Last night, I attended a screening by the Birkbeck Law Society of the film “The Specialist” about the trial of Adolf Eichmann in an Israeli court in 1961. The film, by Israeli director Eyal Sivan, works with original footage from the trial, most of which had been televised, plus some technical tricks (which I found wholly unnecessary).
I found the film quite good as it showed some key points of Adolf Eichmann‘s testimony, the questioning by the prosecutor Gideon Hausner and by the three judges. It also included some very moving witness testimony by victims of the Holocaust, including one scene of a witness who enumerates all members of his family, his parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins, with their respective ages and upon the question who of his family is still alive today has to answer “I am the only one.”
When confronted with the evidence of the defendant’s role in the Holocaust, which was well documented due to the Nazis’ obsession with bureaucracy, protocols and reports, time and again Mr Eichmann replies “That is correct. I was following orders. I had to do it.” He still seemed proud of his “organisational talent” that he used for organising the transports of millions of Jews (and other victims of the Nazis’ racist policies) to the concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Mr Eichmann didn’t even claim to not have known that he sent millions to their deaths, as he recounted four of his visits to concentration camps where he saw, and wrote reports about, how the killing was done. In some of his testimony, he still referred to Jews as “transport material”. When asked by the judges if he felt any remorse, Mr Eichmann responded “Remorse is pointless. Remorse is for children”. He clearly didn’t even attempt to win any sympathies.
Mr Eichmann’s only defence was that he was obeying orders. He in fact claimed that he didn’t like the nature of his job and had asked to be transferred (something which no documentary evidence exists about). He claims that he was a small part in a large machine and that he was bound by his oath to follow orders.
I found it shocking and disturbing to hear from one of the organisers of the Holocaust himself and to listen to his banal explanations of administrative responsibilities, showing flow-charts of intra-ministerial organisation. But listening to his voice and words, the story of a bureaucrat just following orders didn’t convince me. If even 16 years after the end of the Holocaust, you still cannot utter a word of remorse, and if this time and the developments since have not forced you to rethink your past actions, then you were not only a cog in the wheel, but you were truly evil.
I applaud the film for showing this. Or applauded, I should maybe say. Because the subsequent discussion at the Birkbeck Law Society revealed to me that the film might not be too helpful if you don’t already know a lot of the facts and the background of the Eichmann trial. Thanks to an internship at the German Federal Agency for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes that I did as a law student, I have had the (at times horrifying) privilege of participating in the investigation of small parts of the Holocaust.
Here some points from the discussion at the Birkbeck Law Society:
- Many participants dismissed the trial as a “show”, with the verdict known in advance.
- Some even thought it worthwhile to discuss if Mr Eichmann was innocent.
- Israel was criticised for violating international law.
Let me address these points (in more detail here than I could at the discussion):
- It was a very fair trial. The defendant had defence lawyers of his own choosing, he could submit all the evidence that he wanted, his lawyers could cross-examine any witness (but regularly chose not to). The trial was not only interpreted in German, but the prosecutor and all three judges spoke German at times if they felt it was necessary. The judges were even surprisingly polite when questioning Mr Eichmann. I had the impression that they switched to German at times to get closer to the person of Mr Eichmann, to try to find out what drove such a man, what were his motives, his thoughts.
- That people can watch this film and believe the “I was only following orders” defence shows that Mr Sivan might not have chosen the best scenes for his film (although I think he chose quite some powerful ones and I admit it is hard to make a 90 minute film of a trial that lasted 8 months). The film fails to mention some important points about Mr Eichmann: (a) He had joined a right-wing organisation in 1927 and became a member of the Nazi Party and the SS in 1932, one year before the Nazis came to power. (b) He volunteered to work for the SD of the SS in Berlin. (c) He set up the authorities responsible for the forced emigration of Jews from the Reich. (d) He was responsible for the rounding up of Jews from all of Europe and their transport to the concentration camp. He was the head of this department. (e) He was regularly visiting concentration camps and witnessed killings himself. (f) He personally attended the Wannsee Conference in 1942 at which the decision was made about how and where to execute the extinction of all Jews of Europe. As the person in charge of deportations and transport, it is unlikely that Mr Eichmann did not play a prominent role at this conference, which was attended by only 15 high-ranking officers and officials. (g) While living in Argentina, Mr Eichmann gave interviews to a former fellow SS member in which he stated “Had we killed 10.3 million Jews, then I would be satisfied and would say we have annihilated an enemy. [...] I was not a normal subordinate, [...] I was an idealist.” (h) He had the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel and thus was hardly a low-ranking bureaucrat.
- International public law does not protect individuals, it protects the sovereignty of states. While the abduction of Mr Eichmann from Argentina did violate Argentina’s sovereignty, Argentina settled this issue with Israel later. The UN decided that Israel should be allowed to retain and prosecute Mr Eichmann. Germany, as his country of citizenship, did also not raise any objections.
- Israel caught and tried Mr Eichmann because other countries refused to do so. Both Germany and the USA knew about Mr Eichmann’s fake identity and whereabouts since 1958 and failed to request extradition from Argentina.
- Besides Adolf Eichmann, Israel only put one other (alleged) Nazi criminal on trial: John Demjanjuk who was first convicted, but then acquitted by the Israeli Supreme Court. This shows that trials even against Nazis in Israel were not show trials, but fair and thorough. Mr Demjanjuk is currently on trial in Germany for assisting in the murder of 27.900 people.
- To those who represent legal positivism and therefore argue that Mr Eichmann was innocent because he did not break the laws of his country at the time, I would like to point out that most of the Holocaust happened in countries that had been attacked and occupied by Nazi-Germany against all international law, including in violation of treaties of non-aggression that Germany was a member to. So even if you think that positive law should be the decisive law (a view which I don’t subscribe to because it reduces law to just another tool of the exercise of power), you can still come to the conclusion of Mr Eichmann’s (and other Nazis’) guilt.
I guess one should neither judge the Holocaust by one trial, nor a trial by one film about it. For those with more time, the full transcripts and even the complete video footage of the Eichmann trial are available online.