TORONTO — Historian Deborah Lipstadt’s latest book, The Eichmann Trial, whose appearance on the 50th anniversary of the storied court action she says is mere coincidence, is intended both as a primer and a corrective.
“It’s a corrective in two areas,” says the Emory University history professor on the phone from Atlanta. “One in terms of Hannah Arendt [the controversial author of Eichmann in Jerusalem] and two, in terms of the idea that before this trial, nobody had heard from Holocaust survivors, that survivors had not spoken about what happened to them. We know that’s not true. A number of historians have now shown that survivors were speaking up, and the notion that the Eichmann trial pierced the silence is simply not correct.”
It wasn’t so much that this was the first time survivors spoke publicly, she adds, “but it was the first time the world was listening in such a serious fashion.”
Lipstadt will be the featured speaker at the opening of this year’s Holocaust Education Week, whose theme is “Accountability: 50 Years Since the Eichmann Trial.” She will discuss her newest book and the resonance of the trial on Nov. 1 at Holy Blossom Temple, 7:30 p.m.
As for Arendt, whose own book on the Eichmann trial was for decades considered a staple, Lipstadt, in attempting to set the record straight, offers up much that will please some readers, infuriate others, and raise a few eyebrows.
The broad strokes are now burned into the Jewish psyche: SS Lt.-Col. Adolf Eichmann, a major architect of the Final Solution, slipped away after World War II but was found by Israeli agents living under a false identity in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In an operation that electrified the world (and heaped scorn on Israel in many quarters for violating another country’s sovereignty), Eichmann was captured by Mossad operatives in 1960 and brought to Jerusalem to face charges.
Following a trial denounced by detractors as a kangaroo court and others as treatment too kind and fair, Eichmann was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and hanged on May 31, 1962. He remains the only person to have been executed in Israel following conviction by a civilian court.
Even as a “primer,” Lipstadt’s book upends many notions that may have been held until now, including just how accurate the prosecution’s arguments were, whether Eichmann was a mere cog in a giant killing machine, and that he proved a tougher witness than had been thought.
Among public misconceptions, Lipstadt says, was that Eichmann “was the man who planned and carried out the Final Solution. [But] he was not the CEO. He was one of the COOs [chief operating officers] of the Final Solution.”
Indeed, as she writes, prosecutor Gideon Hausner “got much of the history wrong” and pushed “past the evidence,” accusing Eichmann “of things for which he was not responsible.” In contrast to Hausner’s accusations, Eichmann “did play a decisive role in aspects of the Final Solution, though he certainly did not control most aspects of it.
“Hausner made the man in the glass booth look more mythic than real.”
But was Eichmann more than just a clerk, as many have viewed him?
“Oh God, yes,” Lipstadt tells The CJN. “Absolutely.”
And the defendant proved “disciplined” and “well-prepared.” At times, “he really managed to prevail over Hausner more so than vice-versa.”
Lipstadt, whose famous legal tangle with British Holocaust revisionist David Irving resulted in her award-winning 2006 book History on Trial, about the libel lawsuit Irving launched against her [and lost], says she was “struck by the fact that writing this [latest book] did bring me back to being a defendant.” Having been in the dock, she notes the dark absurdity of deniers’ logic: that while the Holocaust is a myth, “the Jews’ nefarious behaviour made them nevertheless deserving of being destroyed.”
Lipstadt allocates a good chunk of her latest effort on Arendt, who covered the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker and polarized many readers with her often harsh depictions of Israeli society. In fact, writes Lipstadt, Arendt “voiced a personal disdain for Israel that bordered on antisemitism and racism.”
Though Arendt correctly deduced that contrary to Hausner’s exaggerated claims, Eichmann was not the linchpin of the Final Solution, “she veered in the opposite direction” and famously declared him “a desk-level bureaucrat who showed little initiative and had few talents.”
Says Lipstadt: “Her conception [was] that he was just a pencil pusher, though a pencil pusher who deserved to die… she said some very horrible things but at the same time, some very powerful things.”
Much scorn has been heaped on Arendt for her iconic description of Nazi evil as “banal.” In fact, Lipstadt argues in Arendt’s defence, “she thought nothing of the kind. She used the term ‘banal’ to bolster her contention that Eichmann did not act out of deep ideological commitment or because he was inherently evil.”
What Arendt tried to understand with that word was how Eichmann, like so many other Germans, “so seamlessly became killers.”
Some readers may be jarred to learn from Lipstadt that Arendt was absent for much of the Eichmann trial, including for Hausner’s cross-examination. “That’s so striking, it’s mind-boggling,” Lipstadt says. It also “constituted a breach of faith with her readers.”
Ultimately, Lipstadt paints a picture of a complex, multi-faceted Arendt, one who could be “flippant, cruel, glib and got many of her facts wrong,” but who “also worried deeply about the security of Israel” and “raised painful and important questions in relation to leadership and individual responsibility.”
Arendt sought to “needle her readers to examine their assumptions,” Lipstadt writes, and though shocked and hurt by the wrath she provoked, “was the author, writ large, of her own misfortune.”
Lipstadt says she was struck by “how many people mercilessly condemned [Arendt] and how many people were simply enthralled with what she said.” She re-read Arendt’s book. “There were parts of it I found absolutely appalling and parts of it I found tremendously powerful, affirming and important, and [there were] things I felt had been ignored
“For those who think she walks on water, they think I’m too tough on her. For those who think she was horrendous, they think I’m too easy on her. So I guess I hit it right.”