Tag Archives: Adolph Eichmann

Trial By History

 

 

 

Lawrence Douglas, The Right Wrong Man:

John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial 

          Among the cases seeking to bring to justice Nazi war criminals and those who abetted their criminality, that of Ivan Demjanjuk was far and away the most protracted, and perhaps the most confounding as well.  From 1976, up to his death in 2012, a few months short of his 92nd birthday, Demjanjuk was the subject of investigations and legal proceedings, including two lengthy trials, involving his wartime activities after becoming a Nazi prisoner of war. Born in the Ukraine in 1920, Demjanjuk was conscripted into the Red Army in 1941, injured in battle, and taken prisoner by the Nazis in 1942. After the war, he immigrated to the United States, where he settled in Cleveland and worked in a Ford automobile plant, changing his name to John and becoming a US citizen in 1958.

        Demjanjuk’s unexceptional and unobjectionable American immigrant life was disrupted in 1976 when several survivors of the infamous Treblinka prison camp in Eastern Poland identified him as Ivan the Terrible, a notoriously brutal Ukrainian prison guard at Treblinka. In a trial in Jerusalem that began in 1987, an Israeli court found that Demjanjuk was in fact Treblinka’s Ivan and sentenced him to death. But the trial, which began as the most significant Israeli prosecution of a Nazi war criminal since that of Adolph Eichmann in 1961, finished as one of modern history’s most notorious cases of misidentification. In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court found, based on newly discovered evidence, that Demjanjuk had not been at Treblinka. Rather, the new evidence established that Demjanjuk had served at four other Nazi camps, including 5½ months in 1943 as a prison guard at Sobibor, a camp in Poland, at a time when nearly 30,000 Jews were killed.  In 2009, Demjanjuk went on trial in Munich for crimes committed at Sobibor. The Munich trial court found Demjanjuk guilty in 2011. With an appeal of the trial court’s verdict pending, Demjanjuk died ten months later, in 2012.

        The driving force behind both trials was the Office of Special Investigations (“OSI”), a unit within the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice. OSI initiated denaturalization and deportation proceedings (“D & D”) against naturalized Americans suspected of Nazi atrocities, usually on the basis of having provided misleading or incomplete information for entry into the United States (denaturalization and deportation are separate procedures in the United States, before different tribunals and with different legal standards; because no legislation criminalized Nazi atrocities committed during World War II, the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution was considered a bar to post-war prosecutions of such acts in the United States). OSI had just come into existence when it initiated the D & D proceedings against Demjanjuk in 1981 that led to his trial in Israel, and its institutional inexperience contributed to the Israeli court’s misidentification of Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. Twenty years later, in 2001, OSI initiated a second round of D & D proceedings against Demjanjuk for crimes committed at Sobibor.  By this time, OSI had added a handful of professional historians to its staff of lawyers (during my career at the US Department of Justice, I had the opportunity to work with several OSI lawyers and historians).

             In his thought-provoking work, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, Lawrence Douglas, a professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College, aims to sort out and make sense of Demjanjuk’s 35-year legal odyssey, United States-Israel-United States-Germany.  Douglas argues that the expertise of OSI historians was the key to the successful 2011 verdict in Munich, and that the Munich proceedings marked a critical transformation within the German legal system. Although 21st century Germany was otherwise a model of responsible atonement for the still unfathomable crimes committed in the Nazi era, its hidebound legal system had up to that point amassed what Douglas terms a “pitifully thin record” (p.11) in bringing Nazi perpetrators to the bar of justice.  But through a “trial by history,” in which the evidence came from “dusty archives rather than the lived memory of survivors” (p.194), the Munich proceedings demonstrated that German courts could self-correct and learn from past missteps.

         The trial in Munich comprises roughly the second half of Douglas’ book. Douglas traveled to Munich to observe the proceedings, and he provides interesting and valuable sketches of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, along with detail about how German criminal law and procedure adapted to meet the challenges in Demjanjuk’s case.  The man on trial in Munich was a minor cog in the wheel of the Nazi war machine, in many ways the polar opposite of Eichmann. No evidence presented in Munich tied Demjanjuk to specific killings during his service at Sobibor. No evidence demonstrated that Demjanjuk, unlike Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka, had engaged in cruel acts during his Sobibor service. There was not even any evidence that Demjanjuk was a Nazi sympathizer. Yet, based on historical evidence, the Munich court concluded that Demjanjuk had served as an accessory to murder at Sobibor.  The camp’s only purpose was extermination of its population, and its guards contributed to that that purpose. As Douglas emphatically asserts, all Sobibor guards necessarily served as accessories to murder because “that was their job” (p.220).

* * *

            Created in 1979, OSI “represented a critical step toward mastering the legal problems posed by the Nazi next door” (p.10; a reference to Eric Lichtblau’s incisive The Nazi Next Door, reviewed here in October 2015).   But OSI commenced proceedings to denaturalize Demjanjuk before it was sufficiently equipped to handle the task.  In 1993, after Demjanjuk’s acquittal in Jerusalem as Ivan the Terrible, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit severely reproached OSI for its handling of the proceedings that led to Demjanjuk’s extradition to Israel.  The court found that OSI had withheld exculpatory identification evidence, with one judge suggesting that in seeking to extradite Demjanjuk OSI had succumbed to pressure from Jewish advocacy groups .

