This spring and summer is an anniversary that many wish we did not have to note.
It is the 50th anniversary of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man who was largely credited with the actual mechanical creation of, and carrying out of Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” i.e. the Holocaust in all of it’s brutal efficiency.
One of the interesting things is the loss of historical perspective that we have today, versus in 1961.
Many of you, like me, were not alive then, or were too young to know what was going on in the world.
In the immediate aftermath of WWII, Europe was in a shambles.
The immediate issue for the allied forces, with regard to the death camp survivors, was how to try and nurse them back to health.
They could not be just given food, as a huge percentage were suffering from Typhus, Dysentery, and other diseases of extreme malnutrition and lack of even basic hygiene.
Even more, like many of the other residents of Europe, there was no place for these people to go back to. The Soviets and the Germans had both engaged in scorched earth policies on retreat, and of course, the allies bombed many of the major cities, like Dresden, into oblivion.
Refugees remained in camps until 1956, more than a decade after the end of the war in Europe.
If you know any survivors, you can ask them, but most of them did not want to discuss what they had seen, and what they had been through. The Jews did not know how to deal with what had happened to them, and their families. It was like waking up from a 15 year nightmare, except that your loved ones were dead.
In addition, the British were actively trying to prevent migration to the Mandate of Palestine, and then to the new nation of Israel.
Those that did make it, quickly became involved in trying to forge the new nation and defend it. Israel was attacked immediately upon the declaration of the state, and then again in 1956 by Egypt.
Just as importantly, unlike today’s world of 24 hour news cycle, videophones, etc, there was no way to learn of what happened in Europe at the death camps unless one of the liberating soldiers wanted to discuss it. And since the Americans had not liberated the worst camps, there was only so much they could discuss, although again, most had no interest in talking about what they saw. Without video cameras, cable news, or even nightly news on the 3 networks (news reports back then were only 15 minutes long and mostly local) there was just no way to find out.
And in fact, the worst camps, Auschwitz and it’s sub camps, and all the camps in Poland, Czechoslavakia and other points east, were liberated by the Soviets, who had engaged in their own holocaust in the Ukraine, so they had no interest in advertising what happened.
The only way to see what had happened were from the films that were played during the Nuremberg trials. Even the trials though, did not anticipate the prosecution focusing on the Holocaust. The principle charge was waging aggressive war, and that was the chief line of questioning. However, when the films were played near the end of the trial, the news observers were left crying, or worse.
The newsreels were not shown in the United States and only small amounts of information about what had happened got out.
Dwight Eisenhower did declare martial law, and ordered all German townspeople to tour the camps in their regions and to bury the remaining skeletal corpses, but once that immediate action was over, the German people became enmeshed in what would eventually be termed the “economic miracle” of the government of post war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
Most importantly about Adenauer was that his national security adviser, Hans Globke, had worked with Eichmann in the Department of Jewish Affairs, and in fact, had been one of the architects of Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws.
The Americans, who, through the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and the new Cold War with the Soviets, were trying to capture as much of the European sentiment as they could.
Both Adenauer’s government, and the various allied governments had no interest in advertising the help they were receiving from the former Nazis (how ‘former’ is something historians still debate).
As a result of all of these things, by the time Eichmann was captured in Buenos Aries, Argentina on May 11, 1960 by agents of the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, led by their director Isser Harel, the world knew little of the horrors that had been witnessed, or had forgotten already.
Harel wrote a wonderful book about this covert operation entitled “The House on Garibaldi Street”. It is in fact, a model for many espionage novels, which can’t help fail to live up to the real live suspense of the true story of the tracking, capture and removal of Eichmann from Argentina to Israel to stand trial.
The trial was stunning for the world. News agencies from virtually every country covered it, and the New Yorker magazine famously sent Political Philosopher Hanna Arendt to cover it. (Arendt’s “Totalitarianism” is one of the most important books of the 20th century.) It was her reporting that led her to coin her now ubiquitous phrase “The Banality of Evil” when she first saw Eichmann, a small bespectacled man sitting in his bulletproof glass case.
Sadly though, Arendt spent precious little time at the trial, and missed ALL of Eichmann’s own testimony so her report was not at all accurate.
What came out in the trial was exactly how bloodthirsty Eichmann had been. Far from “just following orders” Eichmann had relished his task and had expressed regret that he hadn’t done more.
Back on point. So, at the time of Eichmann’s capture and trial most of the world did not know the details of what had happened.
Even more surprisingly, most Israeli’s didn’t know, or didn’t discuss it.
So, the chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner had decided that it was critical that survivors testify. Not just about seeing Eichmann at the camps, but about what had happened.
This testimony again stunned the world. The outlining of the Wansee conference, the meeting in which Reinhold Heidrich had actually assigned Eichmann to oversee the slaughter of the entire Jewish population of the Reich (in their view, the world) which had been unknown until then – the actual meeting at which the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe” had been formulated, left no doubt that Eichmann had been the master architect of the most heinous crime the world had ever seen.
Still, after the trial, the Holocaust was not what it is today. Remember, the trial was in Hebrew, and German, and still, in 1960 television was limited, even here in the US TV’s were a luxury not an every household item.
The real breakthrough on the recognition of the Holocuast in the US was the TV miniseries which introduced the world to Meryl Streep, “The Holocaust” on ABC, in 1978.
For the next few days, I will be posting various articles about different aspects of the trial.