“Eichmann Interrogated,” and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem”

Adolph Eichmann worked closely with the notorious S.S. General Rienhard Heydrich, and helped formulate and institute the plans for the Final Solution.  He escaped eventually to Argentina, but was kidnapped by the Mossad and taken back to Israel for trial.

Eichmann Interrogated is comprised almost entirely of edited transcripts of conversations between Israeli Captain Avner Less and Eichmann himself.

The book starts and continues on a tedious note.  Eichmann takes pains to clarify the minutiae of who he knew, when he joined the S.S. and why, what his rank meant, and exactly what he did.  Painstakingly he gets us to the point where he asserts that the scope of his powers extended to Section IV B4.  That’s all.  He even expresses horror at the fact that Nazi’s murdered Less’ father in a concentration camp.

But around page 90 or so Less’ questions come more to the point, and Eichmann’s responses have to match.  Eichmann claims responsibility only for the fact that he transported people to the camps, and not for any of the deaths.  He talks of the need to obey orders, that he did nothing illegal as far as German law was concerned.  When pressed on the death of civilians at the hands of Germany, he admits it but points out that the Allies killed hundreds of thousands of civilians with their bombings as well.  He is deferential, but fights nonetheless.  He desperately tries to get distance between himself and the victims by claiming that he did not know necessarily that any of them would be killed for sure, otherwise why did so many Jews survive the war?  Bizarrely, he almost argued that his conscience could be clean because any of those he did ship to camps might hypothetically not be killed, thus, he can say he helped kill no one at all. He is very clear on this point.  Eichmann does not come to terms with his actions.

Many things make the last 150 pages or so of the book so memorable.  Did he truly believe the legal fictions he spun for himself?  Did he divorce himself so much from reality that he could not connect his transportation of people and their deaths?  Surely too, he lied about the extent of his involvement.  But again, did he believe his lies?

Hannah Arendt’s work helps complete the picture.  I thought Arendt’s Imperialism fantastic, but Eichmann in Jerusalem lacked the focus of that previous work.  Still the subtitle itself (A Report on the Banality of Evil) is a great insight into the whole Nazi regime.  Arendt does also draw one key conclusion about Eichmann himself.  She did not see him as a simpleton or a mere patsy.  He had a kind of intelligence.  But she argued that Eichmann had no ability or training to see anything beyond the moment.

One example might be that within minutes of each other he first disavowed any believe in the afterlife and then proclaimed that, “Germany will live in my heart forever.” Eichmann was perhaps literally incapable of seeing the contradiction. The same insight applies to him expressing horror over Avner Less’ father in a death camp.  Perhaps that too was not an act.  Perhaps he did not see the connection between himself and that event, however absurd that notion is.  Truly, he was never trained or encouraged to think or view things outside of himself.  He accepted his death sentence passively, but with little real sense of the reasons why he deserved it.*  For him the verdict seemed like victors justice and not Justice proper, a mere extension of the war 17 years later.

If she is right in this about Eichmann, then we can reasonably assume that he may not have only tried to concoct a desperate defense with his, “I only shipped them to the camps, I never killed anyone,” line.  He might have actually believed it. In this way Arendt makes us see that Eichmann is part of the tragedy of the Holocaust, all the more so because it seemed he couldn’t see that about himself.

*Unlike, say, Burt Lancaster’s character in the great ‘Judgment at Nuremburg.’

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One comment on ““Eichmann Interrogated,” and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem”

  1. soveros says:

    Thank you for reminding me of Hannah Arendt. I have read so much about her in my studies in Art but have not read her books. I think it is time I actually picked one up.

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