Deborah Lipstadt talks about the Eichmann trial
March 21, 2011
Q: Why is it important to remember this trial some 50 years after the fact?
A: This trial would be important even if it weren’t the 50th anniversary. But this trial put the human face on the nature of suffering. It’s too easy to talk about six million, or to talk about Rwanda, 800 to a million, or to talk about it in a very general way. This trial reminded us that by virtue of Hausner’s decision to put all those survivors on the stand, that the victim has a name and a face and a history, and that this happened to people. It didn’t happen to numbers or just a large group. It happened to individuals.
Q: How was the Eichmann trial different from the Nuremberg trials?
A: There were more reporters present for the opening of the Eichmann trial than were present at the opening of the Nuremberg trials, and the question is why. There are a number of things that point to the uniqueness of this trial. First of all, it was a trial of one individual. Nuremberg had been a trial of multiple individuals. Number two, Nuremberg took place in the aftermath of the war. Europe was in shambles. Our boys were just coming home, anxious to get on with their lives. There were other things people were concerned about. And most importantly, the Eichmann trial took place in Israel. This was the trial of one of the perpetrators by the victims. That gave the trial a great deal of importance and gravitas in the eyes of the world.
Also, at Nuremberg there were very few victims who gave testimony. And when they did it was not the center of attention. At the Eichmann trial approximately 100 survivors gave testimony. And they told about different aspects of the Holocaust. It was a chance for them one by one by one to tell their stories, to be present and to put a face on the suffering in a way that hadn’t been the case at Nuremberg.
Q: What kind of media coverage did the trial receive?
A: There was tremendous media coverage. It was one of the first trials to be filmed. Every night you would see clips of the trial on television. The three major networks were vying for the rights to film the trial and Israel gave the rights to an unknown little company, Capital Cities, which went on to eventually own ABC, a major TV network. But Capitial Cities would film it; they would fly the film to New York, and it would be developed and shown on the following night. It was a ritual at my house—I don’t know if it was on every night but often we would watch the coverage as a family when I was a child.
Q: Do you think the coverage of the trial affected public opinion about it?
A: I think it did. It was a long trial, so in the beginning there was a lot of coverage. Then you had Bay of Pigs and Yuri Gargarin going into space, so other stories pushed it off the front page. But there was pretty consistent coverage. There was tremendous coverage for the first couple of days and also tremendous coverage when the sentence came in. There was also a great deal of attention when Eichmann was on the stand and locking horns with Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor.
Q: What was the reaction of American Jews to the trial?
A: There was a very wide reaction. Before the trial there were many American Jews who were nervous, who felt that Israel shouldn’t be trying him, that it would bring criticism on Israel, or might arouse anti-Semitism, or that the world wouldn’t see it as a fair trial. They were hoping it would be moved someplace else. There were other American Jews who felt very comfortable with Israel trying him. I think by the end people felt he’d really been given a fair trial. He’d been given a chance to speak his piece--he was on the stand a very extended period of time--to tell his story. It wasn’t a show trial. He never stood up and said “I’m guilty, I did it, Punish me, ” which would have been the equivalent of a show trial. He had a defense system, and I think by the end most people were comfortable with the trial.
Q: Do you think this trial was influential in the founding of the International Criminal Court?
A: Not this trial specifically. But this trial gave rise to other criminal trials. It brought the voice of the victim to the fore. It was very much present in the Rwanda tribunals; it was present in the former Yugoslavia tribunals, and that was instrumental in the founding of the International Criminal Court. It alone was not responsible, but I think it started a process that resulted in the founding of the International Criminal Court.
Q: What do we learn from the Eichmann trial about the nature of evil?
A: We knew about the nature of evil before, but The Eichmann trial called it into the spotlight. Here was a man who didn’t look any different from you or me, who looked sort of innocuous when they brought him into the glass booth. Of course he looked very different if you looked at pictures of him in his Nazi uniform. But still he didn’t have horns; he didn’t have anything dramatically different. And here was a man who had a pretty normal life before he did this, yet he was capable of being one of the architects or one of the chief operating officers of the Final Solution of the murder of European Jewry. And it caused people to sit up and take notice and see the perpetrator and understand that you can’t say the perpetrator is “other.” The perpetrator could be us. Then you have to ask, what makes it possible for a seemingly normal person to become the doer of such evil?
Q: What other lessons can we take from this trial?
A: We can see that the perpetrator of evil is an ostensibly normal person who does terrible things. You have to ask, what leads to that? That’s one lesson. The other lesson we can take away is the enduring nature of anti-Semitism. It’s ancient hatred. And it led people in what was considered the most forward thinking, the most accomplished, one of the most cultured countries in all of Europe in the heart of Christian Europe to do this kind of thing. If that is possible, anything is possible.
The trial did not stop genocide. Genocide continues. We’ve seen so much genocide in the 21st century, not to mention the 20th century. But the trial is a reminder for us to be aware. I only wish people had learned the lessons better. One of the reasons I wrote the book is to remind people again and maybe the lessons on the nature of evil will become clearer as a result.
An edited version of the above interview can be seen in the video.