After 50 years of controversy, and many paperback editions, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem has now been consigned to the dustbin of history. The final nail in the coffin of Arendt’s thesis is Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, which appeared in German in 2011 and has just been released in English. She has produced an eloquent, riveting work of history, which supersedes even David Cesarani’s excellent Becoming Eichmann.
Stangneth, an independent scholar based in Hamburg, spent 10 years combing through the Eichmann archives, reading many hundreds of pages of his impossibly messy handwriting, and listening to the taped conversations that Eichmann made with Willem Sassen and other Nazi exiles while they drank wine, reminisced, and defended the goals of National Socialism. She argues that the real Eichmann is the one revealed in the 29 hours of interviews recorded in Argentina in 1957, while he made his living as a rabbit farmer called Ricardo Clement (though everyone in the large Nazi community in Argentina knew Eichmann’s real name and history).
The case against Arendt, and the portrait of Eichmann that she gave to the world, is by now familiar: She coldly insists that the Holocaust was not a Jewish tragedy but a general human one, even while she demands superhuman ethical standards from the Jews. (The Jews disappointed Arendt by acting as victims of genocide always have, attempting to save their lives however they could, except when they disappointed her by accepting their deaths.) Most of all, what makes Arendt a bad guide is her astoundingly mistaken thesis that Eichmann was incapable of thinking. Arendt summarized her view in her 1964 postscript to Eichmann’s second edition:
When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth. … Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. … He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.
Both Cesarani and Deborah Lipstadt, in their recent books, have shown that Arendt was entirely taken in by Eichmann’s act. During his trial Eichmann pretended to be a befuddled, self-contradictory minor bureaucrat. But this was clearly a fake. As the Reich’s officer for Jewish Affairs and the chief organizer of the Final Solution, he was plainly a master manipulator and wheeler-dealer who engineered the deaths of millions. In her book, Stangneth shows us, for the first time, in great detail, and in his own words, that Eichmann knew exactly what he was doing.
The heart of Stangneth’s book is the duel between Eichmann and Sassen, a Dutch journalist and enthusiast of Hitler who had fought on the Eastern front with the Waffen-SS. The flamboyant Sassen was a bon vivant and philanderer, a friend of President Peron, and an actor on the German stage in Buenos Aires. He approached Eichmann with an ambitious book project: They would discuss some books and articles on the Nazi era that had recently appeared; Eichmann would correct any mistakes and give his own insider’s story. Sassen would write it all up, and when the book was published it would be a best-seller.
Sassen and Eichmann teamed up for two reasons: first, to make money (especially if Eichmann were ever put on trial, they thought, they stood to make a grand sum from a tell-all book by a leading Nazi); and second, much more ambitiously, to change the course of postwar German politics. Their idea reads like the plot of an airport thriller: Five years earlier Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had negotiated the Luxembourg agreement, under which Germany would pay substantial reparations to Israel. (Eichmann was one of only five people named in the Israeli demand for reparations, along with Hitler, Heydrich, Höss, and Hans Frank.) But Sassen and his fugitive Nazi friends were confident that the reparations deal was based on a fraud: the so-called death of the 6 million. Sassen was determined to prove, with Eichmann’s help, that the total number of dead Jews was far lower, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands. And those Jews had been killed not as the result of Hitler’s orders but as unavoidable collateral damage during a war in which many Germans, too, had suffered. The basis for the Luxembourg agreement would then collapse, and since only 10 percent of the German public supported reparations, they would blame Adenauer for being suckered by the Israelis and vote him out of office. The road would then be clear for the old Nazis to return from the New World and reassume power in a grateful Germany.
There were a few problems with Sassen’s Robert Ludlum-esque scheme for a Fourth Reich. Not least among them was that, while Sassen wanted to minimize the Nazi responsibility for genocide, Eichmann wanted to maximize it. Repeatedly, in the course of the Argentina tapes, Sassen tries to get the numbers down, insisting that 6 million Jews could not possibly have been murdered. Eichmann was reported to have said near the end of the war that about 4 million Jews had been killed in extermination camps, and 2 million more by shooting and other means—figures that are not far from the truth. Sassen needed Eichmann to recant this statement so he could decrease the number of victims—and who was a more trustworthy authority on the Jewish dead than Eichmann?
