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The Guilty

THIS PAST APRIL marked the fiftieth anniversary of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Captured in 1960 by the Mossad in Buenos Aires, where he had been living with his family under an assumed name, the former high-ranking SS officer and head of the Gestapo’s Department for Jewish Affairs was flown to Jerusalem, where he stood trial in an Israeli court for his pivotal role in both the design and the implementation of the Final Solution. By mid-August, Eichmann had been sentenced to death. He died by hanging in Ramle Prison in 1962, and it was decided to scatter his ashes at sea to prevent neo-Nazi efforts at commemoration.

The trial represented a true watershed in the postwar struggle to come to terms with the legacy of Nazism and the Holocaust. This anniversary thus serves as an appropriate occasion for assessing its long-term significance. The historian Deborah Lipstadt is an interesting person for the task. Although she is well-known for her studies of the American press during the Holocaust and for her comprehensive indictment of post-Holocaust revisionism, she is surely most famous for her courageous appearance in a British court to fend off charges of libel brought by the Holocaust-revisionist David Irving (an experience that she captured in full legal detail in her book History on Trial in 2005). 

Lipstadt is hardly a bashful writer, and it is chiefly her sense of personal mission that distinguishes her narrative of the Eichmann trial. Like many of the works that have appeared in the ‘Jewish Encounters’ series from Schocken and Nextbook, Lipstadt’s book combines a familiar genre of historical summation with a more unusual species of personal and historical reflection. It is a serviceable summary of the events and the major themes of the trial itself. But readers already familiar with this story will not find much to surprise them in Lipstadt’s narrative. More interesting are Lipstadt’s remarks on Hannah Arendt, whose controversial interpretation of the trial is subjected – not surprisingly -- to a severe dismantling. But what will grab the reader’s attention most of all is the unusual way Lipstadt interweaves the narrative of the Eichmann trial with more speculative remarks on its significance in relation to revisionism.

It is worth pondering why a single trial should have had the impact it did. After all, the Eichmann trial was hardly the first courtroom prosecution of former Nazis. By the end of the 1940s, the series of trials carried out by the allied military tribunal at Nuremberg had issued nearly one hundred and fifty guilty verdicts.   Lesser-known trials conducted by personnel of the United States military at the former Dachau concentration camps led to an even greater number of guilty verdicts. But the Eichmann trial was different in several ways. First and foremost, it was the trial of a single man rather than a crowd of men. In our own time, especially after the various scandals regarding the past crimes of erstwhile Nazis and collaborators, it is too easy to forget how stunning it must have seemed to witness a trial dedicated to the prosecution of a single individual. The sheer scale of Nazi war-crimes often tempts historians to philosophize in grand ways about the impossibility of representation. But when the isolated war-criminal is sitting in the courtroom in a glass box, some (though only some) of the difficulties of imagining human depravity are removed.

There is also an ethical dimension. Talk of guilt in the collective sense—even when it is framed in purely legal terms—justifiably arouses a certain unease. But assigning blame in the singular does not present the same difficulty. Even in an age of mass death, when culpability is distributed across vast populations, the moral imagination still prefers to think of guilt in the same way it thinks of innocence: as an attribute of the individual. Historians are also in the habit of isolating the exemplary case from an otherwise faceless crowd: Eichmann is a name that comes immediately to memory as a personal emblem for Nazi crimes even while many names from Nuremburg have been forgotten.

Yet there is a second and perhaps more important reason for the significance of the trial. As Lipstadt explains, the Eichmann trial was the first of its kind to focus international attention on the victims as well as the perpetrators. Just as it presented a personal face of Nazi criminality, the trial also allowed witnesses a chance to describe their experiences before a world audience that was then unaccustomed to Holocaust testimony and memoir. Yet the point should not be exaggerated. A penchant for stark contrast has moved some historians to see the 1960s as a turning point in Holocaust memory—as if nobody had heard from the victims before. Lipstadt is rightly keen to remind us that the Eichmann trial did not shatter a wall of silence because there was no silence that needed shattering. Well before 1961, the Holocaust was already the topic of official commemoration, both in Israel and elsewhere, and it was even becoming a recognizable subject in television, film and bestselling books (including Exodus, Judgment at Nuremberg, and of course Anne Frank’s diary). 

