The trial of Adolf Eichmann

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem discusses the trial of Adolf Eichmann, an ex-Nazi and the chief of transportation for the Nazi Party. Eichmann was inevitably charged with the death penalty for aiding and abetting the destruction of the Jewish people, but the problem remains whether the man even had a chance to defend himself. In this paper I will recount the conditions surrounding Eichmann’s trial in order to argue that he was not judged fairly.
The process that Israel went through to put Eichmann under trial had no legal basis. At the beginning of the report, Arendt explains that the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, ordered Eichmann to be kidnapped from Argentina and brought to Israel to be tried. This was a violation of international law (Arendt 239), which was only allowed due to Eichmann’s disappearance not being properly reported. Just because Argentina did not search for him and Germany looked the other way does not excuse Israel’s methods of transporting Eichmann, nor did his statelessness make it any less wrong.

Eichmann’s trial was also unfair because technicalities of the trial caused it to be rigged against Eichmann. The trial was held in 1960, fifteen years after World War II and ten years after the Nuremberg Trials had already been held. The law Eichmann was tried under was made in 1950, after the actions had taken place (Arendt 21). From a legal standpoint, at the time that Eichmann was transporting Jews to concentration camps, he was just performing his job and following the law. It was only years after the fact that the actions were deemed unjust. This ex post facto law also happened to be an Israeli law. It should not have applied to Eichmann, considering the crime (which, still, was not a crime at the time) was committed by someone of German origin, who was therefore entitled to the Continental legal procedure rather than the Israeli procedure (Arendt 248). While the rest of the world had decided justice was served, the Jews were picking at an old scab, trying to find someone else to blame. The trial itself was dominated by statements and testimonies from dead people and other Nazis trying to shift the blame. Whatever evidence was submitted failed to help Eichmann, since a clause in the 1950 law allowed the Israeli court to “deviate from the rules of evidence” (Arendt 220). Any soldiers who could have testified in Eichmann’s defense could not have come to Jerusalem, Eichmann’s lawyer lacked the funding and the archives to obtain a sufficient amount of defense documentation, and the defense lacked the trained research assistants needed in order to go through the documents (Arendt 221). There is nothing fair about a trial where only one side has the resources in order to make a case.

The visibility of the trial made it impossible to be taken seriously. Before the Israelites brought Eichmann back to Jerusalem, most people who knew his name already expected that he would be found guilty and hanged (Arendt 241, 250), especially Jewish citizens in Jerusalem. There was no real reason to give him a trial other than to feign justice and bring attention to the event. Eichmann’s trial was filmed, which turned the District Court of Jerusalem into a stage, a set on a television show. The defendant himself was placed in a glass booth facing away from the audience (Arendt 3), which gave the impression that he was guilty of something that might warrant an attack, even if the glass was simply meant to protect him. While Arendt claims the judges tried to keep the trial as fair and untheatrical as possible (Arendt 4), it did not matter how much of an attempt they made. The fact that the there was an audience, and that audience included reporters like Arendt sent to Jerusalem specifically to cover the trial, turned the trial into a spectacle. In such high visibility, there was no way he could have had a real chance of receiving a fair trial. Eichmann was already guilty in the audience’s eyes.

Even so, the ruling was not appropriate for the crime Eichmann supposedly committed. Eichmann was convicted of fifteen counts of indictment, which seems excessive considering his middle management the sentence for nearly all of them was the death penalty (Arendt 244). Most of the trial was filled with testimonies of people describing the horrors of the Holocaust, instead of focusing on Eichmann’s specific role and his legal responsibility (Arendt 209). Eichmann had never murdered anyone or given an order to commit murder, yet the prosecutor was attempting to push the blame of the entire genocide onto Eichmann.

On the contrary, one may object that Israel was in fact able to provide Eichmann with a fair trial. There is no statute of limitation for killing, so if Eichmann was responsible for the death of Jews, his trial would still be justifiable even a decade after verdicts were passed in the Nuremberg Trials. Eichmann’s implied statelessness after the war suggests that he would not have been protected under German or Argentinian law even if Eichmann were to stop working under an assumed name. Therefore, Israel would not have been out of line to take him to court. The Israelis were in their right to put Eichmann on trial because the moral justice of executing a Nazi responsible for millions of lives outweighs the legal injustice of kidnapping and using inapplicable laws. One could even go so far as to argue that the Jews were the only ones who had the grounds to judge the destruction of their own people. Because Jews were the victims of genocide, Jews should have been the ones to decide when justice was restored, (Arendt 7) not some international panel of judges who could never understand the scale of the offense.

The most natural reply to this objection would be that the Jews were a biased jury. Of course one would demand a harsher punishment for anyone suspected of harming their own people. This is made clear in the Israeli law, which regards crimes against Jews as more serious than genocide against non-Jews. (Arendt 244, 245) It is also reflected in the distribution of Eichmann’s conviction, which contained six counts of indictment for crimes committed specifically against the Jewish people versus three counts which were either redundant and simply restated to ensure the death penalty or a collection of crimes committed against non-Jews all lumped together and swept under the “crimes against humanity” umbrella. For example, the crimes against the Jews were divided into many different counts of destruction, expulsion, preventing births, etc. while all the crimes against Gypsies were not even granted their own count despite Eichmann being aware of both of the groups suffering as a result of his job. The Jews did not care about getting justice for any of the other victims of the Holocaust, they only held the trial to get “justice” for their own people. This bias defeats the purpose of having a jury of peers. Arendt argues on pages 268 and 269 that genocide is “an attack upon human diversity,” and because genocide offend all of humanity, the best jury of people would have been a diverse group of people such as the panel who judged the Nuremberg Trials. The location and people holding Eichmann’s trial was unfair and made it impossible for Eichmann to have received an appropriate verdict.

Adolf Eichmann’s trial was a show trial that used the defendant as a scapegoat and served as vengeance for the Israelites. His trial lacked procedural justice, and the moral justice that the Israelis could derived from executing him did not excuse the illegality of the whole operation. While the verdict might have been the same, i.e. that Eichmann was at least guilty on some level, the manner in which the trial was conducted was unjust.

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