Eichmann’s trial set the stage for more battles over the Shoah — including my own
Today, April 11, marks the 60th anniversary of the opening of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel, a watershed moment in Jewish history.
The Eichmann trial was the first time in 2,000 years that Jews, represented by the Jewish state, could call an oppressor to account. Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Jews who wanted justice to be done to those who had oppressed them had to depend on others to pursue and arbitrate that justice. They had to hope the courts of the lands in which they lived would act against those who engaged in such outrages. Most of the time they did not. This time, with the establishment of the modern state of Israel, they could act on their own behalf.
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion could have made that happen by ordering the Israeli operatives who captured Eichmann to simply do away with him. He did not. Instead, Ben-Gurion insisted that Eichmann be brought to the fledgling Jewish state to stand trial.
The prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, understood the momentous quality of this moment when he began his opening statement with stirring words, words that many Israelis of a certain age can still recite by heart. “In the place where I am standing before you today, Judges of Israel,” he began, “ I do not stand alone. With me are 6 million prosecutors. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards him who sits in the dock and cry, ‘I accuse.’” he continued. “Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard.”
The Eichmann trial did more than just call our oppressors to account. It shaped the public’s perception of the Holocaust. There were more reporters in Jerusalem when the trial opened than had been at the Nuremberg Tribunals 16 years before. At Nuremberg, the prosecutors had eschewed having survivors testify because they wondered if their accounts could be fully trusted. (One would not be wrong to see a bit of antisemitism in those doubts.) In contrast, in the courtroom in Jerusalem, approximately 100 survivors told their stories . The world listened in a way that it had not done before.
Israeli youth, raised to think of themselves as invincible Sabras, saw that these survivors were not weak diaspora Jews who “allowed” this to happen to them. Rather, they were victims who had faced a persecution machine of overwhelming force and determination. Finally, this trial was the first in history to be recorded and televised.
But Eichmann is not the only reason that April 11th is an important date for me as a historian of the Holocaust; it also marks another, even more personal, legal milestone in that history. Today is the 21st anniversary of the judgment in David Irving v. Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt.
Irving sued me for having called him a Holocaust denier, an antisemite and a racist. After a 10 -week trial in London, we won an overwhelming victory that decimated Irving’s accusations and exposed him as a liar and falsifier of history. “This trial has done for the new century what the Nuremberg tribunals or the Eichmann trial did for earlier generations, ” the Daily Telegraph declared in its lead editorial, While I appreciated this affirmation of the trial’s importance, I dismissed the comparison as hyperbolic. There is, of course, no comparing Eichmann’s misdeeds to those of Irving’s. Eichmann murdered millions of people; Irving, it could be said, murdered their legacy.
There were other aspects of these trials that were polar opposites. In Jerusalem, the Nazi was the defendant. In London, it was the Holocaust historian. In Jerusalem, the testimony by close to 100 eyewitnesses was the centerpiece. In London, for both forensic and strategic reasons, we called no survivors.
The myriad of documents, material evidence and existing testimonies are overwhelming proof of the Holocaust. We did not want to suggest to the judge that anything more was needed. Moreover, we did not want the case to revolve around the question, “Did the Holocaust happen?” That is not something we believed should be debated. Above all, we did not want to give Irving, who was representing himself, a chance to attack or provoke survivors in the witness box.
Initially, I saw Irving’s libel suit as an attempt to stifle my academic freedom and to stop historians from doing independent research. But as my trial approached, a larger meaning was thrust upon it by survivors who were worried and frightened.
Their impassioned notes, emails and letters compelled me to see the battle differently. They all had a similar message: “David Irving and his cohorts wish to destroy our history.” “You stand up for us. You are our representative.” One day, a survivor stopped me outside the courtroom , handed me a piece of paper with the names of all her relatives who had been murdered and declared: “You are our witness.” It made me understand the situation in much more global and momentous terms.
Looking back 21 and 60 years now, I see clearly what binds these two historic trials together. Neither would have come to be without the long legacy of antisemitism. Both the Holocaust and its denial are rooted in antisemitism.
Today, amid a rising tide of antisemitism, I am troubled that so many people only see this scourge among their political enemies and never among their compatriots. This happens at both ends of the political spectrum.
One of the unique aspects of antisemitism is how ubiquitous it is, and how it crosses ideologies. It was found among Nazis and eugenicists as well as among Marxists and communists. Sometimes the threat is far more from one side than the other. Today, in the United States, the danger emanates far more from the far right. Think Pittsburgh, Poway (San Diego), Charlottesville, Capitol Hill and many other places.
But there is another chorus, one, that I believe, is far larger and all encompassing. It is where I try to place myself. It is the one that makes clear that the evil of antisemitism must be fought irrespective of its source. Even as I fight those with whom I have nothing in common and whose views are a complete anathema to me, so too must I call to account those whose views on other matters I share.
The fight against antisemitism, the oldest hatred, and all prejudice is ongoing — it may never be fully eradicated. If we are ever to achieve a victory, we must divorce this fight from politics. We must fight it irrespective of the specific end of the political spectrum from which it emanates. We must call out our political allies even as we call out our political enemies. Above all, we must fight it with all our souls, with all our hearts and with all our might.
The victims — those whom Adolf Eichmann murdered and those whose murders David Irving tried to deny — would have demanded no less.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is Professor of Holocaust history at Emory Universoty and the author of The Eichmann Trial (2011) and, most recently, Antisemitism Here and Now (2019).
Correction: The original version of this article said antisemitism was as prevalent among Nazis and eugenicists as among Marxists and communists. In fact, while it was found in all four groups, it was much more common among the first two.