Finding Eichmann guilty

Since the 1960s Adolf Eichmann has remained a Holocaust enigma and symbol. A new book sets out to set the record straight on how he manipulated history.

People look at displays at an exhibition about Adolf Eichmann in Berlin in 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS)
People look at displays at an exhibition about Adolf Eichmann in Berlin in 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Killing large numbers of people is a difficult task. “It wasn’t in our interests for the material to be used for labor in the concentration camps to arrive completely useless and needing repair,” former Nazi functionary and leading Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann told a group of people in Argentina in 1957. “Look, how can you make 25,000 Jews or people or let’s say 25,000 cows disappear en route… have you seen 25,000 people in a pile?” Bettina Stangneth, a philosopher and academic in Germany, is candid about the decision to write on a seemingly well known subject. “Eichmann’s fame surpasses even that of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, so why write another book?” Stangneth is haunted by the fact that it seems the historians, especially academics, have been wrong about Eichmann. Since his trial in 1960, research has lived under the shadow of Hannah Arendt’s controversial account in which he is presented as merely a cog in a Nazi murder machine. “She fell into his trap: Eichmann in Jerusalem was little more than a mask... Arendt has served to distract us from the matter at hand.”
Stangneth is correct: those who tried to depict Eichmann as part of the “machine” did so because they wanted history to be about Nazism and the evils of the right-wing totalitarian state and associated “isms.” They didn’t want to accept that individuals played a role in the Holocaust, rather that the Holocaust was an outcome of a “system.”
The author sets out to ask an important question. What became of SS-Obersturmbannführer Eichmann in retirement in Germany and later Argentina? It was an “astonishing second career,” the author notes. He was still an “ideological warrior,” he wrote copious notes and conducted taped interviews with a small audience that amount to some 1,300 pages.
“Not once during his escape and exile did Eichmann seek the shadows or try to act in secrecy.” When he was kidnapped and transported to Israel for trial in 1960 he “did the utmost to paint himself as an unimportant head of department.” But of course, the author notes, he was fighting for his life, as zealously as he had once fought to rid the world of Jews.
Eichmann, like so many fanatical Nazis, was Austrian. He joined the party in 1932 and quickly became an expert on the “Jewish question.” He learned a bit of Hebrew and traveled to the Middle East, where he got a glimpse of Zionism up close. He met with representatives of various Jewish institutions in the lead-up to the war in 1939. Eventually he would be known as the “Czar of the Jews.” Initially his efforts were directed toward ridding the Reich of its unwanted Jews, and fostering emigration for them. Always behind his pleasant demeanor was the cudgel; in Prague in 1939 he “threatened the Jews with a massacre if they did not emigrate quickly.” Eventually, as the war came and the Nazis moved toward extermination, his expertise at “large-scale population displacements” gained him the infamy of fanatically organizing the destruction of whole communities in Holland and Hungary.
Eichmann was an expert propagandist.
When the Red Cross visited the Theresienstadt “model camp” he was there beforehand to have it cleaned up in a “masterful piece of theater.” The subsequent Red Cross report “sounds so starry eyed that it’s hard not to admire Eichmann’s PR work.”
When the Reich came crashing down around him he used the same instincts for PR and ingratiating himself during the war, toward obtaining a new identity.
He became Otto Eckmann, an SS officer in a prisoner-of-war camp – run by the Allies – who by that time were rounding up Hitler’s hangmen, and would eventually find him. “Eichmann quickly realized he was under threat from people he counted as friends as well.” He escaped with the help of old Nazi comrades and went to lie low on Lüneburg Heath as Otto Heninger, eventually becoming a chicken farmer.
“Nobody liked to ask too many questions” in the area, and he became anonymous.
In 1950 he fled to Argentina, and this period is extensively covered in the book.
He met fellow fascist friends, such as Dutchman Willem Sassen, who began to tape interviews with him. It is extraordinary to hear how Eichmann was still obsessed with the Jewish people, now turning his lens on Israel. “Israeli bayonets are now overrunning the Egyptian people, who have been startled from their peaceful sleep… who are the war criminals?” Eichmann had known the mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in Berlin and now he adopted a pro-Islamic stance in 1956, like other Nazi officers who had found homes in Egypt and Syria as military advisers.
This book is one of the most important to come out on a Nazi war criminal in a while. Beautifully written in translation from German, it is a window into the world of the Nazis both during and after the Holocaust. It finally sets the record straight on Eichmann by digging deeply into the primary sources. When readers learn that Eichmann declared, “I could have done more, and should have done more,” we are left assured this was no cog in the machine, this was the operator of the machine.