Trial and tribulation

Historian Deborah Lipstadt uses the perspective gained in her high-profile libel case in her new work on the Eichmann trial.

Deborah Lipstadt (photo credit: Courtesy Emory University)
Deborah Lipstadt
(photo credit: Courtesy Emory University)
Few people have devoted as much energy to pursuing the integrity of Holocaust memory as Deborah Lipstadt.
Her resounding victory in London’s High Court in 2000 over revisionist historian David Irving, who sued her for libeling him in Denying the Holocaust, has guaranteed her a place in the pantheon of modern Jewish heroines.
Now the Dorot professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Georgia has written a new book, The Eichmann Trial, to mark its 50th anniversary.
It is is both riveting and nuanced and should be required reading for anyone who does not wish to wade through eight volumes of trial transcripts.
Why did you write the book?
I was intrigued by the trial and the editor suggested to me that, since I had been through what is considered a major Holocaust trial, I might have a particular perspective on this one. Truth be told, I doubted that my experience would in any way color my understanding of the Eichmann trial, but it did.
I know that trials can be long, tedious and trying. I have seen an anti-Semite up close and personal. More importantly, I have seen him obfuscate in the witness box and lie about his actions and deeds.
I understood – in a way that I don’t think I would have prior to my trial – that getting a confession from Eichmann was not that crucial.
Eichmann lied. David Irving lied. Of what value is a confession from someone with a track record for serious lying? Today they say one thing. Tomorrow another.
Finally, I do not mean to compare Irving and Eichmann. They certainly share certain characteristics, e.g. anti-Semitism – deep deep so. But one tried to kill and managed to kill many of the Jewish people, the other just wants to kill our history.
You make clear that Hannah Arendt came to the trial, which she attended only sporadically, with an agenda, not as a journalist. Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecutor, had one too. Who understood Eichmann better?
Arendt got Eichmann wrong – very wrong.
He believed in what he did, did it with a vengeance, and he tracked down every Jew he could. Hausner also got him wrong in terms of the job Eichmann did. He did not run every part of the Final Solution. There were entire parts with which he had no contact, like the mass shootings on the Eastern front.
Arendt’s accusations against the Judenrate were devastating. Can you explain the relationship between the Judenrate and Eichmann and whether Jewish leaders might have acted differently?
There were many different types of Judenrate.
Some acted in a more laudable fashion and some less so. Simply put: Eichmann had all the power; the Jews had none. This was not a matter of quislings. Jews were not going to benefit from their negotiations. There was not a level playing field between them. So to speak of it as a collaboration is simply wrong.
In recent days the media have been publishing extracts from documents relating to the trial released by Federal German and Israeli state archives. Have you discovered anything that you did not know when you were writing your book?
It does not seem to me that there is much that is new – some specifics, but it wasn’t as if he had not expressed these sentiments earlier.
At the trial they had tapes, but there was a problem with authenticating them to the satisfaction of the court. They allowed use of transcripts which Eichmann had annotated.
What do you know about Eichmann’s upbringing? You mention that Eichmann “grew up with daily Bible readings.”
His family was Protestant but his stepmother was very pious and insisted on daily readings.
I would not make too much of the Bible reading as an influence on what follows.
In his last days he allowed a Protestant minister to visit him, but rejected Bible readings as “Jewish fables.” You had access to Eichmann’s prison autobiography which was never published but which you received while defending yourself against Irving’s charges. Can you reveal any of Eichmann’s own “inner thoughts” from his prison memoirs?
He was a committed anti-Semite. He might not have started as one, but he became one.
He was very satisfied with himself and showed virtually no remorse. He was proud of what he did.
Do you believe that Holocaust denial should be a legal offence as it is in some countries?
No, I am against it in principle but understand why countries such as Germany or Austria might have such laws. I don’t think that they are efficacious in that they turn the Holocaust into forbidden fruit and make it more attractive. They also turn the person being silenced into a victim of sorts.
You consider preservation of the truth and memory of the Holocaust to be sacred. You end your book with a quotation from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who said, “Future generations, those who were not there, must remember.” How would you expect our Holocaust to be commemorated two centuries from now?
Not sure. I can hardly answer how it will be commemorated 20 years from now.
Do you believe the root of all genocide is the same?
I think the Holocaust was unprecedented.
I think there are many similarities with other genocides, defined as mass killing of one group by those in authority. The difference with Rwanda [in which majority Hutus murdered Tutsis] is that Tutsi in other parts of Africa were not targeted. In the Holocaust Jews all over the continent and beyond were potential victims, i.e. the Holocaust was much more comprehensive in conception and execution.
Can you explain anti-Semitism?
If I could explain why anti-Semites do what they do, I would be smarter than a lot of people. It’s a prejudice, it’s irrational and it’s deep.