What I'm Watching: The Devil Next Door

The '80s-'90s trial of John Demjanjuk, immigrant Cleveland auto worker, claimed by accusers to be Ivan the Terrible, a sadistic guard from Treblinka. There's a lot of footage of the death camps, and the survivors after the war, and mostly very bad flickering VHS transfers of the trial. The period testimonies are the strongest part.

Modern interviews with his defense lawyer Sheftel are charming, if that's a word for this situation. Most of the other modern interviews are so cut up to avoid spoilers of the next episode that they're uninformative, or openly… deceptive? Pushing a point of view, anyway.

I'm horrified by the delusional belief in eyewitness testimony 40 years after the events, especially in a less technical legal system like Israel's (of the '80s; maybe they've modernized since). And the crowds of Jewish people chanting for death for someone, turning completely into their former persecutors. You'd have a more just trial by flipping a coin or studying bird entrails.

Up to episode 3 or so is at least informative and has an interesting narrative. After that the series falls apart badly.

I followed the first part of the case back in the '80s, but got distracted after his first conviction, waiting for the appeal, so was never really aware of the outcome.

The appeal and "happily ever after" are given short shrift, just a recounting of the events and brief glimpses of the exculpatory evidence. Then even shorter shrift, with only the barest video of the start, of the post-Millennial second extradition and German bullshit trial where all evidence was ignored, a 91-year-old man was convicted of maybe—probably, but without hard evidence—being a soldier at a different camp. Before dying of old age in prison, and rendering the whole thing moot.

Then there's some moralizing about war as a criminal act.

The attitude by Representative Holtzman seems to be—never clearly stated but strongly implied—that all soldiers on a losing side should just be charged with murder and executed. If that was wartime law, nobody would ever surrender and wars would rage until half the population was exterminated. There'd be peace on Earth, eventually, when the last two people killed each other.

When WWII ended, the US brought home Wernher Von Braun, one of the worst war criminals in history, who killed maybe a million people with his weapons, used Jewish slave labor hand-picked from the camps. He was made an American citizen, never tried for war crimes because he was useful, got our space program and ICBM global thermonuclear war systems running, constantly lied about his former devotion to the SS, slowly went crazy religious, died at peace. Is that justice? Certainly not. But it was practical and merciful.

We accepted many immigrants after WWII from Germany, Italy, Ukraine, France, and elsewhere who had been enemy soldiers, because war is not subject to peacetime law, and they could put their past behind them and work. If they worked and kept their heads down, they were of value to us. And we'll want the same mercy extended to us if we lose a war again. Demjanjuk's former line supervisor gets this, and the son-in-law gets it.

Holtzman especially doesn't seem to understand the difference between being drafted and fighting for your country, doing the job assigned to you, when they just happen to be Germany or Ukraine or Italy; or modern-day Illinois Nazis who do it because they're assholes and do not have the excuse of wartime service.

The whole series needed a hard editing cut of about half the footage, put the interviews back together to be coherent, rather than the chopped-up mess it is, and show more hard evidence. Maybe get a military lawyer to talk about wartime law, and immigration lawyer and the Open Borders comic author to talk about accepting immigrants of dubious backgrounds. No such effort was made.

★★★★☆ up to E3, declining to ★☆☆☆☆ by the end.

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