on March 19, 2011
On a trip to Israel several years ago, I visited Beit Lohame Hagetaot ("The Ghetto Fighters' House"), the first museum in the world dedicated to the Holocaust. Beit Lohame Hagetaot, which is located on Lohame Hagetaot, a kibbutz near the border of Lebanon that was founded in 1949 by Holocaust survivors, including several from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, has an extensive collection including many items which are on loan to the more famous Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. One artifact that the Ghetto Fighters' House retained to display in its own facility is perhaps the most chilling of the objects and images I've seen at either museum - the infamous three-sided "glass booth" that surrounded Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem. I didn't know the museum had the glass booth, and when I came across it on the top floor of the building, my blood ran cold. In this enclosure had stood the man who was responsible for the removal of one and a half million Jews from their communities, and their transportation to concentration camps via rail, death marches and other means. This was a man whose name conjured up evil itself, not only an orchestrator of untold suffering, but an enemy of all that is right and good. While the glass booth embodied the person who occupied it, it also represented the victory of justice: Eichmann was caught, tried, and executed by the Jewish people.
As I examined the materials accompanying the exhibit, I thought about stepping into the booth, however, my revulsion for Eichmann was so strong that I wasn't sure I wanted to occupy the same confined space that he had, even though more than four decades had passed since his trial. After overcoming my hesitation, I entered and sat in one of the jumpseats built for the guards who were always by his side during the proceedings; however, when I sat in the defendant's chair I experienced a feeling of contamination, a tangential contact with ultimate evil that haunted me for the remainder of the day. On a return trip to Israel a year ago, I revisited Beit Lohame Hagetaot, this time with my wife and sons; and while I made sure that they saw the glass booth, my encounter with it was brief, as I was still haunted by the disturbing memory of my previous experience.
A number of books have been published on Eichmann over the years, the most famous of which is Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem." Arendt's book is also the most controversial, and not without reason. I read a good deal of it about twenty years ago, however, I found much of it disturbing and never finished it. Arendt's lofty, detached tone along with her argument that Eichmann was merely an unthinking clerk rather than an unrepentant anti-Semite who dispatched millions to their deaths with excessive zeal were among the things that bothered me. Shortly afterward I read "Eichmann Interrogated: Transcripts from the Archives of the Israeli Police," a fascinating selection from the 275 hours of interviews conducted by Avner Less prior to the start of the trial. Here Eichmann revealed himself to be a master of both evasion and self deception, simultaneously self-pitying and snake-like, but also pathetically obsequious. He knew exactly what he was doing - there were none of Arendt's high-minded philosophical explanations about the "banality of evil," or her theories of a man, and practically an entire people who were guilty of "not thinking" or "understanding" what they were doing.
Given my relatively recent visit to Beit Lohame Hagetaot, I decided to read "The Eichmann Trial," especially as 2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of this seminal event.
"The Eichmann Trial," at 203 pages, is relatively brief, but packs a tremendous punch. Author Deborah Lipstadt is uniquely qualified to write on this subject, given that she herself was embroiled in a long civil trial in 2000 when she was sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving. Lipstadt's extensive introduction to "The Eichmann Trial" elaborates on her own experience and while she links the present (Irving) to the past (Eichmann), if the truth be told, a few paragraphs would have sufficed in this regard. Once she leaves her own trial behind, she's completely on target. The story begins with the locating of Eichmann, who was living in Argentina in a cinderblock house with no electricity or running water, a far cry from the lifestyle he enjoyed as an SS colonel in the Third Reich. From this point on Lipstadt recounts the controversy surrounding Eichmann's abduction and the issue of Israel's right to try him, the reaction by much of the press (e.g., The Washington Post ran two editorials asserting that any trial in Israel would be "tainted with lawlessness") and so forth. No space is wasted as Lipstadt zeroes in on one relevant issue after another, highlighting central points in the testimony that have broad-reaching implications. Only a few quotations are necessary for the reader to see that Eichmann, who portrayed himself as merely a small cog in a very big wheel, and a soldier who was simply following orders, was in fact an outrageous liar. He had damned himself by dictating a memoir in Argentina several years before his capture, the transcripts of which came back to haunt him. Lipstadt writes that "In the newly released memoir, Eichmann expressed himself as an inveterate Nazi and anti-Semite. In contrast to the claims made by Hannah Arendt that he did not really understand the enterprise in which he was involved, the memoir reveals a man who considered the Nazi leaders to be his 'idols' and who was fully committed to their goals." In his own words, "I do a job if I can understand the need for it or the meaning of it, and if I enjoy doing it. [Then] time will just fly by, and that was how it was with the Jews."
Lipstadt, who is incredibly fair-minded in her comprehensive retelling of the trial and its various themes and personalities, devotes the last chapter of "The Eichmann Trial" to Hannah Arendt and her controversial "Eichmann in Jerusalem." There were many who were outraged by Arendt's theories, which almost seemed to exonerate Eichmann of personal culpability. There were also those on the other side of the fence who thought she was totally objective. Lipstadt points out that while there are merits to the arguments both pro and con, and she cites many specifics in Arendt's favor and not, the scale is ultimately tipped, and decisively so, against her. Eichmann's own memoir, writes Lipstadt, "reveals the degree to which Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. It is permeated with expressions of support for and full comprehension of Nazi ideology. He was no clerk. This was a well-read man who accepted and espoused the idea of racial purity." But that's just a preamble. Not only did Arendt get many of her facts wrong, Lipstadt writes, "[she] may also have been subliminally writing for her teacher and former lover, the revered philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, ejected Jewish professors from the university where he served as rector, affirmed Nazi ideals, and never recanted his wartime actions.... In 1960, a few months before the trial, Arendt considered dedicating one of her books to Heidegger but decided not to, because it might upset others. In an unused dedication, she described him as 'my trusted friend to whom I have remained faithful and unfaithful.' She helped resurrect his postwar career by minimizing his Nazi affiliations and fighting to get him readmitted to the scholarly world. When 'Der Spiegel' exposed his wartime record she protested that people should 'leave him in peace.'" (Incredible as it may seem, Hannah Arendt was Jewish.) Lipstadt goes on to lambast Arendt, saying "She was guilty of precisely the same wrong that she derisively ascribed to Adolf Eichmann. She - the great political philosopher who claimed that careful thought and precise expression were of supreme value - did not 'think.'" While all of this may appear to be a sidebar, in fact it's quite the opposite. Lipstatdt isn't overstating it when she claims that Hannah Arendt's work, which mistakenly ignores the central role that historical anti-Semitism played in the scheme of the Holocaust, "has shaped contemporary perceptions of the Final Solution."
Let's hope that "The Eichmann Trial" undoes some of the damage caused by Arendt's flawed theories of fifty years ago.