On the morning of April 11, 1961, security guards escorted a balding, bespectacled and altogether unimpressive man wearing a dark suit and tie — a ringer for the protagonist of 10,000 New Yorker cartoons — into a glass booth at the far left side of a courtroom in Jerusalem. Unusual on its face, this scene was extraordinary in its particulars: The defendant was Adolf Eichmann, the former Nazi SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer who used his organizational gifts and innate brutality to arrange for 1.5 million European Jews to be evicted from their home countries and transported to their deaths at Auschwitz and Treblinka, killing fields he had personally visited. And this was no ordinary tribunal, but a special panel convened by the Jewish state of Israel. For millennia, the Jews had been a perpetually displaced and oppressed people; now they were meting out justice to their oppressor, with a scrupulous fairness that they themselves, across the ages, had never received.
Everything about the Eichmann trial was unprecedented, starting with his clandestine capture in Argentina and rendition to Israel, in May 1960, by Israeli Mossad agents. News of the kidnapping and impending trial raised innumerable legal and moral questions: How could Israel assert jurisdiction over atrocities committed prior to the state’s existence? Would Eichmann press the defense proffered unsuccessfully by his Nazi superiors at Nuremberg, that he was “only following orders”? Or would he admit guilt — and defend the persecution of the Jews? Who, in turn, would defend him? And how central a figure in the genocide was Eichmann, really? Was he properly considered a killer or a bureaucrat, architect or cog? Should the trial be narrowly focused on the defendant, already deeply implicated by surviving documents and his interrogation after capture? Or should the proceedings become a wider forum to establish the broad contours and horrific details of the Holocaust? Should the survivors of the ghettoes and camps be heard from? If so, must the witnesses have actually met the man in the glass booth?
A half-century after Eichmann’s conviction and subsequent execution — by hanging, at midnight, on May 31, 1962 — the answers appear long settled. Israel paid for Eichmann to be represented by Robert Servatius, a wily veteran of the Nuremberg defense teams. The defendant muddled through, maddening observers with his lengthy digressions, tortured explanations and marginal admissions of complicity. Chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner was brilliant but flawed: He was wedded to views of the Nazi state as a top-down hierarchy that was perfectly efficient, and of Eichmann as the decisive actor in the killing process, assessments long since debunked. But he skillfully pursued the broadest possible mandate, calling scores of survivors, many of whom had never met the defendant, as witnesses. Their wrenching stories and moral authority drew unprecedented attention to the mechanics and atrocities of the Final Solution.
In theory, “The Eichmann Trial,” by Deborah E. Lipstadt, should mark a bona fide publishing event, an important moment in the historiography of the Holocaust owing to the felicitous marriage of author to subject. After all, Lipstadt is the Emory University professor who, in a London court a decade ago, repelled the audacious challenge to the fact of the Holocaust — and thereby to the greater moral order — posed by British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving. And it was the publicity surrounding the case ofIrving v. Penguin Books Ltd. & Deborah Lipstadt that prompted Israel’s attorney general to unseal the memoirs Eichmann had secretly written in Jerusalem. Who better than Lipstadt, then, to tackle, 50 years on, the most momentous courtroom drama associated with the Nazi extermination program?
In execution, however, “The Eichmann Trial” disappoints. Its footnotes betray a careful review of the Eichmann trial transcript, but no use of previously unpublished evidence. Eichmann’s memoirs have already been mined by other scholars, most notably David Cesarani in “Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a ‘Desk Murderer’ ” (2004). There is another cache of “new” material — the elusive and highly incriminating set of 67 tapes Eichmann reportedly made while he was still living in Buenos Aires, only transcribed excerpts of which were introduced at trial — but Lipstadt does not appear to have gained access to these tapes. (“Many great trial books,” she notes with a touch of defensiveness, “have been based solely on transcripts.”)
Lipstadt’s chief conclusion — that it was the “hearing” afforded the survivors, not the “telling” of their stories, that was “entirely new” about the Eichmann trial, and its “most significant legacy” — is not arrestingly novel. She writes well but not excitingly; nowhere does she attempt the kind of stylistic riffing that, in lieu of new evidence or analysis, might have made this familiar terrain fertile once more. Even Lipstadt’s sustained and well-reasoned attack on the trial’s most famous chronicler, Hannah Arendt — the German-born Jewish intellectual who coined the enduring phrase “banality of evil” to describe Eichmann — amounts to a reprise. As Lipstadt’s own citations show, Arendt and her conclusions have been controversial — “wicked,” “distorted,” “arrogant,” hissed contemporaneous detractors — since her reporting on the trial debuted in the New Yorker in February 1963.
And given Lipstadt’s approval of Hausner’s broad approach, it’s not surprising that her own narrative weaves in such tangential subjects as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the aspirations of young Rwandans, the octogenarian gunman at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the “oppressed” status of “African-Americans, Latinos, [and] gays” in postwar America.
This is not, however, to judge the product valueless. “The Eichmann Trial” makes an excellent primer on a landmark event. With impressive authority and commendable concision, Lipstadt frames and explores to its known ends the vast universe of moral quandaries thrown open by the Eichmann trial. In so doing, she makes a welcome contribution to our record of the 20th century’s most horrifying and depressing episode.
James Rosen is a Fox News correspondent and the author of “The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.”
THE EICHMANN TRIAL
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Nextbook. 237 pp. $24.95