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.

He was drawn into a volkish right-wing politics through the Wandervogel youth: strident nationalism, of one kind or another, was endemic after the Austrian humiliation in the Great War – but none of this led directly to Eichmann’s joining the Nazis. He seems to have found National Socialists beneath his social station; he joined on 1 April 1932, when a slightly older boy from a better family than his joined and honoured him by using the familiar du. The boy was Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Eichmann claimed at his trial that he had not read Mein Kampf at the time and that he had no particular interest in Jews one way or the other. Cesarani thinks this is right. Eichmann was, to be sure, impressed that a Masonic lodge he was thinking of joining did not admit Jews, but when Kaltenbrunner told him that Freemasons were also enemies of National Socialism he seemed even more intrigued and quickly abandoned his new friends.

In fact, had circumstances not intervened, party priorities not changed, and new opportunities for advancement not presented themselves, Eichmann might have gone down in history as the Nazi expert on an international secret society of which Mozart, among many other 18th-century worthies, had been a member. Eichmann’s first job with the SD, the security service of the SS, which he joined in 1934, was as one of nine people on the Freemasonry desk. (At the time there were two men keeping track of Jews.) He and his colleagues dutifully produced an alphabetical list of more than 100,000 suspects before he moved on to a five-month stint classifying Masonic seals for an exhibition intended to educate the SS about its enemies.

His big break and salvation from the tedium of sorting seals came in 1935 in the person of SS Untersturmführer (Second Lieutenant) Edler von Mildenstein, a Czech-born Nazi whom Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD, had persuaded to turn the small Jewish section into something serious. Mildenstein would have no truck with the wild and politically impotent racism of Julius Streicher and his sort; hatred and personal violence would not solve the problem, as Mildenstein and his pupil Eichmann came to understand it. Jews were a nation. They were united not by a homeland but by money; they were, by definition, an enemy in the midst of a volkish Germany. Of course, there was a huge racial component in all this but Eichmann and his mentor were immersed in what they took to be practical political questions. Mildenstein had toured Palestine in 1933 at the invitation of the Berlin office of the World Zionist Organisation and written knowledgably and fairly about what he had seen. He set his eager, ambitious assistant a course of reading in the history of Zionism, and suggested that he learn some Hebrew and generally inform himself about the enemy.

It is this peculiar political formation, combined with the can-do, no-nonsense ethos in the SD, that produced men who until the end found it hard to look on themselves as anti-semites. The moral obtuseness that struck many observers at Eichmann’s trial was born of a bureaucratic and political culture in which the goal was clear – a radical separation of Aryans and Jews, and the removal of Jews from Germany – and in which a place on a death train to Sobibór was the functional equivalent of an emigration visa.

Cesarani is good at unearthing the unending strangeness of the new job: Eichmann’s meetings, for example, with Feivel Polkes, a Haganah agent, whom the Nazi secret service was happy to put up in a Berlin hotel, and whose help Eichmann sought in finding out who had assassinated a Swiss Nazi, as well as more generally in getting tips on how to get German Jews to leave. Polkes in return hoped he might procure some guns from the SD to help the Haganah against the British and suggested that Eichmann visit Palestine – which he did. Eichmann and the Zionists were broadly on the same page: it was the assimilationist Jews who were intolerable.

The master sergeant on the make became an expert on emigration, and with the Austrian Anschluss came an enormous opportunity to put ideas into action. An excruciatingly ironic pattern was set. Whether Eichmann himself, as he once bragged, or the Jewish leadership, as recent research suggests, came up with the idea of a Central Office for Jewish Emigration is not as clear as it might be. But several things emerge from Vienna and are pregnant with a more horrible future. First, the relatively non-violent expulsion of 50,000 Austrian Jews in the time it took to force 19,000 out of Germany was possible only because of the co-operation between the SD and the Jewish leadership. Eichmann would always work through his victims. Second, forced emigration and later genocide on the German model were technically demanding undertakings. Eichmann and thousands of his colleagues were thoughtful, innovative and bureaucratically skilled in carrying out their jobs.

