Demjanjuk, The Devil Next Door, and Sobibór as Afterthought

Claire E. Aubin is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on Holocaust perpetration, post-Holocaust/WWII displacement, and immigration to the United States in the immediate post-war period.

At the end of the final episode of the five-part Netflix documentary series The Devil Next Door (2019), John Demjanjuk’s grandson tells interviewers that “whatever he did, wherever he was, is insignificant to me.” This underlying indifference to the truth pervades a series marked by sensationalist storytelling at the expense of accuracy.

As a historian of Holocaust, who studies the broader concept of perpetration and, more specifically, perpetrators as immigrants to the United States, The Devil Next Door theoretically represents what should be a perfect nexus of my scholarly interests. Instead, the show neither accurately tells the story of Holocaust perpetration in general nor that of Demjanjuk as an individual. What could have been an opportunity to explore the moral and cultural implications of Demjanjuk’s actual life experiences and participation in the commission of the Holocaust in depth, is instead a dramatic courtroom documentary that bolsters, rather than reimagines or clarifies, inaccurate perceptions of Holocaust perpetration and post-war justice.

Iwan “John” Demjanjuk was the first American citizen to be denaturalized – have his acquired US citizenship revoked – twice. Following each denaturalization, he was the subject of two very public international criminal trials. The first trial, held from 1986 to 1988 in Jerusalem focused on the accusation that Demjanjuk had been a particularly vicious guard at the Treblinka death camp. Known as “Ivan the Terrible,” the guard was famous for taking apparent joy in the commission of heinous acts such as cutting off the ears of slave labourers while they worked and torturing victims as they entered the gas chamber.

Much like the Eichmann trials, which brought the concept of late post-Holocaust justice to a worldwide audience, Demjanjuk was found guilty of all charges after a series of televised court proceedings. He was sentenced to death. The trial was watched and commented upon globally, inspiring tremendous emotional responses both within the courtroom and from viewers at home.

Following the opening of Soviet archives in the early 1990s, Demjanjuk was exonerated due to the discovery of German orders proving that, while his guard unit had been posted at a series of camps, they were not posted at Treblinka. In combination with a hotly contested identification card placing Demjanjuk at Sobibór, it was clear: rather than being “Ivan the Terrible”, he had instead been a fairly unremarkable guard at the Flossenbürg, Majdanek, and Sobibór camps. He returned to his home in Ohio, US in 1993, where he lived a relatively quiet life until 2009, when he was extradited to Germany to face new charges based on the Soviet evidence released nearly three decades earlier. Demjanjuk stood trial in Munich for two years. In 2011, he was again convicted, this time of 28,000 counts of accessory to murder at Sobibór. Demjanjuk died at a nursing home in Bad Feilnbach, Germany in 2012 without exhausting his appeals.

Guards lounging at Sobibór. The man in the center front row is believed to be a young John Demjanjuk.

Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum collection, gift of Bildungswerk Stanislaw-Hantz

Billed by Netflix as a true-crime documentary among an impressive catalogue of similarly-oriented shows, The Devil Next Door chronologically follows accusations of Holocaust perpetration made against Demjanjuk. It does so almost exclusively via the narrow lens of his trial in Israel, with less than half of an episode devoted to his German trial. He was found guilty twice, but his German conviction is presented by the filmmakers as less ‘real,’ and therefore less important, than his Israeli conviction. As with many late-era Holocaust trials, it is impossible to know the truth of Demjanjuk’s time in the SS with 100% confidence. However, based on the preponderance of evidence, he was almost certainly at Sobibór, Majdanek, and Flossenbürg. He was almost certainly not at Treblinka. The Devil Next Door does very little to establish this.

In this way, Demanjuk’s time at Sobibór is transformed into an afterthought in the context of both the show and his life. Due to the sensationalized nature of the trial in Jerusalem, his comparatively more subdued trial in Munich received far less media attention and was largely treated as an unsatisfactory replacement for the much more fulfilling sense of justice achieved through convicting Ivan the Terrible. The show, so many years later, replicates this dynamic.

What makes the story of Treblinka’s Ivan the Terrible so much more worthy of telling than Iwan at Sobibór? Is it the specificity of Ivan the Terrible’s cruelty? Do the horrors of Sobibór as a whole pale in comparison to the horrors of Ivan as an individual? Surely not. This is the crux of the matter at hand. Similarly to the Eichmann trial, Demjanjuk’s trial in Israel relied heavily on shocking and emotional testimony from the survivors of the horrors at Treblinka. Despite the fact that the Israeli judgment was overturned, the documentary series leans on the trial’s emotive aspect as an indicator of truth rather than simply an aspect of it.

The Devil Next Door’s treatment of Demjanjuk’s Israeli trial reinforces a straightforward, unnuanced idea of post-perpetration justice, in which the more emotion a trial stirs, the more righteous it must be. It implies a higher inherent value and ‘truthfulness’ to the Israeli trial because it was more sensational than the one held in Munich. In doing so, the show contributes to a problematic and widespread hierarchical public interpretation of Holocaust perpetration. In this hierarchy, individual cruelty and the horror of its commission often receives significantly more sustained interest than does systematic abuse. Similarly, the perpetrator as an individual receives more attention than their victims, who (as The Devil Next Door often portrays them) largely serve to provide an amorphous and horrifying backdrop to the story of the perpetrator.

In the context of The Devil Next Door, Sobibór and Demjanjuk’s general contribution to the atrocities committed therein, is presented as hierarchically subordinate to Treblinka and Ivan the Terrible’s specific individual contribution to its atrocities. This fortifies broadly inaccurate cultural understandings of Holocaust perpetration and late-postwar period justice, which emphasize the comparative simplicity of individual evil over the ethical complexity of collective perpetration.

The show purports to unveil the story of Demjanjuk, but instead only partially illuminates it. And, disappointingly, it does so in a way that often serves to obscure and even cast doubt on the truth. Along the way, rather than expanding our perceptions of Holocaust perpetration and post-war justice, it reinforces popular and inaccurate interpretations of them. While the trial of Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka certainly makes for dramatic viewing, it is the story of Iwan the wachmann at Sobibór that truly needed to be told.

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