Eichmann’s phoney banality

Stangneth’s clear-eyed work spells out the genesis and “logic” of Holocaust denial in all its macabre absurdity

Books History
An early and abiding Nazi enthusiast: Eichmann in Ayalon Prison, Israel, in 1961

Hannah Arendt affected reluctance before accepting the New Yorker’s commission to cover the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Having fled Germany in 1933, she had established herself as a five-star New York specialist in totalitarian ideology. Her youthful, adulterous affair with her Nazi-friendly professor Martin Heidegger had more spiced than damaged her reputation. With all the credentials needed for a judicious revenant, she could be relied upon not to embarrass Gentile readers with any show of partisan emotionalism. She came, she saw, she pontificated. Her conclusive tag-line, that Adolf Eichmann impersonated “the banality of evil”, had the ring of laid-back smart-alecry which catered to William Shawn’s editorial taste. The phrase has served ever since to encapsulate Eichmann’s character. In downgrading him to being, as he claimed in court, no more than a small cog in the machinery of the Holocaust, it has blessed him with the dim aura of a scapegoat.

Arendt arrived in Jerusalem with the preconceived notion that Eichmann should have been tried in Germany, not Israel. She seemed unaware that the Federal German authorities, led by Paul Dickopf, an ex-SS officer (later head of Interpol), had done all they could to impede any investigation of his whereabouts and had no wish to put him on trial. Post-war Germany was full of sleeping dogs, ensconced in comfortably upholstered, state-salaried baskets. According to Bettina Stangneth, “The structures of the Third Reich . . . were supposed to have been replaced by a new state, though there were no new people to administer it.” It requires no great wit to see the 1958 Treaty of Rome as a means of restarting the old continent’s blood-stained history with a blanched calendar. The last thing anyone wanted was a garrulous return of the repressed truth about Nazi genocide. 

Arendt’s scorn for Eichmann’s petty bourgeois notion of philosophy and his undistinguished posture in the glassed dock was balanced by her ex-Zionist distaste for Israel, for the too-emotional prosecutor Gideon Hausner and for the attendant horde of what she chose to call “oily Jews”. She also shared the New York Times‘s view that a public trial would “do Israel more harm than good . . . reprisals . . . would be inevitable”. Arendt was so determined to be dispassionate that she “bought” Eichmann’s performance. It did not occur to her that his affectations of insignificance might be a calculated imposture. The defendant’s repetitions and platitudes were assumed to disclose the limits of his world. He was clever enough to depict himself, as Stangneth puts it, “as precisely the type of benevolent humanist and admirer of philosophy that he had sought to destroy when the Nazis were in power”. By doing much the same thing, Albert Speer had avoided the gallows and, in time, turned sackcloth and ashes into a comely costume. Both men looked and sounded rather different when dressed in Hugo Boss’s well-cut kit.

Arendt’s best-seller established the abiding image of Eichmann as a mundane family man, skulking under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement in Juan Perón’s Argentina, until abducted by Mossad and crated out of the country. For the first time, we are now given a wealth of documented detail about Eichmann’s central, undisguised role in the wide circle of ex- and neo-Nazis in Buenos Aires in the 1950s, where he was happy to sign photographs for attendant groupies as “Adolf Eichmann — SS Obersturmbannfuhrer (retired)”. He took pronounced pride in the remark by the Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller that, if there had been fifty Eichmanns, Germany would have won the war. 

In their impatient, impenitent exile, Eichmann and his unreformed chums continued to believe that Hitler might yet be vindicated. The Cold War might yet lead to a Fourth Reich to replace the Weimar-style quisling-democracy presided over by Konrad Adenauer. In 1959, the latter’s wincing agreement to pay reparations to Israel led to a recrudescence of at least 470 anti-Semitic episodes in Germany itself. This fostered the long-running story of Jewish duplicity in fabricating the supposed “myth” of six million deaths in order to license, and finance, the establishment of the Zionist state. Hence Holocaust-denial became cardinal in procuring respectability for those for whom the Jews were, and had to remain, the root of all evil. 

Abundant evidence of Eichmann’s centrality in the Holocaust lies in the long interviews with him recorded by Willem Sassen, a Dutch Waffen-SS volunteer and, post-war, a right-wing journalist alert to any money-making opportunity. Their cosy causeries in BA were conducted in a party atmosphere. Only the “white-gloved” Ludolf von Alvensleben, once Himmler’s adjutant, showed signs of second thoughts when he claimed to be “against taking defenceless people, even if it’s my greatest enemy . . . and simply hounding them into a gas oven.” Eichmann’s fidelity to the Nazi myth, in which “the Jews” had declared war on Germany and deserved no mercy, was unwavering. He was never persuaded to vary the figure of six million dead, even when it began to embarrass those whose recourse was to claim that “the Jews” had inflated the figure (from a mere 365,000) in order to make money.  Eichmann proved “too proud of having implemented the murder project to deny it”.

