WHEN Adolf Eichmann, ‘‘ the architect of the Holocaust’’, was captured by Mossad agents in Argentina in 1960 and spirited out of the country, his trial in a civilian court in Jerusalem became a cause celebre.
Was the 13-year-old nation of Israel breaking international law by kidnapping Eichmann? Could he receive a fair trial in a nation created as a refuge against Hitlerian anti-Semitism? Could an Israeli lawyer be found who would act as defence counsel? Did a court in Jerusalem have jurisdiction over crimes perpetrated in Nazi Europe?
Israel insisted it had an inalienable right, as the homeland of the survivors of the Nazis, to put on trial a man who had been a key player in the slaughter of six million Jews. There was a strong opposing view, however, that Eichmann should be be tried in his native Germany or by an international tribunal.
The trial went ahead, Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against humanity and hanged. It was a turning point in international justice. The way the court was convened and evidence presented meant Holocaust survivors didn’t testify to what Eichmann had done to them personally but to the horrors caused by his efforts as part of the Nazi machinery.
Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in the US, has marked the 50th anniversary of the case with The Eichmann Trial, a forensic examination of the event, its aftermath and consequences. Explaining her approach, and the importance of the trial, Lipstadt writes that the prosecution by relying on a succession of witnesses — people who could speak in the first-person singular about the horrors of the Final Solution — put a human face on genocide.
This approach became the template for subsequent war crimes prosecutions, such as that of Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor, the Eichmann trial having ‘‘ made it clear to the world at large that the victims were not ‘ just’ a multitude of people but were millions of individuals’’.
One of the observers of Eichmann’s trial was philosopher Hannah Arendt, who in 1963 published Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt concludes that, far from being the personification of evil, he was a dull little clerk, a cog in the dreadful technology of mass murder. So ordinary was he that she explains away his work, and the way other plain people became swept up in the wickedness of the state, in her famous phrase, ‘‘ the banality of evil’’.
It is her way of conveying how circumstance, rather than intent, fashioned him. Arendt also claims Eichmann was motivated not by anti-Semitism but by a desire to be seen as a good employee.
Lipstadt takes aim at Arendt’s book. Her reading of the evidence shows Eichmann to have been motivated by hatred and antiSemitism, and a desire to put into effect Hitler’s Final Solution. He portrayed himself as a functionary obeying orders, but Lipstadt shows that his youth was suffused with antiSemitism and his SS training drove him to become a willing participant in Nazi crimes.
The Eichmann Trial is not Lipstadt’s first book about the world’s oldest hatred. In 2000, she wrote Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, in which she accused British historian David Irving of being a Holocaust denier. Irving sued her and her publisher in a London court and amazingly, five decades after the end of the war, Lipstadt proved not just that the Holocaust did occur but that deniers’ claims are based on lies, distortions and falsification of evidence.
In this new book, Lipstadt proves beyond question the subsequent importance that the capture, prosecution and judgment of this banal yet evil man has had for all victims of genocides, living as well as dead.
Alan Gold is a novelist and critic.
Adolf Eichmann is sentenced to death