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Criminal case 40/61: the trial of Adolf Eichmann, an eyewitness account.

Criminal Case 40/61: The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, an Eyewitness Account, by Harry Mulisch. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 178 pp. $27.50.

Harry Mulisch's book was first published in the Netherlands, his homeland, more than 45 years ago in proximity to the end of the judicial process. However, only now has it been made available to interested English readers. The book could be considered yet one more report or account written by the reporters who came to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial for their readers back home, many of whom wrote books on the experience. But Mulisch was not a journalist. He was, and still is, one of the most prominent writers of Dutch post second world war literature.

His unusual biography can explain why he considers himself a personification of the Second World War. It can also account for the unique glasses through which Mulisch saw and narrated the trial,

Mulisch was born to a Jewish mother and an Austrian non-Jewish father and lived with his father after his parents' divorce. When the Germans conquered the Netherlands, his father worked for a German bank, which also dealt with confiscated Jewish assets. After the war he was convicted for collaboration with the Nazis and sentenced to three years in prison. However, in this capacity he succeded in saving his former wife from the concentration camp. Mulisch brought this complex identity with him to Jerusalem where he reported the Eichmann trial for the popular Dutch paper Eheviers Weekblad.

His book describes Mulisch's journey to Jerusalem for the trial and from there throughout Israel (twice), as well as to Berlin, Warsaw, and Auschwitz, the actual sites of the events.

One could classify the book as the type of report that came out at the wake of the trial. However, unlike the authors of all of those books Mulisch also documented, quite intensely, what he saw of the young state of Israel. Personally I have to admit that I read this book in one breath precisely because of that. His descriptions of Israel in the early 1960s are fascinating to an Israeli of 2007.

His insights of the trial to which he referred as the "greatest public lesson in world history" (p. 35) are interesting, yet after more then four decades of endless discussions over Eichmann, his personality, deeds, and motivation, these insights have somehow faded. But even today one cannot ignore his two important contributions to this ongoing discourse. The first is his perception and description of what he calls "the scheme of the murder" (pp. 108-111), and the second is his understanding of the place of antisemitism in Nazi Germany.

The first is best described in his own words: "The killers of the Jews can be divided into three categories. The first category consists of Hitler himself, He celebrated a straight sacrifice in the sight of the Lord. ... It was like a call. Of the second category Himmler is a prime example: the believer. Himmler not only believed everything Hitler said ... furthermore, he believed in the most childish by-products of the Weltanschauung ( world view) ... without Hitler he would have detested the Jews at most. ... That is why he in no way resembled the colorful lasciviousness of the classic mass murderers, but in everything he resembled the manager of the sanitation department--for he never killed people!' Mulisch's novelty lies in Eichman himself, "who represents the most horrifying category. Figures such as Hitler and Himmler, the god and the believer, have appeared before; the Eichmann appearance is a first. This man did not kill animals, but people.... Eichmann cannot use god as an excuse, yet he uses ... something extraordinarily abstract ... the order.... He was not obsessed with the extermination of the Jews, but with orders ... he is less a criminal than he is someone who is capable of anything."

The second issue, as already mentioned, was the centrality of antisemitism in the Nazi State and policy. In his words: "Everything from his doctrine was cynical demagoguery, except for the anti-Semitism, yes for the sake of the anti-Semitism. One man was truly satisfied by the killing of the Jews, and that was Hitler" (p. 100). In addition, Mulisch said that"[h]e did not use anti-Semitism to achieve world dominion, but he sought world dominion in order to exterminate the Jews" (p. 106). In other words, The murder of the Jews wasa central object in Nazi Germany, and not a mere by-product of social, economical, national, or accidental elements.

Without belittling the importance of the above, the most fascinating aspect of the book is the location of the trial within the Israeli context of the time. I do not recall any other book about the Eichmann trial which does just that. At times I even wondered what is this book more about, Israel or the trial. I assume this has to do with Mulisch's complex identity. Israel is described as extremely dynamic, industrious, "total lack of luxury, but not poverty. It is the atmosphere of a Communist country, but without the pressure that poisons life. ... In short, this is the most agreeable atmosphere imaginable, currently to be found elsewhere. ... " (p. 44).

However to an Israeli who read this book in 2007 it was a journey full of curiosity accompanied with deep sorrow, in view of the great promise that was embedded in the Israel of the early 1960s--mortified yet so successful.

Hanna Yablonka

Department of Jewish History

Ben Gurion University of the Negev
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Author:Yablonka, Hanna
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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