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Made for television

How the Eichmann trial changed perceptions of the Shoa

A visitor previewing the new Eichmann exhibition in Berlin listens to an excerpt of Eichmann’s testimony. Photo by Toby Axelrod
A visitor previewing the new Eichmann exhibition in Berlin listens to an excerpt of Eichmann’s testimony. Photo by Toby Axelrod

BERLIN — The face, with its twisted mouth, receding hairline, and dark-framed glasses, is familiar around the world today.

But 50 years ago, when Adolf Eichmann — former head of the Nazi Department for Jewish Affairs — first sat in a Jerusalem courtroom to face war crimes charges, his visage was known to very few.

Television changed that. For West Germans, the impact was profound. Twice a week, for four months, entire families — and sometimes neighbors, too — gathered in living rooms to watch the reports from Jerusalem.

“There was a lot of watching, and it changed the discussion about the Holocaust,” said philosopher Bettina Stangneth, whose book Eichmann vor Jerusalem (Eichmann Faces Jerusalem) was set to be published in Germany on April 18.

It wasn’t as if most Germans wanted to watch the trial.

“But back then, there was not such a big choice of programs,” Stangneth said. “They could not change the channel so easily.”

Now, as historical institutes and museums in Europe and elsewhere look back at the pivotal trial that began 50 years ago, on April 11, 1961, media coverage of the event is a key theme.

In Frankfurt, German TV reports from 1961 will be shown at the Fritz-Bauer Institute, which is hosting a symposium on the Eichmann trial this month. At Berlin’s Topography of Terror documentation center, videotaped testimony by witnesses and by Eichmann is part of a new exhibit. In Paris, the Memorial de la Shoah is dedicating a program to documentary filmmaker Leo Hurwitz, who directed the videotaping of the four-month trial.

Back then, Israel was practically a country without TV, said Ronny Loewy, an expert on cinematography of the Holocaust at Frankfurt’s German Film Institute. Israelis either listened to a broadcast of the trial live on the radio or attended a simulcast in an auditorium near the court.

“Besides the United States, there was no other country where they were reporting to the same extent as in Germany,” Loewy said.

To get out the news at the end of each court day, two hours of clips were flown to London for dissemination to European and U.S. news programs, recalled cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, who was 14 when his father was assigned to direct the taping. In Germany, the clips were used to produce biweekly, 20-minute reports called “An Epoch on Trial.”

These broadcasts, and other coverage by some 400 German journalists in Israel, had a decisive impact, according to Stangneth.

Until the trial, many Germans had dismissed the few books about the Holocaust as biased. Teachers largely had avoided the subject. Once the broadcasts of the Eichmann trial began, however, they could ignore it no longer.

The story of how Eichmann was brought to justice seemed made for TV. He escaped an American POW camp in Germany after the war, got help from the Catholic Church to flee to Argentina, and lived there for years under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement. Recently it was revealed that German intelligence officials knew of Eichmann’s location as early as 1952.

Before his capture, Eichmann had boasted to friends of his involvement in the Final Solution and shared his dreams of resurrecting National Socialism. He even told Dutch fascist journalist Willem Sassen in the late 1950s that he regretted his failure to complete the job of genocide. Eichmann reportedly said he hoped the Arabs would carry on his fight for him, according to Stangneth.

In 1960, the Mossad captured Eichmann in a dramatic operation that ended with his being brought clandestinely to Israel.

As the date of the trial neared, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer became intensely worried, according to historian Deborah Lipstadt, whose new book, The Eichmann Trial (see related article), was published in March. Adenauer feared “that Eichmann might expose the number of prominent Nazis who served in his government,” she said.

Even worse, Lipstadt said, by 1951 Adenauer was fed up with the guilt he felt was being foisted on the Germans for perpetrating the genocide of the Jews.

The Eichmann trial was full of drama, drawing the world’s attention to the perpetrator and to his victims. Eichmann faced 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Many millions of eyes studied Eichmann through TV sets, trying in vain to discern in his word, manner and expressions signs of remorse.

The guilty verdict was pronounced in December 1961, and Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962 — the only judicial execution ever carried out in Israel.

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