Remaking the image of Adolph Eichmann’s Jerusalem trial

The Eichmann Trial, by Deborah E. Lipstadt. Nextbook/Schocken. 272 pages. $24.95.

Was the trial of Adolph Eichmann an attempt to bring a notorious Nazi leader to justice, or was its purpose to present to the watching world a broad understanding of the Holocaust, its genesis, and its consequences? As Deborah E. Lipstadt rolls out her remarkable story of this watershed event, she makes it clear that while the trial’s judges preferred to stick narrowly to the issue of the specific charges against Eichmann, the lead prosecutor, Gideon Hauser, took every opportunity to paint the larger picture. In the end, not only was a monstrous criminal brought to justice, but media coverage of the lead-up, conduct, and aftermath of the trail educated the world-wide public about the Holocaust with a degree of detail and with an impact that had never before been accomplished. 

 

The wider lens of prosecution testimony allowed not only survivor evidence against Eichmann, but also, perhaps more importantly, an evidentiary theme that countered the anti-Semitic view that Jews were somehow culpable because they offered little resistance. This perspective is utterly demolished.

Also, while it’s true that Jewish prisoners where sometimes part of the machinery that put other Jews to death, the trial made it clear that there was little, if anything, that they could have done.

In her compact and lucid book’s well-carved chapters, Professor Lipstadt takes on several other significant issues that expand our understanding of the trial’s importance.

One key issue was the right of the Israeli government to mount a legal procedure about events that occurred before the founding modern Israel in 1948. The author clearly and concisely explains the bases on which Israeli representatives argued that its court had appropriate jurisdiction for this trial. In addition, the prosecution prevailed against challenges based on the way in which Israeli agents captured Eichmann in Argentina. The prosecutors were even able to counter effectively the powerful charge that there was no way that Eichmann could get a fair trial in Israel. Professor Lipstadt carefully summarizes the arguments that eventually prevailed.

The author’s examination of Eichmann’s own testimony reveals a defense that rested on an untenable “just following orders” strategy. Consistently casting himself as a mere functionary and not a decision-maker, Eichmann undermined this explanation by also trying to cast himself as someone who made decisions that actually benefitted the Jews. This inconsistency was readily apparent.

In writing The Eichmann Trial, Lipstadt had no choice but to assess the achievement, reputation, and influence of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 volume Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Many of the pre-publication reviews of Lipstadt’s book praise her for rescuing the public image of Eichmann and of the trial from Arendt’s distorted vision. While this is no doubt part of Lipstadt’s achievement, I find her discussion of Arendt’s book to be even-handed in that the Lipstadt goes out of her way to credit Arendt with many important insights. Moreover, by culturally and biographically contextualizing Eichmann in Jerusalem, Lipstadt helps us understand what gave rise to the less attractive aspects of Arendt’s purported on-the-scene reportage.

The Eichmann Trial also presents abundant source notes and a helpful chronology.

The 1961 Eichmann trial, as Deborah E. Lipstadt recreates it, is more than anything else a landmark step in Israel’s development as a nation. This was Israeli’s bar mitzvah year. Only thirteen years of age, the State of Israel showed itself to be a capable and credible governmental entity, with top notch security and judicial institutions. The troublesome question remains of whether Israel can or should assert itself as the national voice of Jews everywhere.

This review appears in the December 2011 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, FL), The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee), and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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