“Facing Justice – Adolf Eichmann on Trial” – The Eichmann Trial as International Event

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a diplomat for the USA in Berlin. The US Embassy, along with several other major Cold War powers’ embassies – the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, Paris, and a few others – is located on Pariser Platz, one of the main (if today touristy) squares in the middle of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate faces the square (which was in East Berlin – Ronald Reagan gave his famous “tear down this wall” speech from the other side of the Gate), which marks the real beginning of Unter den Linden, one of Berlin’s major boulevards that leads through the 18th century city until culminating in the 1970s socialist urban space of what was the Marx-Engels Forum and Alexanderplatz. Some friends of mine are more than willing to defend the architectural merits of Alexanderplatz and environs than I am, but most of us can agree that Pariser Platz and Unter den Linden can look pretty glorious on a summer day like the one we had this previous Saturday. Being a bureaucrat is hardly my goal in life, but there would be worse places to do it than Berlin.

Alexanderplatz, home of the "Weltzeituhr" (Global Time Clock), where you can check the time in Moscow, Baku, Tashkent, Vladivostok, and Beijing, all in an afternoon

Still, go a few blocks to the south of Pariser Platz and you’re in a different world. The area dominated by Wilhelmstraße and Voßstraße was, for much of the late 19th century and early 20th century the administrative center for the German Empire. Later, under Nazi rule, the area continue to serve an administrative function. Buildings like the Ministry of Aviation, today the headquarters for the German Finance Ministry testify to some of the monumental architecture that began to dominate the space along with, oddly enough the Martin-Gropius-Bau (a grand museum and exhibition space designed by Walter Gropius’ great uncle). After World War II, much of the area was leveled and became part of East Berlin. But it had limited potential as a productive space in the socialist capital. The Wall ran immediately to the west of the area, meaning it would be the front line if the “Anti-Fascist Protective Barrier” failed to serve its function. It was hard to get to. And the SED, the German Communist Party, located most of its office space for government and Party functions around the above-mentioned Alexanderplatz, or deeper in East Berlin, as with the Stasi Headquarters. Accordingly, since independence, it’s been a bit of a struggle to get the area back on its feet. Potsdamer Platz, which used to be an open field, was redeveloped according to corporate realist architectural guidelines, but Wilhelmstraße in particular remains pretty barren after the British Embassy, a land of bad Chinese restaurants, hot air balloon rides, and pharmacies – all built over the ruins of Hitler’s administrative capital.

One semi-exception to this rule is the Topography of Terror (Topographie des Terrors), an exhibition site towards the south end of this former administrative area, built on top of the former SS headquarters. The institution serves mostly as a documentation center for the crimes of the SS (the élite secret police of the Third Reich that also effectively ran much of what we think of as the Holocaust), part of a broader historical mission that, as I have written elsewhere, is characteristic for Germany today. However, they also carry on special exhibitions on topics related to German history and the Holocaust, which is what I’d like to focus on a bit more in this post. In particular, I had the chance to visit a special exhibition there this previous weekend entitled Der Prozess – Adolf Eichmann vor Gericht (The Trial – Adolf Eichmann Before the Court). I thought it was exceptionally well-done, and found it thought provoking for some thoughts I’ve had on public history and international history.

The Topography of Terror, Site of the Eichmann Exhibit Which I Enjoyed Quite a Bit!

Superficially, the Eichmann Trial had to do with the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official responsible for the implementation of the deportation of hundreds of thousands of (primarily Hungarian) Jews to their deaths at Nazi extermination camps throughout Europe. Nazi leaders tried at Nuremberg made mention of Eichmann as a key figure. While Eichmann was able to flee to Argentina, in 1961 Israel’s Mossad was able to capture and kidnap him to Israel, where he was tried in Jerusalem on a number of criminal charges under domestic Israeli law that had been implemented eleven years prior. The trial was televised (unusual for an economically poor Israel in the 1960s), was by its very nature highly international (Eichmann had committed most of his crimes in Hungary, was represented by Robert Servatius, a highly unapologetic West German attorney who had represented numerous Nazi authorities in prior trials, and the trial involved Hebrew, German, English, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, and Polish-speaking witnesses). Reading over Eichmann in Jerusalem and given my prior work on Carl Schmitt, it is interesting to me to see how like Servatius and his assistant, Dr. Dieter Wechtenbruch (a former student of Schmitt’s) represented a downward moral trajectory in the German legal profession through the 1930s – 1950s, at least. The trial took place at a crucial period in Israeli history, when the connection of the Holocaust to a sense of Israeli national identity was still being developed. And it was analyzed as a media event – most famously by Hannah Arendt in The New Yorker – from so many different angles that the reception of the trial could fill multiple dissertations itself. Given that the exhibit coincides with Deborah Lipstadt’s recent book on the Eichmann Trial, it is a felicitous time for people interested in the Eichmann Trial itself or how trials of Nazi leaders helped form some consensus on international law in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Shot from the Courtroom

