Moshe Landau: Judge who presided over the trial of Adolf Eichmann

Moshe Landau was the presiding judge in the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Final Solution. Although the Eichmann trial brought him to international attention, Landau had already developed a reputation in Israel for a meticulous approach to the law within a strong moral framework. He was widely seen as the ideal candidate to face the world's media and to lead the three-man panel at the trial. He was "handsome, balding, 50-ish," as the British journalist Peter Johnson described him; it also helped that Landau had gone to Palestine in the early 1930s and had not suffered directly at the hands of the Nazis.

At the end of the Second World War, Eichmann had fled to Argentina, where he lived under a false identity, working for Mercedes-Benz until May 1960. Following a tip-off he was abducted from a street in Buenos Aires by agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and taken to Israel to face trial.

Eichmann had been charged with the task of overseeing the logistics of the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe. Although his guilt was not much in doubt, the trial in Jerusalem faced a number of initial obstacles raised by his German lawyer, Dr Robert Servatius. Foremost was the question of the tribunal's legitimacy: Eichmann's abduction had prompted a diplomatic and legal uproar – newspaper editorials lambasted Israel's "jungle law" approach and questioned the right of Israel to hold trials for crimes committed in Europe.

Landau and his fellow judges were at pains to point out the court's legitimacy. They explained that the court had jurisdiction over Eichmann because the state of Israel represented all Jews. "To argue that there is no connection," they wrote, "is like cutting away a tree root and branch and saying to its trunk: I have not hurt you."

The trial opened in Jerusalem on 11 April 1961, with Landau reading the 15-count indictment aloud in Hebrew, pausing as each charge was translated into German. The charges included "causing the killing of millions of Jews", "torture" and placing "many millions of Jews in living conditions that were calculated to bring about their physical destruction." Eichmann sat impassively in a bulletproof glass box. The world's media regularly remarked on Landau's strong, sober leadership over four months of testimony. They also noted his sometimes terse exchanges both with the prosecution and with Eichmann, who testified that he was a "small cog" in the Nazi machine and that he was acting on orders. Landau responded, "A soldier, too, must have a conscience."

Landau navigated the fine line between allowing emotional testimonies by victims and keeping proceedings grounded in facts and questions about Eichmann's specific responsibilities and actions. This won general admiration, and ensured that Eichmann was seen to be being given a fair trial.

Eichmann was eventually found guilty on all counts on 15 December 1961. In condemning him to death, Landau said, "The dispatch by the accused of every train carrying 1,000 souls to Auschwitz or to any of the places of extermination amounted to direct participation by the accused in 1,000 acts of premeditated murder. Even had we found that the accused acted out of blind obedience, as he alleges, yet we would have said that one who had participated in crimes of such dimensions for years on end has to undergo the greatest punishment known to the law."

Eichmann was hanged on 31 May 1962, and remains the only person killed in Israel on conviction by civilian court.

Born in Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland) in 1912, Moshe Landau was sent to England and graduated from London University with a degree in law in 1933. By then Hitler had come to power and consequently Landau did not return home. Instead he settled in the British Mandate of Palestine, where he was admitted to the Palestine Bar in 1937. He rose rapidly, and in 1940 was appointed a magistrate in Haifa.

He was promoted to the District Court in 1948, and at the time of Eichmann's trial was a member of the Israeli Supreme Court, where he served until his retirement in 1982, the last two years as president.

As well as the Eichmann trial, he delivered several important rulings. In 1957 in the Criminal Court of Appeals he had to determine what constituted lawful orders when sitting at a court martial of soldiers who killed 30 Arabs in the village of Kafr Qasim, a trial that set the boundaries for a soldier's responsibility to refuse orders. In the mid-1970s he served on the Agranat Commission to determine responsibility for Israel's lack of preparedness for the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In the 1980s, Landau headed a judicial commission investigating Shin Bet, the internal state security service whose agents had been charged with using excessive force when interrogating prisoners. The Landau Commission (1987) criticised the agents but declined to prosecute, saying that a "moderate measure of physical pressure" was permissible. The commission's findings were overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999.

Martin Childs

Moshe Landau, judge; born Danzig, Germany 29 April 1912; married (three daughters); died Jerusalem 15 May 2011.

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