But Eichmann, after four months of toying with Sassen’s questions, came out with a speech that rang down the curtain on the journalist’s grand project. On the final Sassen tape Eichmann calls himself a “cautious bureaucrat,” but also a “fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood.” Before the microphones in Sassen’s house he has already dragged his unwilling fellow Nazis through the gruesome details of the killing process, defending even child transports in a way that has made one former SS-man, Ludolf von Alvensleben, stammer a protest against the Final Solution. Now Eichmann delivers the coup de grâce. “Comrade Sassen,” Eichmann proclaims,
I balk inwardly at saying that we did anything wrong. No, I have to tell you quite honestly that if … we had killed 10.3 million [Jews], I would be satisfied, and would say, good, we have destroyed an enemy.
Eichmann confesses that he failed to fulfill his duty. “I could have done more, and should have done more” to exterminate the Jewish race, he says. “And because this did not happen, I will say to you that those who have not yet been born will have to undergo that suffering and adversity”: the suffering being, of course, the emotional pain that the yet unborn genocidal killers would feel as they rendered the whole world Judenfrei. Eichmann himself had suffered, felt weak in the knees, when he inspected a hill of Jewish corpses, the work of a lethal gas van in Chelmno. The pain of the victims, here as always with Eichmann, goes unmentioned.
Who was a more trustworthy authority on the Jewish dead than Adolf Eichmann?
When Eichmann declares that he should have killed twice as many Jews as he did, Sassen and his friends lapse into awkward silence. Eichmann proudly reminds the group that he stood firm against Himmler’s last-minute orders to stop the gas chambers, determined to see the genocide through to the end.
So much for the idea of using Eichmann to prove that the Holocaust was an accidental result of war or a minor aspect of Nazi policy. The disheartened Sassen never wrote his planned book. After Eichmann’s arrest he hawked excerpts from the interviews to Life and Stern, but he never came into the riches he dreamed of and died a broken alcoholic.
In his own way, Eichmann appeared to be the most cooperative defendant in history. He talked obligingly and endlessly to everyone the Israeli prosecutors sent to interrogate him. Sitting in his cell in Jerusalem, Eichmann composed for the benefit of his Israeli jailors a 1,000-page manuscript called Götzen (“Idols”) in which he ridiculously claimed to have had reservations about Hitler’s anti-Semitism. “International high finance was and is the worst of all evils, one cannot quarrel about that,” he wrote, “but to lay stress on the word ‘Jewish’ is to distort the matter.” In attempting to understand his behavior, the court psychologists decided that Eichmann had become attached to everyone who interviewed him in Jerusalem. He was so eager to share his thoughts and memories in overwhelming detail that it was impossible not to feel a trace of perverse sympathy with this needy monster.
But it was all a fraud. Eichmann was tailoring his behavior to what he said he knew about the Jews: that they are creatures of intellect who, before anything else, want to understand. Their wish to pluck out the heart of his mystery would, he hoped, prevent them from executing him. Instead, they would want him to keep talking, a Nazi Scheherazade beguiling the new Jewish State.
While his scheme didn’t work out the way he planned, Eichmann wasn’t wrong. We are still tempted by understanding. Next to Hitler himself, Adolf Eichmann is the man who we think might tell us how an unimaginable event became real. As Cesarani writes, our images of Eichmann oscillate between the monstrous and the mundane—or else we suppose his banality is what’s so monstrous about him.
But Eichmann was just a very clever man who had sworn his loyalty to the German people and nothing else. He was steadfastly opposed to law, since law stands in the way of a nation’s natural right to increase its strength and decimate its enemies. Eichmann thought that philosophy, like law, was a dirty word because it was “international,” as he put it. The Jews, the international race par excellence (and the law-making race par excellence, ever since the Ten Commandments), posed a profound threat to Germany, the supreme nation of the world. For Eichmann the Jewish threat lay in the words that philosophy cherishes—rights, justice, freedom—which can never be used to glorify one nation at the expense of others.
