The man who shot Eich­mann

The trial of Nazi mas­ter­mind Adolf Eich­mann changed our con­cept of evil. But, as Sinclair McKay re­veals, the world might never have seen him face jus­tice if not for the per­sonal zeal of one man

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Cover Story -

Per­haps tele­vi­sion view­ers, gath­ered around in hor­ri­fied fascination all across the world, had been ex­pect­ing the shrieks and ges­tic­u­la­tions of a fas­cist ide­o­logue; or even another per­for­mance: des­per­ate, tear­ful de­nials. What they saw in­stead was, in some senses, one of the 20th cen­tury’s defin­ing por­traits of evil, cap­tured for the first time on the 20th cen­tury’s new­est medium. The 1961 trial of Nazi war crim­i­nal Adolf Eich­mann in Jerusalem, which ran for four months with each ses­sion tele­vised, still haunts the imag­i­na­tion. But what is not widely known is the cru­cial role played by a young tele­vi­sion pro­ducer who pas­sion­ately per­suaded re­luc­tant judges, and in­deed Is­rael’s prime min­is­ter David Ben-Gu­rion, that the pro­ceed­ings should be screened for the world to see. Mil­ton Frucht­man, who is still alive and liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, was 35 at the time and the driv­ing force be­hind the pi­o­neer­ing broad­cast, the first time view­ers en masse had the op­por­tu­nity to watch Holo­caust sur­vivors tes­ti­fy­ing to the hor­rors they had ex­pe­ri­enced. His story is now be­ing told in a ma­jor BBC Two drama, The Eich­mann Show, star­ring Martin Free­man as Frucht­man. “At the time, the pub­lic were not think­ing about the peo­ple film­ing the trial. They were, quite rightly, con­cerned and cap­ti­vated by the peo­ple in front of the cam­eras,” says Lau­rence Bowen, the pro­ducer of the drama. “But it’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say the broad­cast changed his­tory. Mil­ton Frucht­man is a real un­sung hero.” Frucht­man him­self is now 88 and not strong enough to take part in an in­ter­view. But in an email dur­ing re­search for the pro­gramme he told Bowen he had been mo­ti­vated by read­ing the philoso­pher George San­tayana. “I had been warned by one of my pro­fes­sors at Columbia Univer­sity not to have unattain­able ex­pec­ta­tions,” he wrote. “He said it was im­pos­si­ble for one or­di­nary per­son to af­fect the course of his­tory, even in a mi­nor way. But, for­tu­nately, in my phi­los­o­phy cour­ses, I also heard [the San­tayana say­ing], ‘Those who can­not re­mem­ber the past are con­demned to re­peat it’, and this dom­i­nated my think­ing.” Dif­fi­cult as it might be for us to imag­ine to­day, in 1961 the world had still not faced up to the sheer scale of the Holo­caust. Ob­vi­ously, since the orig­i­nal news­reel footage of the death camps had played in cin­e­mas in 1945, ev­ery­one was per­fectly aware of what had hap­pened. There was a sense, though, even in some com­mu­ni­ties in Is­rael, that peo­ple wanted to shut it out. Added to this, the Cold War had been freez­ing over; the au­thor­i­ties of the West were now fo­cus­ing on their new en­e­mies on the other side of the Iron Cur­tain. Frucht­man, a fa­ther of two young chil­dren, had been fol­low­ing closely the news that Eich­mann had been tracked down to Buenos Aires and snatched by Mos­sad agents, then in­ge­niously smug­gled out of the coun­try in an El Al stew­ard’s uni­form. And he burned with a per­sonal zeal to tell the world about Eich­mann’s hor­rific crimes. He also wanted to warn the world that the Nazi evil had not been wholly ex­tin­guished. In 1959 he had been in Mu­nich, mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about