Danny Finkelstein's natural repulsion in a Times piece at the idea of describing John Demjanjuk as a victim is perhaps understandable but perhaps also too simplistic.
Germany, like the UK at time, had the death penalty on the statute book, and throughout the war undertook the judicial murder (by Guillotine) of German citizens just as we did here (by Hanging). Putting people to death per se was not seen as wrong, unjust or illegal in either Germany or the UK. Statutes defined capital offences, courts passed judgement and those at the bottom end of the criminal justice system, the policemen and prison guards, carried out the confinements and executions.
Indeed, all societies with law enforcement agencies depend on a certain kind of person to fill the ranks; those with a respect for authority, those who find it easy to defend the supremacy of Law, those who don't question too deeply the moral legitimacy of their orders and instructions. In a free and democratic society, with local rather than State control over law enforcement agencies, such human qualities are not a bad thing, and recruiting such people, as we do now, into the ranks of the police and prison services puts the most suitable sort of people into the job. But only because they have others standing over them who do scrutinise, question and poke at the morality and legitimacy of the legal framework within which they operate.
Franz Stangle, Commandant at Sobibor extermination camp where Demjanjuk worked, started life as an ordinary Austrian policeman. After Anschluss, a law was passed allowing the compulsory euthanasia of the severely mentally and physically handicapped without hope of recovery. The law required the signatures of two doctors and a court order, and the subjects were (at first) 'humanely' killed by lethal injection. This was the T-4 programme, and Stangl was put in charge of carrying out the judicial killings.
Now this was the point at which we expect a law enforcement official to cavil; we can see the difference between guillotining a rapist and euthanising a paraplegic in a permanent coma, why couldn't Stangl? Was it because he was inherently evil (as Finkelstein would have it) or was it because he was, as just an ordinary policeman, too overwhelmed by central State authority and legitimacy to question? And when the method of euthanasia changed from medically-administered lethal injection to Carbon Monoxide gas why didn't he question then? Many policemen did - after their first T-4 killings they requested return to normal duties, and were not penalised or persecuted.
Finkelstein has the answer, I think, in the Milgram experiments. Some subjects turned the voltage knobs right up to 'lethal' - not brainwashed Nazis, but preppy American college kids. Some individuals are just programmed to accord a legitimacy to authority that others are not. Are they evil? Or victims, their 'flaw' misused and exploited by those in authority above them?
This isn't an obscure debate about the events of sixty years ago, but the most cogent and compelling reason to take great care of the way in which we design and develop our own system of justice and law enforcement. It is the reason I am unequivocally opposed to judicial murder, particularly if imposed and determined by a remote central State. Once you let them start killing, once the initial hurdle is cleared, then broadening the 'offences' of those to be killed becomes much easier. It may start with paedophiles but could rapidly include those caught with illegal firearms. Once the process and apparatus of judicial murder is in place, once the executioner has tasted his first legal blood, then it becomes so much easier to expand the process.
It's also the reason I'm unequivocally opposed to a national police force under central State control. As much as we need those individuals with character traits that make them suitable for law enforcement work, we need also to keep them under close control and not to allow others to exploit those traits against our own interests. If Demjanjuk represents evil, it is a banal and unremarkable evil, an ordinary human evil. And it's everywhere amongst us.