An usher shouts “Beth Hamishpath” (“the House of Justice”) as Eichmann’s three judges walked to their seats on the courthouse’s highest tier, above translators who convey the Hebrew proceedings in “excellent” French, “bearable” English, and “frequently incomprehensible” German—which is strange, since the defendant, all the judges, and a large portion of the Israeli population are native German speakers. Below are the witness box and the accused, in a glass booth, and below them are the prosecutorial team and Eichmann’s lone defense attorney, Robert Servatius.
From the start, the usher’s cry announces the Eichmann trial’s true motive—justice—while showing that the trial is nonetheless also a public show. The courtroom is organized hierarchically in tiers, with the judges (and therefore justice) at the top. Eichmann’s glass box at once protects him from potential threats and frames him as a spectacle. The court’s peculiar linguistic politics—everything has to be in Hebrew, even though all the trial’s major actors are German-speakers—show Israel’s attempt to define Jewish identity on its own nationalist terms.
The judges, unlike the usher and prosecution, are not theatrical at all; they are sober and impartial, “obviously three good and honest men.” They do not pretend to wait for the Hebrew translation; presiding judge Moshe Landau even corrects the German translator and encourages the others to address Eichmann in German, which proves his “remarkable independence of current public opinion in Israel.” Despite Landau’s authority and best efforts, Arendt says, the trial sometimes lapses into showmanship—the courthouse is built like a theater, and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion is the trial’s “invisible stage manager.” He speaks through the obedient prosecutor, Attorney General Gideon Hausner, who serves the Israeli government as loyally as judge Landau serves Justice.
Arendt draws out more explicitly the tension she has already introduced: the court is caught between the judges’ quest for just punishment and the Israeli state’s desire to make a political statement. While the judges have control over the courtroom, Ben-Gurion has control over how the trial is interpreted throughout Israel and the world; it seems that, without the judges’ resolute impartiality, the trial would serve as a propaganda tool much like the Nazi legal propaganda Arendt addresses in subsequent chapters.
“Justice demands” that the trial set aside “the other questions of seemingly greater import” that involve the causes, effects, and responsibility of various parties for the Holocaust, and instead focus singularly on the actions and guilt of the diminutive and awkward defendant. Ben-Gurion, contrary to Justice, allows Hausner to speak endlessly with the press and put on a show for the audience, which is supposed to stand in for the world at large. Hausner claims to “make no ethnic distinctions” in Eichmann’s crimes, which is the prosecution’s “key sentence” because its case is founded precisely on Jewish suffering. After the Nuremberg Trials, Hausner and seemingly “everyone else in Israel” insisted that a Jewish court had to try crimes against Jews, and opposed the prospect of an international court.
Clearly, Israel wants the trial to represent the Jewish people finally rising up against and defeating the forces of their oppression; in the process, it seems to forget the various other victims of Nazi crimes and wants to speak with a single voice for all Jews of all persuasions in all places. The conflict over who should try Nazi war criminals shows that there is no clear precedent for one state to address obviously criminal actions by the agents of another state. The Nuremberg Trials’ apparent leniency and the Eichmann trial’s showmanship demonstrateshow a legal system charged with upholding a universal concept of justice nevertheless operates within the particular political context and demands of a state and era.
Despite the claim of “no ethnic distinctions,” Israel certainly makes them: Jews and non-Jews cannot marry in Israel—which was one of the Nazi policies from the Nuremberg Laws denounced by the prosecution. And the trial is, at first, a grand show of Jewish suffering for the world, and also for an audience of Israelis who are supposed to see “what it meant to live among non-Jews” and thus consider Israel their only chance at safety and honor. But the audience members are mostly Holocaust survivors who already “knew by heart all there was to know” and merely want the opportunity to relive their painful private stories in a public forum.
Arendt already accuses Israel of echoing Nazi policy: both states conceived themselves as the protectors of a certain ethnic group, and protected marriage in order to ensure a sort of ethnic purity. By focusing on stories of suffering and death that had little to do with the defendant, Ben-Gurion could consolidate Jews’ loyalty by arguing that only Israel righted the wrongs of the entire Holocaust, for which Eichmann is made to stand. The audience Arendt describes—survivors who want to see their suffering acknowledged—suggests that the international public has failed to address or come to terms with the Holocaust’s moral complexity.