If there was a change, it was one of degree rather than kind, and it was due chiefly to a decision by the trial’s lead prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, who in preparation for the trial compiled a list of more than one hundred survivors. A commercial lawyer by training who lacked any experience in courtroom criminal law, it was Hausner most of all, with strong encouragement from David Ben-Gurion, who succeeded in making the courtroom a forum for listening at length to Eichmann’s victims. Another factor was that the very staging of the trial in Jerusalem served to reinforce the nationalist ideology of the new Jewish state: in capturing Eichmann without clearance from the Argentinian government (whose police had actually been monitoring Eichmann’s movements), and by trying him in an Israeli courtroom, Ben-Gurion hoped to fortify the perception of Israel as the only legitimate representative for all Jews regardless of citizenship.

Various newspapers around the world criticized Israel on this score. Time magazine accused it of “inverse racism.” Even the leadership of the American Jewish Congress expressed its concern to Golda Meir that the trial should not be held in Israel, in part because they believed it important to emphasize that Eichmann was guilty of “unspeakable crimes against humanity, not only Jews.” But in Ben-Gurion’s eyes such claims only illustrated the delusions of the Diaspora: Jews who did not choose to settle in Israel would eventually disappear because the “Judaism of Jews in the United States is losing all meaning and only a blind man can fail to see the day of its extinction.”

In the short term, Ben-Gurion had his way: the trial was held in Jerusalem. But in the long run the nationalist framework of Eichmann’s trial has been largely forgotten. What is remembered today is chiefly the testimony of the both the accused and his victims. It is interesting to note that most of the survivors who spoke at the trial had no direct connection to Eichmann himself and during the war may not have even known who he was. But this only solidified the feeling that the trial was not concerned only with the question of Eichmann’s innocence or guilt. His guilt, after all, was basically a given. The trial served in a more general way to focus attention on those who had suffered. Lipstadt offers a helpful stage-by-stage summary of the trial and its major participants. In her estimation it is this focus on the suffering of the victims that is likely to remain the trial’s most enduring legacy.

Even so, the victims are not the focus of her own book. Lipstadt is far more drawn to the highly politicized debates that arose in the trial’s immediate aftermath with the appearance Hannah Arendt’s serialized essays for The New Yorker, later published in 1963 as the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In her treatment of Arendt’s book (and Arendt herself) Lipstadt is at first judicious, then critical, and finally devastating. 

Much of the controversy surrounding Arendt’s interpretation of the trial has to do with its unforgiving treatment of the Jewish Councils (Judenräte), whose members in her view bore at least some share of the blame for the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust. Through Council leadership and organizational efforts, Jewish populations in regions across East-Central Europe were kept in a state of social and bureaucratic order. In some cases community records were surrendered to the Germans, which only helped to relieve the Nazis of some of the logistical burdens of the victims’ transport and eventual murder. Such actions were (in Arendt’s words) “pathetic and sordid”, and the story of the Councils was the “darkest chapter of the Holocaust”. Arendt did not refrain from pronouncing a cruel verdict:

But the whole truth was that there existed Jewish community organizations and Jewish party and welfare organizations on both the local and the international level. Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four-and-a-half and six million people.

This is of course absurd. The speculation is wildly irresponsible, like so much counterfactual history; and it abets the readiness of revisionists to re-write the moral ledger of the past. 

But most importantly, it is also inaccurate. As Lipstadt notes, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen in the summer of 1941 without any participation by the Jewish councils. More importantly, Jewish leaders responded to the Nazis in various ways. Some acted with terrified compliance but others acted with courage even when it brought immediate death. Arendt describes these leaders as “instruments of murder.” But an instrument can only murder when it is used for murder. A far more measured and sympathetic verdict came from Primo Levi, who consigned the question of Jewish complicity to what he called the “gray zone” of moral degradation. He was careful to note that the Nazis alone bore the responsibility for bringing this final humiliation upon their victims. About the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz, he concluded that “No one is authorized to judge them.”

