On This Day – 11 April 1961

Trial of Adolf Eichmann begins in Jerusalem - 11 April 1961

Coming only sixteen years after the end of World War 2, the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, which began in Jerusalem 60 years ago today, brought the Holocaust into international public focus as never before. Until then, many people in the West had not been fully aware of the attempted annihilation of an entire people by the Nazi regime between 1939 and 1945.

The Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals had ended with the convictions of twelve of the leading accused. However, the indictments had covered many types of war crime. Many leading Nazis had escaped justice by finding refuge in parts of Europe, the Middle East or Latin America. The advent of the Cold War facilitated this process, since the decision of the western Allies to recruit ex-Nazis to bolster anti-Soviet forces in post-war Europe meant a blind eye was often turned to their war crimes. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union categorised all victims of the Nazis together as ‘victims of fascism’ and downplayed the fact that Europe’s Jews had uniquely been singled out for total extermination and that only military defeat had prevented the genocide being carried to completion.

Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem
Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem (Times of Israel)
The trial of Eichmann changed all that. The huge worldwide publicity given to the trial in newspaper and newsreel coverage ensured that, for the first time, the full details of the industrialised mass murder of Europe’s Jews was revealed in shocking detail.
Eichmann, born in the Rhineland and raised in Austria, joined both the Nazi Party and the SS in 1932. On Hitler’s accession to power, he was appointed head of the new department of Jewish affairs with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Although he was never an architect of Nazi anti-Jewish policy, he became its chief operations manager as it evolved from the pre-war forced emigration of Jews (from Germany and Austria) to their concentration in ghettos in the major cities of Poland after the 1939 invasion.
Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, with Jews already dying in huge numbers in the overcrowded, food-starved ghettoes and at the hands of the mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen), the Wannsee Conference was convened by Reinhard Heydrich in January 1942 to decide on the ‘Final Solution’. In preparation, Eichmann drew up lists of the numbers of Jews in each European state. The conference mandated him to organise the confiscation of Jewish property and their rounding up and mass deportation from all over Nazi-occupied Europe to the east. His department would oversee the creation of extermination camps at Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz and elsewhere, including the development of gassing techniques and the detailed arrangement of the necessary railway schedules.

After the end of the war, Eichmann escaped from US military detention and lay low in Germany for some years. In 1950, with the aid of the network of sympathisers that had helped thousands of Nazis to flee from Europe, he obtained a falsified Red Cross ‘displaced persons’ passport and a visa for Argentina. When rumours of his presence there became credible in the late ’50s, Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion was determined that he should stand trial. In May 1960 a Mossad team was sent to Buenos Aires which kidnapped him near his home and smuggled him on board an El Al flight to Israel.

At his trial before three Israeli judges, Eichmann was charged on 15 counts, including eight of crimes against the Jewish people and four of crimes against humanity against non-Jews. He claimed that he had been a minor cog in a large machine, that he had nothing personally against Jews and that he had never killed anybody.

But witnesses testified to the cold zeal with which he had implemented his programme, impatient at obstacles and loopholes and insistent that not a single Jew be exempted from deportation. When Hungary was invaded, he had become well known for personally supervising the deportation of almost half-a-million Jews to Auschwitz and even ignored his superior Himmler’s orders in late 1944 that the transports and gassings be stopped.

After a 56-day trial attended by hundreds of journalists, he was found guilty on all counts and was executed by hanging in May 1962. His ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean outside Israel’s territorial waters.

Eichmann’s trial set off a debate about the nature of evil that has lasted to this day. Reporting on it for the New Yorker was an American Jewish political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ based on Eichmann’s seeming ordinariness and low-key demeanour in court. This did not sit well with testimony that he had stated ‘I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million enemies of the Reich on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction’. He later confirmed to the judges that by ‘enemies’ he meant the Jews.

Recent portrayals, such as that in the 2018 movie Operation Finale starring Ben Kingsley and Lior Raz, have painted a different image that may be even further from the truth: philosophical, humorous, almost charismatic – the embodiment of what historian Martin Kramer calls ‘the affability of evil’.

Whatever the truth about Eichmann’s personality, his trial succeeded in its goal of placing the Holocaust in the centre of the historical stage and spurring the development of Holocaust education with its twin messages of ‘Never Forget’ and ‘Never Again’.

Neal Bascomb: Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi (2010).
Operation Finale: 2018 movie starring Ben Kingsley & Lior Raz
Martin Kramer: ‘The Truth of the Capture of Adolf Eichmann’, Mosaic Magazine (June 2020).

by Dermot Meleady

 

 
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