When Conservatives Didn’t Get Tough on Crime: National Review on the Eichmann Trial

Elizabeth Kolbert has a chilling and heartbreaking article in this week’s The New Yorker about the attempt to bring the surviving apparatchiks of the Holocaust to justice, seven decades after the Second World War’s ending.

She writes of three generations of effort to prosecute and try these men and women. In the second phase, many—most of them mid-level perpetrators—got off.

In 1974, an Auschwitz commander named Willi Sawatzki was put on trial for having participated in the murder of four hundred Hungarian Jewish children, who were pushed into a pit and burned alive. (The camp’s supply of Zyklon B had run short.) Sawatzki was acquitted after the prosecution’s key witness was deemed unfit to testify.

Approximately a million Jews were killed at Auschwitz, and along with them at least a hundred thousand Polish, Roma, and Soviet prisoners. According to Andreas Eichmüller, a German historian in Munich, sixty-five hundred S.S. members who served at the camp survived the war. Of these, fewer than a hundred were ever tried for their crimes in German courts, and only fifty were convicted.

But now we’re into the third generation, where there is less forgiveness, more of a desire to see justice done. The problem, of course, is that almost all of these murderers and their accomplices are dead or dying.

In response to the verdict [of John Demjanjuk, at his second trial, in 2011], Germany’s central office for investigating Nazi crimes announced that it was looking to build cases against fifty former Auschwitz guards. “In view of the monstrosity of these crimes, one owes it to the survivors and the victims not to simply say ‘a certain time has passed,’ ” the head of the office, Kurt Schrimm, said.

But, of course, time had passed—from an actuarial point of view, way too much time. In September, 2013, the office announced that nine of the fifty guards on the roster had, in the intervening months, died. Others simply could not be located. The list of possible defendants was whittled down to thirty. In February, 2014, investigators presented twelve of the suspects with search warrants; the youngest was eighty-eight, the oldest a hundred. Three were taken into custody, then quickly released. One former Auschwitz guard, Johann Breyer, was living in Philadelphia. A judge ordered his extradition, only to be informed that Breyer had died the night before the extradition order was signed. Meanwhile, Demjanjuk, too, had died, in a nursing home outside Munich, while awaiting his case’s appeal.

In principle, the Demjanjuk verdict opened up “hundreds of thousands” to prosecution; as a practical matter, hardly any were left. And this makes it difficult to know how to feel about the latest wave of investigations. Is it a final reckoning with German guilt, or just the opposite? What does it say about the law’s capacity for self-correction that the correction came only when it no longer really matters?

Martin Luther King is eloquent on the long arc of justice and also on the short time available for action: “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”

I recommend the whole article.

The piece also made me think, though, about the initial reaction to Israel’s decision to try Adolf Eichmann.

The response to that decision, as historians like Peter Novick and Deborah Lipstadt have shown, was rife with anti-Semitism. The Wall Street Journal warned darkly of “an atmosphere of Old Testament retribution.” A Unitarian minister, according to Novick, claimed “he could see little ethical difference between ‘the Jew-pursuing Nazi and the Nazi-pursuing Jew.'” Those unitarian universalists.

The worst offender, though, was National Review. Combining all the elements of anticommunism, Christian homiletics, and ancient Jew-hatred, William F. Buckley’s magazine castigated the Israelis—really, the Jews, those Shylocks of vengeance and memory—for their inability to let bygones be bygones.

In one editorial, the magazine wrote:

We are in for a great deal of Eichmann in the weeks ahead….We predict the country will tire of it all, and for perfectly healthy reasons. The Christian Church focuses hard on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for only one week out of the year. Three months—that is the minimum estimate made by the Israeli Government for the duration of the trial—is too long….Everyone knows the facts, and has known them for years. There is no more drama or suspense in store for us. …Beyond that there are the luridities….The counting of corpses, and gas ovens, and kilos of gold wrenched out of dead men’s teeth….There is under way a studied attempt to cast suspicion upon Germany….it is all there: bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of Communist aims.

From the magazine that asks us to get tough on crime.

