Inside the mind of mass murderer Adolf Eichmann

German historian Bettina Stangneth’s ‘Eichmann Before Jerusalem’ explores the Final Solution architect’s personal and professional life before his Jerusalem trial

An exhibition in Yad Vashem in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of Adolf Eichmann's trail in Jerusalem. His personal diary and photos from his trial are shown. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
An exhibition in Yad Vashem in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of Adolf Eichmann's trail in Jerusalem. His personal diary and photos from his trial are shown. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

LONDON — The Holocaust tends to come up so frequently nowadays as a reference point for the barbaric hatred that gripped Central and Eastern Europe during the 1940s, that it’s very easy to forget just how long it took after World War II to speak about it in terms of evidence and legal prosecutions.

The first major trial addressing issues relating to the Holocaust took place at Nuremburg before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in November 1945 and October 1946.

The focus of these trials, however, did not specifically relate to the genocide of Jewish people. The main conviction was for “crimes against the peace” as defined in the Nuremburg Charter. The initial charge here was against waging an aggressive war that defied international treaties. And not one against exterminating a specific ethnic group.

And anyway, getting a proper admission of guilt from senior Nazi sources was complicated, primarily because Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich were all dead.

Meanwhile, the only man left alive to have played a central role within the senior hierarchy that oversaw the administrative duties of the Nazi gas chambers was Adolf Eichmann. And at that stage, he was still residing in an American prisoner of war camp in Bavaria, Germany.

He soon escaped.

By 1950 Eichmann fled to Argentina where he would live in exile for over a decade. But in May 1960 he was eventually kidnapped by Mossad forces and brought to Israel.

The Eichmann trial in Jerusalem during 1961-62 saw him convicted and hanged for his crimes. It is seen as a major sea change in how the world perceived the Holocaust.

'Eichmann Before Jerusalem' by Bettina Stangneth (courtesy)
‘Eichmann Before Jerusalem’ by Bettina Stangneth (courtesy)

Although this trial was grounded on the same legal principles that came out of the first Nuremburg trials, the actual charges put to Eichmann during that case were not just crimes against humanity. Instead, the more symbolic charge of “crimes against the Jewish people” was fittingly put against him.

German philosopher and historian Bettina Stangneth recently published an English translation of “Eichmann Before Jerusalem,” a book that attempts to explore Adolf Eichmann’s personal and professional life before he was put on trial.

The narrative seeks to get inside the mind of a mass murderer and asks questions like: who really was Adolf Eichmann? What were the ideological beliefs that compelled him to orchestrate the greatest genocide ever witnessed in human history?

Through a solid body of research, the book is intent on deliberately avoiding falling into the trap of believing the numerous mythologies that Eichmann himself helped created during his infamous trial in Jerusalem.

Stangneth begins our conversation by stressing just how important it is to remember how the Holocaust has been studied, talked about, analyzed and placed in historical discourse since Eichmann’s trial.

“Before 1961 we didn’t have that many big archives and documents with knowledge about the Holocaust,” she explains.

‘Eichmann was the first Nazi who admitted to the public that the Holocaust really happened’

“Eichmann was the first Nazi who admitted to the public that the Holocaust really happened. He explained that he guessed there was probably between five and six million victims. This kind of admission from a Nazi was huge at that time.”

“To hear Eichmann say something new about this crime really changed our knowledge about the Holocaust. Nobody after 1961 could say that this crime did not happen. This is the reason why Nazis, even today, hate Eichmann.”

Author Bettina Stangneth (Peter Peitsch)
Author Bettina Stangneth (Peter Peitsch)

Stangneth’s book is a fascinating — albeit extremely disturbing — account of Eichmann’s rise through the ranks of the Nazi party, where he eventually became the administrative face of the Holocaust. In August 1939, under Eichmann’s leadership, the Central Office for Jewish Emigration was set up in Prague. The following January, Eichmann was then put in charge of coordinating plans to relocate Jews to the east.

By the winter of 1941-42 Eichmann had even bragged to fellow Nazi colleagues to have coined the term “Final Solution,” which by that stage had taken on a very definite meaning: the extermination of the Jewish race.

“Eichmann was a kind of spider in the Nazi network,” Stangneth, explains. “And most of the information around the killing of Jews found its way onto his desk.”

‘Eichmann was a kind of spider in the Nazi network’

“After the Wannsee conference in January 1942 Eichmann was given responsibility with reports from both the Jewish ghettos and from the concentration camps. So he had a lot of knowledge about the numbers of victims there were. This obviously makes him so important today for a historian looking at the Holocaust.”

Stangneth’s narrative then documents Eichmann’s activities in the post war period. We read about his time living alone in a hut near a forest in Northern Germany, then running a chicken farm in Bergen, located just two miles from a former concentration camp, before finally emigrating to Argentina.

While in Buenos Aires, Eichmann made the acquaintance of Williem Sassen, a Dutch journalist and Nazi sympathizer, who had written propaganda disguised as news for the Germans during the war.

Adolf Eichmann, on trial in 1961 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Adolf Eichmann, on trial in 1961 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sassen and Eichmann during these years developed a deep friendship. They bonded around the deluded idea of rebuilding the Third Reich from an expatriate community in Argentina, where many Nazis had found refuge after the war.

