The Eichmann Trial

by Peter Shapiro
Read the review of this book in Reform Judaism magazine
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Deborah Lipstad transports her readers back in time to Jerusalem sixteen years after May 8, 1945  V-E Day and the end of the Shoah, and thirteen years after May 14, 1948 when Israel became an independent state. The specific starting date of her narrative is April 11, 1961, the first day of Adolph Eichmann’s trial. If asked today what you know about the Eichmann trial I would imagine the overwhelming response would be as follows:

  1. Adolph Eichmann was the principal architect and administrator of Hitler’s “Final Solution”.
  2. After Germany’s surrender it was unbeknownst to the allies he was in their custody and he was subsequently released and found his way to Argentina.
  3. With the Argentine government’s knowledge he and his family continued to reside there in the lap of luxury.
  4. On May 11, 1960 agents of the Israeli government kidnapped Eichmann and brought him to Israel
  5. On April 11, 1961 the Eichmann trial commenced.
  6. A three judge panel found him guilty and he was sentenced to death .
  7. The Israel Supreme Court denied his appeal and the sentence was carried out on May 31, 1962.

Deborah Lipstad’s scholarly work not only takes issue with today’s conventional wisdom re: the Eichmann trial but also with the prevailing view then and in some quarters persists today that those who perished in the Shoah were “but lambs led to the slaughter” and were derelict in not putting up any resistance.

Eichmann’s capture and subsequent trial raised several issues of law that charted new territory and challenged jurisprudential precedents. As a third year law student at the time I was intrigued by the debate over the law then as I am today. The first question was: “Can a sovereign nation enter another sovereign nation without its permission and extract a person residing therein for trial on criminal charges?”

p>The second question was: “Can a person be charged for his actions when those actions were not a crime when committed?” The U.S. Constitution prohibits such action which is referred to as ex post facto laws.

The third question was: “Can a sovereign nation that was not in existence at the time the acts were committed and/or those acts were not committed on its soil have the right (jurisdiction) to conduct the trial?”

The final questions related to the testimony of the survivors of the Shoah. “Was it relevant and/or hearsay (second hand) i.e. did the witness actually observe acts that Eichmann committed; was the testimony standing alone or in its totality  inflammatory and/or prejudicial so as to improperly effect the Tribunal in its decision?”

One of the most contentious questions, that continue to cause debate today, relates to the death penalty.  There are many who criticize the legislation that allowed for the imposition of the death penalty as well as the Attorney General’s requesting it, the sentence by the Court and the failure of the Prime Minister to grant commutation. Their arguments are based on sacred texts citing the rabbinic aversion to the death penalty. I might add that when the law was enacted and at the trial and its immediate aftermath many of the rabbis’ were silent. What are your thoughts on this question?

Exhaustive legal treatises and law review articles could be written on each of these questions and many more that were generated by the trial. Suffice it to say these questions are ripe for debate for the lawyers among us. The moral issues that these questions engender are important for all of us to contemplate and discuss.

The politics of the Eichmann capture and trial were no different in 1960 through 1962 than they are today. Israel’s foes and many of its friends alike spoke out in strident tones condemning her action in entering foreign soil without permission to capture Eichmann, to try him for actions that were not crimes when committed and in a nation that was not at that time in existence. Some suggested he be released, others wanted the trial, if held at all, to be conducted by the former Nuremberg Tribunal, or in a country were the Shoah had occurred. The author opined that this was the first time since the 1947 War of Independence that Israel had forcefully asserted its sovereignty. Its action brought on a cultural change, moving Israel from a defeated nation to one with equal status in the council of nations. Internally there was political unrest. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was extremely cautious about the capture of Eichmann. His concern was not only the political repercussions if the mission was a failure but also if it were successful. One cannot help but imagine that President Obama had similar concerns when he authorized the raid in Pakistan for Osama Bin Laden. What are your thoughts?

The most contentious issue between Prime Minister Ben Gurion and Attorney General Gideon Hausner was the use of Shoah survivors as witnesses or references to them. The Israeli public had little sympathy for the survivors and treated them as outcasts. The conventional wisdom at the time was they acted “like lambs being led to the slaughter” and should have resisted if need be to the death. This view was prevalent in the diaspora. Hannah Arendt, the noted political theorist, philosopher and writer was one of its most strident and outspoken champions. Hausner won out and the testimony of many Shoah survivors was entered into evidence, relating the horrors inflicted upon the Jews people in order to implement Hitler’s “Final Solution”.

The author vehemently took to task the thesis espoused by Hannah Arendt and those who continue to denigrate the Shoah survivors for failing to resist Hitler’s minions. Her proof is in part predicated on the fact that subsequent to the trial Israelis and the Jews in the diaspora treated the Shoah survivors with new-found respect and compassion. Deborah Lipstad opined that “Survivors speaking in the first person singular had a semantic historical and moral authority that trumped the psychologists, designers, historians, and other experts.” She took the position that but for the Eichmann trial this might have never happened. Her thesis was that “This trial, whose main objective was bringing a Nazi who helped organize and carry out genocide to justice, transformed Jewish life and society as much as it passed judgment on a murderer. In the general world it changed our perception of the victims of genocide.”

I welcome your comments concerning the author’s and Hannah Arendt’s opinions on how the victims of the Shoah conducted themselves and the role of the survivors at the trial. Please join the conversation on any aspect of this significant Jewish book.

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One Response to “The Eichmann Trial”

  1. avatar

    This was an excellent book, I highly recommend it. My only complaint is that I felt the author went too much into detail about Hannah Ardent and her works. Otherwise the historical background and facts were very well presented.

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