Update (2 pm)

On Twitter, Michael Moynihan, who’s a columnist at The Daily Beast, tweeted at me several times about that National Review editorial:

 It’s a terrible editorial. And Novick’s book is good. But those ellipses make it worse than it is.

advancement of communist aims” is a response to something in the New Statesman, not trial in general

Again, terrible piece. But it changes some of the context, like the “advancement of communist aims” line

At first, we parried over his “worse than it is.” The implication being that restoring the context of the lengthy National Review quote, eliminating those ellipses, would make the editorial seem better than it is. Which I, focusing more on the anti-Semitism, found hard to believe.

Then Moynihan tweeted this

What I meant: bowdlerized quote makes it sound like the idea of prosecuting Eichmann was a victory for communism.

—and kindly sent me a pdf of the entire editorial, which I’ve uploaded and you can read here.

In the editorial, National Review asks, “What are some of the political and legal ramifications of the Eichmann trial?” It proceeds to answer that “there is under way a studied attempt to cast suspicion on Germany” and then offers a lengthy quote—also with many ellipses—from a letter to the New Statesman and Nation, a left-wing magazine in Britain. The letter that the National Review cites makes some rather unremarkable claims about the continuity in government personnel between Nazi and postwar Germany (a well known fact) but dresses that up with some overblown, albeit qualified, rhetoric about the Germans under Adenauer sharing the same aims as the Germans under Hitler.

At the conclusion of the quote from that letter, the National Review editorial says this:

That—let us hope—is an extreme statement of the spirit that will be promoted by the trial. But it is all there: bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of Communist aims, the cultivation of pacifism . . .

So that’s the quote that Moynihan thinks, when read in context, is not as bad as the quote that Novick cites from his book.

I disagree. When read in context, it’s clear that the editorial is making two claims: first, that the letter writer and the perpetrators of the Eichmann trial share the same spirit; second, that the best one can hope for is that the letter writer is only exhibiting a more extreme version of the spirit that animates the perpetrators of the trial. In other words, the anti-German spirit and anticommunist contribution of the trial may well wind up being as extreme as that of the letter writer.

Long story, short: National Review is in fact saying that the advancement of Communist aims is among the elements of the Eichmann trial.

But there’s a little bonus in that editorial, if you read through to the end:

And finally, who will undertake to give as much publicity to those wretched persons, Jews and non-Jews, who are alive today, but will be dead before this trial is over—the continuing victims of Communist persecution, in China and Russia and Laos and Indonesia and Tibet and Hungary?

Got that?

In response to Israel’s decision to capture and try Eichmann in a court of law, National Review replied, “What about Tibet?” Sound familiar? Why are you singling out Eichmann?


  1. Paul Rosenberg February 11, 2015 at 12:21 pm | #

    Obviously this was just Buckley’s round-about way of calling for Eichmann to be lynched. Why can’t liberals UNDERSTAND conservatives?

  2. Andrew February 11, 2015 at 12:25 pm | #

    “…the advancement of Communist aims.”

    Sorry, I know this is all very serious, but I couldn’t help but read that as a punch-line.

  3. Roquentin February 11, 2015 at 1:16 pm | #

    I read the whole New Yorker piece, but I definitely have to question what purpose convicting people who are a few years from going in the ground actually serves. I also don’t really buy this notion that people have suddenly become more intent on getting justice. It’s only now, when it no longer matters, that these trials can happen. No one cares about a few sad old men. I certainly don’t, but I’m also young and not at all Jewish. There’s a certain absurdity to things like this, at least that’s the way it looks to an outsider. Convict them or don’t, it’s all pretty much the same at this point.

    As for the National Review, at that point they were in full on Cold War mode and everything was about destroying communism. I’ll tell you a little anecdote. I used to try and do these philosophy reading groups where we’d pick a text and give it a close reading. There was the very old man who had worked in advertising back in the 50s and always showed up. He referenced Mad Men when he spoke of it. His skin had a jaundiced tone to it. I couldn’t stand him. He was a reactionary…to the core…and spoke to me as if I were 10 years old. WWII ultimately comes up in any conversation if it goes on long enough (Goodwin’s Law) and when push came to shove he defended National Socialism as a bulwark against communism. I believe he had been raised Catholic, so he saw it as some form of bizarre solidarity. He also once used the term “miscegenation” in a conversation. I didn’t even know what it meant. I suppose there was a day and a time when people like him made sense in this country. I’m thankful they’re on their way out.

