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The Eichmann example

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Do tyrants and mass murderers deserve due process and justice in a courtroom?

The Second World War left two enduring and opposite answers to that difficult ethical dilemma.

Near the end of the war, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was captured while trying to flee to Switzerland. The Italian partisans who apprehended him immediately executed him and hung his battered body upside down in a Milan square.

That gruesome image can be contrasted with the trial of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg in 1945-46. The proceedings may not have been entirely free of bias, but the key Nazi leaders, including Hitler's second-in-command Hermann Goering (who committed suicide after he was sentenced to be hanged), did receive justice.

More significantly, the Nuremberg trials influenced the development of the United Nations' International Court of Justice and international and human rights law.

More recently, dictators and terrorist leaders have been dealt with in both ways.

While Saddam Hussein was given a trial by the Iraqi interim government and ultimately convicted and executed in December 2006, deposed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was shot in the head by the rebels who captured him last month.

Likewise, the United States had no inclination to hold a trial for al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Instead, U.S. military and intelligence forces, in a targeted assassination ordered and approved by U.S. President Barrack Obama, killed him during their assault on his hideout in Pakistan in May.

Israel has also employed both strategies. Disregarding the opprobrium of the international community, its government has approved targeted assassinations of terrorists guilty of killing Israeli civilians.

At the same time, 50 years ago, Israel opted to put on trial one of the Nazi masterminds of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, when killing him would have been much simpler and certainly less problematic.

In hindsight, it was the correct decision, one that has had a long-lasting impact on our understanding of the Holocaust and the Nazi psyche.

As a high-ranking SS officer, Eichmann worked closely with his superior, Reinhard Heydrich, in planning and orchestrating the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish question. Both men were key participants at the Wannsee conference held at the end of January 1942, when the decision was taken to murder the Jews of Europe. Heydrich, who had arranged the lunch meeting, gathered together 14 top Nazi officials who "spoke about methods of killing, about liquidation, about extermination," as Eichmann later recalled.

At the end of the war, Eichmann eluded capture by the Americans. He hid for a time in Germany and Italy before acquiring the proper papers that permitted him to escape to Argentina (then a haven for ex-Nazis) in the summer of 1950. His wife and children soon joined him and there he lived under the name Ricardo Klement. He found work and rose to become a foreman at a Mercedes-Benz factory outside Buenos Aries.

Dr. Joseph Mengele, who notoriously conducted medical experiments at Auschwitz, also found refuge in Argentina -- he died in Brazil in 1979 -- among hundreds of former Nazis who escaped to South America.

The Israeli intelligence organization, the Mossad, first learned about Eichmann's whereabouts in 1957 but decided the information was not credible. It took another three years before they changed their minds and put Ricardo Klement under surveillance. In May 1960, once they were convinced Klement was indeed Eichmann, they captured him and briefly hid him at safe house. Then, in a daring ploy, they drugged him, disguised him as a member of an El-Al Airlines crew and took him out of Argentina on a commercial flight.

Argentina and much of the rest of the world, including the United States and the UN Security Council, denounced Israel for its actions and demanded that Eichmann be turned over to Germany or an international court.

Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion refused. Given legal counsel, Eichmann agreed to be tried by an Israeli court for crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against the Jewish people.

The trial before three high court Israeli judges -- with Eichmann seated in a bulletproof glass booth, which today can be seen at a museum at Ghetto Fighters' House kibbutz in northern Israel -- began in April 1961 and ended four months later. A guilty verdict was delivered on Dec. 12, 1961, and Eichmann was sentenced to be hanged. After an appeal to Israel High Court was rejected, the sentence was carried out on May 31, 1962.

Two aspects of the trial were particularly significant. Before the trial, Holocaust survivors in Israel and elsewhere, including Winnipeg, did not talk about what had they had endured during the war. There were no public memorials, lectures, books, plays or movies about the Holocaust. That all changed when the Israeli prosecutors wisely decided to hear testimony from nearly 100 survivors who provided first-hand accounts of what Eichmann and the Nazis had perpetrated.

This awakening not only made the Holocaust a legitimate subject of academic and popular inquiry, it also allowed the survivors, who had almost been shunned, to now feel free to share and write about their harrowing experiences.

A second factor raised at the trial was the nature of evil. The only defence Eichmann put forward was the classic one also used by defendants at Nuremberg in 1946: that he was only following orders. This was indirectly given validity by Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish political theorist living in the United States, who covered the trial for the New Yorker magazine. Eichmann's unexceptional appearance and personality led Arendt to portray him as decidedly ordinary. In her 1963 book on the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, she coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to depict Eichmann and other perpetrators of the Holocaust as nondescript clerks and bureaucrats who, finding themselves in a system imposed by the state, became its willing servants, no matter how much it was contrary to their earlier values.

Since then, new research and books have taken issue with that interpretation, pointing to Eichmann's anti-Semitism and dedication to Nazi ideology as real motivating factors in his actions. Arendt got it wrong, argues British journalist and author David Pryce-Jones, who also attended the trial. "Eichmann was a cold figure, though often snarling with righteousness and resentment," he has written. "Banal was not a term applicable to someone unable to recognize his limitless moral depravity."


Now &Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context. Levine's latest book is William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2011 J11

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