Eichmann: his life and crimes,


 by David Cesarani


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Eichmann: his life and crimes by David Cesarani

Genocide as an office job

By John Gray

20 August 2004

Adolf Eichmann is rightly seen as one of the supreme embodiments of evil in the 20th century, but at the time of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1946 he was almost unknown. When his name turned up in an early draft of the tribunal's judgement, one senior member wrote next to it: "Who was he?"

Eichmann was mentioned by one of his subordinates and by a former commandant of Auschwitz when they were interrogated by Allied officers, but none of the Nazi-hunters working in Europe immediately after the war set out to find him. They had never heard of him. Yet this was a man responsible for sending more than two million Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps, who after his capture by Israeli secret service agents in Argentina in May 1961 came to be seen throughout the world as the emblem of Nazi genocide, and who through the philosopher Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) triggered a bitter dispute about the "banality of evil" that rages on today.

Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem - 11-4-1961

Eichmann may always remain an indistinct figure, the exact contours of his life blurred by the myths and controversies that surround him and by his own lies and evasions, but Eichmann: his life and crimes enables us to form a clearer picture than ever before of a pivotal figure in 20th-century history. In this powerful and revelatory book, David Cesarani shows how Eichmann became actively and directly implicated in genocide - in the horrible but useful terminology coined after Rwanda, how he became a "genocidaire".

Contrary to a well-entrenched myth, Eichmann was not a misfit who joined the Nazis from a sense of grievance. He was an ambitious bourgeois in many ways typical of his time and place. As Cesarani observes, Eichmann "only joined when the Party had made an electoral breakthrough and achieved respectability. Prior to that time, the Nazis were the misfits, not Eichmann."

Eichmann did not begin as a radical anti-Semite. Like most people in his milieu, his view of Jews was formed by the pervasive influence of Christian anti-Semitism; but the genocidaire who in his Argentine hide-away expressed regret at not killing all the world's Jews was the product of a complicated mixture of circumstances and choices.

When, in 1934, Eichmann became a member of the Nazi Security Service (SD), it was a weak and marginal organisation that had no particular interest in Jews. However, by 1937 Eichmann had absorbed the Nazi fantasy of a Jewish conspiracy against Germany.

In 1939, he played a key role in the ethnic cleansing of half a million Poles and Jews from western Poland. By the time of the Wansee Conference in January 1942 (which he helped to arrange) he was a fully-fledged genocidaire. In 1944, he proposed a "total solution of the Jewish problem in Hungary", involving the deportation of nearly half a million Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most were immediately murdered.

From being a conventional middle- class careerist, Eichmann had become a moral monster. If there is a lesson that Cesarani wishes to draw from this metamorphosis, it is that there was nothing inevitable about it. "Eichmann had to learn what it meant to be a genocidaire," he writes "and then chose to be one."

Cesarani's book is a sustained and at times savage attack on Hannah Arendt's view of Eichmann as a cog in the Nazi machine. Noting that Arendt attended only the first few days of Eichmann's testimony in Jerusalem, Cesarani suggests she used him to validate her theory of totalitarianism. In her seminal study The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt had portrayed the totalitarian state as a perversely rational bureaucracy in which personal responsibility had all but disappeared. In placing such heavy emphasis on the absence of responsibility, Arendt came perilously close to endorsing Eichmann's plea that when he committed his crimes, he was only obeying orders.

In fact, as Cesarani points out, Nazi Germany was far from being the precisely calibrated, well-oiled machine pictured in Arendt's theory. Like other totalitarian states it was largely chaotic, with rival agencies pursuing often conflicting policies. Nazi officials often had considerable freedom of action, and when Eichmann claimed he never did anything but unthinkingly follow orders, he was lying.

While Cesarani shows beyond reasonable doubt that Eichmann was responsible for the evil he did, his assault on Arendt's account of him as a thoroughly banal individual seems to me wide of the mark. Like many of Arendt's critics, Cesarani appears to believe that by describing Eichmann as banal, she was trivialising the Holocaust.

Yet Arendt's point was simply that unremarkable people are capable of extreme evil. There is nothing banal about systematic mass murder, and the Holocaust remains a unique crime.

