Perhaps television viewers, gathered around in horrified fascination all across the world, had been expecting the shrieks and gesticulations of a fascist ideologue; or even another performance: desperate, tearful denials.
What they saw instead was, in some senses, one of the 20th century’s defining portraits of evil, captured for the first time on the 20th century’s newest medium.
The 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, which ran for four months with each session televised, still haunts the imagination.
But what is not widely known is the crucial role played by a young television producer who passionately persuaded reluctant judges, and indeed Israel’s prime minister David Ben-Gurion, that the proceedings should be screened for the world to see.
It’s no exaggeration to say the broadcast changed history. Milton Fruchtman is a real unsung hero
Milton Fruchtman, who is still alive and living in California, was 35 at the time and the driving force behind the pioneering broadcast, the first time viewers en masse had the opportunity to watch Holocaust survivors testifying to the horrors they had experienced. His story has now been told in a major BBC Two drama, The Eichmann Show, starring Martin Freeman as Fruchtman.
“At the time, the public were not thinking about the people filming the trial. They were, quite rightly, concerned and captivated by the people in front of the cameras,” says Laurence Bowen, the producer of the drama. “But it’s no exaggeration to say the broadcast changed history. Milton Fruchtman is a real unsung hero.”
Fruchtman himself is now 88 and not strong enough to take part in an interview. But in an email during research for the program he told Bowen he had been motivated by reading the philosopher George Santayana.
“I had been warned by one of my professors at Columbia University not to have unattainable expectations,” he wrote. “He said it was impossible for one ordinary person to affect the course of history, even in a minor way. But, fortunately, in my philosophy courses, I also heard [the Santayana saying], ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ and this dominated my thinking.”
Difficult as it might be for us to imagine today, in 1961 the world had still not faced up to the sheer scale of the Holocaust. Obviously, since the original newsreel footage of the death camps had played in cinemas in 1945, everyone was perfectly aware of what had happened. There was a sense, though, even in some communities in Israel, that people wanted to shut it out. Added to this, the Cold War had been freezing over; the authorities of the West were now focusing on their new enemies on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Fruchtman, a father of two young children, had been following closely the news that Eichmann had been tracked down to Buenos Aires and snatched by Mossad agents, then ingeniously smuggled out of the country in an El Al steward’s uniform. And he burned with a personal zeal to tell the world about Eichmann’s horrific crimes.
He also wanted to warn the world that the Nazi evil had not been wholly extinguished. In 1959 he had been in Munich, making a documentary about neo-Nazis for American TV. One evening, he accepted an invitation to a smart brasserie where Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda vehicle The Triumph of the Will was being screened. To Fruchtman’s indescribable horror, whenever Hitler’s image flickered up, there were cries around him in the audience of “Sieg Heil!”
He also visited a local fencing club. Once inside, he saw that portraits of Hitler and various Nazi leaders had been hung within. Club members clicked their heels to them.
So, as Eichmann sat in an Israeli jail, writing thousands of pages of self-justifying notes and memoirs, Fruchtman approached the court and asked for permission to film the forthcoming court case.
The judges were not sure. Would not the television cameras be an intolerable intrusion? Would filming not lead to accusations that Israel was staging a show trial?
But, as the processes of legal technicality ground on, Fruchtman went straight to the top.
He had interviewed David Ben-Gurion on camera on a previous occasion. Ben-Gurion was profoundly suspicious of the medium of television, regarding it as corrupting. But Fruchtman persuaded him that the trial needed to be recorded and broadcast as widely as possible, not just to show a blood-soaked criminal being brought to justice – Eichmann was hanged the following year in 1962 – but also for the new embattled state of Israel to grab the world by the neck and force it to really listen to the horrors inflicted on Europe’s Jews.
And no one in Israel save him and his director, Leo Hurwitz, knew how to do it.
“In Israel they only knew how to shoot with film, and I wanted to use video,” he told Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2011. “The light in the courtroom was insufficient for film. Aside from this, at a trial you must work with four cameras. There is a huge amount of raw footage. It was impossible for the Israeli studios, from both economic and technical standpoints.”
Fruchtman, who successfully resisted an attempt by the NBC network to wrest the rights away from him, allayed one of the fears of the judges by building holes into the walls of the courtroom. Cameras were then placed in these holes to ensure they were as unobtrusive as possible.
