The true trial of the 20th century unfolded in a Jerusalem theatre 50 years ago. Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in the Nazi genocide machine—the man who organized the trains that brought Jews to the death camps—had escaped to Argentina after the war. In 1960, located and kidnapped by Israeli agents, he was smuggled into Israel to answer for crimes against humanity. Historian Lipstadt, herself the defendant in a notable trial after Holocaust denier David Irving sued her for libel in 2000 (he was thoroughly routed in British High Court), does a masterful job of showing just how unprecedented the case was, and the way it set the template of how the Holocaust and its ramifications have since been viewed.
There was diplomatic outrage over Israel’s infringement of national sovereignty, and loud denial of its right to try Eichmann. Some diaspora Jews quarrelled with Israel’s claim to speak for all Jews. There was debate whether an Israeli court could render impartial justice in a Holocaust case, especially when one of the three presiding judges had already called Eichmann “Satan” in an earlier trial. There was trouble finding a defence lawyer, and even more trouble in finding someone willing to pay him; eventually the state of Israel had to assume the costs for the defence.
All those issues faded away as the voices of Holocaust survivors—90 out of 100 witnesses—began to be heard in a way they were not at Nuremberg. Survivors’ testimony took on what it still possesses now, Lipstadt writes, “an iconic, almost mystical authority.” None of the legal uncertainties helped Eichmann. Evidence of his guilt was overwhelming, and he admitted to his actions, claiming innocence on the grounds he was merely following orders. That was a defence of no avail in Nuremberg, and it didn’t work in Jerusalem. On May 31, 1962, Adolf Eichmann was hanged, the only civilian death sentence ever carried out in Israel.