The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann Summary

Hanna Yablonka


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

On May 23, 1960, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made an announcement to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament: Agents of Mossad, Israel's secret service, had captured the Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to an Israeli prison. As author Hanna Yablonka demonstrates, that arrest began a process that transformed Israeli society and Jewish consciousness.

Born in 1906, Eichmann grew up in Austria and joined the Nazi Party in 1932. As a member of the SS and the Security Service (SD), he developed expertise on Jewish affairs. Although Eichmann did not control the Third Reich's anti-Jewish policies, his ties to Reinhard Heydrich, his SS superior, made him part of the inner circle that plotted and carried out the destruction of the European Jews. Eichmann played decisive parts in implementing Nazi policy as it went from forcing Jews to emigrate from the Third Reich in the late 1930's to deporting them to killing centers such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, where millions were gassed from 1942 until the end of 1944.

In particular, Eichmann presided over the forced emigration of Austrian Jews in 1938. He participated in the Wannsee Conference, the infamous meeting held on January 20, 1942, at which Heydrich and other Nazi leaders coordinated plans for the so-called final solution. Eichmann also supervised the deportation of Hungarian Jews in the spring and summer of 1944, when approximately 435,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz within a few weeks. Such activities required his initiative and reflected his ambition. Contrary to the impression that he was a banal bureaucrat or an indistinct cog in the Nazi machine, Eichmann was never a merely obedient underling who followed orders, a characterization that was central but unsuccessful in his trial defense.

After World War II, Eichmann fled to Argentina, where he and his family lived under the name of Klement. As early as September, 1957, German sources tipped Israeli officials as to his probable whereabouts. Yablonka's narrative indicates that the Israelis responded cautiously, hoping that the Germans would extradite and try him. In 1960, when it became clear that the Germans would not act, Haim Cohen, Israel's attorney general at the time, authorized the capture and abduction. The Mossad snared Eichmann on May 11, 1960, and he arrived in Israel on May 22. At least for a time, those actions made Israel vulnerable to international criticism for violating Argentina's sovereignty.

After lengthy interrogation of Eichmann, which was carried out by Bureau 06, a police unit led by Avraham Zellinger and Avner Less, the trial started on April 11, 1961. Defended in the Jerusalem district court by the German lawyer Robert Servatius, Eichmann faced a fifteen-count indictment, which accused him of war crimes, crimes against humanity and, significantly, crimes against the Jewish people, a category that had not previously been used in postwar tribunals. Gideon Hausner, Israel's attorney general, was the chief prosecutor. The case was heard by three Israeli judges: Binyamin Halevi and Yitzchak Raveh from the district court, with Supreme Court justice Moshe Landau presiding. The testimony concluded on August 14. Four months later, on December 12, the judges found Eichmann guilty as charged and sentenced him to death. His execution by hanging took place at 1:00 a.m. on June 1, 1962. Eichmann's body was cremated. The ashes were scattered over the Mediterranean Sea, beyond Israel's territorial waters but not beyond Israeli identity and Jewish consciousness.

Although The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann necessarily provides the background outlined above, Yablonka's book is neither a history of the Holocaust, a biographical study of Eichmann, a thorough account of the clandestine operation that led to his abduction, nor even a detailed, day-by-day account of the trial itself. Instead, she concentrates on the context, meaning, and significance of the eight-month judicial proceeding.

Yablonka examines the Eichmann trial from three perspectives. First, there are questions about what she calls its “public-legal dimensions,” which include, for example, issues about where the trial would be held, how the judges were appointed, and which witnesses were chosen. Second, she assesses the trial's impact, a difficult task because Israeli society is multifaceted and complex. Surmounting the difficulties, some of Yablonka's best work is done in the chapters devoted to this part of her project, especially when she shows how Holocaust survivors were crucial in the trial's development, deeply affected by it, and—for the first time—warmly embraced by Israeli society during and after the proceedings. Third, Yablonka assesses what she calls the “historic-legal discourse” about the Eichmann trial. Was it merely a “show trial?” What contributions did the trial make to study and memory of the Holocaust? Overall, her work not only presents the main Israeli figures in the proceeding—investigators, prosecutors,...

(The entire section is 2035 words.)