How Nazi Adolf Eichmann's Holocaust trial unified Israel

  • Published

When Nazi Adolf Eichmann stood trial for war crimes 50 years ago, it helped to unify the young state of Israel by allowing Jewish people to talk openly about the Holocaust.

Image caption,
Adolf Eichmann has been described at the architect of the Holocaust

"For Jews," the Israeli historian Tom Segev said, "there were always two Adolfs."

Adolf Hitler had killed himself in the ruins of his Berlin bunker but the other Adolf, SS Lt Colonel Adolf Eichmann, was what Segev called "the face of the Holocaust".

Fifty years ago this week, shortly before 9 o'clock in the morning of 11 April 1961, the "second Adolf" faced justice in a makeshift Israeli courtroom in Jerusalem.

The Eichmann trial helped create modern Israel and has profound implications for the world today.

"When I stand before you," the chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner told the court, "I do not stand alone. Here with me at this moment stand six million prosecutors."

James Bond-style kidnap

The court heard that Eichmann had been a key player in the organisation of the death camps in which millions had perished.

Tipped off by the West German prosecutor, Fritz Bauer, that Eichmann was living in Argentina, Israel's intelligence agency Mossad organised a James Bond-style kidnapping in 1960.

The man who commanded the Mossad team, Rafi Eitan, is now in his mid-80s. He is physically tiny but sprightly and mischievous.

When we met in Tel Aviv, he told me how the kidnap had been organised and I suggested he was Israel's James Bond.

He laughed, and said he was only "half of James Bond".

Eichmann was spirited out of Buenos Aires and taken to a secret location in Israel where he was interrogated for many months.

Those who met him at that time were disparaging about this supposed example of the Nazi "master race".

Mr Eitan described Eichmann as "completely average". The Israeli police interrogator, Michael Goldman Gilad, who is also now in his 80s, said he was a nebbish - a pitiful man, a nobody.

Unifying event

But behind the scenes, there was a great political game being played by Israel's prime minister at the time, David Ben Gurion.

Image caption,
Eichmann was executed in Israel in 1962

He understood that the trial, if handled properly, could become a unifying event for the young Israeli state that he was trying to build with Jewish immigrants from all over the world - people who spoke different languages and at times seemed to have little in common.

In 1961, Israel had no television service but the whole nation listened to the radio broadcasts of the trial proceedings, and tens of millions of others around the world watched on television.

Day after day, there were stories from survivors talking publicly, often for the first time, of the horrors they had endured.

Historian Tom Segev said: "Until 1960, the Holocaust was largely a taboo. Parents wouldn't talk to their children. Children wouldn't dare ask. The Eichmann trial opened up the wound."

One of Eichmann's Israeli police interrogators, Michael Goldman Gilad, survived Auschwitz but his parents and sister had been murdered.

When he came to Israel after the war, he, like many other Holocaust survivors, did not talk about what he had seen even to family and friends because other Israelis "didn't believe us".

He said: "It was impossible to believe, because it was so horrible. But the Eichmann trial opened our mouths again."

The Eichmann trial became a unifying national experience.

Tom Segev said Ben Gurion wanted everyone to recognise that "whatever the world owes to the victims, they now owe to Israel".


Eichmann was found guilty on 11 December, 1961.

On 30 May, 1962, the only civil execution in Israel's history took place.

Image caption,
Prime Minister David Ben Gurion thought the trial would unite people

Interrogator Michael Goldman Gilad, was there.

He recalled that Eichmann at Auschwitz had demanded that every Jew be put to death because any who survived might one day seek revenge.

"Well, he was right," he told me, grimly.

After the execution, he was told to supervise the burning of the body and the scattering of Eichmann's ashes at sea, so there could be no neo-Nazi memorial.

Goldman Gilad explained that Eichmann's ashes were just enough to fill a two-litre container.

He was shocked, because in the extermination camps one of the jobs he had been forced to do was to spread ashes from the crematoria on the ice and snow, so that Nazi officers did not slip.

The mounds from the dead had formed "a great mountain of ash", so much more than the handful from Eichmann's body.

Fifty years on, Eichmann's evil escapes explanation. But his legacy is clear.

The theatrical nature of his trial helped create the modern Jewish state.

From a subject too painful to mention, the Holocaust is now a compulsory topic in Israeli schools, with as many as eight out of 10 Israeli high school children describing themselves as Holocaust "survivors".

This 50th anniversary is, therefore, also a time of debate within Israel about whether the inescapable shadow of the past also makes it difficult to make peace in the present, and thrive in the future.

Esler On Eichmann will be broadcast on Wednesday 6 April at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4 and will also be available on the BBC iPlayer.

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.