The case of Adolf Eichmann shows that the death penalty can be just

Adolf Eichmann is flanked by guards in the Jerusalem courtroom where he was tried for war crimes (AP Photo)

Turning on the car radio yesterday, I chanced on the end of a Radio 4 programme – the sort that makes you park the car and carry on listening. It was broadcaster Gavin Esler in Jerusalem, examining “the legacy of Adolf Eichmann” on the 50th anniversary of his trial and execution. Everyone who followed that trial will recall the kidnapping of Eichmann by Mossad agents from Buenos Aires in 1961, as a result of a tip-off from agents of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. They will remember the book about Eichmann’s trial by Hannah Arendt, in which she coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. They will visualise the black and white newspaper photographs of a bespectacled, balding, elderly man in the dock of the courtroom – the man who had been the chief organiser of the deportation of millions of Jews to the death camps in Poland. They will have pondered Eichmann’s main defence: “I was simply carrying out orders.”

I tuned in as the three judges in the Israeli court sentenced him to death by hanging for crimes against the Jewish people; crimes against humanity; and war crimes. Those like me who followed the news at the time thought the verdict a foregone conclusion – not unlike the verdicts at the Nuremberg Trials, which Eichmann had successfully evaded by escaping to South America. The sentence was carried out on May 30 1962. It was followed by cremation, with the ashes scattered in the sea outside Israel’s territorial waters.

Why am I writing all this? Because it made me ponder the whole question (yet again) of the morality of capital punishment. Many Catholics think that capital punishment is now forbidden by the Church. Certainly the late pope, John Paul II, in his public statements about it, seemed to indicate that civilised countries should now have recourse to other means of punishment. Other people condemn capital punishment under a general pro-life banner which lumps together the adult guilty, like Eichmann, and the unborn who are innocent.

Personally, I make a distinction between these two categories. Guilt does require some form of punishment and justice must be seen to be done – whereas abortion is always the death of the innocent. Just checking the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I see that on page 488, paragraph 2266, it states: “Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty…”

Writing as a Christian, I am sympathetic to the Israeli trial and execution of this man, proved beyond doubt to have organised mass murder. In the radio programme, Esler interviewed Michael Goldman-Gilad, survivor of Auschwitz and the Israeli police interrogator of Eichmann during his trial. Now in his 80s, Goldman-Gilad said, “We hanged one person; we couldn’t hang him six million times”, thus recognising the symbolic aspect of the trial and execution. He did not sound vengeful, simply adding “I felt relieved” after it was all over.

As I see it, Eichmann’s continued life was a challenge to Israel’s collective memory of suffering; it was an affront to the families of those for whose death he had responsibility, families who wanted justice; his crimes were of the gravest nature. The death penalty was, in this case, appropriate.