The fact remains that Eichmann was in no way an exceptional human being, and in rising through the Nazi ranks to become a pivotal figure in history's worst genocide he displayed a petty egoism and capacity for self-deception that are universally human. Now and then he may have experienced revulsion from the worst aspects of his crimes, but this did not prevent him from carrying on. He adjusted his conscience to suit his circumstances, and in the space of a few years he was habituated to genocide. In this, Eichmann was no different from millions of others in Nazi Germany and throughout occupied Europe.

His crimes were monstrous, but Eichmann himself was commonplace. Curiously, given the ferocity of his assault on Arendt, this is actually Cesarani's view. In the end, the Eich- mann he presents is not noticeably different from the nondescript figure portrayed by Arendt.

The core of the idea of the banality of evil is that no special qualities are needed to commit extraordinary crimes. All that is required are the right conditions and ordinary human nature. At a time when ethnic cleansing has returned as an instrument of policy in many parts of the world, it is a salutary reminder. As Cesarani puts it in the closing lines, effectively conceding the substance of Arendt's position: "Eichmann appears more and more like a man of our time. Everyman as genocidaire."

John Gray's 'Heresies: against progress and other illusions' will be published by Granta in September


The technocrat of massacre

Chris Petit applauds David Cesarani's scrupulously objective portrait of Adolf Eichmann, a man 'rotten from the inside out'

Saturday August 28, 2004
The Guardian

Eichmann: His Life and Crimes
by David Cesarani
352 pp, Heinemann, £20

Through Hannah Arendt's New Yorker coverage of his trial in 1961 and her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann is remembered mostly for her famous catchphrase, "the banality of evil". It was a persuasive if erroneous reading. There was very little banal about Eichmann, though at his trial most expressed disappointment at his insignificance. Where was the strutting SS officer in his death's-head cap who had boasted of killing millions of Jews? Only Harold Rosenberg, writing in Commentary, noted a level of calculation in his performance, "created over the years for just this courtroom situation".

Eichmann's trial was taken to be about many things; for most it was about totalitarianism. Only Eichmann saw it as being about himself. Indeed, his own convoluted version, with him as death's reluctant travel agent, is now taken to be more accurate than the prosecution's case of grand conspirator. This is not to excuse him. In this excellent and thorough biography, with its emphasis on the political mechanisms and confusions that allowed for such a moral collapse, Cesarani points out that, by the time he was finished in Hungary in 1944, "he was rotten from the inside out". He explains Eichmann less in the context of totalitarianism than by charting the process through which a man not hard-wired to kill ends up a willing collaborator in the business of genocide.

The result is scrupulously objective in a way its subject would have approved. Any hatchet-job is reserved for Arendt, dismissed as an unreliable witness because her prejudices ironically mirrored those of Eichmann. Her German Jewish bourgeois background expressed itself in a long-nurtured contempt for the "Ostjuden" and her comments on the Israelis veered into racism. It is an instructive lesson, verging on black comedy, on the complications of prejudice.

As much as Eichmann's, the prejudice of others determined the deportation of Europe's Jews. Hungarian officials proved especially willing subscribers, undertaking all duties from asset stripping to loading the trains, leaving Eichmann with little to do. He played the violin at soirees in a quartet of co-workers. Young women in his office found him handsome and "cheery". He played table tennis with the secretaries. In his book Danube, Claudio Magris noted: "The technocrat of massacre loved meditation, inner absorption, the peace of the woods, maybe even prayer."

His undoing was the deep humourlessness noted by his captors, accompanied by an even more striking inflexibility of mind. His lethal delusion was exemplified on the one hand by his insistence on himself as a referent, carrying out orders approved by his superiors; and on the other by his disappointment when a book he wrote in May 1942, with an anticipated print run of 50,000, was banned. Its subject was statistical data of Jewish transports. Of his work, he commented without irony: "Time just flew by."

