For many of us who paid attention when the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann (pictured below, right) in Jerusalem was happening, it's something of a shock to recognize that 50 years have passed.
So the question is: Why revisit that 1961 trial, made famous by Hannah Arendt's controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil?
After all, by now anyone with even passing familiarity of the Holocaust knows that Eichmann, though not the architect or even primary actor in that genocide, was guilty of massive crimes. We know that a fascinating trial in Israel found him guilty and sentenced him to death. We know that wilfully blind and ideologically driven Holocaust deniers continue to suggest that all of this was a fabrication.
And we know, above all, that Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe nearly succeeded, wiping out about six million, or about two-thirds of that population. Without Eichmann the figures might have been substantially lower.
Well, there are several answers to the why question, beyond the 50th anniversary. One is that over the years Arendt's account of the trial has been the lens through which most people have understood what happened. But as Deborah E. Lipstadt reports in her compelling and important new book, The Eichmann Trial, Arendt got some of it wrong and, in the end, distorted our understanding of the trial because after publication of her reports in The New Yorker magazine and later in her book, the discussion focused not so much on the trial and its meaning as on Arendt herself.
What Lipstadt has sought to do here is to de-Arendtize the trial. Toward the back of this book, Lipstadt offers what seems like a balanced assessment of what Arendt got right and what she fouled up, and that's a helpful perspective, even if even Lipstadt's conclusions are likely to draw their own controversy.
There is much to appreciate about Lipstadt's relatively brief account of the trial. She knows what to highlight and how to help us understand its meaning.
At the same time, that very brevity (203 pages) leads to a few problems of its own. Just past the halfway mark in the book, for instance, she makes a point about Eichmann being oblivious to the fact that he was making a particular point "before a court composed of Jews, whom the New Testament held accountable for Jesus' fate."
That last phrase may have been how many Christians across history misunderstood things (for my essay on anti-Judaism in Christian history, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page), but Lipstadt's description is far too simplistic to be allowed to stand unchallenged. Lipstadt should have spent at least a few additional sentences acknowledging that there are many complexities and nuances to her statement, even if she didn't want to take up space teasing them out. (Others have written whole books on the subject.)
By contrast, on the very next page she gets something exactly right when she reports this: "Without the legacy of contempt nurtured by the church, the Final Solution would never have been realized." Later in the book she adds to that insight in several helpful ways, at one point writing this: "Eichmann and his cohorts did not randomly go from being ordinary men to being murderers. They traversed a path paved by centuries of pervasive anti-Semitism."
I would argue (and do in my essay to which I pointed you earlier here) that there were centuries of anti-Judaism (which was theological in nature), and then decade after decade of modern antisemitism (which is racial and ethnic in nature, not theological). But in any case the point is that the Holocaust is simply inconceivable without modern antisemitism, and modern antisemitism is inconceivable without century after century of anti-Jewish teaching from Christianity.
In many ways -- but not all -- the Eichmann trial was a game-changer. Lipstadt has done all of us a service by recreating the trial and its effects for a new generation -- a generation that, like those before it, is quite capable of the kind of evil Eichmann and the Final Solution represent.
* As co-author of They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, I was gratified to find Lipstadt pointing in her new book to the remarkable model of those rare Europeans who did what they could to oppose Nazi Germany's goals, especially by helping to save Jews.
* Lipstadt's book goes well with another excellent new Holocaust-related book, The End of the Holocaust, by Alvin Rosenfeld, which I reviewed here.
* Deborah Lipstadt will be in Kansas City on June 29 to speak about her book at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Library. For details, click here.
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THE WORLD ENDED FOR HIM
There's one more apparent victim of the recent (and continuing) end-of-the-world bunk. A Florida man drowned in California as he tried to swim across a lake to get to God, and authorities believe he was motivated by talk of the rapture. Biblical literalism -- and its inevitable attendant misinterpretations -- is not only theologically misguided, it also can be fatal.
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P.S.: You're almost out of time to sign up for my July 4-10 writing class at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, "Restless Hearts: Writing Our Way Toward Home." Look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page or just go to: bit.ly/f15cOT. It will be a week that may transform our lives. But if you don't sign up by June 3, it's almost certain you'll be too late.