Eichmann, Anything but an Ordinary Man

In her magnum opus on the career of the 'architect of the Holocaust,' German scholar Bettina Stangneth provides a revealing portrait a man who was far from being a dutiful clerk.

Jack Schwartz
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Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961
Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961 Credit: AP
Jack Schwartz

“Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,” by Bettina Stangneth (translated from the German by Ruth Martin), Alfred A. Knopf, 608 pages, $35

History has left us with two distinct images of Adolf Eichmann: There is the chief of the Gestapo’s Department of Jewish Affairs in 1942, sporting an officer’s cap bearing the SS death’s head emblem, arrogant, self-assured, affecting a penetrating stare and flashing a smile that is almost a smirk. And, almost 20 years later, there is the man in the glass booth, balding, bespectacled, accommodating; the only headgear is earphones, the smile is now diffident. It is the image not of someone on trial but of an expert witness, a specialist called to clarify a complex matter.

The disconnect between this before and after has filled volumes and been the source of a long-running debate over personal responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich and the nature of radical evil. Now, in “Eichmann Before Jerusalem,” the German philosopher and historian Bettina Stangneth has provided a connecting thread between the before and after, presenting a comprehensive study that links both periods and makes sense of the whole picture.

Stangneth’s chronicle would be impressive if it merely accounted for Eichmann’s time in eluding capture in the postwar era. But its real strength lies in unearthing the 29 hours of taped conversations as well as the more than 1,300 pages of transcripts, notes, commentary and assorted writings that Eichmann produced during his sojourn in Argentina, from his flight there in 1952 to his capture by the Israelis in 1960.

Although specialists were cognizant of some of this material – indeed the Israelis gained access to a limited portion whose introduction Eichmann downplayed or prevented at his trial – the bulk of it was dispersed in a confusing manner over various German archives, and was largely unknown by the general public until Stangneth published her book in Germany in 2011. In gathering, reconciling and clarifying this data, Stangneth has brought to light a substantial amount of hitherto unrevealed information.

What we learn from these extraordinary files is that, far from the abject creature who claimed he was no more than a dutiful clerk carrying out the wishes of his masters in the Nazi genocide, Eichmann was an unreconstructed Nazi, unregenerate, unrepentant, who reveled in his deeds and only regretted not carrying them to their conclusion. Moreover, he was a brilliant actor who could play a variety of parts with a chameleon’s gift for becoming whatever his audience wanted to see. His career consisted of three acts: The Third Reich, The Not-So-Hidden Years and the Jerusalem Captivity. And he played each part to perfection.

Far from being a fugitive lurking in a hidden backwater, for the better part of his years in Argentina Eichmann flaunted his notoriety within a protective ring of friends and enablers in Buenos Aires. Though he maintained the alias of Ricardo Klement, he flourished openly under his own name among an influential circle of like-minded sympathizers that constituted a “who’s who” of escaped Nazis. Insulated by a sympathetic Peron regime and a collusive German embassy, he enjoyed a second life in Argentina working at various times as a surveyor in Tucuman, a farmer and at jobs provided by his supporters. What brought him down was that, unlike such fellow war criminals as Joseph Mengele, who remained hidden, Eichmann sought the limelight, lulled into a false sense of security within his trusted cordon sanitaire.

Adolf Eichmann wrote prolifically under his own name, explaining and justifying his deeds in carrying out the Final Solution and musing on the hopes for a Fourth Reich. Here is a partial list of his oeuvre: The Argentina Papers, recounting his history and world view together with assorted commentary, general essays, notes and speeches, as well as the edited transcripts of his recorded colloquies, taped by the Dutch SS man-turned-journalist Wilhelm Sassen.

He also found time to write a novel, “Tucuman Roman,” as well as to compose an open letter to then-German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, which his friends wisely convinced him not to send. He even signed a book contract with Durer Verlag, the publisher of neo-Nazi tracts. This does not count Eichmann’s voluminous production during his two-year imprisonment in Jerusalem, which includes “My Memoirs,” “My Escape,” prison writings and theological letters.

‘How I became famous’

In good part, Eichmann is his own chronicler. His is quite a tale. First, there is the Eichmann of his years as the head of the Gestapo’s Department for Jewish Affairs, from 1933-45. In the prewar era he was the central coordinator of the despoliation of the Jews of the Reich, as well as of the Jewish community in his native Austria during the Anschluss and the Czech Jews whom he deported from the “protectorate” of Bohemia and Moravia.

