“In this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story,” the dying Hamlet begged his friend Horatio. Telling can, apparently, require a sacrifice—in Hamlet’s view, the supreme sacrifice of remaining alive. Why tell it then? What good will it do? It is a shocking story; to repeat it can only induce bad dreams, particularly in the few survivors of the bloody tragedy. Also, the story is confused and points to no edifying conclusion. For Horatio to accede to Hamlet’s appeal, the passion of the friend and the poet must overcome the impulse of the man to seek relief from the past in oblivion.
Human beings, we assume, are entitled to peace of mind, and this privilege ought to be surrendered only if it can be demonstrated that the recalling of miseries will serve some useful purpose—that of social therapy perhaps, or of patriotism, or of progress toward a better world. Thus press reports of the trial of “The Attorney General versus Adolf, the son of Adolf Karl Eichmann” concluded their horrid accounts by arguing apologetically that virtuous ends might be furthered: “It is hoped,” ran the refrain, “that bringing these evils to light will prevent anything like them from ever happening again.” Dr. Servatius, chief attorney for the defense, asked in his summation that the case be determined in such a way as to “serve as a warning signpost for history” and a contribution to the cause of peace.
But suppose the justification for the telling were inadequate or even absurd? Can one really believe that the Trial of Eichmann will deter mass murderers in the future, or that it will advance international relations? Suppose the only predictable result of recalling the shootings, hangings, and gassings is to arouse fright in the susceptible and to perpetuate in Jews the memory of injuries suffered? To weigh the narration of “The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” in terms of its probable effects is all but to argue for its suppression. And it is a fact that prominent among those who condemned in advance the proceedings in Jerusalem were representatives of mental health and social amelioration. But even among the supporters of the Trial, who dared squarely to represent the dead? Who dared to assert that the story of their sufferings must be recounted regardless of consequences? Yet is not the right of the victim to have his story told an absolute right?
The Trial undertook the function of tragic poetry, that of making the pathetic and terrifying past live again in the mind. But it had to carry out this function on a world stage ruled by the utilitarian code. One read in the press immediately after Eichmann’s capture that, despite international law, he was to be tried in Israel in order to satisfy popular passion there, particularly among the ex-Europeans whose families had perished in the murder program. This was held to be objectionable. In our culture, conditioned by psychiatry to seek “action outlets” for emotions (in disregard of such “outlets” as hearing and contemplating recognized by other societies), the excitement in Israel over the trapped Nazi raised the specter of pathological fixation, vendetta, lynching. What were the enraged Israelis going to do to Eichmann to avenge themselves for the Jewish blood shed by the Nazis? Sermons and warnings poured out from partisans of forgiveness, legality, and scientific objectivity. With the liberal world demanding, “Say what for, or convict yourselves of Nazi-like barbarism,” Ben Gurion replied that revenge was out of the question and that the purpose of the Trial was to alert mankind to the dangers of anti-Semitism. Others suggested that the Trial aimed at stimulating Israeli patriotism by reminding the new generation that their fathers could go to their deaths unresisting in a despairing failure of will, but that national independence had brought them the spirit and the means to fight back. With statements like these in mind, Dr. Servatius was able at the end of the Trial to characterize it as a “political case.”
Yet all these useful and forward-looking motives, not altogether free of false notes, were but a rationalistic disguise for the irresistible demand for a tragic retelling by multitudes inconceivably brought into the psychic unity of an antique folk by an inconceivable blow, their not-to-be-denied poetic passion to hear related, and before the whole of humanity, the terrible fate of their stricken relatives and ancestors. The Trial was a way of giving public shape to a tormenting memory.
But the need forced upon it to justify itself in terms of its effects was bound to lead to distortions. It is a few of these distortions that I wish to discuss here, it being understood that no criticism is intended of any of the officials concerned with the case; for not only were they under the outside pressure to have the Trial “make sense”; they were obliged also, as we shall see, to participate in incongruities by the legal situation itself.
Had the Eichmann Trial been “a political case,” or only a political case, it should have been conducted quite differently. Compared, for example, with other show trials of our time, such as the Moscow Trials or the Hiss Case, it reveals few signs of belonging to the same species. In these, the political message was the point, and every bit of evidence concerning the guilt of the defendant was organized to hammer that message home. Different as were the procedures of the Soviet People’s Courts from those of courts ruled by the Bill of Rights, the offenses charged in each were presented in such a way as to appear less important in themselves than as symbols of conspiracies involving thousands of active, shadowy culprits not present in the courtroom. The trial in each of these cases was a cautionary parable hitting at these hidden enemies; hence it was not necessary that the misconduct alleged should possess the gravity of ordinary crime. Thus the Russians visibly fabricated fables out of police-inspired “confessions”; while our own federal prosecutor, overleaping the statute of limitations in order to reach into a previous decade, won a verdict of perjury by presenting proof of espionage comprising old typewriters, Persian rugs, prothonotary warblers, pumpkins, and other fanciful cuttings from the world between everyday life and mystery literature.
