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the Complete Review
the complete review - law / history

Criminal Case 40/61,
the Trial of Adolf Eichmann

Harry Mulisch

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Criminal Case 40/61

Title: Criminal Case 40/61
Author: Harry Mulisch
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1961 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 186 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Criminal Case 40/61 - US
Criminal Case 40/61 - UK
Criminal Case 40/61 - Canada
L'Affaire 40/61 - France
Strafsache 40/61 - Deutschland
  • An Eyewitness Account
  • Dutch title: De zaak 40/61. Een reportage
  • Translated by Robert Naborn
  • With a Foreword by Debórah Dwork

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good overview of the Eichmann trial and its implications

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 14/10/1995 Dirk Schümer
Human Rights Quarterly . 11/2006 Stephan Landsman

  From the Reviews:
  • "(E)in Musterbeispiel dar, wie aus den grausigen historischen Fakten und dem banalen Prozedere der Justiz Literatur entstehenkann, obwohl man doch alle Details schon zu kennen glaubte." - Dirk Schümer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Harry Mulisch's Criminal Case 40/61 is a reporter's account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, a collection of articles published in the Dutch weekly Elseviers Weekblad over the course of the trial. An up-and-coming writer at the time, Mulisch was no journalist, but the trial offered him an opportunity to travel to Israel, witness this historical event, and try and put it in some sort of perspective. His own background (as also discussed by Debórah Dwork in her foreword) also played a role: the son of a Jewish woman and a native Austrian who served three years as a Nazi-collaborator after the war, Mulisch was certainly marked by the times, seeing what it meant to be both victim and perpetrator. (Witnessing the Eichmann trial, and writing about it, clearly did not provide all the answers or exhaust the subject-matter, as many (though far from all) of Mulisch's subsequent works deal with Nazism, including The Assault, De toekomst van gisteren, and Siegfried.)
       Mulisch's account begins with an introduction to Eichmann and his crimes, and this unusual proceeding, some fifteen years after the Nuremberg trials, a new attempt to explain and get justice and come to terms with the mass-murders committed by the Nazi's during World War II. Eichmann knows it is, in part, a futile gesture:

     In two weeks' time we will go to Jerusalem, from all parts of the world -- like medieval lepers, having heard about a new source that cures all diseases.
       And he knows that everyone will: "return home still lepers."
       Two long sections of the book are the Jerusalem-diaries Mulisch offers, accounts of the trial (and his experiences in Israel around the trial). Like most, Mulisch doesn't stay for the whole thing: that there is a trial, and all the to-do surrounding it, is sensational enough, but the novelty (and the testimony) soon wears thin. Access to many of the documents allows Mulisch also to pick and choose what's of interest to him: he's not a CourtTV reporter dissecting every move and utterance by each side and witness, but rather trying to give a general impression of the players, the parts, and the purpose.
       In between, Mulisch also travels to (just-)pre-Wall Berlin, searching for other traces of Eichmann; fittingly, the book closes not with the trial's (inevitable) conclusion in Jerusalem but Mulisch's pilgrimage to Poland, and the site of Auschwitz.
       Criminal Case 40/61 is an immediate account. Mulisch has obviously reflected on much of the subject matter, but these are pieces written on a deadline, and without much distance. Immediacy makes for some power, but is not always effective: Mulisch's touristic impressions of Israel, for example, suffer from it, oddly unformed.
       Criminal Case 40/61 is also a dated book, from and of its times. The East-West tensions, the still-young Israeli state, Yuri Gagarin orbiting the earth on the opening day of the trial, Mulisch's references to Enola Gay-pilot Claude Eatherly: it is a different world. Again -- though understandably -- perspective fails, with Mulisch maintaining that this is a trial: "with which the Nazi era will now be buried for good".
       Mulisch is best in his character-portrait of Eichmann, from a brilliant photo-trick in the opening pages (showing two very different faces of the man) to the changes the accused (or rather: condemned) undergoes over the course of the trial. Mulisch is fascinated by the character, this obsessive, obedient, entirely insubstantial man:
If they had put an empty SS uniform in the cage, with an SS hat hovering above it, they would have had a defendant of greater reality.
       Some of the speculation and philosophising Mulisch offers isn't full-formed, and is perhaps a bit much for the work -- such as when he asks: "to what extent is the depiction of horror the cause of horror ?" It's one way of allowing him to admit his own culpability, while still embracing an ideal: "Writing something and doing something makes exactly all the difference in the world", he says. It's an interesting problem he throws out, but it's one desevring more space (and distance) than is possible in this context.
       A far-flung account, providing both detailed descriptions of the trial and those involved with it and more general reflections and observations, Criminal Case 40/61 makes for always interesting and thought-provoking reading. Mulisch wrestles aloud with the complex phenomenon of this in some senses so simple man and the implications of the fact that he was able to play such a significant role in the deaths of so many millions. He's uncertain how useful this spectacle is, but he tries his best to examine it from all possible angles -- and does so fairly impressively. More than four decades on, as the book finally appears in English translation, one might wish for a revised revisiting of events from this distance (along with the accumulated wisdom, experience, and perspective of the meantime) -- but it's not a bad starting point, and certainly recommended.

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Criminal Case 40/61, the Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Reviews: Harry Mulisch: Other books by Harry Mulisch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Harry Mulisch was born in 1927. One of the foremost post-war European authors he has written numerous international bestsellers. Ridiculously few of his works are available in English.

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