In early 1939, even before the war began, Eichmann had already earned the sobriquet “the czar of the Jews” in the foreign media, gaining notoriety, Stangneth writes “as a bloodhound who wanted to kill the Jews.” He enthusiastically collected his press clippings as his reputation grew. “This is how I became famous,” Eichmann crowed in the Sassen tapes. He relished his stature as the man of the moment. It helped him intimidate his victims and, equally important, vault over rivals in the Nazi hierarchy.

When the German conquests in the East with their large Jewish populations brought the onset of ghettoization and extermination, Eichmann became the indispensable man to do the job. He was everywhere at once, a whirlwind force overseeing the deportations, arranging the transports and perfecting the machinery of genocide. As Stangneth observes: “His performance gained him a reputation in these circles as a man of ‘unconventional organization.’”

Eichmann reveled in his infamy, particularly as it spread to “the Jewish world press.” “Nobody else was such a household name in Jewish political life at home and abroad in Europe,” he wrote. His efforts were reported from the outset. Just after the war’s outbreak, in September 1939, the Aufbau, the German-Jewish newspaper in New York, wrote that Sturmtruppfuhrer Eichmann has commenced the transfer of all Jews in the Protectorate.” At about the same time, the Czech intelligence service in London reported that “Eichmann has been granted extraordinary powers ... and is said to report directly to [SS head] Himmler.”

Stangneth writes: “He dispatched, decreed, allowed, took steps, issued orders and gave audiences.” As she documents, and Eichmann himself boasts, he didn’t follow orders, he gave them. As Aufbau detailed in a front-page piece in December 1940 devoted entirely to Eichmann: “The Gestapo’s new informer and hangman in Romania is Kommisar Eichmann.”

By the time of the invasion of Russia, Eichmann’s name was linked inextricably with the elimination of the Jews. In October 1941, the London exile newspaper Die Zeitung wrote of the transport of 5,000 Berlin Jews to the East: “There can now be no doubt that this campaign is premeditated mass murder. The campaign leader is SS Gruppenfuhrer Eichmann.”

As the war continued, and the Nazis genocidal program went into high gear, Eichmann became the face of extermination. In Stangneth’s words: “The Nazis needed a shop-front sign to which the Jewish question could be irreversibly linked and Eichmann was the name to fulfill that symbolic function.” Eichmann flaunted his authority to the end. In personally supervising the deportation of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, he showed “no trace of restraint or caution.”

He boasted of direct control of the gas chambers. “I am a bloodhound!” he roared at the Jewish negotiator Rudolf Kasztner. “I’ll set the mills of Auschwitz grinding!” In Eichmann’s own recollection, his chief Gruppenführer Heinrich Muller expressed it best: To insure the success of this operation “they were sending in the master himself.” Even when the war was lost, Eichmann maintained his genocidal obsession, overseeing the death marches that killed tens of thousands. With the Nazi defeat, Eichmann found that his sought-after notoriety had become a liability. His name appeared on every list of most-wanted war criminals.

But luck and cunning served him well. He hid his identity in a prisoner-of-war camp from which he affected an escape before he could be unmasked. He then used his skills as a former hunter to evade his pursuers, creating a false trail which sent them to the Middle East while he quietly toiled as a forester and later a chicken farmer in northern Germany. Then, with aid of sympathizers in Vatican circles – who were helping to smuggle out other Nazi officials as well – he made his way to Genoa and thence to Argentina in 1952, where he was supplied with a new identity: Ricardo Klement.

A hot ticket

Eichmann lived well in Argentina, which he referred to, without irony, as “the promised land.” If he didn’t flourish, he was always comfortably provided for by a network of intimates and well-wishers, many of whom themselves had eluded justice for their wartime endeavors. By 1954, he had brought over his wife and three sons, and indeed had a fourth boy during this period.

Had Eichmann chosen to remain unobtrusively in Tucuman province, he might have gone undetected. But he was bored in the hinterlands and sought a more cosmopolitan stage on which to reclaim at least a taste of his former glory.