In Jerusalem, by contrast, the actual past was everything, beyond any lesson, and masses of fact were piled into the record for no other reason than that there were people to recount them. Once the testimony concerning the anguish of the Jews began, all forms, whether required for legally upholding an indictment or for “setting signposts for history,” became obstacles in the way of the narrative impulse. Everyone with a personal or group tragedy to relate had to be given his day in court as in some vast collective dirge. For almost two months, the defendant and the world heard from individuals escaped from the grave about fathers and mothers, graybeards, adolescents, babies, starved, beaten to death, strangled, machine-gunned, gassed, burned. One who had been a boy in Auschwitz had to tell how children had been selected by height for the gas chambers. The gruesome humor of the Nazis was not forgotten—the gas chamber with a sign on it with the name of a Jewish foundation and bearing a copper Star of David—nor the gratuitous sadism of SS officers. Public relations strategists everywhere, watching the reaction of the German press, the liberal press, the lunatic-fringe press, listening to their neighbors, studying interviews with men and women on the street, cried out: Too much, too much—the mind of the audience is becoming dulled, the horrors are losing their effect. And still another witness, one who had crawled out from under a heap of corpses, had to tell how the victims had been forced to lay themselves head to foot one on top of the other before being shot. . . .
Most of this testimony may have been legally admissible as bearing on the corpus delicti of the total Nazi crime but seemed subject to question when not tied to the part in it of the defendant’s Department of Jewish Affairs. Counsel for the defense, however, shrewdly allowing himself to be swept by the current of dreadful recollections, rarely raised an objection. Would not the emotional catharsis eventually brought on by this awfulness have a calming, if not exhausting, effect likely to improve his client’s chances? Those who feared “emotionalism” at the Trial showed less understanding than Dr. Servatius of the route by which man achieves the distance necessary for fairness toward enemies. Interruptions came largely from the bench, which numerous times rebuked the Attorney General for letting his witnesses run on, though it, too, made no serious effort to choke off the flow.
But there was a contrast even more decisive than a hunger for fact between the Trial in Jerusalem and those in Moscow and New York. In each of the last, the trial marked the beginning of a new course: in Moscow the liquidation of the Old Bolsheviks and the tightening of Stalin’s dictatorship; in the United States the initiation of militant anti-Communism, with the repentant ex-Communist in the vanguard. These trials were properly termed “political cases” in that the trial itself was a political act producing political consequences. But what could the Eichmann Trial initiate? Of what new course could it mark the beginning? The Eichmann case looked to the past, not to the future. It was the conclusion of the first phase of a process of tragic recollection, and of refining the recollection, that will last as long as there are Jews. As such, it was beyond politics and had no need of justification by a “message.”
“It is not an individual that is in the dock at this historical trial—” said Ben Gurion, “and not the Nazi regime alone—but anti-Semitism throughout history.” How could supplying Eichmann with a platform on which to maintain that one could collaborate in the murder of millions of Jews without being an anti-Semite contribute to a verdict against anti-Semitism? And if it was not an individual who was in the dock, why was the Trial, as we shall observe later, all but scuttled in the attempt to prove Eichmann a “fiend”? These questions touch the root of confusion in the prosecution’s case.
It might be contended, of course, that Eichmann in stubbornly denying anti-Semitic feelings was lying or insisting on a private definition of anti-Semitism. But in either event he was the wrong man for the kind of case outlined by Ben Gurion and set forth in the indictment. In such a case the defendant should serve as a clear example and not have to be tied to the issue by argument. One who could be linked to anti-Semitism only by overcoming his objections is scarcely a good specimen of the Jew-baiter throughout the ages. Shout at Eichmann though he might, the Prosecutor could not establish that the defendant was falsifying the way he felt about Jews or that what he did feel fell into the generally recognized category of anti-Semitism. Yes, he believed that the Jews were “enemies of the Reich,” and such a belief is, of course, typical of “patriotic” anti-Semites; but he believed in the Jew-as-enemy in a kind of abstract, theological way, like a member of a cult speculating on the nature of things. The real question was how one passed from anti-Semitism of this sort to murder, and the answer to this question is not to be found in anti-Semitism itself. In regard to Eichmann, it was to be found in the Nazi outlook, which contained a principle separate from and far worse than anti-Semitism, a principle by which the poison of anti-Semitism itself was made more virulent. Perhaps under the guidance of this Nazi principle one could, as Eichmann declared, feel personally friendly toward the Jews and still be their murderer. Not through fear of disobeying orders, as Eichmann kept trying to explain, but through a peculiar giddiness that began in a half-acceptance of the vicious absurdities contained in the Nazi interpretation of history and grew with each of Hitler’s victories into a permanent light-mindedness and sense of magical lightness that was able to respond to any proposal, and the more outrageous the better, “Well, let’s try it.” At any rate, the substance of Eichmann’s testimony was that all his actions flowed from his membership in the party and the SS, and though the Prosecutor did his utmost to prove actual personal hatred of Jews, his success on this score was doubtful and the anti-Semitic lesson weakened to that extent.
