The History Behind Netflix’s Nazi Trial Documentary Series The Devil Next Door

7 minute read

Questions about John Demjanjuk — an auto worker from Cleveland who was convicted of serving as a Nazi guard at a concentration camp during World War II — captured headlines and worldwide attention for several years starting in the 1980s. Now, Netflix is adding his story to a growing arsenal of true-crime documentaries.

The Devil Next Door, which comes to Netflix on Nov. 4, attempts to explain the allegations that surrounded Demjanjuk for the latter part of his life. The five-episode docu-series features interviews with his family members, prosecutors and defense lawyers, as well as footage from a high-profile trial that examined whether Demjanjuk was the sadistic Nazi prison guard known as “Ivan the Terrible” — and what happened after, as new evidence emerged that sowed doubt about his conviction.

Even after his death in 2012, several questions remain about who Demjanjuk actually was — simply a Ukrainian immigrant caught up in a case of mistaken identity, or one of the Holocaust’s cruelest prison guards? Or was he someone else entirely? As The Devil Next Door shows, the answer may lie, uncomfortably, somewhere in the middle. Here’s what to know about Demjanjuk’s case.

Who was John Demjanjuk?

Born in Ukraine in 1920, Demjanjuk was raised in impoverished conditions, and, along with his family, endured an engineered famine in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians. He was drafted into the Soviet Army around 1940, the year before the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact disintegrated. He was captured by the Nazis in 1942 after being wounded while fighting. The question that became the focus of trials decades later was what he did for the three years following 1942.

As depicted in The Devil Next Door, various pieces of conflicting evidence placed Demjanjuk at different concentration camps during the final years of the war. Demjanjuk maintained until his death that he was a prisoner at a labor camp, and was forced to work as a guard. In his 2012 obituary, the Washington Post reported that Demjanjuk said he joined the army of General Andrei Vlasov, which consisted of mostly Ukrainian soldiers who sided with the Nazis in an effort to overthrow the Soviet Union.

Following the war, Demjanjuk went to a displaced-persons camp. With his wife, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1952. Demjanjuk settled in Cleveland, became a naturalized citizen in 1958 and worked at the Ford Motor plant until his retirement about 30 years later. In the city’s tight-knit Ukrainian-American community, as footage in The Devil Next Door shows, he was by all accounts known as a churchgoing family man. This façade crumbled starting in the late 1970s, when the U.S. government announced it had evidence that he’d served as a concentration-camp guard and began the process of revoking his citizenship, alleging that he’d lied on immigration forms to hide his actions during World War II.

What happened at John Demjanjuk’s trial in Israel?

Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, which pursues such crimes, said they had obtained evidence alleging that Demjanjuk was not just any Nazi prison guard, but in fact one of the most notorious gas-chamber operators at the Treblinka concentration camp, whose sadistic cruelty earned him the nickname “Ivan the Terrible.” Demjanjuk was denaturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1981 and extradited to Israel for a high-profile, heartrending trial in which multiple survivors of Treblinka identified Demjanjuk as “Ivan the Terrible.”

At Demjanjuk’s first trial in Israel, prosecutors alleged that he had killed thousands of prisoners at Treblinka between 1942 and 1943, and that he’d been trained to operate the camp’s gas chambers. Survivors who testified as witnesses said the man they thought to be “Ivan the Terrible” would cut off Jewish prisoners’ body parts using a sword, stab women and children, and use a steel pipe to beat people while shepherding them to the gas chambers, the New York Times reported. The documentary series shows that the evidence linking Demjanjuk to the savage prison guard included a Nazi identity card that prosecutors claimed was from an SS training camp, with a photo of a man who looked like a younger Demjanjuk. His defense attorneys said the card was a flimsy piece of evidence, and that the photo appeared to have been tampered with.

In 1988, Demjanjuk was found guilty and sentenced to death. But as The Devil Next Door shows, the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, foreshadowed the release of a trove of once-secret Soviet Union documents, including new evidence from eyewitness testimony that suggested “Ivan the Terrible” was a different man, named Ivan Marchenko. The Israeli Supreme Court acquitted Demjanjuk in 1993, and in 1998, he regained his U.S. citizenship.

What happened at John Demjanjuk’s trial in Germany?

Any resolution Demjanjuk and his family felt when his conviction in Israel was overturned soon disappeared. A year after he became a U.S. citizen again, the government restarted the process of denaturalizing him, over charges that he’d served as a guard at other concentration camps. In 2002, his citizenship was revoked again and, following years of Demjanjuk fighting against the charges, he was deported to Germany in 2009.

In Germany, Demjanjuk stood trial on charges that he’d aided the Nazis in killing Jews at the Sobibor death camp in 1943. By this point, Demjanjuk’s family claimed he was too old and sick to continue with the process, but doctors cleared him for trial. At the trial, prosecutors said Demjanjuk’s job at Sobibor was to lead Jews to the gas chambers to be killed. Included in their evidence was an ID card showing that Demjanjuk was transferred from the Nazi training camp Trawniki to Sobibor in March 1943, according to TIME’s coverage of the trial.

At that point, Germany had decided to try a new strategy in its pursuit of justice against Nazi war criminals, looking not only for evidence of specific killings but also for evidence that the person had been part of the process of mass killings. As TIME noted in 2009, central to the prosecutors’ case against Demjanjuk was guards’ actions in the train transport of Jews to Sobibor:

“When the transport train carrying Jews arrived, the normal work was stopped and each member of the camp personnel became involved in the routine extermination process,” the document reads. After the Jews were ordered out of the cars, they were told to leave their luggage on the ramps and take off their clothes, the charge sheet says. They were then allegedly led to the gas chambers under the pretext they were taking a shower. Holocaust experts have also linked the Sobibor guards to mass executions.

Several former inmates of Sobibor gave evidence in the trial, but, as TIME reported, it was by then difficult to find living witnesses who could link him to specific deaths. Demjanjuk was eventually convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews at Sobibor. He was sentenced to five years in prison with credit for the time he’d already served.

Demjanjuk died in 2012 at the age of 91, while his final appeal against his conviction was still pending. As there had been no ultimate conviction, Demjanjuk was presumed to be innocent when he died. So, though his original conviction solidified a legal strategy that would be used in Nazi trials going forward, his own story will remain unresolved.

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