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Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Hannah Arendt Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: The Viking Press, 1963; revised and enlarged edition, 1965).
Deborah E. Lipstadt The Eichmann Trial (New York: Schocken Books, 2011)
Bettina Stangneth Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)
Over the past few years, two major new books on Adolf Eichmann and his 1961 trial in Jerusalem, Deborah Lipstadt’s The Echmann Trial (2011) and Bettina Stangneth’s carefully researched and documented Eichmann Before Jerusalem (2014), have intelligently analyzed Eichmann’s role as, what many have described, the “Manager of the Holocaust,” his life after the fall of Germany, and his final trial and death, as well as the significance of these events. Both books also—Lipstadt’s as a direct confrontation and Strangneth’s by clear implication—refute many of the arguments Hannah Arendt expressed in her 1963 work, based, in turn, on her reports in The New Yorker during the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, effectively dismantling any responses that Eichmann was a banal figure who was simply following orders and had had little actual role in bringing millions of Jews to the camps. Accordingly, along with reading these new titles, I felt it necessary to revisit the Arendt book as well, and have spent the last several months (including a day on jury duty) encountering three somewhat different perspectives of the Nazi leader who, although may have killed no one personally (that is, by immediate “hands-on” actions), and having described himself—quite ridiculously—as no “Jew-hater” but a man who was even a “friend to the Jews,” nonetheless sent so many thousands upon thousands to their deaths.
Eichmann represents a highly disturbing phenomenon, not only because he was such a thorough and seemingly incorruptible believer in the necessity of destroying an entire people— which, had the Germans won the War might also have included the Poles and citizens of other cultures which Hitler’s Aryan fantasies perceived as inferior—but was proud of continuing to carry out Hitler’s Final Solution even after most all of the other despicable Nazi’s still living at the time of Germany’s defeat, had abandoned such activities or ordered them to be ceased.
And yet, as Arendt’s arguments indicate, the ordinary-looking man Eichmann, had fate simply dealt him a different set of cards, might have never even reached the position in which he found himself. Certainly few others, with far greater intelligence and ambitions, might not have been so eager to accomplish the destruction of so many human beings, while remaining so distant from the actual horrors as they took place. In short, he was a monster who didn’t reveal himself to be one, a very contradiction of the root meaning of the word (monstre, to warn by showing). Yet he didn’t exactly shirk his involvement or blame only others, as did so many at the Nuremberg Trials, but proclaimed that because it was his sworn duty, he felt proud in helping to carry out the round-ups and shipping of Jews to the camps such as Aushwitz, Chelmno, and Theresienstadt.
From Strangneth’s book, we now know that, whether or not he was intelligent, he was a wily actor who knew how to twist history so that what might appear as totally absurd might be represented as somewhat reasonable and logical, at least from his point of view; and the personality he portrayed in Jerusalem had been practiced and crafted from this on-tape interviews with Nazi supporters in Buenos Aires, the so-called Sassen tapes, after the war. He was not stupid, and, if nothing else, we now know, he was seldom banal, in the sense of being trite or unoriginal. Eichmann’s planning and organizing abilities, often requiring him to work apart and even against other departments of the Nazi bureaucracy, were astounding, particularly with regard to his ability to convince some Jewish leaders to actually engage in playing a role in their own and their compatriots’ destruction. And, finally, we now know that, even if he had been given another deck of cards which would have made his life far different, he worked extraordinarily hard to keep playing out the game with the same players and the rules that had been ordained.
Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial is a seemingly straight-forward and highly informative summary of Eichmann’s war-time activities, a succinct account of his arrest, years later, in Argentina, and of the Jerusalem trial itself; and as such is perhaps the best place to begin any study of Eichmann and the events surrounding him for today’s everyman reader.
Her book begins with a quite startling announcement in 1960 by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to Israel’s Knesset:
I have to inform the Knesset that a short time ago one of
the great Nazi war criminals, Adolf Eichmann, the man
responsible together with the Nazi leaders for what they
called the Final Solution, which is the annihilation of
six million European Jews, was discovered by the Israel
security services. Adolf Eichmann is already under
arrest in Israel and will be placed on trial shortly under
the terms for the trail of Nazis and their collaborators.