Before Jews could leave Austria, they had to prove that they had paid their utility bills, their taxes and various other impositions; they had to have a certain amount of hard currency to be allowed into their new countries. However, by the time they had made the rounds of the various agencies involved and dealt with abusive and obstructive bureaucrats, weeks or months might have passed, and visas might have expired. Besides, there were many Jews too poor to come up with the cash required to get in elsewhere, and there were Central Bank authorities who did not like the idea that hard currency was leaving along with Jews. Eichmann, working with Jewish leaders, on the one hand, and, on the other, with hosts of fellow bureaucrats, cut through all this with his one-stop dispossession of livelihood, civic status and homeland. By the end of May 1939, nearly 100,000 Jews had left Austria, most through his good offices.

He was becoming expert at moving people around and learning at the same time how difficult it was to carry out policy when the higher-ups were at loggerheads. Heydrich appointed him ‘special officer’ in charge of evacuating Jews to the east. Himmler and Heydrich wanted Jews out of all the formerly German parts of Poland so that ethnic Germans could be resettled there; the authorities in the government in Occupied Poland (the ‘General Government’), on the other hand, did not want Jews there. One local leader in Cracow threatened to arrest Eichmann if he set foot in the city. Ethnic Germans waited in miserable camps until Jews could be removed, but no one wanted Jews and in any case poor Eichmann could not procure the trains to shift them. His scheme to move the Jews to Madagascar was meant to be the answer to the human log-jam that he and his bosses faced. Meanwhile it was all a mess.

Now in charge of IVB4, the Jewish affairs department of the RSHA (the Reich’s main security office), Eichmann spent much of 1940 forcing Jews out of Vienna, Prague and Berlin, working with Zionists to organise illegal immigration to Palestine, and moving tens of thousands of unfortunate Jews to wherever in the east he could find a place for them. Always there were the technical details. In early March he had a set-to with the Foreign Ministry on the grounds that stripping German citizenship from Jews who had fled to Russia and wanted to return would make it more difficult for them to get an entry visa anywhere. There were back-ups and problems on all sides, as Jews piled into Occupied Poland with nowhere to go and nothing to sustain them. Famously, as Eichmann put it, ‘something had to be done.’ That something – what we know as the ‘final solution’ – was formulated by his bosses in the summer and autumn of 1941 and articulated at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. Eichmann, with a reluctance born not of conscience but of a mid-level official’s fear that he might lose his brief (emigration), moved gradually, uneasily, but with ever increasing energy, into the business of mass murder. New historical evidence leads Cesarani to accept Eichmann’s account that he really was unenthusiastic about what seemed like a turn to physical annihilation, even though his new responsibilities resulted in his promotion, in October 1941, to lieutenant-colonel, the highest rank he would hold.

The precise chronology of his conversion – that is, the story of how Eichmann evolved from a brutally efficient expert in emigration to a somewhat less efficient functionary in charge of transporting people to their deaths – is still muddled, largely because historians still do not know the precise chronology of the genocide, of how it emerged from relatively unco-ordinated local killing initiatives into a general policy. Even as he visited Auschwitz in early 1942, witnessed the gassing at Chelmno, and saw the work of Einsatzgruppen killing Jews by the thousand near Minsk, Eichmann still seemed to have no idea that there had been a sharp break, if indeed there had been.

Cesarani leaves open the question of whether he did, as he claims, really feel ‘extinguished’ and as if ‘everything was taken away from me,’ or whether this was just another of his pathetic attempts at retrospection during his trial. What is beyond doubt is that he never cared what happened to Jews as long as they were removed from whatever jurisdiction he was charged with cleansing, and that after late 1941 he did not much care what happened to Jews full stop. He threw himself into the work of getting them into manageable concentrations and onto trains and headed to death camps, to doctors who wanted their skeletons, or to one of a vast complex of firms that thrived on the profits of their slave labour. (SS officials, higher up than Eichmann, were also on the take.)

But that is ‘all’ he did. One can almost hear the incredulous exasperation in the voice of an Israeli interrogator confronting Eichmann: ‘You keep trying to make it look as if you were nothing more than a transportation officer.’ ‘That was true, as a rule, Herr Hauptmann,’ came the answer, one more or less accepted by Cesarani and other historians of the matter.

‘All’, however, was a great deal, because extracting Jews from where they lived and taking them to their deaths was a fantastically complex undertaking at which Eichmann succeeded more or less well depending on local circumstances and the decisions of his superiors. He was the sort of resourceful, innovative manager that a boss could rely on to get the job done without much day-to-day supervision. But we must be careful not to interpret Eichmann’s relentlessness as a sign of either demonic evil or bureaucratic magicianship. He did his work at the coalface as well as he could.

