Modern Germany: one day at a Munich courthouse

MUNICH, Germany — John Demjanjuk, a 90-year-old on trial for assisting in the murder of nearly 30,000 Jews during World War II, lay on a hospital bed in a Munich courtroom with his eyes closed. In a neighboring room, a young Afghan man cradled his head in hands as his sister-in-law testified that he had killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. And in the hallway between those courtrooms, a gaggle of television cameras waited for the verdict in the trial of a teenager accused of perpetrating an act of random violence that had horrified the nation.

It was a telling day in a German courthouse.

Away from the hysterical headlines in its newspapers — the chaos surrounding the bailout of the euro, the haplessness of Angela Merkel's governing coalition in Berlin — Germany is a society that shows signs of both long-term stability and burgeoning, monumental changes. It is a country that since the second World War has forged for itself a resilient identity centered on economic success and taking responsibility for its historical crimes. In more recent years it has struggled to adapt to an era of globalization that both increased inequality and introduced new immigrants.

It's the former identity that is evident in the Demjanjuk case, likely the final international trial prosecuting Nazi-era crimes. The horrifying scale of his alleged crimes is tempered by the mundane realities of German jurisprudence. For more than six months, on the maximum of three days per week that the ailing Demjanjuk has been determined fit to attend trial, he is wheeled into the courtroom, transferred to his mattress and covered in blankets. He lies there while the lead judge makes procedural announcements or forensics witnesses give testimony in laborious detail. The only indications that Demjanjuk is not asleep are his occasional shifts in position, as he lifts his hands to rest them on his belly. Regardless of whether he's awake, a young Ukrainian translates every single word spoken in the courtroom. (Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who allegedly volunteered to work at the Sobibor death camp, doesn't speak any German.)

But however prosaic discussion of the Holocaust has become in Germany, the gallery is always full of onlookers, including dozens of journalists who have been accredited to follow the trial. In the early days of the trial, the weighty history at issue was underscored by the presence in the audience of survivors of Sobibor; they are expected to return in six months for the verdict.

Demjanjuk, in unexpectedly making his first statement at trial a few weeks ago, himself drew attention to questions of historic responsibility. With evidence continuing to mount against him day after day, the larger question of political guilt seems increasingly like his only defense. Still, the gallery audibly gasped when it became clear that the refrain of Demjanjuk's statement — read aloud by his German lawyer — was indeed “Germany is guilty.”

“Germany is guilty of forcing me to lose my home,” the lawyer intoned on behalf of his client. “Germany is guilty of putting me in a camp for prisoners of war and of making me a work slave.”

The statement lasted 15 minutes, a series of paragraphs each of which began with the flat declaration of German guilt. After a 15-minute break, the prosecution offered the only appropriate response: an insistence that it was not the German nation on trial, but Demjanjuk's alleged crimes. One wonders nonetheless whether in quieter moments Germans would admit that the trial is, in part, an act of atonement, a contribution to the nation's purge of its 20th century crimes.

As occupied as Germany is by dealing with the past, it is also negotiating the types of conflict and crime that may become more common in the near future. On trial across the hall from Demjanjuk was Mohammad Zafar, who came to Germany several years ago as a refugee from Afghanistan. Now he sat in a Bavarian courtroom, under a crucifix, listening to testimony about how he had killed his wife. Like Demjanjuk, he was accompanied by a court-appointed translator, a well-dressed Iranian who switched between German and Farsi.

Zahar faced a straightforward accusation: that he had killed his wife because he was enraged that she had expressed interest in another man. But in his questioning of Zahar's relatives, the presiding judge found himself sketching the outlines of a culture that existed both within and apart from the German mainstream. Zahar's wife could not receive a divorce because her family refused to give their blessing. When it became evident that Zahar would not control his temper, no one in the family turned to the civilian authorities, but rather only to a cleric, a local imam.

Apparently, in the moments after the murder, the family discussed whether they should tell the police at all. Everyone was concerned about being forced to return to Afghanistan. Even at the trial, the relatives talked frantically in the hall about their asylum status and the possibility of it being revoked. Zahar meanwhile sat silently in the courtroom, perhaps resigned to the years in jail that might await him.

The cameramen from the German television networks were less interested in this failed case of German integration than the fallout from a terrible instance of broader social alienation. As Germany's post-war decades of economic boom came to an end in the 1990s, the country suddenly had millions of long-term unemployed and the problems that are associated with that sort of dislocation, including a perceived increase in xenophobia and random violence. This was especially the case in the former East Germany, where reunification brought a precipitous economic decline and high rates of neo-Nazi affiliation. One of the government's main responses to these disquieting developments has been to rely on civil society — political figures encourage apathetic citizens to intervene when they see someone else being harassed.

Last winter, Dominik Brunner became a martyr to that cause of “civil courage.” When a group of teenaged bullies began harassing a group of school kids on a Munich metro line, Brunner decided to step in. The bullies quickly turned on him. Brunner was eventually followed off the train and beaten to death on the track. A stunned nation wondered whether it was doing enough to combat the aggression in its midst. Indeed, judging from the day's verdict, the tenets of the criminal justice system may not yet have absorbed society's assessment of the severity of the problem: The one bully who wasn't involved in the killing was spared a jail term because he was determined to be underage. The others will go on trial this summer.

This was not a typical day at a German courthouse. But foreigners who have recently been concerned about Germany's flatfooted response to the economic problems of its European neighbors would do well to remind themselves about these sorts of cases. Even in their moments of relative quiet, when they can freely consider their recent past and near future, Germans already have a lot on their minds.