And when the trial broadcast, which featured on the nightly news bulletins in 37 countries finally began, it had an instantaneous impact.
More than 100 Holocaust survivors appeared in the witness box. Each gave their searing personal testimony: of cattle trucks, dark winter forests, degrading brutality, starvation, torture, the decaying stench of death ever-present.
It thereafter became accepted throughout the West that the Holocaust should be discussed, loudly, its victims properly remembered, not hushed away into the shadows through shame. West Germany became galvanised to track down other war criminal fugitives.
The broadcast also changed the way the world saw wickedness. Eichmann, the architect of death on a scale that is still almost impossible to absorb, did not look like a mass murderer. Fifty-five years old, with receding hair, thick horn-rim spectacles, suit and tie, he projected an air of stolid dullness, summarized by writer Hannah Arendt’s haunting description: “The banality of evil.”
Viewers were transfixed by Fruchtman’s black and white video images that zoomed in on the defendant. They observed him, standing behind bullet-proof glass, every twitch of his face, every rolling “r’” of his deep-voiced self-serving responses. It was the first time such a figure had been held up to such public microscopic inspection.
The trial, for which Fruchtman won a Peabody award for excellence in broadcasting, still chills today, and the BBC drama uses real footage. Eichmann had, from the earliest years of Hitler’s regime, been in charge of the forced movement of Jews. At first, via intimidation and violence, Jews were encouraged to leave Germany, then Austria, their goods and money stolen from them as they went. Then the anti-Semitism intensified step by step to a more terrifying frenzy: the yellow stars, the ghettoes, then the death trains, of which Eichmann was in charge. His implacable logistics created the timetables of slaughter, the transportation of Jews to death camps. He was there at the 1942 Wannsee conference in Berlin where “the final solution” was discussed. He was responsible, among many other atrocities, for sending 400,000 Hungarian Jews to their deaths.
After the war, Eichmann hid himself; at first in Austria, where his wife attempted via the courts to have him declared dead, and then, in 1947, across the Atlantic to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where he worked in a water supply company and called himself Ricardo Klement.
And then, a year after Eichmann’s capture, came the trial (or quasi-trial, since it was a foregone conclusion – he would hardly have skipped out of that courtroom a free man). Eichmann never denied, like some, that he was there close to the heart of the Nazi regime; but his defence of his actions, under the unblinking scrutiny of Fruchtman’s cameras, was couched in such a way to suggest that he was powerless before the workings of a mighty regime.
He described his original Nazi role as “emigration specialist.” “Everything was geared to the idea of emigration,” he said. “But constant difficulties were caused by various offices in a bureaucratic manner.”
He claimed that he had supported the idea of a Jewish state to be established in Madagascar. His wider claim was that manifold obstructions and complications, which he was powerless to remove or solve, somehow resulted in a chain effect that led via cattle truck to the death camps. He was only one cog in an inexorable machine; responsibility lay elsewhere. “Where there is no responsibility,” he said in a later session, “there can be no blame and no guilt.”
But he was lying about his ideological blankness. The German historian Bettina Stangneth, in her recent book Eichmann Before Jerusalem, examined more evidence, deemed inadmissible in that Jerusalem court: tape-recordings from the Fifties when, in Buenos Aires, Eichmann had socialized with Nazi Willem Sassen.
The quality was fuzzy, but Stangneth transcribed them more clearly. What they revealed was the essential Eichmann. “I have to tell you quite honestly,” he declared to his friend, “that if… we had killed 10.3 million, I would be satisfied and say good, we have destroyed an enemy… what’s good for my volk is, for me, a holy command and a holy war.’”
One of the (many) shocking aspects of the televised trial was that Eichmann, who was found guilty of 15 charges of crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity, could not even feign remorse. Yet in a sense, how could he? His hatred of the Jews was at the core of him. How could such a man ever be ‘”de-Nazified”?
Yet this is also one of the reasons the televised Eichmann trials still fascinate. They force us to confront the central mystery of evil. Not so much that it is “banal,” precisely, but that it can look and sound so reasonable, like us. And is there any conceivable way that men such as Eichmann could ever find redemption? By asking us all to look at him squarely, as opposed to simply reading his words, or his self-edited diaries, the television cameras challenged viewers to look into darkness deeper than they had wanted to admit existed.
‘The Eichmann Show’ was aired on BBC Two