What, if anything, is the legacy of the Eichmann trial?
t was only fifty years ago and yet in many ways the world that was during April 1961 seems like light years away.
Much of the front page news concerned the tense relations between the United States and the USSR. On April 12 for example the Soviet Union won the first round of the space race when it sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit. A week later the United States staged an abortive attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s socialist regime in Cuba and the dismal failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion helped pave the way for the Cuban Missile Crisis some eighteen months later. It was all reported not by the Internet nor by texting but by means of grainy black-and-whites images in daily newspapers or on national TV or by what was then the newest technological toy on the block — the transistor radio.
Yet it was also during April 1961 that the standoff between the planet’s two superpowers was momentarily put on hold and the gaze of the world shifted east to Jerusalem. There in the newly built George Behar Auditorium also known as Beit Ha’Am (House of the People) former Nazi commander Adolf Eichmann was escorted into a bulletproof glass booth on April 11 and charged with crimes against humanity and the Jewish people by an Israeli court of law. During the fourteen weeks that followed the world would learn a new word — “Holocaust” — and hear heartrending eyewitness testimony from some one hundred Jews who had survived that Gehinnom.
The trial though was not without controversy. Detractors — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — attacked both the trial’s legitimacy and its tactics. And even today half a century later the Eichmann trial and its legacy are still being written about and debated sometimes passionately — including in a new book by Professor Deborah Lipstadt titled The Eichmann Trial (Nextbook/Shocken Books) which has provided much of the factual source material for this article.
Such were the reactions of some of the leading American newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, after “a little upstart foreign state” named Israel announced that it had captured former SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann and transported him to Eretz Yisrael.
The fact that Israel intended to put Adolf Eichmann on trial also caused much hand-wringing in certain quarters. The fear was that a Jewish court wouldn’t be able to remain impartial when it came to trying an officer of the Nazi regime. A Washington Post editorial, for example, fretted that the trial would “debase the law.” The New York Post agreed, prophesying that the legal proceedings would be nothing more than a “show trial.”
But the reaction wasn’t all negative. CBS News proclaimed that Eichmann’s capture had “electrified the world.” And while the New York Times opposed the means, the newspaper did opine that now that the deed had been done, Eichmann would receive a fair trial in Israel, where the law was respected.
What caused all the scandal?
After World War II, many high-ranking Nazi officers left Germany and resettled in other parts of the world. Argentina, in faraway South America, was a favorite destination. Adolf Eichmann — the Nazi officer responsible for making the trains to Nazi death camps “run on time” — traveled to Buenos Aires in 1950 with a passport issued by the Red Cross and a new name: Ricardo Klement. For the next decade he lived in relative obscurity. He might have died peacefully in his Argentine bed if not for a “shidduch date” that could have only been arranged by HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Eichmann’s wife and children had joined him in 1952, and for some reason they kept the family name. One of the sons, Klaus Eichmann, began to date a young lady of German heritage named Sylvia Hermann in the late 1950s. When Sylvia introduced the young man to her father, Lothar Hermann, Klaus boasted that his father had been a high-ranking Nazi officer. Klaus Eichmann also voiced regret that the Nazis hadn’t been able to kill more Jews and finish the job. He didn’t know that Lothar Hermann, who lived outwardly as a non-Jew, was actually a hidden Jew.
At first, Lothar Hermann remained silent. But when it became clear to him that Klaus’s father was most likely Adolf Eichmann, he tipped off Fritz Bauer, a German-Jewish jurist who was active in obtaining compensation for Holocaust survivors. The information eventually landed on the desk of Isser Harel, who was then the head of the Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service.
Harel wasn’t interested. He had other more pressing security issues on his mind, and this wasn’t the first time that someone had claimed to have located Eichmann. Simon Wiesenthal, for instance, who was already making a career of hunting down Nazis, believed he knew Eichmann’s whereabouts in northern Germany.
Bauer, however, refused to give up. When he presented Harel with confirmation from a second source that the Ricardo Klement living on Garibaldi Street in Buenos Aires was actually Adolf Eichmann, Harel was moved to act. With the blessing of Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, Harel put together a team of Israeli “volunteers” — who just happened to have close connections with the Mossad — and sent them to Argentina.
On the evening of May 11, 1960, Adolf Eichmann alighted, like clockwork, from the bus that took him home every evening after work.. This night, however, the clock broke. Before he reached his home he was intercepted by the Israeli “volunteers,” who shoved him into a waiting car and whisked him off to a “safe house.” Several days later, after the prisoner’s identity had been successfully confirmed, Eichmann was drugged, supplied with phony identification papers, dressed up in an El Al uniform, and given a free plane ride to Eretz Yisrael.
