Truth Commission vs Eichmann

When reading the first chapter of Country of My Skull, I could not help but think about our class discussion about the first chapter of Eichmann in Jerusalem. In our discussion, we talked about how the courtroom in Eichmann in Jerusalem is set up like a theater which takes away from the complexity of the situation. This is seen when the prosecution tries to paint Eichmann as an evil mastermind who orchestrated the whole Holocaust in order to create a sense of sensationalism which is simply not correct and it undermines the whole legal process.

In the first chapter of Country of My Skull, the exact opposite atmosphere is set up.The Truth Commission is extremely complex and anything but simple. Justice Dullah Omar states the Truth Commission started because “a strong feeling that some mechanism must be found to deal with all violations in a way which would ensure that we put the country on a sound moral basis” (8). The commission acknowledges the complexity of the past political policy and understands that a magnitude of people were hurt by these policies. Most importantly they realize that not one person is responsible but that a long history of political policies and politicians are to be blamed. There is not one person to put the blame on because apartheid represents a whole political system, and it would be unfair to the victims for the process to be rushed. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, the court is less concerned with finding out the truth and more concerned about being the court that tires and finds guilty a member of the Nazi regime. Having this scapegoat takes away from the truth and the complexity of the Holocaust. Former commissioner of police, General Johan van der Merwe talks about how he was an enforcer of the law but never an advocate. He says that, “it is not the police who came up with apartheid but the politicians” (6).

Eichmann and the power of the law

The most interesting part of Eichmann in Jerusalem to me was the question of what a court can do to “prove” guilt that is simply apparent. We all know that Eichmann committed atrocities the likes of which it is difficult to even comprehend, and he did them to human beings who had done nothing to deserve them. The court knows it, the reader knows it, Arendt knows it, and Eichmann knows it. The question thus becomes where a court’s authority runs out; obviously Eichmann’s argument that concentration camps were legal when he sent people to them is moot, but that raises many other ethical dilemmas. If one court can retroactively wipe the legitimacy of an entire legal system-one not its own, even-where is the line drawn between Israel condemning Hitler’s orders as bunk and Hitler himself stripping Jews of citizenship in order to kill them with no legal culpability under German laws of his day? Obviously the answer is that one of these is right and one is wrong-I can see that because I am human. But the question of what the law can do, being that the ideal of just law is its objectivity and its independence from human presumptions of right and wrong, is a lot murkier. 

The easy answer to this is that no human law will ever be able to make sense of such questions. Eichmann and every other complicit cog in the machine of the Holocaust will serve their due justice in due time, whether or not any judge on earth pronounces them guilty. This is a somewhat comforting answer, but it is not sufficient, particularly not for a newly formed Israel with lots of wrongs to attempt to right. Though I may believe Eichmann will face his rightful punishment from a higher power than any on earth, to let him go free of any attempted justice would not be right, either. This is where I believe Arendt loses her faith in the court, and part of why she refuses to not be critical of Ben-Gurion, the lawyer, the jury and the judges. Obviously she agreed with their eventual verdict, but I think she thought it was based on the wrong evidence. His feelings on Jewish people, his rank within the government, his insanity or lack thereof, none of those things matter. What he did was wrong because it was wrong, and I think finding a way to implement that legally is a lot easier said than done, but that was the challenge that Arendt, and I, would have liked to see them succeed in.