    I never liked Mad Men for the record. I tried to like it and stopped after the 2nd episode. My experience with office life has been negative enough that it probably soured whatever enjoyment I was supposed to derive from that backwards looking fantasy.

    • s. wallerstein February 11, 2015 at 2:31 pm | #


      I’m Jewish and I agree with you that there’s not much point putting people on trial for something that they did over 70 years ago. No one, no one at all, is the same person that they were 70 years or even 40 years ago and I think that it’s the person who committed the crime who should be tried. Sometimes I read about how someone in the U.S. is executed for a crime that they committed, say, 30 years ago, and while I’m against capital punishment in general, I’m doubly against it for people who committed crimes so many years ago that they’re no longer the same person.

      • Paul Rosenberg February 11, 2015 at 2:51 pm | #

        I feel quite the opposite. I’d like to see Jefferson Davis tried for treason. Very much.

      • Roquentin February 11, 2015 at 3:50 pm | #

        I actually thought about Bolano’s Distant Star when reading this and writing the comment. It’s a similar theme…he’s tracking down a poet who participated in the killings during Pinochet, and at the end the whole thing is made to feel sad and slightly absurd. It certainly isn’t a happy scene when the private investigator goes off ostensibly to kill him. At what point does one finally say “enough?” The people who can’t admit that this day will ever come just aren’t being honest. Is it even necessarily a bad thing? Are people that attached to living lives defined by the Holocaust? My grandfather was a US WWII vet. He was wounded sometime between D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and awarded the Purple Heart. I guess if I have a family stake in this it would be that. He never spoke of it…ever. It was something he worked very, very hard to try and forget.

        If it were me, I’d mostly want to move on with my life and enjoy whatever years I had left. These geriatric Nazis quite simply aren’t worth anyone’s time. That’s how I see it.

        • s. wallerstein February 11, 2015 at 4:32 pm | #

          I haven’t read Bolaño’s book, but it was courageous of him to treat that topic in all its ambiguity.

          I believe that all the major military figures involved in human rights violations in Chile are now in jail, those who gave the direct orders and those who followed them. Most of the worst ones will be in jail for the rest of their lives. No civilians have been touched, not even those who participated in Pinochet’s cabinets nor those who covered up human rights violations in the press nor those who directly collaborated with the Nixon and the CIA nor those judges who refused to investigate human rights crimes.

          From time to time, someone, now old, then a young lieutenant, is accused of a crime committed 40 years ago.

          According to international law, human rights violation do not have a statute of limitations, so the human rights groups, made up of family members of victims of the dictatorship, have all the legal right in the world to press for prosecution and I will not argue with them, although I see Bolaño’s point of view too.

          What is lacking, in my opinion, are decent programs for the families of human rights victims and for survivors of torture, for example, medical and psychological treatment. Programs exist, but they are very insufficient.

          In addition, a missing breadwinner in the family involves a financial loss. Let’s say that breadwinner in the family was disappeared at age 25 (most of the disappeared were young) and that they could have been expected to earn an average of 20 thousand dollars a year for the next 40 years. That’s 800 thousand dollars that the family lost (the government provided university scholarships for the children of missing people, but once again, insufficient).

          Families of missing people have tried to win monetary compensation in the courts, but the government, which pays lip service to human rights, takes court action against them to avoid the financial expense, as it is the Chilean state which is responsible for having disappeared their family members.

  4. David February 11, 2015 at 1:16 pm | #

    As the Holocaust will never be forgotten nor the perpetrators forgiven so it is with the current state in Zionist Israel. Apartheid, land-grabbing and murder of innocents will go down forever in the annals of this barbaric modern age and prove just one thing: we haven’t learned anything from tragedy.

  5. milx February 11, 2015 at 2:04 pm | #

    There’s something sick about someone who responds to a post about zyklon B shortages and quantities of extracted gold teeth w/ a knee-jerk anti-Israel comment. That sickness is called Judenhass.