But if the trial did not expose the special Nazi mania so deadly to Jews as well as to anyone upon whom it happened to light, neither did it warn very effectively against the ordinary anti-Semitism of which the Nazis made such effective use in Germany and wherever else they could find it. If anti-Semitism was on trial in Jerusalem, why was it not identified, and with enough emphasis to capture the notice of the world press, in its connection with the activities of Eichmann’s Department of Jewish Affairs, as exemplified by the betrayal and murder of Jews by non-police and non-party anti-Semites in Germany, as well as in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary? The infamous Wansee Conference called by Heydrich in January 1942, to organize the material and technical means to put to death the eleven million Jews spread throughout the nations of Europe, was attended by representatives of major organs of the German state, including the Reich Minister of the Interior, the State Secretary in charge of the Four Year Plan, the Reich Minister of Justice, the Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs. The measures for annihilation proposed and accepted at the Conference affected industry, transportation, civilian agencies of government. Heydrich, in opening the Conference, followed the reasoning and even the phraseology of the order issued earlier by Goering which authorized the Final Solution as “a complement to” previous “solutions” for eliminating the Jews from German living space through violence, economic strangulation, forced emigration, and evacuation. In other words, the promulgators of the murder plan made clear that physically exterminating the Jews was but an extension of the anti-Semitic measures already operating in every phase of German life, and that the new conspiracy counted on the general anti-Semitism that had made those measures effective, as a readiness for murder. This, in fact, it turned out to be. Since the magnitude of the plan made secrecy impossible, once the wheels had began to turn, persons controlling German industries, social institutions, and armed forces became, through their anti-Semitism or their tolerance of it, conscious accomplices of Hitler’s crimes; whether in the last degree or a lesser one was a matter to be determined individually.
What more could be asked for a Trial intended to warn the world against anti-Semitism than this opportunity to expose the exact link between the respectable anti-Semite and the concentration-camp brute? Not in Eichmann’s anti-Semitism but in the anti-Semitism of the sober German man of affairs lay the potential warning of the Trial. No doubt many of the citizens of the Third Reich had conceived their anti-Semitism as an “innocent” dislike of Jews, as do others like them today. The Final Solution proved that the Jew-baiter of any variety exposes himself to being implicated in the criminality and madness of others. Ought not an edifying Trial have made every effort to demonstrate this once and for all by showing how representative types of “mere” anti-Semites were drawn step by step into the program of skull-bashings and gassings? The Prosecutor in his opening remarks did refer to “the germ of anti-Semitism” among the Germans which Hitler “stimulated and transformed.” But if there was evidence at the Trial that aimed over Eichmann’s head at his collaborators in the societies where he functioned, the press seems to have missed it.
Nor did the Trial devote much attention to exposing the usefulness of anti-Semitism to the Nazis, both in building their own power and in destroying that of rival organizations and states. Certainly, one of the best ways of warning the world against anti-Semitism is to demonstrate its workings as a dangerous weapon. Eichmann himself is a model of how the myth of the enemy-Jew can be used to transform the ordinary man of present-day society into a menace to all his neighbors. Do patriots everywhere know enough about how the persecution of the Jews in Germany and later in the occupied countries contributed to terrorizing the populations, splitting apart individuals and groups, arousing the meanest and most dishonest impulses, pulverizing trust and personal dignity, and finally forcing people to follow their masters into the abyss by making them partners in unspeakable crimes? The career of Eichmann made the Trial a potential showcase for anti-Semitic demoralization: fearful of being mistaken for a Jew, he seeks protection in his Nazi uniform; clinging to the enemy-Jew idea, he is forced to overcome habits of politeness and neighborliness; once in power he begins to give vent to a criminal opportunism that causes him to alternate between megalomania and envy of those above him. “Is this the type of citizen you desire?” the Trial should have asked the nations. But though this characterization in no way diminished Eichmann’s guilt, the Prosecutor, more deeply involved in the tactics of a criminal case than a political one, would have none of it.
Finally, if the mission of the Trial was to convict anti-Semitism, how could it have failed to post before the world the contrasting fates of the countries in which the Final Solution was aided by native Jew-haters—i.e., Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia—and those in which it met the obstacle of human solidarity—Denmark, Holland, Italy, Bulgaria, France? Should not everyone have been awakened to it as an outstanding fact of our time that the nations poisoned by anti-Semitism proved less fortunate in regard to their own freedom than those whose citizens saved their Jewish compatriots from the transports? Wasn’t this meaning of Eichmann’s experience in various countries worth highlighting?
