Research

Televising the Eichmann trial
Technological, institutional and political contentions of a transnational media event

The trial against Adolf Eichmann is one of the first transnational television events. When the trial opened on April 11th, 1961, journalists from all over the world were in Jerusalem to report on the proceedings. The trial was not only covered in the printed press and on radio, but also recorded for television, with videotapes sent by plane to broadcasting stations in several countries. The recorded images were aired in news reports or special programs in 38 countries – in the US even on the same day the footage was shot, emphasizing the immediacy of the images as well as the distinctiveness of the event itself.

While the political and juridical implications of the Eichmann trial have been widely discussed, the micro-political preconditions and effects of the trial’s television broadcasting are rarely addressed. Yet this was no easy matter: The broadcasts required institutional co-operations on a transnational level. As television did not yet exist in 1961 Israel, the Israeli government contracted Capital Cities, a small production company from the US, to provide the television images. Capital Cities brought technology (cameras, Ampex videotape recorders etc.) and professionals from different countries to work together with local technicians and cameramen. Copies of the videotapes were then sent to New York and London, from where the respective networks and national television corporations organized the images’ further distribution. This collaboration of different institutions made it possible that the Eichmann trial became a transnational media event. And the broadcasts were thus not only formative in terms of its representation of the Holocaust (e.g. televised interviews with witnesses) and its anticipation of ‘Court TV’, but its collaborative set-up can also be understood as a progenitor of other global media events that soon were to be aired via satellite around the world.

Yet despite this collaborative set-up, a number of contentions preceded the recording of the trial, and even endangered the trial’s television broadcast. These conflicts not only had to do with politics and law, but also with various media institutions and technologies. Though very specific to the Eichmann trial’s broadcasting, these conflicts turned out to be symptomatic of the changing media landscape of the time.

This research project approaches the trial from a media-historical perspective. Drawing on archival records, interviews, and television programs of different countries it discusses the technical and institutional preconditions of the television coverage as well as the programs’ content. It focuses on the various transnational co-operations, the technical and institutional contentions, and the political contexts to understand the differences between the television programs as well as the changing media landscape of the early 1960s.