What if we're the bad guy? (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

April 16, 2021   5 mins

“Eyes medium, hair medium, weight medium, height medium,” wrote Leonard Cohen in All There is to Know about Adolf Eichmann. We should remember it on the 60th anniversary of his trial in Jerusalem. “What did you expect?” Cohen goes on. “Talons? Oversize incisors? Green saliva? Madness?”

Yes, we expect those things. We desire them. They comfort us. They tell us we have nothing to do with these people. They are an anomaly, a curio, a fascinating oddity that will not come again. A biography of Josef Mengele is being written as I type. It will likely be a best-seller for these reasons, though I do not want to read it.

Martha Gellhorn, who covered the Eichmann trial for the Atlantic magazine, wrote this in 1962 of her subject: “We fear him because we know that he is sane. It would be a great comfort to us if he were insane; we could then dismiss him, with horror, no doubt, but reassuring ourselves that he is not like us.” 

It feels morally necessary to distance oneself from the perpetrators of the Shoah because in that is expiation, the removal of complicity, and, therefore, sanity. But it is not useful, and it teaches us nothing.  Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” does not work either. It may be an intellectual’s gravest insult — Arendt the grumpy don judging Eichmann the functional idiot — but ennui is hardly a useful response to a shocking eruption of mass murder.

It is comforting, of course, to see Nazism as the rise of the stupid — Hitler’s credulous army of chicken farmers — but that is not true either. Many of the leading Nazis were highly cultured, or from highly cultured families. The father of Reinhard Heydrich — Hitler’s “man with the iron heart” and Eichmann’s overlord — founded a conservatoire. Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer was Heinrich Tessenow’s assistant at 22. Members of the Einsatzgruppen, the  elite paramilitary death squad, had a disproportionate number of PhDs. And of the fifteen people who sat around the table at the Wannsee House to plan the Final Solution to the invented problem of Europe’s Jews, seven had doctorates in law and another a doctorate in political science.

For every chicken farmer in the Nazi high command there were two lawyers.  There were ideologues and functionaries; fellow travellers and the ambitious; greedy souls who wanted the Jews’ homes, businesses and the shoes of their children. Some were very odd, of course. Himmler went looking for the Holy Grail (too much Wagner?).

No strategy of emotional distancing works and, anyway, history proves you wrong. Anti-racist education has failed, and anti-Semitism thrives again. It seems its brief absence post-war — a copious pause, an exhaustion, a burning out — was the anomaly. This willingness — this desire — for distance is at least part of the cause.

We cling to the singular monster narrative, but the opposite is true. Nazism would not have thrived without its millions of collaborators and bystanders; as Gellhorn said” “eager thousands obeyed him [Eichmann]
. there was endless work for willing hands”. Without them it would have begun and ended in Munich in the early 1920s, a small, repulsive stain on a city rather than a twelve-year Reich that was supposed to last for a thousand years. One can spend too long imagining parallel futures for the Weimar Republic. But that is comforting too.

They enabled it, and that, in its totality, is its lesson and its terror. That is why it is necessary to put devil’s horns on Eichmann and Heydrich; on Streicher and Mengele. That is why Auschwitz, which appeared most recently in an X-Men film as a creation myth for a superhero, is debased into myth. More than 37% of the vote went to Nazis in July 1932 and this was a full seven years after Adolf Hitler exposed what he wanted in Mein Kampf. They only had to read it. Did they?

The Austrians greeted the Anschluss with garlands of flowers and why not? They requested the union in 1918 and when Hitler entered Vienna 90% of the population greeted him as Jews committed suicide or were forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes. Later, the Jews of Paris were not rounded up by the Gestapo. They were rounded up by the French police. In Lithuania and Ukraine natives did not wait for the Germans to massacre the Jewish population. They started themselves, knowing their retrospective defence was on its way.

There were rescuers, of course, many thousands of them — remember Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who waged his own war on Eichmann and lost everything, dying in a Russian prison after the war, and Princess Alice of Greece, mother to the Duke to Edinburgh, hiding the Cohens — but they were not representative. It was your neighbours who would send you to your deaths.

Why such complicity? It is disorientating to compile a tidy list of the causes of the Shoah (studying Nazism will give you a horror of lists by itself) but it must be done. And the most important element is not economic collapse, or thwarted nationalism, or the Versailles Treaty, or the implicit weakness of the Weimar Republic or the useful idiocies of Communism.

It is Christianity, and that is as uncomfortable a truth as the realisation that Adolf Eichmann and the rest of his gang of mass murderers were ordinary human beings. (The wife of the commandant of Auschwitz complained that her husband did not sleep with her enough, distracted as he was by the murder of Jews and Roma.) Nazism was its own religion, it is true, but the Shoah flowered amid two thousand years of anti-Jewish hatred, warped by Nazism from contempt into a death sentence. Christianity did not order the death of Jews. It merely wanted them to live in shame. They were more useful that way.

This is the complicity we dare not name. It is easier to pass the devils’s horns from the Jews to the architects of the Final Solution than to understand what enabled the one to kill the other: the deicide myth, the founding story of Jewish power and Jewish malice. This, from the gospel of Luke: “To the cross, to the cross with him!” This, from the gospel of Matthew: “His blood be on us and on our children”. This, from the gospel of John: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do what your father desires”. To Saint Gregory they were “slayers of the Lord.” To Saint John they “surpassed the ferocity of wild beasts”.

“What then shall we Christians do” asked Martin Luther, “with this damned, rejected race of Jews? First their synagogues and churches should be set on fire
” There isn’t a positive image of Jew in European culture before the Enlightenment. Gotthold Lessing’s play The Jews (1749) failed on the Berlin stage because the hero was a Jew. The audience could not believe it.

In his book The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) the historian Raul Hilberg noted that the canonical law and Nazi law proposed many of the same measures. In 1965 the Second Lateran Council retrospectively removed the charge of deicide from almost all Jews — it was passed by 2221 to 88 of the assembled bishops — and that is surely an admission that millions in history have believed these libels.

But millions do not make good villains, either morally, or narratively. They do not make particularly good victims either. That is why Stephen Spielberg ruined his potential masterpiece Schindler’s List by emphasising a pretty girl in a red coat, the only colour in the film. That, to paraphrase Mel Brooks’s The Producers, is your victim.

Instead, we prefer to emphasise the gaudy monsters, which only serves to make the Shoah more mysterious and, in the end, meaningless. For if so few are responsible, who can take responsibility? Nowadays, if you are not committing mass murder, you can consider yourself benign. “The private conscience is not only the last protection of the civilised world, it is the one guarantee of the dignity of man,” Martha Gellhorn concluded after watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Or, to put it another way, demonise the few and we cease to be afraid of what we should fear most: ourselves.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.