As the first collective confrontation of the Nazi outrage, the Trial of Eichmann represents a recovery of the Jews from the shock of the death camps, a recovery that took fifteen years and which is still by no means complete (though let no one believe that it could be hastened by silence). Only across a distance of time could the epic accounting begin. It is already difficult to recall how little we knew before the Trial of what had been done to the Jews of Europe. It is not that the facts of the persecution were unavailable; most of the information elicited in Jerusalem had been brought to the surface by the numerous War Crimes tribunals and investigating commissions, and by reports, memoirs, and survivors’ accounts. As early as 1952, Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution had organized into sequence the various phases of the annihilation program and the horrors visited upon different groups of victims. Yet it is questionable that much of this growing body of knowledge entered the general consciousness or even that of many Jews. Even today the Nazi conspiracy is rarely grasped in the various stages and objectives through which it developed as the leaders reacted to world events and tested how far the conscience of a civilization would allow itself to be outraged. For most who lived through this period, the Nuremburg Laws, asphyxiation buses, rabbis scrubbing pavements, boycotts, death marches, the Crystal Night atrocities, gas chambers, are all jumbled together in a vague hurt as of a bruise received in the dark. One still meets people who speak of six million German Jews killed. Perhaps no crime in history has been better documented or more vaguely apprehended.
One reason for our ignorance lies in the character and interests of our “communications” media, a subject we can-not enter into here. Another reason lies within ourselves, in the nature of our ideas and of our way of understanding large public occurrences. The scientific temper of our time has so accustomed us to generalize about “forces” and “trends” that we pay little attention to the events themselves, has so accustomed us to look behind the happening for its cause that we give scant notice to the human actors engaged in the doing. The deadliest foe is dissolved into an abstraction; he becomes an instance or a symptom.
But the unfolding of a crime cannot be grasped except through the actions of the perpetrator of the crime. Without Iago, the tragedy of Othello disintegrates into a dream of jealousy. In the absence of the enemy whose complex of assaults was in fact a single continuing attack, the tragedy of the Jews lacked coherence as well as particularity—those shot on the Polish border, gassed at Belsen, seemed, as Dr. Servatius was to suggest they were, but war victims of a different kind. The ordeal of the Jews was fully exposed with the opening of the death camps, but to absorb this knowledge into our experience it was necessary that we confront the image of the assassin and the motive and method of his attack. Only the presence of the enemy could bring all these disparate acts into focus as a thrust against the Jews which they were all but powerless to resist.
One knew, of course, that the ones most directly responsible were Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Heydrich. But when one tried to fix these figures at the center of the fury, they failed somehow to stay in place, less perhaps because they were already dead by the time the entire scale of their deed had risen to view than because killing Jews was only a fraction of their crimes; carried back to the masters of the Reich, the sufferings of the Jews blended with those of the Czechs, the Poles, the Russians, indeed masses of injured throughout the world.
With the seizure of Eichmann there appeared suddenly a living protagonist for this crime, a man bound to the misery of the Jews as his specialty, his sole reason for being. The chief of the Department of Jewish Affairs, Sec. IV B4 of the combined Gestapo and SS, was particularly and totally identified with the murder plan in that he had no other role, no status nor stature apart from this single function, that of ferrying Jews to their deaths. Even his comparatively low rank, of which he tried to make so much at his Trial as proving his lack of authority to initiate or avoid decisions, stood as a mark of his complete association with the Jews, in that it reflected the Nazi contempt for them—the power of life and death over the Jews could be put into the hands of a mere lieutenant colonel. With Eichmann in his cage in Jerusalem it was possible for the first time to visualize the massacres that had taken place across the face of Eastern Europe not as disconnected atrocities, like outbursts of violence in an insane asylum, but as a planned and centralized undertaking aimed at the annihilation of all Jews.1 By his presence, Eichmann removed the crime from the madhouse and situated it in history. Unlike other pogroms, the German atrocity now became part of the chronicle of a great nation, memorable to its members as well as to the Jews.
The Trial was thus a re-enactment of the transports and the camps that brought face to face the main characters of the tragedy. As a medium of dramatic narration, however, a trial has basic shortcomings. These were exaggerated in the unprecedented case of the six million. Characteristics of the judicial form hampered the public telling of the story of the Jews, at the same time that they favored the strategy of the defendant in reducing his culpability to the vanishing point.
The question-and-answer form of a trial examination breaks into fragments the events described by the witness. In the Eichmann case, witnesses were allowed to speak with a minimum of interruption from counsel. But as against this advantage, no witness for the prosecution actually had more than a tiny bit to tell about the gigantic offensive by which he had been overtaken. Nor was any order possible in the series of testimonies by survivors that would fill out the shape of the whole offense. Moreover, of the story received in fragments, the press communicated still smaller fragments, indeed only the minutest samples. Thus once again the world saw a splatter of atrocities but without an active human center. For the first time more than a passing glimpse was gained of the dreadful fate that befell the Jews of Europe, and this was the great contribution of the Trial. But what led to this fate, both in regard to the events that brought it about and the persons in various degrees responsible for it, was still left largely to conjecture.