neo-Nazis for Amer­i­can TV. One evening, he ac­cepted an invitation to a smart brasserie where Leni Riefen­stahl’s Nazi pro­pa­ganda ve­hi­cle The Tri­umph of the Will was be­ing screened. To Frucht­man’s in­de­scrib­able hor­ror, when­ever Hitler’s im­age flick­ered up, there were cries around him in the au­di­ence of “Sieg Heil!” He also vis­ited a lo­cal fenc­ing club. Once inside, he saw that por­traits of Hitler and var­i­ous Nazi lead­ers had been hung within. Club mem­bers clicked their heels to them. So, as Eich­mann sat in an Is­raeli jail, writ­ing thou­sands of pages of self­jus­ti­fy­ing notes and me­moirs, Frucht­man ap­proached the court and asked for per­mis­sion to film the forth­com­ing court case. The judges were not sure. Would not the tele­vi­sion cam­eras be an in­tol­er­a­ble in­tru­sion? Would film­ing not lead to ac­cu­sa­tions that Is­rael was stag­ing a show trial? But, as the pro­cesses of le­gal tech­ni­cal­ity ground on, Frucht­man went straight to the top. He had in­ter­viewed David Ben-Gu­rion on cam­era on a pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sion. BenGu­rion was pro­foundly sus­pi­cious of the medium of tele­vi­sion, re­gard­ing it as cor­rupt­ing. But Frucht­man per­suaded him that the trial needed to be recorded and broad­cast as widely as pos­si­ble, not just to show a blood-soaked crim­i­nal be­ing brought to jus­tice – Eich­mann was hanged the fol­low­ing year in 1962 – but also for the new em­bat­tled state of Is­rael to grab the world by the neck and force it to re­ally lis­ten to the hor­rors in­flicted on Europe’s Jews. And no one in Is­rael save him and his di­rec­tor, Leo Hur­witz, knew how to do it. “In Is­rael they only knew how to shoot with film, and I wanted to use video,” he told Is­raeli news­pa­per Haaretz in 2011. “The light in the court­room was in­suf­fi­cient for film. Aside from this, at a trial you must work with four cam­eras. There is a huge amount of raw footage. It was im­pos­si­ble for the Is­raeli stu­dios, from both eco­nomic and tech­ni­cal stand­points.” Frucht­man, who suc­cess­fully re­sisted an at­tempt by the NBC net­work to wrest the rights away from him, al­layed one of the fears of the judges by build­ing holes into the walls of the court­room. Cam­eras were then placed in th­ese holes to en­sure they were as un­ob­tru­sive as pos­si­ble. And when the trial broad­cast, which fea­tured on the nightly news bul­letins in 37 coun­tries (in­clud­ing the UK), fi­nally be­gan, it had an in­stan­ta­neous im­pact. More than 100 Holo­caust sur­vivors ap­peared in the wit­ness box. Each gave their sear­ing per­sonal tes­ti­mony: of cat­tle trucks, dark win­ter forests, de­grad­ing bru­tal­ity, star­va­tion, tor­ture, the de­cay­ing stench of death ever-present. It there­after be­came ac­cepted through­out the West that the Holo­caust should be dis­cussed, loudly, its vic­tims prop­erly re­mem­bered, not hushed away into the shad­ows through shame. West Ger­many be­came gal­vanised to track down other war crim­i­nal fugi­tives. The broad­cast also changed the way the world saw wicked­ness. Eich­mann, the ar­chi­tect of death on a scale that is still almost im­pos­si­ble to ab­sorb, did not look like a mass mur­derer. Fifty-five years old, with re­ced­ing hair, thick horn-rim spec­ta­cles, suit and tie, he pro­jected an air of stolid dull­ness, sum­marised by writer Han­nah Arendt’s haunt­ing de­scrip­tion: “The ba­nal­ity of evil.” View­ers were trans­fixed by Frucht­man’s black and white video images that zoomed in on the de­fen­dant. They ob­served him, stand­ing

