|Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem, 1961. (Kino International; from the documentary film "The Specialist")|
By Franklin Foer
The New York Times, April 8, 2011
"To write about the trial of Adolf Eichmann is to put its most notorious court reporter, Hannah Arendt, in the dock. In the nearly 50 years since its publication, her account of those proceedings, 'Eichmann in Jerusalem,' has come to overshadow its subject. The book, it is true, commands attention. It is a breathtaking admixture of genres (history, philosophy, journalism) and contains strong, often unconventional, moral judgments (especially her contempt for the Jewish leaders who cooperated with their murderers). It aims to render grand historical conclusions but remains unintentionally and inescapably personal. 'The Eichmann Trial,' by Deborah E. Lipstadt, can't entirely avoid Arendt, but it does manage to keep her largely offstage until the very end. Lipstadt has done a great service by untethering the trial from Arendt's polarizing presence, recovering the event as a gripping legal drama, as well as a hinge moment in Israel's history and in the world's delayed awakening to the magnitude of the Holocaust. Aside from Eichmann's trial, in 1961, the Holocaust has been the subject of at least two other memorable legal battles. The first, of course, was the Nuremberg tribunals -- proceedings that occurred amid the ruins of war and concentrated on the crimes of the Nazis, giving little voice to the still dazed survivors of the genocide. The second featured none other than Lipstadt herself. In 2000, she found herself the defendant in a British libel suit unsuccessfully brought by the writer David Irving, who protested her characterization of him as a Holocaust denier. This experience has made her a sensitive guide to the awkward complexities of squeezing the crimes of the Holocaust into the constricting confines of the courthouse.
The book begins with the daughter of an Argentine man dating the son of a German refugee. The Argentine man was himself German-born and half Jewish. Many fathers expect the worst from the boys their daughters bring home -- but the man's suspicions about this one's family grew thanks to the boy's obvious anti-Semitism and his evasive answers to basic biographical questions. The man began to assume the worst and outlined his fears in a letter to a German prosecutor who happened to be Jewish. The prosecutor enlisted the man and his daughter in a stealth operation, and in the course of her snooping, the possibility arose that she was stalking Adolf Eichmann. When her father reported this astonishing finding to the prosecutor, he forwarded the tip to the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. The Mossad wasn't initially enthusiastic. But once it grasped the importance of its target, it unleashed a risky kidnapping scheme, what Lipstadt describes as the prototype of the brash, clever operations that are the foundation of the Mossad's mythic reputation. The Israelis drugged Eichmann and dressed him as an El Al crewman to get him past the Argentine authorities. Much of Western opinion, Lipstadt reminds us, was not pleased. Argentina demanded Eichmann’s repatriation, and the American establishment agreed. The Washington Post editorial page condemned Israel's 'jungle law'; The Christian Science Monitor equated Israel's claims to those of the Nazis. William F. Buckley Jr. said the kidnapping was symptomatic of the Jewish 'refusal to forgive.' Even the American Jewish Committee asked the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to cede the prosecution to Germany or an international tribunal. But these challenges only made Ben-Gurion a more vociferous champion of the trial. [...]"