December 12, 2018

Why Hollywood Loves the Eichmann Trial

“Adolf Eichmann, the once faceless organization man and point person for the annihilation of European Jewry, may now be the most famous face, save one, of the Third Reich. The formerly obscure factotum has come to personify the ordinary German bureaucrats who wrought unspeakable horror, not as bloodthirsty hands-on executioners, but as quotidian desk jockeys—the kind of efficient middle-level management every modern state needs to make the trains run on time.

Eichmann’s steadily rising profile is very much a postwar phenomenon. His name first started cropping up with his more notorious partners in war crimes during the first round of the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-1946. In 1950, feeling the heat around the corner, he escaped to Argentina with the help of ODESSA, the underground network of former SS men, and the connections of a friendly Franciscan priest. Working as a factory foreman at a Mercedes-Benz plant, he lived peacefully in a suburb of Buenos Aires under the name of Ricardo Clement, but his real identity was well known among the thriving community of by no means ex-Nazis who had found a secure berth in the right-wing nation. In 1960, after years of oddly lackadaisical monitoring, agents from Mossad and Shin Bet finally acted and snatched Eichmann as he walked off the shuttle bus that took him home. After 10 days in a safe house in Buenos Aires, they smuggled him out of the country on an El Al airliner. In 1961, before live television cameras, the State of Israel put him on trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity, or rather the subset that was the Jewish people. He was hanged the next year, his ashes dumped in the Mediterranean Sea.

The thrilling cloak-and-dagger aspects of Eichmann’s capture and the cathartic release of the trial propelled the subaltern SS officer into the uppermost ranks of name-brand Nazi henchmen. Yet where Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler reeked of sadism and fanatical devotion to the cause of a Judenfrei Reich, the affectless Eichmann lacked sharp outlines and vivid colors; he was the last guy you’d pick out of a police lineup for mass murder. The mismatch between the smallness of the person and the enormity of his crimes seemed vertiginously out of whack, almost an insult to the dead millions. Along with the publication in 1961 of Raul Hilberg’s administratively minded The Destruction of the European Jews and the television (1959) and later film version (1961) of Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg, the Eichmann case prompted a redirection of historical, philosophical, and artistic inquiry into what was only beginning to be called the Holocaust—away from the charismatic villains of the Third Reich to the little men who made the fine machinery of the Final Solution hum.”

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