Cesarani dispels myths of Eichmann's unhappy childhood, placing him against the normal but selective background of Austrian Calvinism - very different from the previous picture of an embittered man who turned Nazi on grounds of social disgrace and economic hardship or out of resentment against Jewish employers. Eichmann, diligent worker and dutiful son, grew up in a milieu where dislike of Jews was unremarkable; where little animosity was displayed towards individual Jews but "Jewry" was viewed as an alien body in the German national organism. It was a fantasy to which he became increasingly susceptible, but he was not driven in the first instance by racial hatred.

His was a job-in-waiting rather than one envisioned, with no sign that the underfunded SS department he joined before the war would become instrumental in anti-Jewish policy. Cesarani takes the current position on the Third Reich as more muddle than efficiency. At his trial Eichmann described in numbing detail administrative structures of such byzantine complexity and density that he vanished into insignificance within them, until one of the judges, moved to exasperation, declared: "It is clear to us that, in German, the predicate comes at the end of the sentence, but it takes too long to reach the predicate." His captors had previously noted his German as "hideous - the jargon of a Nazi bureaucrat pronounced in a mixture of Berlin and Austrian accents and further garbled by his liking for endlessly complicated sentences in which he himself would occasionally get lost".

The road to genocide was neither as predictable nor predetermined as has been assumed. Eichmann's department distanced itself from Goebbels's rabble-rousing with cooler arguments, declaring that Jews were entitled to their own national homeland and Germany should do all it could to assist. Eichmann first showed his teeth in 1938 in Austria, speeding up Jewish emigration and devising a funding mechanism whereby the wealthy paid for the emigration of the poor, a blatant scam that made sense only in the context of discrimination and terror.

His more acceptable face was evident the following year. As emigration still remained the order of the day, he was happy to cooperate with Zionist smugglers organising illicit transports of Jews to Palestine. But his essential indifference became apparent in the enforced deportation of Jews to Poland in 1939, a project dressed up in the language of "resettlement" that left thousands to rot in an inhospitable landscape. The lesson learned by Eichmann's superiors from his lethal efficiency was that it was possible with little expenditure of effort or capital to deport wholesale. Eichmann then went to work on the Poles. His development was complete before extermination became official. The job remained the same regardless of the fate of his transportations.

The notorious Wannsee conference of 1942 here becomes less of a point of no return and more of a rationalisation of an existing unofficial policy. Mass shootings of civilian populations on the eastern front had already been carried out and local pogroms were encouraged. By the end of 1941, more than half a million Jews had been slaughtered and the killing had grown indiscriminate. And no one wanted the responsibility of being lumbered with Eichmann's deportations.

Eichmann's own transition to genocide was not entirely smooth. He had been revolted observing killings in the field and recorded his loss of face at Auschwitz where "they laughed, naturally, when my nerves broke down and I couldn't keep my military dignity". He moaned that annihilation wasn't a political solution, being enough of a careerist to know that previous solutions offered more chance of prestige and promotion than mass murder.

After the war he demonstrated a cunning for survival noted at his trial. Life in hiding in Germany consisted of several rural idylls, apparently untroubled by conscience, but after his escape to South America the career took on an air of willed failure. He missed out on the Nazi gravy train in Argentina. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz's "angel of death", was moving in exalted circles. Eichmann, by contrast, was on the verge of squalor. The two men met and failed to get on. Mengele made an offer of free medical treatment, which Eichmann, perhaps mindful of the doctor's wartime experiments, declined. All his businesses failed. He even had a go at his old job, working as transportation manager (for a firm manufacturing sanitary ware), but that didn't work out either.

His capture was not the zealous affair his kidnapping suggests. No one cared particularly about Eichmann. The world was moving on. A Mossad agent on the case said it was left to a blind man living 10 hours away from Buenos Aires to prove Eichmann's identity. By then he was so down on his luck no one could believe a high-ranking Nazi fugitive could reside in so nondescript a place. Confronted by such a poor wretch his captors were "touched, even a bit disgusted" by his shabby underwear. In a way, the only person who cared by then about him was Eichmann himself.

He was a willing captive, recognising that without trial he was nothing. His arraignment in Israel was the justification of a ponderous man eager to state his case, and the one unshakeable element in his defence was a capacity for self-justification. The element missing in Cesarani's compelling portrait is Eichmann the actor, the theatrical man who liked the uniform and the power it bestowed. In that one sees the historical destiny described by Primo Levi, who wrote of a man "ringed by death", surrounded by and selected by death just as the millions he had dispatched were selected for death. He joined them, willing but unrepentant, on May 31 1962, hanged in a makeshift execution cell.


