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The anatomy of Evil

Sixty years after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, our contributors reflect on man's inhumanity

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April 12, 2021

SS Obersturmbannführer (Lt. Col.) Adolf Eichmann, head of Reich Security Main Office IV.B.4 (Jewish Affairs), arrived at Budapest’s Keleti railway station together with 19 subordinates on 21 March 1944. Just 48 hours had passed since German troops had marched into the country, and a car was waiting to take Eichmann to the city’s Astoria Hotel close to the Pest riverbank. From these incongruously elegant surroundings Eichmann would commence the most feverous episode in the Final Solution of the Jewish question in Europe: the destruction of the Jews of Hungary, the only chapter in its history he was to supervise in person and in full.

For speed and scale the deportations went unmatched: 424,000 people were despatched by train in just 52 days, from 14 May to 9 July. In this fleeting window Hungarian Jews became the single largest group gassed at Auschwitz. The crematoria couldn’t cope with such “over-supply”, and Commandant Rudolf Höß ordered special fire pits dug — filling the camp with noxious smoke. According to Primo Levi, “there were weeks when only Hungarian was heard in Auschwitz”.

Physical annihilation was undergirded by Eichmann’s elaborate psychological strategy. Sophisticated Budapest Jews who might escape or resist were pacified by newspaper reports that only “ost Juden” from Hungary’s nether regions were being removed as “undesirables”. Many only saw through the lie, if at all, when deportations reached Budapest’s outer suburbs in early July — just before Admiral Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s Head of State, halted them under diplomatic pressure from the Western Allies and neutrals.

Throughout the deportations, and across Hungary’s length, Eichmann deluged Jews with ever more complex regulations covering the minutiae of daily life. These instilled a false sense of permanence which inhibited hiding or escape: “why would the authorities go to all this trouble if they were just going to get rid of us?”

Even as deportations rolled on, Eichmann conducted elaborate negotiations for fanciful “rescue schemes” including, but not limited to, the infamous “Blood for Trucks” project involving Rudolf Kastner — the proposed barter of one million Jewish lives for 10,000 Western motor vehicles for use on the Eastern front against the USSR. The aim, Eichmann later acknowledged, was not just to split Western powers from the Soviets, but also to distract Hungary’s Jewish leaders from counter-organising: keeping minds busy and hopes alive.

All the while Eichmann treated Jewish leaders in Budapest to flashes of menace.  One day he promised them a return to normality “after the war”, the next he would snarl “Do you know who I am? I am a bloodhound!” With studied cruelty Eichmann arranged the ghettoisation of Hungary’s Jews to begin on Sunday, 16 April: the first day of Passover, 1944.

Eichmann did many things in Hungary; the one thing he did not do was simply “obey orders” — indeed over time he defied them with gathering frequency. That autumn as inevitable defeat became ever more apparent Eichmann, helped by local enthusiasts, intensified his efforts, instigating newly inventive means of eliminating Jews in Hungary and the Balkans through “death marches” and localised killing sprees. In doing so, Eichmann subverted instructions from Himmler who ordered cessation as part of a delusional plan to negotiate with the allies.

This “Eichmann in Budapest” should be recalled while contemplating the later Eichmann in Jerusalem.

By 11 May 1960 a fugitive Eichmann had lived for a decade in Buenos Aries as “Ricardo Klement”, a rabbit farmer and, later, Mercedes-Benz factory worker, an immigrant hailing from the German minority in Italy’s South Tyrol. That evening Mossad agents, following a tip-off, kidnapped “Klement” from the street outside his house as he walked home from the bus stop after work.

Ten days later a drugged-up Eichmann left Argentina on false papers aboard an El Al flight supporting a diplomatic protocol visit timed to cover his extraction. Fearing a rescue bid by any Nazi sympathiser network while refuelling, the plane exceeded its permitted milage. By touchdown in Tel Aviv it was flying on vapours.

Preparing the prosecution case took almost a year. Eichmann’s trial commenced in Jerusalem’s brand-new Bet Ha’Am theatre on 11 April 1961 before three Israeli judges. Eichmann was accused of fifteen counts of crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity. The unusual venue arose from unprecedented international interest: over 400 journalists sought accreditation, and the country had no courtroom large enough.