            The Sixth Circuit’s ruling was several years in the future when Demjanjuk’s trial began in Jerusalem in February 1987, more than a quarter of a century after completion of the Eichmann trial (the Jerusalem proceeding against Eichmann was the subject of Deborah Lipstatadt’s engrossing analysis, The Eichmann Trial, reviewed here in October 2013). The Holocaust survivors who testified at the Eichmann trial had had little or no direct dealing with the defendant. Their purpose was didactic: providing a comprehensive narrative history of the Holocaust from the survivors’ perspective.   The Treblinka survivors who testified at Demjanjuk’s trial a quarter century later older had a more conventional purpose: identification of a perpetrator of criminal acts.

            Five witnesses, including four Treblinka survivors and a guard at the camp, identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible.   Eliahu Rosenberg, who had previously testified at the Eichmann trial, provided a moment of high drama when he approached Demjanjuk, asked him to remove his glasses, looked him in the eyes and declared in Yiddish, the language of the lost communities in Poland, “This is Ivan. I say unhesitatingly and without the slightest doubt. This is Ivan from the [Treblinka] gas chambers. . . I saw his eyes. I saw those murderous eyes” (p.51). The Israeli court also allowed the Treblinka survivors to describe their encounters with Ivan the Terrible as part of a “larger narrative of surviving Treblinka and the Holocaust” (p.81). The court seemed influenced by the legacy of the Eichmann trial; it acted, Douglas emphasizes, “as if the freedom to tell their story was owed to the survivors” (p.81-82).

            The case against Demjanjuk also rested upon an identification card issued at Trawniki, an SS facility in Poland which prepared specially recruited Soviet POWs to work as accessories, where they provided the SS with “crucial assistance in the extermination of Poland’s Jews, including serving as death camp guards” (p.52). The card contained a photo that unmistakably was of the youthful Demjanjuk (this photo adorns the book’s cover), and accurately reported his date of birth, birthplace, father’s name and identifying features. Trawniki ID 1393 listed Demjanjuk’s service at Sobibor, but not Treblinka. That, Israeli prosecutors explained, was because Sobibor had been his initial assignment at the time of issuance of card.

          Demjanjuk’s defense was that that he had not served at Treblinka, but his testimony was so riddled with holes and contradictions that the three experienced judges of the court – the fact finders in the proceeding; there was no jury – accepted in full the survivors’ testimony and sentenced Demjanjuk to death in 1988.  The death sentence triggered an automatic appeal to the five-judge Israeli Supreme Court (Eichmann was the only other defendant ever sentenced to death by an Israeli court). The appellate hearing did not take place until 1990, and benefitted from a trove of documents released by the Soviet Union during its period of glasnost (openness) prior to its collapse in 1991.

      The Soviet documents contained a “rather complete” (p.94) picture of Demjanjuk’s wartime service, confirming his work as a camp guard at Sobibor and showing that he had also served at three other camps, Okzawm, Majdanek and Flossenberg, but with no mention of service at Treblinka.  Moreover, the Soviet documentation pointed inescapably to another man, Ivan Marchenko, as Treblinka’s Ivan the Terrible. In 1993, six years after the Jerusalem trial had begun, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a 400-page opinion in which it vacated the conviction. Although the court could have remanded the case for consideration of Demjanjuk’s service at other camps, it pointedly refused to do so. Restarting proceedings “does not seem to us reasonable” (p.110), the court concluded.  OSI, however, took a different view.

* * *

            Although Demjanjuk’s US citizenship was restored in 1998, OSI determined that neither his advancing age – he was then nearly 80 – nor his partial exoneration in Jerusalem after protracted proceedings was sufficient to allow him to escape being called to account for his service at Sobibor. Notwithstanding the rebuke from the federal court of appeals for its handling of the initial D & D proceedings, OSI in 2001 instituted another round of proceedings against Demjanjuk, 20 years after the first round. Everyone at OSI, Douglas writes, “recognized the hazards in seeking to denaturalize Demjanjuk a second time. The Demjanjuk disaster continued to cast a long shadow over the unit, marring its otherwise impressive record of success” (p.126). By this time, however, OSI had assembled a team of professional historians who had “redefined our historical understanding of the SS’s process of recruiting and training the auxiliaries who crucially assisted in genocide” (p.126). The work of the OSI historians proved pivotal in the second round of D & D proceedings, which terminated in 2008 with a ruling that Demjanjuk be removed from the United States; and pivotal in persuading a reluctant Germany to request that Demjanjuk be extradited to stand trial in Munich.

