Adolf Eichmann is convicted for his role in the 'Final Solution'

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This is an entry in the cover feature 10 trials that changed the world.

Prior to 1945, the principle of state sovereignty trumped all else in international law. It was not until the Nuremberg Trials that the paradigm of state immunity and individual accountability began to shift in a meaningful way. The Nuremberg judgments set forth the concept of universal jurisdiction for certain violations of international criminal law. For years after the Nazi trials, however, the principle of universal jurisdiction was overshadowed by the Cold War. But in 1961, the case of Attorney General of Israel v. Eichmann brought universal jurisdiction back to the international stage in dramatic fashion.

During World War II, Adolf Eichmann was a lieutenant colonel in the SS who had primary responsibility for transporting Jews from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe to the killing centers in Eastern Europe, primarily Poland. After the war, Eichmann escaped to Argentina, where he lived and worked in anonymity for nearly two decades. He was captured by Israeli security service agents in May 1960 and taken secretly to Israel to stand trial under the country’s Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Law.

Eichmann’s trial began about a year later in the Jerusalem District Court. The court invoked the interests of all mankind, emphasizing in its judgment the right and responsibility of every state, as part of the “family of nations,” to prosecute and punish those who have committed the most heinous of international crimes. The court stated: “The abhorrent crimes defined in this law are not crimes under Israel law alone. These crimes, which struck at the whole of mankind and shocked the conscience of nations, are grave offenses against the law of nations itself.” The court then asserted: “The jurisdiction to try crimes under international law is universal. It is the universal character of the crimes in question which vests in every state the power to try those who participated in the preparation of such crimes, and then punish them.”

Eichmann’s conviction in August 1961 was upheld by the Supreme Court of Israel and on May 31, 1962, he was sent to the gallows.

The Eichmann case reminded the world of its duty to act. Today, the doctrine of universal jurisdiction says that, because violations of the most abhorrent of international crimes offend all of humanity, perpetrators must be held accountable and are subject to prosecution by any state.


Adolf Eichmann’s trial put a human face on the Holocaust, and it was widely covered by the world’s press. Some of that coverage raised its own controversies, particularly Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Banality of Evil (1963), which probed the implications of his argument at trial that he was just following orders.

List of Cases, in Chronological Order

1. God punishes Adam and Eve, and the Serpent – by George Anastapolo

2. Parliament puts King Charles I on trial – by Maura McGowan

3. Susan B. Anthony is convicted for casting a ballot – by Deborah Enix-Ross

4. Clarence Darrow is tried on charges of bribing jurors – by Michael E. Tigar

5. A court decides who is white under the law – by Sahar F. Aziz

6. An Allied tribunal brings Nazi leaders to account at Nuremberg – by Lori B. Andrews

7. The Supreme Court rejects the separate but equal doctrine – by Kim J. Askew

8. Adolf Eichmann is convicted for his role in the ‘Final Solution’ – by Mark S. Ellis

9. Nelson Mandela is spared from a death sentence – by Richard J. Goldstone

10. Serb leader is tried by an international tribunal – by Randy J. Aliment

Mark S. Ellis is executive director of the International Bar Association, headquartered in London. Previously, he was the first director of the ABA’s Central and East European Law Initiative. He served as legal adviser to the International Commission on Kosovo and was an adviser on the creation of war crimes tribunals in Serbia and Iraq.

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