  6. Paul Rosenberg February 11, 2015 at 2:24 pm | #

    The basement was good. The added sub-basement is better. I love it when folks try to “correct” you Corey. Particularly those who are less wrong about it than most, and thus help you find the seams to dig deeper.

  7. Bill Michtom February 11, 2015 at 7:47 pm | #

    A Unitarian minister, according to Novick, claimed “he could see little ethical difference between ‘the Jew-pursuing Nazi and the Nazi-pursuing Jew.’” Those unitarian universalists.
    Hard to tell how serious you are with that last sentence, but, as a Jewish UU, I want to stress what an outlier that person is/was/will be.

    This is not about UUs, but one person’s view.

    • Paul Rosenberg February 11, 2015 at 7:52 pm | #

      Yes, but as a UU-raised secular Jew, I have to say that’s JUST the sort of embarrassing outlier we’d produce!

  8. Edward February 11, 2015 at 8:53 pm | #

    I dearly wish some of America’s war criminals could get hauled in front of a court.

    Eichmann is not a very sympathetic fellow, but his trial bothers me a bit for two reasons:

    1) Trials are supposed to be conducted in a neutral venue and verdicts rendered by a neutral jury. The victims of a crime are not supposed to pass judgement on criminals because they are not neutral. I think his trial would have been more impressive in a neutral, more international setting.

    2) As far as I am concerned, the Israelis are not that different from the Nazis. They have many crimes on their hands. For them to pass judgement on Eichmann is a bit like a serial killer accusing a child molester of lacking ethics. Nazi criminals need to be held to account for what they did, but not by Israel.

    • Corey Robin February 11, 2015 at 9:56 pm | #

      On your first point, there’s more than a few problems. First, not a single country wanted to try Eichmann. It’s not like the Germans or the Poles or the Russians were champing at the bit for him. Nor was there an international tribunal begging to be constituted to try him. Second, the Nuremberg Trials after World War II were presided over by judges from the Soviet Union, the US, France, and Britain: hardly neutrals in the matter. Third, virtually all the postwar trials of Nazi war criminals were conducted by countries that had been the victims of the Nazis and/or their collaborators. If Poland could have trials, why couldn’t Israel?

      On your second point, I’m surprised that you would say Israel can’t try Eichmann but you have no objection to Germany putting on trial various war criminals. The first half of the story is about Germany doing just that. Surely Germany has far more blood on its hands than does the State of Israel. And how far do you want to extend this principle? The United States is as criminal an enterprise as the Israeli state. Does that mean the US government should not try rapists and murderers?

      • Edward February 12, 2015 at 12:31 am | #

        I think all of these trials, in Poland or Israel, would have been better in an international setting. This may not have been practical, but I think it would have been better. The fact that these trials did not follow some standard trial conventions makes me wonder if there were flaws. I assume that these conventions have emerged out of centuries of experience with trials and when they are not observed problems occur. Eichmann was no angel, but given the way Israel treats Palestinian prisoners, I have to wonder what went on at his trial. Demjanjuk complained about being tortured when he was tried.

        I don’t think the comparison between Israel and Germany is quite right for two reasons. First, Germany is convicting its own ex-officials for crimes committed for their state which Israel is not. This may actually be a good thing; in our own country I know that lawyers like Scott Horton have stated that ideally the U.S. should prosecute its own officials for their role in torture during the GWOT. (At this point I have to admit things are getting complicated; many states do not have neutral trials of their own officials (Mai Lai, Iran Contra, NIxon) so a more nuanced view is needed.)

        Secondly, in order to make the comparison Germany would need to still have a Nazi government committing atrocities (or even a non-Nazi government still committing crimes). Israel is a racist state that commits crimes every day. Are they really the best people to try Eichmann? At the Nuremburg trials the prosecutor made a famous speech declaring that the same standards must apply to all countries, including the U.S. Could that speech be made at Eichmann’s trial?

        I agree the U.S. has many crimes on its hands. If these crimes were in the past that would be one thing, but they are not. Therefore, when the U.S. convicts officials from another government for crimes against humanity (not just rapists and murderers) there will be hypocrisy.

      • thenodster February 12, 2015 at 9:12 am | #

        I am sympathetic to the idea of neutral venues holding these trials where possible. The terms of reference for the Nuremberg Trials are the foundation for this belief.

