2:04pm

Sun March 27, 2011
Books

The Eichmann Trial: Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago one of the world's most notorious war criminals sat in a courtroom for a trial that would be among the first in history to be completely televised.

That man was Adolf Eichmann — and he had been in charge of transporting millions of European Jews to death camps.

A year before the 1961 trial, Eichmann had been abducted by Israeli agents while he was living in Argentina.

The trial captivated millions of people. And it was the first time many of them — including Israelis-- even learned about the details of the Holocaust.

Now Deborah Lipstadt, renowned historian and professor of religion and holocaust studies at Emory University has written a new account of the trial. She tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz that the Eichmann trial was different from any other war crimes trial because it featured the stories of Holocaust survivors and captured the emotions that weren't a part of the document-heavy Nuremberg Trials, which took place more than a decade earlier.

Survivors Stand Up

"There was a march of survivors, I would say approximately 100 survivors, who came into the witness box and told the story of what happened to them. And people watched them and listened to them and heard them in a way they hadn't heard them before," Lipstadt says.

Hearing the voices of survivors wasn't the only aspect of the trial that shook the audience; seeing Eichmann was unnerving as well. This man, who most Israelis considered one of the greatest murderers of all time, appeared so normal.

"People were amazed because he looked much more like a bureaucrat, like a pencil pusher, [with] thick black glasses, an ill-fitting suit, a man who laid out all his papers and his pens and kept polishing his glasses with a nervous tick," she says.

Lipstadt says people asked themselves, could this really be the person responsible for the destruction of millions?

But Eichmann's testimony, says Lipstadt, illustrated not only that he was guilty, but how "enthusiastic" he was about carrying out his orders.

"There would be times when he would get a communique from the German Foreign Ministry saying the Italians have contacted them and there's a Jew in Vilna, or a Jew someplace else in a ghetto who's married to an Italian Catholic ... and Eichmann would quickly rush to get the man deported, sent to Auschwitz or hidden away so that he couldn't be turned over to the Foreign Ministry and maybe escape. He went after every individual Jew he could find," Lipstadt says.

One Man's Sentence, A Society Transformed

Even after Eichmann was found guilty, the question remained as to whether or not to sentence him to death.

No one in Israel had ever received such a punishment, and even Israel's prime minister at the time, David Ben-Gurion was opposed to the death penalty.

So when one of the judges stood up at the end of the trial and said "By Israeli law we are not required to impose the death sentence," people thought for a moment Eichmann might only get life in prison.

But the judge continued, "We are not required, we may impose it, and we chose to do so because you are deserving of the death sentence."

The Eichmann trial affected people across the world, but Lipstadt says it may have had the greatest impact on the younger generation of Israelis. She says it showed them the importance of the existence of the state of Israel.

"Had there been a Jewish state, it might not have been able to stop what was going on, but one of the reasons many of the people who were murdered were murdered was because they had no place to go. And Israel would have been a refuge," she says.

The trial was also a reminder that the Holocaust's victims had names, faces and histories.

"The Holocaust didn't happen to numbers or just a large group. It happened to people," Lipstadt says. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Next month marks 50 years since one of the world's most notorious war criminals was put on trial, one of the first trials in history to be completely televised.

(Soundbite of TV program)

Unidentified Man: In Jerusalem, the trial of Adolf Eichmann begins, reviving memories of the Nazi horrors of the Second World War. Entering the bulletproof prisoner's box is the man charged with the annihilation of millions of Jews in Nazi death camps.

RAZ: The trial was a sensation. A year earlier, Eichmann had been abducted by Israeli agents in Buenos Aires and flown to Israel. On the opening day of the trial, April 11, 1961, the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, stood up in the packed but silent courtroom to give a dramatic opening statement.

Mr. GIDEON HAUSNER: (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: With me here at this very moment, Hausner says, stand six million prosecutors, their graves scattered throughout Europe.

Historian Deborah Lipstadt has written a new account of those four months in 1961. It's called "The Eichmann Trial." And she says Hausner's stirring speech set the tone for the whole trial.

Ms. DEBORAH LIPSTADT (Author, "The Eichmann Trial"): He is intent on telling the story of the Holocaust and capturing the emotions, emotions that weren't captured at Nuremberg, in part because this was going to be an entirely different kind of trial.

At Nuremberg, it was mainly documents. The Nuremberg prosecutors from all the countries involved in the prosecution determined that they would convict the defendants based on the documents.

In Jerusalem, Hausner decided: I'm going to use the Nuremberg documents, but I am going to call the survivors. So there was a march of survivors, I would say approximately 100 survivors, who came into the witness box and told the story of what happened to them.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) They began leading us row after row, group after group.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) Their name and number...

Unidentified Man #2: Everybody got a shovel, and we started to dig our own graves.

Ms. LIPSTADT: And people watched them and listened to them and heard them in a way that they hadn't heard them before.

RAZ: This trial lasted four months, from April to August of 1961, three - you write about three high court judges who presided. And I want to play a moment. This is Judge Moshe Landau, and he's interacting with Adolf Eichmann, and they are both speaking in German.

JUDGE MOSHE LANDAU: (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: Deborah Listadt, when you hear that, can you explain what that must have been like for these judges, Landau and others, how surreal it was to be interacting with this man that most Israelis and many Jews saw as one of the greatest mass murderers of all time?