            The German criminal justice system at the time of Demjanjuk’s extradition was inherently cautious and rule bound — perhaps the epitome of what a normal legal system should be in normal times and very close to what the victorious Allies would have hoped for in 1945 as they set out to gradually transfer criminal justice authority to the vanquished country. But, as Douglas shows, that system prior to the Demjanjuk trial was poorly equipped to deal with the enormity of the Nazi crimes committed in the name of the German state. Numerous German legal conceptions constituted obstacles to successful prosecutions of former Nazis and their accomplices.

          After Germany regained its sovereignty after World War II and became responsible for its own criminal justice system, it “tenaciously insisted that Nazi atrocities be treated as ordinary crimes, requiring no special courts, procedures, or law to bring their perpetrators to justice” (p.20). Service in a Nazi camp, by itself, did not constitute a crime under German law.  A guard could be tried as an accessory to murder, but only if his acts could be linked to specific killings. There was also the issue of the voluntariness of one’s service in a Nazi camp. The German doctrine of “putative necessity” allowed a defendant to show that he entertained a reasonable belief that he had no choice but to engage in criminal acts.

            In the Munich trial, the prosecution’s case turned “less on specific evidence of what John Demjanjuk did than on historical evidence about what people in Demjanjuk’s position must have done” (p.218) at Sobibor which, like Treblinka, had been a pure exterminaton facility whose only function was to kill its prison population.  With Demjanjuk’s service at Sobibor established beyond dispute, but without evidence that he had “killed with his own hand” (p.218), the prosecution in Munich presented a “full narrative history of how the camp and its guards functioned . . . [through a] comprehensive historical study of Sobibor and its Trawniki-trained guards” (p.219).

          Historical research developed by OSI historians and presented to the Munich court demonstrated that Trawniki guards “categorically ceased to be POWs once they entered Trawniki” (p.226). They were paid and received regular days off, paid home leave and medical care. They were issued firearms and were provided uniforms. The historical evidence thus demonstrated that the difference between the death-camp inmates and the Trawnikis who guarded them was “stark and unequivocal” (p.226).  Far from being “glorified prisoners,” Trawniki-trained guards were “vital and valued assistants in genocide” (p.228). The historical evidence further showed that all guards at Sobibor were “generalists.” They rotated among different functions, such as guarding the camp’s perimeter and managing a “well-rehearsed process of extermination.” All “facilitated the camp’s function: the mass killings of Jews” (p.220).

         Historical evidence further demolished the “putative necessity” defense, in which the defendant entertained a reasonable belief that he would face the direst consequences if he did not participate in the camp’s activities. An “extraordinary research effort was dedicated to exploring the question of duress, and the results were astonishing: historians failed to uncover so much as a single instance in which a German officer or NCO faced ‘dire punishment’ for opting out of genocide” (p.223).  The historical evidence thus provided the foundation for the Munich court to find Demjanjuk guilty as an accessory to murder. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment but released to a Bavarian nursing home pending appeal. Ten months later, on March 17, 2012, he died. Because his appeal was never heard, his lawyer was able to argue that his conviction had no legal effect and that Demjanjuk had died an innocent man.

           The Munich court’s holding that Demjanjuk had been an accessory to murder underscored the value of years of historical research. As Douglas writes:

Without the painstaking archival work and interpretative labors of the OSI’s historians, the court could never have confidently reached its two crucial findings: that in working as a Trawniki at Sobibor, Demjanjuk had necessarily served as an accessory to murder; and that in choosing to remain in service when others chose not to, he acted voluntarily. This “trial by history” enabled the court to master the prosecutorial problem posed by the auxiliary to genocide who operates invisibly in an exterminatory apparatus (p.255-56).

          In the aftermath of Demjanjuk’s conviction, German prosecutors considered charging as many as 30 still living camp guards. One, Oskar Gröning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz, was convicted in 2015, in Lüneburg, near Hamburg.  Gröning admitted in open court that it was “beyond question that I am morally complicit. . . This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility” (p.258).  Gröning’s trial “would never have been possible without Demjanjuk’s conviction” (p.258), Douglas indicates. Camp guards such Demjanjuk and Gröning were convicted “not because they committed wanton murders, but because they worked in factories of death” (p.260).

* * *

        Thirty years elapsed between Demjanjuk’s initial D & D proceedings in the United States in 1981 and the trial court’s verdict in Munich in 2011. Douglas acknowledges that the decision to seek to denaturalize Demjanjuk a second time and try him in Munich after the spectacularly botched trial in Jerusalem could be seen as prosecutorial overreach.  But despite these misgivings, Douglas strongly supports the Munich verdict: “not because I believe it was vital to punish Demjanjuk, but because the German court delivered a remarkable and just decision, one which few observers would have predicted from Germany’s long legal struggle with the legacy of Nazi genocide” (p.15).   Notwithstanding all the conceptual obstacles created by a legal system that treated the Holocaust as an “ordinary crime,” German courts in Demjanjuk’s case “managed to comprehend the Holocaust as a crime of atrocity” (p.260).  Demjanjuk’s conviction therefore serves as a reminder, Douglas concludes, that the Holocaust was “not accomplished through the acts of Nazi statesmen, SS henchmen, or vicious sociopaths alone. It was [also] made possible by the thousands of lowly foot soldiers of genocide. Through John Demjanjuk, they were at last brought to account” (p.257).