Another handicap of court procedure is that the bench, unlike the poet or storyteller in his recapture of the specific emotional quality of the event recounted, does its best to bleach out the human coloration of incidents as an impediment to impartial judgment. Like other scientific approaches, the law exaggerates the neutrality of what is done: a witness may testify that he saw X climb a wall and enter a window but not that he was convinced that X intended to rob the apartment—which makes the activity of the robber identical with that of a householder who has lost his key. The law all but invites an Eichmann to describe himself as a “transport officer.” No doubt, there is an “objective” ingredient in the the actions of men, and it is possible that sequences of actions can organize themselves apart from human intention to bring about a catastrophe. The Greek theater, which emphasized the fatality of disaster, compensated for this emphasis by the protests and outcries of the Chorus. In the Eichmann case, the calm of judicial procedure often led to offense, if not outrage; and something comparable to the Greek Chorus was spontaneously brought into being in Jerusalem by survivors of the camps who sprang up in the gallery from time to time to hurl curses at the defendant seated in his block of ice—but these were hastily ejected from the courtroom to quiet the seas of rage, frustration, and anguish that welled up underneath it.
But while order could be restored, the court had no way of rectifying the imbalance between what was being said by the defense and what had been done in the camps. Instead of the grief and horror appropriate to the narration of tragic happenings, the law court establishes an atmosphere of discussion. A trial implies a contest; the very word “defendant” contains the thought that a defense is possible. This in a way regularizes the offense of the accused—even if he is found guilty, it will be within a category of crime known to the law and accepted by it as possessing precedents. As a defendant, Eichmann, had, by definition, a “case.”
In keeping with this legal assumption that Eichmann’s guilt was a subject of debate, things were discussed that are not discussable. For instance, wasn’t it to the advantage of the Jews to be delivered to the gas chambers more efficiently? “It cannot be denied,” the defendant testified, “that this orderliness [which he had introduced into the deportations and which speeded them up] was to some extent to the benefit of the people who were deported.” Given Eichmann’s admissions both before and during the Trial, the reasonable examination of his behavior and motives put things in a grotesque light, as if the judges, the Prosecutor, the spectators, had by their mere presence agreed to cooperate with the defense in respecting its monstrous hypotheses. A kind of black humor was thus precipitated at which one could not allow oneself to laugh. At this Trial, the verdict of which was bound to be incongruous—“how punish one man for six million dead?”—every analytical statement tended to turn into a ridiculous statement and a new insult to any sense of a human order. Taking advantage to the limit of his legal privilege of minimizing his guilt by surgically separating his segment of the action from the whole—“Killing is one thing, but transportation is something else. I had nothing to do with killing”—Eichmann barely stops short of justifying his Gestapo vocation, while condemning the Gestapo: since he had not personally initiated the Gestapo program, he did no wrong in carrying it out. Here the terminology of debate produces unspeakable assumptions as in a dialogue between dope addicts. Defending his delivery of the Jews to the hangman as conducted in good taste and implying no enmity to Jews, Eichmann takes for granted his right to dispose of Jews by calling attention to ways worse than his of exercising this right, i.e., by brutes and sadists. On testimony as to his having beaten a Vienna community leader, he excuses himself for having lost his temper and enters into a dissertation on his customary gentlemanly manners—until one almost forgets what an infinite grievance and humiliation it was that any Jew, just because he was a Jew, should even have had to talk to this individual. But if for the hunter of women and babies to describe himself, and be described by a respected lawyer, as merely “arranging timetables” is an insane contention, the insanity is not in Eichmann but in the logic of normal trial procedure when applied in this case.
The necessary coolness of a courtroom favored Eichman—I even venture to propose that counting in advance on the neutral style of the law (duplicated in that creation of law, bureaucracy) contributed to the formation of his character as a Nazi. Was not the detached perspective toward his own part in the Final Solution suggested to him early in his career by the fearful prospect of one day being brought to trial? Detachment and “correctness” constituted his anticipatory defense and made up the “legal personality” that he would present before the bar. “He always told me,” testified his friend Dieter Wisliceny, long before Eichmann was caught, “that the most important thing was to be covered at all times by one’s superiors. He shunned all personal responsibility and took care to shelter behind his superiors . . . and to inveigle them into accepting liability for all his actions.” This Nazi conducted his life of villainy along the lines of the plea he would make years later in the Jerusalem courtroom. In William Shirer’s account of Hitler’s moves until his assault on Poland, the Fuehrer’s entire strategy pivots on preparing points of retreat and disavowal should the policeman’s club rap on the door. In Israel, as earlier in the Weimar Republic, the law was confounded by a new problem: that of dealing with a defendant who as part of his preparation for his crime has penetrated the limitations of legal theory in regard to actions inspired by ideological combines, limitations based on the need of the court to define separately the offense of each person brought before it, unless the court itself is prepared to commit itself ideologically by a verdict of criminal conspiracy against the agents of a particular movement.
