Four pfennige per track km

Thomas Laqueur

  • Eichmann: His Life and Crimes by David Cesarani
    Heinemann, 458 pp, £20.00, August 2004, ISBN 0 434 01056 1
  • Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence by Janina Struk
    Tauris, 251 pp, £15.95, December 2003, ISBN 1 86064 546 1

Adolf Eichmann is not an obvious candidate for a full-length biography, and before his capture in 1960 and trial the following year no one would have thought of writing one. The historical record would have been too thin; much of what we know about his life and crimes emerged from his interrogation by the Israeli authorities and from the vast research effort that went into preparing the case against him. It would in any case have been nearly impossible to fit the life and crimes of a relatively obscure lieutenant-colonel into the giant criminal enterprise that we now call the ‘Holocaust’. The word itself, borrowed from more innocent applications to mean specifically the extermination of the Jews, had only come into being – in the Yad Vashem Bulletin – three years earlier; the Library of Congress did not take it on as a subject heading until 1968. And there was little serious historical work to rely on. Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews appeared only in 1961, much to Hannah Arendt’s good fortune but too late for the prosecutors putting their case together. They had to rely principally on two earlier works, one of which, Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution, can’t have given them, or a would-be biographer, much heart.

Reitlinger devotes a substantial number of pages to Eichmann and concludes, in a phrase David Cesarani quotes, that Eichmann’s ‘career was that of a German civil servant, absorbed in his work and getting no glory for it’. Reitlinger didn’t fail to recognise his significance in the murder of millions of Jews but, like Arendt later on, he regarded him as something of a clown, a blowhard and braggart.

Here, he writes, was ‘a Grand Inquisitor without a vestige of glamour or romantic mystery’, a man characterised in 1946 by one of his friends and colleagues as ‘in every respect a painstaking bureaucrat’, who thought that the most important thing was to avoid personal responsibility. To these precepts Eichmann was faithful unto death. (The question of numbers would come up repeatedly at his trial. One of the most inadvertently hilarious bits of evidence for the scale of his crimes came from the interviews that he gave, while still free in Argentina, to a Dutch war criminal and Holocaust denier called Willem Sassen. Sassen wanted to minimise the numbers deported to the camps; Eichmann, unclear about his interlocutor’s agenda and always ready to brag, kept arguing in the opposite direction.)

His capture, trial and everything that came afterwards gave him quite another place in history and made him far more attractive to biographers. There were dozens in the early 1960s. But Cesarani is the first since then, and the first to utilise the vast body of sources generated by the judicial process and the questions it left unanswered. Eichmann is still not an easy subject, however. As a human being he was irremediably boring; no one has ever argued otherwise. As a public figure he held no independent views and initiated nothing; he had no thoughts worthy of the name. Whenever he chaired a committee charged with formulating policy, such as the one after the big Wannsee Conference that was meant to decide what was to be done with Mischlinge – people of ‘mixed race’ – and with Jewish spouses of Aryan Germans, the results were inconclusive. These sorts of decision – whether the risk of alienating tens of thousands of happily married Aryans and lawyers who did not like the idea of the state initiating divorce proceedings was worth the bureaucratic clarity a scorched earth policy would provide – were political and above his grade. (Higher-ups decided that murdering Jewish spouses could wait.)

If, before 1960, we knew too little to put this mid-level murderer in narrative context, we now know too much. Old stories have gone flat; old questions stale; old answers have become untenable. The Nuremberg Tribunal implicitly laid the blame for the disasters of National Socialism at the feet of a small cohort of monstrous leaders, captains of evil. Eichmann had not been one of this select group, though the prosecution in Jerusalem tried to portray him in the same light. But more important, as greater numbers of smaller fry came to justice, and as historians discovered how complex, intricate, and mind and labour-intensive this particular mass murder was, the top-down Nuremberg theory became ever less convincing.

More sophisticated psychological theories that were meant to explain the articulation between people like Eichmann and the great men of evil emerged soon after the war ended. Some of the most brilliant of those who remembered ‘the mechanised persecution and extermination of millions of human beings . . . in what was once regarded as the citadel of Western civilisation’ – most of the world wanted to forget – thought they had an explanation for the disaster: prejudice and personality. Theodor Adorno and his colleagues observed that ‘in a culture of law, order and reason there . . . have survived the irrational remnants of ancient racial and religious hatreds.’ Their analysis of these diseased survivors was in the tradition of Flaubert. A sick organism was the object of study; pathology provided the master narrative. ‘What tissues in the life of our society remain cancerous?’ they asked. ‘What within the individual organism responds to certain stimuli in our culture with attitudes and acts of destructive aggression?’ And the answer they gave was that our century had witnessed ‘the rise of an "anthropological” species . . . the authoritarian type of man’, which made barbarity within civilisation possible. This new creature was, they thought, the result of a perverse marriage of the atavistic and the modern. Unlike the bigot of the old school, he combined ‘skills which are typical of a highly industrialised society with irrational and anti-rational beliefs . . . at the same time enlightened and superstitious, proud to be an individualist and in constant fear of not being like all the others, jealous of his independence and inclined to submit blindly to power and authority’.

