The true story behind Netflix documentary The Devil Next Door

What are the facts behind Netflix's gripping documentary about an Ohio mechanic accused of being the sadistic Nazi executioner known as 'Ivan the Terrible'

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Five-part Netflix documentary The Devil Next Door tells the remarkable true story of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian mechanic living in Cleveland, Ohio, who was placed on trial on suspicion of having been ‘Ivan the Terrible’, a sadistic Nazi prison camp guard during the Second World War.

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With Demjanjuk now deceased, many people remain uncertain as to whether he really was who he was accused of being, and The Devil Next Door pulls back from making any definitive assertions about the case. Because Demjanjuk died while an appeal was pending, he is presumed to be innocent by German law.

The documentary is inspired by the book The Right Wrong Man by Lawrence Douglas.

Here’s what we know about the fascinating real-life court case…

Who was John Demjanjuk?

Born in Ukraine in 1920, Demjanjuk survived the nation’s terrible famine to be drafted into the Soviet military in 1940. After he was captured by the Nazis in 1942, the facts of his live become a little more hazy.

As seen in The Devil Next Door, there are various, conflicting pieces of testimony that locate Demjanjuk at a number of different Nazi concentration camps before the end of the war. After the Second World War was over, the ex-soldier emigrated with his wife to the USA in 1952, finding employment as an auto-worker in suburban Ohio and becoming a naturalised citizen in 1958.

In the 1970s, however, the American government claimed they had uncovered evidence that Demjanjuk was not the unwilling prisoner-turned-concentration-camp-guard he had claimed to be but was in fact ‘Ivan the Terrible’, one of the most infamously sadistic executioners of the Nazi regime.

What happened during Demjanjuk’s trial?

His first trial, which took place after Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1981, was heavily publicised across the world. Several witnesses identified the accused as ‘Ivan the Terrible’, who was reported to have been Ukrainian.

In 1988, he was convicted, and sentenced to death. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, new documents surfaced which identified a different man as the infamous Nazi guard.

Demjanjuk was subsequently acquitted, and his US citizenship was restored. For a while, it seemed that the definitive truth had come to light. The full story of the trial is told in The Right Wrong Man.

Why was John Demjanjuk placed on trial again?

In 2009, Demjanjuk was deported again, this time to Germany, for another trial. This happened after new evidence emerged that placed Demjanjuk as a guard at the Sobibor death camp, albeit not ‘Ivan the Terrible’.

The elderly Demjanjuk was convicted of participation in the mass killings of Jews during the Holocaust, and sentenced to five years in prison.

But, as The Devil Next Door reveals, he appealed the charges, and died in 2012 before an appeal verdict could be reached. Accordingly, the appeal case was left pending, and Demjanjuk is presumed innocent under German law.

Why was The Devil Next Door changed after its release?

After the series was released, there was a spell of controversy when Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki complained about the inaccuracy of some of the maps shown in the documentary. Specifically, the Netflix doc had depicted some Nazi death camps as lying within the borders of current-day Poland.

The streaming service agreed to amend the maps, and provided a statement, saying: “In order to provide more information to our members about the important issues raised in this documentary and to avoid any misunderstanding, in the coming days we will be adding text to some of the maps featured in the series.

“This will make it clearer that the extermination and concentration camps in Poland were built and operated by the German Nazi regime who invaded the country and occupied it from 1939-1945.”

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The Devil Next Door is available to stream on Netflix in the UK now