One of the extreme distortions of the Eichmann Trial was that it presented to the world only the courtroom identity which Eichmann had created over the years for just this courtroom situation, and which he had refined to the utmost in his long months of imprisonment. The self-fascinated ego he had disclosed in Argentina to the Dutch journalist Sassen was kept off the stage. So, too, was one of the conditions that directly contributed to making the murder program possible: the waves of egotistical afflatus that carried the Nazis and Germans of all classes from peak to peak of brutal arrogance after Hitler had begun his triumphal march across Europe. Here again the “Chorus” suplied a correction more revealing than hours of cross-examination to Eichmann’s carefully constructed image of the little clerk checking his memos: “But you should have seen him in his SS uniform,” cried a voice from the gallery.
To Eichmann, playing the part of defendant supplied a degree of safety and assurance he could obtain in no other way. The longer the Trial went on, the farther removed he became from the reality of his acts, and the more “unschuldig” he grew in his own eyes—toward the end he was threatening to wreck the Trial by confessing at random if the Prosecutor pressed him too hard on points that did not coincide with the image he chose to present. In court Eichmann no longer had to reflect on what he had done. He had only to strengthen the defense he had chosen from among those made available by the legal tradition, that of having acted within an unbreakable chain of causes or under the direction of a superior will.
The Trial was held in order to tell the story of the Jews of Europe. But Eichmann passionately desired to tell his story—we know that in 1956, no longer able to endure his incognito, he told at length the tale of his life to a stranger he met in a Buenos Aires bar. One may conjecture that being captured by the Israelis was to Eichmann a mixed misfortune. True, his life was put in danger; in return he was given the opportunity to become one of the most memorable figures of this century. What could have meant more to this “kleiner mann” who, above all else, found his anonymity intolerable?
Also, what better moment could have been chosen for Eichmann? Had he been brought to the dock at Nuremberg, he would have been overshadowed by scores of offenders far above him in rank and interest: Reich Marshals, propagandists, diplomats, slave-labor industrialists—gentlemen who spoke in much the same style as Eichmann and even at times looked like him. In my files, for instance, I find a clipping from the New York Times dated January 4, 1946, which contains a photograph of a Major General of Police named Otto Ohlendorf testifying before a War Crimes court. Allow for the fifteen years that have elapsed and this youthful-looking man with his earphones is as much like Eichmann as would be two cadets or seminarians. As to manner and character, the Times reporter supplied the following:
The 90,000 lives that Ohlendorf confessed taking at Adolf Hitler’s command seemed to rest easily on his conscience. He talked in a matter-of-fact tone, admitting each mass killing as calmly as if the victims had been cattle or sheep. Yet in appearance he is not particularly brutal or inhuman, looking more like a somewhat humorless shoe salesman one might meet anywhere. . . . Ohlendorf described the manner in which Jews were rounded up and killed as a man might describe an ordinary business transaction.
When the world had major generals like these to observe, why should it have paid attention to a mere lieutenant colonel?
By 1961, however, the star performers of Nazi frightfulness had vanished, while mankind, after a decade and a half of respite, was prepared to endure a review of the past. Best of all for Eichmann, he was to be tried in Israel—for only among Jews was he first in importance and certain of recognition in the full scope of his former power.
But Eichmann’s outlook for immortality was imperiled by one possibility. that the Prosecutor would rest his case after establishing Eichmann’s function as the head of the Department of Jewish Affairs and the steps he had taken to carry out that function. By the precedent of Nuremberg, an accomplice in mass murder may earn a capital sentence, though his deeds had been performed in obedience to orders. There would not be much satisfaction for Eichmann in a trial that condemned him for his exact part in the complex of decisions and measures constituting the Final Solution. In a case along such lines he would be liable to maximum punishment yet without being relieved of his anonymity.
Eichmann was, however, able to head off such a trial by the confessions in his preliminary examination. Given his willingness to admit his role in the murder operation, it was plain that an indictment restricted to Eichmann’s part in the Final Solution would be met by a plea of guilty—in that event, there would be no trial and the value of Eichmann’s capture would be vitiated. There could be a trial only if Eichmann were charged with personal guilt over and above actions incontestably related to his Gestapo functions. In sum, the condition of the trial was that Eichmann’s personality should be made central to the question of his guilt.
