This Adolf too was a Nazi piece of work

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Anna Hey­ward

Eich­mann Be­fore Jerusalem: The Un­ex­am­ined Life of a Mass Mur­derer By Bettina Stangneth Trans­lated by Ruth Martin Scribe, 608pp, $45 ADOLF Eich­mann, SS Ober­sturm­ban­n­fuhrer, was one of the Nazis pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for the mass de­por­ta­tion and mur­der of Euro­pean Jews be­tween 1939 and 1945.

After the Al­lied vic­tory he went into hid­ing, first in Aus­tria, where he farmed eggs, and later in Ar­gentina, where he lived with his wife and chil­dren as part of Juan Peron’s com­mu­nity of Nazi sym­pa­this­ers.

Eich­mann was ab­sent from the Nurem­berg war crimes tri­als and came to be known as ‘‘the Nurem­berg ghost’’. In 1960, he was kid­napped by a Mos­sad team and taken to Is­rael, where he was put on trial in 1961. Most ob­servers of the trial noted that he showed no re­morse and that he spoke will­ingly about him­self. He was hanged in 1962. To­day, Eich­mann’s trial is con­sid­ered a cathar­tic mo­ment in the es­tab­lish­ment of an Is­raeli iden­tity.

His case is fa­mous, in part, be­cause of Han­nah Arendt, who re­ported on the trial for The New Yorker, and in whose sub­se­quent book, Eich­mann in Jerusalem, a col­lec­tion of re­portage, the idea of ‘‘the ba­nal­ity of evil’’ orig­i­nated. Arendt ar­gued that Eich­mann was nei­ther ma­ni­a­cal nor par­tic­u­larly anti-Semitic, that he was ‘‘not a mon­ster’’. Rather he was nor­mal to the point of be­ing mun­dane, a view sup­ported by Eich­mann’s pre­sen­ta­tion of him­self at the trial.

Now Ger­man aca­demic Bettina Stangneth has writ­ten Eich­mann Be­fore Jerusalem, which de­tails his life be­fore the trial — and aims to achieve what Claude Lanz­mann achieved in the con­text of Nazi crimes in his film Shoah: snuff out any pos­si­bil­ity of in­no­cence or de­nial.

Work­ing in and around Arendt, Stangneth presents Eich­mann as a deeply ide­o­log­i­cal, fa­nat­i­cal ca­reerist who saw him­self as im­por­tant and cre­ative.

Her im­age of Eich­mann is of much more than a mere func­tionary, and far from that of a nor­mal man. In di­a­logue with Arendt, Strangneth cre­ates a psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait of Eich­mann as de­lib­er­ate, cal­cu­lat­ing and in­tel­li­gent. He was proud of his ‘‘in­no­va­tions’’ and thought a lot about his life’s work. The ways in which he spoke about him­self while in power are at odds with how he spoke about him­self at his trial.

Stangneth ar­gues that the face­less func­tionary iden­tity we as­so­ciate with Eich­mann is due to his wily abil­ity to ma­nip­u­late and de­ceive his lis­ten­ers. She never goes as far as to sug­gest that Arendt, along with the rest of the world, was taken in by Eich­mann — that re­mains un­said, but open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Stangneth care­fully avoids men­tion­ing Arendt’s name too of­ten and when she does it’s with rev­er­ence. She makes use of a lot of ev­i­dence that was un­avail­able to Arendt.

This book is dili­gently re­searched and deals with the minu­tiae of Eich­mann’s ca­reer and life in hid­ing. Stangneth presents sources that have never been ex­am­ined be­fore and, for the first time, closely analy­ses Eich­mann’s own writ­ing (much of which was about him­self).

Cru­cial in her ev­i­dence is a se­ries of in­ter­views con­ducted by Dutch Nazi jour­nal­ist Wil- lem Sassen. Con­trary to the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy he wrote in prison in Jerusalem, Eich­mann not only did not deny that the mur­der of the Jews had hap­pened, he as­serted his ac­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity. Stangneth, who is clearly in­ter­ested in power and in the psy­cho­log­i­cal bul­ly­ing of the Jewish com­mu­nity by the Third Re­ich in the lead-up to the Fi­nal So­lu­tion, con­vinc­ingly showcases Eich­mann’s sub­tle hypocrisies.

In do­ing so, she de­picts the hand-over-the­heart cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ness with which the Nazis viewed their work, per­haps best ex­pressed by Hein­rich Himm­ler (to whom Eich­mann re­ported), in 1943: ‘‘Most of you know what it means to see 100 corpses ly­ing side by side, or 500, or even 1000 ly­ing there. To have per­se­vered, dis­re­gard­ing ex­cep­tional cases of hu­man weak­ness, to have re­mained de­cent: this has made us hard. This is a never-to-be-writ­ten page of glory in our his­tory.’’

The ways in which Stangneth’s re­search is ex­pressed some­times lets down the qual­ity of her work. Un­like most pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans (she is a philoso­pher by train­ing), she doesn’t shy away from emo­tion. In a chap­ter called The Devil Him­self, Eich­mann is re­ferred to as ‘‘Satan in hu­man form’’. She makes pro­nounce­ments that seem un­so­phis­ti­cated or even glib, such as: ‘‘Tak­ing a good look in the mir­ror clearly didn’t cause him the same level of con­cern’’, and ‘‘those men around Himm­ler had a slightly idio­syn­cratic idea of hon­our’’.

Lies told at Nurem­berg are de­scribed as ‘‘brazen’’, a cliche that makes the de­cep­tion seem cheeky rather than im­moral. ‘‘Any­one com­par­ing him­self to the King of the Jews has some real is­sues to work through,’’ Stangneth as­serts. That Eich­mann ‘‘had some real is­sues to work through’’ is some­thing that may be taken for granted by to­day’s read­ers. Some of this lan­guage could, of course, be part of the trans­la­tion from the Ger­man by Ruth Martin.

This book is a valu­able re­source, one that be­longs in the canon. It’s an ex­cel­lent com­ple­ment to Arendt’s work, which has hith­erto been the de­fault book on Eich­mann. The ques­tion that all read­ers of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture ask them­selves many times — how it could have hap­pened, and how so many co-op­er­ated for so long — is ap­pre­ci­ated.

Such things don’t ‘‘just hap­pen’’, they are stren­u­ously pro­pelled by peo­ple. Stangneth does not re­fute Arendt, but the im­age she con­structs leaves very lit­tle room for ba­nal­ity, and none for de­nial. For those mys­ti­fied by Arendt’s as­ser­tion that ‘‘he never re­alised what he was do­ing’’, Stangneth has some ex­pla­na­tions.

Nazi SS of­fi­cer Adolf Eich­mann is con­demned to death after his trial in Jerusalem in 1961

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