Although the Argentine secret police had witnessed the kidnapping operation and allowed the Israelis to smuggle Eichmann out of their country, once Eichmann was safely ensconced in an Israeli prison the hue and cry began. The Argentinean representative to the UN, Mario Amedeo, demanded that this invasion of his country’s sovereignty be addressed by the UN Security Council, declaring that Israel’s actions were a threat to world peace and security. Several major newspapers from around the world joined the chorus. In one of world history’s classic upside-down moments, Israel’s attempt to bring Eichmann to justice was held up for censure, while the injustice of Nazis roaming freely in the world was ignored.
Not everyone agreed with this assessment, of course. Even in Argentina there were newspapers that decried the fact that their country had become a Nazi haven. In the end, and after Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir issued a quasi-apology, the Security Council dismissed Argentina’s demand for Eichmann’s repatriation.
However, the debate concerning a Jewish state’s ability to give Eichmann a fair trial continued to rage. Even in the Jewish world there were those — mainly members of the East Coast Jewish professional elite — who were against the trial, fearing that it would cause an anti-Semitic backlash.
But the State of Israel refused to be deterred. In the months that followed, the Israeli government got to work preparing for the upcoming trial. Gideon Hausner, Israel’s attorney general, took on the role of prosecutor. Moshe Landau was appointed presiding judge, serving with judges Binyamin Halevi and Yitzchak Raveh.
More problematic was finding a defense lawyer for Eichmann. In the end a lawyer named Robert Servatius was chosen for the job. Servatius, who was a German citizen but had not been a member of the Nazi party, had been recommended by the Eichmann family, but the family couldn’t afford the lawyer’s fees. When the government of West Germany refused to foot the bill, the Israeli government agreed to come up with the thirty thousand dollars.
The last hurdle was finding a suitable venue for the trial. None of Jerusalem’s antiquated courtrooms could handle the expected crowd of spectators and members of the international press. But a new cultural center called Beit Ha’Am was in the process of being constructed, and so the decision was made to temporarily transform the center’s theater into a courtroom.
Along with building a dais for the judges and space for the TV cameras, the workmen were given an unusual assignment: to construct a bulletproof glass booth. This booth was for Eichmann to sit in during the trial, just in case someone tried to take justice in their own hands and take his life.
But who exactly was this “man in the glass booth”?
Clown or Fiend?
“Everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult not to suspect that he was a clown.” So wrote Hannah Arendt, an assimilated Jewish intellectual who escaped from Nazi Germany and eventually settled in the United States. She was sent to Jerusalem to cover the trial by the New Yorker, a tony periodical, and her impressions of the trial were published a few years later in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem. It was Arendt who coined the phrase “the banality of evil”; in her eyes Eichmann was the perfect example of what a totalitarian state does to its citizens. He was not an anti-Semite motivated by a fanatical hatred of the Jews, she wrote. Instead, he was merely a bureaucrat who had lost the ability to think, including the ability to distinguish right from wrong.
Most of the people sitting in the Jerusalem courtroom — including Israeli prosecutor Gideon Hausner — would have vehemently disagreed with that assessment. Indeed, in his opening statement, Hausner drew a direct line between anti-Semites of the past who had tried to destroy the Jewish people — going as far back as Haman — to the man sitting behind the bullet-proof glass. For Hausner, Eichmann was no pencil-pushing bureaucrat who was merely obeying orders; he was a chief architect of the Final Solution and an enthusiastic participant in the murder of some six million Jews.
Which view was correct?
Fifty years and hundreds of Holocaust-related books later, we know much more about Adolf Eichmann and his role in the Holocaust than either Arendt or Hausner did at the time. For instance, we know that Eichmann, who grew up in Austria, was a high-school dropout who got his first real job thanks to some Jewish friends of the family. It was while working at the Jewish-owned Vacuum Oil that he first demonstrated his innate organizational gifts. His responsibilities included making sure that the company’s petroleum products reached their destinations on time. He joined the Nazi party in 1932. A year later, he lost his job amid an economic downturn and moved to Germany, where in 1934 he joined the SS intelligence-gathering unit founded by Heinrich Himmler and headed by Reinhard Heydrich, both of whom would later play instrumental roles in the murder of European Jewry.
It was during this period that Eichmann became head of the intelligence unit’s “Jews’ Section.” In the early years of the Third Reich, Zionists hoped to work out a deal that would enable German Jews to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael, which was then under British rule. Eichmann traveled to Eretz Yisrael in 1937 to meet with Zionists there, but the British refused him entry. He did meet with a Haganah agent in Cairo, but nothing came of the plan.
However, Eichmann’s evil star continued to rise. In 1938, the year that Germany annexed Austria, he was selected by the SS to create the new Central Office for Jewish Emigration. The office’s goal was to forcibly deport Austria’s Jews. At the Eichmann trial, a German-Jewish observer of the operation, Franz Meyer, compared the operation to a flour mill connected to a bakery.
