"Hitler's Bureaucrats: The SD and the Banality of Evil," by Ya'akov Lazovik, Magnes Press, 247 pages, NIS 66.70

Ever since the end of World War II, people have repeatedly asked the inevitable and unanswerable question (to a large extent, the question actually began to be asked even before the fighting had died out): Were the Nazis a unique, unusual breed of human beings, who cannot teach us anything about human nature but who can only serve as evidence of the existence of absolute evil in the world - or were they completely ordinary human beings whose capacity to commit unprecedented crimes testifies to the potential for unspeakable evil that exists in every society and in every individual?

This is the question that is asked by Ya'akov Lazovik, director of the Yad Vashem archives, in his new book about the small band of young bureaucrats who planned, organized and executed the most comprehensive and most efficient act of genocide in history.

Lazovik presents two models to explain bureaucratic genocide. One is the argument used by the prosecutor in the Eichmann trial, Gideon Hausner, who regarded Adolf Eichmann as the "most potent incarnation of satanic behavior" (page 11). The second is the argument used by Hannah Arendt, whose articles on the trial in The New Yorker appeared in 1963 in book form as "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil." Although it took nearly four decades to translate Arendt's book into Hebrew, Lazovik attaches great importance to her interpretation, according to which Eichmann was an average, totally normal individual, who was neither stupid nor blind nor feeble-minded, but who, nonetheless, was unable to distinguish between good and evil - not because he was a monster but rather because, under the conditions prevailing in the Third Reich, only truly exceptional individuals could have been expected to act "normally," while Eichmann was certainly normal by Third Reich standards.

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons that Arendt's book had to wait so many years before appearing in Hebrew translation was the difficulty in accepting her claim that Eichmann was an ordinary human being in the context of his particular society, rather than a Nazi "subhuman" who existed light years away from human civilization. This dispute, of course, has special ramifications for Israeli society. However, even in other countries, no unequivocal answer has ever been given to this enigma. Some of West Germany's most important writers, for example, preferred to depict the Nazis as human aberrations that were not part of the "normal" social and cultural fabric of their country. German scholars in the first years after the war considered the Nazis an imported product that could be described as a "deviation" from the normal progress of German history.

In the United Kingdom, a debate ensued during the war over whether all the Germans should be depicted as Nazis, or whether a distinction should be made between Nazis and innocent German citizens (who, nonetheless, were unavoidably attacked by aerial bombing terror designed to persuade them to rise up against the Nazi regime). In the American cinema of the 1950s and `60s, one would find, on more than one occasion, decent, honest Wehrmacht officers struggling for Germany's lost honor against elegant, but cruel, SS officers and contemptible, twisted Gestapo agents.

Naturally, the central question as to whether a "little Hitler" exists in every one of us was a major concern for social psychologists like Stanley Milgram (who gave an affirmative response) and important writers like Primo Levi (who gave a somewhat guardedly negative response). Thus, the debate itself, although an interesting one, is not new, and it is hard to assume that anything particularly revolutionary will ever be added to it.

The more interesting question (which is the central topic of Lazovik's book) is what can be learned from the vast body of information that has already been amassed on the patterns of thought and motivation of "desk murderers" such as Eichmann and his colleagues. Here - and not necessarily in the philosophical debate over the essence of evil in the Holocaust - lies the strength of this excellent study. It meticulously documents the actions and, where possible, the thoughts, of the bureaucrats who invested an inexhaustible supply of energy as well as their considerable administrative and intellectual talents in carrying out mass murder on a unprecedented scale, under the difficult conditions of a very bloody war and in the face of logistical and political difficulties.

It is obvious that the members of Nazi Germany's Sicherheitsdienst (SD or security service of the SS) were not simply following orders and were not simply career-minded opportunists. Rather, they felt that they had a "mission" that was of immense historic importance and which was rooted in both rabid anti-Semitism and in a total acceptance of Nazi ideology. The readers of Lazovik's book are informed that there are no grounds for the argument that these officials did not really know what they were doing (either because they did not have an overall picture of what was transpiring or else because they lacked the ability to imagine the horrific consequences of their instructions). Many of the officials in question personally visited the killing fields of the Holocaust and personally witnessed the brutal deportations and the piles of dead bodies at the other end of the railroad track. Whenever problems arose in the execution of the "Final Solution," Eichmann and his staff would use every means at their disposal to overcome the obstacles and to vigorously urge foreign governments, Wehrmacht personnel, railroad managers and the Judenraten (Jewish Councils) to send more and more trainloads of Jews to their deaths.

Moreover, even when the well-oiled genocide machine began to collapse under the onslaught of Red Army troops from the East and Allied forces from the West, Eichmann and his staff continued with their "work" and demonstrated their absolute dedication to their "mission" and their readiness to use extremely brutal tactics after the death camps ceased functioning. When the war ended and the "work" could not be continued, some of these officials expressed regret - not for what they had done, but rather for the fact that they had not done enough.

