The trial of Adolf Eichmann was one of the most shocking events of 1961. Eichmann was the head of the special SS section on the Jewish question, the central coordinator of the deportations of Jews to concentration and extermination camps, where millions of Jews and other targeted groups were exterminated with industrial, impersonal manner in the gas chambers. Therefore, he was the mastermind behind the biggest crime of the 20th century.

Like hundreds of top and senior Nazi officials, he had managed, in the utter chaos of liberated Europe, to use strong protection networks and escape to Argentina, where he enjoyed the de facto immunity of his "anonymity". Although his whereabouts were known to the prosecuting authorities, especially since his family also moved to Argentina in 1952, Eichmann lived undisturbed and secure. No one seemed to care about his release. His arrest took place only in 1960 in one of the most spectacular secret operations of the famous Israeli Mossad agency, which abducted him from Argentina, stirring up a lot of reactions even from the American Jewish Committee, which asked, in vain, the Prime Minister of Israel, Ben Gurion, to hand him over. of Eichmann to the jurisdiction of some international court.

For the first time, the Holocaust was personified

The arrest of the notorious criminal was a key component of the State of Israel's policy in relation to the crystallization of Israeli national identity. For Israel it was a matter of honor but also of strengthening the national identity to be tried before Jewish judges and witnesses and not an international court. This decision, however, divided the international community since it conflicted with the practice until then of adjudicating such cases by international courts which guaranteed the principles of a fair trial and the protection of their fundamental rights, even to horrible criminals. The trial began in April 1961 and ended in December, amidst intense counter-appeals for its legalization. Eichmann was hanged in May 1962.

Contrary to what various die-hard friends of the state of Israel claim today, the fledgling state's relationship with the legacy of the Holocaust and its survivors was anything but organic. On the contrary, Eichmann's trial helped to personify the Holocaust for the first time not only in the eyes of world public opinion but also in the eyes of Israelis. Until then, the survivors were treated with a mixture of disdain (because they did not resist their persecutors enough) and embarrassment (because they were asked to turn into good Zionists who would directly fight Israel's enemies). The Eichmann trial changed forever the perception of survivors and the Holocaust in the state par excellence and gave the survivors the moral prestige they enjoy to this day. The Holocaust was no longer a "mere" crime against humanity, it was the crime in which millions of Jews suffered. Therefore, the trial was an excellent occasion to establish the State of Israel as the sole body representing the interests of Jews everywhere on Earth. This national propaganda, inherent in the trial process at the time, has been somewhat forgotten today.

In fact, the trial raised several issues at once. The individual trial of a key perpetrator of the genocide contrasted with the standard practice of the Nuremberg, Dachau and Frankfurt group trials that followed. The central issue of the trial was seemingly simple: the degree of guilt of the accused and his personal responsibility for orchestrating the deportations to the extermination camps. But there were more questions than answers. Was Eichmann a fanatical anti-Semite or an opportunist? Did he act with overzealousness, or was he a cog in a machine where obedience to duty was a one-way street? Was he a normal person in abnormal circumstances or a monstrous perverted personality?|

The positions of the philosopher Hannah Arendt

The stormy controversy surrounding Eichmann's character and degree of responsibility was marked by the heretical writing of one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt, who covered the trial as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. Arendt maintained a close relationship with a leading philosopher stigmatized for his pro-Nazi sentiments, Heidegger.

At the same time, he had already opposed the Zionist vision of the establishment of a Jewish state since 1944, so he was a less than friendly judge of the whole process - rather the opposite - in the eyes of the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora.

The crux of Arendt's critique lay in mapping the moral boundaries of the metonymy of Nazism as absolute evil and Eichmann as a monstrous, diabolical figure. Already in 1951, with her equally classic work "The Origins of Totalitarianism", she had dared to explore the similarities between Stalinism and Nazism. Relativizing Eichmann's responsibilities, without questioning his guilt, gave him a limited possibility of moral reflection on the real dimensions and consequences of his position. According to Arendt, contrary to the course of the trial, it was neither his inherent anti-Semitism nor his Nazi fanaticism that made him a valuable cog in the Nazi machine. It was conscientiousness and dedication to duty.

This basic position was called by herself the "community of evil" and has been one of the most defining positions in the history of the modern mind, a landmark phrase to describe the ease with which normal people can commit heinous acts, hidden behind orders from superiors. In this case, it was the German coercive machine and not Eichmann's conscience that was acting. As she later explained, “I was struck by the apparent shallowness of the perpetrator which made it impossible to trace the undeniable evil of his actions to any deeper level of causes or motives. The works were monstrous, but the perpetrator [...]was quite ordinary, neither monstrous nor demonic.'

Stormy reactions and fierce criticism

The reactions were immediate as well as stormy and are vividly described in the recent film "Hannah". Adopting Eichmann's line of defense almost uncritically, Arendt outraged the magazine's readers in 1963 when her analysis was published. An additional important point was that Arendt went further by sharply criticizing the Judenrat, the famous Jewish councils that "facilitated" the Nazis in their work of deporting and exterminating their co-religionists. Shifting the blame from the Nazis to the victims themselves brought Arendt face to face with the charge of anti-Semitism.

Even today, important historians and intellectuals grapple with these challenging positions. Characteristically, David Cesarani, in his biography of Eichmann (2007) with the eloquent title Becoming Eichmann, claims that Eichmann, although he started out as a bureaucrat, developed along the way into a fanatical Nazi, refuting Arendt's view. The equally important Deborah Lipstadt has attempted to morally and historically dismantle both Arendt's arguments and her scientific integrity itself in a relatively recent related monograph. It is indicative of the importance and intellectual power of Arendt's arguments, even if many of them have been debunked along the way, that even sworn enemies of her views, such as those mentioned above, adopt much of her arguments and conclusions, even though they ultimately attempt to undermine its basic position.

As always, in such public dialogues there was no synthetic path, to the extent that some claimed that Arendt was ultimately tried and not Eichmann. Much later, new evidence that came to light indicated that Eichmann was fully aware of the consequences of his actions, even proud of them. Therefore, it now appears that Arendt may have been wrong in her psychographic portrayal of a careerist and generally unconscious but disciplined Eichmann, but it is clear that the concept she introduced was very much about German society in general. The transformation of the Nazis from monstrous personalities, outside the limits of the human species but also of History, into almost normal people who followed orders having lost the ability to distinguish between good and evil facilitated the fuller and deeper interpretations not only of the Nazi phenomenon but also of other events of genocide. Other ideas of hers, such as the culpability of the Jewish councils in the context of the general moral decay brought about by the time, have now been completely defeated by modern research, which has proven that the Jewish councils had only the illusion of choosing to collaborate with the Nazis and that little would change the final outcome of the genocide.

However, the great importance of this intense dialogue lies in three main points: a) the decisive importance of the Holocaust and its memory for Jewish identity inside and outside of Israel, b) the indisputable emergence of the Holocaust as the preeminent genocidal international crime importance, beyond national and political boundaries, c) in highlighting the concept of genocide as the most important crime against every person and people. On these last two points, Arendt has been more vindicated than falsified.

*Mr. Giorgos Antoniou is an assistant professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

[SOURCE: Newspaper newspaper KATHIMERINH, 22.11.2015]