“Even if the defendant did act out of blind obedience, a man who took part in crimes of such magnitude, for years, should endure the greatest punishment known to the law. This court sentences Adolf Eichmann to death.”
What did Eichmann do?
Adolf Eichmann, also known as the desk murderer, was one of the facilitators of what is famously known as Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. It was a euphemism used by Nazi leaders for the systematic annihilation of some six million Jews in the German Reich between 1941 and 1945. In other words, Holocaust was a state-sponsored murder of a multitude of men, women, the elderly and children alike, by sending them to concentration camps (like Auschwitz) to await death by Gas Chambers - all because these individuals wished each other on Hanukkah instead of Christmas. A grievous crime indeed. The role assigned to Eichmann in this Nazi propaganda was to transport the Jews to the camps and schedule the train timetables. He had the complete autonomy to look at men and decide their fate, as in, he had the responsibility to determine which Jewish individuals were to be sent to the death camps and which to be banished outside the German parameters. After the fall of Hitler in World War II, Eichmann escaped the Nuremberg Trials- held for Nazi prisoners by the Allied forces in Germany. He fled to Buenos Aires in Argentina and settled there with his family under the assumed name of Ricardo Klement.
Years later, when a holocaust survivor ignorantly dating Eichmann’s son got suspicious of the family’s relations with the Nazi Party, the Israeli government was immediately informed of their whereabouts. In May 1960, Israel’s then newly formed Intelligence Agency, The Mossad, undertook very complicated espionage which later came to be known as “Operation Finale”. They kidnapped Eichmann from Argentina, smuggled him out of the country and brought him back to Jerusalem to try him in their court for the crimes he committed under the Nazi regime, ignoring all the international laws and jurisdiction boundaries. Even though, during his trial, he kept pleading that he was innocent for he was simply being a loyal citizen to the government and following orders, the judges found him guilty for being consciously involved in 15 counts of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death in 1962.
The problem identified by many philosophers and political theorists around the world concerning the Eichmann trial has been primarily two-fold.
The legitimacy of Eichmann’s actions and the Israeli government’s actions concerning moral codes and legal obedience and,
When Eichmann’s face was revealed in the glass booth of the court in Israel, everyone anticipated to witness monstrosity incarnate, but what was scarier is that they instead saw a regular next-door Joe, who did not look like a butcher but rather a lame accountant with a bald spot. The infamous desk murderer was as ordinary and invisible as the person you sat next to, today, on the bus ride home.
What is the relevance of the Eichmann problem to the real world?
The relevance comes in both macro and micro degrees.
On a macro level, the precedence set by the Eichmann problem helps to decode various International Relations and Geopolitical Scandals such as the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo which was done without engaging in any due process of availing authorisation- owing to the moral urgency to stop ethnic cleansing. The illegality but legitimacy of the action was subjected to a lot of critical conjectures and revised international laws. Conversely, in the case of the 1994- Rwandan genocide, the failure of the US to intervene despite the overarching moral code, due to the legal barriers, ironically attracted similar responses to that of the Kosovo case.
On a micro level, the personality of Eichmann inspired the idea of “Banality of Evil”- the term coined by German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt. It means when the carnage is reduced to numbers and development to just economic growth, real human beings with their autonomy and accountability- remain forgotten. For example, Maya Kodnani, MLA from Naroda was someone who had handed out swords to the mobs that massacred 95 people in the Gujarat riots of 2002. She was sentenced to 28 years in prison because of it. However, since she was a gynaecologist, who ran a clinic, she was later appointed as Minister for Women and Child Development under Narendra Modi. Her utility to the state trumped her problematic personality.
Eichmann’s perspective of the trial
According to proponents of Eichmann, the trial was unfair on two counts:
Eichmann was a product of a fear-mongering authoritarian state. He was simply a cog in the Nazi machine, who did not have the active choice to opt-out of the propaganda. He was most probably working under duress because if he did not comply with the orders from his superiors, he would face adverse consequences. Therefore, given his incapacity to intervene as a puny official and the necessity to survive in Nazi Germany because he had a family, given that his non-compliance would in all probability not have hurt the propaganda but merely been replaced by another faceless official, it was unfair to sentence him to death as he did not design the holocaust.
The trial did not adhere to the principles of law. It was not the only extradition without permission that a set precedential value on an international scale but the issue was also regarding the fact that the trial was held in Israel- orchestrated by the victims of the crime. There was no reason for the Jews to try Eichmann with fair rationality, given that they were driven by emotions and vengeance which would have sabotaged their impartiality in the court and made them prioritise retribution over objective justice.
Israel’s perspective of the trial
Immanuel Kant had once said that every individual is capable of human dignity no matter what the situation, which is to say that they possess certain agency to exercise their decision-making faculties at all times. Therefore, Eichmann did have the chance, as a high ranking official, to generate a counter-narrative to the anti-Semitism propagated by Nazis but he chose not to, due to the inconvenience it would have caused him and his privileged lifestyle. He deserved to be hanged because he sustained the Nazi propaganda and he was being tried for the impacts of his crimes regardless of his intentions.
The moral obligation on the part of the state to bring justice to the victims of Eichmann, set in motion the idea of the right to humanitarian intervention as the trial held a symbolic significance. No other third party would have had the incentive to pursue Eichmann because they were ready to move on from the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Hence, the Israelis needed to do what they did. According to Neal Bascomb, author of Hunting Eichmann, “The trial’s purpose was to put the Holocaust on trial, and Eichmann was a tool to that end.”
Paradox of Discomfort
Eichmann did not resist the prevailing legal and political order by reference to his moral compass whereas Israeli officials did resist the prevailing legal and political order by appealing to their moral compasses.
Who was right?
The dichotomy created between law and morality cannot have a definite answer owing to their propensity to amend with the changing times. Therefore, the true solution to the paradox lies in the legitimacy of the state. If the prevailing legal and political order was valid, then their decisions could have a favourable recognition which they otherwise would not. However, the question of what makes a government legitimate and the metrics to evaluate so is a debate that has been going on since time immemorial and the diversity of opinions concerning the same is the reason why proxy wars in the Middle East in the name of intervention and conflicts such as Israel Palestine crisis continue to sustain themselves even today.
Israel’s espionage in the Eichmann case and their disregard for international law gave them a sense of entitlement which can be realised in their current actions towards the Palestinians as well. Israel continues to impose institutionalised discrimination against Palestinians living under its rule in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They are operating under their sense of morality, holding it superior to any other code of conduct like they did in the Eichmann trial. It has displaced hundreds of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as a result of home demolitions and imposition of other coercive measures. The reason there has not been any resolution to the crisis is that the legitimacy of Israel’s authority or Palestinian autonomy is still clouded.
Revisiting Arendt’s “Banality of Evil”, in her book concerning origins of totalitarianism, she has talked about how capitalism and even Marx’s criticism of the same are flawed in the sense that they reduce a human being to their mere economic function and contribution to the state. When someone is asked to introduce themselves, they end up talking about their occupation and the societal role which have nothing to do with their passions or emotions. This is problematic, according to her, because when one is defined by what they own, their scope for political discourse and interaction becomes restricted as they stop self-actualising. As a result, they stop thinking for themselves and become puppets at the hands of the prevailing authority, craving for some purpose which the ideology of the regime feeds them. Hence Nazi Germany was elected by its very people, not imposed. Eichmann was the result of the same process. It could just as easily have been you or me.
Anwesha Bhajan is currently pursuing her graduation at Symbiosis School of Economics. She takes interest in topics pertaining to philosophy, political economy and social issues.