Book Review: Eichmann Before Jerusalem

February, 19 2015
Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth



Eichmann Before Jerusalem:  The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer
Bettina Stangneth
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin
Alfred A. Knopf
2014, pp. 579, $35

Eichmann in Argentina

by Jonathan Brent

Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, by Bettina Stangneth, deftly explores Adolf Eichmann’s escape from Europe after World War II, his life in Argentina, his capture, his trial and his post-War image. At the center of this useful and important book, however, is Stangneth’s examination of the remarkable set of interviews conducted by the Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen, in which a picture of Eichmann emerges that is utterly at odds with Hannah Arendt’s stinging depiction of him as a representative of “the banality of evil.” This gives the book a double focus, both on the man and on his enduring importance as a singular figure of evil in the modern world. Stangneth notes that even in his lifetime, Adolf Eichmann had become a symbol as much as a man, a construct “called into being” by the power vested in him. Eichmann himself understood that “the word Jew. . .was irreversibly linked with the word Eichmann.”

Stangneth depicts a vainglorious, devoted Nazi, a rabid anti-Semite, a puffed-up, arrogant, scheming, opportunistic true believer, or in Eichmann’s own twisted words, an “idealist” completely committed to the idea of the great German nation that demanded “total war” against its enemies in a life and death struggle for survival. The paradox is that although Arendt’s catechistic formulation no longer seems applicable, nothing in Stangneth’s portrait suggests that under other circumstances he might not have lived out his life as a modest traveling salesman, while raising both rabbits and his family in a typically middle-class German way. The mystery of his evil persists.

The problem of Eichmann as it takes shape in Stangneth’s account is not whether he was ordinary or perverse, but how it was possible for him to state, as he did throughout his interrogations and trial, that he had done “nothing wrong,” simply “obeyed orders,” and that he was a mere “cog in a machine.” To object that he had no “human conscience” begs the question of what exactly a human conscience is.

Contrary to the image he projected at his trial, Stangneth shows that Eichmann was far from a passive victim of circumstances or a follower. Although more than a mere cog, he was nevertheless also a part of a much greater machine. In July 1944, when defeat was all but certain, Heinrich Himmler ordered the stopping of deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, yet Eichmann, on his own initiative, sent additional trainloads, thus defying Himmler’s order.

The real machine that drove Eichmann is evident in the interviews conducted by Sassen and reproduced in Stangneth’s book. Willem Sassen was a Dutch collaborator and member of the Waffen SS who fled to Argentina in 1947 and began a successful career as a journalist in emigré Nazi circles. He interviewed Eichmann in 1960 prior to Eichmann’s arrest, with the hope of publishing a biography that would prove that Jewish claims about the Holocaust were untrue. Sassen and other ex-Nazis in his Argentine circle looked to Eichmann to provide the authority they needed to deny the Holocaust, but Eichmann disappointed them. He would not minimize the extent of the murder of European Jewry. He was proud of it. It was his great accomplishment. His “Concluding Remarks” provide chilling insight into the mental world of Nazi genocide.

I must first tell you: I have no regrets! I am certainly not going to bow down to that cross!…I balk inwardly at saying that we did anything wrong. No, I have to tell you quite honestly that if of the 10.3 million Jews…we had killed 10.3 million, I would be satisfied, and would say, good, we have destroyed an enemy…We would have fulfilled our duty to our blood and our people and to the freedom of the peoples, if we had exterminated the most cunning intellect of all the human intellects alive today. For that is what…I have always preached: we are fighting an enemy who through many many thousands of years of schooling, is intellectually superior to us…The fact that the Christian church today makes use of [Jewish] law making is very depressing to me. But it tells me that this must be a race of the first order of magnitude, since lawmakers have always been great. And because of these realizations I fought against this enemy.

He did his job, as he freely admitted at his trial. What Eichmann did not admit, but here is amply attested, is that it was not only his job. It was his mission, which he fulfilled with fanatic energy under the guiding principle that “What is right is what aids the people.” He believed completely Hitler’s concept of total war for the survival of the German people, and that only racial purity would ensure survival. He did everything in his power to achieve that end. Instead of dismissing Eichmann’s statements as subterfuge, obfuscation or self-justification, I believe that we must take him at his word.

The boundary between I and we in the passage quoted above is almost non-existent and helps us see how Eichmann’s individual identity was entirely interwoven in the larger Nazi movement. What he thought to be right was what they thought to be right. “There are a number of moralities,” he states at one point, “a Christian morality, a morality of ethical values, a morality of war, a morality of battle. Which will it be?”

Compartmentalizing awareness was essential to Eichmann’s and all totalitarian “thinking” that depends on eliminating universals, such as universal truth, justice and humanity. Another example of this can be found in Lenin’s assertion that there is no such thing as “justice”; there is only bourgeois justice or proletarian justice.

The machinery of such ideology does not produce authentic human conscience but, rather, a lifelike simulacrum of it. This is the problem of Eichmann. His “conscience” was not his own. These were not Eichmann’s own thoughts. He did not produce them. He possessed them as one might possess pictures on a wall. He believed them, and they became a substitute for thinking that motivated an entire society.

Eichmann hated Jews because Judaism was “rootless,” disconnected from the soil and “universalistic.” Consequently, Jews could never fundamentally share the particularistic spirit of the German Volk or the German nation. To preserve the Volk and the Reich was Hitler’s overriding aim—and it became the aim of every committed Nazi. As such, it formed the belief structure whose “inner truth and greatness,” in the words of the philosopher Martin Heidegger (Introduction to Metaphysics, 1935), gave fundamental purpose to Eichmann’s world. It constituted a worldview, not simply a political credo or “philosophy of life.” The Jewish worldview was Nazism’s enemy.

Eichmann remains relevant. Events in the Middle East today and the revival of neo-Nazism and neo-Stalinism throughout Europe and Russia show that we must continue to seek to understand the ideological machinery of genocide, the conditions of its operation and the millions of cogs that drive it.

Jonathan Brent is executive director of the YIVO Institute and visiting professor at Bard College.


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