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Dark History Revisited

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It is one thing to read about ancient infamy, but the horror of the Holocaust is compounded by its immediacy. How odd that new information could be comforting.

I say that because in the course of my recent reading of history, I learned three important things: (1) The idea at the source of Nazi enmity toward Jews, (2) the significance of alcohol in their atrocities, and (3) how a commitment to justice can humble evil.

But back to the beginning. A geographically distant, Jewish friend of my younger sister recently offered me the chance to learn more about the Holocaust. As with most people, what I already know is painful enough to last me a lifetime. However, I believe that unexpected access to knowledgeable can be a form of guidance, and I accepted.

My reading adventure came through three volumes of material from Holocaust and Genocide Studies published by Oxford University Press. Three of those studies have proven momentous for me.

The Role of The Protocols

Antisemitism seems to be rooted in a perception that Jews are simply “different.” But in the case of the Holocaust, who could have imagined that antisemitism would be energized in the 1930s by the minutes from a supposed meeting in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897?

I am referring to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which I learned about in a study by Randall L. Bytwerk of Calvin College. These minutes purportedly record the business of the first congress of a Zionist movement dedicated to establishing a Jewish empire that would dominate the world. However, Professor Bytwerk states that Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, knew that these minutes were a fabrication. Nevertheless, Hitler wrote that “with positively terrifying certainty they reveal the nature and activity of the Jewish people and expose their inner contexts as well as their ultimate final aims.”

Because there was no proof of their authenticity, The Protocols were rarely cited in propaganda. Two publishing houses printed about 500,000 copies of different versions between 1920 and 1944. Bytwerk doubts that they were widely read, but the idea that there was an international conspiracy among Jews became something people “knew” was true. As Bytwerk put it, in promoting this idea, Hitler proved that “effective propaganda depended more on plausibility than truth.”

The Role of Alcohol in Genocide

One can see how the so-called “inner truth” of the Jewish people could create paranoia, but how could paranoia have led to the Holocaust? And a study by Edward G. Westermann, a professor of history at Texas A&M University, revealed that the associated atrocities were even worse than I had heard. The title of Professor Westermann’s paper reflects his own search for understanding: “Stone-Cold Killers or Drunk with Murder?”

He concludes that there were indeed cold killers among the SS troops, but there was also a tremendous amount of alcohol afoot. Hitler disapproved of drinking himself, but a huge increase in consumption tracked the ascendance of the Nazi Party. This was in spite of the fact that anyone diagnosed as a chronic alcoholic in Germany could be sterilized to prevent “heriditarily diseased progeny.”

In spite of these two checks on drinking, alcohol was abundantly distributed for two reasons. One was to support social bonding among the troops and the other was to inspire “fellowship evenings” that followed upon mass executions. SS leader Heinrich Himmler commented that “such ‘celebrations’ helped to prevent these ‘difficult duties’ from ‘harming the mind and character’ of participants.”

The high levels of consumption also led to binge drinking and to random violence against women and children. In one example, infants and toddlers were tossed into the air to be shot down like “clay pigeons.” In some of these cases the troops must have been drunk out of their minds, but SS culture was just dehumanizing. Westermann concludes that for some troops, “alcohol became a means of escape or of dealing with the psychological consequences of their horrific daily duties.”

In other words, all but the stone-cold killers also became victims of the malice in the highest reaches of the Third Reich. One of its agents of evil was Adolf Eichmann, whose trial is my next subject.

Heroism in the Courthouse

This is tough going, isn’t it? But now we come to the good part.

In her essay, “The Eichmann Trial: The Story of the Judge,” Michal Shaked, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, shares new detail about Justice Moshe Landau, who conducted that trial.

This story began in 1961. Israel had captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Jerusalem to be tried. Landau was selected among nine illustrious jurists to be the presiding judge of three on the bench. He was 49 years old, a German Jew who had received his law degree in London. Professor Shaked speculates that he  may have been chosen because of his unusual ability to manage extremely complex proceedings, but her essay also shows how extraordinary was his grasp of the significance of this moment in time.

