In the midst of World War II, when a German general demanded that a noted Jewish radar expert be exempted from deportation to help the Nazi war effort, SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann icily replied that as a matter of principle he could not make any exceptions in ensuring the success of the Final Solution.
As the Soviet army neared Budapest and SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler himself told his subordinate to halt trains transporting Jews to death camps, Eichmann ignored the order.
Hardly the picture drawn by Eichmann in his 1961 trial, when he described himself as merely an obedient bureaucrat carrying out his superiors’ wishes.
Gabriel Bach, Israel’s senior prosecutor at the trial in Jerusalem and Eichmann’s only contact with the outside world, culled these incidents from thousands of documents.
Bach was the honoree and keynote speaker last week at the three-day conference (9/15-16) “Perspectives on Genocide: The Adolf Eichmann Trial – Looking Back 50 Years Later.”
The event was organized by the Center for the Study of Law and Genocide at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, affiliated with Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit institution that has frequently been at the forefront of Holocaust studies and commemorations.
Bach was born in Germany, though his family left when he was 11, and he served in the Israeli army and studied for the bar in London. Following the Eichmann trial, he was named Israel’s state attorney, and he subsequently served as an Israeli Supreme Court justice for 15 years.
Now a vigorous 84, Bach spoke for more than an hour without any notes at a dinner during which he received the Center’s inaugural Raphael Lemkin Award. The previous evening, he spoke at a screening of the film, “Memories of the Eichmann Trials.”
One strongly felt influence at the dinner, and at the following day’s three panel discussions, was that of the late Hannah Arendt, a political theorist who covered the trial for the New Yorker magazine.
In her subsequent book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” Arendt argued that people like Eichmann were not demented fanatics, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accepted the rules of their current leaders and societies and then did their best to carry out their programs, like good technicians and bureaucrats.
“Banality of evil” quickly became a popular catchword but found little favor at the 50th anniversary discussions.
Based on his exhaustive research, Bach said that far from being just a cog in the machine, Eichmann frequently used his own initiative to hasten the extermination of Jews, even if his decisions defied common sense or went counter to his country’s war effort.
One of Eichmann’s jobs was to rule on requested exemptions to the deportation program for certain specific Jews or part-Jews.
Bach said that in all the notes and documents by and on Eichmann, he could not find a single instance in which the SS enforcer granted such an exemption, whatever the pressure from German leaders and allies.
In separate interviews, others among the 12 international scholars participating in the panel discussions generally backed Bach’s appraisal.
Christopher R. Browning of the University of North Carolina, who researched the brutal behavior of a group of ordinary middle-aged Germans in a killing unit, reached a split decision on the banality-of-evil thesis.
“Arendt had the right concept, but in Eichmann she got the wrong person,” Browning said. “Eichmann was a very ambitious ideologue, not a banal bureaucrat.”
Another key conference topic was the long-range historical impact of the Eichmann trial.
One result was to awaken the conscience and awareness of German’s post-war generation to Nazi atrocities, which in turn triggered a series of subsequent trials of concentration camp commanders and guards, and more recently of Holocaust deniers, Browning commented.
Leila Nadya Sadat, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and director of the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative, said that the Eichmann case set important precedents in the area of international law, enabling courts in one country to try alleged perpetrators of war crimes committed in another country.
Sadat said she was a distant relative of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. “My father is Muslim, my mother is Jewish, and I was raised as a Christian,” she said. “I’m lucky I was born in the United States, otherwise everyone would be out to get me, one way or the other.”
David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli prime minister who ordered the capture of Eichmann, saw the trial as an educational tool, not only for Germans but for Israeli youth ashamed of the supposed passivity of Holocaust victims, said Stanley A. Goldman, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Genocide.
In contrast to most non-public institutions of higher learning in the United States, Loyola Law School, opened in 1920, never limited the number of Jewish students through an admission quota.
The university also has active Jewish and Holocaust studies programs, and sponsors exhibits and lectures, plus study trips to Israel and Poland, and annual commemorations of Kristallnacht. Its conference on the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial is believed to be the only one of its kind in the United States.
Dinner guests included numerous Jewish faculty and alumni, and one guest jokingly asked Brian Costello, the law school’s media manager whether Loyola admitted any Catholic students.
The Jewish presence was also notable among the conference organizers and welcomers, consisting of three Jewish professors, Victor J. Gold, Loyola law school dean, Goldman, and Holocaust legal scholar Michael Bazyler of the Chapman University School of Law.