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The Eichmann Question

The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann

by Moishe Pearlman
Simon Schuster, 666 pp., $8.95

The Eichmann trial has become the focus of a controversy which transcends national and religious frontiers. In Germany the issue has recently been given an extra dimension by the storm over Hochhuth’s play, The Vicar: an impassioned indictment of the Vatican’s wartime policy of silence, and especially of Pope Pius XII, who is represented as indifferent to the massacre of the Jews and solely concerned with stemming the menacing flood of Communism. With the German Episcopate up in arms over this play, and a fresh storm promised when The Vicar reaches London and New York, as it soon will, both the critics and the public have something bigger to think about than the controversy over the alleged failure of the various Jewish organizations to resist or sabotage Hitler’s “final solution” which has followed, especially in the United States, from the publication of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.1

Cardinal Montini (as he then still was) doubtless knew what he was doing last June when, in what turned out to be almost his final public act before ascending the papal throne, he intervened in the columns of the London Catholic weekly, The Tablet, with a pained and angry defense of his predecessor. Hochhuth happens to be a Lutheran, but the burden of his charge—that to the Curia the Jews seemed expendable—has already evoked an embarrassed echo among some German Catholic intellectuals. It would be agreeable to be able to add that German public opinion as a whole was shocked, but most Germans still remember wartime sermons exhorting both Catholics and Protestants to fight the Red menace. Now that Christian Democracy is in the saddle all over Western Europe, these memories are both embarrassing and slightly unreal, which may be the reason that news of the controversy came as a surprise to the British public, and doubtless to the American too.

Looked at in this way, the Jewish catastrophe becomes a fairly typical chapter in recent European history, account being taken of such trial exercises as the Turkish massacre of the Armenians during and after the First World War. Against this background the question whether the Jews might have done more to save themselves falls into place as a problem of the second order. Or so it seems to people in Europe (Britain, for the purpose of this argument, being part of Europe). The case is evidently different for Americans, and a fortiori for American Jews who have hitherto compensated an uneasy sense of guilt by a resolute attachment to heroic myths. At the core of this mythology one is not surprised to encounter the consoling belief that the murder of some four to six million Jews—mostly in Eastern Europe—was experienced as a dreadful crime by the surrounding peoples, whereas the truth is that most of them welcomed it and did nothing whatever to help the victims. Allied to this central piece of myth-making, there are other bits and pieces, such as the notion that, having learned the truth at long last, the Germans are now truly sorry, whereas in prosaic fact most of them are sorry only for themselves. It is to Hannah Arendt’s credit that she has dealt ruthlessly with these and other sentimental fancies, though in the process she has occasionally succumbed to the temptation of emptying the baby out along with the bath. That, however, is not what the row is about. Even if she had stuck more closely to what might be called her brief—chiefly the massive documentation provided in Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of the European Jews—it is certain there would have been an outcry. The truth, even minus her exaggerations, simply does not bear thinking about. Which is precisely why it should be thought about.

Clearly this particular debate will have to go on for quite some time. An outsider such as the present reviewer is not obliged to comment on Mr. Justice Musmanno’s pompous rebuke to Miss Arendt in the New York Times and the ensuing correspondence. It would indeed be difficult to miss the point of her book more completely than was done by Judge Musmanno, but then he is in good company, or at any rate in numerous company. One may suspect that the bien-pensants are not going to abandon their traditional image of a world in which terrible things do indeed happen from time to time, but only as inexplicable departures from the normal. In their eyes Miss Arendt’s real crime is her suggestion that Eichmann may indeed have been a fairly average murder specialist and by implication a fairly representative specimen of his generation. Compared with this subversive thought—which millions of people once under the German heel (not to mention the Germans themselves) know to be substantially true—her minor infelicities pale. Even the occasional touch of malice, e.g. in her treatment of the Zionists (which some critics have rightly singled out for condemnation) becomes a secondary matter. There is, after all, a more important question than her even entire groups of people, such as fairness or unfairness to individuals or the Jewish Councils in occupied Europe. The question is whether her account of the great catastrophe is substantially true to the facts of European history as they were experienced by millions of people between 1933 and 1945; and on this score it seems to the reviewer that she can be faulted only for not being harsher on the Allies and certain neutrals. In most other respects the indictment stands. To the question why more Jews were not saved, the simple answer must be: because no one cared sufficiently, and because quite a number of otherwise respectable people felt in the privacy of their souls that Hitler was doing their dirty work for them.

All this is not to deny that Miss Aren’t work exhibits some characteristic faults of tone and substance. These have been duly underscored by her critics, notably by Lionel Abel in a long and trenchant essay in the Partisan Review.2 In addition to her systematic unfairness to the Zionists, who were after all simply trying to save lives (and getting precious little help from the Allies), there is her failure to point out that in Southern Russia, where the Jews were totally unorganized, the disaster was on a scale paralleled only in Poland. It thus seems extravagant to suggest that the Jews in Eastern Europe would have done better had they possessed no communal organization at all.

