Back to the Booth


The Jerusalem Trial of Adolf Eichmann
By Haim Gouri
Translated by Michael Swirsky
Forward by Alan Mintz
176 pages. Wayne State University Press. $24.95.

By all fair measures, the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 deserves to be considered the Great Holocaust Trial. At Nuremberg, the Nazi program to exterminate the Jews of Europe was shunted to the sidelines of the proceeding; the Eichmann trial, by contrast, placed Nazi genocide squarely at the center of the prosecution’s case. The Jerusalem trial compiled a far more reliable and detailed record of Nazi atrocities than Nuremberg's, and yet while Nuremberg today enjoys widespread respect among international jurists, the Eichmann trial remains tainted by Hannah Arendt's famous critique, Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Rarely has a single work so completely monopolized understandings of an important historical event. Originally published in installments in the New Yorker and in book form in 1963, Arendt's study argued that the trial failed to grasp the most terrifying aspect of the man in the glass booth: his utter banality. Best remembered for the banality thesis, Eichmann in Jerusalem also claimed that the trial was a legal farce. "The purpose of a trial," Arendt insisted, "is to render justice and nothing else,” an injunction that the Eichmann proceeding glaringly failed to respect. Because the prosecution explicitly used the trial to teach lessons about the Holocaust, Arendt attacked the proceeding as legal theater, not far removed from a Stalinist show trial.

At long last scholars have begun challenging Arendt’s critique. A spate of recent books, including Hanna Yablonka’s The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann, Leora Bilsky’s Transformative Justice: Israeli Identity on Trial, and my own The Memory of Judgment, have drawn attention to the many and often stunning successes of the trial, not simply as an exercise in legal justice, but as a tool of community building and as a means of sacralizing the memory of survivors.

Haim Gouri’s Facing the Glass Booth provides a welcome contribution to the fledgling effort to rehabilitate the trial’s reputation—despite its belated arrival. Like Arendt, Gouri attended the trial as a journalist; his impressionistic dispatches from the courtroom ran in the leftist Israeli daily, Lamerhav. Unlike Arendt, who stayed for only 10 weeks of the fourth-month trial, Gouri sat in on the whole proceeding, including the sentencing and appellate phases. His reportage on the trial was published in book form in Israel in 1962; only now, some four decades later, has it made its way into English.

What then can we learn from this superannuated piece of journalism? Revisionist studies, such as Yablonka’s, typically benefit from the corrective vision of hindsight. As fresh documents become available for research, historical understandings evolve and shift, framing events in a perspective unavailable to the actors and observers of the time. Gouri’s book, it goes without saying, can draw on none of the materials that usually benefit works of revisionist history.

Yet the book’s weakness is also its greatest strength. All latter-day accounts of the Eichmann trial must struggle with the ghost of Arendt; even those works, such as Bilsky’s, which defend the trial, spend more time in colloquy with Arendt than on the proceeding itself. Gouri, by contrast, has the luxury of offering us a picture of the trial unoccluded by Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Gouri came to the trial not as a journalist by training. He first made his reputation as a poet—he has since established himself as one of Israel’s leading documentary filmmakers—and his poetic sensibility inflects his observations about the trial. Sensitive to the use and powers of words, Gouri is drawn to the testimony of Dr. Leon Wells, a survivor who speaks “in a language without adjectives,” as if “he were creating an abstraction of himself.” Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Gouri also crucially sees the trial through the eyes of a Sabra. Before Eichmann’s arrest, Sabras tended to view the Holocaust with horror edged with embarrassment. The "catastrophe" was seen as the terminal consequence of life in the Diaspora, and Holocaust victims were looked down on as old-world Jews who lacked the aggressive spirit of the young Zionists. Through Gouri’s eyes, we come to see how the trial, by emphasizing the impossibility of the situation that confronted European Jews and the nobility of their acts of resistance, shaped a radically new image of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

We also are provided an excellent portrait of the defendant. The prosecution attempted to turn Eichmann into a latter day Genghis Khan, a monster of mass murder. Arendt, by contrast, saw Eichmann as something of a bureaucratic automaton, a faceless creature incapable of engaging in the most elemental acts of moral judgment. Gouri skillfully avoids both caricatures. The Eichmann that emerges from his pages is not so much a more complex figure, than a more believable man—an officer drawn to the thrills of power not by sadism or virulent anti-Semitism, but by a dreary mix of personal ambition, bureaucratic zeal, and pathetic fidelity to command structure. Gouri captures well Eichmann’s capacity to speak candidly in one moment and to engage in the most elaborate and infuriating obfuscations in the next. And if Eichmann ultimately exhausts Gouri’s capacities of sympathetic imagination, this is less a defect of the author’s than a problem endemic to all attempts to understand the murky logic of genocide.

Finally, Gouri does a fine job of capturing the larger atmosphere of the trial—how the proceeding lurched from hours devoted to a numbing exposition of the law of jurisdiction to moments of high testimonial drama. In capturing this essential quality of the trial, Gouri offers the most emphatic, if indirect, refutation of Arendt’s critique of the trial. For he shows how a trial can succeed both as an exercise in justice and as “an open university, in which fundamentals of… national memory” are taught. As far-flung jurists prepare charges against the likes of Saddam Hussein and former officials of the Khmer Rouge, it is a lesson well worth remembering.