Eichmann was of course indulging in a fantasy when he thought that ethics and justice could be consigned to the dustbin of history. But he had seen this transformation occur in Hitler’s Germany, and so it made perfect sense to him that it could happen everywhere, and for all time. Jews, he knew, could never be converted to the new religion; it wasn’t in their nature—they were the enemy. And so they had to be destroyed. So, Eichmann decided to become a mass murderer.
Instead of forgetting morality, as Arendt argued, Eichmann made a conscious choice to release himself from it. What he got instead was not just the satisfaction of ordering millions to their deaths, but the pleasures that come from fame and power. Significantly, Eichmann said that his greatest hardship between 1945 and his trial in 1961 was the fact that he was forced to remain “anonymous.” What pleased him most of all, what he asked to be respected for, was his heroic service to his nation.
The real takeaway from Stangneth’s book is not what has mostly been reported in the reviews of it so far: that Eichmann was a passionate murderous anti-Semite rather than the pencil pusher he portrayed himself to be in Jerusalem. It is true that Eichmann’s anti-Semitism was virulent, but this has been known for some time; many of Arendt’s original readers knew this even in 1963 and argued against her idea of an Eichmann who cared about nothing but his own career.
Stangneth is out for bigger game. She proves Arendt’s mistake was her assumption that if Eichmann could think, if he knew anything about philosophy, then he would not have been able to insist on his worldview. His actions were therefore the result of a higher stupidity. But Eichmann did know about philosophy: He just rejected it. He violently refused the idea that you should question your beliefs in the light of other worldviews that might be true instead. (They couldn’t possibly be true instead; they were foreign.)
Hannah Arendt thought that once you knew a little philosophy, you must start to question yourself. She was wrong. Plato could have told her: The tyrant slips away from the philosopher’s dialogue not because he doesn’t understand what Socrates is up to, but because he does.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt discounted the idea that Hitler had appealed to national feeling, bizarrely claiming that “the Nazis had a genuine and never revoked contempt for the narrowness of nationalism.” She argued that both German and Russian totalitarianism had moved beyond national interest and had even proved that the nation-state was a relic. She could not have been more wrong, not just about Nazism but also about the future of totalitarian movements. Which is why Stangneth’s refutation—and the particular Eichmann she evokes—are so important right now.
Because, if Eichmann wasn’t the faceless, unimaginative bureaucrat that Arendt gave the world, then who was he? It is tempting to say that Eichmann was barbaric, which is the same word our president and secretary of State use to describe the actions of ISIS. But when we trade on the word barbaric, we start thinking that the fanatics of a cause indulge in savagery for its own sake, that their sole motive is bloodlust: Their cause is secondary gibberish, and hardly worth thinking about. But this overlooks the root of the fanatics’ strength.
Like Eichmann and his fellow believers, ISIS gets its power from arguing that “Western” notions about justice and fairness count for nothing next to the sufferings of Sunni Arabs, who are surrounded by dangerous enemies. ISIS acts in exactly the same way the Nazis did: It has become the most radical, and therefore “truest,” representative of a nation (for the Sunnis who have been trampled by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes are now as much a national group as the Kurds). ISIS argues, as Eichmann did in Argentina, that so-called universal ideas about ethics or justice are not only useless but dangerous to the future of one’s own people. This is not a gangster’s creed, but the most lethal kind of nationalism—and its purest, most murderously effective form was the Nazism that Eichmann served so faithfully.
The Muslim Brotherhood failed in Egypt for the same reason that al-Qaida failed in Iraq: They were seen as internationalists more interested in a puritanical version of a global faith than in the specific needs and grievances of their nation. ISIS can thrive only if it feeds the burning sense of exclusion and oppression that the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq feel, and all signs indicate that they have done so expertly. The most terrifying lesson of Stangneth’s book is that what Eichmann called his idealism may still have a future, even 50 years after his ashes were scattered off the Levantine coast.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.
David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.