THE TLS n.º 5290 – August 20, 2004

The obedient civil servant

David Vital

David Cesarani


His life and crimes

440 pp. Heinemann £ 20

0 434 01056 1

It is David Cesarani’s view that Adolf Eichmann “is an icon of the twentieth century, of the Nazi regime and the genocide it waged against the Jews”. He may be right. But it is an uncomfortable characterization that raises a number of questions, the first being why this should ever have been the case, the second being what it might signify.

Why should so distinctly third-rate a member of the National Socialist ruling class come to be the person associated more readily than anyone else with the vast and intricate machinery with which Germany, around 1941—2, finally set itself to destroy the Jews of Europe? Eichmann was never even remotely the effective mastermind behind the enterprise. The venture was that of the German State as a whole, one in which far too many happily indoctrinated sen­ior civil and military servants of the regime participated, for any one of them to be satisfac­torily singled out. If a candidate for the role of presiding evil genius must be looked for, Heydrich’s name is likely to be at or near the top of most people’s lists. When the leaders of the German bureaucratic establishment met at Wannsee under Heydrich’s chairmanship to settle on their plans for a Final Solution, Eichmann was no more than note-taker. And when Heydrich was killed, six months later, it was the Gestapo chief Mueller who took over as driving force.

It is true that Eichmann had been associated from the very beginning with the new regime’s effort, first to expel all Jews from Austria and Germany, and then, when that proved difficult for lack of anywhere to send them, to gather them and their cousins from the rest of Europe and ship them to places where they could conveniently be killed off. But his own role was bureaucratic and technical for the most part. Once moved and promoted from provincial post-Anschluss Vienna to the centre of operations in Berlin, he mostly participated from afar. His venture into Hungary, towards the end of the Second World War, when Horthy’s Government proved slow to cooperate with the SS on the established Dutch and French model for dealing with Jews, was exceptional.

Generally, as Professor Cesarani shows in his meticulous and admirably balanced study not only of Eichmann’s life and crimes (as the subtitle of his book has it), but of the broader juridical, moral, political and ultimately ethnographical issues that continue to swirl around the case, it is the negatives that are most compelling. It is the negatives that have kept alive The question whether Eichmann was the wrong man   around whom to build a major show trial. Certainly, had there been no trial there would have been no “icon”. On The other hand, once Eichmann had been captured, the trial was bound to take something like the form it did.

The point about which all revolved was that the matter of the destruction of Jewry as an  explicit purpose of the German State had been, if not ignored at Nuremberg, at any rate engulfed, and in a certain sense dissipated, under the vague and very general charge of crimes against humanity. With Eichmann in their hands, there could be no question for the Israelis of failing to ensure that something that at least approximated to The fall picture of the Shoah be at long last made fully and dramatically public. But what then of Eichmann himself? That was the problem — and so, to some extent,. it remains. Cesarani to his credit, goes to great trouble in his Eichmann to avoid any sort of cheap social or judgemental a priori attitude in respect either of the attorney general, Gideon Hausner’s almost impossible task, or indeed of the greater matter of the trial as a whole. Still, the question remains: how was, or with hindsight how is, one to tackle the hugely fraught matter that alone justified both the abduction and the trial itself, and go on to deal at the same time with the historically minor question of the role played, and the guilt incurred, by the wretched man whom the team led by Isser Harel, chief of Mossad, had plucked out of his hideout in distant (and for most other Nazis-in-exile perfectly safe) Buenos Aires? Unless, that is, there is a shift of focus back to Eichmann himself and to the Austro-German generation of which he was a member.

