Another Take on the Eichmann Trial

Historian Deborah Lipstadt's overview of the Eichmann trial is a useful summary of an event that can offer some lessons for our own times, and newly declassified U.S. files show that the pursuit of war criminals requires political will.

Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff
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Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff

The Eichmann Trial, by Deborah Lipstadt. Nextbook/Schocken, 272 pages, $25.95

Hitler's Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, U.S. Intelligence and the Cold War, by Richard Breitman & Norman J.W. Goda, U.S. National Archives (available online at )

Adolf Eichmann (background) at his trial in Jerusalem, 1961

This year's 50th anniversary of the trial of Adolf Eichmann is naturally the springboard for much public conversation about bringing war criminals to justice, but a glance at the headlines makes it clear this issue is not merely of historical interest. Sobibor death camp guard John Demjanjuk was recently convicted in Germany; pastor Francois Bazaramba last year began serving a life sentence in Finland for his role in the Rwandan genocide; and Radovan Karadzic is on trial in The Hague for war crimes against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. And Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the Darfur genocide. Perhaps the Eichmann trial can offer some lessons for our own times.

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The dust jacket of Deborah Lipstadt's new book, "The Eichmann Trial," characterizes it as "an overview" of the trial of the mastermind of the Final Solution, and readers who know little of the events in question may find it useful as a summary.

Making extensive use of secondary source material rather than new research, Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory University, begins by recounting the familiar story of Eichmann's escape to Argentina after World War II and his capture in May 1960 by the Mossad.

Israel endured a wave of criticism for bringing the arch-war criminal to justice. The Washington Post condemned David Ben-Gurion's government for practicing "jungle law," while a New York Times editorial called the capture of Eichmann "immoral" as well as "illegal." Leaders of the American Jewish Committee, seeking to cast the Holocaust in more universalist terms, complained to Ben-Gurion that Eichmann should be judged not by a Jewish court but by an international tribunal. Lipstadt supports Ben-Gurion on the propriety of Israel's action, but in general portrays Israel's first prime minister in unflattering terms: He lacks patience, he "bristles" and "explodes," and he has "an over-sized ego."

For further reading:

'Memories of the Eichmann Trial' / From testimony to proof
`Technocrats of genocide'
If not now, when?

The question of Ben-Gurion's role in the trial surfaces repeatedly in the book, but is never clearly answered. Lipstadt acknowledges that aside from making a few suggestions regarding the prosecutor's opening statement, he did not seek to influence the trial. (Israeli historian Yechiam Weitz's 2009 study of cabinet minutes from the period confirms this. ) Yet Lipstadt writes that the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, saw the trial as "by extension, Ben-Gurion's." She also asserts that since one particular witness was a political ally of Ben-Gurion's, there is "good reason to assume" he testified as a result of "political pressure." Some documentary evidence would have been better than an assumption. Likewise, Lipstadt contends that Hausner's references to Eichmann's ties to the Palestinian Arab leader Haj Amin al-Husseini were actually "an expression of Ben-Gurion's conviction that the Arab nations were the heirs to the Nazi desire to destroy as many Jews as possible." Her source is a Ben-Gurion interview with The New York Times in 1961 in which, she asserts, he tried to paint Arab regimes as "the Nazis' heirs." But an examination of the article itself shows what Ben-Gurion actually said was that Egypt's anti-Israel propaganda contained anti-Semitic themes resembling Nazi slanders (true ), which he attributed to the presence of numerous ex-Nazis in the Nasser government (also true ). In this context, it is worth recalling that when Israel wanted to penetrate the Syrian government in the 1960s, it used a native Arabic speaker (Eli Cohen ), but when it sought to infiltrate the Egyptian missile industry, only a native-born German could blend in, because there were so many Nazis involved; hence the choice of Wolfgang Lotz, the so-called "champagne spy."

Memory loss

Eichmann's eight-month trial contained few surprises, since the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming. Documents introduced by the prosecution described his central role in the genocide process, and survivors testified about some of his specific acts of cruelty. Eichmann himself gave his Israeli police interrogators lengthy accounts of his wartime activities that deeply incriminated him. Aside from some transparent attempts to feign memory loss or implausibly deny the mountain of evidence against him, Eichmann's last line of defense was his now-infamous claim that he was just following orders. The three judges were not impressed.

The trial also drew attention to a number of controversies that Lipstadt does not adequately address. She reports that Eichmann escaped to Argentina "with the help of Catholic officials who had the imprimatur of high - if not the very highest - Vatican offices," but does not indicate which officials were involved or why. She mentions testimony about Allied air strikes on Hungarian railway stations, but does not explain that it was the Eichmann trial that triggered the first extensive postwar discussion about the Allies' refusal to bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz.

One of the best-known debates to emerge from the Eichmann trial revolved around the assertion by political philosopher Hannah Arendt that Eichmann was an ordinary, "banal" bureaucrat who was not motivated by anti-Semitism. The dust-up Arendt provoked, nearly a year after Eichmann's execution, certainly stirred passions, but whether Arendt's work can be said to have "shaped contemporary perceptions of the Final Solution," as Lipstadt believes, is certainly debatable. According to Lipstadt, Arendt's "perspectives [on the Holocaust] constitute the prism through which many people's view of the Holocaust is refracted." She adds that, for many people, "Arendt was more a central character in the Eichmann story than Eichmann himself." It would be interesting to know how Lipstadt reached this conclusion, since those statements of hers do not include source notes. Likewise, no source is given for Lipstadt's assertion that "some of the passionate fury against [Arendt] was intensified because she was a woman." By the end of the chapter, readers may well wonder if perhaps Lipstadt is taking Arendt a little more seriously than she deserves. Surely by now the exposure of Arendt's bigoted remarks about East European Jews and her longtime affair with Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger have severely eroded Arendt's credibility on all these issues.

