To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the BBC is showing a dramatisation of the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
On 11 April 1961 the 55 year old Nazi Adolf Eichmann was marched into a protected glass booth in a Jerusalem court. His entrance heralded the beginning of the first internationally televised trial, broadcast for four months across 37 countries.
Newsreels flown daily to the United States were transmitted by all the major news networks. Opinion polls indicated 87 percent of the US public had heard of or read about the trial.
An estimated 80 percent of the German population watched the proceedings for at least an hour each week. The trial opened a chapter of history largely concealed from view in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Eichmann was not a Nazi Party leader such as Jorg Heydrich or Heinrich Himmler. He was a bureacrat and did not personally kill or oversee the deaths of his victims.
Hannah Arendt, in her controversial but seminal work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, emphasised Eichmann was an ordinary, even “normal” individual, “medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes”.
Yet, more than any other Nazi official, he came to embody the horror of genocide. As he rose up the ladder of the Nazi state bureaucracy, he helped organise and plan the extermination of European Jewry. He organised train transports, ensured supplies were in place and moved populations from ghettos to the gas chambers.
The press story initially took off after Eichmann’s sensational capture in Argentina by Israeli agents. More important was what happened in court. For the first time since the liberation of Auschwitz, Holocaust survivors found their voice, and on a world stage.
Their personal testimony was relayed into people’s homes on television and radio, spilling out over the pages of the world’s press, riven with emotion and with scant concern for court protocol. This was explosive. At the Nuremburg trials, set up after the defeat of Nazi Germany, only three Jewish survivors were called to give witness. At the Eichmann trial 112 witnesses were called.
Survivor memoirs and testimonies had been published, but with small circulations. This began to change.
The 1950s saw the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank, a victim of the Holocuast, this was followed by a film version. A brilliant documentary, Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais, was broadcast featuring horrific footage of the camps. In Britain, Jewish ex-servicemen mobilised against fascist meetings held by resurgent British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. While in 1960 a demonstration of 50,000 people called by the Association of Jewish ex-Servicemen marched on the West German embassy in London after a resurgence of anti-Semitic activity there.
The importance of the trial was that it was held at a moment of crisis for the international post war order.
Cold War tensions were at their height. During the first week of the trial, US President John Kennedy launched the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion against Cuba. This was followed by the construction of the Berlin Wall that would divide Europe for 30 years. Only a few weeks after Eichmann was found guilty and hanged for genocide the Cuban missile crisis erupted. To many, the world appeared on the brink of a new holocaust.
A new left was emerging to challenge the Cold War order. Many drew connections between the Final Solution of the Holocaust, the Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the new threat of a nuclear extinction. Eichmann’s capture in Argentina highlighted the fact that thousands of Nazis had escaped justice.
After the war the US Military Intelligence reconstructed charts of Gestapo networks in order to identify those who could assist in the the new war against Communism. German scientist Wernher von Braun, who designed V1 rockets for the Nazis, went on to play a key role in the US nuclear and Nasa space programmes.
While arch anti-Semite Hans Globke, who served under Eichmann and had drawn up legislation that stripped German Jews of citizenship rights, was appointed Director of the Federal Chancellery by the post-war German government. Globke went on to become a key national security adviser, and was backed by the CIA. In Greece and Italy fascist collaborators were rehabilitated and placed in government.
Joseph Stalin, for his part, launched anti-Semitic purges against Jews — who he described as “rootless cosmopolitans” — in order to cement support for his dictatorship. The Cold War establishment had drawn a shroud of silence over the Final Solution. The Eichmann trial brought it all back into the open.
The trial also came at a time of crisis for the new Israeli state. Israel pressed for an assault on the rising forces of Arab nationalism but could not yet secure the support of the US. Right wing Zionists attacked the government, claiming Israel was led by an establishment that had compromised with the Nazis and was now once again conceding to Israel’s enemies.
It was in this context that Israel’s leaders decided to try Eichmann. However, despite conflicting purposes and responses, one fact remains: the trial exposed the face of Nazi genocide.
The history of the Final Solution was prised open. Survivor testimony gave force to the cry, “Never Again!”, and for many it fuelled implacable hostility, not only to fascism, but to the system that gave birth to it.
The BBC film, The Eichmann Show, starring Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia, will be broadcast in January.