looking back

Lessons learned from the trial of Adolf Eichmann

Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of the start of Eichmann's trial


Adolf Eichmann at trial

When Adolf Eichmann’s trial began in a Jerusalem courtroom on April 11, 1961, the world was about to reckon — in an infinitely deeper and more meaningful way than it had before — with the blinding horror of the Nazi genocide. Eichmann, a major architect of the so-called Final Solution to exterminate the Jews, had been hiding in Argentina before he was captured by Mossad agents, brought to Israel and cross-examined from within a bulletproof booth in what was the first televised trial in history. 

The prosecution, however, was about more than just one perpetrator as witnesses who never encountered Eichmann came forth to testify. “It was the first time that the world heard from survivors of the Holocaust — most of whom were young men and women — in such a concerted fashion,” historian Deborah Lipstadt, the author of The Eichmann Trial, told Jewish Insider. Not that they hadn’t spoken before: The English translation of Elie Wiesel’s Night, for instance, had been published a year earlier. “But in this case,” Lipstadt said, “the whole world was watching.”

Sunday marks 60 years since the beginning of Eichmann’s trial, which remains a “pivotal event in Jewish history, Israeli history and world history,” according to Lipstadt. For Israel in particular, then just over a decade out from its foundation, the trial was instrumental in reshaping the national ethos. Israelis who had previously regarded Holocaust survivors as weak and passive in the face of Nazi aggression suddenly found that they had been mistaken. “They saw people who, there but fortune,” Lipstadt said, “go you or I.”

Above all, “this was the first time in 2,000 years that the Jewish people got to sit in judgment on someone who had done them evil,” Lipstadt told JI. “They did not have to depend on secular authorities acting on their behalf. They did not have to plead for justice to be done. And they rendered justice.”

Eichmann was ultimately found guilty on a 15-count indictment including crimes against humanity and then executed by hanging — a conviction that brought renewed interest in finding and prosecuting Nazis, according to Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Even after six decades, as the era of Nazi hunting comes to an end, the trial “continues to offer a significant lesson on the importance of bringing evil to justice,” said Neal Bascomb, the author of Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. “Yes, the trial ultimately convicted Eichmann for his crimes, a necessary act,” Bascomb added. “But I would argue that this was the least of its impact.” More significantly, he argued, the trial “served as a model” to pursue other World War II criminals as well as perpetrators of international war crimes today.

The trial also “opened the floodgates,” as Bascomb put it, for storytelling about the Holocaust. Before the trial, “few writers, filmmakers or historians were creating works about the Jewish experience” during the war, he said. “It is almost like the trial finally gave permission for people to tell their stories, for artists to expose their truths about it, for historians to investigate it deeply and thoroughly. That continues to this very day, and I would say the wellspring began 60 years ago.”

There has certainly been much written about the trial itself, most notably Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she conceived of the “banality of evil” after reporting on the trial for The New Yorker. Controversially, Arendt argued that Eichmann was merely a sort of obedient and buffoonish bureaucrat rather than a man who had actively worked to annihilate six million Jews as the head of Jewish affairs for the Third Reich. Her portrayal has been challenged by scholars, including Lipstadt.

The story of Eichmann’s abduction and eventual trial endures thanks to such experts as Avner Avraham, a former Israeli intelligence official who has curated exhibitions on the Nazi war criminal and served as a consultant on the 2018 film “Operation Finale,” about the covert mission to abduct Eichmann in South America.

“I feel that my personal mission is to teach about the capture of Eichmann and to teach about the Holocaust,” Avraham told JI in an interview. “People like spy stories, so you come with a spy story. But at the end of the day, you teach them the Holocaust.”

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