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

July 10, 2017

 

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under German History, History, Israeli History, Rule of Law, United States History

New Hearing

Image

Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial

            The 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel is often credited with refocusing world opinion on the horrors of the Holocaust, after years in which there seemed to be little interest in revisiting the details of Nazi Germany’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.  Eichmann, sometimes euphemistically described as a “transportation specialist,” was responsible for moving approximately 1.5 million Jews to Nazi death camps.  He was kidnapped by Israeli security forces in 1960 in Argentina and taken to Israel to face trial on genocide charges.  Eichmann was found guilty and executed in 1962, the only execution to be ordered by an Israeli civil court.  In “The Eichmann Trial,”  Deborah Lipstadt, among the most knowledgeable and respected contemporary scholars of the Holocaust, ranges widely and probes deeply, providing riveting detail to the events leading up to the trial, followed by incisive discussions of the trial itself and its reverberations.

            Lipstadt’s book could also be considered a series of six stand-alone essays.  The first is a two-page dedication to a police officer killed at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., followed by Lipstadt’s formal introduction, describing the civil defamation suit which Holocaust denier David Irving brought against her in Great Britain in 2000.  The third potential stand alone essay is a cloak-and-dagger, James Bond account of how Israeli operatives tracked Eichmann down in Argentina, abducted him and returned him to Israel to face trial.  Lipstadt then moves to the trial itself, the longest of the six essays.  She next turns to an even-handed discussion of Hannah Arendt’s controversial analysis of the trial for the New Yorker magazine, where Arendt coined the now-familiar term “banality of evil.”  Lipstadt concludes with her own thoughts on the significance of the Eichmann trial and aftershocks, more than 50 years later.  Here, she challenges the conventional notion of the trial as instrumental in refocusing world attention on the Holocaust.  Rather, she argues, the trial gave a “new hearing” to the Holocaust, principally through the poignant testimony of its victims, who rendered it more personal for Jews and non-Jews alike. 

 * * *

           Lipstadt begins her book with a moving dedication to Special Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns.  Johns was a security guard at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where Lipstadt was a visiting scholar in 2009.  On June 10th of that year, Johns was killed while on duty by an eighty-eight year old racist, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.  Johns’ murder is a stark and tragic reminder that there are still people willing to act on the violent hatreds that drove the Holocaust. 

 * * *

             In her formal introduction, Lipstadt explains how she became a defendant in Irving’s defamation suit after she had described Irving as a “Hitler partisan wearing blinkers” who, on some level, “seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy” (p.xvi).  In Great Britain, truth is an absolute defense to defamation charges, as in the United States.  But unlike in the United States, the burden of proof in defamation cases in Britain is on the defendant to show that his or her words were not defamatory.  The British court found that Lipstadt had easily met this burden, terming Irving’s claims “misleading” and “reprehensible.”  Irving’s falsification of the historical record, the court noted, was deliberate and “motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence” (p.xxii).  Irving’s case against Lipstadt was the second major court proceeding in which the Holocaust was in some sense on trial, after that of Eichmann.  But before she addresses Eichmann’s trial, Lipstadt provides a lively account of how Israel was able to bring Eichmann to Jerusalem to face charges.     

 * * *

           Eichmann had been arrested after World War II and imprisoned in an Allied POW camp, from which he escaped with the help of former SS officers.  After hiding in Germany, Eichmann fled to Argentina, known to be a welcoming venue for former Nazi officials.  He traveled to Argentina with a Red Cross passport under the name Ricardo Klement which, Lipstadt suggests, high level Vatican officials likely helped Eichmann obtain.   Eichmann arrived in Argentina in 1950, and worked during the 1950s in a metal factory, as a water engineer, and as a mechanic at the Mercedes-Benz plan in Buenos Aires. 

            An unlikely series of events led to Israeli identification of Eichmann in Argentina, followed by Israeli operatives’ covert entry into the country, using false documentation.  After Eichmann’s capture, he was escorted out of Argentina on an El Al plane in a manner which may remind readers of the final airport scene in the 2012 film “Argot.”  Lipstadt recounts this tale of stealth and what she terms “deering-do” (p.194) with obvious gusto.  Its swashbuckling zest stands in stark contrast to the ponderous themes she addresses in her discussion of the trial and the book’s two final sections. 

 * * *

           Argentina protested Eichmann’s capture in the United Nations as a violation of its sovereignty, but subsequently waived any claim it might have had for Eichmann’s return from Israel.  The two countries agreed to end their dispute with a joint statement that they had “decided to regard as closed the incident that arose out of the action taken by Israeli nationals which infringed the sovereignty of the State of Argentina.”  Lipstadt notes dourly that “Eichmann got an apology and Israel got Eichmann” (p.23).  But the idea of putting Eichmann on trial in Israel stirred worldwide controversy.  

