Deborah Lipstadt: Demjanjuk Trial May Be Last For Holocaust Crimes

Source: NPR, 5-18-11

John Demjanjuk was convicted in Germany on 28,060 counts of accessory to murder after four decades of legal battles. Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, wrote an op-ed describing the case as likely “the last Holocaust war crimes trial.”


When the United States in 2009 sent John Demjanjuk to stand trial in Germany as an accused Nazi war criminal, many wondered: What’s the point? Or as Deborah Lipstadt put it in a recent New York Times op-ed: Wasn’t there something comic, even shameful, about dragging a dying man across the Atlantic to stand trial for a crime he committed over half a century ago? Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations, even for genocide?

Deborah Lipstadt teaches modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, and joins us now from our bureau in New York.

And thanks very much for being with us today.

Dr. DEBORAH LIPSTADT (Jewish and Holocaust Studies, Emory University): Thank you, Neal. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: And part of that question line comes – this is a man who spent six months as a guard at a death camp called Sobibor. This was not Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust.

Dr. LIPSTADT: True. It was not, well, first of all, I don’t think Adolf Eichmann was the architect, but we can talk about that later.

CONAN: All right.

Dr. LIPSTADT: He’s one of the operating – chief operating officers. But John Demjanjuk was certainly not as important as an Adolf Eichmann. He was not as high-ranking. He was Ukrainian. He was a guard. But he knew exactly what was going on. And, in fact, the judge – the German judge who found him guilty of being an accessory to murder in 28,000-plus murders made that point, that he had to know what was going on. And as every guard – the judge said every guard at Sobibor knew he was part of an organization with no other purpose but mass murder. So to say it was only six months when people like Eichmann were there – were doing this for four or five years is not really an excuse.

CONAN: And interestingly, he and Eichmann had the same excuse. They said: We had no choice.

Dr. LIPSTADT: Kill or be killed. Well, the truth of the matter is that no defense attorney, including Demjanjuk’s, has ever been able to produce any evidence – defense attorney or historian – of someone actually being killed for refusing to participate. So the idea of kill or be killed is really, I think, a bit of a myth.

Moreover – they might have been sent to the Eastern Front. They might have been sent to do terrible jobs, more dangerous jobs to them, but they weren’t forced to do that. And even if they had been forced, I think there is a – an ethical law that they very happily ignored.

CONAN: And another criticism is there was no specific evidence against John Demjanjuk charged. He was charged as an accessory to murder in the more than 28,000 deaths that occurred at the time he was a guard at the death camp. And basically, the allegation was, yes, he knew, therefore he did nothing to stop, therefore he was an accessory in all of these murders, but no specific allegation.

Dr. LIPSTADT: Well, I think there were specifics. I think – we have to remember that this wasn’t the only court that heard the evidence. He actually had been tried in three different nations: Israel, the United -first the United States, then Israel, then Germany. And all three judicial systems found him – found that he wasn’t Ivan the Terrible, as he was originally accused of being…

CONAN: Falsely.

Dr. LIPSTADT: …falsely accused of being. He was a terrible Ivan. And, in fact, it pays to see what – pay attention to what happened in Israel. After he’s stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981 and extradited to Israel, he’s put on trial. The trial lasts 17 months, an inordinately long time. He gets a guilty verdict and sentenced to death. And then, eventually, that verdict is overturned by the Israeli High Court, the equivalent of our Supreme Court. And they issue a 405-page ruling in which they say, it’s clear to us. The evidence before us shows us that this man did terrible things. There is no question about that.

But he was brought here. He was extradited from the United States as being charged as Ivan the Terrible, a specific person. There is now very good evidence to say that’s not the case, that this was mistaken identity. And even though we find him to have done terrible things, we have to overturn his verdict, because you can’t switch indictments in the middle. And they let him go.

CONAN: And they let him go.

Dr. LIPSTADT: The attorney general refused to try him again. They say -he said the atmosphere was poisoned. And, again, the attorney general repeated that they had extradited him to the United States on the charge of being Ivan the Terrible and he wasn’t, and they couldn’t now charge him as something else.

And I think it’s quite extraordinary that here was the victims’ – the heirs to the victim, you know, the Jewish state saying we know you did a terrible thing but justice demands the legal system’s trials. We have that – you’ve had a trial. You’ve been part of a legal system. The legal system demands that we let you go….READ MORE

Deborah Lipstadt: The Eichmann Trial

Deborah Lipstadt: The Eichmann Trial

Source: The Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC, 4-14-11

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Deborah Lipstadt will be in conversation with Gary Rosenblatt at the Center for Jewish History

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.

Article - Lipstadt Eichmann
Adolf Eichmann in his glass prisoner’s dock before Israel’s supreme court on May 29, 1962 in Jerusalem. (AP Photo)

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.

Book Cover - The Eichmann Trial
The Eichmann Trial. By Deborah E. Lipstadt. 272 pages. Schocken. $24.95.

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

Deborah Lipstadt: The Eichmann Trial: Fifty Years Later

Source: NPR, 3-27-11

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All Things Considered

[9 min 27 sec]

Defendant Adolf Eichmann takes  notes during his trial in Jerusalem.  The glass booth in which Eichmann sat was  erected to protect him from assassination.

Israeli Government Defendant Adolf Eichmann takes notes during his trial in Jerusalem. The glass booth in which Eichmann sat was erected to protect him from assassination.

Fifty years ago one of the world’s most notorious war criminals sat in a courtroom for a trial that would be among the first in history to be completely televised.

That man was Adolf Eichmann — and he had been in charge of transporting millions of European Jews to death camps.

A year before the 1961 trial, Eichmann had been abducted by Israeli agents while he was living in Argentina.

The trial captivated millions of people. And it was the first time many of them — including Israelis— even learned about the details of the Holocaust.

Now Deborah Lipstadt, renowned historian and professor of religion and holocaust studies at Emory University has written a new account of the trial. She tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz that the Eichmann trial was different from any other war crimes trial because it featured the stories of Holocaust survivors and captured the emotions that weren’t a part of the document-heavy Nuremberg Trials, which took place more than a decade earlier.

The Spielberg Jewish Film ArchiveWitnesses of the Eichmann Trial

Survivors Stand Up

“There was a march of survivors, I would say approximately 100 survivors, who came into the witness box and told the story of what happened to them. And people watched them and listened to them and heard them in a way they hadn’t heard them before,” Lipstadt says.

Hearing the voices of survivors wasn’t the only aspect of the trial that shook the audience; seeing Eichmann was unnerving as well. This man, who most Israelis considered one of the greatest murderers of all time, appeared so normal.

“People were amazed because he looked much more like a bureaucrat, like a pencil pusher, [with] thick black glasses, an ill-fitting suit, a man who laid out all his papers and his pens and kept polishing his glasses with a nervous tick,” she says.

Lipstadt says people asked themselves, could this really be the person responsible for the destruction of millions?

But Eichmann’s testimony, says Lipstadt, illustrated not only that he was guilty, but how “enthusiastic” he was about carrying out his orders.

The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt

The Eichmann Trial
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Hardcover, 272 pages
List Price: $24.95
Read An Excerpt

“There would be times when he would get a communique from the German Foreign Ministry saying the Italians have contacted them and there’s a Jew in Vilna, or a Jew someplace else in a ghetto who’s married to an Italian Catholic … and Eichmann would quickly rush to get the man deported, sent to Auschwitz or hidden away so that he couldn’t be turned over to the Foreign Ministry and maybe escape. He went after every individual Jew he could find,” Lipstadt says….READ MORE