Cesarani’s chapter on ‘Managing Genocide’, and the much longer chapter on the trial, which goes over the same material from the different narrative perspectives of the prosecution and the defence, make this clear. They also make it clear that Eichmann, then and in Jerusalem, was like America’s favourite Nazi rocketeer in Tom Lehrer’s ditty:

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
Say rather that he’s apolitical.
‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.

Eichmann didn’t in fact know where the trains were headed, except when they went to Theresienstadt, which he controlled directly. In the vast majority of cases, the destination depended on the relative demands of the death camps for corpses and industry for slaves, on the capacities of crematoria and gas chambers and the needs of production facilities. Higher-ups sorted all this out. Once an order was given, Eichmann and his colleagues leapt into action.

Getting the trains was a major undertaking. It is not true that transport to the camps put a huge strain on rolling stock and locomotives: ‘only’ 2000 trains were chartered in the service of genocide or slavery from 1941 to 1944; 30,000 a day ran on Reichbahn tracks for other purposes. Still, there was competition for locomotives and carriages which, once procured, could not be sent off empty without loss of face or worse. Eichmann was furious when one of his inexperienced assistants failed to convince the Vichy authorities around Bordeaux to arrest the expected trainload of foreign-born Jews; they proved willing to hand over only 150 stateless ones. Then, to make matters worse, he cancelled the train without telling his boss. ‘SS Obersturmbannführer Eichmann pointed out,’ the underling wrote, ‘that this was a matter of prestige. It had been necessary to conduct lengthy negotiations with the Reich Ministry of Transport about these trains . . . and now Paris had cancelled a train. Such a thing had not happened until now. The matter was most shameful.’ The prosecution tried to use this as evidence of Eichmann’s fanatical anti-semitism, of his disappointment at having failed to kill more Jews; it was meant to speak to the judicially all-important matter of intent. More likely it was the outburst of a frustrated bureaucrat made to look bad.

But it does show how much work went into filling the carriages going to the death camps. Even in Poland it wasn’t plain sailing, but this was clearly outside Eichmann’s remit. The memorial at Gleis 17 at the S-bahn station of the prosperous, leafy Berlin suburb of Grunewald offers traces of the way the system worked when everything fell into place. Bronze plaques on the platform attest to train after train, all full, that took the Jews who had spent the night in the tunnel – still used by commuters today – before being driven upstairs onto the platform and into the wagons headed for Auschwitz. Things were easier in Germany, but still a great deal had to fall into place.

Jews did not travel for free, and the money for fares had to come from somewhere or someone. Although treated as cargo, crammed into cattle cars and accounted for as Stücke (‘pieces’), the Jews on the way to their deaths were considered by the Reichbahn as one-way third-class passengers and charged accordingly: four pfennige per track kilometre for adults, half-price for children under ten; free for those under five. Guards were paid at the rate of a second-class round trip. Sometimes the RSHA ran its bills through the state travel agency but that produced delays. Eichmann’s special contribution was to develop the forms on which deported Jews renounced – i.e. abandoned – all their resources. A percentage then went to pay for the deportation. But this could happen only after the lawyers had worked out whether the territorial or the personal principle applied: did the money go to the soon-to-be murdered owner’s country of nationality or to his or her country of residence?

There is something horribly tedious about all this. Eichmann was furious with the French and Italians for holding Jews back and negotiated tirelessly for more co-operation. He was pleased at the net result of the hugely successful Dutch deportations but disappointed because he had had relatively little role to play. At first the Slovaks were co-operative but then the Church intervened on behalf of converts and the state wanted to inspect where the Jews were being sent. Romanians were eager to kill their own Jews, and put all sorts of barriers in the way of Eichmann, who would have liked to do the job himself. (The 250,000 who were murdered should not be on his tally; 200,000 more escaped entirely.)