Ms. LIPSTADT: Right. First of all, I think it's important to recognize that while he was presented to the court as the CEO of the Final Solution, he wasn't. He was one of the chief operating officers. There were a number. He was a terrible man and did terrible things, but it wasn't his idea and his planning.

But I think for many people, when he walked into that glass booth, which was built to protect him from harm from the people in the gallery, people were amazed because he looked much more like a bureaucrat, like a pencil pusher...

RAZ: With these thick, black glasses.

Ms. LIPSTADT: Thick black glasses, a suit, ill-fitting suit, a man who laid out all his papers and his pens and kept polishing his glasses with a nervous tick. Could this be the man who had been responsible for the destruction of millions? There seemed to be a disconnect.

Now, of course, the man who was responsible for the destruction of millions was this man. He acted very differently. He looked very different during those years. But he fought with every ounce of strength that he had to dispel the charges against him.

RAZ: I mean, he said effectively that he was simply a functionary, following orders. But the prosecution actually proved that he was personally cruel, that he had personally murdered someone.

Ms. LIPSTADT: They tried to prove that he had personally murdered a young boy. The judges didn't accept it because there was no eyewitness to it.

But I think what was more striking to me was not how, with a small staff, he managed to organize the deportation of one to one and a half million Jews from many parts of Europe, but what struck me was the enthusiasm with which he pursued every single Jew he could lay his hands on.

There would be times that he would get a communiqu� from the foreign ministry, the German Foreign Ministry, saying the Italians have contacted them, and there's a Jew in Vilna, or a Jew someplace else, who is married to an Italian Catholic, and the man's father-in-law is a fascist.

And Eichmann would quickly rush to get the man deported, sent to Auschwitz so that he couldn't be turned over to the foreign ministry and maybe escape. He went after every individual Jew he could find.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Deborah Lipstadt. She's a professor of religion and Holocaust studies at Emory University, talking with me about her new book. It's called "The Eichmann Trial." Next month marks the 50th anniversary of that trial.

Deborah Lipstadt, the most famous account of this trial was written of course by Hannah Arendt, the famous political theorist, and she coined the phrase: The banality of evil.

That book suggested that Jews themselves were partly to blame for their fate because they didn't fight back. Was her take totally, completely unfair?

Ms. LIPSTADT: No. It wasn't completely unfair. First of all, when she says that Jews didn't resist, she also adds: But no one else did, either. Though her language, when she wrote about Jews and how Jews behaved, it was with a viciousness that blinded many people to many of the other things she said.

On the other hand, she writes about the testimony of Abba Kovner, one of Israel's leading poets and a resistance fighter. Abba Kovner was the first person in Europe to call for active, armed resistance against the Germans, not first Jew, first person, probably.

Kovner tells the story of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt. Schmidt's job had been to go into the forest and find soldiers, German soldiers, who had been separated from their units, so he acted in a sort of independent fashion.

And in that - because of that, he was able to help the resistance, the Jewish resistance. He supplied them with arms. He supplied them with uniforms. He supplied them with money. And he did it for no payment, no reward.

And Hannah Arendt describes how when Abba Kovner started to tell the story of Anton Schmidt, a hush came over the courtroom. And she says it was as if the people in the courtroom wanted to give Anton Schmidt the few minutes of silence he so richly deserved.

And she went on to write: One had to think how different everything would be in this courtroom, in this country, in Europe and possibly in the entire world, if there were more such stories that could be told.

When I read that, I set her book down. I had read her book before, and I said, is this a revised edition? How did I miss this? And I photocopied what she had to say, and I put it in my file of my lectures that I carry back and forth to my class when I teach about the history of the Holocaust, because I know that someday, a student - it happens every year. It happens every semester when I teach the class. A student asks: Well, why didn't they fight back?

And it captures the moment that there was no one to help them. Not one institution in Europe spoke up in defense of the Jews.

RAZ: Eichmann, of course, was eventually sentenced to death. And here is Judge Landau reading the verdict.

Judge LANDAU: (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: You write that this trial transformed Jewish life in Israel. How so?

Ms. LIPSTADT: It both showed the younger generations one of the reasons for an existence of the State of Israel. Had there been a Jewish state, it might not have been able to stop what was going on. But one of the reasons many people who were murdered were murdered was because they had no place to go. And Israel would have been a refuge. It more than would have offered them refuge. It would have welcomed them home. It would have seen them as belonging in Israel.

But it did something else as well. It showed the younger generation that they, as (unintelligible), you know, that's what the Israelis call Jews born in Israel, and it's like a cactus, prickly outside and sweet inside. But they feel - they felt very self-sufficient. They felt: We fought against Arab armies that tried to destroy us after the declaration of the state. We won. We live in a hostile sea, and yet, we manage to survive and to thrive. And we are a different kind of Jew.

And I think it reminded them that the Jews of the diaspora, the Jews of the Gola, the exile, as they would have called it then, were not different, that people faced overwhelming odds. And it wasn't because some character flaw that they had or some inherent weakness that they had that they became victims, that the powers against them were overwhelming.

So at the same time that it exemplified the difference between the Israeli-born generation and European Jews, it also brought them closer together.

RAZ: That's Deborah Lipstadt. She's a professor of religion and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, talking with me about her new book. It's called "The Eichmann Trial."

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of that trial in Jerusalem.

Deborah Lipstadt, thank you so much.

Ms. LIPSTADT: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related Program