Europe remembers how Eichmann trial and TV changed perceptions of Holocaust
The face, with its twisted mouth, receding hairline and dark-framed glasses, is familiar around the world today.
But 50 years ago, when Adolf Eichmann—former head of the Nazi Department for Jewish Affairs—first sat in a Jerusalem courtroom to face war crimes charges, his visage was known to very few.
Television changed that. For West Germans, the impact was profound. Twice a week, for four months, entire families—and sometimes neighbors, too—gathered in living rooms to watch the reports from Jerusalem.
“There was a lot of watching, and it changed the discussion about the Holocaust,” said philosopher Bettina Stangneth, whose book “Eichmann vor Jerusalem” (“Eichmann Faces Jerusalem”) is set to be published in Germany on April 18.
It wasn’t as if most Germans wanted to watch the trial.
“But back then, there was not such a big choice of programs,” Stangneth said. “They could not change the channel so easily.”
Now, as historical institutes and museums in Europe and elsewhere look back at the pivotal trial that began 50 years ago, on April 11, 1961, media coverage of the event is a key theme.
In Frankfurt, German TV reports from 1961 will be shown at the Fritz-Bauer Institute, which is hosting a symposium on the Eichmann trial this month. At Berlin’s Topography of Terror documentation center, videotaped testimony by witnesses and by Eichmann are part of a new exhibit. In Paris, the Memorial de la Shoah is dedicating a program to documentary filmmaker Leo Hurwitz, who directed the videotaping of the four-month trial.
Back then, Israel was practically a country without TV, said Ronny Loewy, an expert on cinematography of the Holocaust at Frankfurt’s German Film Institute. Israelis either listened to a broadcast of the trial live on the radio or attended a simulcast in an auditorium near the court.
“Beside the United States, there was no other country where they were reporting to the same extent as in Germany,” Loewy told JTA.
A survey showed that 95 percent of Germans knew about the trial, and 67 percent favored a severe sentence, according to the 1997 book “Anti-Semitism in Germany: The Post-Nai Epoch Since 1945” by German scholars Werner Bergmann and Rainer Erb.
To get out the news at the end of each court day, two hours of clips were flown to London for dissemination to European and U.S. news programs, recalled cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, who was 14 when his father was assigned to direct the taping. In Germany, the clips were used to produce biweekly, 20-minute reports called “An Epoch on Trial.”
These broadcasts, and other coverage by some 400 German journalists in Israel, had a decisive impact, according to Stangneth.
Until the trial, many Germans had dismissed the few books about the Holocaust as biased. Teachers largely had avoided the subject.
Once the broadcasts of the Eichmann trial began, however, they could ignore it no longer. Young Germans looked at the wartime generation differently. Dozens of new books about the Holocaust were written.
The story of how Eichmann was brought to justice seemed made for TV. He escaped an American POW camp in Germany after the war, got help from the Catholic Church to flee to Argentina, and lived there for years under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement. Recently it was revealed that German intelligence officials knew of Eichmann’s location as early as 1952.
Before his capture, Eichmann had boasted to friends of his involvement in the Final Solution and shared his dreams of resurrecting National Socialism. He even told Dutch fascist journalist Willem Sassen in the late 1950s that he regretted his failure to complete the job of genocide. Eichmann reportedly said he hoped the Arabs would carry on his fight for him, according to Stangneth, who recently recovered some 300 pages of “lost” interview transcripts.
In 1960, the Mossad captured Eichmann in a dramatic operation that ended with his being brought clandestinely to Israel.
As the date of the trial neared, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer became intensely worried, according to historian Deborah Lipstadt, whose new book, “The Eichmann Trial,” came out in March. Adenauer feared “that Eichmann might expose the number of prominent Nazis who served in his government,” she said.
Even worse, Lipstadt said, by 1951 Adenauer was fed up with the guilt he felt was being foisted on the Germans for perpetrating the genocide of the Jews.
“He thought it was time to move on,” she said. “It is shocking that he could say that. And here it was, coming back, in a very strong way.”
The Eichmann trial was full of drama, drawing the world’s attention to the perpetrator and to his victims. Eichmann faced 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Many millions of eyes studied Eichmann through TV sets, trying in vain to discern in his word, manner and expressions signs of remorse.
Tom Hurwitz recalled how his late father once filmed Eichmann viewing a selection of film clips taken after the liberation of concentration camps; Eichmann had the right to see the clips before they were shown in the courtroom. During the screening, one cameraman focused on Eichmann as he watched one horrific image after another. Eichmann sat impassively.
Hannah Arendt described the stony figure in her 1963 work, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” launching a debate that continues to this day as to whether Eichmann was a cog in the Nazi machine or a true believer in genocidal anti-Semitism.
The guilty verdict was pronounced in December 1961, and Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962—the only judicial execution ever carried out in Israel. Eichmann’s ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea.
Even once Eichmann was gone, the impact of the trial and its coverage continued. With so many German journalists in Israel, reports about life in the young Jewish state abounded. An era of exchange began.
And the obvious fairness of the trial—Eichmann had a German lawyer and obviously was not being tortured—“looked like justice, not revenge,” Stangneth said. “This also had an impact on the image of Israel. One can say that Israel came a little bit closer to Germany.”
The trial also helped Germany come closer to confronting itself.
Soon afterward, in December 1963, Germany launched its famous Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, which lasted through the summer of 1965 and lay out the brutality of former neighbors and relatives for all to see.
“The Eichmann trial put the theme there,” Stangneth said. “One could not ignore it.”