The part of the exhibition that I found most interesting dealt with the international response to the trial, particularly in the Eastern Bloc. As Lipstadt and others have noted in their work, one major aspect of the Eichmann Trial was the public articulation of Jewish suffering in a way that both strengthened the legitimacy of Israel and brought greater public attention to the Holocaust, which did not occupy a position as the Holocaust in international public memory to that point. But as the exhibit pointed out, this aspect of reception was made much more complicated in the USSR. While Eichmann was, naturally, disparaged in the Soviet press as a “Fascist,” as many historians have pointed out, following World War II the USSR adopted a new tack of anti-Semitism that made sympathy with the Jewish state difficult. In seeking to legitimize its losses to Nazi aggression as uniquely Soviet, moreover, the Eastern European Jews who had perished at the hands of Einsatzgruppen and bureaucratic terrorists like Eichmann had to be reinvented as Soviet or at least socialist victims who were killed for their Leftism or their opposition to Nazi Fascism, not because of their race of religious belief.

On top of this, Israel’s claim to try Eichmann as someone who had committed crimes against Jews per se was complicated. As noted above, the majority of the Jews whose deaths Eichmann was most directly responsible for had lived in Fascist Hungary. One could make a case that postwar socialist Hungary, just as Communist Poland had done, should have jurisdiction over Nazi criminals who had committed crimes in occupied Central Europe. That was part of the spirit behind the Moscow Declaration, a wartime statement signed by FDR, Churchill, and Stalin stating that Nazi criminals would be tried in the countries where they had committed crimes. Still, in spite of all of this, because of the “demands” of postwar Soviet anti-Semitism, none of the Central European states made, as far as I know, an attempt to protest the legitimacy of the trials on these grounds.

What I find interesting about this conjuncture, which I had thought about prior to visiting the exhibit, is how it suggests how Soviet anti-Semitism, memories of the Holocaust, and concepts of international law affected Jewish history and international law in unexpected ways. As writers like Tim Snyder have pointed out, particularly in the final chapter of his Bloodlands, Stalinist anti-Semitism and the need to remember the Holocaust as a Fascist atrocity perpetuated against socialists had a hugely distorting effect on memories of Nazi crimes across Eastern Europe that still hampers our understanding of anti-Semitism in that region today. Most basically, survivors lacked a forum to publicly discuss – on their own terms – crimes that had been perpetuated against them. The role of anti-Semitic élites who collaborated with Germans to kill Jews was played down, and the lack of a frank discussion on anti-Semitism probably hindered the ability of Soviet and Eastern European citizens to have a productive conversation about the role of Jews in the October Revolution. While it is true that many Bolshevik revolutionary leaders were Jewish, in contemporary Russia I have found it not uncommon to hear well-educated Russians voice the opinion that the October Revolution (and hence the entire USSR) was some kind of Jewish conspiracy foisted on the Russian people. The combination of Nazi crimes and Stalinization, plus the inability of Soviet Jews to get legal recourse to lost property or holding on an ethnic or religious basis, added to the trauma of these Soviet Jewish citizens. (Incidentally, there is a book by David Shneer which touches on some of these topics through the lens of Soviet Jewish photographers.)

Life as a Jew in the Brezhnev-era USSR was no fun, but the empire might have inadvertently contributed to a revitalized Jewish identity represented by Israel by not placing Jewish suffering within Eastern Europe proper

And yet there may have been an irony in Soviet anti-Semitism, especially when combined with Soviet ambitions abroad. After World War II, the USSR found itself in something of an awkward position. It was, for the first time in its history, a global power. It had the wherewithall to confront countries like the USA and the British Empire that it considered, in some sense, historically doomed. With the British losing power rapidly in the Middle East after 1945, it had a window of opportunity to insert itself into that sensitive region of the world, too. And so it did, forming close ties with Arab countries around the region, especially Nasser’s Egypt. In this sense, Soviet Anti-Semitism coincided with imperial interests and a desire to minimize the USA’s influence in the broader region; anti-Semitism at home went along naturally with an anti-Zionist policy in the Middle East. But the Eichmann Trial seems to be a funny moment in 20th century Jewish history where these trends of Soviet anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism came to loggerheads. Neither Moscow nor its satellite leaders in Warsaw, Budapest, or Berlin could, for reasons of anti-Semitism and a desire to burnish their anti-fascist credentials, claim Eastern Europe as the proper site for Jewish suffering, in a way that would consecrate Eastern Europe as the legitimate site for a reckoning of the Holocaust.