Perhaps the greatest scandal about Arendt’s report on Eichmann is that she was not present for much of the trial. She was there on April 11, but left by early May for a vacation in Basel, and did not return until five weeks later. This means that she missed a great deal of Eichmann’s testimony and all of Hausner’s cross-examination. Lipstadt generously suggests that, despite her absences, Arendt nonetheless learned a great deal about the trial from transcripts. But there are limits to her tolerance. She observes (rightly, I think) that much of Arendt’s authority as a writer about the trial derived from her putative role as a witness. Arendt’s silence regarding her absence can only be characterized, in Lipstadt’s words, as “a breach of faith with readers.”

Yet even while there are good reasons to condemn Arendt’s interpretation of the trial, there are also more questionable tactics by which one can try to undermine her authority. In one of the more unfortunate passages of her book, Lipstadt indulges in what has become a kind of popular reflex by writing about Arendt that the philosopher Martin Heidegger was “her teacher and former lover” and that she “helped resurrect his postwar career by minimizing his Nazi affiliations.” To such charges there is a German word: Jein—yes and no. In the essay that Arendt wrote for The New York Review of Books on the occasion of Heidegger’s seventieth birthday, she likened his Nazi misadventure to the error of the Greek thinker Thales who gazed into the heavens only to fall into the well at his feet. Much earlier, in 1946, in an essay for Partisan Review called “What is Existenz Philosophy?”, she sought to furnish American readers with an introduction to the entire philosophical movement of which Heidegger was an acknowledged representative. But Arendt strongly criticized him for resorting to “mythologizing and muddled concepts like ‘folk’ and ‘earth.’” These are hardly bridge-burning words of outright condemnation, but neither are they the naïve words of a starry-eyed pupil who only wishes to whitewash her teacher’s guilt.

In a more discerning passage, Lipstadt addresses the related controversy concerning Arendt’s notion that Eichmann epitomized the thoughtlessness of the modern functionary, that he was a paradigm of “the banality of evil.” The phrase is frequently misunderstood, especially by popular historians and moralists who prefer to think of evil as diabolical or sadistic. Lipstadt shows greater nuance. She accepts Arendt’s now commonplace contention that in all too many cases the Nazis were ordinary men rather than ideological fanatics. She also recognizes that this characterization hardly diminishes the magnitude of their crimes. “It is,” Lipstadt observes, “precisely their ordinariness—their banality—that makes their horrific actions so troubling.”

Yet Lipstadt disagrees with Arendt’s view that Eichmann fit this description. The Third Reich was thick with petty-minded administrators who devoted themselves to their work without ideological passion. But Eichmann was not of their kind. Interviews and memoirs suggest he developed a strong belief in the rightness of his cause. Perhaps he didn’t start out this way, but by the end of the 1930s he exhibited a grim anti-Semitism that distinguished him sharply from the rule-bound bureaucrat Arendt described in her report. In Argentina after the war, Eichmann related in an interview with a Dutch Nazi “the joy he had felt [writes Lipstadt] at moving Hungarian Jews to their death at an unprecedented clip and his pleasure at having the death of millions of Jews on his record.”

In describing Eichmann as an ideologically committed murderer, Lipstadt paints her subject in shades that are darker but also less detailed than the image found in David Cesarani’s biographical study Becoming Eichmann (2006). Cesarani reminds us that Eichmann was not atypical for his milieu: born in 1906 in Germany, but raised in Austria in a Protestant and comfortably bourgeois family, Eichmann was hardly unusual in his adherence to a strain of right-wing nationalism that seized the population in Linz (the same town where Hitler also spent part of his childhood). Within the Third Reich, Eichmann belonged to the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD),and devoted himself to his career with the cool pragmatism that was the norm among the officer class. From Cesarani’s investigations one gains the impression that Eichmann only gradually adjusted himself to the most radical schemes of the Third Reich. Although he was initially horrified by the mass killings of 1941, he soon dedicated himself with genuine conviction to optimizing the mechanisms of genocide.

