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You may have heard of a fellow named Ivan or John Demjanuik. He made the news–repeatedly over a 30 year period– because he was, as many people probably remember, a Nazi war criminal nick-named “Ivan the Terrible” for his brutal treatment of Jews (and others) in the Sobibor death camp. The trouble is, as Richard Rashke points out in his new book Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America’s Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals (Delphinium, 2013), Demjanuik was not a Nazi, was not “Ivan the Terrible,” and, though he was certainly a guard at Sobibor, it’s not entirely clear what he did (though it was likely very bad). Again and again he was brought to trial for his alleged crimes. Again and again the courts failed to agree on what he had done. Demjaniuk was and remains something of a mystery, a vital mystery that we badly want to solve but cannot. After all, we need to know who is a war criminal and who is not.
What’s most interesting about Demjaniuk–at least to this reader–is the moral complexity of his story. As Rashke shows, he was repeatedly compelled to make life and death choices as he tried to stay survive in Stalinist Russia, in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, and even after the war. He had options, but they were almost always bad ones, and often deadly ones. He was a “collaborator” to be sure. But, Rashke asks, what exactly is a “collaborator”? Could he have chosen differently and hoped to survive? Could he have acted “morally” in the context within which he found himself? Rashke says “yes.” Listen in and find out why.
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