His means of realizing this was a circle of Nazis who provided him with a platform and the means of advancing his agenda, and theirs, through the agency of the printed word. The presiding spirit behind this was Eberhard Fritsch, the head of Durer Verlag, which published Nazi tracts as well as the fascist magazine Der Weg, and the owner of a bookstore that served as a Nazi gathering place. The group that formed around Eichmann also included such Third Reich stalwarts as Ludolf von Alfensleben, Himmler’s former chief adjutant and the highest-ranking Nazi in Argentina.

But the linchpin in this gathering was Willem Sassen, Eichmann’s Boswell, who inspired him to chronicle his former achievements and future ambitions in the form of a book. The means to accomplish this was a tape recorder, whose transcripts would furnish the basis of Eichmann’s opus.

The work began in April 1957 and continued for several months. This was not simply a case of interviewing a subject for posterity. Rather, the tapes take the form of a colloquium, conducted in Sassen’s living room, with a cluster of perpetrators comparing notes on how effectively they achieved their goals. Eichmann, being the most senior surviving Nazi to supervise all aspects of the genocide, is the star of the show. Women were invited to what was nothing less than a salon. It was a hot ticket.

Never does anyone object to the nature of what is being discussed. Tempers only flare over bragging rights. Eichmann furnishes specifics: Jews were “gassed,” “idiots sent to the slaughter,” those who were deported were “killed nonstop in concentration camps like on a conveyor belt.” He extols forced emigration as enabling him to “be creative in my work,” and complains that his efforts to finish off Budapest’s Jews were thwarted. “As far as I know I couldn’t have done anything fruitful anymore.” Nevertheless, Hungary was his masterwork, “and I am proud of that to this day.’’

Such work does not come easy, and Eichmann complains that “it was a killer of a job.” The only one he feels sorry for is himself, for occasionally having to witness the results of his handiwork at the death camps. “I am one of those people who can’t stand to see corpses,” he confides to his listeners.

In his apologia, “The Others Spoke, Now I Want to Speak,” Eichmann declares, “I am not guilty before the law and before my own conscience.” He was a soldier in a total war of annihilation and his oath of allegiance obligated him to carry out his duty to the fullest.

Where does morality stand in all this? Eichmann’s response: “There are a number of moralities: a Christian morality, a morality of ethical values, a morality of battle. Which will it be?” Eichmann opts for “the morality of the Fatherland.”

The higher morality is that of the nation manifested in the will of its leaders, who act on behalf of the people. As Stangneth observes, this leads Eichmann to conclude in his own perverse logic that, “Therefore a person should not allow his inner morality to conflict with his orders.” A universal war of extermination, Stangneth writes, obliged people to use “unscrupulous violence.” Death camps, she notes, were simply “an inventive battle tactic.”

Although he never served at the front, Eichmann considered himself a combatant. A clarifying moment in his Weltanschauung comes when Eichmann tells Sassen’s audience: “We had a total war and the front and the hinterland were totally blurred.” He takes issue “with those who are of the opinion that the last war was fought only on the front lines ... There is no difference between the annihilation of enemy powers when a total war has been declared.”

Stangneth observes that Eichmann “had clearly forgotten that his ‘enemy powers’ had been defenseless, frightened human beings.” But this speaks to the essence of Hitler’s war against the Jews, an existential conflict in which one side or the other had to be utterly eliminated. Such reasoning enabled mass murderers to account themselves heroic figures. It provided one of the pillars of Nazi ideology, and Eichmann diligently evoked its precepts. Eichmann’s world view may be abhorrent, but within its dystopian borders, it is malevolently consistent and perversely well thought out.

Playing the naf

When he was captured by the Israelis and brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1960, Eichmann proved a wily quarry for his interrogator, Avner Less, and a formidable opponent for the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner. He was remarkably well informed about the evidence against him since he’d already read everything on the subject, and conducted what amounted to mock debates during the Sassen interviews. But he kept this from his captors, skillfully playing the naf as he sparred with them. And although his capture caused consternation in West Germany, where it was feared that if Eichmann named names he would compromise Bonn’s political, economic and security establishment, he remained loyal to his former comrades and kept silent.

