From “The Eichmann Trial,” published by Nextbook/Schocken. Reprinted courtesy of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Deborah E. Lipstadt.
On April 11, 1961, the theater of Beit Ha’am, Jerusalem’s brand-new cultural center, was packed. Over 700 people filled the room for the trial of a man accused of being the chief operational officer of the Final Solution.
Newspapers worldwide carried news of this event. American television networks broadcast special telecasts. This was not the first Nazi war-crimes trial. Yet there were more reporters in Jerusalem than had gone to Nuremberg. Why was this trial, coming just after the conclusion of Passover, different from the Nuremberg tribunals, where far more prominent figures in the Nazi hierarchy had been tried?
Some of the differences were connected to the when of these two events. Nuremberg occurred in the immediate aftermath of the war, when many people wanted a mental respite from the horrors of the preceding five years. At Nuremberg multiple defendants had stood together in the dock. Now one man stood alone. The drama of this proceeding was further intensified by the way Eichmann had been brought to trial.
Captured in Argentina, he had been spirited out of the country to Israel. Even then, a full year after his capture, there was still some mystery about precisely how he had been found. But the when and the how of his capture were eclipsed by the who: who found him and, more important, who would try him. At Nuremberg, victors had sat in judgment. Now the victims’ representative would sit in judgment. Immediately after the war, most Jewish Displaced Persons, as Holocaust survivors were once known, were focused on trying to piece together a new life, not on seeking punishment. Even if they had wanted to bring those who had destroyed their world to justice, they had no mechanism to do so. In contrast, by 1961 the immediacy of the war and its consequences had passed.
The survivors, whose wounds had begun to be bound up by the passage of time, now had more physical and emotional stamina to demand justice. Most significant, however, now there was a sovereign entity to deliver it. The State of Israel, which was then entering its bar mitzvah year, exemplified the victims’ emergence from the very powerlessness that had helped make the Final Solution possible.
The excitement and interest surrounding the trial had little to do with questions about its outcome. Most people, both those in the courtroom and those beyond, expected Eichmann to be found guilty. What was unknown was what would happen when history, memory and the law met in this Jerusalem theater. Would the law prove adequate to adjudicate such an unprecedented event? Would the proceedings deliver retribution or genuine justice? Would Eichmann’s defense strategy of obedience to orders hold sway? Would he try to justify the genocide? And what, if anything, would be the lesson for the future?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial. It is an event that is a vivid part of my childhood memories. During that period, dinner in our home was timed so that we could watch the televised news clips from Jerusalem. I remember the picture of Eichmann in the glass booth that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on the opening day.
On the second day of the trial, if the Soviets had not launched Yuri Gagarin into space and safely retrieved him, the news of the trial would have been the lead story. As a 13-year-old, I was intrigued that something so profoundly connected with Jews had been featured so prominently. At this point in time, my world was pretty much divided into Jews and non-Jews. Virtually everyone in my immediate circle –-classmates, neighbors and friends — was Jewish. If you had asked me to recall those years, I would have told you about the thriving Jewish community in which I lived. And I would have insisted that I never encountered even a hint of anti-Semitism. I would have said so despite knowing that there were neighborhoods in which Jews could not live and firms that would not employ Jews. I had heard my friends’ older siblings say that, despite their outstanding grades and academic records, they would not get into a particular Ivy League school because its Jewish quota was full. Already in the eighth grade we knew not to consider certain colleges because it was exceptionally difficult for a Jewish student who lived in a Jewish neighborhood and attended a Jewish school to gain admittance.
Rather than being shocked by this, we accepted it as, I am embarrassed to say, a fact of life. This was how things were. In 1961, John Kennedy had just become president. I remember how perplexed I was during his fight for the Democratic presidential nomination by the media debate over whether a Catholic “could” be president. My 12-year-old reasoning was straightforward: Everyone in America was either Christian or Jewish. It was a given that the presidency was off limits to Jews. White Christians, particularly those of privilege such as Kennedy, faced no such barriers.
Why, then, should there be any question about his nomination? As I look back on those years, I am bemused, not by my failure to understand the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism, but by my acceptance that certain avenues were closed off to Jews. (My parents were far more incensed about it than I. In contrast, I was well aware and deeply troubled by the fact that African Americans faced terrible and violent discrimination.)
Into this simplistic and rather naïve world came the Eichmann trial and the Holocaust. It would take me a number of years to understand fully that the horrors for which Eichmann was being tried had sprung from the selfsame anti-Semitic soil that kept Jewish kids from top-notch schools and Jewish graduates from jobs in many prestigious firms.
Eventually I came to understand the interconnectivity of these phenomena. However, I never dreamed that from this soil would also come a movement that would have a dramatic impact on the course of my own life and would entrap me in a complex legal battle …
[The book’s introduction continues with a brief description of Lipstadt’s own trial, when she was sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving. Though she hastens to point out the radically different nature and scope of this trial, she acknowledges the way it lingers in her imagination.]
… I never would have brought a matter of Holocaust denial to a court, but once I had been forced to enter that arena I had no choice but to respond with all my abilities. Though I did not represent the survivors, I felt their presence in that courtroom. They filled the public gallery. They gave me lists of the names of their murdered relatives. And when I prevailed, they embraced me, laughed and cried with me. Though I’d never intended to do so, I ended up fighting for them.
In a larger sense, these two choruses of voices — the voices of the victims for whom evil is still present and the fight is still in some sense ongoing and the voices of those who believe the battle has been won and that anti-Semitic horrors are the province of either the past or the “crazies” who are better ignored — still constitute the foundation upon which we build our understanding of Eichmann, the judgment against him, and his sentencing. Although some look back and see a trial of momentous importance because it brought to justice one of the key players in the Final Solution, others dismiss both the trial and Eichmann himself as things of little importance.
They charge that Israel aggrandized the matter for political ends. They dismiss Eichmann as simply a transportation “specialist” and fault Israel for using the trial for Zionist ends. They claim he was a bureaucratic “clown,” who really did not understand what he was doing. These differences of opinion about the Eichmann trial may well be metonyms for attitudes toward and perceptions of contemporary anti-Semitism. Some find the overt anti-Semitism of Holocaust deniers to be the ranting of idiots who are best ignored. Others take these comments quite seriously and see a dire and existential threat to Jewish well-being. They see a Holocaust-denying president of a large country, one that is poised to have nuclear weapons, occupying the podium of a world forum that was founded in the wake of the Final Solution with a mandate to stop genocide. They hear him deny the Final Solution and threaten the existence of the Jewish state.
When they react strongly, commentators and policy makers caution them that they are overreacting or misunderstanding his charges. For them the issues that were adjudicated in Jerusalem are neither dead nor academic. Historians often insist that they come to their research with a tabula rasa, that they judge each situation on its merits and do not let other matters shape their perceptions. In fact, no matter how much they may deny it, their personal experiences constitute facets on the prism through which their view of past events is refracted. For the sake of her readers and herself, a historian must acknowledge their presence and try to ensure that they clarify, rather than cloud, her understanding. And so, with my own encounter with history, the law, the study of the Holocaust, and raw anti-Semitism as a backdrop, I began to explore what happened in Jerusalem five decades earlier.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University. She is the author of “History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving” (HarperCollins) and “Denying the Holocaust:The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (Free Press).