            The American Jewish Committee, which arguably represented the Jewish establishment in the United States, feared that the trial would prompt questioning of American Jews’ loyalty to the United States.  Conservative commentator William F Buckley, Jr. found the trial symptomatic of a Jewish “refusal to forgive” which, he feared, could fan the “fires of anti-Germanism” and advance communist aims (p.25).  German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer worried that the Eichmann trial might “highlight that the German government was riddled with former Nazi officials” (p.27).  Israel rejected all objections and charged Eichmann with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against the Jewish people. 

            The trial took place in a Jerusalem cultural center, Beit Ha’am, the “house of the people,” because Jerusalem’s courtrooms were then not only small and shabby but also ill-equipped to handle an international media barrage.  The lead prosecutor was Gideon Hausner, Israel’s Attorney General with an accomplished background in commercial law but no expertise in criminal law or procedure and little courtroom experience.  A three judge panel heard the case, with Moshe Landau serving as presiding judge, flanked by Benjamin Halevi and Yitzhak Raveh, all three “German Jews who received their law degrees in Europe prior to immigration to Palestine” (p.41).  Much of Lipstadt’s account of the trial revolves around how Hausner’s theory of the case differed profoundly from what the three judges thought was at issue. 

           Hausner sought to draw a contrast with the Nurenberg trials, where the murder of Jews had been but another example of Nazi crimes against humanity.  Here, it would be the centerpiece of Nazi crimes.  But while Hausner’s objective was to tell the entire story of the Final Solution, the three-judge panel assigned to the case wanted a “narrowly constructed judicial proceeding that focused on Eichmann’s misdeeds” (p.121).  The judges’ primary objective, Lipstadt explains, was to “conduct a scrupulously fair legal proceeding that would win the respect of the world.”  In contrast, Hausner aimed to “tell the story of the Holocaust in all its details and, in so doing, to capture the imagination not just of Israel’s youth and world Jewry, but of the entire world” (p.21).    

            Hausner’s opening statement is among the best known passages of the trial.  Evoking “J’accuse,” Emile Zola’s impassioned plea for justice during France’s late 19th century trials of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, Hausner told the court that although he stood before them to lead the prosecution of Eichmann, he did not stand alone: 

 With me in this place and at this hour, stand six million accusers.  But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards the man who sits in the  glass dock and cry: “J’accuse.”  For their ashes were piled up in the hills of Auschwitz and in the fields of Treblinka, or washed away by the rivers of Poland; their graves are scattered over the length and breadth of Europe.  Their blood cries out, but their voices are not heard.  Therefore, it falls to me to be their spokesman and to unfold in their name the awesome indictment (p.61-62). 

 This statement marked a milestone for world Judiasm and the State of Israel, Lipstadt argues, with Hausner a “representative of the Jewish people speaking, not as a supplicant begging for help, but as a government official demanding long-delayed justice.”  For the first time, the Jewish people, who “during the war had looked this way and that for someone to speak on their behalf, had risen, not to implore others to save them but to prosecute” (p.62). 

            Hausner  was able to show that Eichmann was “proactive, energetic and a creative master of deception” who, working with dedicated subordinates, “arranged the deportations of a great portion of German Jews.”  He “pursued individual victims with the same zeal with which he deported multitudes – and sometimes even greater zeal” (p.65).  Hausner summoned a wide range of witnesses, many of whom had no direct link to Eichmann.  The witnesses told their stories in what Lipstadt describes as an:

 unprecedently concentrated fashion. . . testifying in the full meaning of the word. . . The retelling and the size and profile of those who would be listening would be entirely different.  Never before had they told their stories in front of such a broad international audience. . . never before had there been such consistently high level media coverage of this tragedy (p.66).  

           Eichmann’s main defense was that he was “exclusively a carrier out of orders” (p.43).  He contended that he “made absolutely sure to get instructions from my chief on even the most minor matters” (p.107).  He invoked memory loss when needed and contended that he was no anti-Semite but rather was working with Jews to extricate them from the problems they encountered.  This testimony broke the solemnity of the proceedings, as spectators greeted it with “derisive laughter” (p.108).  Equally risible was Eichmann’s contention that he too was a victim.  Having the misfortune to find himself in an “inferior position” during the Nazi era and unwilling to shirk his duty, Eichmann told the court that he was no general but rather a mere “tool in the hands of stronger powers and stronger forces, and of an inexorable fate” (p.115).     

           Although his focus was far broader than what the three-judge panel desired, Hausner presented an “overwhelming body of incriminating evidence to prove that Eichamann’s excuses were shams” (p.128).  Lipstadt characterizes Hausner’s closing argument as “impressive” and “sweeping” yet “wrong in many respects” (p.138).  Hausner accused Eichmann of many things he was not responsible for.  “Pushing past the evidence,” Hausner “painted the Holocaust as a well-organized top-down bureaucratic endeavor, though it had been a far more incremental and sometimes even haphazard operation” (p.138).  Linking Eichmann too closely to Hitler not only “turned Eichmann into a caricature” but also:

 diminished the culpability of Himmler, Müller, Heydrich, and many others, and put the onus on one man.  Unable to bring these higher-ranking Nazis to court, Hausner placed their guilt on Eichmann.  It may have served Hausner’s short-term historical goal, but it did not serve the cause of history (p.138).

