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Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer
bettina stangneth
knopf, 608 pages, $35

German philosopher, Bettina Stangneth, is fascinated by lying, as is evident in her new study of the life of Adolf Eichmann. Her work is not a replacement for the earlier biography by David Cesarani, nor for the study of the Eichmann trial by Deborah Lipstadt, but it makes a significant contribution because of her detailed use of material from Argentina and from Eichmann’s own pieces of apologetic written while a prisoner in Jerusalem.

To discuss Adolf Eichmann is, of course, to discuss Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s New Yorker articles, Eichmann in Jerusalem, are both the most famous account of the trial and its most influential philosophical interpretation. From the moment of publication, the work was a source of controversy. Her claim that the Jewish leadership had essentially assisted in the implementation of the Holocaust was greeted with anger and dismay, perhaps most famously by the young Norman Podhoretz. More recently, Lipstadt’s account of the trial included a rigorous, though not entirely unappreciative, critique of Arendt’s work. Perhaps Lipstadt’s most surprising revelation is the fact that Arendt was absent from Jerusalem for key phases of the trial. That is most problematic, given that she presented her work as an eye-witness account.  A trial, like a stage play, is a live performance. Merely reading transcripts after the fact gives one only meager insight into the real meaning of the drama as it unfolds.

Over half a century has passed since Arendt’s report and the state of research on the Holocaust is vastly improved. We now have a much clearer understanding of the mechanics of the administration of the Third Reich. Eichmann’s defense—that he was only obeying orders—always lacked moral plausibility, but today it is practically implausible too. The structure of power in the Reich was not simply one direction, from the top downwards. Underlings could be quite creative and even countermand orders with impunity. In the case of Eichmann, we know that he frequently went above and beyond the call of specified duty—and enjoyed so doing—in his zeal for transporting Jews to their fate.

Stangneth’s specific contribution lies in her extensive use of transcripts of conversations in which Eichmann engaged while in Buenos Aires in the late fifties, and of the documents which he wrote while awaiting trial in Jerusalem. These materials have an interesting textual and legal history, as outlined in some detail in the book, but are now available for scholarly scrutiny. They shatter the image which Eichmann tried to present in Jerusalem.

The core of these papers consists of transcripts of recordings of interviews conducted by a former member of the Waffen-SS, journalist Wilhelm Sassen. Sassen and a group of younger Nazis in Argentina talked regularly to Eichmann over a number of months in their quest to refute the idea that the Holocaust had happened and then, when that became an obvious fool’s errand, to find a way to separate Nazism as an ideology from the systematic murder of the Jews. Yet much to their frustration, the Eichmann of their conversations presented himself as a violent and unashamed anti-Semite and a highly influential Nazi who took great satisfaction in his part in the Final Solution. 

Just a couple of years later, of course, when on trial for his life, Eichmann presented himself as a mere cog in the Holocaust machine. He simply obeyed orders. It was not for him to question the morality of those orders or to refuse to carry them out. Now, we all have a tendency to reinterpret our pasts to suit the present; but such a total reinterpretation within such a short space of time is truly remarkable. It was not a surprise that Robert Servatius, Eichmann’s defense lawyer in Jerusalem, fought hard—and more or less successfully—to have the majority of these Argentina documents excluded from the trial.  They would have proved he was not only a mass murderer but also a cynical, perjured liar.

This evidence definitively contradicts Arendt’s portrait of a mediocre automaton mindlessly transporting Jews to the east with no care for the larger ethical questions of their ultimate destination. Is evil then still banal? In many cases, most certainly. The Final Solution could hardly have been implemented without a lot of mediocre functionaries who simply saw themselves as doing a job. Stangneth’s work shows Arendt’s thesis to be not so much wrongheaded as too simplistic as a generalization and as incorrect when applied specifically to Eichmann. Documentation to which Arendt had no access now proves that Eichmann was not a cog in the Final Solution machine. He was instead one of those who designed the machine, ran the machine, and took immense pleasure and pride in the machine. Indeed, he was still boasting about his part in making it work in the late fifties. And he did all this not because he was mindlessly committed to obeying orders but because he was passionately committed to an ideological anti-Semitism and to an apocalyptic vision of the race war.

Yet Arendt’s misjudgment of Eichmann cannot be blamed entirely on her lack of access to the Argentina and Jerusalem papers. She, of all people, should have known better and seen through the courtroom performance. Neither Lipstadt nor Stangneth point out the obvious irony of her naivete in taking Eichmann in Jerusalem at face value: She had established her reputation initially as a student of Augustine, having written her dissertation on his concept of love under the supervision of Karl Jaspers. Augustine understood that evil can be banal—as banal as the theft of a neighbor’s pears—but he also knew that, even in its banality, it is driven ultimately by a love of self, a love aimed at self-aggrandizement to which everything else can ultimately can be sacrificed.

When Arendt saw an unimpressive, inarticulate, cliche-spouting mediocrity in the dock, she seems to have left behind all that she learned from Augustine. She not only saw evil as banal. She also saw it as straightforward. She could have learned from Augustine that evil is at heart deceptive and adept at manipulating aesthetics to achieve its desired effect, hiding the truth from others. Yet she chose to believe Eichmann’s performance, falling for his carefully crafted and self-serving script. Self-love, not banality, was the real key to his evil. Self-preservation drove him in Jerusalem, just as self-promotion had driven him in Buenos Aires, and a selfish desire for god-like power of life and death over others had driven him in the Third Reich. Eichmann in Jerusalem was Arendt’s Augustinian moment; only now does the documentary evidence show how miserably she failed the test.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous articles can be found here.

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