When Israel placed the fugitive war criminal Adolf Eichmann on trial 50 years ago the world had never seen anything like it. After a dramatic kidnapping in Argentina, a sovereign Jewish state was to bring a Nazi to justice on behalf of the Jewish people. Deborah Lipstadt, the author of this account, knows first-hand about placing anti- Semitism on trial, having spent five years building a successful case against Holocaust denier David Irving. Prof. Lipstadt challenges several myths related to Eichmann and the Shoah. Consistent with Timothy Snyder’s recent Bloodlands, she shows why it is wrong to imagine that 6,000,000 Jews account for most of the civilian deaths in the Holocaust. She sees embarrassing ineptitude in the Mossad’s pursuit of Eichmann, in contrast to the heroic account in the memoir by Mossad chief Isser Harel, The House on Garibaldi Street. And, as Tom Segev’s recent biography of Simon Wiesenthal does, she finds little justification for Wiesenthal’s claims to a role in apprehending Eichmann.
She also highlights revealing cases of ambivalence in America and Israel. Prominent American Jews criticized Israel for trying Eichmann, fearing their loyalty to the United States could be questioned because Israel acted for “the Jewish people.” Ben-Gurion, for his part, did not want to call attention to the many Nazis still in high positions in the West German government for fear of alienating Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
The phrase “the banality of evil” entered the language when Hannah Arendt wrote in the New Yorker that Eichmann epitomized the concept. Lipstadt finds evidence that Arendt made that assessment before even arriving in Jerusalem to report on the trial, and cites testimony contradicting Arendt’s characterization. She also takes issue with Arendt’s unforgiving view of the Jewish Councils appointed by the Nazis, and with Arendt’s epistolary descriptions of Israel “that bordered on anti-Semitism and racism.” Nonetheless, Prof. Lipstadt hears “another voice” in the Arendt who described herself as “a German Jew driven from my homeland by the Nazis,” and who reflected that “any real catastrophe in Israel would affect me more deeply than anything else.”
When Eichmann came to trial there were no Holocaust museums in the United States; now there are dozens. It was the Eichmann trial, Lipstadt believes, that gave the Shoah its identity in modern history through the extensive testimony of survivors. That may be the most important reason why the trial’s reverberations are still felt so strongly today.