The Arendt Trial


The trial in 1961 in Israel of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann has been well rehearsed by scholars, in the popular literature, and by journalists and Jewish professionals.

In the latter category, two books stand out: Eichmann prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s “Justice in Jerusalem” and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

Few in 2011 can recall Hausner’s book; Arendt’s, which was based on her coverage of the trial and which generated a firestorm when it was published in 1963, still raises blood pressure 50 years later.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, in “The Eichmann Trial” (Nextbook/Schocken) does not get to Arendt’s analysis of the Eichmann trial until the end of the book. But the reader knows what’s coming — the famous photograph of Arendt is on the book jacket, right up there with Eichmann’s. Suggestive, no? But it’s well worth the wait the wait to book’s end. It’s worth the read as well: Lipstadt, a professor of history at Emory who (as we are repeatedly reminded) herself made headlines some years ago in her trial against Holocaust denier David Irving, has written a comprehensive and serious, but highly readable, report of the trial.

Did I say “readable?” Lipstadt’s book is nothing less than a page-turner. Beginning with Eichmann’s “cloak-and-dagger” capture in Argentina, through the events leading up to the trial, to the details of the trial (fascinating, surprisingly, even 50 years later), Lipstadt knows how to move a story along.

In addition to providing a scrupulously researched guide to the trial, “The Eichmann Trial” recalls for us that the trial was nothing less than revolutionary in an Israel that was a bit more than a decade old, an Israel labored under the myth of a “New Israeli” who had left the ghetto behind. The regnant parties of the left in Israel — Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s Mapai, Achdut Ha-Avodah, Mapam — were imbued with the ideology of sh’lilat ha-Golah, “rejection of the diaspora” — and the rejection of the survivors of the Holocaust. Eichmann woke up Israel to the realities of the Holocaust and of the survivors.

Lipstadt’s brisk narrative is a primer on the sociological impact of the trial on Israeli society. What was it like in Jerusalem in 1961? Lipstadt puts the reader right there.

Lipstadt is expert at parsing moments in history that are not easy to understand. A notable example is her chapter on Hungarian Jewry, in which she interweaves the oft-told yet chilling narrative of Rudolf Kasztner and Joel Brand’s negotiations with the SS for Jews — and Jews, many Jews, were saved by Kasztner — into the story of the Holocaust in Hungary. It’s a complicated story, and Lipstadt’s telling is nothing less than a tour-de-force.

But the strength of “The Eichmann Trial” is not in the recounting of the trial itself, but in Lipstadt’s discussion of the aftermath of the trial, of Hannah Arendt’s judgments on the trial, on Eichmann, and ultimately on European Jewry during the Destruction. In Arendt’s coverage of the trial for The New Yorker — her articles formed the core of her 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” — she was highly critical of the activities of the Jewish Councils, the Judenräte, in Nazi-occupied lands. Not to put too fine a point on it, to Arendt the Jewish leadership of the Judenräte were collaborators. Period.

The section on Arendt in “The Eichmann Trial,” which serves in effect as Lipstadt’s peroration to the reader, challenges Arendt’s assertion that the Judenräte were participants in the destruction of European Jewry.

Lipstadt argues that Arendt vastly exaggerated the impact of the Jewish Councils, and notes that in Russia, where many thousands of Jews were murdered, there were no Judenräte. To say (as some scholars have) that Lipstadt benefited from the hindsight derived from a half-century of research into the activities of the Jewish Councils is to miss the point entirely. The fact is that Arendt, in her zeal to promote her grand thesis of Judenräte collaboration — a difficult moral issue, indeed — lost her own moral compass. Arendt’s assertion that the Nazi perpetrators and the Jewish leadership were equal partners in the deportation and subsequent murder of Jews demonstrated not Arendt’s fearlessness but her bankruptcy.

There are small missteps in “The Eichmann Trial.” A “Pyrrhic victory” is not a hollow triumph; it is a victory that is won at great cost. The German-Israeli philosopher was Samuel Hugo Bergman, not “Bergmann.” In these and other instances the editor’s red pencil might have been more in evidence. Further, the lack of an index is more than an annoyance; it hinders the use of the book for serious study, all the more because Lipstadt’s archival research is amazing.

More important is Lipstadt’s fudging of the question of when the Holocaust came to American Jewish consciousness. Everyone expected that this would happen as result of the Eichmann trial. It did not; it happened in Israel, not in America. It was not until 1967, with the Six-Day War and the spectre of another annihilation, that the Holocaust became part of the American Jewish communal agenda. This matter is more than a nuance; it goes directly to the point of Lipstadt’s book — the Eichmann trial as a public event sending a public message.

Notwithstanding this point, Deborah Lipstadt has done the field of Holocaust studies — indeed the arenas of European history and sociology — a major service. Was the Eichmann trial a “show trial”? Did it exceed its legal mandate? Lipstadt cannily addresses these questions, and leaves the reader to decide. But Lipstadt’s best service in “The Eichmann Trial” is she has “rescued” the trial, and by extension the narrative and legacy of the destruction of European Jewry, from Hannah Arendt. For this she deserves the thanks of scholars, of survivors — and of everyone else.

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism Through the Ages,” and editor of the forthcoming “The Future of American Judaism,” a volume in the Trinity/Columbia University Press series “The Future of American Religion.”