them the middle finger in road traffic, but it usually only has a chance of success if witnesses can prove that it happened.

As well as the middle finger, it can also be an offence to verbally insult someone. 

READ ALSO: The German road signs that confuse foreigners