Controversy raged around the trial. Eichmann’s removal, a triumph of spycraft, was a flagrant breach of Argentina’s sovereignty. Israel’s authority to try crimes occurring outside its borders, enacted by (and against) non-citizens prior to its foundation seemed, at best, dubious. Sixty years on, however, discord persists less in regards to the trial’s legal foundations and more because of how courtroom events were theorised by one writer: Hannah Arendt.

Arendt, a pre-war Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, travelled to Jerusalem to observe the trial for The New Yorker and confront the government that caused her own life’s profound dislocation. Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) consolidated her reflective articles for the New Yorker published that year. Its subtitle, “A Report on the Banality of Evil”, became synonymous with the trial: it’s how most people “know” about Eichmann.

Unfortunately, Arendt was utterly, appallingly, wrong about the man she saw, or thought she saw, in Jerusalem.

“Banality” appears just once in Arendt’s main text: in the very last sentence. Reflecting on Eichmann’s clunky, formulaic, farewell prior to execution Arendt opined: “It was as though in those last minutes he was summoning up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us — the lesson of the fearsome, world and thought defying banality of evil.

The “banal” designation comes at the narrative’s end but condenses observations made in memorable passages throughout including “Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect he was a clown”. 

Observing 55-year-old Eichmann’s bureaucratic bearing, ponderous speech, and petty jealousies Arendt deemed his key role in genocide motivated not by fanatical anti-Semitism (his denial of which she accepted), but “thoughtlessness” in its most literal sense. Arendt used the word to connote not “forgetfulness” but absence of autonomous cognition. She took Eichmann’s seeming “inability to speak” as evidencing incapacity to think. Such a person, Arendt reasoned, greets the “Führer principle” joyfully – relieved from the agony of forming opinions.

Arendt’s verdict bled through her book’s cover into mainstream pop psychology. The “banality of evil” became a banality itself thanks to excessive invocation at dinner parties and in newspaper columns. It escaped Arendt that Eichmann, who she dismissed as uneducated, was playing a clever game.

Understanding Eichmann requires less focus on transcripts of the 1961 trial and more on a collection of late 1950’s recordings from informal seminars in Argentina. These were attended by numerous former and aspirant Nazis, and taped by Dutch sympathiser-journalist Willem Sassen, who hoped to write a book rehabilitating the Third Reich by proving the “Jewish propaganda” about the “slaughter of six million” to be a hoax.

Following lengthy conversations with Eichmann, Sassen abandoned the project, having been told precisely what he didn’t want to hear, and from the horse’s mouth — the “propaganda” was true.

Regrettably these recordings, though known of in 1961, were available to the court only in fragmentary transcripts: the full cache didn’t re-emerge until 1999. If they had been played at trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem would read very differently. (Fortunately, an analytical summary is now available in Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, published in 2011.)

On the penultimate recording in a long series (68 tapes) Eichmann, articulating his role in the Holocaust reflects on his divided nature, says: “I the cautious bureaucrat, that was me, yes indeed. But I would like to expand on the issue of the ‘cautious bureaucrat’ somewhat… This cautious bureaucrat was attended by a fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood which is my birth right.”

A terrifying crescendo is reached with these words “No, I have to tell you quite honestly that if out of the 10.3 million [worldwide] Jews… identified we had killed 10.3 million, I would be satisfied… We would have fulfilled our duty to our blood… if we had eliminated the most cunning intellect of all the human intellects”. Contemplating repentance, Eichmann exclaims “I could do it cheaply for the sake of current opinion… [but] for me to deeply regret it, for me to pretend that a Saul has become a Paul… I cannot do that”.

Sassen’s Holocaust denial project ended abruptly soon afterwards.

Before Adolf Eichmann was Ricardo Klement, he was Otto Henninger and before that Adolf-Karl Barth. At war’s end, under yet another name, he was captured by the allies but escaped. We shouldn’t be surprised if one so used to disguising his identity might also conceal his complex nature. Genocidal bent and aptitude for dissimulation was not temporarily sequential: they were interlaced aspects of personality. Long before adopting false names Eichmann mastered self-concealment.