Others have made the point, but Cesarani shows from the perspective of one man how administratively arduous genocide could be. Nowhere is this more clear than in the notorious case of Hungary. At the start of 1944, there were 725,000 Jews in Hungary, the last essentially intact Jewish community in Europe, plus another 100,000 converts to Christianity who counted as Jews for the Nazis. On 21 March, Eichmann arrived in Budapest with eight of his staff and some clerical help. By 8 July, 437,403 Jews had been deported to Auschwitz, where at least 250,000 were murdered. Industrial, hi-tech genocide here approaches the daily murder rates that artisanal, labour-intensive killing attained, most recently, in Rwanda. Tens of thousands more were raped and murdered by local Fascists. But from Eichmann’s perspective, Hungary was a different sort of nightmare. Himmler wanted to stop deportations entirely and ransom Jews for trucks. Eichmann quarrelled with his boss. Others were willing to let some very rich Jews leave in return for valuable industrial property. Still others continued to worry about who actually got the property of dispossessed if not murdered Jews. Horthy, the on-again, off-again leader of Hungary, gave and then withheld permission. Demands for labour jostled with demands for extermination. There were the pesky Swedes and others handing out passports. Jews at various levels were trying to bribe Eichmann’s associates to turn a blind eye to emigration. Order had collapsed entirely.

Eichmann, normally relatively austere, turned to drink, women and debauchery. Again, however, one is left with the question: was his fanatical attempt to get the job done during the twilight of the Holocaust fuelled by the desire to murder every last Jew while even a chance of that still existed, or was his deadly viciousness the lashing out of a frustrated middle-manager whose bosses had lost interest in his project and whose subordinates had abandoned office discipline for shameless profiteering? Cesarani says he was now ‘rotten from the inside out’, if not the sadistic beast he was later made out to be. I don’t understand the basis for this assessment; as he is portrayed in this book, Eichmann had immense discipline and focus. Discipline may eventually have collapsed but his focus remained steadfast throughout years of genocide. Rot overtook him and tens of thousands of others in 1933. (The behaviour of key members of the Hungarian Jewish leadership in all of this has been the source of enormous controversy. Cesarani touches on it but offers little new.)

When the Götterdämmerung finally came, Eichmann was taken into custody as a prisoner of war; he thought about suicide but had lost his poison and was not up to getting the new drug, needle and syringe that a camp pharmacist had recommended to him. In 1946 he escaped with false papers; he worked for four years raising chickens and chopping wood; and in 1950 he followed the well worn rat line of Nazi fugitives to Latin America. This story, too, is full of irony and contingency. En route he was helped by the St Raphaelverein monastic community, which during the Holocaust had saved hundreds of non-Aryan Christians and so was on the Referat IVB4 list to be watched by the Gestapo. The Church in Italy, mobilised by Antonio Caggiano, Bishop of Rosario and leader of the right-wing Catholic Action in the Argentine, was crucial in moving Nazis out of Europe and helping them to get immigration papers abroad: whatever else one might say against the old SS men, they were anti-Communists. Eichmann, now Ricardo Klement, got his new identification papers on 2 October 1950.

He never made it among the Nazi elite of Perón’s Argentina, and worked in factories and mines, in modest capacities, until his capture. His wife, Vera, managed to join him; he had another child. It was down to chance that Ricardo Klement did not die in obscurity.

Simon Wiesenthal got wind in 1947 that Vera Eichmann, using her maiden name (she had previously claimed they were divorced), was trying to have her husband declared dead based on the testimony of a fake witness to his death, her brother-in-law. Wiesenthal intervened. Eichmann was officially still among the living. But no one cared very much. Nazi hunting was in abeyance. In 1956, his son Klaus dated the daughter of a half-Jewish German emigré called Lothar Hermann. In the course of a conversation about the recent war, the young Eichmann confided to his would-be girlfriend Sylvia that it would have been better if Germany had completely rid Europe of its Jews; on another date he told her that his dad had been a German officer. She told her dad; the relationship broke off; she moved away from Buenos Aires. A year later, the elder Hermann saw Eichmann’s name in a report of a trial in Frankfurt. He realised the connection and said as much in a letter to the judicial authorities in Frankfurt.

Another miracle: the letter got into the hands of Fritz Bauer, a Jewish lawyer who had fled to Denmark and then Sweden during the war and returned when it was over. Bauer asked the father and daughter to confirm the identification and sent them a description; Sylvia and her half-blind father made their way back to Buenos Aires. She knocked on the door of the Eichmann house; the middle-aged man who answered identified himself as Klaus’s father. Bauer contacted the Israeli authorities in the hope that they would be more interested in the whereabouts of the director of IVB4 than the German government was. They were, but not much.