A bureaucrat's view

As he himself admits, Lazovik has for years served as a bureaucrat. He therefore understands very well the way bureaucrats work. The lack of transparency of form letters and other documents generated by this or that office is expressed in the fact that not all those who signed these papers necessarily wrote them, that not all those who certified their receipt necessarily read them, and that not all that these papers contained was the truth - even in the eyes of their authors. Naturally, such distinctions are of major importance, if only because a more careful reading of the documents can help identify those who were really responsible for the issuing and execution of the orders.

However, the author is less interested in these documents and more concerned with the unanimity that he discovered at every level of command regarding the urgent need to "solve the Jewish question." Here he succeeds in pinpointing, on the one hand, the pressure exerted by senior echelons in the Reich for stepping up the pace of extermination and, on the other hand, the urgent requests from junior officials in the field for all the means needed for them to carry out their mission. Thus, with a very high degree of efficiency, local initiatives dovetailed with the orders handed down from above and with the consensus on the mission's importance.

Lazovik admits that, the moment the bureaucrats of genocide went into high gear, they had no time for ideological matters - in contrast with the pre-extermination period that Eichmann's department used for research purposes, and which exposed the ideological goal and anti-Semitic motives of the department's staff. In light of this situation, Lazovik drew most of his evidence concerning the ideological motivation of these bureaucrats from an analysis of their actions and from the way the documents were phrased. In this context, his book examines the preparations for the execution of the Final Solution between 1939 and 1941 in Poland, where the Germans were forced to focus their attention on the deportation of Poles rather than Jews in order to achieve their goal of "resettling" ethnic Germans brought to the annexed provinces of western Poland from Eastern Europe and from the Soviet Union in the context of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. This topic has already been discussed in recent studies (such as those of Gotz Aly). However, Lazovik utilizes the topic to expose the determination of the SD to concentrate instead on the removal of the Jews.

Yet it is regrettable that, in the discussion of the timing of the decision on the Final Solution, the author does not mention the latest analysis of the Wannsee Conference by German historian Christian Gerlach, who claims that the decision to carry out a genocide campaign for the extermination of all of Europe's Jewry was made only in December 1941, after the Soviet counteroffensive and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led Hitler to conclude that Germany was now in the midst of the world war in which, as he had "predicted" in 1939, European Jewry would be liquidated.

Some mention should also have been made of the different interpretation offered by Peter Longerich, who sees a gradual shift toward a genocidal policy - a process that reaches "maturity" only in the spring or summer of 1942. As Gerlach also emphasizes, the primary goal of the Wannsee Conference was to discuss the fate of the Mischlinge (or "mixed" Jews) and, in the course of the discussion, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SD, made no reference to death camps but instead talked about killing Europe's 11 million Jews by hard labor in the "East."

Servility and humanity

These new studies do not weaken Lazovik's arguments; but they should have been mentioned in order to broaden the picture and to clarify matters for Hebrew readers who are not aware of developments in German research on the Holocaust.

The author then proceeds to a reconstruction of the execution of the Final Solution in Germany. His study unequivocally proves that, despite the widespread use of "camouflage language" - or what has been termed "euphemisms" - everyone connected with the Final Solution project was well aware that it was a campaign of genocide. Here as well it would have been appropriate, in my opinion, to mention the fascinating diary of Viktor Klemperer, which first appeared in Germany in 1995 and which offers exceptional testimony on the life of a Jewish academic who remained married to an "Aryan" woman during the entire 12 years of the Third Reich's existence. Klemperer describes in great detail the base servility of German society, especially the intellectuals and academics, yet he also mentions many instances where Germans displayed humanity and mercy and offered tangible assistance.

Here again, this firsthand testimony does not contradict the thesis that Eichmann and his staff were rabid anti-Semites, but it does prove that they encountered difficulties within their own society and were forced to remove moral obstacles by concealing the acts of deportation and murder behind mountains of administrative orders and the so-called camouflage words. However, as Lazovik demonstrates, they would joke with one another, using coarse, violent language, when they referred to the fate of their victims.

I am not sure that this "sense of humor" necessarily contradicts Arendt's claim regarding the banality of evil; to a certain extent, it even substantiates it. However, what is very clear is the fact that these very specific evil acts were committed by Jew-haters who knew precisely where they were sending the trains to and what would be the fate of those who were deported.

In the next chapters of his book, Lazovik reviews the actions of the branches of Eichmann's department in The Netherlands and France. The fascinating element in that discussion consists, on the one hand, of illustrations of the astounding efficiency of the executors of the Final Solution in the Netherlands, despite attempts by segments in the Dutch public to protest their actions and, on the other hand, of the significant difficulties that Eichmann's staff in France contended with in the face of the ever-increasing refusal by the Vichy authorities to collaborate in the deportation of Jews who were French citizens.

Lazovik presents important evidence that the French had more reservations on the Nazi policy toward the Jews than what has been argued by scholars such as Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton. Furthermore, Lazovik offers proof that the Nazi officials continually and bitterly complained about the delaying tactics employed by the Vichy officials. Immense importance should be attached to his comments on the Italian officials who diligently took action to prevent the deportation of Jews in the areas of southern France that had fallen into Italian hands.