Those who hoped the Eichmann trial would inspire other governments to actively pursue Nazi war criminals were to be disappointed. West German officials promised "an avalanche of prosecutions," but in the end it was an avalanche "only in contrast to what preceded them," Lipstadt points out. "Furthermore, the sentences meted out were often embarrassingly short, given the nature of the crime." The United States, for its part, exhibited little interest in Nazi war criminals living in America, until congressional action in 1978 created the Office of Special Investigations, a government agency devoted to pursuing ex-Nazis on U.S. soil.

Declassified documents

Lipstadt has little to say about U.S. policy regarding Nazi war criminals, but Richard Breitman and Norman J.W. Goda, in "Hitler's Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, U.S. Intelligence, and the Cold War," fill in some of the gaps. On behalf of a U.S. government study group, they accessed thousands of pages of newly declassified CIA and military intelligence documents that shed light on what U.S. government agencies knew about ex-Nazis and what they did about them. The CIA kept tabs, for example, on mass murderer Wilhelm Beisner, Hitler's liaison to Haj Amin al-Husseini and other Arabs living in Berlin during the war. Beisner escaped prosecution by going to work for the French and West German intelligence services, and then moving to Cairo to help build the Egyptian military industry (which is what Ben-Gurion was talking about ). One CIA report quoted Beisner as saying that the young Gamal Abdel Nasser had worked for the Germans during World War II before becoming president of Egypt. The CIA was also aware that Beisner was in close contact with Nazi fugitives in Syria, including one of Eichmann's top aides, Alois Brunner.

The declassified files also shed new light on the relationship between the U.S. Army's Counter Intelligence Corps and ex-Gestapo officers. The best-known of these was the infamous war criminal Klaus Barbie, who, along with others, was hired to penetrate the German Communist Party in a clandestine U.S. operation known as Project Happiness. It certainly brought happiness to more than a few Nazis, including Anton Mahler, chief torturer of the White Rose student dissidents. Mahler did not hide from U.S. agents his service in an Einsatzgruppe death squad, but the American authorities were more interested in having him spy on Communists than seeing him punished for his war crimes. Mahler received just a slap on the wrist after a Bavarian state court later convicted him of various atrocities.

Even though its own files described Ukrainian nationalist activist Mykola Lebed as "a well-known sadist and collaborator of the Germans," the Counter Intelligence Corps supplied and financed his followers in exchange for information on Ukrainian emigres and goings-on inside postwar Soviet Ukraine. Lebed himself moved to the United States, where his Ukrainian nationalist propaganda activities were generously supported by the CIA for decades. Zbigniew Brzezinski, as U.S. President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser in 1977, increased the level of support. When the Office of Special Investigations began looking into Lebed's past in 1985, the CIA pressured it to drop the investigation. Lebed died a free man in 1998.

Historians now know that political considerations tainted the pursuit of Nazi war criminals even before the Allies arrested their first Nazi. In 1943, the Allies, looking ahead to the postwar period, established a War Crimes Commission. The U.S. delegate to the commission, Herbert Pell, favored prosecuting all Nazi war criminals, but the U.S. State Department wanted to prosecute only a small number of the most prominent ones, in order to avoid ruffling feathers in postwar Germany. The State Department even sent an emissary to London, where the commission meetings were held, to spy on Pell and undermine his work. In late 1944, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the State Department ousted Pell on the grounds that there was no money in the federal budget to pay him. Pell's offer to work for free was rejected.

With the aid of the activist Bergson group (headed by Hillel Kook, a future Knesset member ), Pell turned the story into a public scandal. Embarrassed, the State Department reversed itself and announced it would support prosecuting all Nazi murderers of European Jews. But in the end, State had the last laugh: John J. McCloy, the U.S. High Commissioner in Germany from 1949 to 1952, granted clemency to, or drastically reduced the sentences of 74 of the 84 Nuremberg convicts who were still in jail when he took up his post.

One wonders whether Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir will likewise have the last laugh. Despite his indictment by the International Criminal Court for sponsoring the Arab militias that have massacred hundreds of thousands in Darfur, the Arab League and African Union have come to Bashir's defense, and China and Russia have continued supplying Sudan with weapons and other aid. Bashir has openly visited numerous Arab and African countries, evidently unafraid that the United States will seize him as it did Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein and the Achille Lauro hijackers. This is a curious turn of events, given candidate Barack Obama's criticism of then-President George W. Bush for not doing enough about Darfur.

Perhaps, then, one of the enduring lessons of the Eichmann episode is simply that the implementation of justice requires political will. Other governments probably knew Eichmann's whereabouts, but only Israel mustered the will to act in defiance of international criticism. Will any world leader display similar political courage against today's perpetrators of genocide?

Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies ( ).



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