Holo­caust hench­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Gold

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

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