Ivan Meets Pitchfork Pat


Soon after federal agents removed 89-year-old John Demjanjuk from his home in Cleveland, the conservative columnist Pat Buchanan got to work on yet another column detailing "The ordeal of this American Dreyfus." It's an old line, recycled from a 1993 Buchanan column triumphantly describing an Israeli court's decision to overturn a death sentence against the Ukraine-born Demjanjuk, who stood accused of complicity in the murder of 850,000 Jews. In 1986 Demjanjuk was convicted of crimes against humanity for his supposed role as a guard at the Treblinka extermination camp, where, his accusers claimed, he gleefully executed and tortured prisoners, earning him the sobriquet Ivan Grozny—Ivan the Terrible. But evidence soon materialized (some of it long withheld by American prosecutors) suggesting that Israel had the wrong man. Or, as it later turned out, the right man on the wrong charge.

An identity card provided to American investigators by the Soviet Union (listing Demjanjuk's identification number as 1393) placed Demjanjuk at an SS training facility in Trawniki, Poland, with stints at concentration camps in Sobibor, Poland, where approximately 250,000 Jews were liquidated, and Flossenburg, Germany. According to Buchanan, the card is a crude KGB forgery. But in the German Federal Archives in Koblenz, American investigators later found a series of documents disproving the "KGB frame up" theory and confirming that, while not a guard a Treblinka, Demjanjuk was indeed stationed at Sobibor and Flossenburg. The ID number on both Russian and German documents—1393—matched, though how the Soviets could have managed such an elaborate conspiracy isn't explained by Buchanan. (The Soviets also provided the Israeli Supreme Court with written statements from 61 statements former guards at Treblinka identifying "Ivan the Terrible" as a Ukrainian named Ivan Marchenko. There was, apparently, also KGB conspiracy afoot to vindicate Demjanjuk of the Treblinka charge.)

And there was plenty of other circumstantial evidence for which Demjanjuk couldn't account—and is simply ignored by Buchanan. For instance, on his entrance form to the United States, Demjanjuk claimed to have lived in Sobibor from 1937 to 1943. As the historian Gitta Sereny notes in her book The German Trauma—and as the judges and prosecutors also observed during his first trial—Sobibor was "little more than a railway halt in the forest [that] hardly appeared on pre-war Polish maps." It was, prosecutors observed, peculiar that Demjanjuk listed the unknown railway junction as his place of residence. When asked how he decided upon the town, Demjanjuk's said he picked it from a nearby map. He later testified that it was provided by a helpful bystander.

But Buchanan never mentions Demjanjuk's ever-shifting and farfetched time line of his wartime activities; a loose tissue of overlapping alibis an American judge called "so incredible as to legitimately raise the suspicions of his prosecutors that he lied about everything."

And while Buchanan chooses to ignore these contradictions and implausibilities, he instead relies upon dubious evidence provided by dubious sources. In 1990, when interviewed by Jacob Weisberg for The New Republic, Buchanan "declined…to name the source of the information" he used in his Demjanjuk columns. Weisberg speculated that it was "sent to him by pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic cranks," though he provided no specifics. In 1993, though, the Holocaust denier and Demjanjuk supporter Jerome Brentar, writing in the movement's house journal, the academic-sounding Journal of Historical Review, claimed it was his material that Buchanan had used in his columns:

One day I got a call from a Mr. Matt Balic of New Jersey. Like me, he is of Croatian background. He told me that he he'd like to introduce me to Pat Buchanan. Balic told me that I have an important story to tell, and asked if I'd like to appear [on the television program] "Crossfire." "Sure," I replied. So that's how I came to appear on "Crossfire." I got to know Buchanan very well, and from that time on I sent him much information that he used in writing articles in defense ofDemjanjuk. 

A Holocaust denier like Brentar was trusted to provide accurate information about the case, though Buchanan cites witness testimony provided by Holocaust survivors as unreliable—they often, he once wrote, display "group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics." There is, it should be said, something to the charge that survivor memory is often not a reliable source for prosecutors, as was demonstrated in the first trial, when witnesses gave wildly conflicting accounts of having seen Demjanjuk in Treblinka. But Buchanan is quick to cite survivor testimony when it buttresses his brief for the defendant. The few survivors of Sobibor located by investigators, Buchanan exclaims, couldn't identify Demjanjuk as a camp guard. (Had they, fifty years hence, managed to do so he would have doubtless scoffed at their "group fantasies.") According to Buchanan, "not one living person can place him at that camp and not even the German prosecutor will say that he ever hurt anyone." Only a handful of those delivered into the hands of the sadists at Sobibor survived the war.

So why retry Demjanjuk? Buchanan offers a theory: "He is to serve as the sacrificial lamb whose blood washes away the stain of Germany's sins." No guilty Germans were available, he writes, "Because the Germans voted an amnesty for themselves in 1969 (sic). So now they must find a Slav soldier" to extirpate the remaining guilt. This is a revealing sentence; one that demonstrates Buchanan's tenuous handle on the facts. As anyone who has followed postwar prosecutions of German war criminals should know, Germany never "voted an amnesty for themselves" on the issue of war crimes. Presumably Buchanan is referring to a 1968 modification of Article 50 of the German penal code which made the prosecution of Nazi war criminals more difficult, though it is much debated if the modification was introduced for this purpose (there is no mention of war crimes or National Socialism in the modified law).

What the revised article did, whether intentional or not, was provide shorter sentences for those involved in "lesser" war crimes and force prosecutors to prove that perpetrators acted out of a "base motivation" (i.e. anti-Semitism). This applied to the so-called schreibtischmörder (desk killers) and their accomplices, not those like former Wehrmacht officer Josef Scheungraber, a German currently being prosecuted in Munich for war crimes. Buchanan, the expert in the minutia of German law, might wish to inform Scheungraber that he is covered by an "amnesty" ruling of which his lawyers are unfamiliar.

One can reasonably debate the judiciousness of retrying a frail 89-year-old man previously acquitted by an Israeli court (though, again, it is worth pointing out that this hardly counts as double jeopardy, as the new charges are for a different crime). Indeed, as Gitta Sereny wrote in her brilliant summation of the first trial, the Israelis "finally agreed [to prosecute Demjanjuk], subject to three conditions: the accused had to be healthy and reasonably young, indictable for murder, and credible witnesses had to be available." There is much to be said for this position. But one cannot present a man who served in the SS and can be credibly placed at the Sobibor death camp as "America's Dreyfus."