Six decades ago, the face of evil was in the dock in Jerusalem

The Eichmann trial began sixty years ago. Colin Shindler looks at the reaction


JERUSALEM, ISRAEL: (FILE PHOTO) Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann stands in a protective glass booth flanked by Israeli police during his trial June 22, 1961 in Jerusalem. The Israeli police donated Eichmann's original handprints, fingerprints and mugshot to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial ahead of Israel's annual Holocaust remembrance day May 4, 2005 which this year also marks the 60th anniversary of the Nazi's World War II defeat in 1945. (Photo by GPO via Getty Images)

Sixty years ago, on 11 April 1961, a pale, bespectacled, balding man stepped into a glass booth in a courtroom at Beit Ha’am in Jerusalem. Standing stooped before three judges, he was asked: “Are you Adolf Eichmann?”

The diminutive figure answered without emotion: “Jawohl!” — and so began the trial of a central figure who had presided over the murder of millions. Outwardly an ordinary man, but in Hannah Arendt’s words, he embodied “the banality of evil”.

Eichmann had gone from being a sales clerk to dealing with the “Jewish question” in Vienna in less than a decade. He had promoted himself within the Nazi elite as an indispensable figure, someone possessing vital expertise when it came to the Jews. This was his path for career advancement.

The Nazis then viewed Palestine as a suitable dumping ground for its unwanted Jews. Eichmann’s task was to enforce involuntary emigration. He therefore studied Adolf Boehm’s two volumes on the history of Zionism and even attempted to visit Palestine — but the British in Cairo refused him a visa.

As part of this myth-making to increase his stature, it was put about that Eichmann had actually been born in Sarona, a German colony in Palestine, and could speak fluent Hebrew and Yiddish. This mystique helped Eichmann move upwards in Nazi circles until it became apparent that Germany would lose the war.

By 1945, he had reversed gear and transformed himself into a non-descript irrelevance, first as Adolf Karl Barth in Germany and then as Ricardo Klement in Argentina.

In May 1960, the Mossad kidnapped Eichmann in Buenos Aires. David Ben-Gurion’s announcement in the Knesset that Eichmann was now in Israel stunned the world. He had previously been reported to be living in Egypt, Kuwait and even in his native Austria. The abduction caused a furious row between Israel and Argentina, which claimed that its sovereignty had been flagrantly violated.

The official explanation from Jerusalem was that this was all the doings of “a group of volunteers”, unconnected with the government. Unfortunately, Ben-Gurion had already announced that Eichmann had been kidnapped by Israel’s security services.

After several months of vitriol, the Israeli Ambassador in Buenos Aires, Arieh Levavi, was declared persona non grata and deported.

There were differing opinions in this country. The Daily Telegraph called it “an underhand operation” while the Guardian commented on “the grave damage to international law and to the reputation of Israel itself”. Some believed that the trial should not take place in Israel, but in West Germany or Austria, as Eichmann, like Hitler, was an Austrian, as were half of his aides. Others believed that the Nazi should face an international tribunal.

Ben-Gurion depicted this episode as a watershed in Jewish history — a watershed made possible only by the existence of a sovereign state of the Jews. On Israel’s Independence Day 1961, he said that two events during the past year had been significant: Eichmann’s capture and the discovery of the remains of two fighters from the Bar-Kochba revolt two millennia before. The inference and the relevance required no explanation: no longer would Jews go like sheep to the slaughter. Many spoke about educating the new generation of Jews — and of non-Jews. Golda Meir, then the Foreign Minister, commented that “most of the new nations in Asia and Africa do not know what happened to our people during the Nazi regime”.

Indeed, the trial brought more than 400 journalists to Israel. Suddenly, the Shoah was caught in the headlights of international media interest.

For British Jews, this episode became a subject of intense debate — and many discussions, private and public, took place. At the Board of Deputies, its president, Barnett Janner, declaimed on the issue. In Stamford Hill, the Jewish Deaf Association argued heatedly in sign language whether Israel was justified in trying Eichmann. When the trial opened, virtually every contributor to that week’s edition of the JC mentioned Eichmann — including even those to the children’s page. The paper’s editorial asked its readers — drawing on the Pesach seder — to consider as if they themselves had shared in “the martyrdom of their brethren”. The Chief Rabbi, Israel Broadie, spoke about the sacred nature of human rights on the BBC. Rabbi Louis Jacobs, then a United Synagogue rabbi, quoted the Midrashic adage that “he who is compassionate to the cruel will in the end be cruel to the compassionate”.

The Klausenburger Rebbe, who had lost his wife and 11 children in Auschwitz, pointed out that even the High Priest while officiating could be taken to stand trial for murder.

In contrast, others mulled over the consequences of Eichmann’s presence in Israel. Reporters for the Arab press struggled over how to present the story. How should Eichmann be condemned without praising Israel? The CIA and the West German intelligence service were worried because they had gainfully employed Nazis after 1945 to work for the West during the Cold War — a parallel to the Paperclip Conspiracy which utilised the expertise of the Nazi rocket scientists such as Wernher von Braun. The Argentinians were worried because they had no clear answer to the question as to why so many Nazis had sought refuge in their republic. Several Arab governments had happily welcomed Nazis into their midst in order to exploit their capabilities. They too looked for a public explanation.

Evidence for Eichmann’s crimes had to be collected — so Avraham Selinger of the Israeli police was sent to collect material at the Wiener Library in London. Yet he was barred from visiting the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin depicted the war as a conflict between fascists and anti-fascists. Inscriptions on monuments at the site of the killings at Babi Yar, outside Kiev, referred therefore only to “Soviet citizens” who were murdered — Jews specifically were not mentioned. How then could the Soviet leadership welcome a trial concerned mainly about the extermination of the Jews? In addition, the Kremlin did not wish Israel to be portrayed as the leading defender of the Jews and the protector of Jewish rights internationally. There was therefore virtually no coverage in the Soviet press when the trial opened.

The Communist states of Eastern Europe reacted differently. Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia were all willing to supply information. East Germany’s problem was that it had many former Nazis sitting in its rubberstamp parliament while Hungary had been Hitler’s ally during the war.

Shortly before the Mossad found him, Eichmann gave an interview to the Dutch journalist, Willem Sassen. This was published in Life magazine. An unapologetic Eichmann commented: “I must say truthfully that if we had killed all the ten million Jews that Hitler’s statisticians originally listed in 1933, I would say: ‘Good, we have destroyed our enemy!’.”

Two days after the start of the trial, the proceedings were adjourned for Yom HaShoah. At ten o’clock on that Friday morning, the veteran Zionist leader Rabbi Mordechai Nurock, who had lost his entire family in Latvia, placed a casket of ashes at the Hill of Remembrance at Yad Vashem. He said kaddish and there was darkness upon the face of the deep.



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