The S.S. spent the war’s final weeks forging papers for themselves and destroying evidence of their crimes. While Eichmann’s office did this successfully, many of the people who received his correspondence did not, and so the documentary evidence of his actions lived on to be corroborated by witness testimony. The defense witnesses could not come to Israel, lest they be arrested and tried themselves. This puts significant pressure on Servatius, as does his inability to access most of the documents he wanted. Like at the Nuremberg Trials, the defense also lacks the prosecution’s advantage of research assistants.
The bureaucracy’s great advantage for the Nazis—it dispersed responsibility to make individuals feel redundant, incapable of shutting down the genocide, and unable to see any moral alternative—was also its legal downfall, since it made proof of the Nazis’ crimes redundant as well. Although Eichmann was obviously guilty, the defense’s restricted resources in Jerusalem were a problem because they hurt the trial’s credibility, opening Israel to the objection that justice could not be carried out in the victors’ court.
In fact, Servatius was also a defense attorney at the Nuremberg Trials, which makes his willingness to defend Eichmann strange—he claims he’s in it for the money, but the Israeli government and Eichmann’s family pay him a “ridiculously inadequate” sum.
Arendt suggests that Servatius’s true motives for defending Eichmann remain mysterious, since he understood he would be at a disadvantage and likely lose the case.
The trial’s most important evidence is Eichmann’s own long statement to the Israeli police, over the eleven months he spent in detention. He testified for 33½ sessions, from June 20 to July 20, but ultimately the judges “got more out of him in two and a half short sessions than the prosecution had been able to elicit in seventeen.”
The most relevant facts were established by Eichmann himself even before the trial started. This further attests to his lack of self-awareness, as well as the prosecution’s ulterior motives and dedication to irrelevance.
The prosecution’s hundred witnesses spend 62 sessions, more than half the trial, talking about “their tales of horrors.” Many more had applied, quite a few share ridiculously polished stories—one even faints when told to listen to the judges and answer some questions—and a number are prominent in Israel, but the majority of the stories are muddled, both narratively and in the witnesses’ memories. More than half of the 100 witnesses are “from Poland and Lithuania, where Eichmann’s competence and authority had been almost nil.” Only four testify about Theresienstadt, which Eichmann actually ran, and “the right of the witnesses to be irrelevant” is well-established.
Even though the judges recognized that the prosecution’s case was more about Israeli nationalist politics than achieving justice, Hausner managed to get his message out by simply overwhelming the defense and shifting the trial’s focus to Jewish suffering. In fact, Arendt seems to think Israel exploited this suffering for its own ends, even though it outwardly pretended to be honoring the victims.
The final prosecution witness, an Israeli lawyer and former British Army officer, speaks of his efforts to find surviving Jews and convince them to come to Israel instead of returning to their homes in Europe. His testimony is blatant propaganda for Israel, a way of suggesting that survivors “had only one wish, to go where they would never see a non-Jew again.” Arendt declares that “every once in a long while one was glad that Judge Landau had lost his battle” to keep the witnesses relevant.
Arendt is glad about Landau “los[ing] his battle” not because she agrees with the witness’s argument—which was demonstrably false in places—but because the testimony was so obviously nationalistic that perhaps it would point observers to the prosecution’s true motives.
A more serious instance of this is the first prosecution witness, the elderly and frail Zindel Grynszpan, whose son assassinated a German secretary in Paris in 1938—which triggered the Kristallnacht pogrom. The prosecution portrays Grynszpan’s son as a hero, but he was in fact a psychopath, and his victim was famously opposed to the Nazis and sympathetic to Jews. Grynszpan himself had moved from Poland to Germany in 1911 and never naturalized. He recounts being approached by the police, ordered to sign documents at the police station, and then deported on a train to a village back in Poland. His eloquent and honest story suggests to the audience that “everyone should have his day in court,” but no subsequent witnesses live up to him.
While the prosecution means to portray Grynszpan’s son as a Jewish hero, Arendt shows Israel’s distance from the truth by demonstrating that he was the opposite, and that his actions actually contributed to the Nazi persecution of Jews (much like Zionists), both by eliminating one of the most prominent anti-Nazi German diplomats and by allowing the Reich to justify violence. Grynszpan’s story was useful for the prosecution because, beyond his character setting an exemplar for the stories to follow, he had no idea what was happening to him during his interactions with Nazis, which feeds the prosecution’s story that Jews were helpless until Israel gave them strength.
There is “a ‘dramatic moment’” some weeks later, when a self-described poet and author mentions the German sergeant Anton Schmidt, who helped Jews escape by forging identity papers and providing transport out of Poland, until the Nazis executed him. Other witnesses testify that Christian families and the Polish underground helped them hide and escape, but Schmidt’s story is the only about a German. The courtroom falls silent when he tells it, and Arendt can only think “how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told.”
Schmidt’s story proves that, even in the most brainwashed society imaginable, where all social pressure to act morally evaporates, people are still able to resist evil because of their individual capacity for moral judgment. While the prosecution’s focus on stories of suffering suggests that Europeans of all stripes were powerless in the face of Nazi violence, Schmidt’s story shows that totalitarianism is never truly total, and that nothing can revoke this most basic human freedom: to stand up for values and resist by taking a moral stance, even if it means sacrificing one’s life.
There are many explanations for the lack of such stories; a representative one comes from the German Army physician Peter Bamm. Bamm argues that anyone who dared to protest “would have disappeared” because Nazi totalitarianism refused to hear its critics, so protest would be “practically useless” and therefore not worthwhile even “for the sake of a higher moral meaning.”
While Bamm’s hopelessness in the face of totalitarianism is understandable, it does not excuse Nazis who nevertheless actively agreed to carry out murderous duties. Unfortunately, by picking self-preservation above “a higher moral meaning,” Bamm exemplifies the attitude that led most Germans to choose complicity with the Nazis: prioritizing agreement with one’s social group over one’s ethical conscience.
Schmidt’s example disproves Bamm’s perspective, though. “Totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion in which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear,” but it could never succeed. There are too many people for resistance to amount to naught, Arendt says; it is never “practically useless,” and telling more stories about it would prove to the world that “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not,” that the genocide “‘could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere.” This is all that is necessary, Arendt says, “for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”
Arendt’s perspective is remarkably and stubbornly optimistic. Not only is resistance to totalitarianism inevitable, but by learning about the history of resistance, people can recognize their own potential for action in the face of unspeakable evil—people can be inspired to choose morality over resignation. Since totalitarianism depends on suppressing critical thought, it is no wonder that a movement of open moral opposition—like the ones that saved thousands in Denmark and Bulgaria—is an effective way to resist it.