His affectations of insignificance in Jerusalem were seemingly backed by the fact that his name was scarcely mentioned at the 1946 trial of Nazi bigshots at Nuremberg. The extermination of the Jews was not a major item on the charge sheet. In the limited time devoted to it, however, Eichmann was repeatedly cited. Having walked out of an allied prison camp, he had good reason to hide in rural north Germany and, later, no shortage of friends to help him on the way to Argentina. In Rome, the Austrian Bishop Alois Hudal made it his business, and his pleasure it seems, to protect “persecuted and tortured persons”. In 1960, after Eichmann’s transport to Israel, Vatican diplomats encouraged UN members to press for his return to Argentina. Rome dreaded the revelation of the clergy’s role in saving him and many others from justice. 

The undeniable merit of Stangneth’s clear-eyed scholarship is that she spells out the genesis and “logic” of Holocaust denial in all its macabre absurdity. The neo-Nazi Argentine magazine Der Weg chose to shift the blame onto the Gestapo and its envy of the SS. Its purpose was to “damage Germany’s status in the world which Adolf Hitler had done so much to advance”. Heinrich Müller who was “not a National Socialist at all, organised the extermination in the east”, while Gestapo leaders “unthinkingly drove people into concentration camps . . . in order finally to strike down a king — Adolf Hitler.” The latter never ordered a “programme of murdering Jews. Since the Führer’s HQ was a “concentration cloister”, he never got the news that Zionists were busy arranging the deaths of “assimilators” in order to get their own state. “This made the extermination of the Jews look like an internal Jewish matter, against which the poor Führer in his bunker could do nothing.”

In the light of this revision of the truth, Eichmann’s persistence in saying that he had been fulfilling orders issued directly by Hitler lost him his neo-Nazi friends. After his capture, it suited them to disclaim any but casual connection with him during his time in Buenos Aires. His execution was openly deplored only by Josef Mengele, the infamous concentration camp doctor who was clever enough to stay safely in remote places. A few years ago, driving across the arid plain on the Paraguay-Argentina border, we were shown the high-hedged “Hotel Tyrol” where he and fellow-refugees used to holiday. Mengele died only in 1979, when he drowned while swimming in the ocean.

Eichmann’s early and abiding enthusiasm for Nazism is here proved beyond question. He did not, as Himmler did, believe in witches and he was quick to see that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (still gospel in some Arab countries) were a fake, but he bought the whole völkische farrago: “Only thinking based on ethnicity offers a chance of final victory in the battle of all living things . . .” Unlike his confederates, such as Kurt Becher, he was an unwavering believer, without the humanity to be venal. “Thank God I did not become a swine,” Eichmann said. Because others did “is why there are still a whole lot of Jews enjoying life today who ought to have been gassed”.

Eichmann’s notion of duty was based on the axiom of a war to the death between the Jews and the Germans as the champions of unalloyed Aryan blood. While maintaining that he never killed anyone, he would have gassed Jews if ordered: “. . . no point peeing against the wind”. There was “no difference between the annihilation of enemy powers (by whatever means) when a total war has been declared” — not by Adolf Hitler, of course, but by Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Jewish Congress.

How did Eichmann contrive to entertain the macabre confusion of vanities, loyalties and callousness now revealed in the thousands of pages of transcripts of Sassen’s interviews with him and of his own writings when awaiting execution? He lived at the central European intersection of  philosophy, religion, ideology and history. In all these categories and their recipes for salvation, “the Jews” were almost invariably an indigestible, if not poisonous, element. As Bettina Stangneth has the steady nerve to remind us, in 1933 Martin Heidegger called for “. . . ethnic science . . . The mental world of a people [lay in] the power of preserving the strength that lies in its blood and soil . . . the power that excites the deepest feeling and shakes the furthest reaches of existence.”  How can a man capable of such verbiage have beguiled and enthused so many post-war pundits, from Jean-Paul Sartre to George Steiner?

As for Hannah Arendt, might it be that she dumped on Eichmann much of the scorn which she preferred not to unload on her quondam lover, the Nazi-loving professor, to whom she could not resist making a pilgrimage after that Jerusalem assignment? In the condemned cell, Eichmann asked his brother to seek the ex-seminarist Heidegger’s opinion about the last rites: “Not that I would presume to liken myself to this great thinker in anything, but it would be important to me with regard to my relationship with Christianity.” It seems that Heidegger didn’t reply. Perhaps he and his wife were too busy trying to get Arendt to be their idea of a good Jew in negotiating the sale of his notebooks in the US.