One is less inclined to blame her for what she says about some of the Jewish Councils in Western Europe. No doubt they thought they had no choice but to cooperate. Still, considering that—to take one example—some twenty thousand Jews survived in Holland by “going underground,” one does not quite see why the twenty or so officials of the Jewish community could not have done the same, after closing their offices and destroying their records, instead of setting themselves up as an utterly useless buffer between their charges and the Germans. A “failure of nerve” which helped to bring about the total catastrophe of the historic Jewish communities of Europe must not be passed over in silence, even though it may be said in extenuation that the collapse of 1940 had temporarily turned most Europeans into “collaborators.” It took years of Nazi savagery to produce a really violent and widespread popular revulsion, and by then Anne Frank and her parents had long been deported.

To turn from these considerations to Mr. Pearlman’s confections is to descend from tragedy to farce. Mr. Pearlman, a hard-working journalist and an Israeli public-relations officer, has manufactured an officially sponsored account of the Eichmann trial which combines vulgarity and triviality in about equal proportions, seasoned with occasional flights into pseudo-history. His approach to the subject is one familiar to connoisseurs of pulp fiction, though one may suppose that his style has been consciously formed upon more ambitious models, such as the thriller-romances of Mr. Leon Uris. Quite early on, the reader is introduced to a specimen which may stand for all the rest:

Adolf Eichman—that’s the man who must be brought to justice if he is still alive.” The man who thundered these words, punctuating each with a fist-rap on the table, was a leader without a state, head of the Jews in Palestine and of the World Zionist Movement, silver-haloed David Ben-Gurion, destined to become Israel’s first Prime Minister.

The year was 1945, shortly after the war.

Thus started the search for Eichmann, which was to end fifteen years later in a South American shantytown.

And so on. There are several hundred pages of this sort of thing, interspersed with bits of potted history and carefully chosen extracts from the Jerusalem Court proceedings. To say that Mr. Pearlman has succeeded in the almost impossible task of reducing the Jewish catastrophe to the level of a Hollywood scenario, is to acknowledge at once his own considerable talents in this genre and the help he was indirectly afforded by the organizers of the trial. One of his heroes, not surprisingly, is Israel’s Attorney General, Mr. Hausner, whose fatuous rhetoric is here reported with the reverence to be expected from a fellow artist. Between the two of them, they pretty well succeed in emptying the Eichmann trial of whatever sense and dignity it might otherwise have possessed. Hitler’s lineal descent from Pharaoh, and the consequent validation of the Zionist view of Jewish history as an unbroken record of disaster providentially ended by the founding of Israel, are or them dogmas not to be questioned. That was to be expected. What we might have been spared was the artificial inflation of Eichmann to world-historical proportions: successor to “those classic figures of barbarism, Nero Attila, Genghis Khan….” (Pearlman dixit.) But once the Attorney General had been let loose on this subject there was no holding him, and the ensuing absurdities were lapped up by a world-wide audience grateful for the chance thus offered to unload its own guilt-feelings upon the monster in the dock: “…the one who planned, initiated and organized, who instructed others to spill this ocean of blood…” as Mr. Hausner puts it. To the Germans in particular this aspect of the indictment came as a heavensent distraction from the theme of collective responsibility. To the rest of the world Eichmann was that familiar figure, a criminal mastermind whom it was possible to contemplate with mingled awe and repugnance. In short, there was no catharis, merely stupefaction or indifference.

There is material here for reflection on the morality of an age too numbed by successive horrors to make more than the ritual obeisance to established standards. On balance, the trial helped a lot of people to get over whatever qualms they may still have felt. The arch-fiend had been duly punished, and life could go on. To this end it was important that Eichmann should be made to bear the largest possible load of what might otherwise have been recognized as collective responsibility. Whatever the trial may have signified to Israelis, its meaning for the rest of the world—barring those countries outside the Jewish-Christian-Islamie orbit, where it simply failed to have any resonance at all—quickly established itself as an individual’s expiation for the sins of an entire continent. In a morality play the curtain has to come down on the destruction of evil, as the guillotine comes down on the neck of the evil-doer: only then can the audience rise reassured, safe in the knowledge that the moral order is still intact. No need to emphasize that this reassurance was and is of special importance to a civilization vaguely conscious of its religious roots and of Christianity’s ambiguous relationship to its parent religion. It was hardly possible for the Court in Jerusalem not to sentence Eichmann to die. That in so doing it missed an opportunity to transcend its own parochialism must be counted among the major lost opportunities of this age.

  1. 1

    Viking Press, 1963

  2. 2

    Summer, 1963

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