Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt

There have been two significant judicial trials related to the Holocaust -- the trial of Adolf Eichmann for crimes against humanity and, just a few years ago, the trial of historian Deborah Lipstadt for her "libel" of Holocaust denier, David Irving.  Who better than Profeesor Lipstadt to write a popular and approachable book about the first and foremost trial of the Holocaust.  The Eichmann Trial is worth reading.

After World War II, Adolf Eichmann, the chief operating officer of the destruction of millions of Jews, fled to Argentina where he hid for several years.  In the late 1950s, the Israeli security forces became aware of his  whereabouts but did not act on the information. Before the capture was authorized, Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister of Israel at the time, made a critical decision: rather than simply killing Eichmann in Argentina and leaving him in a ditch, he was brought to Israel and put on trial.  In 1960, the Israelis captured Eichmann and transported him to Israel to stand trial for his crimes.  Ben-Gurion walked into the Knesset (the Israeli legislature) and announced, "Eichmann bi'yadenu," Eichmann is in our hands.  It was a dramatic and powerful moment.

Immediately, the Israelis were questioned by the world, including by American Jews: how could a state that did not exist during the Holocaust try Eichmann?  Could the Israelis conduct a fair trial?  Wasn't Eichmann illegally abducted?  Would the victims and survivors have a voice in the trial (they had none at Nuremberg)?  Where would the trial be held (no court house at the time was equipped for such a trial)?  Who would defend Eichmann?

To fully appreciate the magnitude of the trial, Lipstadt reminds us that in the 1950s and 1960s, there were no Holocaust memorials and while the fact of the Holocaust was known, people were still focused on returning to  life and fighting the Cold War.  Also, Israel was still in its relative infancy.  Although it miraculously defended itself in two wars, it had not as powerful as it would become in 1967.  Without this context, it is hard to fully appreciate the importance of this trial.  Lipstadt expertly sets the context  and walks through the critical decisions (and mistakes) made in conducting the trial.  Having sat through a highly publicized trial herself, Lipstadt adds an extra dimension to her recounting of the tale.

The Jewish Encounters series, of which this is the most recent addition, is intended to present Jewish subjects "in a lively, intelligent and popular manner."  The Eichmann Trail  is not an academic piece, yet, it is written by a woman with impeccable credentials on the subject.  Lipstadt masterly narrates the story.  But, the story does not end with the trial.  After the trial, the New Yorker ran a series of articles by Hannah Ardent, a Jew who fled Germany.  She argued that the trial was unfairly conducted and that Eichmann essentially followed orders and was not an anti-Semite.  Who better than Lipstadt to examine this?

The only thing that I did not love about the book was the author's interruption of the narrative with references to her own trial.  The comparison of Eichmann's trial and Lipstadt's trial should have been in an epilogue.  That distraction is easily overcome.

The book is short (200 pages) and reads like a well written New Yorker or New York Times Magazine piece.  It is easily accessible and requires no background.  In reading this book, you will understand how this trial became precedent for how many future trials would be conducted.

Hear Lipstadt talk about her book here:

Deborah Lipstadt on The Eichmann Trial from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

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