With respect to this point, it can be seen, as the author emphasizes, that there is no single logic common to the various groups of bureaucrats. Quite the contrary: The German, French and Italian officials knew exactly what was going on and behaved in accordance with what, in their view, was compatible with the national interests of their country and with their moral criteria. The behavior of the Italians casts an even heavier shadow on Eichmann's people.

The same can be said about the last instance that the book discusses: the mass murder of 435,000 Hungarian Jews out of a Jewish community that numbered 800,000, within a matter of a few weeks, between March and July 1944. The reader is exposed here, with blinding clarity, to the deep commitment Eichmann's people had toward the goal of exterminating the Jewish people; to the murderers' immense dependence on collaboration from the local authorities; to that collaboration's direct impact on the scope of the deportations; and to the effect of international pressure on these vitally needed collaborators. It is also clear that the murderers had no scruples about using any tactic of deception in order to obtain the assistance of the local Jewish leaders.

In Hungary, Eichmann's department achieved a "record" for efficiency and sophistication in its "work," and chalked up its most impressive achievement. Nonetheless, Eichmann and his people, who continued to operate even after the last death camp in Auschwitz had been shut down, seethed with anger over the fact that, despite their tireless efforts, the Jewish community of Budapest had managed to evade their ovens.

Mere humans?

To sum up, it can be said that Lazovik presents a persuasive, well-documented thesis on the central role played by Eichmann's "Jewish department" in the execution of the Final Solution; on the dedication to ideology and efficiency in the field of the department's staffers; and on the monstrously effective use they made of bureaucratic mechanisms and the civil and military administrations in Germany and in German-occupied countries to carry out what they regarded as an "historic mission" of supreme importance.

As noted above, although Lazovik presents many new documents and provides a new and more precise commentary on familiar documents, the presentation of new documents and the new commentary cannot be considered in themselves innovative. Arendt's book, which he furiously attacks, appeared in Hebrew, as mentioned, only recently. However, scholars have known about the book for the past 40 years and tons of criticism have been heaped on it in the past. Eichmann and his band were thoroughly evil people and were well aware that they were operating in clear defiance of the accepted moral and ethical criteria of the bourgeois, law-abiding society of Germany and Austria in which they grew up. Nevertheless, they saw themselves as the achievers of a far nobler goal and they aspired to attain that goal with the bureaucratic means that they were familiar with and which they knew how to use in a highly effective manner.

A few years ago, German historian Ulrich Herbert wrote a research study on Heydrich's deputy, jurist Werner Best. According to Herbert, Best belonged to the generation of young Germans who considered themselves more talented and more efficient than Hitler's "veteran warriors" in achieving the warriors' goal of creating a new Germany in the wake of their country's defeat in the First World War. This "effectiveness approach" was succinctly summed up in their demand "to destroy our enemies without hating them." Obviously, they did not mean to imply that they did not hate Jews (or Slavs, or Gypsies, or the disabled). What they were trying to stress was that the most effective way to fight the Jews was not through the kind of pornographic propaganda used by Julius Streicher's Der Sturmer or through wild pogroms such as Kristallnacht, which was initiated by the Storm Troopers (SA). These young Germans believed that Germany's enemies could be destroyed only through rational means and only in a cool-headed, restrained, highly disciplined manner. From this standpoint, Eichmann and his people are modern murderers, "genocide technocrats" in every sense of the word.

Lazovik clearly understands the difficulty that this phenomenon presents. According to him, "the memory of the Holocaust threatens us, the rationalists, because, if we do not see the Nazis as ordinary human beings like us, we will find ourselves accepting the basic assumption according to which there are different breeds of human being. However, the real threat of the memory of the Holocaust lies in the fear in our hearts that, if we really want to explain the Nazis and their actions, we will have no recourse but to rely on irrational concepts, such as `evil' ... and it is, after all, the job of the scholar to deal with things that can be measured and explained, not with amorphous entities borrowed from the religious world's value system" (page 222).

However, if, of course, we regard the Nazis not as ordinary human beings, but as exceptions to the rule, as monsters that have nothing whatsoever in common with normal people like us, then we have learned nothing from the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, these were "evil" people, and it is our responsibility to uproot phenomena like these because they are an incarnation of human evil and not an incarnation of some metaphysical evil that is situated outside history and beyond the realm of human existence. The Nazis were neither the first nor the last to use rational means to achieve what they considered an historical goal and what we consider a murderous, insane ideology. They were certainly the most fanatic, and they derived satisfaction from the recognition of their fanaticism. They were the products of both their period and the political, social and cultural context into which they were born.

These historical circumstances will not return, but that does not mean that other rational human beings, in the name of another ideology, might not arise to exterminate this or that group of human beings. The second half of the 20th century is full of such examples.

From this standpoint, Eichmann and his people were banal: ordinary people who used conventional means to achieve a nightmarish goal thought up by human beings. It seems to me that this is the truth that hides in the highway of documents that they have left behind. Satan, it can be assumed, did not need a rubber stamp from his superiors to throw cyanide capsules into the gas chambers.

Omer Bartov is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History and Professor of History at Brown University.