“You put in at the one end a Jew who still has capital and has, let us say, a factory or a shop or an account in the bank, and he passes through the entire building from counter to counter, from office to office — he comes out at the other end, he has no money, he has no rights, only a passport in which is written: You must leave the country in two weeks; if you fail to do so, you will go to a concentration camp.” (Quoted in David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a “Desk Murderer”)
After the outbreak of war in 1939 and the German invasion of Poland, which brought millions of Jews under Nazi control, the Nazi regime decided that emigration was no longer an option. The new plan was to deport the Jews to some far-flung plot of land that was German controlled but outside of Germany’s borders. Eichmann’s first job was to facilitate the deportation of the Jews of Katowice to this new “Jewish homeland.” In his enthusiasm, he also deported some Jews from Vienna and Ostrava. Although the plan was quickly abandoned, mainly due to a lack of trains, it did become the prototype for later deportations. Eichmann had proven that it was possible to deport tens of thousands of Jews without very much opposition. The key was to promise the Jews that they would be treated well in their new “home” — a promise which, of course, the Nazis had no intention of keeping.
In the autumn of 1941, Reinhard Heydrich informed Eichmann that there was once again a new plan for all the Jews living in Nazi-controlled territories: genocide. This plan was formalized at the infamous Wanssee Conference held in 1942, which Eichmann attended as the conference’s recording secretary. Now that the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was official government policy, Eichmann was given a new job: administrator of the trains that would transport all the Jews to death camps located in occupied Poland.
Eichmann approached this latest task with his usual enthusiasm and efficiency. But it was the year 1944 that turned out to be the pivotal one, both for Eichmann and the war. Before then, Eichmann usually sent out his directives from behind his desk. In March 1944, Germany occupied Hungary and Eichmann went there to personally oversee operations.
By then, the Nazis knew that they were losing the war. They were also desperate for goods, such as trucks and tea and coffee and soap. Therefore, Himmler ordered a reluctant Eichmann, along with two other Nazi henchmen, to negotiate with leaders of Hungarian Jewry. The proposal, which came to be known as “blood for goods,” offered to exchange Jewish lives for those commodities. When the Jewish negotiator, Joel Brand, was unable to get the Allied governments to agree to the deal — the Allied Forces were busy preparing for the successful invasion of Normandy, which proved to be a turning point in the war — Eichmann returned to the role that he excelled at: he arranged for the deportation of some 440,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Three-quarters of them were sent directly to the gas chambers.
A few months later, Eichmann was at the center of one of the most contentious events of the Shoah: the negotiations over the “Kastner train.” Like Joel Brand, Rudolph Kastner was a member of Hungary’s Aid and Rescue Committee. After the “blood for goods” proposal fell through, Kastner reached an agreement with Eichmann to allow 1,685 Hungarian Jews to leave Hungary at a price of $1,000 per person. Since many of the people chosen for the train — one of whom was the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum — couldn’t afford the “fare,” Kastner auctioned off 150 seats to wealthy Jews to help pay for the others. Although Eichmann initially reneged on his promise and sent the train’s passengers to Bergen-Belsen, the Jews were eventually allowed to continue on to Switzerland, which was a neutral country.
While Kastner was most likely a hero to those who made it to Switzerland, there were many in Hungary who considered him, as well as other members of the Aid and Rescue Committee, to be a traitor. Kastner was accused of working with the Germans and misinforming Hungary’s Jews of the Nazis’ true intentions, so that the Jews would voluntarily board the trains for Auschwitz. The true price of the Kastner train was therefore not $1,000 per person, but rather the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who perished in the gas chambers.
After the war Kastner moved to Israel and joined Ben-Gurion’s government. In 1953, he was accused of collaborating with the Germans by an amateur journalist named Malchiel Gruenwald. The government of Israel sued Gruenwald for libel, and after a trial presided over by Judge Binyamin Halevi — who would later serve as a judge during the Eichmann trial — Gruenwald was found not guilty. The court instead accused Kastner of selling his soul to “the devil.”
Although the Israeli Supreme Court later overturned most of the judgments against Kastner (a year after he was assassinated by a Jewish avenger), for the people seated in the Beit Ha’Am theatre a few years later in April 1961, there was no question about who that “devil” was. He was sitting there on the stage in a bulletproof glass booth. His name? Adolf Eichmann.
Guilty, But of What?
Although the Israelis were sincere in their efforts to give Eichmann a fair trial, there was no question about what the verdict would be. There was, though, a question about the charges. The judges wanted to limit the charges to cover only those events in which Eichmann was personally involved, and to limit the witnesses to only those people who had had a personal experience with the accused.