In the 1930s and 40s Eichmann wove elaborate biographic myths to create confusion. He convinced Jewish interlocutors of linguistic gifts he didn’t possess in Yiddish and Hebrew, and forged a story of upbringing amid a notorious “Templar’ German community in Palestine known for anti-Semitic violence. These motifs, fused with deep knowledge of Zionist literature in translation, allowed him to disorientate Jewish interlocutors: simultaneously opening up an unexpected connection and a register of menacing threat.

Yet despite her analytical faults, we shouldn’t condemn Arendt harshly — as some have. Critics like Deborah Lipstadt allege Arendt arrived in Jerusalem with a commission from The New Yorker and a suitcase bursting with ideas she wanted to demonstrate. They attribute to her a drive to render Eichmann a worked example of her thesis in her 1951 masterpiece the Origins of Totalitarianism about the moral disabling of individuals which a supercharged ideology possessed of state-power can achieve.

This is unfair. Arendt didn’t see in Eichmann what she wanted but what he projected. Arendt’s evaluation is consonant with that of many journalists reporting on the trial with no ideological axe to grind. It’s just that her intellectual subtlety was outflanked by Eichmann’s psychological one. As Stangeth points out, Eichmann lead “a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon”, the assumption philosopher Arendt carried that “someone speaks and writes only when they want to be understood”.

Conversely Israeli Police Captain Avner Less, who interrogated Eichmann pre-trial, was sharper. “After the end of the first hearing [interview], I was convinced that Eichmann wasn’t telling this story for the first time,” he said afterwards: “I had the feeling this man had been rehearsing it somewhere.”

Eichmann in Jerusalem wore a mask, yet pulling that mask off doesn’t pull the rug from under Arendt’s Totalitarianism. Historical sociologists take the deep conditioning of the Third Reich seriously; contemporary behavioural psychology confirms our susceptibility to manipulation by authority figures. Paradoxically Eichmann’s performance supports Totalitarianism’s thesis: he could ably present himself as one deformed by totalitarianism because he helped to fashion it and deform others.

And so, under questioning, Eichmann presented himself both as one for whom obedience was the supreme virtue and as a mere “messenger” operating an intermediate administrative ‘clearing house’ for orders. Though he couldn’t evade conviction he hoped to slip the noose by passing himself off as a cog in the machine.

Curiously his counsel, Cologne lawyer Robert Servatius, took a contrary approach. Servatius asserted not that superior orders absolved Eichmann from subjective moral responsibility. Rather, he argued, the order’s receipt and discharge objectively subsumed Eichmann’s personal actions into “Acts of the German State” raising the shield of “sovereign immunity” — a more plausible legal argument then than now. The defence concluded on 15 August.

Judgment came on 11 December. Rejecting Servatius’s “Act of State” defence, Eichmann was found guilty on all counts. The defendant’s interpretation of events was likewise dismissed: Hungary proved Eichmann’s distinct moral agency: he was not just “obeying orders”.

A sentence of execution by hanging followed on 15 December, and was carried out on 31 May 1962. Eichmann’s body, like his victims’, was cremated: the ashes scattered at sea to prevent a grave attracting Neo-Nazi pilgrims.

It has become fashionable, since the Sassen tapes emerged, to despatch Arendt’s thesis, or at least a representation of it, to the winds of oblivion too. Her “banality of evil” thesis should, it is argued — because of its contextual inapplicability to Eichmann — be banished from the moral Lexicon per se. This however risks an empirical misreading of both Eichmann and his trial.

Eichmann was both a calmly meticulous administrator and a murderous anti-Semite. The punctilious observer of office routine and arranger of index cards is far better placed to achieve genocidal aims than the volatile smasher of windows.

The infectiousness of the genuine “banality of evil” was demonstrated, inadvertently, at trial by the defence counsel. Robert Servatius, himself entirely innocent of complicity in genocide witnessed to its precondition by unthinking, and at the time scandalous, reference of the gassing at Auschwitz as “medical matters”. The lawyer meant no offence — he had, as a former inhabitant of Nazi Germany, simply internalised the euphemistic language by which such things were referred to under the Third Reich.

If we discard Arendt completely, we risk something worse than misreading Eichmann. We chance missing the mask calculated evil wears before us now.