With this kind of charge Eichmann was prepared to cope. Having mounted the world stage, he would now defend himself, like Hitler before him, as the little man, the put-upon “front soldier,” the honest victim of unfair dislike—specifically, in this instance, the “link in the sausage,” the “cog in the machine.” Seen abstractly—that is, apart from the murder apparatus into which Eichmann had been feeding bodies—this was a defense which the contemporary world could thoroughly appreciate. The Nazi mind is nothing if not “modern”; the strength of Hitler’s movement lay in its keenness regarding the perversities of present-day experience and its cynicism in making use of them. Chief among these common perversities is the sense of loss of self and responsibility that comes from functioning in a large organization. Eichmann’s defense was designed to appeal to the universal appreciation of the plight of the organization man. Who cannot grasp that one in the middle of a chain of command—a link in the sausage—simply passes down orders he receives from above, without having the power to alter their content or to influence their ultimate effect? Everyone in an organization is in a sense nothing but a “traffic officer,” while the directors at the top reach decisions that reflect a collective mind separate from that of each. It is the fictitious being of the corporation that acts, while all the persons in the company are innocent. And this plea of immunity through the corporation is one that sits very well in legal logic; for the corporation, too, like the government bureau, is the creature of the law itself; it is a “fictitious legal entity,” set up precisely to supply immunity to the individuals who manipulate its levers. It is not thinkable to be the dispatcher of human shipments to death factories, but by analogy with the clean hands of the office man in charge of shipping fish fertilizer or veal carcases, it is thinkable.
With the cog idea Eichmann was able to play the Nazi double game of the servile hero. He was a nobody acting under orders, but this nobody had to be able, in order to do his gruesome duty, to conquer the creature in himself, with its sentiments, its weaknesses. Eichmann tells how he faltered at the sight of the “fountain of blood,” but that had he been ordered to do so, he would have slain his own father. Thus the “cog” becomes the protagonist of an ethical drama, overcoming in anguish his excess of human feeling; in the end he is, in his own eyes, a noble warrior deserving sympathy for his conflicts and sufferings. In sum, Eichmann’s defense exemplifies the chicanery of protected viciousness with which the Nazis allured the leaders of Germany’s industry and armed forces—through the Nazi concept of the cog they would even be able to avoid responsibility for the Nazis.
A cog cannot, of course, be concerned with suffering inflicted by the machine of which it is a part. Eichmann’s defense endeavored to associate him with the literary image of an inquisitor so “abstract” that the screams of the victims could not break through his absorption with his gears and timetables. Such an abstract man, however, is authentic only if he also purges himself of any sensitivity to his own pain, like the officer of Kafka’s The Penal Colony who throws himself into the lethal machine out of fidelity to his idea. But what of a “cog” that is infinitely concerned with staying alive? What of this dedicated agent of death who suddenly shows so much respect for his own mere existence? The efforts pursued by Eichmann following the end of the war to save his skin destroy any credibility that might attach itself to the image of the unwilling slave of orders from above. He executed those orders because he benefited from executing them—his lust to survive belies any surrender of self to the “machine,” any transcendence into impersonality. His behavior after the Nazi collapse demonstrates that, like most of his fellow criminals, he gave himself to the Fuehrer and the party not as a religious convert gives himelf to his cult but as a swindler assumes the discipline of the band. Eichmann in court thus personifies the fraudulence of Nazi alienation. His enterprising self-defense, proving that he committed his crimes for his own advantage, makes him personally guilty of the death of each human being he delivered to the executioner.
Eichmann’s distortion of the relation between the individual and the organization and between the follower and his cult gives his defense its typical Nazi character. It is a defense that arises from the very heart of the present-day social juggling with responsibility which the Nazis had translated into the political principle of the all-responsible Fuehrer and the strategy of bureaucratic disavowal. Through Hitler, a party and a nation of innocents were created by drawing all into the corporation (all, that is, who were to be allowed to survive). Except for Hitler himself, each of these corporate limbs or organization men could claim before the bar of liberal jurisprudence that as a man he was something other than his actions and opposed to them. In contrast to the necessity imposed upon his behavior by the organization,2 his freedom was private, inward, and intangible, and by the preferences of this inner state he would demand to be judged.
Thus to convict Eichmann totally, Prosecutor Hausner strove to “restore,” as a New York Times headline put it, “the arch-killer,” to prove Eichmann subjectively an enemy of the Jews, one animated by “bottomless hatred” and “murderous fury” and still devoid of remorse;3 while Judge Landau asked Dr. Servatius during the latter’s summation: “Do we have anything in the testimony of the accused . . . which shows that he revolted internally against the extermination orders?” But suppose he had “revolted internally” while still continuing to send Jews to the ovens? He did revolt, Dr. Servatius replied, but he was powerless to make his objections manifest. So the issue seemed unresolved—in contrast to the electrical monopoly cases in which the U.S. Federal Judge indignantly cast aside evidence regarding the personal good character of the defendants, as well as the defense of orders from above. For unless the law judges according to the actions of the defendant it risks losing itself in the metaphysics of doing versus being. In the Eichmann Trial, perhaps out of excessive sensitivity to the coercion of individuals by impersonal forces, what the defendant had not done was allowed to become part of the proceedings, as Hitler had been allowed by the democratic world to talk about not invading Czechoslovakia after he had delivered his ultimatum. But except for being the executive in charge of the Gestapo’s Jew-killing department—how careful he was to distinguish the responsibility of this department from that of the Wehrmacht and the Foreign Office!—Eichmann was “a man like everyone else.”