           To no one’s surprise, the court found Eichmann guilty as charged.  The court nonetheless chastised Hausner for not focusing more narrowly on the specific acts that would have established Eichmann’s culpability, and for utilizing the court as a “forum for clarification of questions of great import” (p.141).  But it went on to find that Eichmann had not offered “truthful evidence. . . His entire testimony was nothing but one consistent attempt to deny the truth and to conceal his real share of responsibility” (p.144).  The panel imposed the death penalty, the first in Israel’s history, which was affirmed by Israel’s Supreme Court on May 29, 1962.  Although many leading Israeli scholars and intellectuals urged Israeli President Ben-Zevi to commute the death sentence, the President rejected all pleas for mercy and Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962, the second anniversary of his capture.  But, as Lipstadt writes, the debate about Eichmann and his trial was in no sense over.  Rather, it was “about to enter a new, far more vigorous, acerbic, and intellectually active phase, one that reverberates to this day” (p.147).     

 * * *

            The catalyst for the new and acerbic debate was Hannah Arendt and her famous analysis of the trial for the New Yorker magazine, which was later used for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt’s  “perspectives on both perpetrators and victims continue to constitute the prism through which many people’s view of the Holocaust is refracted” (p.149), Lipstadt contends.  Arendt’s conclusion that “many of the perpetrators were not innately monsters or diabolical creatures but ‘ordinary’ people who did monstrous things not only seems accurate but is the accepted understanding among most scholars of the perpetrators” (p.169).  Yet, Lipstadt finds Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann “strangely out of touch with the reality of his historical record” (p.169). 

             Arendt gained notoriety for her emphasis upon Jewish leaders’ complicity in the Holocaust.  The “pathetic and sordid” behavior of Jewish governing councils was for Arendt the “darkest chapter” of the Holocaust – darker than the mass shootings and gas chambers because it “showed how the Germans could turn victim against victim” (p.151). Arendt wrote at another point that the “majority of Jews inevitably found themselves confronted with two enemies – the Nazi authorities and the Jewish authorities,” a statement which, Lipstadt reluctantly concludes, sustains Arendt’s critics who accused her of “closing the gap between perpetrator and victim” (p.162). 

             Although Lipstadt finds that Arendt overemphasized the role of Jewish complicity in the Holocaust, Arendt’s fundamental shortcoming was not rooting her analysis in centuries of European anti-Semitism.  Arendt was too vested in European culture, “torn between the particularism of her Jewish roots and the universalism of the intellectual world to which she was so wedded” (p.183), Lipstadt concludes.  Her analysis failed to grasp that Eichmann and his cohorts:

 did not randomly go from being ordinary men to being [murderers].  They traversed a path paved by centuries of anti-Semitism.  They “knew” this road and, given the society in which they lived, it seemed true and natural.  Arendt, so deeply and viscerally committed to the European culture that nurtured the animus, seemed unable to acknowledge this reality ( p. 183).

            Acknowledging that Arendt “spoke with many voices” (p.180), Lipstadt finds that she too often seemed “more interested in turning a good phrase than in understanding its effect.  She wanted to needle her readers to examine their assumptions” (p.184).  Unfortunately, Arendt “seamlessly elided the ideology that was at the heart of this genocide.  She related a version of the Holocaust in which anti-Semitism played a decidedly minor role” (p.187).  

 * * *

            In her final section – the book’s last essay — Lipstadt provides her view of how the Eichmann trial should fit into our attempt to understand the Holocaust.  The term “Holocaust,” although used prior to the trial, in some senses owes its modern usage to the proceedings in Jerusalem.  These proceedings “cemented” the term Holocaust  “into the lexicon of the non-Hebrew population” and “greatly accelerated” Holocaust studies as a recognized field of research and scholarship  (p.188).  The trial further “reinforced the notion that there is universal jurisdiction over genocide.  Even though legal scholars differ over whether Israel was justified in trying Eichmann, there is now a virtual consensus among democratic states that genocidal killers cannot take refuge behind claims of obedience to superior orders” (p.189).  The trial also strengthened Israeli conviction that “the nation had a legitimate right to represent world Jewish interests” (p.194). 