Sassen also hosted at his home during 1956 and 1957 what became known as the Dürer circle: a group of Nazi sympathizers, including Eichmann, who regularly held meetings, debates, discussed Nazi literature, and eventually recorded conversations about the extermination of the Jews.

This evidence, which is often referred to as the Sassen transcripts, is still vitally important, even today, in confirming Eichmann’s guilt as a committed Nazi ideologue.

“Those transcripts are extremely helpful if you want to find out something more about Nazi thinking,” says Stangneth. “Because contained with them is Eichmann explaining his methods for manipulating and lying against the Jews.”

“The kind of nonsense Eichmann would say to Jews [to get them to go to concentration camps} was along the lines of: you will get a new ghetto, you’ll have to do some short-term labour in the east, or that it’s only for the time during the war and after that you will be able to come back.”

“But what makes the Sassen transcripts so interesting is that Eichmann explained his own methods of deception. Later in Jerusalem, at his trial, he used this method of deception again.”

The most famous book that exists on this subject is “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” It was written in 1963 by Hannah Arendt, a German Jew who covered the trial for the New Yorker. In it, Arendt presents the following argument: that Eichmann was merely obeying orders to move up the career ladder within the Nazi party. We now know that this opinion was slightly misinformed.

‘Eichmann and Sassen knew they had lost the war. But they did not want to lose the war over the interpretation of history’

The counterargument that Stangneth puts forward is what makes her book such a compelling piece of historical research.

For example, Eichmann and Sassen, we now understand, were well aware of how the Holocaust literature that emerged in Europe and the US during the 1950s began to challenge the version of history they sought to own.

“These guys had a lot of experience with propaganda under Hitler,” says Stangneth. “And they knew what one can do by holding power over the interpretation of events. Eichmann and Sassen knew they had lost the war. But they did not want to lose the war over the interpretation of history. “

Over a decade ago, when Stangneth began working on this project, she was fully convinced of Hannah Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann was merely a pen pusher who put absolute faith in his own personal benefit from obeying a hierarchical system. And she believed that the Holocaust’s chief perpetrator was devoid of any proper intellectual engagement or ideological obsessions about the Third Reich.

But it’s a testament to her dedication as a researcher that she changed her mind with each new document she dissected in scrupulous detail.

In fact, Eichmann was such a dedicated Nazi ideologue, that according to Stangneth, he didn’t believe that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant could be reconciled within the warped racial biological struggle that the Third Reich was intent on fighting. Other Nazis did.

“The Nazis understood there was a huge connection between the German philosopher and the Jews,” says Stangneth. “So for a man like Eichmann, Kant’s philosophy and Jewish thinking was very closely linked. The Nazis believed that philosophy was dangerous because it was the weapon of the Jews. Eichmann had to learn to fight against this idea. So he had to know the weapon of the enemy, which was the philosophy that Jews were reading.”

‘Eichmann [during his trial] tried to look like a Jew before the Jews in Israel. He tried to give himself the image of a philosopher as a method for fighting’

Strangely, Eichmann actually began quoting Kant during his trial in Jerusalem, says Stangneth. Again though, we must remember how this ties in with his powers of deception, she warns.

“Eichmann [during his trial] tried to look like a Jew before the Jews in Israel. He tried to give himself the image of a philosopher as a method for fighting.”

“This idea contrasts with Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil. The point is that Eichmann and the Nazis knew about the voice of reason and the power of thinking. But they were convinced that this was dangerous. So there is a difference between the ability of thinking, and then the mistrust of thinking itself.”

“For Nazis, blood, and not brain, and the relationship to the country, was where the power lay. They knew well about the power of thinking, but they thought there was a much bigger power: which they believed was the German race. And that is the difference between the banality of evil, and what I would call a kind of academic evil.”

The booth where Eichmann sat as he stood trial in Jerusalem in 1961, on display. (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)
The booth where Eichmann sat as he stood trial in Jerusalem in 1961, on display. (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

Stangneth documents throughout her book numerous incidents where Eichmann was able to manipulate those whom he made contact with.

Whether it was the millions of victims he played a prominent role in sending to the horrors of the gas chambers, or his psychiatrist, prison guard, or interrogator, while he was on trial in Israel. The latter group all seemed to agree on one thing: how normal Eichmann appeared and how much empathy he seemed to possess when he spoke to them.

If Hannah Arendt originally portrayed this kind of apathetic charm to the public through her journalism as “the banality of evil,” Stangneth claims with the benefit of hindsight, and proper research, we should now view it in terms of the deceptiveness of horror.

‘Perhaps we have a wrong idea about what dangerous people are’

“Perhaps we have a wrong idea about what dangerous people are,” she says.

“You have to be handsome, charming and kind to get influence over people’s minds. If you want to lie you have a problem: you have to get your victim to believe you. So you have to control them all of the time. And you have to learn to see the world from their point of view. So you need a lot of empathy to be a good liar and manipulator. You have to imagine why someone feels fear or why someone feels hope.”

“Eichmann was very good in empathy. He was able to find out what someone’s hopes were. But this was merely a method of manipulation.”

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