Germany criticised for Nazi trial double standards

In putting Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk on trial, Germany has laid itself open to accusations of double standards over pursuing perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Germany criticised for Nazi trial double standards
Photo: DPA

Demjanjuk’s lawyer Ulrich Busch argues that the case is a farce because German SS members at the Sobibor death camp, where he is accused of being a guard, were acquitted in earlier trials.

“How can it be that those who gave the orders can have been found innocent?” Demjanjuk’s lawyer asked a packed Munich courtroom on Monday on the first day of what is likely to be the last major Holocaust trial.

Demjanjuk, 89, was born in Ukraine and was one of 5.5 million Red Army soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans in 1942 as they swept eastwards before the tide turned and the Soviets began rolling back towards Berlin.

More than three million Soviet prisoners of war like Demjanjuk are believed to have died in captivity, either murdered by the Germans or from cold and hunger – but Demjanjuk was allegedly offered a way out.

While a prisoner, prosecutors say, he was recruited to work as a guard in one of the network of camps set up by the Nazis with the sole purpose of liquidating as many Jews and other enemies of the regime as possible.

He allegedly passed through the Trawniki training camp on his way to Sobibor, a camp in occupied Poland where a quarter of a million men, women and children from all over Europe perished in the gas chambers.

Deported from the United States in May, he is charged with assisting in the murder of 27,900 victims, the number of people on some 15 transports estimated to have died at Sobibor during Demjanjuk’s service at the camp in 1943.

Some experts say that Demjanjuk’s defence team may have a point.

“It is problematic that German guards at Sobibor were acquitted at the Hagen trials in the 1960s, whereas a foreigner who was forced to obey orders or die of hunger could be convicted,” said historian Hans-Jürgen Bömelburg.

But Stefan Schünemann, a lawyer representing some of the 30 or so survivors from Sobibor and other camps who are acting as co-plaintiffs or witnesses in Demjanjuk’s trial, said this no reason to let him off.

“If the German justice system made mistakes in the past, it is right that we should try and rectify them,” Schünemann said.

What is happening is a change of approach by Germany through attempts to bring to justice some of the many non-Germans who helped them murder six million Jews in the Holocaust, experts say.

“This is the first time that a foreigner trained at Trawniki … has been tried in Germany,” said historian Annette Weinke from Jena University. “There has not been a systematic enquiry into foreign collaborators.”

The reason for the change of heart is a new political will, Weinke said.

Siegfried Kauder, chairman of the German parliament’s legal affairs committee, said the German legal system “had no reason to reproach itself” but he admitted that Germany had been slow to bring non-Germans to trial.

“It is a political decision to decide whether someone who is not German should be tried in Germany,” Kauder said.

He added that former foreign minister Joschka Fischer, for example, on one occasion turned down a request from the United States for a war crimes trial to be held in Germany.

“I am happy that in this case we have decided differently,” he said.

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German man jailed for killing petrol station worker in mask row

A 50-year-old German man was jailed for life Tuesday for shooting dead a petrol station cashier because he was angry about being told to wear a mask while buying beer.

German man jailed for killing petrol station worker in mask row

The September 2021 murder in the western town of Idar-Oberstein shocked Germany, which saw a vocal anti-mask and anti-vaccine movement emerge in response to the government’s coronavirus restrictions.

The row started when 20-year-old student worker Alex W. asked the man to put on a mask inside the shop, as required in all German stores at the time.

After a brief argument, the man left.

The perpetrator – identified only as Mario N. – returned about an hour and a half later, this time wearing a mask. But as he bought his six-pack of beer to the till, he took off his mask and another argument ensued.

He then pulled out a revolver and shot the cashier in the head point-blank.

On Tuesday, the district court in Bad-Kreuznach convicted Mario N. of murder and unlawful possession of a firearm, and handed him a life sentence.

READ ALSO: Shock in Germany after cashier shot dead in Covid mask row

Under German law, people given a life sentence can usually seek parole after 15 years. His defence team had sought a sentence of manslaughter, rather than murder.

At the start of the trial, prosecutor Nicole Frohn told how Mario N. had felt increasingly angry about the measures imposed to curb the pandemic, seeing them as an infringement on his rights.

“Since he knew he couldn’t reach the politicians responsible, he decided to kill him (Alex W.),” she said.

Mario N. turned himself in to police the day after the shooting.

German has relaxed most of its coronavirus rules, although masks are still required in some settings, such as public transport.