be­hind bul­let-proof glass, ev­ery twitch of his face, ev­ery rolling “r’” of his deep-voiced self-serv­ing re­sponses. It was the first time such a fig­ure had been held up to such pub­lic mi­cro­scopic in­spec­tion. The trial, for which Frucht­man won a Pe­abody award for ex­cel­lence in broad­cast­ing, still chills to­day, and the BBC drama uses real footage. Eich­mann had, from the ear­li­est years of Hitler’s regime, been in charge of the forced move­ment of Jews. At first, via in­tim­i­da­tion and vi­o­lence, Jews were en­cour­aged to leave Ger­many, then Aus­tria, their goods and money stolen from them as they went. Then the anti-Semitism in­ten­si­fied step by step to a more terrifying frenzy: the yel­low stars, the ghet­toes, then the death trains, of which Eich­mann was in charge. His im­pla­ca­ble lo­gis­tics cre­ated the timeta­bles of slaugh­ter, the trans­porta­tion of Jews to death camps. He was there at the 1942 Wannsee con­fer­ence in Berlin where “the fi­nal so­lu­tion” was dis­cussed. He was re­spon­si­ble, among many other atroc­i­ties, for send­ing 400,000 Hun­gar­ian Jews to their deaths. After the war, Eich­mann hid him­self; at first in Aus­tria, where his wife at­tempted via the courts to have him de­clared dead, and then, in 1947, across the At­lantic to Buenos Aires in Ar­gentina, where he worked in a wa­ter sup­ply company and called him­self Ricardo Klement. And then, a year after Eich­mann’s cap­ture, came the trial (or quasi-trial, since it was a fore­gone con­clu­sion – he would hardly have skipped out of that court­room a free man). Eich­mann never de­nied, like some, that he was there close to the heart of the Nazi regime; but his de­fence of his ac­tions, un­der the un­blink­ing scru­tiny of Frucht­man’s cam­eras, was couched in such a way to sug­gest that he was pow­er­less be­fore the work­ings of a mighty regime. He de­scribed his orig­i­nal Nazi role as “emi­gra­tion spe­cial­ist”. “Ev­ery­thing was geared to the idea of emi­gra­tion,” he said. “But con­stant dif­fi­cul­ties were caused by var­i­ous of­fices in a bu­reau­cratic man­ner.” He claimed that he had sup­ported the idea of a Jewish state to be es­tab­lished in Mada­gas­car. His wider claim was that man­i­fold ob­struc­tions and com­pli­ca­tions, which he was pow­er­less to re­move or solve, some­how re­sulted in a chain ef­fect that led via cat­tle truck to the death camps. He was only one cog in an in­ex­orable ma­chine; re­spon­si­bil­ity lay else­where. “Where there is no re­spon­si­bil­ity,” he said in a later ses­sion, “there can be no blame and no guilt.” But he was ly­ing about his ide­o­log­i­cal blank­ness. The Ger­man his­to­rian Bettina Stangneth, in her re­cent book Eich­mann Be­fore Jerusalem, ex­am­ined more ev­i­dence, deemed inad­mis­si­ble in that Jerusalem court: ta­pere­cord­ings from the Fifties when, in Buenos Aires, Eich­mann had so­cialised with Nazi Willem Sassen. The qual­ity was fuzzy, but Stangneth tran­scribed them more clearly. What they re­vealed was the es­sen­tial Eich­mann. “I have to tell you quite hon­estly,” he de­clared to his friend, “that if… we had killed 10.3mil­lion, I would be sat­is­fied and say good, we have de­stroyed an en­emy… what’s good for my volk is. for me, a holy com­mand and a holy war.’” One of the (many) shock­ing as­pects of the tele­vised trial was that Eich­mann, who was found guilty of 15 charges of crimes against the Jewish peo­ple and against hu­man­ity, could not even feign re­morse. Yet in a sense, how could he? His ha­tred of the Jews was at the core of him. How could such a man ever be ‘“de-Naz­i­fied”? Yet this is also one of the rea­sons the tele­vised Eich­mann tri­als still fas­ci­nate. They force us to con­front the cen­tral mys­tery of evil. Not so much that it is “ba­nal”, pre­cisely, but that it can look and sound so rea­son­able, like us. And is there any con­ceiv­able way that men such as Eich­mann could ever find re­demp­tion? By ask­ing us all to look at him squarely, as op­posed to sim­ply read­ing his words, or his self-edited di­aries, the tele­vi­sion cam­eras chal­lenged view­ers to look into dark­ness deeper than they had wanted to ad­mit ex­isted. ‘The Eich­mann Show’ is on BBC Two this Tues­day at 9pm

Wicked: Eich­mann, left, was filmed by Mil­ton Frucht­man, above. Martin Free­man, op­po­site, plays the pro­ducer in a new drama

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