Fifty Years After: A Critical Look at the Eichmann Trial

Article excerpt

The Prosecution in the Eichmann trial exaggerated Eichmann's role in the Holocaust, due to political considerations and ignorance. New information, including the reports of a trial observer, a German prosecutor experienced in Nazi crimes, helps to establish the level of knowledge available in 1961. Placed into the context of investigation files dealing with the most important Holocaust related crimes up to 1961, an in-depth assessment of the extent to which the prosecution's case against Eichmann reflected the historical facts is possible. Hannah Arendt and other commentators' assertion, that the Eichmann trial was instrumental in starting a wave of prosecutions of Nazi crimes in Germany, can now be shown to be unfounded. A close look at the Prosecution's evidence demonstrates the problems associated with the utilization of post-war affidavits of Nazi perpetrators and the selective use of survivor testimony. This makes the didactic significance doubtful, with recent commentators attributed to the case.

I.   A VIEW ON THE PAST FROM THE PRESENT
II.  THE POLITICAL FACTOR
III. THE EICHMANN TRIAL IN THE NAZI
     PROSECUTION FRAMEWORK OF 1961
     A. Zeug's Reports
IV.  WAS ZEUG'S CRITICISM JUSTIFIED?
V.   THE CRIMES EICHMANN COMMITTED AND
THOSE HE DID NOT COMMIT
     A. "Aktion Reinhardt"
     B. Sonderkommmando 1005
     C. Mobile Killing Units (Einsatzgruppen)
VI.  CRITICISM AND APPLAUSE
     A. Legal Considerations
     B. Empowerment of Victims?
     C. On Show Trials and Narratives

I. A VIEW ON THE PAST FROM THE PRESENT

At the time of a major anniversary--a half century--we do not only look back at the past event, but also measure the distance between then and now. What has happened in between? Has our knowledge increased? Has our view of the past changed?

Concerning the Eichmann trial, recently discovered Israeli archival findings provide an in-depth view on the political background of the case. Likewise, the reports of a trial observer, a prosecutor experienced in the investigation of Holocaust crimes, now help us to assess whether the case against Eichmann correctly reflected the level of knowledge about Nazi crimes available in 1961. These two sources can assist us in taking a critical look at opinions about the Eichmann trial voiced in the literature in the last fifteen years. Was the trial instrumental in empowering Holocaust survivors by giving them a voice? Is the didactic result, the narrative generated, equally or more important than the strict observation of the rule of law?

II. THE POLITICAL FACTOR

The findings of Israeli historians add a new dimension to our knowledge of the political background of the Eichmann trial. (1) David Ben-Gurion, then Prime Minister of Israel and a towering figure in Israeli politics, set the tone when he announced Adolf Eichmann's capture to the Knesset on May 23, 1960, calling Eichmann "the greatest war criminal of all time." (2) The trial was meant to remind the world that "the Holocaust obligated them to support the only Jewish state on earth;" (3) to establish the Holocaust as a unique historical event; to educate the younger generation in Israel about the past; to strengthen the Zionist narrative; and to create a link between the Arabs and the Holocaust. "The trial was only a medium ... the real purpose of the trial was to give voice to the Jewish people, for whom Israel claimed to speak in the ideological spirit of Zionism." (4) Consequently, Ben-Gurion attacked critics who argued that Eichmann should be tried by an international court as anti-Semites or Jews with an inferiority complex. (5) The Israeli government invested a lot to give the trial as much media prominence as possible. (6) A specific view on history--"The subject of the trial was Jewish suffering: the Jewish nation was presented as a constant victim throughout history" (7)--was clear not only from Ben-Gurion's statements, but also from the language used throughout the trial by Attorney General and chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner. …