A Keystone Cops series of near disasters followed. Lothar Hermann found out that the Eichmann house was owned by one Schmidt, though the name on the electricity meter was Klement. The Israeli agent thought Schmidt was Eichmann but on checking found he wasn’t. For a year the trail froze. Then Wiesenthal noticed an obituary notice of Eichmann’s mother, listing her daughter-in-law, ‘supposedly divorced from her supposedly dead husband’, among the mourners. Vera Eichmann’s own mother confirmed that she was married to a man named Klement. The Israelis went back into action. In an effort to get a closer look at Eichmann and his house, Mossad sent two agents to the front door with a concealed camera pretending to be American property developers looking to buy land and buildings. Vera called her daughter-in-law, who spoke English; the Israeli ‘Americans’, however, didn’t, and barely escaped detection. When they finally got a picture of Eichmann it had to be ready for secret shipment to Israel by 5 April: they took the film to a commercial photo shop that promised prints within the next, crucial 24 hours, but the next day the pictures weren’t ready. The Mossad agent was beside himself; a frantic call was made to the developing lab; a courier was sent; miraculously, in a city with tens of thousands of Nazis and Nazi sympathisers, no one became suspicious. Eichmann was caught walking home from his bus stop along a badly lit road; this, too, almost went wrong; Eichmann struggled and screamed. No one heard; he was drugged, interrogated, and sneaked onto an El Al plane dressed as an air steward. On 23 May 1960, Ben Gurion announced that Adolf Eichmann was on Israeli soil.

This is as thorough and judicious a biography of Eichmann or any other Nazi of his level that we are going to get. It rightly takes the story step by step, contingency by contingency; it shows how even virulent hatred does not necessarily produce extreme violence, and that the most horrible of crimes emerged from tens of thousands of mind-numbing conferences, papers, flow charts, bureaucratic squabbles and personal rivalries.

No biographer, however, could be more prey to the anxiety of influence than one who takes on Eichmann. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is the most discussed book on the Holocaust in any language. A partial bibliography of the interventions that followed its publication in 1963 already ran to more than thirty pages by 1969. As Anson Rabinbach has recently argued, the New Yorker serialisation engendered the ‘most bitter public dispute among intellectuals and scholars concerning the Holocaust that has ever taken place’. Arendt’s famous last sentence haunts this book as it does all talk of the Holocaust. Writing of Eichmann’s speech from the gallows, she said: ‘It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word and thought-defying banality of evil.’

Cesarani can’t quite figure out what to do with Arendt or indeed with the life of their joint subject. He does not take her on directly and resorts instead to potshots and dismissals of a position that is, in fact, very much like the one implicit in his book. ‘Her universalisation of Eichmann was useful . . . but its value has faded and now seems arcane,’ he says. Really? How is ‘universalisation’, if that is what Arendt does, different from his own position that the génocidaire is now ‘a common feature of humanity and to that extent Eichmannn is typical rather than aberrant’? One must not conclude, he says, that we are all Eichmanns. But the book ends: ‘Eichmann appears more and more like a man of our time. Everyman as génocidaire.’

This biography can’t escape Arendt. It is predicated on her view of the ‘banality of evil’ as something ‘quite factual’, as she put it in ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’: ‘The phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness. However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic.’ She acknowledged his managerial talents, his bureaucratic cunning, and never claimed that he was merely a cog in a machine. It was his ‘total absence of thinking’ that so appalled her.

Despite the contingency that Cesarani and most other historians today rightly insist on, some people – Joseph Roth, for example – saw with brutal clarity what the abandonment of thought meant. In ‘The Auto-da-fé of the Mind’, Roth writes:

Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers, and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect, actually mean. The technical apotheosis of the barbarians, the terrible march of mechanised orang-utans, armed with hand grenades, poison gas, ammonia and nitroglycerine, with gas masks and air planes . . . all that means more than a threatened and terrorised world seems to realise. It must be understood. Let me say it loud and clear: the European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination (it will be the task of some future generation to establish the reasons for this disgraceful capitulation).

