Eichmann in the dock again

The 50th anniversary of the trial and execution of the Final Solution’s master bureaucrat has inspired a number of books, exhibitions and films. David Cesarani assesses their contribution to our understanding of both the event and the man.

Adolf Eichmann sits in a glass booth as chief-prosecutor Gideon Hausner addresses the court in Jerusalem. Getty Images/Time Life
Adolf Eichmann sits in a glass booth as chief-prosecutor Gideon Hausner addresses the court in Jerusalem. Getty Images/Time Life

Fifty years after his capture and trial the fascination with Adolf Eichmann seems undiminished. Major exhibitions about the proceedings in Jerusalem and their impact have recently opened in Paris and Berlin; conferences have been or will be held in Haifa, Budapest, Paris, Berlin and Los Angeles.

Deborah Lipstadt, the distinguished American Jewish historian, has written a fresh account of the trial, while a new biography of Eichmann was published in Germany in April. A new documentary about him, made by Michäel Prazen, was aired on the TV channel France 2 in the same month. But are the curators, historians and film-makers offering us anything new?

The biography by the German researcher Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann vor Jerusalem, certainly contains some important revelations. She discloses that the West German intelligence service had located Eichmann in Argentina as early as 1952, four years before the CIA. Neither agency, however, seems to have informed the Israelis, who had to wait for a tip-off from Fritz Bauer, the attorney general of the German state of Hesse. Bauer had received information from a blind German-Jewish emigré in Buenos Aires whose daughter was dating one of Eichmann’s sons.

Stangneth unearthed one of the most extraordinary items in the exhibition on Eichmann at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris (until September 28th; www.memorialdelashoah.org): the draft of a letter that Eichmann wrote in 1956 from Argentina to the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, proposing that he return to Germany to stand trial. Eichmann claimed that he wanted to set the record straight and inform young Germans about what really happened under Hitler but his motives and the fate of the letter remain murky.

The letter was to be accompanied by a 40-page life story, one of many that Eichmann penned. Indeed, the Eichmann that emerges from these new enquiries is relentlessly prolific on paper and loquacious. According to Stangneth he even wrote a semi-autobiographical novel while he was in hiding. It is entitled Tucaman, the name of the province in which he spent his first years in Argentina. His family refuse to release the manuscript.

The Paris exhibition also reveals the notes he took during his trial and which he passed on to his attorney, Dr Robert Servatius. These precise, orderly jottings show that, contrary to the image created at the time by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt of a dull-witted administrator, Eichmann was a tenacious and alert adversary. (Arendt covered the trial for the New Yorker magazine, the articles were later published in book form in 1963 as Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil.) Also on show is the flow-chart he drew up to illustrate the mechanics of the Final Solution. This multi-coloured diagram is of such stupefying complexity that Eichmann and his office become almost invisible.

Also among the previously unseen documents are some of the hundreds of letters sent to the Israeli prime minister, David Ben Gurion, following his announcement that Eichmann had been seized. They range from demands that Eichmann be subjected to the cruellest torture to aspirations for a dignified and fair trial. People around the world also wrote letters to the imprisoned man. Some offered counsel, others consolation. At least one old Nazi called on Eichmann not to concede an inch.

The exhibitions and the books confirm that the trial opened a new era for the survivors, who were given a platform and featured in the world’s media for the first time. But they are also critical of certain aspects of the proceedings. The prosecutor, the Israeli attorney general Gideon Hausner, in particular, emerges with a diminished reputation. Deborah Lipstadt is especially caustic about his lack of preparation. However, she reserves her most strident criticism for Hannah Arendt’s response.

The Berlin exhibition, Facing Justice: Adolf Eichmann on Trial at the Topography of Terror memorial site (until September 18th; www.topographie.de), also dissects Arendt’s version, with unflattering results. She left the trial before Eichmann gave testimony in person and never saw him battling with Hausner, displaying the intelligence and initiative that made him far more than an intellectually challenged bureaucrat.

Rather belatedly, on April 9th this year, the Israeli Cabinet approved four million New Shekels (£700,000) for activities to commemorate the trial. Long before this, however, the Israeli State Archives and Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust) collaborated to upload the film of the entire trial onto YouTube. This innovation allows researchers and the public to watch the proceedings unfold and to get some sense of why it made such an impact.

It is to the credit of the French researchers that they devote part of their exhibition to Leo Hurwitz (1909-91), the New York Jew who was largely responsible for the footage. Hurwitz, a left-wing documentary film-maker, was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s. But his determination to secure the contract for the project and his direction have left us a monumental film record of a pivotal moment in both Jewish history and the evolution of the law dealing with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

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