Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Eichmann Trial, Deborah Lipstadt

The State of Israel v Adolf Eichmann was one of the outstanding criminal trials of the twentieth century - the piece of litigation that introduced the term "Holocaust" into the English vernacular.  This book is an account of the trial written by Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish American academic who is best known for her own courtroom battle against an antisemite, in the form of David Irving's ill-fated libel action against her and Penguin Books.

Adolf Eichmann had been one of the leading architects of the Final Solution.  After the War, he successfully managed to escape to Argentina.  Once there, he sank into largely undisturbed obscurity.  By the time of his capture in 1960, the wartime allies had lost interest in Nazi-hunting, while the Israelis were more concerned with keeping their new state alive in a hostile Arab region than with settling scores with former SS men.

Nevertheless, as a result of an unlikely romance between his son and a part-Jewish girl, the details of Eichmann's whereabouts reached both the Germans and the Israelis.  The story of how Israeli operatives entered Argentina, seized Eichmann and flew him off to Israel is quite well known.  What is not so well known is that the Argentine secret police knew very well what the mysterious Israeli strangers were up to, and allowed it to happen anyway.  The Argentines were not scrupulous about harbouring former Nazis, but they seem to have been glad to see the back of Eichmann; when the Israelis took him off their hands, they contented themselves with diplomatic protests.

The news of Eichmann's capture sent shock-waves through Israeli society and beyond.  The trial was worldwide news, despite clashing with both Yuri Gagarin's space flight and the Bay of Pigs invasion.  There were those, including some Jews, who questioned Israel's right to put Eichmann on trial - but the truth was that no-one else wanted to deal with him.  His crimes had been committed in Germany, but the last thing that Konrad Adenauer wanted was for the Germany of 1961 to have to confront this particular ghost from the past.  The German government even refused, contrary to normal protocol, to pay the costs of Eichmann's defence lawyer.

The prosecutor was the Attorney-General of Israel, a commercial lawyer by the name of Gideon Hausner.  Hausner's performance in his first criminal trial was uneven.  He fell into both factual and tactical errors; and he made the beginner's mistake of losing his temper with Eichmann during his cross-examination.  He clashed repeatedly with the judges - although, as Lipstadt points out, this did at least show that the proceedings were not just a show trial.  His handling of the case had one very important legacy.  Hausner sought to widen the focus of the trial from acts in which Eichmann had been involved personally to the Holocaust as a whole.  Most of the witnesses he rounded up had no connection with Eichmann and had probably not even heard his name until after the War - but they had some terrible stories to tell about the consequences of his decisions.  This forensic strategy was legally dubious, and the judges, particularly Moshe Landau, reprimanded him for it repeatedly during the proceedings.  But it did succeed in ensuring that the Eichmann trial took its place in history - and with it, the testimony of the survivors of the Holocaust, whose voices up to then had to a large extent gone unheard.  Lipstadt places some emphasis on this point.

Eichmann's own performance in court was unimpressive.  He claimed that he was a "little cog" and "exclusively a carrier out of orders" - a defence which famously fooled the Jewish academic Hannah Arendt, who (as Lipstadt describes at some length) produced a flawed and polemical account of the trial.  Arendt chose to believe that Eichmann represented the "banality of evil" - for her, he was a mere desk-bureaucrat, if not a "clown".  But Eichmann, who was a serial liar, had not been the insignificant nobody that he claimed.  In the 1930s, he had worked for the SS as a professional Jewish-conspiracy theorist.  When in post during the Final Solution, he had gone about his job with gusto, consistently pushing for the most aggressively anti-Jewish measures.  His name had kept coming up at the Nuremberg trials.  After the war, he had boasted in private of his "uncompromising fanaticism" and lamented that the Nazis had been unable to kill more Jews.  Evil?  Very probably.  Banal?  No.

Nevertheless, later historians have downgraded Eichmann's role in the Final Solution.  Most of what went on during the Holocaust lay outside his remit.  He was very guilty - it was his leading role in the deportation of the Hungarian Jews that turned Auschwitz into a household name.  But he was somewhat less guilty than was generally believed in 1961.

The court convicted Eichmann of most (but not all) of what he had been charged with.  This was hardly a surprise.  The only real doubt was about what penalty would be imposed.  The court passed the first death sentence in Israel's history, and the only one to date that has been carried out.  In a particularly black irony, a crematorium had to be built especially for Eichmann's corpse.