This Week In History: Eichmann sentenced to death

In December 1961, Jerusalem court handed down first and only death sentence in Israel's history.

December 9, 2012 13:19
4 minute read.

Eichmann. (photo credit: Holocaust Memorial Museum)


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On December 11, 1961, the Jerusalem District Court issued the first and only death sentence in the state's history to Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann, for crimes against the Jewish people, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Eichmann was a central "architect" of the Final Solution, having been promoted in 1941 to SS Lieutenant-Colonel, while he was working in the headquarters of the implementation of the Final Solution. He was in charge of organizing mass deportations of Jews from Germany and Bohemia, and that year his department began creating death camps, developing gas techniques and organizing the system of convoys to transport European Jews to the camps. 

Eichmann was tried on 15 criminal charges including: ultimate responsibility for the murder of millions of Jews; deporting half a million Poles; deporting 14,000 Slovenes; deporting tens of thousands of gypsies and deporting and murdering 100 Czech children in revenge for the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich in the village of Lidice in 1942.

Eichmann's main defense plea in the trial - which began on April 11, 1961 - was that he had been "a small cog" in the Nazi machinery and had only obeyed orders. 

Throughout the trial Eichmann sat in his infamous "glass box," bullet proof for fear that victims' relatives might try to attack him. The trial was held in a community center in Jerusalem, adapted specifically for that purpose.

The trial lasted 14 weeks and comprised some 1,600 documents- - many of which were signed by Eichmann - 100 prosecution witnesses (90 of whom were Nazi concentration camp survivors) and dozens of defense depositions delivered by diplomatic couriers from 16 different countries.

Alan Rosenthal, who worked as an associate producer for Capital Cities Television covering the trial, wrote in The Jerusalem Report that "to the very last, Eichmann's appeared emotionless, a human iceberg."

"Only once did I see him show any expression other than injured innocence. Films of the concentration camps were being screened in the courtroom. The house lights were out, but from the control booth, on a monitor, I could see the close-up of Eichmann. As the corpses of Bergen-Belsen were bulldozed into their final pit, Eichmann, on camera, smiled."

"My heart was light and joyful in my work, because the decisions were not mine," Eichmann had told the jury. However, the court rejected this claim, finding that emotionally and mentally, Eichmann fully identified with his task, and that in the final stages of the war his desire to entirely destroy the Jews had become an obsession.

Eichmann was found guilty on all counts.

In his final statement, Eichmann said, “I am not the monster I am made out to be. This mass slaughter is solely the responsibility of political leaders. My guilt lies in my obedience, my respect for discipline, my allegiance to the colors and the service.” He did not dispute the facts of what happened in the Holocaust, but rather denied responsibility for his heinous acts. "I never did anything, great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of my superiors."

However, in reading out the verdict, Hausner dismissed this argument saying, "Even if the defendant did act out of blind obedience, a man who took part in crimes of such magnitude, for years, should endure the greatest punishment known to the law. This court sentences Adolf Eichmann to death."

Eichmann's German defense counsel, Dr. Robert Servatius, appealed the sentence, but the Supreme Court rejected the appeal. That same day, Eichmann filed a request for pardon from then-president Izhak Ben-Zvi, who refused his request. 

On the night between May 31, and June 1 1962, Eichmann was executed by hanging in Ramle. His body was cremated and his ashes were spread at sea, beyond Israel's territorial waters in order to prevent his burial place from becoming a memorial site.

Support for his death sentence was widespread in Israel. According to the state archives, "hanging Eichmann was perceived not only as the personification of human justice, but also as additional proof of the 'victory' of the sovereignty of Israel over the fate of Diaspora Jewry; since only in its sovereign state was the Jewish people afforded the possibility of capturing Eichmann, putting him on trial in front of Israeli judges in accordance with all legal rules, and executing him after all legal procedures had been carried out."

The Eichmann trial was monumental for another reason; the first ever televised trial, it gave people around the world and particularly in Israel, an insight into the Holocaust, something they had very little knowledge of before. Indeed, until that trial, Holocaust survivors had stopped talking about their ordeals, because it was traumatic and even shameful for them. But the nation became transfixed by the trial, learning horrifying detail after detail about what their ancestors had endured.

Speaking at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the trial last year, Israel’s Consul General in New York, Ido Aharoni, said that after the Eichmann trial “Israel was forever different; the nation stopped to listen to the voice of the witnesses. It felt their agony.”

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