The Eichmann trial- Caught between reality and reality television

“September the 2nd 1945, the war is over. 50 million dead. Including 6 million murdered Jews. As leading Nazis are captured, one leading name slowly rises to the top of the most wanted list: Adolf Eichmann, the SS-officer accused of planning the final solution to the Jewish question.”

Otto Adolf Eichmann was born in Germany in 1906. As a pupil he joined the Jungfrontkämpfervereinigung (the youth section of the right-wing veteran’s movement), and read newspapers published by the Nazi Party (NSDAP). This party’s policy included removal of the Weimar Republic in Germany, rejection of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, radical antisemitism and anti-Bolshevism. It promised a strong central government, increased Lebensraum (living space) for Germanic people and the formation of a national “community” based on race, and subsequently racial cleansing.

Up until 1939, Nazi Germany used repression and economic pressure to encourage Jews to leave Germany of their own volition. Eichmann, who had been promoted to SS-Obersturmführer (lieutenant colonel), was put in charge of organizing Jewish emigration from Austria. Yet, within weeks of the invasion of Poland in 1939, Nazi policy towards the Jews changed from voluntary emigration to forced deportation. SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (head of the SD), advised his staff- including Adolf Eichmann- to collect Jews into Polish cities with good rail links, in order to facilitate their expulsion from territories controlled by Germany.

Eichmann was immediately assigned to organise the deportation of 70,000 to 80,000 Jews in late 1939. He became Heinrich’s ‘special expert’, in charge of arranging all deportations into occupied Poland. Furthermore, he received regular detailed reports of the deadly activities carried out towards the Jews. In 1942, he was authorised to prepare and submit a plan for a ‘total solution of the Jewish question’ and drafted a list of the numbers of Jews in various European countries in preparation for the Wannsee Conference of 1942.

At the end of the war whilst principal Nazi leaders were captured, Eichmann managed to flee through a circuitous route and settled in Argentina. There his identity became that of Ricardo Klement.

“It will take the Israeli secret service fifteen years to track him down to his hiding place in Argentina. On the 11th of May, 1960, a man living under the name Ricardo Klement is captured and taken to a safe-house in Buenos Aires to be interrogated: What is your name… your name… what is your SS-number… your name… say it, say it! »

My name is Adolf Eichmann.”

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Eichmann was later brought to Israel where his trial began on April 11th, 1961. The legal basis of the charges against Eichmann were rooted in the 1950 Nazi and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law. He was indicted on fifteen criminal charges, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, and membership in a criminal organisation. The Israeli government arranged for the trial to have prominent media coverage. Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation of the United States obtained exclusive rights to videotape the proceedings for television broadcast. As such, the Eichmann show was the first ever global television documentary. 

In 2015 it was made into a film : The Eichmann Show. A captivating interpretation of the dramatic scenes between the producer of the original Eichmann documentary- Milton Fruchtman (played by Martin Freeman), the blacklisted television director, Leo Hurwitz

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(played by Anthony LaPaglia) as well as historical footage from the trial. It reflects the difficulties endured whilst filming the trial. In particular, it emphasises the role of the production crew, who -during the fifty-six day long trial- witnessed 112 testimonies and hundreds of war documents without cracking. Despite death threats, resistance from several networks and even opposition from the Israeli prime minister, the pair persisted and moved their cameras into the courtroom. The horrors revealed are depicted by a series of powerful scenes that expose raw human emotion, underlining the frustration and despair in the courtroom. The leitmotif throughout the ninety minute film is filmmaker Hurwitz’s obsession with Eichmann’s appearance. He persistently films every of Eichmann’s moves and yet does not find any sign of guilt in his expressions, but rather indifference.


Eichmann believed he did not directly make policy, rather acted in an operational capacity. As such, he thought he could not be found guilty for following orders from Nazi officials higher than himself. Inspector Less noted that Eichmann did not seem to realise the enormity of his crimes and showed no remorse. He pleaded not guilty on all fifteen of his charges and even his pardon plea reflects this apathy: « There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders. I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty. »

The verdict was read on the 12th of December, 1961. The judges declared him not guilty of personally killing anyone and not guilty of overseeing and controlling the activities of the Einsatzgruppen. Yet, he was deemed responsible for the dreadful conditions on board the deportation trains and for obtaining Jews to fill those trains. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against Poles, Slovenes and Gypsies. He was also found guilty of membership in three organisations that had been deemed criminal at the Nuremberg trials: the Gestapo, the SD, and the SS. When considering the sentence, the judges concluded that Eichmann had not merely been following orders, but believed wholeheartedly in the Nazi cause and had been a key perpetrator of the genocide. On the 15th of December, 1961, Eichmann was sentenced to death.

The trial and the surrounding media coverage sparked renewed interest in wartime events, and the resulting increase in publication of memoirs and scholarly works helped raise public awareness of the Holocaust. As Simon Wiesenthal perfectly encapsulates in his book ‘Justice Not Vengeance’: « The world now understands the concept of ‘desk murderer’. We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty. »

Hannah Brandt is Campaigns Co-Coordinator at STAND France, the Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocity. Born in Germany with American roots, she is currently pursuing her Bachelor in political science and economics at Sciences Po Paris and the Université de Lorraine in France.




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