In the light of this, Cesarani’s book allows us to read Arendt more deeply and with new eyes. The enemy in her book is not bureaucratic rationality in a synchronic, Weberian, structural sense. It is the abandonment of critical thinking which allows contingencies and the workings of ordinary men to avalanche into the most horrible catastrophe. Cesarani offers, perhaps without intending to do so, a diachronic reading of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Janina Struk’s excellent book traces Holocaust, or proto-Holocaust, photography from its beginnings in the 1930s, to its mobilisation by all sides as evidence for the barbarity of the Other in the early years of combat, to its many and wildly varying uses in ghettos and concentration camps, and finally to the after-life of its hundreds of thousands of images from the liberation to the present. Aside from the occasional moralising to which writing on this subject is almost irresistibly drawn, it is wonderfully modest and informative. If words – hundreds of millions in our sources for the Holocaust – still leave us puzzled, pictures (one step closer to reality, it is said) leave us perhaps more puzzled still. They may not, Struk argues, ‘give us a better understanding of the historical event’, but rather ‘remind us how the world has been ordered since then’. This is too timid. Of course we need to ask the same sorts of question of photographs that we ask of other sources: who made them; for what purpose; with what restraints and under what influences, cultural and material; what is their provenance; what are they of; what came next and what came before; what do they mean? But all of this is very much more difficult with respect to photographs because they are so lonely: so isolated in time (their famous non-temporality, their instantaneity); so isolated in space, cut off from what is behind or in front or to the side; so cut off from conversation; so dependent on the eye, the technical skills and the tools of others.

Struk begins by showing how difficult it is to know what we are actually seeing, for example, in a famous picture of four naked men and a child at the edge of, or walking towards, a pit. The image is in one archive entitled ‘Sniatyn – tormenting Jews before their execution. II.V.1943’. But no one is literally being tormented. One soldier, his rifle pointed down, looks up at an officer on the picture’s right who is pointing at the pit; another soldier, in the background, is looking at the camera. Two men in civilian clothes stand between and behind the men at the pit’s edge in poses that wouldn’t be out of place in a hunting picture of the period: relaxed, fowling-pieces lowered. The officer is a bit of a blur and seems in his energy and directedness almost from another world. The picture is harrowing – that goes without saying. The boy in his nakedness still wears a cap as if in a horrible liminal moment between life, with its clothes and the need to keep one’s head warm, and the grave. But are they Jews? We don’t know. Are the civilians German? Again, we don’t know. The picture exists in many archives. In only one is the officer not cropped out. Why? We don’t know. Was it taken in Sniatyn´? We don’t know that, either. It has been used to illustrate Holocaust documentaries about German atrocities in a variety of disparate places. Indeed, as Struk points out, a very few Holocaust pictures of the hundreds of thousands in existence have tended to become iconic, to stand for something outside themselv es.

This is, of course, the stuff of Holocaust deniers, who point out that these pictures have been cropped, enhanced, misidentified and misused in order to further their manifestly absurd claims. Struk will have none of this. The provenance, authenticity and precise dating of the pictures that the Sonderkommando at Birkenau were somehow able to smuggle out in the autumn of 1944, of naked women running to their deaths and of soldiers burning bodies that had already been gassed, are beyond question. (There are no known pictures of the moment in between: even the Germans, who photographed every other aspect of their murderous enterprise, did not go there.) Pictures remain important evidence: soldiers of the Wehrmacht took photographs of murdered Russian prisoners of war and of Polish civilians hanging from lampposts, which they carried in their knapsacks. There are tens of thousands of pictures that can be precisely identified. There are pictures that were faked: Germans dressed up corpses from concentration camps in Polish uniforms and used them to show how the German minority in Poland had to defend itself. And there are pictures that are up for grabs as anyone’s propaganda pieces: the Germans published pictures of horribly mutilated civilians who may be Germans in Bromberg massacred by Poles, Polish snipers shot by Germans, or German snipers shot by the Polish army. We don’t know.

Struk’s point, however, is not only that photographs are sometimes not what they seem, that taking them was politically motivated and that their display or non-display after the war had less to do with the Holocaust than with the exigencies of the moment. More important – and she might have emphasised this – is to show that they are terribly difficult to interpret on their own. That is her study’s real pay-off. We need to know that for almost two decades at the height of the Cold War there were no displays of Nazi atrocity pictures in the West. Both East and West celebrated the Warsaw Uprising because both sides wanted heroes and no one wanted victims. We need to know that, because of already existing friction between East and West, one part of Europe saw pictures of a liberated Dachau or Buchenwald, and another saw pictures of Auschwitz and the camps in the east. We need to be wary of how powerfully films like Schindler’s List, and the tourist industry it spawned in Poland, colour our view.