As Cesarani is careful to show, there is indeed more to be said about the man  than it bas been customary to think. He had been a Nazi de la première heure in pre-Anschluss Austria. His joining the Party was followed almost immediately by integration into the SS —his recruiter being no less a figure than Ernst Kaltenbrunner, future head of The Reich security apparatus. Enlistment into the SS’s own, at the time still embryonic, security service, the SD, came soon after. It is true that Eichmann was never a policeman, not even of the SS sort. Nor was he ever a soldier: too young for The First World War not a member of the post 1918 armed forces — as Heydrich, for example, had been; and despite a few tentative and almost certainly phoney moves in the direction of the Waffen SS, never drawn in that dangerous, semi-sacrificial direction in the war that followed either.

What Eichmann was and remained was a true believer. So, through his many years in the SS, as might be expected; but also, on the evidence scrupulously marshalled in this book, in the aftermath as well: through the years of post-war exile in Argentina and even during his interrogation and trial, the truth peeping out repeatedly, despite his and his defence counsel’s best efforts to show that, on the contrary, he had been given (on occasion) to think of Jews as jolly good fellows after all, people who might well have deserved the helping hand he had offered them when it was at all possible to do so. SS-Obersturmbannführer Eichmann may have had momentary flickers of doubt about the tactics pursued by his masters in one connection or another over the years. On the vulgar ideological and philosophical essentials of Nazism he never wavered. Führerprinzip, German Herrenvolk nationalism, racist mumbo-jumbo and all, were set firmly in his mind, there to stay long after the collapse of the Reich itself, barely subject to modification even at the very end, in his prison cell in Israel, the trial over, awaiting death.

And there are other reasons for looking closely at this mostly .desk-bound, committee-attending clerk who, at the peak of his career, was detailed to serve as a sort of Reich-wide master RTO with special organizing and co-ordinating responsibilities for the removal, transport and disposal of Jews (The actual job of industrial slaughter being performed upon them by others). He was well regarded by his superiors for his loyalty, obedience and general political soundness. But he was never a leader either in the SS or anywhere else. The knowledge of contemporary Jewish affairs that he was apt to parade was mostly smiled upon by those above and around him; it was never taken seriously, let alone examined for the defective piece of goods we know it to be. Judged useful for certain purposes, he was never thought of highly enough to be allowed out of the patch he had fenced off for himself as self-proclaimed specialist on the twin matters of Jews and population movement. His climb through the ranks was almost excruciatingly slow and never to get him beyond a lieutenant colonelcy. He was successfully exfiltrated out of Europe through the clerical ratline after the war. But once in Argentina he was left to make a new life for himself on his own, ending up, when the people from Mossad found him, as a garage mechanic.

I once asked one of his captors what his immediate, but most lasting impression of Eichmann had been. The instant response was: “namosh”, a Hebrew term in which the senses of wimp, weakling and the generally ineffectual are combined. But did he not put up a fight? Yes, indeed, was the answer. It lasted for a minute or two. It ended the moment he was assured that the team was not about to hurt him. Later, in the safe house to which he had been taken in Buenos Aires, took very little persuasion - all strictly verbal, no hand was laid on him – to induce him to sign a statement to the effect that he was indeed the said Adolf Eichmann and that he agreed to be tried by an Israeli court. And it was not uncharacteristic of the man that later still, in captivity in Israel, he was sedulous in addressing his police interrogator with Germanic military respect: “Yes, Herr Hauptmann”, or “No, Herr Hauptmann”, and so forth. A small man then. Indeed a “namosh”.

Wherein his true and lasting historical significance. And what, with the benefit of hindsight, may now seem to us to have been missed at his trial after all. What the attorneys for the prosecution failed to break into the open, not least, be it said, because they very deliberately avoided touching upon it, was the question whether Eichmann was in any significant sense and degree representative of German society as a whole? And therefore whether, in his personal weakness and inadequacy, his obedience to his superiors and his deepest beliefs, he was an instance of that which on close examination might offer part explanation for what had occurred - to the Jews, in the first place; ultimately, to the Germans themselves? In the event, specific references to “Germans” were avoided by the prosecution the limiting term “Nazis” was preferred. the Israeli Government of the day wished to cultivate Adenauer’ s new Germany, not quarrel with it.

Were they then in error, given that it was a show trial and therefore an occasion not only for exposition, but for a reckoning as well? Writing this review on what chanced to be the sixtieth anniversary of the collapse of the July 20 plot against The Nazi regime, one could not fail to be reminded both that while there were braver and better men in Hitler’s Germany than Eichmann’s kind, there were, as Johannes Tuchel, director of The Memorial Centre of German resistance, put it recently, “so few”.