There was controversy at the outset over whether Israel had the moral or legal authority to abduct and try Eichmann. It was critical that a legitimate criminal trial be conducted and without spectacle. Israel had been established as a state in 1948, and this was both a monumental opportunity to enhance its standing and to educate humanity about the Holocaust.

Israel was in the delicate process of creating a homeland with a distinctive Jewish spirit, but there was not a great deal of information out in the world about the Holocaust, and some of it was inaccurate. There was even a perception among Israelis that many European Jews had been weak and clueless, going “to the death camps like sheep to slaughter.”

Apparently Landau realized that the trial could prove a turning point in the development of a Jewish Israeli identity and that it could also establish historical facts about the Holocaust for all of humanity. In that light, he made the unprecedented decision to have the trial videotaped and broadcast from the first day. It was only with the creation of a sovereign state that justice had become possible for Jews, and he was determined to prove that the Israeli legal system was professional and independent.

Justice Moshe Landau

Justice Moshe Landau

Shaked writes that Landau “would not tolerate even a hint of exaggeration or melodrama” in the courtroom. On several occasions, he warned attendees that they must remain silent or leave, and he even adjourned a disrupted session on one occasion. He also repeatedly contended with the prosecutor, who had an appetite for drama.

Eichmann’s defense was that he was basically an officer just following the orders of the Führer. The prosecution had to prove that he followed orders as a Jew-hater who had been an important architect of extermination. Over 2,000 documents were submitted and more than 100 witnesses were called to testify over four months.

Landau had committed to focus only on the question of Eichmann’s guilt, but he deviated from this in one historic respect. He allowed about 20 survivors to tell their stories, even though they had never had contact with Eichmann, and that decision proved transformative for Israelis.

As Israeli historian Tom Segev maintained, “The horror stories that burst out from the depths of the great silence gave birth to a process of identification with the suffering of the murdered and those who survived.” Apparently Landau knew intuitively that the tragedy of the Holocaust had not yet penetrated the consciousness of Israelis, and it was only through the hearing of these stories that a necessary collective mourning could take place.

The trial took a total of eight months, four of which were dedicated to reviewing all the documents and testimony in order to come to judgment. On December 15, 1961, Eichmann was convicted of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. There were 268 pages of the judgment, so legalistic and matter-of-fact that Shaked writes that, beyond the preface, “it contains not a single quotable sentence.”

Although Justice Landau fully understood the importance of the trial, he never took credit for his role in it and would not speak of it for decades. Virtually everyone else who was involved wrote books about their experience, but he devoted only one chapter to it in a memoir intended for only his daughter and grandchildren. He never returned to Germany to visit and never again spoke German. He died at age 99 in 2011.

Conclusion

I have often considered how difficult it must be to go through life burdened by this history as a Jew. Some of my friends have gained some distance from it, but others seem perpetually preoccupied. In my imagination, it is as though the shoulders are draped with something like a black mourning shawl. And for people like me, the history is a source of both frustration as well as shame. Why do these horrifying examples of man’s inhumanity to man continue to recur?

However, the opportunity to read this essay about Justice Landau was a gift in that respect. His is the story of an acute and civilized mind determined to create an outpost of order on the ground of moral chaos. It made me feel proud, hopeful, and inspired. Justice Moshe Landau was a warrior in spirit, but it was on the bench that he proved himself a hero.

Sources

Bytwerk, Randall L. “Believing in ‘Inner Truth’ The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Nazi Propaganda, 1933-1945.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Vol. 29, Number 2. Oxford University Press, Fall 2015.

Shaked, Michal. “The Unknown Eichmann Trial: The Story of the Judge.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Vol. 29, Number 1. Oxford University Press, Spring 2015

Westermann, Edward B. “Stone-Cold Killers or Drunk with Murder? Alcohol and Atrocity during the Holocaust.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Vol. 30, Number 1. Oxford University Press, Spring 2016

 

 

 

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