The shock was palpable as a confused silence spread over the parliament, followed a few moments later by, as Lipstadt describes it, an “eruption”: “People wept, hugged, and marveled.”
What follows is a clearly expressed summary of how Eichmann’s Argentina address was discovered—a series of events which began in the late 1950s when Sylvia Hermann began dating Eichmann’s son Klaus, who, in turn, bragged to Sylvia’s family that his father had been a high-ranking Waffen-SS officer. The girl’s father, Lothar Hermann, a nearly-blind German half-Jew, was appalled by Klaus’ suggestion that the German’s “should have finished the job of exterminating the Jews,” connected up the boy’s statements with what we soon after read in the German-language newspaper, Argentinisches Tageblatt, that Eichmann was one of Nazi criminals still at large, and wrote to the Frankfurt prosecutor, Fritz Bauer, who responded by suggesting that Hermann should attempt to locate Eichmann’s address. The daughter was sent into the run-down neighborhood where Klaus lived, where she “asked around until she located the ‘ramshackle’ Eichmann home.” At the house, she was met by a middle-aged man, who described himself as Klaus' uncle, and invited the girl to wait for his nephew's return. When Klaus finally returned, he suggested he might accompany Sylvia to the bus, and as they left, addressed the man as “Father."
Receiving the address, Bauer determined to further investigate, but not through the German security services or even the German judicial system, because both had proved wary of involving themselves in the trials of former Nazis and some members of these organizations, still harboring Nazi sympathies, might even warn Eichmann. Instead he passed on the information to Israel, and the information was ultimately passed on to Isser Harel, the head of Mossad (Israel’s security services). Four months later, however, when an Israeli operative was ordered to check the address, he determined that such a dilapidated building could not possibly be the home of such a former high-ranking officer as Eichmann. When Bauer heard of this “lackadaisical approach” he insisted that Harel meet with the Hermanns directly to assess the quality of his information.
Yet a few more months passed, and when the agent met with Herman, he was “nonplussed to discover that their informant was blind.” Sylvia convinced him, however, that there may be some truth to the matter, and he asked them to help by checking the property records for Eichmann’s address, where they discovered that the building was owned by an Austrian named Schmidt, but “that the utility bill went to a Ricardo Klement” (Eichmann’s alias in Argentina). Hermann proposed that Schmidt was Eichmann and suggested (without any evidence) that Eichmann had had plastic surgery to disguise his appearance, ideas which, when the Israelis looked into them, proved to be mistaken; accordingly they, once again, dropped the case. In the meantime, however, Bauer was able to discover from other sources that Eichmann, now known as Klement, was indeed living in Argentina.
Visiting Israel in December 1959, Bauer met with General Haim Cohen, expressing his disappointment with Harel’s inactivity. Summoned to Cohen’s office, Harel once again took up the search, dispatching Mossad’s chief interrogator, Zvi Aharoni, to Argentina, where he discovered that indeed Eichmann and Klement were the same man. Upon hearing of this Ben-Gurion immediately ordered that Eichmann should be “apprehended and brought to Israel to stand trial.”
Even though a group of Israeli security volunteers entered Argentina on false papers, leasing houses, renting cars, and establishing other connections, the entire project met with another snag when it was discovered that the Eichmann family had now moved to another house, a hand-built construction of cinder-block that had no electricity or running water. At that time Eichmann was working at a Mercedes-Benz assembly plant, and took the bus home each evening to his somewhat secluded domicile.
Lipstadt dramatically describes his arrest:
On May 11, 1960, the Israelis parked two cars midway
between the bus stop and his home. One had its hood up.
The men assigned to grab him huddled over the engine
as if they were checking a mechanical failure. The second
car parked down the road, facing the first car. When Eichmann
neared the “disabled” car, the driver of the second car
switched on the headlights, effectively blinding him. Peter
Malkin, a hand-combat specialist and one of the agents
near the “disabled” car, jumped him. While they struggled,
Eichmann emitted what Malkin described as “the primal cry
of a cornered animal.”
