Fifty-five years ago, SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat of mass-murder, was hanged to death in Israel. Executed at midnight between the 31st of May and the 1st of June, Eichmann’s body was cremated and his ashes dumped at sea, outside of Israeli territorial waters. Those whose existence he had tried to eradicate had outlived him. A dark chapter in the history of man’s inhumanity to man was brought to something of a close.
But how should Christians view the execution of Eichmann? On the one hand, if anyone is morally liable to capital punishment, surely one such as Eichmann is. As one of the principal architects of the Shoah, or holocaust, among Eichmann’s primary tasks was the facilitation of the transport of Jews to ghettos, concentration camps, and extermination facilities. Many of the macabre logistics were coordinated at the Wannsee Conference, in January 1942, where the weedy details regarding the annihilation of European Jews were finalized. True, Eichmann was not, himself, a policymaker. He himself tried to make much of this fact, insisting, “I was one of many horses pulling a wagon and couldn’t escape left or right because of the will of the driver.” But this is untrue. In his capacity as liaison between the various departments tasked with carrying out the Final Solution, Eichmann was given a vision of a mountaintop—a Reich cleansed of Jews—and ordered to achieve it.
He pursued his operational mandate with zealous competence. His office was responsible for gathering information regarding Jewish populations under Reich control, seizing property, and scheduling transportation trains. Shortly after Wannsee, large-scale deportations of Jewish victims began to arrive at Bełżec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Collectively, the camps would eventually swallow up one and a half million souls. When Hungary was invaded by the Nazis in March, 1944, Eichmann arrived that very day and reversed Regent Miklós Horthy’s obstruction of Nazis efforts to deport Hungarian Jews. After Eichmann toured Auschwitz in preparation for fresh transports, a new railway spur was created to allow trains to pass directly into the camp and within a few hundred meters of gassing facilities, greatly increasing efficiency. By the end of the summer, approximately 70% of the 800,000 Hungarian Jews had been turned to ash. “It was actually an achievement,” Eichmann said of this accomplishment, “that has never been matched before or since.” Noting his own zeal, Eichmann observed “the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” Indeed, he proudly boasted that Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller had once praised him by insisting, “If we’d had fifty Eichmanns, we’d have won the war for sure.”
Despite this, there are Christians, of course, who oppose capital punishment even for one so morally abhorrent as Adolf Eichmann. Every human being, they note, is rightly under the penalty of death. But along comes God, encased in the flesh of Jesus, and he dies on the cross—cancelling our sentence and making the case for the way of grace. This betrays a misunderstanding of both the purpose of the crucifixion and the nature of grace.
One thing to note about the argument that, after Golgotha, we ought to extend a level of universal clemency to all wrongdoers—in this case a mass murderer—is that it assumes grace—or mercy—and justice are irreconcilable alternatives. Why? Justice is giving each their due. Society cannot be justly ordered if people fail to receive what is owed to them. Criminals disorder society by taking away from others what is rightly their own: their lives, their property, their liberties, their peace, etc. The restoration of that order comes, however approximately, through making the wrongdoer pay an equivalent value. The motive of justice, therefore, is retribution, the requiting of evil through punishment, spurred by indignation and aimed at public goods (which is not the same thing as revenge, or the expression of malice for private satisfaction).
Eichmann met justice in Israel. It was no sure thing. After the end of the Second World War, Eichmann looked to have avoided justice, having first hid out in Austria before going on the lam in Argentina. There, in 1960, he was tracked down and captured by Israeli agents. Unlike any of his victims, Eichmann was given a full trial during which contended for his moral innocence, insisting he was always only an obedient functionary. His protestations were denied, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity, genocide, and crimes against the Jewish people, and he was condemned. Eichmann received his due at the end of a rope. Genesis reminds us, and scripture elsewhere repeats, that “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Paul, in his Roman letter, notes this retributive task is a primary concern of government. Someone will quickly point out that murderers, too, are made in God’s image. True, but this only heightens the evil of their deed—for as image-bearers they are moral beings who must be held to account. Eichmann, moreover, is no simple murderer. His is one many times over. He is the failed exterminator of an entire people. The motive to not execute Eichmann cannot be justice but rather mercy, which is giving a wrongdoer less than their due.
