The Eichmann Case and the Invention of the Witness-Driven Atrocity Trial

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A bit more than fifty years ago the Israeli government put Adolph Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem. The way was opened for this trial by the International Military Tribunal convened in Nuremberg, Germany, in late 1945. However, what the prosecutors in Jerusalem did dramatically departed from the Nuremberg trial template. The Israeli legal team assembled a sprawling case designed not simply to convict the defendant but to tell the vast story of the entirety of the Holocaust whether it involved Eichmann or not. Where Nuremberg relied on documentary proof about the actions of indicted individuals and organizations, Israel chose, instead, to present a parade of victim-witnesses. This shift to the in-court narration of the victims’ stories had a dramatic impact on the template for atrocity prosecutions, resulting in cases that are longer, slower and more vulnerable to a variety of justice system breakdowns. Such breakdowns have marred the trials of John Demjanjuk and Imre Finta as well as the proceedings of the ICTY and cast a shadow over the use of trials to call the perpetrators of mass atrocity to justice.