Nuremberg precedents invalidating the doctrine of superior orders again would be invoked. But in addition to perpetrator documents, the survivors of genocide testified, giving a human face to the incomprehensible statistics, massive amounts of official records and countless piles of corpses.
While the primary focus of Nuremberg was to establish the actions of the killers and the facts of the Holocaust, the Eichmann trial put a spotlight on the survivors and established the individuality of its many victims. In the new era of television, the trial was broadcast all over the world, enabling people everywhere to hear searing personal testimony from one survivor after another.
Although the Eichmann trial did not set legal precedents as the military tribunal did at Nuremberg, it dramatically shaped public understanding of the Holocaust by bringing the personal experiences of this history into living rooms around the world.
The legacies of Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial probably shape our world more than we understand. The question is, will they shape the future?
Recognizing that true justice is never possible in the face of such crimes, we are nevertheless increasingly learning the value of holding perpetrators accountable. But how do we work toward a world where such trials are not necessary?
Today, in this week of Holocaust remembrance, as we honor the memory of the victims, that question should be the challenge we set for ourselves.
Responding to that challenge would be the most meaningful tribute to those six million innocent men, women and children for whom justice came too late.
Sara J. Bloomfield is director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.