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Modern Germany: one day at a Munich courthouse

At the Demjanjuk trial, Germany's past, present and future were on display.

People light candles for Dominik Brunner on a railway platform at the train station of the Munich suburb of Solln on Sept. 16, 2009, in memory of the 50-year-old businessman who was beaten to death by two youths. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

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.”