Historical rewrite?'I never gave an order to kill a Jew'

The banality of lies: In ‘Operation Finale,’ Eichmann’s falsehoods are validated

Opening this weekend, the film, focused on the kidnapping of Holocaust ‘architect,’ humanizes its notorious antagonist and allows his deceptions to go unchallenged

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Adolf Eichmann, so-called 'architect' of the Holocaust, in his prison cell during the time of his 1961 trial in Jerusalem (public domain)
Adolf Eichmann, so-called 'architect' of the Holocaust, in his prison cell during the time of his 1961 trial in Jerusalem (public domain)

The new film “Operation Finale” about Adolf Eichmann’s dramatic 1961 capture is technically masterful. It is a shame that audiences aren’t told what is technically the historical truth as well.

Like German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann — who was commonly known as the “architect” of the Holocaust — “Operation Finale” downplays Eichmann’s role in the massive genocide of the Jewish people. Additionally, the film validates his fallacious statements about “ignoring orders” and his supposed attempts to rescue Jews from the death camps.

By inspiring empathy for Eichmann and allowing him to minimize his wartime –and pre-war — activities, the producers of “Operation Finale” placed their film at home with Arendt’s seminal work, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” written after his trial.

In her 1963 opus, Arendt blamed European Jews for their own slaughter. She also declared that Eichmann was not motivated by anti-Semitism, and that both he and his evil were “banal,” or unoriginal.

For viewers unfamiliar with Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust, the film’s primary “explanation” takes place during the opening credits, as train schedules, maps, and lists of killing facilities appear in a dramatically scored montage. Throughout the film, Eichmann is referred to as “the man who ran the trains,” and someone who “transported millions to their deaths.” These labels, however, do not express the scope of Eichmann’s 13-year career in the SS.

“I never gave an order to kill a Jew,” said Eichmann in real-life, as well as in the film. His only crime was “aiding and abetting,” said the SS leader. Like Arendt’s book, “Operation Finale” makes Eichmann out to be a neurotic, uninspired master of train schedules.

Holocaust ‘architect’ Adolf Eichmann in a Jerusalem courtroom several days before receiving a death sentence (public domain)

According to Israel’s Yad Vashem, Eichmann’s involvement in the Holocaust far exceeded organizing transportation to the death camps: Numerous witnesses and primary source documents attest to the centrality of Eichmann in managing the genocide, as well as his own personal feelings toward the project.

Eichmann’s role was “dominant and tangible, characterized by a quest for perfection, steely determination and above all, a total refusal to compromise,” according to Israel’s Yad Vashem.

According to Yad Vashem’s website, “Even when high-ranking colleagues appealed to [Eichmann] in person to release a single Jew or several from deportation to the camps, or when SS commander Himmler ordered him outright to halt the shipments to Auschwitz, Eichmann vehemently refused.”

Furthermore, Eichmann made “frequent personal inspections” of the Nazi death camps and other killing sites. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, where one million Jews were gassed to death, Eichmann worked directly with the commandant to improve technical aspects of the extermination process, illustrating he was far more than a “cog” in the machine.

Implementing the ‘Final Solution’

Eichmann joined the Nazi party before Hitler came to power and was accepted into the SS after the regime’s ascent. A former traveling salesman in Austria, he was appointed to help run the concentration camp Dachau, where he was put in charge of managing documents related to the camp’s Jewish inmates.

From the beginning of Germany’s reign of terror — more than half a decade before the Holocaust — Eichmann was persecuting Jews and learning to find efficiencies within the Reich’s new camp system.

Actor Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann in the 2018 film ‘Operation Finale’ (courtesy)

A 1934 promotion saw Eichmann transferred to the security office of the SS in Berlin. He was put in charge of the department for Jewish affairs, where the strategy of forcing Jews to emigrate was enacted under his management. During these early years of Nazi rule, Eichmann made himself the regime’s “expert” on Jewish issues, with a focus on Zionism.

After Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, Eichmann was sent to Vienna to force Austria’s Jews out of the country. His efficiency allowed this to be accomplished at a much greater speed than had been possible in Germany. Before the victims emigrated, Eichmann managed the process of stealing their property.

Because of his unprecedented success at making Austria “Jew free,” Eichmann was tasked with the same project in Prague, one year later, after the Allies capitulated to Hitler at Munich.

The pinnacle of Eichmann’s organizational career came in January of 1942, when he applied findings from his career in persecuting Jews. At a lakeside Berlin villa, Eichmann took the minutes as Reich departments divided up responsibilities for the annihilation of European Jewry.

In modern-day language, Eichmann was the genocide’s chief strategist — someone who did far more than “make sure the trains ran.”

Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem (public domain)

Like other leaders in the regime, Eichmann was always “working toward the Fuhrer” when carrying out mass murder. That term was deployed to encourage German leaders to go above and beyond in their efforts, and not wait for Hitler to issue specific orders.

An example of Eichmann “working toward the Fuhrer” — not mentioned in the film — took place in France, where Eichmann personally coerced officials to release the country’s Jews so they may be murdered. Toward the end of the war, during the summer of 1944, Eichmann organized the slaughter of 400,000 Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most Germans knew the war had been lost, but the genocide’s pace was actually hastened through Eichmann’s apparatus.

Few of Eichmann’s activities during the Holocaust are mentioned in “Operation Finale” beyond his role as “train master.” However, it was Eichmann who ensured the mass murder could be run “off the books,” with the victims’ assets used to fund their own slaughter. And it was Eichmann who was told by the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau to slow down the number of “transports” to the death camp, as the ovens could process only so many corpses.

‘I didn’t expect them not to believe me at all’

“Operation Finale’s” protagonist is Peter Malkin, the real-life Mossad agent who helped kidnap Eichmann in Argentina. The film’s emotional core is a lengthy safe-house encounter between Eichmann and Malkin, who the former calls “Herr Captor.”

Having barely outlined Eichmann’s role in the genocide, the film proceeds to humanize him with the assistance of the Mossad team. Eichmann is spoon-fed like a bird, toasts a L’Chaim with Malkin, and performs calisthenics. There’s also a scene with Eichmann on the toilet bowl, during which he makes the Mossad agents laugh by telling Nazi jokes.

Adolf Eichmann on a rabbit farm in Argentina, c. 1954 (public domain)

Amidst the safe-house scenes, a subplot has El Al Airlines refusing to spirit Eichmann out of Argentina unless he signs a form granting the company permission. No such demand was ever made, but the plot twist gives the script a reason for Malkin to treat Eichmann with respect and even warmth — or at least enough of it to get his signature.

During three or four fleeting shots depicting Holocaust-era atrocities, actor Ben Kingsley’s Eichmann is shown to be repulsed by the gore, pressing a handkerchief to his nose or grimacing through thickly lined eyes. There is no sense that Eichmann was someone who bragged about “jumping into the grave with laughter” for having managed the murder of millions of Jews, as Eichmann was known to have boasted.

Toward the beginning of the film, an actor portraying Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion speaks with the Mossad agents about to depart for Argentina. Reminding them of their mission’s importance, he tells them, “The book of memory is still open.” In other words, there can still be a reckoning with the past, and the perpetrators can be brought to justice.

Perhaps, Hollywood will take on Eichmann again, including his mendacious behavior during the trial. Inside the Jerusalem courtroom, the “architect of the Holocaust” played at semantics and peppered his testimony with lies, attempting to twist the evidence and minimize his culpability. Within his bullet-proof glass box, Eichmann was, as always, “an idealist who lived for his ideals.”

At the end of the trial, Eichmann was so confident in his on-stand rhetoric that he expected to be given a prison term.

“I didn’t expect them to not believe me at all,” said Eichmann to his lawyers after death was pronounced. As always, the idealist had been confident in his powers to manipulate and deceive.

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