Israel would have preferred Mengele

I have the final word in the exchange with the three respondents to my June Mosaic essay on the capture of Adolf Eichmann. I touch on Hannah Arendt’s failings, the real reason Ben-Gurion wanted a trial, and the need for historical accuracy in Holocaust cinema. And I speculate a bit. For example:

Even as the Eichmann trial took shape, Mossad head Isser Harel redoubled the Mossad’s efforts to find Josef Mengele. . . . In 2007, the Mossad’s history branch compiled its own retrospective account of the search; reaching almost 400 pages, it was released in 2017. The resources expended on the Mengele operation, it concluded, were “beyond calculation.”

Had Mengele been captured, his sensational trial in Israel would have reduced the Eichmann trial to a footnote. But of course it wasn’t to be: Mengele proved more elusive than Eichmann, he had more resources at his disposal, and other urgent priorities derailed the Mossad search. So the primary face of Nazi horror, from 1960 onward, remained a man invariably described as “middle-aged, balding, and bespectacled,” and occupying a middling place on the SS organizational chart.

Read this and other concluding observations, right here at Mosaic.

Header image: Shemuel Katz, Eichmann’s testimony during his trial,
Yad Vashem Art Museum.

 

Eichmann: Arendt, cinema, power

Mosaic now has published all three responses to my essay on the capture of Adolf Eichmann in film, and how it’s distorted our image of him. Yaacov Lozowick (former director of archives at Yad Vashem) revisits Hannah Arendt, and finds in my essay some reason to rethink his past approach to Eichmann’s “banality.” Walter Reich (former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) reminds us not to expect too much of Holocaust cinema, but underlines the enduring significance of the Eichmann trial itself. Jonathan S. Tobin (editor-in-chief of JNS.org) argues that attempts to balance portrayals of Eichmann reflect “the discomfort Jews themselves have with the use of power,” especially by Israel.

All of these responses are thought-provoking, and I’ll have something to say about each in my final word, next week. In the meantime, read them all.

Embed from Getty Images

Starring Adolf Eichmann

Sixty years ago, on May 23, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion stood before the Knesset and announced that Adolf Eichmann had been brought to Israel to stand trial. It was an electrifying moment in the history of Israel, Jewry, and the world. Eichmann was executed fifty-eight years ago today, on June 1, 1962.

Where does our image of Eichmann come from? Years ago, it would have been the trial itself, for those who watched it, and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, for those who read it. But for many younger people, it emerges from the mass-market television movies and films about Eichmann’s capture, and what he purportedly said during his nine days in Argentine captivity. This reached its apex a couple of years ago in the MGM production Operation Finale, starring Sir Ben Kingsley as Eichmann.

Kingsley is an irresistible star. Did he make Eichmann into one too? In a new monthly essay for Mosaic, I argue that he did. But this was only the latest stage in an evolution, traceable to a supposed dialogue between Eichmann and one of his Israeli captors. All the major dramatic treatments have based themselves on this secret ping-pong between captor and captive. But it’s most likely a fiction—full of drama, empty of truth.

Read my argument here at Mosaic. There will be responses posted on the site by other authorities all through June, and a last word by me. I’ll keep you posted as the exchange unfolds.