As a result, the socialist world was rather hamstrung when Israel moved to kidnap Eichmann and develop the link between the historical Holocaust and the contemporary state of Israel. Moscow might have opposed Israel’s flexing of the monstrous history of the Holocaust to legitimize a Jewish state that stood opposed to the USSR and its Arab allies. But the constraints of ideology and the limits of representing the Holocaust or Jewish suffering after Stalinist anti-Semitism robbed the Soviet World of any ability it might have had to shift the staging of public Jewish suffering to Eastern Europe at this time. What consequences it would have had for Nazi war crimes trials to have taken place on a national or even anti-fascist in the USSR or Eastern Europe at this time, rather than anti-Semitic basis in Israel, remain ripe for speculation. Needless to say, the trial process was not likely to be fair in Budapest in 1961, but it is, I think, an interesting counterfactual to pose that might help us understand how this contingent period of Nazi war crimes trials both reflected a legacy of Stalinist anti-Semitism and helped make Israeli identity what it is today.

Examining high-level relations such as these between Mao and Khrushchev is important for getting history right, but so, too, is an attention to non-state actors and intellectual history

Telescoping out more broadly, I enjoyed the exhibit for helping to suggest to me the contours of what some productive fusion of international and global history might look like. As I have written before, more and more historians and scholars are writing histories that move away from national histories to more international, global themes. However, often times what is suggested as “international history” really still means what it did 30 years ago – the history of relations between states in an interstate system, and the history of foreign policy as made by states. The works of the distinguished Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, known in the USA as perhaps the premier scholar of the history of the Cold War, are a good example of this approach. Taking a focus on “grand strategy,” many of Gaddis’ works examine the big-picture views that motivated American, Soviet, and Chinese leaders to go with the foreign policies they went with through the murky years of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

However, as both pundits and scholars from international relations and global governance studies are wont to tell us, there are more than just states in the world. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a scholar of international relations and the former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, has drawn attention in her work to how international networks of global governance exist even in between state institutions. Judges, for example, read international decisions to inform their own work. NGOs are another obvious example. On a more granular leve, many of the writers representing technological utopianism emphasize how individuals are empowered through technology to conduct “international relations” without the consent of their state. Writing a truly global history of the 20th century would require taking in the pros and cons of all of these three ways of thinking about international affairs. It would require an approach that takes into account interstate relations, strategy, and ideology (Gaddis’ forté), but along with that a focus on non-state actors like the media, international lawyers, judges, and other played in the process.

What I find exciting about the Eichmann exhibit at the Topography of Terror, then, is how suggestive it was for how to reconceptualize an interesting 20th-century historical question (the Eichmann Trial) within the framework of a global history approach. I have not yet read Lipstadt’s book on the Eichmann Trial, although I have enjoyed her other work. However, on the basis of some of the promotional material for the book, I worry slightly that it may fall into older, classic, and popular (for good reasons) questions about the Eichmann Trial rather than looking at the international situation that made parts of the trial possible. The promotional video on Amazon, for example, seeks to place the trial in the context of the formation of national identity in Israel, as well as the Arendtian framework of the nature of evil. Both of these are totally legitimate ways to approach the Trial, and much of what Lipstadt claims to bring to her account (a greater reliance on the massive video archive that the trial produced, whereas Arendt mostly used written notes) is well-taken.

At the same time, I wonder whether a focus on the Israeli story and the banality of evil question forces scholars or people observing the Trial to telescope in too closely on the Eichmann Trial as a unique event, without putting it in greater context of how West Germany and the Bloc attempted to deal (or not deal) with the question of guilt and public expressions of Jewish suffering. Might a history of the Eichmann Trial told not from Jerusalem but from Warsaw, Moscow, Cairo, or Baghdad in 1961 also have something to tell us here? If so, someone like Francine Hirsch, a wonderful historian of the USSR who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I know, is engaged in a project looking at Soviet conceptions of international law after the Second World War. Finding a way to examine in more detail how Soviet attitudes towards the Holocaust (which, say, Timothy Snyder has written on in Bloodlands) interacted with the USSR coming to grips as an international power (which would have some relation to international law and have dealings with Israel one way or another) could be really neat. Perhaps it’s just my obscurantist streak kicking in – but I think it could be an interesting move, one that might move us away from a story of why Eichmann matters for Israel or Jewish history (which it definitely does) and towards one of why it mattered for 20th century world history.


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