The “show trial” begins collapsing precisely because of the prosecution’s focus on the victims over the accused. But the defense’s refusal to challenge any testimony does not help the judges’ attempt to rein the trial back in. Ben-Gurion explains even before the trial that he ordered Eichmann’s kidnapping in order to expose the truths of Nazi anti-Semitism. Of course, this is a paltry justification—Hitler already discredited anti-Semitism, and the world’s Jews hardly need a reminder of the Holocaust. In fact, the Zionist belief in ubiquitous anti-Semitism actually led many Zionist groups to collaborate with the Nazis in the early years of the Third Reich.
The prosecution seems to undermine its stated purpose: instead of presenting evidence against Eichmann (who everyone seems to know is clearly guilty), it uses its airtime and attention to try and recast Zionism as Jews’ only way out of persecution (and erase its astonishing contributions to the Holocaust). Ben-Gurion needs to justify Eichmann’s kidnapping precisely because there is no clear reason for Israel to lead his prosecution.
Hausner emphasizes “the contrast between Israeli heroism and the submissive meekness with which Jews went to their death,” conveniently forgetting that all the Nazis’ other victims did the same. The court also never remembers instances like the Dutch Jewish revolt against the German police in 1941. Ultimately, the prosecution inadvertently distorts “even the Jewish truth.”
In his attempt to present Israel as a heroic force, Hausner triply dishonors Holocaust victims and covers up the truth: he insults people who were understandably too afraid to resist, portrays this “submissive meekness” as a uniquely Jewish trait, and erases stories of resistance, which demonstrate that totalitarianism is not always total.
On the other hand, Ben-Gurion’s campaign does successfully help the Israelis find other Nazis and criminals—not in the Arab world that collaborated with the Nazis and offered them shelter, but in West Germany, which scarcely prosecuted its remaining Nazis. Hausner scarcely mentions West Germany, however, on account of its close ties to Israel. Although West Germany reserved its harshest punishment for offenders who openly admitted and denounced their actions at the Nuremberg Trials, in 1962, almost half of West Germany’s active judges have worked under the Nazis, and Germans remain largely indifferent about their history of mass murder.
Ben-Gurion’s emphasis on Arab collaborators shows how Israel’s narrative of the Holocaust is deeply affected by its own political concerns and conflicts. The greatest horror for Arendt is not Arab countries’ open (and, she implies, politically understandable) anti-Semitism, but rather the complacency of German people and institutions that prefer to forget rather than come to terms with their nation’s violent past.
Fearing backlash from the international community, West Germany begins zealously prosecuting Nazi criminals in the months leading up to the Eichmann trial. Despite Hausner’s insistence on making the trial about the totality of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, he never points out “the almost ubiquitous complicity” of German citizens and public officials with the Nazi regime, instead preferring to focus on Eichmann.
Hausner emphasizes the magnitude of Jewish suffering, but not the magnitude of the Nazi bureaucratic regime or German citizens’ collaboration with it; he wants Eichmann to stand singularly for the entire Holocaust and cover up the broader attitude of complacency that allowed Nazi crimes to go unchallenged.
The centerpiece of the trial is not Eichmann and not merely the Holocaust, but rather the history of anti-Semitism, starting with stories of persecution from the Hebrew Bible. Astonishingly, Servatius responds by blaming Jews for the violence committed against them and suggests that the Nazis, by failing to entirely destroy the Jews, allowed Israel to be formed. Despite all these diversions, “there remained an individual in the dock, a person of flesh and blood,” and the court’s job is to deliver a verdict.
In fact, Arendt argues, Hausner and Ben-Gurion want Eichmann to stand for the entire history of anti-Semitism, which Israel presents itself as having magically and single-handedly defeated. Arendt will soon show that Servatius is partially correct about the Nazi role in Israel’s establishment, but his argument is horrifying and tone-deaf precisely because he uses the prosecution’s portrayal of Israel to justify the Holocaust.