Eichmann Goes Digital

By Alex Joffe
Monday, April 18, 2011

This year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Eichmann trial, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, together with the Israel State Archives,  has posted to YouTube an extraordinary series of videos: over 200 hours of courtroom sessions and testimonies in the original Hebrew, German, and Yiddish, as well as a parallel set with English voiceover.

What do they tell us? As with the Exodus, every generation is compelled to remember the Holocaust. But the way each generation represents the events to itself also tells us something about its own sensibilities and values.

Till now, for anyone who did not attend the months-long trial itself, Adolf Eichmann could be confronted only through photographs, texts, and a limited series of film clips. Now he comes alive. He straightens his papers and adjusts his chair before the sessions begin, looking around from his glass prisoner's booth as flashes of emotion cross his face. The judges enter, the assembled rise, and the din subsides. During the proceedings, he stands with his head cocked or sits back in his chair, lips pursed in a strange sideways expression of frustration or anger. For endless hours he can be watched answering, explaining, arguing, protesting, with a seriousness that cycles randomly from pedantry to anger to bemusement to boredom. Indeed, he is terribly alive.

The trove of footage is astonishing. What about the experience of viewing it? Long speeches, cross-examinations, pauses, procedural questions, and translations slow the action. This is not Law and Order, where the bits and pieces are tidily wrapped up in an hour. Rather, it is an unedited black-and-white reality program, unfolding at its own glacial pace. The dramatic appeal, once one is past the initial shock of beholding Eichmann himself, is limited. There are the crescendos of cross-examination and denial, the spectacle of the Israeli  prosecutor Gideon Hausner lapsing from Hebrew into German as he shouts at the accused, the witnesses, for the most part preternaturally calm and didactic but all the more affecting for that, the grotesque weighing of different methods of exterminating Jews. All this, however, is deeply interspersed with relative dross.

And yet, in a subtle and counterintuitive way, the dross is almost as gripping as the outbursts and the fireworks. It is hard to imagine any thinking person sitting before this spectacle and not being impelled to reach into the screen and strangle the little balding man.

Or would that be true only for those over a certain age, those with personal memories or other forms of grounding in the facts of the Shoah? For there is no getting around the fact that the experience of watching this trial is not at all like the experience of watching a true "documentary," where the viewer's responses are affected aesthetically and emotionally by the filmmaker's principles of selection, by shifts of focus and perspective, by slow pans and quick cuts, by music that subtly conveys cues of its own.

Even the available YouTube footage from the postwar Nuremberg trials offers a sharp contrast. In the case of those courtroom proceedings against Nazi war criminals, conducted by the victorious Allies, we have only brief newsreel excerpts and long official documentaries that by today's standards are impossibly heavy-handed. The effect is to make the speeches of prosecutors like Robert Jackson seem somehow artificial, and to shrink defendants like Hermann Goering and Ernst Kaltenbrunner still further into their shabby outfits.

To assess the importance of the Eichmann-trial footage, different measures are needed—not the criteria of film, but the criteria of the library. Just as one can now download all of the Nuremberg transcripts, until lately accessible only in better research libraries, the Eichmann videos are an incomparable primary document. But although they should be seen and appreciated widely, they are too formidable in size and emotional impact to be of general interest. A library shelf, even the YouTube equivalent of a library shelf, is not enough. Without dicing the footage into tiny segments, and without traducing the content, a way needs to be found to mine the potential of this file for the purposes of education and enlightenment.

One such purpose is surely to enable us to evaluate afresh the work of earlier mediators of the trial and its significance. Among the most influential of these was Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). In the light of the trial footage itself, Arendt's antipathies toward the very fact of the trial, as toward the prosecutors, the translators, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and the state of Israel, can be seen to drip from almost every page, exceeded only by her lack of empathy with those Jews who were forced to make decisions in hellishly impossible and inescapable circumstances. On the other hand, and again in light of the trial footage, what remains worthy of consideration are Arendt's insights into how, both during and after the war, the ideology of Nazism acted to keep both Eichmann and the German people "shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained." 

Indeed, a glance today at websites devoted to Holocaust revisionism or denial shows that they, too, have been busy on the digital frontier. Instead of having to send away for tomes and screeds setting forth an "alternative" view of historical reality, one can now download them. And there is a kind of seamless holism to the worldviews therein represented. For normal people, the Holocaust is, typically, a very important component of a larger constellation of concerns and identities; for deniers and revisionists, it is everything. Like the anti-Semitism at its root, it is forever "shielded against reality and factuality."

Democratization of information nominally frees the layman from the grip of interpreters. But in fact the reverse may be true, and interpreters are needed more than ever. We can stare at Eichmann's face for 200 hours and still not understand, or possess sufficient background to place into context, the words spoken by anyone at the trial, much less Eichmann's own. A book like Deborah E. Lipstadt's new study, The Eichmann Trial, is therefore especially welcome, not only as a counterbalance to Arendt but as a complement and expert guide to what is now visible history.

In the hands of similarly expert interpreters, the Eichmann videos can also act as an important check on the misappropriation of historical events by those bent on misrepresenting or mendaciously aligning their cause with history. Persistent claims of a Palestinian "Holocaust" at the hands of Jews are a prime case in point.  

Other questions remain. We can now look into Eichmann's head, but do we see more than we did before?  Proud SS officer; "banal" (Arendt's term) bureaucrat; a martinet on the defensive; a cog in the machine; the pivot of a vast evil; monster—all these facets were long known, however imperfectly. Now that they are fully on display, we can turn them over and over like a horrid polished gemstone yet still never really apprehend or assimilate what is before us.

And as for the duty to remember, how much viewing of the trial suffices to discharge the responsibility? An hour? A day? To the limits of endurance? Here, too, there are no easy answers. 

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.


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