And so, the discovery and abduction that almost didn’t happen, was over. Eichmann, soon after brought to Israel, was on trial for his life.*
Lipstadt’s most significant contribution, however, is her detailed presentation of the trial, pointing to both the rationale of and errors made by the prosecuting attorney, Gideon Hausner, who, with the support and likely encouragement of Ben-Gurion, determined to make the Israeli trial very different from the previous Nuremberg court procedures; the Israelis wanted to make this a trial not just about the criminal and his horrific deeds, but to allow for the trial itself to be an occasion during which surviving Jews from around the world might be able, for the first time, to express their grievances, helping to insure that the true dimensions of the Holocaust, in which Eichmann had such a significant role, would not go unspoken or be forgotten. Lipstadt is particularly good at pointing up the justifiable reasons for doing this, as well as expressing the views of those who felt the whole affair to be only a show-trial that had lost its focus on its one necessary duty, to lay out a coherent case for Eichmann’s criminal guilt.
The jurors themselves, in fact, often stood at odds with the endless testimonies of those called by the prosecution; while Eichmann’s lawyer, Robert Servatius at times seemed disinterested in asking specific questions or even in challenging some of the accusations, while at other times steering his client into long illogical harangues of self-justification. The very fact that Israel had abducted Eichmann, moreover, and that, in a very real sense, the victims were trying their murderer, brought international questions of whether or not Eichmann could possibly get a fair trial. The fact, moreover, that the trial was conducted in Hebrew (translated into not always perfect English in daily reports) before jurors, lawyers, and witnesses who primarily spoke German seemed senseless to other critics such as Hannah Arendt.
In her short text, nonetheless, Lipstadt brings clarity to the issues of the trial, negotiating the complexities of a series of such horrific acts that, in many senses, simply could be not possibly be coherently expressed. In the end, the judges ruled Eichmann guilty, specifically noting that despite his insistence that he wanted to tell the truth, and gave specific testimony to his activities, he was also a liar whose “entire testimony was nothing but one consistent attempt to deny the truth and to conceal his real share of responsibility.” Eichmann’s arguments that in Vienna his work to move the Jews to the camps had been for the “mutual benefit” of Jews and Nazis were contradicted, so the court declared, by “witnesses and the documents.” His plan to relocate thousands of Jews to Madagascar, which he argued, if it had materialized, “everything would have been in perfect order to the satisfaction of the Germans and the Jews,” was, in fact, “far from the truth.” Eichmann’s argument that he reacted to the failure of the trucks-for-lives negotiation concerning about-to-be-deported Hungarian Jews with “sorrow,” “fury and…anger,” was “sheer hypocrisy,” particularly given the fact that he was simultaneously working (even against Heinrich Himmler’s orders) to deport Hungarian Jews as quickly as possible.
Yet the judges were not thoroughly persuaded by Hausner that Eichmann actually murdered a small boy in Budapest, that he had been connected to Kristallnact, or even that his deportation activities in Vienna, Prague, and Nisko during the early years were “brutal,” given the fact there was no proof, at that time, that it was part of a program to exterminate the Jewish people, having occurred before Hitler’s announcement of The Final Solution.
It is in the last chapter of her book, however, that Lipstadt reveals that she has another motivation for retelling the Eichmann story, which seems to have more to do with settling scores that explaining history. Most notably Lipstadt expresses her outrage against Hannah Arendt and her reports of the trial in The New Yorker, furious that Arendt pretends to report on the entire long months of the trial, much of which she did not actually attend.
Lipstadt’s larger fury, moreover, arises from Arendt’s seemingly predetermined intention of finding a man like Eichmann to be an ignorant and lazy thinker who reveals the sometimes banality of evil. And, finally, Lipstadt, like so many others, is angry at Arendt’s penchant for suggesting that hundreds of the Jewish victims were themselves collaborators in their own and others’ deaths. If at moments Lipstadt is quite fair-minded about Arendt, one clearly feels that she still has a grudge to settle—one to which the reader, at least this reader, is somewhat sympathetic. If nothing else, however, using Arendt’s writing as an example of how the issues surrounding Eichmann remain, even today, confused and conflicted, is an important analysis of the Eichmann events.
Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem shines a light upon SS Obersturmbannführer Eichmann and his trial that takes both Lipstadt’s and Arendt’s writing into entirely different dimensions. Like a masterful sleuth, the author has tracked down nearly all of Eichmann’s movements after the War from the American prisoner war camp to Oberpfalz (where he lived under the name Otto Eckmann) from which he escaped, to yet a new identity as Otto Heninger near Celle in Lower Saxony, and eventually to Argentina, this time under the name of Ricardo Klement.
The author also presents, in the early chapters, specific details on Eichmann’s rise to power, often on the basis of false credentials, such as the notion that he was a skilled “Hebraist” (in fact, there is no reason, except for his purchase of a textbook, Hebräisch für Jedermann, "Hebrew for Everyone," that he knew any but a few words of Hebrew and Yiddish), a myth which Eichmann promulgated and used to achieve his ultimate position as the man who met with the Jewish committees and arranged for the deportation transports in Austria, Hungary and elsewhere of Jews to the death camps.
Strangneth also reveals more clearly than other writers that he most likely attended the meeting where Hitler outlined The Final Solution, and she argues that Eichmann himself insisted that he had “coined” the term. Far more in depth than Lipstadt, moreover, Strangneth’s research makes clear just how resolved Eichmann was in his determination to send all the Jews to their death, working against the expressed orders of his superiors to ship out Hungarian Jews even as the War itself was drawing to a close.
Most importantly, Strangneth, for the first time in print, analyzes and recreates the contents of over 1,300 pages of written notes and the seventy-three audio reel recordings, the so called Sassen tapes, upon which Eichmann extensively outlined his war-time experiences, detailing many events of the Holocaust. Indeed, the Nazi group, headed by Wilhelmus Antonius Maria Sassen and other Argentina-based or relocated Nazis who one day hoped to revive Nazism not only in Germany but throughout the world, and who were as equally anti-Semitic, if not more than Eichmann, expressed their intrigue with the famed Nazi figure among their midst. Many of them were slightly fearful of Eichmann (he had known so many of the Nazi leaders), and, more importantly, were curious as to what the actual truth of the Holocaust was—specifically with regard to the actual numbers of Jews deported and killed—in their attempts to discover the truth. Their hope, as the author suggests, was that the numbers had been highly inflated, and if they could prove this, with information from Eichmann, they felt they could surely resurrect their cause. Strangneth explains the situation quite succinctly:
No topic provoked the Dürer circle [the group of Argentinean
Nazi supporters] more than the number of Jewish victims.
By 1957, no one in Buenos Aires still believed that articles like
“The Lie of the Six Million” and the Hester Report could
throw the genocide into doubt—mainly because the Dürer circle
had been largely responsible for manufacturing these revisionist
denials. Once the new body of source material became available,
all they could do was try to make the scale of the genocide appear
as small as possible. It is difficult to understand why the
question of victim numbers continues to occupy old and neo-Nazis,
and the New Right, like no other, considering that the legal and
moral problem of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews does not depend
on an absolute number. The ‘reparations' negotiations would
hardly have had a different outcome if four or eight million,
rather than six, had been the figure under discussion. It is as if these
men, who had mastered the power of symbols with their cult of the
Führer, were always more afraid of the “enemy’s” powerful symbol
—the six million—than anything else.
But even more importantly, was the fact that it was Eichmann who first mentioned this number, and even during the Nuremberg trials, Der Weg argued that it was a pity, “after the deaths of Adolf Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, and Kaltenbrunner,” that Eichmann might not be tracked down to testify as “the only credible inside witness.”
