Photo Gallery: Eichmann on Trial

Foto: Markus Schreiber/ AP

The 'Desk Murderer' Exhibition Marks 50-Year Anniversary of Eichmann Trial

Fifty years after infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann first stepped into his bulletproof glass box in Israel, a new Berlin exhibition revisits the trial of the notorious "desk murderer." The proceedings, which started on April 11, 1961, morphed into a global media event, breaking the silence surrounding Hitler's bid to wipe out Europe's Jews.
Von Jess Smee

Following the war, Adolf Eichmann was portrayed as a small cog in the Nazi machine, a civil servant for the forces of evil. But over the course of decades research has padded out our understanding of the infamous Nazi war criminal. These days many historians depict him as a key protagonist in the Holocaust, a committed man of action, rather than an obedient pen pusher.

A new temporary exhibition at the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin, located on the historical site of the former Nazi Gestapo secret police, dispels myths about the notorious perpetrator of the Third Reich, 50 years after his trial started. It is the first exhibition in Europe to document the dramatic court case.


Photo Gallery: The Hunt for Adolf Eichmann

Foto: John Milli / Getty Images

Eichmann, SS chief Heinrich Himmler's right-hand man, was a key figure in implementing Nazi anti-Jewish policy and organized the deportation of millions of Jews to death camps during the Third Reich. Fleeing to Argentina after the war, he was finally caught by Mossad agents in 1960. Starting April 11, 1961, he faced charges of crimes against humanity in Israel. After his conviction, he was hanged at midnight on May 31, 1962.

The exhibition "Facing Justice: Adolf Eichmann on Trial," chronicles the trial and the loud media fanfare which surrounded it. From the useful vantage point of hindsight, it shows how the dramatic trial boosted public awareness of the crimes of the Third Reich, sending shock waves which were felt in former West Germany, where many ex-Nazis had remained in positions of power and suppressed talk of the past.

Hiding its Nazi Past

West Germany's attempt to bury its head in the sand was underscored earlier this year when leaked German intelligence files showed that the country was aware of Eichmann's whereabouts  almost 10 years before he was arrested and taken to Israel. While other governments applauded his arrests, West Germany's Chancellor Konrad Adenauer reacted with panic.

"This case brought the Holocaust into the public realm. At that time it was still a taboo, even in Israel," Lisa Hauff, one of the curators of the show told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It is our aim to take a close look at the role of the individual in history, looking at both the culprit and the victims."

Eichmann's trial emphasized eyewitness testimony with many survivors speaking publicly for the first time. Chief prosecutor of the state of israel Gideon Hausner opted to use the opportunity to air the truth of what happened to Jewish people during the Third Reich, even when the statements were not directly related to Eichmann's case. In his own words, he sought to create "a living record of a gigantic human and national disaster."

The World Watches Eichmann

Reflecting their importance in the trial, the centerpiece of the exhibition is original footage of survivors' accounts. Their experiences are chilling. One man describes watching the removal of gold fillings from truck-loads of dead Jews. Another survivor said he was one of a few adults in a camp containing thousands of traumatized children whose parents were being deported to Auschwitz. One more famous clip shows the questioning of a Polish writer called Yehiel Dinur. Asked to describe his memories of Auschwitz, the witness fainted and fell to the floor. The footage was broadcast around the world as a metaphor for the indescribable horror of the camps.

The combination of evocative eyewitness testimony and the advent of television meant that the trial was a massive international media event. The world's gaze was fixed on the Holocaust by extensive radio, television and newspaper coverage -- although major events like the Bay of Pigs invasion and the construction of the Berlin Wall temporarily budged the trial off the front pages.

The Berlin exhibition contains cuttings from magazines and newspapers, giving a sense of how Eichmann was perceived at the time. One article in Life magazine told how he "was an expert hairsplitter" displaying "a towering arrogance."

Political Agendas

The press coverage also reflected contrasting political agendas. While the trial served to unite Israelis behind their young nation, communist Hungary and Poland played down the fact that the victims were Jews.

Divided Germany was also split in its reaction: Officials in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) incorporated the court case into their anti-Western propaganda. Headlines included statements like "Bonn is on Trial Alongside Eichmann." Despite West Germany's initial political resistance to the trial, it forced many people to confront the events of the war, media coverage was often tinged with outrage and pressure mounted for all former Nazis to be brought to trial.

"In West Germany, unlike in the GDR, the widespread coverage of the case served as a catalyst for society to finally start addressing the events of World War II," curator Lisa Hauff said. "For many people, it was the first time."

Part of the exhibitions' impact boils down to its directness. Texts are kept concise, leaving facts and hard-hitting video footage to convey history. Positioned opposite to the witnesses is a section depicting Eichmann himself. Video footage shows him in a suit and thick-rimmed spectacles, flanked by police inside the bulletproof box at his trial. He speaks impassively and answers questions at length.

'A Small Cog in a Machine'

Eichmann defended himself by claiming he was a minor player, following orders from above. "It was up to me to obey," he explained at one point. This stance, routinely proffered by defendants accused of war crimes, continued throughout the trial. He said he was "a small cog in a bigger machine" and at one stage he even tried to portray himself as a Zionist.

The Berlin exhibition uses a simple but hard-hitting visual tool to slam Eichmann's defense. Rather than being a "receiver of orders" or a man who kept a distance from death and cruelty, an annotated map charts Eichmann's business trips to infamous sites like Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka.

"We wanted to show that he saw and knew exactly what was going on," Hauff explained. "He wasn't a man who stayed behind his desk, he was actively involved."

"Facing Justice: Adolf Eichmann on Trial," runs until Sept. 18, 2011 at the Topography of Terror in Berlin. In May the bullet-proof glass box Eichmann sat in during his trial will arrive from Israel and will be displayed for the duration of the exhibition.

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