Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) 608pp.
When I first became aware of Bettina Stangneth’s new book on Eichmann, I rolled my eyes and asked myself a question: how much of the book is really about Hannah Arendt?
This cynicism is not unfounded. The main text of David Cesarani’s 2005 biography, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes, is 368 pages. The index informs us that Hannah Arendt or her Eichmann thesis are discussed on 29 of them. So much of Deborah Lipstadt’s 2011 book, The Eichmann Trial, is about Arendt that there is a picture of her on the dust jacket. And one only has to consider the choice of title of Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem, to realise that it is an allusion to Arendt’s own Eichmann in Jerusalem. I am therefore not surprised that Stangneth views her whole book as a “dialogue with Hannah Arendt.”
In fact, Eichmann Before Jerusalem provides a meticulous account of Eichmann’s time in Argentina. This was where he hid after evading capture as a war criminal after the Second World War. It was in Argentina that Eichmann spent a substantial amount of time with other Nazi bigwigs who likewise had escaped Germany and still believed in the cause. With these insalubrious characters, Eichmann did not have to use his assumed name of Ricardo Klement, he was “Adolf Eichmann – SS-Obersturmbannführer (retired).” There was the Dürer publishing house that published Der Weg, a magazine that was “as openly anti-Semitic, racist, and National Socialist as if the Third Reich had never collapsed.” In 1954, Der Weg published an article entitled “The Lie of the Six Million.” They were denying that gas chamber existed for the systematic murder of Jews long before Ernst Zündel, Arthur Butz and David Irving. There was also Willem Sassen’s circle. It was here that Eichmann, other unreformed Nazis and their fellow travellers sat around discussing news reports and books that were appearing on the Third Reich, much of which they derided as emanating from the “Jewish enemy.” Many of these conversations, where participants discussed historical documents and argued over their interpretation, were deliberately recorded and transcribed. Stangneth tracked down twenty-nine hours of the recordings.
Eichmann remained a dedicated anti-Semite and his output was prolific. His so-called “Argentina Papers” contain a 107-page manuscript (with the didactic title, “The Others Spoke, Now I Want to Speak”), over one thousand pages of Sassen interviews, “several introductory essays with accompanying notes, and around one hundred more pages of notes and commentaries on books.” Stangneth’s task was onerous but much of what she was able to access was available neither to the court in Jerusalem when Eichmann was tried, nor to Hannah Arendt for her famous but controversial report of the trial. However, not all of Eichmann’s known writings in Argentina could be seen by Stangneth. He wrote a 260-page document known as the “Tucumán Novel” in which he “attempted to give a detailed account of his life and actions, explaining himself first and foremost to his children, his family, and the ‘generations to come.’” The Eichmann family have this document but – nauseatingly – would not allow Stangneth access without “an appropriate level of remuneration.”
While in Argentina with such septic waste, Eichmann even planned to write and have published an open letter to the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. As Stangneth explains, the Nazis were not just recording conversations and writing for the benefit of the history books, “they wanted to make a difference, to get back to Europe and involve themselves in West German politics.” The dream was a revival of National Socialism. In order to do this, history was being rewritten and an attempt was being made at redeeming Hitler.
In order to realise this dream, many of the Nazi exiles in Argentina thought it best to minimise the destruction of the Jews. But this was not Eichmann. For him, the Jews were to blame – they were the guilty ones. He raved that Chaim Weizmann had declared war on the German people “in the name of Jewry.” Millions of Germans had died in the war. They were the true victims. The Jews were always the aggressors – so Eichmann pointed out with respect to the Suez crisis – and they were the true war criminals.
Eichmann was proud that one of his superiors said to him, “if we’d had fifty Eichmanns, we’d have won the war for sure.” He was also proud of his Nazi achievements. He is notorious for saying at the end of the war: “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews [‘enemies of the Reich’] on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” He retained that view in 1957 in Argentina: “The only good enemy of the Reich is a dead one.” If he had any regrets it was that they had not managed to kill all the 10.3 million Jews in his sights. Only by doing so would they have fulfilled their duty. After such admissions Stangneth notes that the Sassen project ran into insurmountable problems. Victims’ testimonies and other documents about the killings of Jews could be dismissed as “anti-German,” “propagandist,” “exaggerated,” or “counterfeit,” but Eichmann, a dedicated National Socialist, and the man they hoped would be their chief witness, “had laid a few million more lives on the table.”
What Stangneth has uncovered with her research is remarkable, but she admits there is more work to be done on Eichmann’s Argentinian Papers, and she encourages others to do it. Her research was not plain sailing. In her book she has not been hesitant to make caustic remarks about those who have been less than forthcoming with assistance. In one example she states “I have not been able to convince Daimler that the possibility their staff may have included not only a mass murderer but also someone who aided a famous German attorney general makes cooperating with a researcher a worthwhile exercise.” And in her acknowledgements: “A few inquiries remain unanswered. I would still be delighted to hear from David Cesarani….”
In a review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem for The New York Times, Seyla Benhabib comments:
Eichmann’s self-immunizing mixture of anti-Semitic clichés, his antiquated idiom of German patriotism and the craving for the warrior’s honor and dignity, led Arendt to conclude that Eichmann could not “think” — not because he was incapable of rational intelligence but because he could not think for himself beyond clichés. He was banal precisely because he was a fanatical anti-Semite, not despite it. [Emphasis added.]
I am surprised that Benhabib, an Arendt specialist, has made this statement, because it is the exact opposite of what Arendt concluded. This is what Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem:
[Eichmann’s] was obviously no case of insane hatred of Jews, of fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind. He “personally” never had anything whatsoever against Jews; on the contrary, he had plenty of “private reasons” for not being a Jew hater. To be sure, there were fanatic anti-Semites among his closest friends…..but this, according to Eichmann, was more or less in the spirit of “some of my best friends are anti-Semites.”
Arendt had a lot to say in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Some of her very controversial comments about the Jewish Councils in Nazi occupied Europe are not even discussed by Stangneth. But from now on, and as a result of Stangneth’s research, those who wish to defend Arendt’s claims will have their work cut out for them.