Nothing banal about his evil
(Filed: 25/07/2004)

Ian Kershaw reviews Eichmann: His Life and Crimes by David Cesarani

Adolf Eichmann is a difficult subject for a biographer. So it is no surprise that David Cesarani's new biography, the first for over 20 years, is stronger on Eichmann's crimes than on his life.

Nothing in Eichmann's childhood, youth, family background or early career in the Nazi Party (which Cesarani covers very briskly) singles him out as anything beyond the ordinary. He only becomes interesting once his initially mundane work collecting information on "the Jewish Question" for the Sicherheitsdienst (the still small "Security Service" of the Nazi Party) began in the later 1930s to take on an importance Eichmann himself could not have envisaged.

Cesarani meticulously examines Eichmann's path into his role as the manager of genocide, although only glimpses are to be seen of the personality behind the actions. From being an expert on forced Jewish emigration, the organiser of brutal expulsions in Poland between 1939 and 1941, and the agent of the mass deportations in 1941 (which brought him directly into central areas of genocidal policy), Eichmann became, ultimately, the orchestrator of the "Final Solution", culminating in the summer of 1944 in the shipping of Hungary's Jews to the gas-chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Until the preparation for the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, Eichmann was unknown to the Allies. By then, he had escaped from American custody and made his way to north Germany. In 1950 he fled to Argentina, where he lived quietly for 10 years until sensationally kidnapped by Israeli secret agents. His trial (summarised at great length by Cesarani), then execution in 1962, first drew the world's attention to him.

From being an obscure figure in the labyrinthine Nazi power structure, Eichmann now metamorphosed into the emblematic perpetrator of genocide. Numerous publications were spawned by the trial. But one book far outweighed all others in shaping the way Eichmann came to be seen - Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, which carried a subtitle that caught the imagination: "a report on the banality of evil".

Arendt portrayed Eichmann as an unideological bureaucrat diligently doing his job, the archetypal middle-manager on the lookout for career advancement, but otherwise without motive - "the classic desk-killer who mechanically and thoughtlessly arranged for millions to die as the culmination of a routinised and sanitised process or destruction". A central purpose of Cesarani's penetrating and compelling study is to show how wrong Arendt's influential interpretation of Eichmann was, and how misleading the phrase "banality of evil" has proved.

Cesarani provides expert guidance through the web of lies, deceit, and contradictions built into Eichmann's various tendentious accounts of his life and career. He hammers home the message that, far from being merely an industrious underling dispassionately implementing orders, Eichmann was a convinced anti-Semitic ideologue in a key position where he himself could initiate action and make things happen.

There was no incompatibility with the obedience to superiors on which Eichmann placed so much store in his defence. The Nazis invariably left scope in their guidelines for initiative from those who had to implement them. As a main conduit between Berlin and the men directing matters locally, Eichmann was indispensable in implementing the policies that brought about the destruction of Europe's Jews.

The revision of Arendt's interpretation is surely correct. I recall more than 20 years ago a Jewish friend telling me that the Eichmann he had seen in the dock in Jerusalem was very different to the Eichmann he had witnessed in 1939, strutting around Prague with the brutal arrogance of the arbiter of life and death. It seemed to me even then that there was no contradiction between Eichmann the efficient manager and Eichmann the driven anti-Semitic ideologue. He was both.

Like so many, he had not joined the Nazi Party (once it started to gain political ground) specifically because of its anti-Semitic message. But once in the Security Service he was fully exposed to Nazi anti-Jewish ideology and swiftly became a fervent believer. Jews for him were Germany's arch-enemy, and had to be removed in one way or another. Like others, he was sucked into the Nazi world-view, but he could not have been more willingly sucked in.

Although Eichmann was in many ways "ordinary" and was German, he was no "ordinary German", as Cesarani (with reference to Daniel Goldhagen's controversial book, Hitler's Willing Executioners) at one point implies. And for all that we can, with Cesarani, lament the spread of ethnic cleansing and genocidal actions in the later 20th century, it is surely going too far to see Eichmann as a paradigmatic figure for today, "typical rather than aberrant", "more and more like a man of our time".