        The Germans weren’t actually convicted of the crimes they committed: they were convicted of crimes committed over and above those of the Allies, ie. if some member of the defense could show that Churchill, Stalin et al had engaged in a similar atrocity, those Germans couldn’t be convicted of that crime.

        After learning this, I have struggled to maintain respect for Nuremberg, and the more it seems like a ‘victory dance’ for the Allies.

        • Roquentin February 12, 2015 at 9:52 am | #

          I can’t muster up any sympathy for the Nazis executed at Nuremberg, nor Eichmann himself. I’m not sure if I’d call it justice (what does that word even mean anyways?), but I feel like talking about human rights abuses of the US and Israel is splitting hairs by comparison. The Stalinist USSR was certainly far less forgiving.

          It needs to be stated that saying everyone is guilty amounts to saying no one is.

        • Edward February 13, 2015 at 6:21 am | #

          @the nodster,

          I did not know that; a convenient rule for the Allies!


          I don’t have much sympathy for Eichmann either, but most criminals (if they are guilty) are not very sympathetic. You seem to be downplaying the seriousness of U.S. and Israeli misconduct. The fact that nobody is ever held accountable for American/Israeli crimes is probably why these countries have persisted with their misbehavior, year after year, decade after decade, to everyone’s detriment. I don’t think that Stalin’s bad behavior exonerates other countries.

          • Roquentin February 13, 2015 at 9:59 am | #

            It’s not really about that, at least not for me. Israel is more analogous to South Africa in the 80s than Nazi Germany or maybe the segregation era American South. You’re drawing a false equivalency. Not only that, I don’t think the traditional discourse of criminal law is really appropriate for something like Nuremburg. When I asked what “justice” even meant that’s what I was getting at. There could never be something that would achieve “justice” for the Holocaust. The very idea is absurd. Killing the high command, Eichmann, and now a few Nazis already at death’s door won’t even come close. Nothing ever would, frankly. That’s not an excuse to do nothing, just that this entire conceptual framework is inadequate for the conversation at hand.

            Also, as bad as the crimes of the US and USSR are worldwide they didn’t lose the war. Nazi Germany did, and they paid the price. I wouldn’t call that justice either, and maybe Nuremburg was a “victory dance” as someone said previously. I guess that doesn’t really bother me either. What would you rather have done? Let Goring and Himmler go back into the postwar West German government? They had to be dealt with.

  9. Hattie February 11, 2015 at 11:57 pm | #

    Luridity. What an awful coinage.

  10. thenodster February 12, 2015 at 8:38 am | #

    I note that Michael C. Moynihan was, for three years I believe, Senior Editor at Reason magazine. Pando‘s Mark Ames has been doing some excellent reporting on that publication’s dalliance with Holocaust denial, something Moynihan hasn’t discussed anywhere to my knowledge.

    Moynihan also flings the “anti-Semite” tag around with gay abandon, and falsely claimed that Iran’s Rouhani was a Holocaust denier, a claim refuted by Ali Gharib, who confirmed that Rouhani used the term ‘race murder’. In short, Moynihan has no credibility when it comes to the Holocaust or its aftermath.

  11. Patrick February 12, 2015 at 9:18 am | #

    “Those Jews need to learn to be more forgiving, like us Christians. We only devote one week a year to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (two *thousand* years after his death).”


  12. Greg February 15, 2015 at 6:55 pm | #

    If a right wing person had started this chain, would they be labeled as Neo-Nazis?
    I am surprised that I have read such good ideas come from such a tiered subject.
    Especially in light of a modern ghetto in Gaza. Irony, it could be the last thing to hold my interest.
    Just when I gave up on free thinking and free expression, I see it in the left. My last illusion, thanks for that.
    Oh as Far as Eichmann, (to quote an ex marine) I know where history is, it’s in the ground…. of course.

  13. Former U-U February 21, 2015 at 9:08 pm | #

    I was a Unitarian-Universalist during the Eichmann trial, and I don’t recall any U-U’s saying anything remotely like that.

    While it’s quite possible that some nutbar U-U said something nutty, I can’t see that view being shared by other U-U’s.

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