On the occasion of Yom HaShoah, I can think of no more appropriate act of remembrance of the Holocaust than to reconsider the circumstances surrounding the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and I can think of no one better able to explain those circumstances to us than Deborah E. Lipstadt, a leading figure in Holocaust studies and author of “The Eichmann Trial” (Schocken, $23.95).
It’s an urgent, intimate, discerning and wholly compelling study of the Eichmann trial, the precise point at which “history, memory and law met in this Jerusalem theatre” — that is, the theater that was converted into a courtroom for the Eichmann trial. “Would he even try to justify the genocide?” she muses. “And what, if anything, would be the lesson for the future?”
As Lipstadt’s rhetorical question suggests, a profound irony suffuses her book. Eichmann, after all, may have denied his own culpability for the crimes charged against him at the famous trial in Jerusalem in 1961, but he never denied that they were committed. Indeed, the trial was meant to record the hard facts of the Holocaust for the contemporary world and for posterity. In that sense, however, the trial was a failure because today we are confronted with the Orwellian phenomenon of Holocaust revisionism, which seeks to minimize, explain away or flatly deny the crimes for which Eichmann was convicted and executed.
Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University and author of “Denying the Holocaust,” among other works, is herself a victim of Holocaust denial. She was famously sued for libel by David Irving after referring to him as “the world’s leading Holocaust denier,” and she was forced to prove the truth of the facts that he denied, all thanks to the oddities of British libel law. “This trial has done for the new century,” wrote The Daily Telegraph at the time, “what the Nuremberg trials or the Eichmann trial did for earlier generations.”
Thus, in a real sense, Lipstadt’s book is a parallel narrative that touches on both trials. The focus, of course, is on Eichmann — the daring extraction of Eichmann from his hiding place in Argentina by Israeli operatives, the making of the case against him by Israeli prosecutors, and the repercussions of the trial in law, history and culture across the half-century that has passed since Eichmann’s life ended on a gallows. The subtext is Lipstadt’s own courtroom battle against Irving and, in a larger sense, the remaking of Eichmann as an artifact of popular culture.
To her credit, Lipstadt frankly concedes that the Eichmann trial often strayed beyond the scope of actual crimes: “The problem,” she writes of the prosecution’s case, “was that Eichmann did not play a role in all aspects of the Final Solution.” As a result of the decision to use the trial as a tool for documenting the crimes of Nazi Germany, some of the evidence had little or nothing to do with the Nazi who sat in the bulletproof glass box that has itself entered our collective memory.
“The prosecution would call a series of witnesses who had no connection with Eichmann,” she writes. “Their testimony would be highly prejudicial, legally irrelevant, and often based on hearsay, if not outright gossip. Yet their presence would transform the trial from an important war-crimes trial into an event that would have enduring significance.”
We may think we know a lot about Eichmann and his trial, but Lipstadt is capable of surprising us. To demonstrate “how mind-boggling obedient he was,” she reveals that he would ask permission of his Israeli captors before commencing a bowel movement: “May I begin?” he would call out from the toilet. He provoked laughter in the courtroom when he insisted that there was room to pack 1,000 Jews into the railway cars headed for Auschwitz — a third more than their maximum capacity — because the luggage had been sent ahead. Remarkably, we learn that Eichmann’s request for funds to hire a rabbi to teach him Hebrew was turned down by his Nazi superiors.
“It would have been best had I proposed that a rabbi be arrested so that he could give me instruction from prison,” Eichmann said on the stand. “But I had not thought of this.”
Perhaps the single most poignant moment in Lipstadt’s book is a small revelation about the official English, French and German translations that were provided to the reporters who covered the trial, a practice that outraged the journalists from Yiddish newspapers: “Why, they asked, could bulletins not be made available in Yiddish, which, they reminded Israeli officials, was the language ‘of Eichmann’s victims.’ ” Lipstadt reminds us that the officials regarded Yiddish as “the epitome of exile” and told the journalists that “they ought to know Hebrew.”
Lipstadt deals frankly with the celebrated figures who attached themselves to the Eichmann saga in one way or another. She points out, for example, that Simon Wiesenthal “contributed very little to the actual capture” of Eichmann, and she takes him to task for including 5 million non-Jewish victims in the death toll of Nazi crimes against humanity “[i]n an attempt to elicit non-Jewish interest in the Holocaust.” According to Lipstadt, “Wiesenthal’s historical invention obscures, if not denies, the true nature of the Holocaust.”
She also deconstructs Hannah Arendt’s book about the Eichmann trial, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” a work that has taken on a life of its own and has introduced a famous phrase into the vocabulary of moral philosophy. “To many people,” she observes, “Arendt was a more central character in the Eichmann story than Eichmann himself.” Here, too, is a fascinating parallel narrative that elaborates upon the Eichmann trial in new and provocative ways.
Lipstadt points out the little-noted fact that Arendt was absent from long stretches of the trial and relied on transcripts for much of her acerbic commentary on the proceedings. She quotes Gershom Scholem’s observation that Arendt was “suffering from a lack of ahavat Yisrael” — love of the Jewish people — and allows us to overhear some of the hateful things Arendt was capable of saying about both Eastern European and Mizrachi Jews. Above all, Lipstadt points out the numerous errors of fact that appear in Arendt’s work: “Sometimes, in addition to being cruel, Arendt was just plain wrong.”
Now and then, Lipstadt flashes back and forth between the Eichmann trial and her own experience in court. For example, Eichmann left behind the manuscript of his own memoir of the Holocaust, but the government of Israel locked it away in the National Archives; only when Lipstadt was put on trial in England was the manuscript unsealed and provided to Lipstadt for use in her defense. “[O]ur objective was to prove that Irving’s claims about the Holocaust were lies.” Although she is careful to acknowledge the moral and historical primacy of the Eichmann trial, she allows us to see why the struggle against Holocaust denial is so crucial.
Lipstadt’s conclusion is unsurprising: “Future generations, those who were not there, must remember,” she quotes one Holocaust survivor. “And we who were there must tell them.” For Lipstadt, “[t]his may be the most enduring legacy of what occurred in Jerusalem in 1961.” But I credit Lipstadt with something at least as important — the self-imposed task of telling not only the truth, but the whole truth, which is exactly what she has done in “The Eichmann Trial.”