But justice need not exclude mercy. Consider the cross. In the cross is not, as some would have it, the triumph of mercy over justice. Nor is it somehow justice and mercy held in perfect balance. Rather, in the intersecting beams of the cross are found the intersection of justice to the nth degree and mercy to the nth degree. The only reason that human beings can be shown mercy is that Christ, crucified, took our punishment in our place. The Divine judge stooped to conquer—he stepped up and paid the debt. Mercy always costs someone something.
Meanwhile, matter matters. After even Golgotha, history continues–as does human evil. And because it does, government, a divine grace, is tasked with bringing about the conditions necessary for the approximation of justice, order, and peace. While retribution is the core of just punishment, there are secondary considerations as well, including the protection of society from further harm, the deterrence of crime more generally, and the rehabilitation of the criminal.
It is also about the vindication of victims. To vindicate is to prove both to clear someone of blame as well as to prove them correct—to declare them justified. Eichmann’s victims were publicly vindicated when Israel declared that when he colluded in taking away what was due to them—their homes, their possessions, their peace, their families, their lives—he had committed a violation so significant that only everything he possessed could be yielded to pay for it.
In Israel, this vindication took another form as well. Last week, I asked Danny Tirza, a retired officer with the Israeli Defense Force, about the importance of the Eichmann trial on the Israeli consciousness. “You have to understand the situation following the Second World War,” he told me. Gesturing to those who had endured the holocaust he continued:
When those survivors came to Israel, they were ashamed of what had happened to them. Most Israelis did not know the right story, about what had really happened over there. And then you bring the demon here, the very one who did these things, and you put him in an Israeli court…and you tell the right stories. And Israelis learned those stories. For the survivors, it legitimized what happened to them.
Eichmann’s flight to Argentina, his escape from justice, remained a perduring insult to his victims—both living and dead. His capture, trial, condemnation, and execution struck a blinding contrast between the Nazis victimizers and their victims. Jonathan Matthews, one of the leading educators at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national holocaust museum, spoke to this point:
It is said in terms of Talmud, that a judicious court which executes one person in seventy years is a lethal court. This is to suggest how unpopular the idea of the death penalty is within the Jewish tradition. So when the state of Israel executes one person, it shows that there is something extreme here.
Indeed, Nazism is one of only a handful of capital crimes in Israel, including treason and crimes against humanity. Moreover, as Matthews pointed out, there was also something symbolic in the way the Eichmann case was prosecuted.
This person organized the transportation of Jews…he was responsible for the deaths of millions…without trial without the opportunity to defend themselves. Yet he was allowed to stand for eleven months and to try and make his case. It’s important for the state of Israel to say, “Even when we do it, it must be done right. It has be done with the legal system behind it, with justice, and not just doing something spontaneously out of revenge.”
Here too, in the process with which a state ponders the gravity of life and death, mercy and justice can kiss. There is mercy and justice in allowing even the beasts to stand up for themselves. There is justice and mercy in alerting the beasts—and not just their victims—to the significance of what has occurred. To punish, rightly, is to take the wrongdoer seriously as a moral agent. To hold one another to account is to take seriously being made in the image of God, even when image-bearers themselves don’t take it seriously.
Gratefully, there are few real monsters in the world. There are few human beasts so malevolent that their deaths seem a net moral gain rather than the moral evil that death—as the privation of the good of life—really ought to be. In the cross-examination of his trial, Eichmann refused to apologize for what he had done. “Repentance,” he insisted, “is for children.” Eichmann is at home among the monsters, and his name is justly counted among those malevolent few.
That’s just as well, for his name has no place among those in the book of life.
Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence