Review: Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial (Random House, 2011)

22 07 2011

This review will appear in Spectrum in The Sydney Morning Herald, on Sat 23 July, 2011.

It was one of those lines in the sand, distinguishing before from after.

I was twelve when Nazi Adolph Eichmann was found living incognito in Buenos Aires, captured and taken to Jerusalem, to face trial for crimes against humanity. Twelve – old enough to devour the newspapers, equal parts engrossed and repelled; not old enough to understand what it all meant or would come to mean. Or even to know what questions to ask.

Eichmann, an upper-echelon Nazi, was the supreme bureaucratic logician in the mechanistic genocide of European Jewry, the so-called Final Solution. Neither designer nor architect, Eichmann was a desk-killer. His was the responsibility for hunting down every Jew – for emptying out cities and villages of their Jews, stripping them of their rights, confiscating their property,  and deporting them to death camps. It was he who made sure that the cattle cars were filled to capacity; that the trains ran on time; that their unloading at the destination was executed with maximum efficiency; and that the on-arrival inspections ensured the best extraction of value for the Reich from the numbered “units” – from body hair and gold teeth to forced labour, as factory fodder or in salt mines.

Evading capture at war’s end, and anticipating a warm welcome in then-Peronist Argentina, he headed south. An earlier work, House on Garibaldi Street (Harel, Viking Press, 1975) detailed the James-Bond-cum-Mossad-style mission – the finding,  ID-ing, sequestering, and removal of this most wanted of men.

Fifty years later, historian Deborah Lipstadt rakes over the evidence, building on the mountain of documentation, to throw a new beam of light on the past – the trial, the crimes and the key stake-holders: defendant; defence; prosecution; judges; the Israeli government; and most importantly, the witness survivors whose distressing evidence distinguishes Eichmann’s trial from the Nuremburg Trials; and ultimately, the harrowing aftermath of the trial, the short- and long-term ripple effects.  Inevitably, then, the work becomes a mixed-genre text: part event-unfolding narrative, part history, and part historiography, that uniquely absorbing domain specializing in how history itself has been studied.

Lipstadt is the consummate historian, deftly combining compassion and cold, hard objectivity. With surgical prowess, she examines Eichmann’s evidence (just as, ten years earlier, she did with Holocaust denier/anti-Semite supremo, David Irving),  as well as the arguments of various commentators, chief being the (in)famous Hannah Arendt, who attended the trial as The New Yorker’s correspondent. Lipstadt speculates, always from the evidence, never conjecture, on the motivations of the key stake-holders – like Ben-Gurion,  Israel’s inaugural Prime Minister, who approved the capture and trial, insisting against strident criticisms, on Israel’s right to try Eichmann; the chief Prosecutor, who had his own agenda; and Hannah Arendt, who had hers, encapsulated in her phrase “the banality of evil”.

For the Jewish world, and especially the fledgling State of Israel, the trial was a watershed moment. In centre-staging witness testimony, it gave voice to the victims, seeking to overturn the namelessness of millions, while demonstrating civilization’s response to barbarism. But it also re-opened wounds, individual and collective, that hadn’t even begun to heal. It aggravated existing tensions in the conversation between Diasporan and Israeli Jews.  And it faced condemnation from many quarters – for breaking international law by the abduction; for holding the trial in Israel (not Germany); for accepting uncorroborated witness evidence. Ultimately and tellingly, for being vengeful (a la Old Testament) rather than forgiving (a la New Testament).

It is Lipstadt’s great feat to deftly dissect Eichmann’s role in the Final Solution, while also exposing the Holocaust as the product of a European Jew-hatred that has flourished with impunity for millennia. It is to her credit, too, that she catalogues the pressure, coming from many quarters, to “universalize” the problem. If the Americans were anxious to detach “Nazi” (the old enemy) from “German” (the new [Cold War] ally),  the Russians were as anxious to make Nazi crimes capitalist (not racist), and the victims uniformly, blandly proletarian; while Jewish intellectuals  in the Diaspora squirmed under the spotlight, finding comfort in the universal, discomfort in the particular.

A major win, as Ben-Gurion allegedly foreshadowed, was the body blow dealt to the myth of “sheep to the slaughter”, the Israeli-born’s blanket condemnation of Diasporan “weakness”. Subsequently, if slowly and painfully, the Israeli-born were to arrive at the understanding that they differed from the victims only chronologically, not qualitatively. They didn’t constitute “a different breed of Jews”, but were “simply generationally and geographically lucky”.

Behind bullet-proof glass, Eichmann presented mostly a sullen demeanour. But over the duration of capture and trial, he would display many faces – timid and fearful; taciturn, surly, mean and reproachful; mendacious, scheming, wily and conniving. He slipped easily between “the Nuremburg defence” (just a lowly bureaucrat following orders), and boasting about his rank and power. His memoirs, kept secret until the Irving Trial, revealed his only regret – having failed to render Europe wholly Jew-free. No remorse. No atonement.

Finally, guilty verdict, execution, cremation, grave-lessness. A line in a Leonard Cohen poem asks:  What did you expect? Talons?