Anniversaries & holidays

Adolf Eichmann’s Trial

Karl Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) był niemieckim oficerem SS w III Rzeszy i jednym z głównych odpowiedzialnych za masowe mordy Żydów
fot. Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

On 11 April 1961, a trial of Adolf Eichmann began at the District Court in Jerusalem. The defendant was a high-profile functionary of the Nazi police apparatus during World War Two, actively engaged in coordinating the process of the extermination of Jews. The Israeli authorities turned the Eichmann trial into a trial over the Holocaust.

From the beginning of his career in the SS Security Service, Eichmann specialised in Jewish issues - he even studied Hebrew and Yiddish. Following the Anschluss of Austria into the Nazi Germany, he was sent to Vienna where he was appointed head of the office organising the forced emigration of Jews and dealing with the seizure of their property. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he became head of the B4 Referat (Sub-Department for Jewish affairs) of the Fourth Department (Secret Police - Gestapo) of the newly established Reich Security Head Office (RSHA). He held this position until the end of the war. 

Even though formally Eichmann did not occupy the most prominent positions (in the hierarchy, he was three rungs below the head of RSHA and four rungs below Himmler), due to his "specialization" he was perfectly informed about the course of the Holocaust - e.g. in January 1942 he accompanied Reinhard Heydrich to the Wannsee Conference and drew up its minutes; he also received detailed reports on the extermination of Jews. He was personally responsible for some of the Nazi criminal operations: he coordinated the deportation of Jews from Western Europe to extermination camps in occupied Poland, and in 1944 he was sent to Hungary to organise the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. After the war, he fled to Argentina where he lived under a false name. In May 1960, thanks to information received from German prosecutor Fritz Bauer, the Mossad Israeli Intelligence Agency kidnapped Eichmann from Buenos Aires and transported him to Jerusalem.

The trial before the Israeli court had two objectives, not entirely compatible with one another. On one hand, the aim was to try Eichmann for the acts he had committed - for sure, the crimes in which he had personally participated were sufficient grounds for conviction. However, contrary to how he was portrayed, he was not the main organiser of the Shoah. Yet the Israeli authorities intended his trial to serve as an important instrument of state historical policy. Attorney General Gideon Hausner and Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wanted to transform the Eichmann trial into a grand historical trial over the genocide committed on Jews. They wanted to draw a comprehensive picture of the Holocaust, to show the world the enormity of Jewish suffering, and to recount Jewish sacrifices and acts of resistance.

Therefore, the indictment (whose draft was penned by, among others, Ben Gurion himself) covered basically all stages of the Holocaust. Eichmann was also held primarily responsible for the crimes he did not directly participate in or organise, such as mass executions of Jews in the East carried out by the Einsatzgruppen or the operation code-named "Reinhard" which aimed to kill Jews in the General Government. In places, all this was legally questionable and the presiding Judge Moshe Landau repeatedly called on Hausner to stick more closely to the personal role of the defendant, while the prosecutor covered up gaps in the evidence with rhetoric. Overstating Eichmann's role was due both to political reasons and to the limited knowledge of Israeli experts at the time about the mechanisms of the Holocaust. It took decades of research to show that it was not a strictly pre-planned and centrally directed operation, and that many of the criminal actions were the result of local initiatives by German commanders trying to anticipate the will of Himmler and Hitler.

The trial in Jerusalem was also supposed to contribute to the consolidation of Israeli society, to arouse national pride in Israelis and to convince them that only their own state, built on the Zionist ideology, could guarantee their security. It was also aimed to stir the conscience of the world and to help build international sentiment and support for the Jewish state and its people. In order to enhance the emotional effect, the evidence was based mainly on the testimonies of 120 witnesses - Holocaust survivors who recounted the horrors they had experienced. Thus, the Eichmann trial became a great national therapeutic session. It contributed to the unblocking of the discourse on the Holocaust in Israel itself (previously the victims of German persecution had mostly remained silent, ashamed of their role) and to the creation of international awareness of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany against the Jews. Hannah Arendt's reports on the trial played a vital role in this process - they were later collected in the bestselling book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

The defendant himself and his defence lawyer, Robert Servatius from Germany, tried to present Eichmann as merely a small cog in the Nazi bureaucratic machine and an obedient follower of orders. To be sure, this line of defence did not go down well. On 15 December 1961, the Israeli court sentenced Eichmann to death. After the Supreme Court upheld the judgment of the District Court, and the President of Israel refused to apply the prerogative of mercy, Eichmann was executed on the night of 31 May 1962. Eichmann's execution was the only time in the history of the State of Israel that the death penalty was applied.

Krzysztof Persak