Deborah Lipstadt: The Eichmann Trial
Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, talks about the capture of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann by Israeli agents in Argentina in May of 1960, and how his subsequent trial in Jerusalem by an Israeli court electrified the world and sparked a public debate on where, how, and by whom Nazi war criminals should be brought to justice. The Eichmann Trial gives an overview of the trial and analyzes the dramatic effect that the survivors’ courtroom testimony had on the world.
Deborah Lipstadt: Eichmann Trial Reconsidered
Source: The Daily Beast, 4-13-11
On the 50th anniversary of the Adolf Eichmann trial, historian Deborah Lipstadt explains the worldwide fascination with the case and how it changed justice for victims everywhere.
On April 11, 1961 scores of reporters from throughout the world—far more than had been present at the Nuremberg tribunals 15 years earlier—gathered in Jerusalem. They were there for the beginning of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a legal process that changed not just how the world thinks about genocide, but how it sees the victims of this horrific crime. More than an historical artifact, the trial continues to reverberate into our own age; the journalists in the courtroom, as much as the Nazi in the dock and the survivors on the witness stand, were part of the story.
On that spring day in Jerusalem, the excitement of the journalists was palpable. This trial, they predicted, would be different from all the war crimes tribunals which had preceded it. Precisely 11 months earlier, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion had set off a media maelstrom when he strode into the Knesset and, with no warning, announced that Adolf Eichmann, the man he considered the architect of the Final Solution, was in Israel’s hands and would be tried in an Israeli court.
The high drama of Eichmann’s kidnapping on the streets of Buenos Aires by Israeli agents was thrilling enough, but what Ben-Gurion understood, and what the journalists were there to cover, was a trial conceived as compelling theater.
This would be the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. that Jews would sit in judgment of a non-Jew who had done them wrong. The existence of a Jewish state, a place where there were more Holocaust survivors than anywhere else, made this possible, but the existence of television sets in millions of homes made it part of mass culture.
This was the first time a trial was broadcast internationally. ABC, CBS, and NBC were miffed when Israel gave the rights to a small unknown company called Capital Cities, which eventually became the parent company of ABC. (Israel stipulated that Capital Cities had to share the footage with other media outlets.) The networks offered both specials and regular reports on the trial. Americans could watch the previous day’s proceedings over dinner. And they did. So too did viewers in close to forty other countries. (One country where the broadcasts were unavailable was Israel, which did not offer broadcasting services until 1966.) I suspect that watching snippets of the trial on television as a child helped push me toward my present career.
It’s unsurprising that the trial crops up in the first season of Mad Men—a Jewish character, feeling the sting of discrimination in postwar Manhattan, has already made a touchstone of his capture and impending trial, learned via television in her living room.
With the Eichmann trial, the medium and the method were perfectly joined. At Nuremberg, the crime of genocide was a sidebar, an example of one of the many crimes against humanity the Third Reich had committed. Moreover, that proceeding was built, almost entirely, on documents. Witnesses, the prosecution assumed, could not be trusted to tell their story in a fashion that would convince the judges. In contrast, the Eichmann trial was the first war crimes trial to rely heavily on victims’ testimony. Israel’s Attorney General, Gideon Hausner, intent on painting a complete tableau of this crime, one that would convey its emotional impact, actively sought out survivors with a “good story to tell.” Day after day survivors entered the witness box and spoke in the first person singular. Never before had the world heard the victims—men and women in their 40s—describe in such detail what had been done to them. Though scores of documents were submitted, it was the victims’ stories that captivated the audience. Ironically, the judges were among the few observers who responded otherwise. They noted that while the testimony of Holocaust survivors “who poured out their hearts as they stood in the witness box” would be useful to historians, for them it was just “a by-product of the trial.” Instead, they based their judgment on the documents. This was a valid jurisprudential decision. Robert Servatius, Eichmann’s defense attorney, well aware that he was in a courtroom filled with survivors, had been reluctant to vigorously grill the survivors in order to expose any possible inconsistencies or inaccuracies in their statements. At subsequent war crimes trials the victims have generally had a far more confrontational courtroom experience…. READ MORE