But more than that we need to know how complex, self-referential and fundamentally hard to read photographs are. Pictures of Jews taken by German soldiers playing at anthropology in the Warsaw Ghetto, Struk shows, make reference to the elegiac images of poor Jews taken by the Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac in the late 1930s to document what he took to be a dying shtetl culture. Indeed, his prewar pictures fit so nicely into the image of suffering Jewry that they were used during the war as pictures of the Holocaust and as models for German photographers who, like the rest of us, take pictures of a world and its people to accord with what we expect to see.

On 19 September 1941, Heinrich Jöst, a German soldier, took a picture of a cart laden with grotesquely twisted, intertwined bodies, frozen as if made of marble, on a shabby two-wheel cart on its way to the cemetery of the Warsaw Ghetto. The dangling arms, he wrote, were ‘an eerie sight’. Willy George one month earlier took a picture of people on the street of the same ghetto. Everyone is smiling; a well groomed white dog perches on a man’s shoulder in the dead centre of the composition. It is a photograph that could have come from one of the hundreds of collections of European working-class street life made since the earliest days of photography.

Several of the famous, miraculously preserved photographs of the Lili Jacob album show women – we know, from external evidence, that they are from Hungary, although the captions do not say so – arriving at Auschwitz. They don’t look tired or haggard; in some, but not all, a cattle car is visible; they are not city dwellers, this group; they could be on an outing; in one a boy looks out at us jauntily. As pictures these are indistinguishable from others, not printed in Struk’s book, of women from Ravensbrück waiting beside a train from the Swedish Red Cross that is about to take them to safety. The one is unbearably pregnant with what we will not see but what we know comes next; the other cheers us with its unseen future.

We know all this, but we forget. Arnold Mostowicz, a young doctor in the Lódz´ Ghetto, says in the 1998 film Fotoamator, based on wartime photographs, that he recognised what these pictures showed but that they failed to depict the ghetto as he knew it. (The colour photographs – there are several hundred – are by Walter Genewein, the chief Nazi accountant in the Lódz´ Ghetto.) One can see Mostowicz’s point. There is no smell; photographs may give off whiffs of paper and chemicals but they don’t make visible the odours that fill their air. Mostowicz speaks, on camera, of the overwhelming stench from faeces, from the sweat of human beings who had not washed for months, from the breath of mouths rank with decaying teeth and gum disease, from gangrenous and rotting flesh. More to the point, the scale of the photographs is too human. The reality Mostowicz knew was that of the body louse, Pediculus humanus, two millimetres long, that swarmed over the beds and clothing of his patients. Even if the photography of smell is not possible, we could have more views of the very small things that made life unbearable.

Genewein’s collection, which Struk discusses only in passing, brings us back to the banality of evil and to what one man’s life – not Eichmann’s, but that of an even more ordinary book-keeper – can tell us about the Holocaust. Genewein and his masters were inordinately proud of how productive and profitable ghetto labour proved to be. It was accounted for to the penny: how much food at what cost; how much material on one side of the ledger, how much output on the other. Genewein earned promotion for introducing new American accounting techniques as the economic pace quickened. He was a fastidious man, a stickler for detail. An extensive correspondence exists between him and Agfa in which he complains of untrue colours – too much green for a blouse, too much red – and the firm’s technical representatives offer advice.

In 1944, only months before the ghetto was liquidated and almost all of those who remained were sent to be gassed, Genewein was charged with producing an exhibition of Lódz´’s economic achievements. There were three rooms. One that he proudly photographed has in the foreground of the display a cut-out of the Venus de Milo, who looks at a sign in large red letters that says ‘2,764,9 . . .’ (the rest is illegible) and refers to the millions of dresses that ghetto workers had produced. (Genewein’s figures are nothing if not precise: 24,512,000 metres of braid produced in 1941; 416,744 suspenders.) Behind the figure of the icon of Greek beauty and Renaissance good taste is another cut-out of a woman, or rather the outline in chalk of a pretty woman’s head and neck on which is pinned a low-cut blue summer dress. A necklace is drawn in. Genewein, in the months when the Polish death camps were working at maximum capacity, asked that his assistant distribute articles in each of the three rooms to make arranging the exhibit easier. He was proudest of the Greek Venus and the pretty blue dress display and left his photograph for us to ponder. Frozen in its moment, we can’t imagine a more banal image. It was made by a man who was excellent at his work and competent at his hobby and breathtakingly bereft of thought.