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We expected a monster; he looked like a little civil servant

Evil on trial: 60th anniversary of Eichmann in the dock

In April 1961, the barbarism of Nazi Germany was put on display in a Jerusalem courtroom, as the ‘engineer of death’ was tried for offenses including crimes against humanity

Adolf Eichmann is seen standing in his bullet proof glass box as the charges against him are read during judical proceedings in the Beit Ha'Am building in Jerusalem, April 12, 1961. (AP Photo/Str)
Adolf Eichmann is seen standing in his bullet proof glass box as the charges against him are read during judical proceedings in the Beit Ha'Am building in Jerusalem, April 12, 1961. (AP Photo/Str)

For four months in 1961 the barbarism of Nazi Germany was focused on the gaunt bespectacled figure of Adolf Eichmann, standing alone in a dock in Jerusalem.

His trial, one of the most charged in history, became a focus for the Jewish people to mourn the Holocaust while also raising difficult questions about the nature of evil and individual responsibility in war crimes.

Here we look back at AFP’s reporting of the trial, which began on April 11, 1961 and concluded with Eichmann’s hanging a year later.

Caught and caged

The rather unprepossessing 55-year-old, who had organized the logistics of the Final Solution that sent some six million Jews to their deaths, appeared behind bulletproof glass following proceedings through headphones.

His dramatic journey to Jerusalem had already been played out in the world’s media. He had been abducted a year earlier by Mossad agents in Argentina, where he had lived under a false name like many other Nazis.

For 316 days after his capture, Eichmann was held in secret in a special prison in the north of Israel, before he was transported to Jerusalem where the world press had flocked to cover the trial.

So many crimes

The accused was “dressed in a black suit… his eyes looking off into the distance behind big glasses,” AFP journalists reported.

His complexion was grey, his lips shut as he listened impassively to the German translation of the 15 charges against him.

Crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes, looting, deportations, forced abortions, sterilizations, exterminations…

Inmates of a German concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, stand in line during attendance check, on December 19, 1938. (AP Photo)

‘Engineer of death’

Every one of the 700 seats in the huge courtroom was occupied.

Observers, diplomats and some 450 journalists had gathered to see Eichmann, dubbed the “engineer of death,” who had been responsible for organizing the flow of convoys and distribution of deportees to the death camps across Europe.

“We expected a kind of monster, given the scale of his crimes, but Eichmann just looked like some little civil servant,” Marcelle Joseph, who recorded the whole trial and then typed up the translation, told AFP in 2011.

But for her the real horror did not come from the man in the glass cage — “mediocre, pathetic even” — but from the harrowing testimonies.

In all, 111 witnesses took the stand, one after the other over the four months and three days of the trial, each delivering terrible personal accounts to the world’s cameras, including renowned writers like Elie Wiesel and Joseph Kessel.

‘Banality of evil’

One survivor told how he was led with more than a thousand Jews to a pit in Poland where a Nazi officer told them to kneel down.

They were all ordered to undress and then shot, right on the edge of their open grave.

Associate Justice Simon Agranat, second from left, reads the verdict rejecting Adolf Eichmann’s appeal from his death sentence as other members of Israel’s Supreme Court listen in a Jerusalem courtroom, May 29, 1962. (AP Photo)

A survivor from the Treblinka death camp described the agony of the gas chambers where victims were so tightly packed that even the dead remained standing up and families died clutching each others’ hands.

Eichmann insisted he was being sentenced for the deeds of others and did not take personal responsibility for the crimes.

He was just following orders, he said.

For the philosopher Hannah Arendt who sat through the trial, Eichmann was a disturbingly underwhelming war criminal — the epitome of the “banality of evil” as she later put it in an acclaimed book.

On December 15, 1961 the verdict fell. Death by hanging.

“Eichmann was guilty of terrifying crimes, different from all crimes against individuals insofar as it was the extermination of a whole people,” Supreme Court President Moshe Landau told the packed courthouse.

“For many years, he carried out these orders with enthusiasm.”

This 1961 file photo shows Adolf Eichmann standing in his glass cage in the Jerusalem courtroom where he was tried and convicted of war crimes committed during World War II. (AP Photo,b/w file)

‘I don’t feel myself guilty’

Eichmann’s lawyer Robert Servatius appealed the sentence but it was rejected.

And so too was a request for a reprieve, which Eichmann wrote in a letter to the Israeli president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi in May 1962.

“I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty,” he wrote.

A few days later on May 31, 1962 Eichmann was hanged at Ramleh prison near Tel Aviv. His ashes were scattered in the sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters.

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