To dismiss his “modest mental gifts,” as Hannah Arendt did in “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” accepts his guise as an unimaginative clerk mindlessly carrying out the mandates of his superiors. Playing the obedient dutiful pen-pusher – his only hope of avoiding the gallows – was Eichmann’s last great role. He was able to convince Arendt, if not the court. By dismissing him as a non-entity in reporting his trial, Arendt deprived Eichmann of his own satanic gifts and the responsibility that went with them.”

In Arendt’s rendering, Eichmann was a diligent functionary imbued with the Nazi ethos, who responded automatically and assiduously in carrying out the commands of his superiors, and so, acted legally if not morally. But Stangneth writes that, in light of the Argentine documents, Arendt’s “characterization of Eichmann’s ‘inability to think’ is insupportable.” The transcripts, the tapes, the texts leave Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil in tatters. True, Arendt may not have had access to the Argentine material, but the sheer mass of reportage that appeared in the international press about Eichmann’s role as an innovative progenitor of the Holocaust, which he himself fostered, was available to her long before his trial.

Arendt justified her coverage as being based on a thorough reading of the trial transcript, but all she had to do was read back issues of her own newspaper, the German-Jewish Aufbau, for which she wrote during the war, to gain an image of Eichmann that was a far cry from the dutiful bureaucrat she painted in her treatise. It is incredible that she ignored this information, of which she had to be aware, and which should at least have given her pause in portraying Eichmann as a mindless factotum.

Arendt’s defenders maintain that her theory on the “banality of evil” has been misunderstood, that her detractors wrongly accuse of her of attributing seemingly acquiescent behavior to what are in fact demonic impulses. Instead, they suggest a more nuanced approach: that Eichmann’s banality consisted in his being so ordinary and yet capable of radical evil, although incapable of the complex thought that motivates the ideological zealot.

They are wrong on both counts. On the first point, ordinary men can behave heroically or basely under extreme conditions. On the second point, as Stangneth shows, Eichmann was no ordinary man. His monstrous thinking was based on a complete ideological system, logically consistent within its warped framework, and not too far in its raw bio-ethnic premise from the Volkish nostrums of Martin Heidegger, “Hitler’s philosopher.” Eichmann was anything but the self-effacing mediocrity portrayed by Arendt; rather, he was an extraordinary individual who had applied super-human energy to subhuman acts.

Arendt’s name has been linked inextricably with Eichmann’s so that it is now difficult to mention one without the other. One of the strengths of Stangneth’s book is that while she gives Arendt her due throughout, she keeps the spotlight firmly on Eichmann. Arendt used Eichmann as a foil to advance her thoughts on the nature of radical evil. If the man she described in Jerusalem was other than the pathetic creature she depicted him as, her theory would have been compromised. Arendt’s various motives and subsequent behavior in writing about the trial have at times subsumed the career of Eichmann himself.

In “The Eichmann Trial” (2011), Deborah Lipstadt demolished Arendt’s charge of complicity on the part of the Judenrat that administered the ghettos, pointing out, among other things, that the Nazis were able to massacre more than a million Soviet Jews without benefit of Jewish councils. Lipstadt eviscerated Arendt’s charge that Israel’s “case was built on what the Jews had suffered, not on what Eichmann had done,” citing the cumulative wealth of documentation that sent Eichmann to the gallows in 1962. She also reminds us that Arendt, who made so much of her own meticulous reportage, went on vacation in the midst of the four-month trial, missing five weeks of testimony. For a reporter who set such store on her insights into the personality of the man in the glass booth, reading a transcript is not the same thing as watching him testify over the course of the trial.

One of the strengths of Stangneth work is that she has freed Eichmann from Arendt’s shadow and restored him to center stage. The issue is not Arendt’s reading, but Eichmann’s actions. He was one of the instrumental architects of the Holocaust and, as Stangneth’s voluminous research demonstrates, the responsibility is his, together with the many-headed cohort that abetted him.

Bettina Stangneth has combined the talents of rigorous academic research with investigative journalism in tracking down and sifting through the mounds of archival data located in diffuse venues. Her efforts at comparing, collating and interpreting the wealth of material in the hall of mirrors and blind alleys that Eichmann erected are nothing less than prodigious. The result is an exhaustive – and sometimes exhausting – journey through a realm of radical evil, but a necessary one for anyone who wants a fuller understanding of Adolf Eichmann.

The writer formerly supervised the book pages of Newsday and was an editor in the culture section of The New York Times.



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