This will not do. They were ‘ordinary men’ – the title of Christopher Browning’s indispensable book – who shot, day after day, at close range, men, women and children by the hundreds of thousands. The social psychology of the past three decades seems to belie the notion that a deviant personality is necessary to make someone do great harm to his fellow creatures. And the ubiquity of genocide both before and after the Holocaust suggests that we should abandon the old question entirely. The problem isn’t so much ‘How is genocide possible?’ as ‘Why have certain societies, in certain periods of their history, been spared its ravages?’

Eichmann was not a man of great mental gifts, but whatever he did, he did not ‘submit blindly to power and authority’, and he wasn’t irrational or a brute. The man who organised the transportation of millions to their deaths played his violin regularly when off duty. He had read Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason; he could, as Arendt points out, come up with ‘an approximately correct definition of the categorical imperative’, and however incomplete, intellectually impoverished and even perverse his account of how and why he abandoned the Kantian formula might be, it was not in any way atavistic or irrational.

This still leaves open the role of bigotry and prejudice in accounting for the Holocaust and for the participation of men like Eichmann in its day-to-day operations. Historians vary in the importance they attribute to ideology in the unfolding of the Holocaust, but no one has denied that radical anti-semitism stood at the core of National Socialism or that mass murder was the ‘final solution’ to the Jewish problem. That said, efforts to account for the Holocaust by what Daniel Goldhagen identified as ‘exterminationist anti-semitism’, a specifically murderous hatred of Jews with deep roots in the German psyche that National Socialism needed only to cultivate in order to make thousands of people participate in genocide, have failed.

Eichmann is a case in point. Despite the mountains of evidence presented at his trial, Harold Rosenberg, the great critical proponent of Abstract Expressionism and an acute political observer besides, thought it a failure precisely because the prosecution had been unable to show that the defendant hated Jews personally. Elie Wiesel was disappointed, too, because Eichmann emerged so resolutely normal.

These views, shared by many, were not simply the result of a flawed judicial process. As Cesarani conclusively demonstrates, Eichmann only gradually became an instrument of mass murder. He was, of course, an anti-semite, but no more or less so than tens of thousands on the far right. He did not embrace or participate in pogroms like Kristallnacht or in the many other violent disruptions of Jewish organisational life, because that all interfered with the orderly execution of the emigration policies so dear to him. He was genuinely taken aback when he learned, six months after the decision was taken higher up, that the ‘final solution’ meant mass murder in concentration camps and nothing else. Eichmann at the time had been happily, if not productively, working on the grandest of his emigration schemes: the forced transportation of four million Jews to Madagascar. The charge that he himself had murdered at least one Jew did not stick; the Sassen interviews, completed well before the trial and unconcerned with exculpation, suggest that he was shocked and made uncomfortable by having to watch a demonstration gassing of Polish Jews. None of this stopped him from organising the transport of millions to their deaths.

But anti-semitism, even of a radical sort, does not account either for the Holocaust generally or for Eichmann’s actions in particular. Cesarani is right to emphasise that it was not somehow immanent in the discriminatory legislation that excluded Jews from public life in Germany and elsewhere. (Americans ought not to forget that the 1935 Nuremberg Laws did more or less what Jim Crow had effected in the United States four decades earlier without the cover of constitutional hypocrisy. Blacks and whites could not marry in many states until the 1967 Supreme Court decision in the Loving case. Anti-semitism was endemic in the New World and probably got worse during the years of the Holocaust.)

The Holocaust as a monolithic, well organised and smoothly operating process of murder that began in 1939 and ended in 1945 is probably no longer a sustainable notion: its deathly course emerged from a complex skein of bureaucratic decisions, institutional rivalries and local conditions. For the biographer, and especially for the biographer of a criminal of Eichmann’s rank, this means that the story can’t be told as one in which the main character does the work of History.

Cesarani’s response to the collapse of most of the old models is to embrace contingency. At the heart of his book is, inevitably, Eichmann’s trial. Most of his primary evidence originated there in one way or another; Eichmann is Eichmann because of what transpired in that Jerusalem courtroom. (And because of what Arendt had to say about it – about which more in a moment.) But the trial and what it revealed about the man was not prefigured in what came before. Eichmann, Cesarani argues, slouched slowly towards genocide. Once there, he applied ‘the same problem-solving, can-do, corporate mentality’, the same considerable managerial skills, to the problems of transporting people to their deaths that he had mobilised in ‘arranging shipments of gasoline to petrol stations’, in his pre-Nazi era job as an employee of an Austrian, Jewish-owned petroleum products firm.

Eichmann was born in Solingen, in the Rhineland, on 19 March 1906. He moved with his devoutly Protestant mother and his on-and-off successful businessman father to Linz in Austria when he was seven. His mother died when he was relatively young; his father was occasionally away. Nothing unusual here. He had an ordinary social life in school and had an ordinary number of friends including a Jewish kid with whom he regularly exchanged visits. They still met for walks after Adolf joined the Party. The young Eichmann was not good at school and after various less than productive educational experiments his father found him a series of jobs, the last of them with the petroleum firm. There is no evidence that it mattered very much to him that his employers were Jewish.

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