The ideological context, the organisational structure of the Nazi security apparatus, and the opportunity of a "war of annihilation" made Eichmann what he was - a man of his own times, not of ours.

Ian Kershaw's books include 'Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris' and 'Hitler, 1936-45: Nemesis' (Penguin).


The life and crimes of the Holocaust mastermind

David Cesarini's gripping, meticulously researched book explodes many myths surrounding Adolf Eichmann

Jason Burke
Sunday August 22, 2004
The Observer

Eichmann: His Life and Crimes
by David Cesarini
William Heinemann £20, pp352

The trial of Adolf Eichmann made him the global face of the Holocaust. But his exact role in the atrocities remained buried by courtroom rhetoric, sloppy reporting or overly ideological analysis. To some, he was a classic Nazi: a depraved, criminal, socially inadequate über bully. Others saw a bureaucrat made into a mass murderer by totalitarianism, who counted Jews instead of beans. This gripping, lucid, meticulously researched book reveals that both views are wrong.

David Cesarani shows there was nothing in Eichmann's relatively comfortable childhood and youth to indicate any lack of sociability. As an adult, he was garrulous and popular. After a hard day in his Berlin office organising mass deportations in 1943, the handsome, charming, popular SS officer would go to musical soirees with his staff.

The question of when the Nazis decided to exterminate Europe's Jews is much debated. The Wannsee conference in Berlin in January 1942, at which a dozen senior Nazis discussed the practical difficulties and decided on a plan of action, is often seen as the turning point. Eichmann, then head of the only Nazi administrative department devoted to Jewish affairs, helped to organise the conference.

Then he applied himself with singleminded vigour to rounding up as many Jews as possible and deporting them to the death camps being built.

But by the time of the conference, at least half-a-million Jews had already been killed by the SS 'Einsatzgruppen' in eastern Europe alone. Cesarani, like most contemporary scholars, sees Wannsee as an attempt to systematise what was already happening on an ad-hoc basis.

The descent into an attempted mass killing of more than 11 million people was gradual, occurring over a decade at least. And in this lies the key to understanding Eichmann.

Born in the Rhineland in 1906, he joined the Nazis in 1933. He was not a 'Jew-hater' then. His anti-semitism was simply that of most right-wing, provincial, conservative Germans or Austrians. He wound up in the Jewish Department of one of the main Nazi intelligence agencies almost by accident. As Eichmann was sucked deeper into the Nazi cult, he became more viciously anti-semitic.

In 1938, after Germany annexed Austria, Eichmann was sent to Vienna to head the Office for Jewish Emigration where, through 'terror and chicanery', he was extremely effective.

Many see his time there as the beginning of 'the Final Solution'. Certainly, the Jews were seen by the Nazis as a cancer that must be cut out. Cesarani, however, argues persuasively that emigration was still the preferred option. Indeed, in 1940, Eichmann hatched a plan to ship four million Jews to Madagascar. It would entail massive casualties, but was still not deliberate genocide.

A key step was taken at about this time during the 'cleansing' of western Poland to make room for ethnic Germans evacuated from Soviet-held areas. Eichmann was intimately connected with the brutal eviction of 500,000 people, gaining experience of managing mass deportation.

As the war progressed, it became clear that emigration was not going to render the Reich judenfrei. So the Nazis decided to kill them.

From Berlin, Eichmann ran operations to collect Jews and ship them to the camps. Trains had to be sourced and timetabled; they had to be found, stripped of their property and transported. There were problems with local commanders unwilling to have Jews dumped on them, obstreperous underlings and distant, wilful superiors. Eichmann was vastly assisted by the prevailing European anti-semitism. In Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, locals happily helped round up and, in some instances, kill Jews. In France, the Nazis trailed the Vichy regime in efforts at persecution.

Between April and July 1944, Eichmann, based in Budapest, ruthlessly and efficiently rounded up 437,000 Hungarian Jews and deported them to Auschwitz. By that time, he was 'rotten from the inside out'. