Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. AP

Eichmann and the Bomb: How Israel's Fledgling Nuke Program Impacted the Nazi's Trial

New book explores the diplomatic balancing act faced by Ben-Gurion

“The Furnace and the Reactor: Behind the Scenes at the Eichmann Trial,” by Ora Herman, Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Sifriat Poalim (in Hebrew)

On May 23, 1960, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made a dramatic announcement in the Knesset: “Some time ago Israel’s security services tracked down one of the biggest Nazi criminals, Adolf Eichmann, who together with the chief Nazis was responsible for what they called ‘the final solution.’” The Eichmann affair ended two years later, just as dramatically: At midnight between May 31 and June 1, 1962, Eichmann was hanged at Ramle Prison. That was the only execution in the entire history of the State of Israel. The trial itself lasted from April 11 to August 13, 1961. The court sentenced Eichmann to death on December 15, 1961. The ruling by the Supreme Court, which rejected the appeal of the sentence, was handed down on May 29, 1962 – two days before he was executed.

Following Ben-Gurion’s announcement, the heart of the Israeli public skipped a beat. Poet Natan Alterman described the excitement that gripped the public with the news of Eichmann’s capture: “A Jewish woman was walking down a street in Tel Aviv and was astonished to see people standing and reading pages of newspapers fresh off the press as though at a time of a declaration of war.” When she read the large print declaring that Eichmann had been captured and brought to Israel, “She stood for a moment, swayed and fell into a faint.” That, said Alterman, was the reaction of “a Jewish woman on the evening of an ordinary weekday, near the central bus station in Tel Aviv” (“Scales of Justice,” Davar, May 27, 1960).

GPO and Fritz Cohen

The Eichmann trial was a junction where a number of key issues in the history of the state intersected. It was the preeminent Holocaust trial: The accused was the murderer, whereas in the Kastner trial – which saw Rudolph Kastner, a Zionist activist who had bribed the Nazis to allow nearly 1,700 Hungarian Jews to escape, judged to have been a collaborator – the victim was at the center. It changed the attitude of Israeli society towards the Holocaust of European Jewry and its victims in a very significant way, and was one of the constitutive events of the early 1960s that led to “the end of the beginning” – the end of the era of the establishment of the state and the start of a new, more mature, more skeptical era. At pretty much the same time the country was embroiled in the Lavon affair – a bungled covert operation in Egypt that led to the resignation of defense minister Pinhas Lavon – which together with the Eichmann trial was testimony to and a symbol of Ben-Gurion’s status: While the Eichmann trial reflected his greatness, the Lavon affair signaled his decline.

Ora Herman’s new book “The Furnace and the Reactor: Behind the Scenes at the Eichmann Trial,” which has recently been published in Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Sifriat Poalim, deals with a number of topics having to do with the Eichmann trial and the connections between the trial and Israel’s relations with West Germany. “Ben-Gurion was determined,” writes the author, “that in the Eichmann trial the nation would grapple with the tragedy of the Jewish past, but he was also equally determined that Israel would establish a system to defend itself against another Holocaust – the reactor in Dimona.” Ben-Gurion did not invoke the Holocaust much but he was deeply anxious about the terrible possibility that another Holocaust would bring about the destruction of what remained of the Jewish people after the slaughter in Europe. Therefore he insisted on developing unconventional weaponry and was prepared to accept essential aid for its development from any country, including West Germany.

Herman devoted many years to the research upon which her book is based and to the writing of it. The result is a thorough, comprehensive and responsible tome dealing with subjects never before probed by research and includes previously unpublished documentation. The book is an important, detailed and fascinating study of the Eichmann trial.


Tiptoeing between the raindrops

West Germany under Konrad Adenauer, first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and “founding father” of the German democracy, was very helpful in the development of this weaponry – a fact that can be seen as an irony of history. Shortly before Eichmann’s capture, in March 1960, Adenauer and Ben-Gurion met in New York. The chancellor promised his interlocutor an annual loan of DM 200 million (about $48 million at the time, equivalent to about $394 million today) for 10 years “via an initial project that is already prepared” – delicately hinting at the reactor in Dimona. The first part of the loan was given on August 14, 1961, one day after the end of the trial. The final approval had been given only following the appeal and the execution, on June 8, 1962, “and with reason.” Herman stresses that from Adenauer’s perspective there was a close connection between the aid and the trial. He demanded that the trial not hurt his country’s image.

Ben-Gurion wanted to conduct the trial without damaging the delicate fabric of relations between Israel and “the different Germany.” In his book “The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust” (1993, Hill & Wang), historian Tom Segev related that the prosecutor in the trial, Gideon Hausner, took an unusual step: He sent the prime minister a draft of his opening speech and Ben-Gurion demanded that he amend it to protect the image of West Germany. Segev noted that Ben-Gurion asked Hausner to add the word “Nazi” to the word “Germany” to distinguish between Hitler’s Germany and Adenauer’s.

Strump / AP

A key question in this context surrounds Hans Globke, the chancellor’s right-hand man who was involved in the contacts with Israel concerning the arms deal. He also had “a glorious past” in the days of the Third Reich: He was the man responsible for the “legal formulation of the Nuremberg Laws that authorized the deportation of the Jews and subsequently their slaughter.” As legal adviser to the Interior Ministry, Globke had helped Eichmann find a “legal” way to steal the property of German Jews. The West German government in Bonn did all it could to forestall the possibility of his name and his deeds coming up in the trial. Even before the proceedings began, Adenauer sent a personal emissary to Jerusalem to clarify with Ben-Gurion whether Globke’s name would be mentioned. The prime minister, who was perfectly familiar with the man’s Nazi past, reassured the emissary and told him things that are hard to view as justifiable: “There is no need to talk about Globke since Adenauer investigated his past much better than Israel could, before taking him on as his adviser.”

In his diary, Ben-Gurion explicitly noted that Globke “is the one who wrote the legal interpretations of the Nuremberg Laws,” but added that he was “behaving well” towards Israel. Hausner claimed he rejected the prime minister’s request that he not submit to the court documentation that implicated Globke. Ben-Gurion, he wrote, “felt uncomfortable” and expressed anger at his position. Through the discussion of “the Globke affair,” the author of the book shows how the prime minister had to tiptoe between the raindrops because the trial touched upon a number of delicate, explosive issues.

Without Betar, with the Communists

There is a fascinating discussion in the book about the question of the selection of witnesses for the prosecution in the trial. Hausner detailed his considerations in this matter, the sensitivity of which cannot be overstated, in his book “Justice in Jerusalem” (Harper & Row, 1966). He noted that it was not a matter of ordinary witnesses – because of the trauma they had experienced – and that he had selected witnesses able to convey what they had seen and experienced on their own flesh, and were articulate.


To make this point clear, he recounted his visit to Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot to speak with kibbutz members Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman and his wife Zivia Lubetkin, heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. For him, the conversation with them in their modest apartment was a profound experience. Herman writes: “Apparently, to a certain extent the witnesses were also selected under [Zuckerman and Lubetkin’s] influence.”

The book also brings up another point in this connection: the political aspect of the selection of witnesses. “On the issue of the fighting in the ghettoes there was a struggle for ‘the credit’ for the heroism raging between the movements from the left and the movements from the right,” notes Herman.

The outstanding witnesses who had testified about the uprisings were people from the left: the couple Zuckerman and Lubetkin, and poet Abba Kovner. The people from Betar – the Revisionist youth movement associated with the Herut party – felt discriminated against because their part in the Warsaw ghetto uprising was not represented at the trial. Izik Ramba, editor of the daily Herut, sent Hausner a letter in which he accused him of political considerations in the witness selection. Hausner’s heartfelt reply to him was that he had been appalled to read the accusation because he had an interest in giving prominence to the testimony of Dr. Adolf Berman, a leader of the Israeli Communist Party, as the Eichmann trial was “the Jew’s trial against his oppressor.” In the emotional exchange, one point did not come up: Two of the witnesses called by the prosecution were members of the Knesset at the time, Benno Cohen and Zvi Zimmerman, both from Hausner’s own Liberal Party. The research has never mentioned or explained this point.

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