Adolf Eichmann Was Ready for His Close-Up. My Father Gave It to Him.

Interesting reflections:

I was 14 the first time I saw Adolf Eichmann in person. He wore an ill-fitting suit and had tortoise shell glasses, with the bearing of a nervous accountant. He did not seem at all like someone who had engineered the deaths of millions of people, except of course that I was at his trial for genocide.

My father, Leo Hurwitz, directed the television coverage of the Eichmann trial, which was held in Jerusalem and broadcast all over the world in 1961. My dad was chosen for the position after the producer convinced both Capital Cities Broadcasting, then a small network that organized the pool coverage, and David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, that the trial needed to be seen live. In the 1930s, my father had been one of the pioneers of the American social documentary film. In later years, he had directed two films on the Holocaust and had helped to invent many of the techniques of live television while director of production in the early days of the CBS network. Also, as a socialist, he had been blacklisted from all work in television for the previous decade, so he came cheap.

My mother and I joined my father in Jerusalem. Each day I stood in the control room and watched my father call the coverage — “Ready camera 2, take 2!” For perhaps the first time in history, a trial was being recorded, not as in the style of a newsreel, with its neutrally positioned single camera, but more like a feature film, with concealed cameras placed to cover several points of view — the witnesses’, the judges’, the attorneys’, the public’s, and of course, Eichmann’s. These were cut, one against the other, often in close-up, so that the drama became vastly more personal. The style of my father’s work would come to define this trial, and its place in historical memory, even more than Eichmann’s confession.

The prosecutor confronted Eichmann with his own words: “The fact that I have the death of 5,000,000 Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” The writer and Holocaust survivor Yehiel Di-nur testified from the witness box about the lines of people selected for death in the different “planet” of Auschwitz. Suddenly, Di-nur collapsed with a stroke. Through it all, Eichmann’s face, as revealed in my father’s close-ups, showed no feeling except the occasional tic.

Each night my father’s work was air-shipped, on 2-inch videotape, to be broadcast in Europe and the United States. It sharpened the way the world saw the anti-Semitic depredations of the Nazis. Meanwhile, my father was plagued by the question of how fascism had risen in the first place, how educated and progressive working classes had left their unions to fall into the lock step of a militarized, authoritarian regime.

It was a question that the West all but ignored. With the end of World War II, the prospect of justice for war criminals quickly dissolved, replaced by the need to build the postwar alliance against Communism. Leaders and thinkers were occupied with rearming for a nuclear future and rooting out leftists, the trend that had made my father unemployable.

He thought that he might use the trial to gather social scientists for a discussion of how fascism took root. During preproduction for the broadcast, he began to cast around for an Israeli institution that could host it. He said he asked a former classmate who was editor of a major Israeli newspaper, but they were not interested. Another outlet, the Israeli equivalent of the BBC, said they were not the place for it. A prestigious university couldn’t see the relevance. As the trial began and his production ramped up, he had to let the idea drop.

Though he did not know it at the time, these institutions showed no interest in the sources of fascism because the trial was not a trial of fascism. Instead, it was an opportunity for Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency to rebrand the Zionist movement. While the early days of Zionism extolled muscular, self-sufficient pioneers in a new, empty and promised land, that image had not aged well in the postwar world. In addition, many Israeli Jews looked down on the Jews of “old Europe,” whom they saw as trembling in their shtetls and walking helplessly to their deaths. Of course, they grieved the Holocaust, and their diplomats used its memory to convince the United Nations to recognize the State of Israel. Still, the ring of shame had settled around the survivors, many of whom had been traumatized to the point of dysfunction.

As witnesses at the trial spoke of crimes and suffering that had never been heard before, Israeli attitudes changed. The survivors of the Nazis — once seen as tattooed strangers, muttering to themselves on street corners in Tel Aviv — now began to be looked upon with more compassion. Their deaths and suffering, the crimes of the Shoah, were moved to the heart of Zionism. It helped point to Israel as the safe haven for the persecuted, with “never again!” as their rallying cry.

As Hannah Arendt famously pointed out, the aim of the prosecutor was to frame the trial as justice for crimes against Jews. The slaughter of Roma, Gays, labor leaders, Socialists, Communists, the disabled, and any opposition was hardly mentioned.

Without meaning to, my father helped to reinforce the emotional aspect of the trial and in so doing weaken its political implications. Though his previous films included a fuller view of the crimes and victims of Nazism, the way he shot the trial did the opposite: His brilliant coverage individualized Eichmann and steered viewers away from a more historical view. The work of studying fascism could not compete with the satisfaction of blaming a villain and imagining that the problems could be solved with his sentencing.

My father helped to make this Nazi into a character in a drama of cinematic confrontation, not of real understanding. It was now the Jewish state against the murderer of Jews. Crimes against other groups were not germane to the purpose to which the State of Israel and its head prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, sought to turn the trial.

The question of how fascism gains power is no less urgent today. As nationalisms multiply around the globe, lies gain supremacy as political weapons and scapegoating minorities proves itself a powerful mobilizing force, danger is burgeoning, here and in Israel itself. What I witnessed as a 14-year-old in that control room, I am witnessing again. The fascination with individual people’s guilt or innocence is obscuring the society-wide re-emergence of fascism. And we appear to be no more interested in viewing the full picture.

Source: Adolf Eichmann Was Ready for His Close-Up. My Father Gave It to Him.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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