            But these outcomes might not have been possible without the new hearing which the trial afforded to Holocaust victims, generating or accelerating a process whereby the “private and very personal world of the survivor met the public world of commemoration” (p.201).  This hearing was the direct result of Attorney General Hausner’s broadly focused trial strategy, which so irritated the court.  “Hausner’s determination that this trial would be founded on the human story of the Jewish victims’ suffering stands, from a perspective of five decades, as the trial’s most significant legacy” (p.192), Lipstadt concludes.  Through the testimony of victims:

 what happened to European Jewry was transformed in the public’s consciousness.  The trial and the debate that followed inaugurated a slow process whereby the topic of the Holocaust became a matter of concern not only to the Jewish community but to a larger and broader realm of people (p.193)

             Lipstadt closes by linking an affecting description of a reunion between Rwandan genocide victims and Holocaust survivors with what might be considered her “bottom line” lesson of the Eichmann trial.  A young Rwandan man who had lost his entire family in his country’s genocide told her, “Future generations, those who were not there, must remember.  And we who were there, must tell them” (p.203).  This, Lipstadt concludes, may be the “most enduring legacy of what occurred in Jerusalem in 1961” (p.203).  With ever fewer Holocaust witnesses still living, Deborah Lipstadt seems eminently well placed to tell their story, as she demonstrates throughout her lucid, razor-sharp account of the Eichmann trial and its implications.   

 Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

October 20, 2013

9 Comments

Filed under German History, History, Politics, Rule of Law, Uncategorized

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

MK

Daniel Maier-Katkin, Stranger from Abroad,

Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness

            Daniel Maier-Katkin’s “Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness” explores the life-time relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.  When Arendt was a precocious 18 year old, in her first year at Marburg University in 1924 Weimar Germany, philosopher Martin Heidegger was one of her teachers.  Married with a son and twice Arendt’s age at 36, Professor Heidegger took a shine to the young student and – violà — a campus romance ensued.  Although few self respecting parents would be comfortable with their daughter in such a relationship, campus liaisons between starry eyed undergraduates and older teachers are probably more commonplace than parents of college-aged daughters would care to admit — I’m willing to bet that there might even be a present-day example at one of our institutions of higher learning here in the United States.  But the Heidegger-Arendt relationship has historical interest for two reasons: both Heidegger and Arendt would go on to become formidable 20th century intellectuals  — Heidegger was already a rising star in 1924 in the world of academic philosophy; and Heidegger would enthusiastically embrace the Nazi party when it came to power in 1933, while the Jewish Arendt was forced to flee the Nazis and Germany later that year, and would never again live in the country of her birth. 

            Arendt’s flight took her first to France, then to New York in 1941, where her professional career flourished.  Her first major work was “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” published in 1951, an analysis of Communism and Nazism that found parallels in the way the two systems exerted control over their populations.  But Arendt is probably best known for her writings on the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann for the New Yorker magazine, a series of articles that evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt found the mass killer Eichmann to be distinguished only by his ordinariness and stunning mediocrity, far more a proficient bureaucrat than a cold-blooded killer.  Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil” has itself become commonplace in our language.  Maier-Katkin suggests that Arendt’s conclusions about the ordinariness of Eichmann may have been consistent with inchoate views she had already formed of Heidegger, and help explain a subsequent reconciliation with her former teacher, notwithstanding his embrace of Nazism.   

            Arendt’s university affair with Heidegegger began shortly after her arrival at Marburg University.  For Arendt, the air around her brilliant professor “seemed to crackle with ideas and questions” (p.29). Arendt “seems to have loved him from the very first day, and he seems to have been drawn to her immediately” (p.29).  Although Heidegger made clear at the outset of their affair that he would never leave his wife, his family, or the respectability of his university position, Arendt was “confident that the love between them deserved to be preserved and nurtured independently of any social convention or competing obligation” (p.36).  Heidegger’s personal life was already awash in prevarication and deceit, but these characteristics did little to lessen Arendt’s admiration and love for the man.  “Even after Hannah began to understand that he [Heidegger] was a liar who said whatever was necessary to manage a moment, she always believed that Martin loved her more than he loved anyone else” (p.44-45).   

            Through Heidegger, Arendt “began a lifetime of thinking, including a persistent line of thought about thinking, about what we are doing when we are thinking” (p.28).  For Heidegger “meditative thinking,” the term he used to describe thinking about thinking, had the “potential to lead us toward an understanding of the significance or meaning of existence” and “nothing was more powerful than questions about the meaning of existence . . . why should anything exists, why should there not be just nothing” (p.29).  Meditative thinking is surely a fine exercise for philosophers seeking to understand the meaning of existence.  But if one were to judge by Heidegger, such thinking does not necessarily lead to sound political choices. 

            Although Heidegger’s political views prior to the Nazi era are difficult to pin down, he was “no democrat,” plainly anti-Communist, and was drawn to German “’ways of being,’ often thought to contain a degree of authoritarianism” (p.76).  When the Nazis came to power, Heidegger collaborated with party officials in order to be named Rector at Freiberg University, where the incumbent refused to fire Jewish faculty members.  Once Heidegger obtained the post at Freiburg, he signed off on the dismissal of all Jewish faculty members, including his former mentor and world famous philosophy professor Edmund Husserl. If not an anti-Semite,” Maier-Katkin contends, Heidegger was “certainly an opportunist” (p.94).   “Grandiosity, arrogance, pride, provincialism, and ambition” all contributed to Heidegger’s readiness to embrace the Nazi cause (p.80).  But Heidegger’s embrace went beyond “foolish grandiosity.”  His intellectual stature “helped to legitimize the Nazi seizure of power at a time when ordinary Germans were still wondering whether the Nazis had the sophistication and intelligence to govern Germany.  It was no small thing that Martin Heidegger had confidence in them” (p.100).    