Despite considerable prodding, argument, and instense questioning, however, Eichmann—proud as ever for doing what he saw as his duty—could not be dissuaded from the number of Jews who might have been destroyed, nor did he fully perceive any true guilt for his efficiency in trying to carry out The Final Solution. Yet, through the tough challenges of the several figures attending these taping sessions, including a quite mysterious figure who clearly knew intimate details of Nazi structure (suggesting, obviously, that he was a personage of some importance), Eichmann did, at times, retract some of his enthusiasm, shift course in his extensive discussions, and, most importantly, reevaluate the reception of his words and ideas. It is clear, accordingly, that—even as some of the Jerusalem observers had suspected—these important tapes served as a trial run for Eichmann’s self-defense in Israel. If nothing else, we hear in these tapes, at least as Stangneth reports their content, that Eichmann intimately learned just how singular and unpopular his viewpoints and past activities were now perceived. And Strangneth, without literally saying so, seems to indicate that the Eichmann who survived the taping sessions was no longer the same man, in some ways, having given up his staunch convictions and, almost intentionally putting himself in harm’s way, with the expectation of the dramatic arrest which Lipstadt so effectively describes.
By the time of the Jerusalem trial, having written out yet another version of his experiences, Eichmann had indeed—either intentionally or effectively—become a different person. Although, attempting still to characterize his actions as justifiable and even moral (although based on a very twisted notion of what that meant), he now seemed worn down, confused, even, sometimes, rather stupid, representing himself as a kind of mere bureaucratic errand-boy than as an actual player in the events of Nazi Germany which he was. This is the Eichmann Arendt saw, and frankly misunderstood. He was no longer the swaggering SS Obersturmbannführer, a somewhat handsome young Nazi resolute to destroy every Jew he encountered in an attempt to rise in the Nazi world. What Arendt saw in Eichmann—and as Lipstadt argues, she wanted to see because it might explain away the notion that an entire nation of individuals had been swept-away by a suicidal pride and hate of others: the fact that anyone might be evil, the possibility that evil itself was something trite and meaningless.
Yet that is not at all what Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem actually proclaims. Certainly there is much to anger one about Arendt’s significant work. She begins her book like a princess dowager, entering the room with the hot breathe of utter disdain. After being called to her feet with the words “Beth Hamishpath,” Arendt immediately frets about the scene, the three judges (who, German-speaking, she admires throughout), below which sit:
the translators, whose services are needed for direct
exchanges between defendant or his counsel and the
court; otherwise, the German-speaking accused party,
like almost everyone else in the audience, follows the
Hebrew proceedings through the simultaneous radio
transmission, which is excellent in French, bearable
in English, and sheer comedy, frequently incomprehen-
sible, in German. (In view of the scrupulous fairness of
all technical arrangements for the trial, it is among the
minor mysteries of the new state of Israel that, with its
high percentage of German-born people, it was unable to
find an adequate translator into the only language
accused and his counsel could understand. For the old
prejudice against German Jews, once very pronounced
in Israel, is no longer strong enough to account for it….)
For Arendt, a former Zionist, all things Israeli are intolerable, and she often displays the German-Jewish pique over what she describes as Eastern Jews. Arendt was also strongly convinced that the trial should not have been an Israeli one, but an international tribunal, with representatives from all the countries who had been effected—an issue with which I might agree with her, were it not that I can also completely comprehend why this necessarily had to be a trial in which the Jews indicted one of their major murderers, finally being able to act after so many decades of victimization.
And then, obviously, there are those final last words which weigh down Arendt’s narrative with what none of us truly want to believe: that “this long course in human wickedness….[was simply] a lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.
We might excuse Arendt today, since she had only a slight knowledge of the Sassen tapes, as published in Life and German magazines. And even after reading of all the seemingly unrepentant, yet quite coherent statements of Eichmann before Jerusalem in Strangneth’s book, we still realize that Eichmann was no genius. Might any of the Nazi leaders truly described as brilliant? Clever perhaps, charismatic, lucky; but such hate seldom can cloak itself in a truly intelligent mind.
