Mladic and Eichmann: owning the fears of a child

By Jill Segger
June 4, 2011

On May 31 2011, 16 years after his indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, former General Ratko Mladic was extradited to stand trial at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

The women who gathered to see him brought into the court had lost every male member of each generation of their families in the massacre of Srebrenica or the siege at Sarajevo. That some of them cried out their hatred and made gestures of vengeance may be distressing to see, but it is hardly to be wondered at.

This powerful and disturbing combination of the process of justice with the terrible pain of victims who have suffered so far beyond our experience, gave me an entirely unexpected flashback to an event which took place when I was a very small child. It was 1962 and Adolf Eichmann, the “architect of the Final Solution”, having been traced to Argentina, captured and brought to Israel by Mossad, had been sentenced to death by hanging.

His capture had taken place a year earlier and my memory of that - for I was too young to follow the newspapers and we had no TV – was an awareness of my parents' whispered conversations along the lines of “should we tell her?” and “she's not old enough to understand” which had made me both curious and a little afraid. But a year is long time in the life of a child not yet into double figures and I had forgotten these precursor events by the time of Eichmann's trial.

My mother's family were Jewish and an elderly relative who lived nearby was a survivor of the camps. The number tattooed on her arm represented an evil which was far outside my comprehension but not beyond my fears. It was for these reasons that I was probably more aware of the horror of what had happened in Europe only a few years previously than were most of my contemporaries. I was unable to share my later dread of Dr Mengele – a name which still has the power to make me shudder – with any of my friends and it was only my mother's well-intentioned untruth that he was dead which eventually calmed my nightmares and assuaged the terror that he would eventually come for me – a 'mischling' who might yet be a victim of his incalculable cruelty.

So when my mother and father came that evening in 1962 to sit on my bed and tell me of the execution of Eichmann, I was aware that I was hearing something of huge portent. My parents were pacifists, profoundly opposed to the death penalty and I was confused by their quiet acceptance of what had been done. My mother's words are as clear to me now as they were almost 50 years ago: “he had done too much evil for the world to allow him to live.”

Mladic will not hang. But the enormity of the crimes of which he is accused, like those committed by the Nazis, seem to stand outside all our normal structures of punishment and reparation. They challenge our desire for vengeance and speak strangely to our deepest fears. We are tested to the limits of our faith and principles and brought close to the condition of frightened children. It takes a great leap of faith to remember whose is the justice, who will repay.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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