50 years ago today, Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Holocaust, went on trial before an Israeli tribunal in Jerusalem. During the war, Eichmann served as the Transportation Administrator of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” meaning he coordinated all the trains that transported Jews to their deaths in East European extermination camps. When the Nazis fell, Eichmann fled to Argentina where he hoped to live out his days in comfortable anonymity, working as a foreman for Mercedes Benz.
The Mossad spent most of the 1950s tracking him down, then famously got their man in May, 1960. Back in Israel, the philosopher Hannah Arendt covered the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker and later reduced the essence of the former SS colonel to a simple phrase: “the banality of evil.” Elaborating she said, “The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least, the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither monstrous nor demonic.”
Taken from The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, the footage above shows you the opening moments of the trial and testimony from Holocaust survivors. Eichmann is there too, encased in glass, looking as banal as Arendt suggested. After 14 weeks of testimony, Eichmann was found guilty of 15 criminal counts, including crimes against humanity, and he was hanged in May, 1962 – the only civil execution ever carried out by the state of Israel.
A new book by Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt revisits the trial with the benefit of some historical distance. In this video, Lipstadt reminds us why the trial held such importance for the international community.