            By 1936, Heidegger had fallen out of favor with the Nazis, in part because he was deemed insufficiently dedicated to the cause.  He nonetheless continued to pay party dues for several years thereafter.  After the war, Heidegger minimized his involvement with the Nazi regime and academically was entirely rehabilitated, “without apologia or mea culpa” (p.244).  In seeking reinstatement at Freiburg University,  Heidegger argued that he had joined the Nazi party because it “facilitated his efforts to protect the university” and because he “hoped that the participation of intellectuals would deepen and transform National Socialism” (p.171).  He had dismissed Jews from the university “reluctantly and passively only to keep the university from being closed” (p.171).  He too had been a victim of Nazism, “spied upon, marginalized in academic and intellectual circles, his work denied the national and international visibility it deserved” (p.172).  In 1950, the Freiburg University Senate reinstated Heidegger’s right to teach. 

            Arendt followed Heidegger’s career while she was forging her own outside Germany, a “stranger from abroad.” After an unsuccessful marriage in 1929, Arendt married Heinrich Blücher in 1940, and the couple remained married until Blücher died in 1970.  Arendt and Heidegger corresponded after Arendt fled the Nazis and Germany in late 1933.  Maier-Kotkin documents several instances after the war when they met.  The first, in 1952, was a “joyous moment of reconciliation, an instant recognition of continuity of interest, affection, and attraction in a shattered world” (p.183).  Heidegger and Arendt met on several occasions in the 1960s and, for the last time, in August 1975, a few months prior to Arendt’s death and less than a year before that of Heidegger.   

             Arendt appears to have forgiven Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism.  In a speech she delivered in 1968, in honor of Heidegger’s 80th birthday, Arendt came closely to saying so publicly.  Here, she termed Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation an “escapade” which she ascribed to a need to avoid the “reality of the Gestapo’s secret rooms and the torture cells of the concentration camps” (p.304-05).   Seeking to understand why Arendt seemed so untroubled by Heidegger’s “escapde” with the Nazis, Maier-Katkin suggests that the views Arendt expressed in her Eichmann writings may afford a clue.  

             Arendt’s experience with Heidegger may have “prepared her to comprehend, when she saw Adolf Eichmann, that a ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ man – or even a man of extraordinary intelligence like Martin Heidegger – might be transformed by the total moral collapse of society into an unthinking cog in the machinery of totalitarianism” (p.286).  While the notion of the “banality of evil” seemed to be a shocking epiphany which came to Arendt while covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Maier-Katkin surmises that Arendt may have developed the notion “intuitively and without clear articulation in [her] relation to Heidegger” – he too was “at the epicenter of evil” but was motivated “less by racial ideology than by careerist opportunities” (p.286).  Arendt’s observation that Eichmann was human and not a devil, Maier-Katkin argues, could be seen as a

 logical corollary of her earlier understanding of totalitarian systems: that they secure the complicity of whole populations – the Eichmanns and the Heideggers – through the use of terror, propaganda, and largesse to undermine any moral compass and to manipulate culture, language, and all the affiliative herd impulses so that average, normal citizens and even truly exceptional people become confused about right and wrong (p.286-87).

           After her husband’s death in 1970 and that of another key mentor, Karl Jaspers, Heidegger became Arendt’s “only remaining link to the world she had known in her youth” (p.314).  In her solitude, Arendt became “increasingly absorbed in her effort to comprehend the relationship between thinking and moral judgment; and she was never far from her gratitude to Martin Heidegger, the ‘hidden king of thinking’ with whom she had first been introduced to the life of the mind” (p.314-15). 

            For Maier-Katkin, the central question in assessing Arendt’s reconciliation with Heidegger ought to be “whether Heidegger was so deeply associated with the Nazis as to be among the Germans with whom reconciliation was inappropriate, or whether Arendt was correct to judge him as a flawed human being with redeeming virtues” (p.346).  Unfortunately, I found this important question for the most part unanswered in this otherwise well-written and easy-to-read work, part of my disappointment that it doesn’t delve deeply enough into Arendt’s psyche to explain adequately her continued affinity for the “hidden king of thinking.” 

            Maier-Katkin’s supposition that Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil could be applied to Heidegger in the manner she had applied it to Eichmann is intriguing but not demonstrated here, notwithstanding an extensive written record left by a woman who wrote prolifically and candidly.  Absent the probing analysis into Arendt’s psyche, I couldn’t put aside the naïve suspicion when I finished the book that her reconciliation with Heidegger might represent the simple but powerful triumph of Eros, the continuation of a school-girl crush that even the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust were unable to dispel.   

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

October 8, 2013

 

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, European History, German History, History, Uncategorized