So was Eichmann was banal or fanatical? Cesarini portrays him as transforming over time from the one to the other. Lipstadt contributes little to the question, simply because hers is a different sort of book: a broad-ranging reflection rather than a narrowly conceived piece of research. But much has been written elsewhere about Eichmann’s character and historical role in the Third Reich, notably by the scholars Hans Safrian, Yaacov Lozowick, and Irmtrud Wojak. Their works have helped to complicate the by-now stale debate that once divided historians of the Nazi era into “intentionalists” (who saw the Holocaust as the outcome of long-term planning and ideological commitment) and “functionalists” (who saw the Third Reich as a largely bureaucratic mechanism driven by its own systemic if sometimes shifting imperatives).

This division also tended to correlate with distinctive interpretations concerning the place of anti-Semitism in the development of the Third Reich’s anti-Jewish measures: intentionalists saw Jew-hatred as a long-term animating force behind Nazi policy whereas functionalists tended to see the Nazi policy toward the Jews as a set of more improvised if increasingly radicalized measures that reached their final intensity during the most violent phases of the war. Within the terms of this debate, the figure of Eichmann tends to frustrate any hope for a simple explanation, because he oscillates between one side and the other: he was a convinced ideologue but also a mindless bureaucrat; a partisan of right-wing nationalism who nonetheless subscribed to the values of order and efficiency.

Throughout the nearly four months of his trial Eichmann remained a question mark. He dodged questions from the prosecution and often baffled reporters—and not only Arendt—who had difficulty reconciling their knowledge of the Third Reich’s murderousness with the placid personage in the glass booth. Everyone could see him but nobody could determine—and maybe still cannot determine— who he really was. But surely one reason Eichmann remains an enigma is that he wanted to be an enigma. Hausner examined the defendant for a full two weeks but never managed to wring from him a clear admission of guilt. Some may find this outrageous—the final offense against those he killed. But the truly dismaying fact is that even fifty years later there are so many others who imagine he was innocent. 

This returns us to the question of Holocaust revisionism. Lipstadt suggests—and this is the most startling passage in her book—that Eichmann’s failure to confess his own guilt and David Irving’s refusal to admit the mendacity of his Holocaust-denial are somehow analogous. She acknowledges that readers may resist the comparison: “It is one thing to trample on the truth,” she admits, “and quite another to trample on human beings as Eichmann did.” But she nonetheless sees a connection between “those who perpetrated these horrors and those who deny them”, in that both perpetrators and deniers are ultimately motivated by anti-Semitism: “Not all expressions of anti-Semitism are the same,” Lipstadt avers, “but these two men seemed to me to share a similar worldview.”

The comparison makes me uncomfortable. Lipstadt knows a great deal about the actual animus behind Holocaust revisionism and it would be foolish to challenge her diagnosis. The longing to see the entire history of the Holocaust as a vast cover-up is no doubt typically what she says it is: a reflex of anti-Semitic prejudice, and further proof for the conspiracy theorist that the Jews are conspiring again. But there is something peculiar about Holocaust-denial that Lipstadt does not pause to explore. Arendt once recalled that in 1943, when she first learned of Auschwitz, her first thought was: “This ought not to have happened.” The fantasies of the Holocaust revisionist are morally outrageous, but they are perversely dependent on the prohibition they violate: this ought not to have happened. Even the most brutal of revisionists is beholden (despite himself) to this thought, or he would not be so eager to deny what took place. He still has to make himself heard amongst people who understand that the crimes he denies are monstrous. This is his self-contradiction, that he acknowledges the horror of the history he denies and satisfies an infantile fantasy—transforming “ought not” into “did not.” Eichmann lived in a different world, a regime that had abandoned this law and rewarded its violation. Anti-Semitism is one thing when it masquerades as research; it is something quite different when it functions as the official ideology of a genocidal state.

Lipstadt’s comparison cuts across this difference of worlds and social norms.Whether one accepts the comparison may ultimately depend on one’s interpretation of the place of anti-Semitism in the regime he served. And it would also demand genuine knowledge concerning Eichmann’s own purposes. The bewildering truth about the Eichmann trial is that, when it concluded, the prosecution had established beyond any doubt the thick record of his crimes -- but even after fifty years, the debate over his innermost motives has still not come to an end.

Peter E. Gordon is Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University.  His most recent book, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Casssirer, Davos (Harvard University Press) was awarded the Jacques Barzun Prize from the American Philosophical Society.