Moreover, in reading Arendt’s truly brilliant account of Eichmann’s career in Eichmann in Jerusalem we meet another woman, a conflicted being perhaps, but an often astoundingly perceptive figure who not only takes us, in her narrative, through the various aspects of the Nazi’s anti-Semitic mania, but recounts, one by one, the various theaters in which their attacks against Jews (and others) took place, and how and why they worked—or in some extraordinary places didn’t succeed at all. The Nazis simply presumed that their own view of anti-Semitism was so universally shared that it would be easy to accomplish their extermination all Jews (and later, all Poles, all Gypsies, and all homosexuals) throughout Europe and, I suppose, throughout the world. In fact, they were almost right in their suppositions—except for the strange Mussolini concept that “his Jews” ought to left alone, and the Danes’ willingness to take on a Jewish identity from their King on down to every bicycle rider on the streets, and the nonaligned Swedes endless willingness to take in everyone who no one else wanted, and the majority of the Dutch..., and, as I’ve expressed elsewhere in this volume, some extraordinarily brave French Protestants who reacted differently—a difference, I might suggest, that is similar to Derrida’s la difference, a difference which changes everything.
Arendt stunningly makes her case that not everyone went along so pacifically with Hitler’s hatred. I find her accounting of the different fronts and how its people were affected by the Nazi dictates to be one of the most transparent evaluations of war-time behavior to have ever been written. And these chapters, alone, make her problematic book worth the reading.
Finally, her Epilogue and Postscript analyzes the legal and jurisprudential issues with remarkable sophistication.
The three versions of Eichmann represented in these 3 volumes, if radically different, represent the impossibility of truly ever comprehending a being like Eichmann—and, by extension any of Nazi hierarchy. As much as has been written on Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, Mengele, and Hitler himself, the more impossible it becomes to comprehend their ideas and actions, which seem to lie outside of human fellow-feeling and moral precepts. How did such sick individuals come together at such a moment to destroy so many of their fellow human beings?
In a terrible way, Eichmann, perceived in retrospect, was a bit like a perfectly-made robotic creation who, brilliantly carrying out the behavior with which he was programmed, could simply not comprehend why his actions might not be perceived as anything but heroic. After all, he believed in a god whose name was Hitler, and he had obeyed that god and did his very best to maintain his faith. Might he too not quote Kant to argue that he had done his moral duty—even if he forgot, as Arendt points out, Kant’s concept of moral duty is “bound up with man’s faculty of judgement”? That his god was the devil himself, he simply could not imagine, and only in that sense, was he banal; but at the same time, through this fatal flaw, he was also a oddly tragic figure, someone who simply could not comprehend the consequences of his own and others’ acts. An unforgivable and unredeemable tragic monster is nearly impossible for most of us to comprehend and, certainly, difficult for anyone with a conscience to accept; one might even argue that in order to define beings or events as tragic involves the monster’s awareness of and feeling of guilt for his acts. If glimmers of guilt cracked through the armor of Eichmann’s personae, they seemed always to be distorted by what he perceived as various overlays of changing historical viewpoints. Within the claustrophobic confines of his Nazi mindset, his truth never varied. His negotiation with reality was such a brutal one that it left him outside of any other perspective of human behavior, turning him into a kind of Macbeth without a hand-washing wife (which, perhaps, is why he aligned himself, during the trial, with Pontius Pilate, washing his own hands in mock reassignment of any guilt). In our daily reality, we cannot truly get a fix on such a beast.
Perhaps one needs three books each presenting a different vision of such a figure to even to begin to get a fix. But, of course, in another sense, there can never be a fix, only a raw roar of sorrow and suffering.
Los Angeles, May 5-6, 2015
*Lipstadt also chastises Naxi hunter Simon Wiesenthal for claiming that he had known the whereabouts of Eichmann. But Strangneth reveals that he may, indeed, have had knowledge, but was simply ignored by numerous governments when he attempted to notify them of his discovery. I should also add that Stangneth’s depiction of the series of events that led up to Eichmann’s abduction are significantly different. She suggests that Bauer, once he had the information, buried it, and no further action was taken within the German system.