BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The banality of Eichmann
, June 20, 2015
EICHMANN BEFORE JERUSALEM: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer
by Bettina Stangneth
Paperback: 608 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
The title of Bettina Stangneth’s book is a direct reference to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and an implied reference to its subtitle, A Report on the Banality of Evil.
Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in the organisation of the Holocaust, was one of the most important Nazi officials to escape prosecution by the Nuremberg tribunal.
After World War II he hid out in Germany and Austria for five years, and then in 1950 fled to Argentina.
In 1960 he was kidnapped by a team of Mossad agents and smuggled back to Israel, where he was tried in front of a global audience in 1961, and hanged in 1962.
Hannah Arendt, a German-born American Jewish academic and journalist, was sent to cover the trial for The New Yorker, and in her subsequent book coined the famous expression which has ever since been associated with Eichmann: “the banality of evil”.
There was always a tension in the Christian West between the theodicy exemplified in Paradise Lost, which emphasised the radical tangibility of evil, and a theodicy such as Augustine’s, which denied evil any inherent ontological status and defined it terms of the absence of good.
The secularist Arendt, while acknowledging the all too real evil of Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka and the system which gave birth to them and fed them, tended more towards the Augustinian position.
For her, a Nazi functionary such as Eichmann was not a toweringly defiant Nietzschean epigone of Milton’s Satan, but a thoughtless, bureaucratic automaton, caught up in a system to which he devoted obedience and maximal efficiency while ignoring its ultimate values and purposes.
There has been an ongoing debate over the last half-century about Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann.
Stangneth laboriously and unspectacularly spells out the conscious and enthusiatic anti-Semitism and pro-Nazism of Eichmann’s career, in a way which leaves no room for any possible interpretation of his role as that of a mere cog in the machine – let alone an unwitting victim of historical forces beyond his comprehension!
After the war, a colleague of Eichmann claimed that, “he said he would leap laughing into the pit, because the feeling that he had 6 million people on his conscience would be a source of extraordinary satisfaction to him”.
Stangneth effectively demolishes (assuming anyone still believes in it) the defence that he was a mere lower-level functionary (he never held a higher rank than colonel) “just doing his job”, or “merely following orders”, and was subsequently turned into a scapegoat.
One of the most powerful pieces of evidence against Eichmann is the collection (in three locations) of tapes, transcripts and his own handwritten notes, known as the Argentina Papers, or Sassen Papers.
These record a series of talks which he gave to Nazi sympathisers and former Nazis in 1957-58, and contain quotes such as: “There are still a whole lot of Jews enjoying life today who should have been gassed … The only good enemy of the Reich is a dead one. When I received an order, I always carried out this order with the executioner, and I am proud of that to this day.”
While this book is an important and necessary piece of painstaking investigation, it can only be recommended with a couple of provisos.
First, it consists not just of history and biography, but also of historiography, and the protracted discussion of sources and their reliability is heavy going for all but fellow researchers in the field of Eichmann studies.
Second, the description of the extensive postwar discussions of the Final Solution by old Nazis and their hangers-on during the 1950s becomes, by nature of its subject matter, oppressive and nauseating.
It could also be objected that the book suffers from an absence of photographs, but such a complaint might be construed as trivial and even – banal?
This is not popular history or bedtime reading, but what it lacks in narrative élan, it more than makes up for by its conscientious scholarship.
Bill James is a Melbourne writer.