Hausner, supported by Ben-Gurion, had other plans. He wanted to use the trial to paint a portrait of the vast human tragedy that had occurred during the Holocaust, so that Israelis — and the rest of the world — would understand what had happened. The attitude among most native-born Israelis of that time was that the Jews of Europe, true to their ghetto mentality, had gone to their deaths like the proverbial “sheep to the slaughter.” Hausner wanted to shake them out of their smugness. But to do that, he needed to call dozens of witnesses — people who had been caught up in the Gehinnom that was the “Final Solution” and who could give detailed eyewitness accounts of those who resisted, as well as those who did not, and why. It didn’t matter to him that much of the witnesses’ testimony would be technically irrelevant — a fact pointed out many times by the judges.
It also didn’t matter to him that the tactics he used during his examination of the witnesses would shock and dismay the audience, many of whom were Holocaust survivors themselves.
Why didn’t you resist? Why didn’t you revolt? he demanded, over and over again.
One of the most poignant responses came from magistrate Moshe Beisky, who had been sent to the Plasow slave labor camp. He summed up the uselessness of armed Jewish resistance and attempts to escape the death camps in four words: Where would they go?
Other witnesses would describe the moral dilemma faced by those who wished to try to escape; they knew that if they succeeded, those who were left behind would pay a terrible price for their success. Still other witnesses described victories that were spiritual in nature, as they clung to their dignity and humanity in the most inhuman of circumstances.
Therefore, when Hausner handed in his indictment, it included charges that Eichmann wasn’t involved with — such as the murder of Jews in the USSR — because he wanted to give the world a full picture of the Holocaust. As Hannah Arendt rightly pointed out — although she vehemently disagreed with the tactic — the trial thus became less about Eichmann and his crimes and more about the suffering of the Jews.
Eichmann took the stand on June 20. His defense was similar to that of the Nazi officers who had stood trial at Nuremberg after the war: He was only following orders. Other officers had falsified records to put the blame on him. He, too, was a victim. Occasionally, his defense tumbled into the realm of the absurd, such as when he insisted that he had “worked with the Jews” of Austria, and that the “help” he had given them to emigrate had been “beneficial.”
But despite his protestations that he was merely a cog in the machinery of genocide, Hausner did manage to get Eichmann to admit that he had not been just a low-level bureaucrat. When he wanted to (which wasn’t often), Eichmann had the power to bend the rules and let a Jew escape. He also had the power to implement his orders even more strictly than called for, a power that he used to send a great many more Jews to their death.
In December 1961 the judges rendered their verdict. Eichmann was found guilty of some of the charges, while others that Hausner hadn’t been able to prove were dismissed. Still, sufficient charges had been proven for the court to recommend the death sentence. Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962.
But even though the trial was technically over, discussion about the trial — both its legitimacy and its legacy — continued, and has lasted until today. Mishpacha took the occasion of the trial’s fiftieth anniversary to speak with Professor Deborah Lipstadt about Hasuner’s decision to turn the trial into a history lesson for the world. Professor Lipstadt is a Holocaust scholar at Atlanta’s Emory University, and is well-known for her successful defense against a libel lawsuit filed in the United Kingdom by Holocaust-denying historian David Irving.
“Holocaust survivors had spoken about their experiences before the Eichmann trial,” explained Professor Lipstadt. “They had spoken at the Kastner trial and at ceremonies at Yad Vashem. But this was the first time that the world listened — and people listened in a different way.
“The Eichmann trial personalized the history of the Holocaust. It showed that genocide happens to individuals, one by one. Never before had the Holocaust received so much attention, and the steady stream of survivors, each one telling his or her own story, caused people, especially young people in Israel, to change their perceptions of who the survivors were.”
According to Professor Lipstadt, the main legacy of the trial is that it put the voices of genocide victims in the forefront. This is true not only of Jewish Holocaust survivors, but of victims of other genocides that have occurred since then.
Yet, in addition to giving a voice to the survivors, Hausner and Ben-Gurion had another goal, which they hoped would be another lasting legacy of the trial. They wanted the trial to establish, for the world, the need for the State of Israel. If the trial could not prevent future outbreaks of anti-Semitism, it could at least provide an answer to the question posed by Moshe Biesky, on behalf of all those who had perished. No longer would a Jew have to ask, in despair, “Where can I go?” As long as there was a State of Israel, there was an answer to that question.
In this, however, Hausner may have failed. Although most world leaders who visit Israel still make the obligatory visit to Yad Vashem, today there are loud rumblings from another quarter. The Palestinians and their supporters have rejected the argument that the Jews deserve the Land of Israel because of what happened in the Holocaust, and the world seems increasingly ready to listen and sympathize.
Of course, that argument was faulty to begin with. As any cheder child knows, it is Hashem, the true Judge, who decides to whom a land belongs. If He decides we merit to live in Eretz Yisrael, we will live and flourish here. And if, chas v’shalom, He decides otherwise …
And so, on this aspect of the legacy of the Eichmann trial, until Mashiach comes, the jury is still out.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 361)