By the conditions of his Trial, Eichmann had to be allowed to compete with the survivors in their telling of the story of the Jews of Europe. He had to be allowed his defense, deceitful, absurd, and outrageous as it was. The issue of his subjective guilt was, however, a distraction that ought to have been reduced to a minimum. Why should this self-styled nobody who had hurled into silence so many of the subtlest and most humane intellects of Europe have been permitted to elaborate on each trait of his character, his opinions on all sorts of matters, including Kant’s categorical imperative, and his conception of himself as Pontius Pilate and as a “romantic,” his reaction to his wife’s reading the Bible, his drinking of mare’s milk and schnapps? One question would have sufficed to complete the formulation of his culpability: “Weren’t you the head of Sec. IV B4 of RSHA charged with the extermination of the Jews of Europe, and did you not carry out the function assigned to you to the best of your ability?” Any intimation that one could be more guilty than Eichmann after his admission that “I knew that some of the Jews would be exterminated” revealed an intrinsic confusion of values. Regardless of the verdict, the Trial should have affirmed in the most positive terms that absolutely nothing could weigh a hair’s-breadth in the guilt of one who had performed with efficiency and zeal the job of deliberately sending innocent men, women, and children to be tortured, shot, and gassed.
Unfortunately, the Israeli Attorney General accepted with the zeal of a courtroom David the challenge of Eichmann to prove his inner viciousness as well as the criminality of his deeds. The world looked to the testimony of Eichmann not for an image of the Fiend but for a clearer and more detailed delineation of the evolution of the Nazi murder plan out of programs of discrimination and expulsion, for information on where the action of the Final Solution began and what each category of its executants had added to it in practice. Instead of light on these matters, it got Eichmann’s contest with the Prosecutor, as Mr. Hausner strove by cross-examination, in which shouts of “liar” and heavy sarcasm were met by sour rage, to “break down” the defendant as in an ordinary case of manslaughter or burglary. For twenty-five days the stage was surrendered to this tournament. In the interval the anguish of Auschwitz and Maidanek was forced into the background. Yet in the end the Attorney General, for all his oratory about Eichmann’s murdering with “fervor and insatiable lust,” was compelled to fall back on the irrefutable charge of his being “involved in a conspiracy to commit crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity . . . and occupying a central position in this conspiracy in its executive stage.”
While the story of the mass victim had been shredded into bits by courtroom procedure, the defense was able from first to last to maintain a single, continuing impression: that of the embattled prisoner parrying endless confrontations and questions with itemized explanations of his lack of responsibility. By the time the cross-examination was over, each molecule of the enormous crime had been funneled through Eichmann into a void. Even his style of speech had been used to veil the atrocious reality which the Trial had attempted to communicate: “He seemed,” wrote Lawrence Fellows in the Times, “to be avoiding wherever possible the use of words like Jews, death, concentration camps. His testimony was shot through with mention of superior orders, and it was immersed in the special jargon of bureaucracy.” Eichmann’s weeks on the stand had the effect not of breaking him down but of breaking down in the mind of the world audience the outlines, traced with such difficulty, of the Final Solution as a conspiracy of murderous men, and transforming it into an impersonal process. Not only was the form of events lost but even their chronology. “Mr. Hausner,” Presiding Judge Landau objected at one point, “we discussed Holland and France last week and now we have come back to them again.”
Thus there was presented in Jerusalem an indispensable account of the tragedy of the Jews in this era, but it was an account marred in the telling and needing to be gone over and interpreted again and again.
1 One wonders how many American Jews are aware that “The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem,” which was put into effect after the Nazis had overrun much of Europe and established puppet alliances in both the West and the East, was intended to be applied throughout the world as the Nazi victory was extended. Had the United States lost the war, which it had entered a month before Wansee, there can be no doubt that Obersturmbannführer Eichmann would have shown up in Washington to negotiate our removal to the camps.
2 It will be recalled that one of the dramatic moments of the Trial came when Eichmann stepped out of his glass cage to defend himself with—an organization chart.
3 Hausner's complaint in his summation that Eichmann showed no remorse indicated that the Prosecutor either failed or refused to understand Eichmann's defense: since according to this defense no harm had emanated from Eichmann as a person, but only passed through him as a “link,” he had nothing to regret, except perhaps having been imposed upon by the Nazi “error.”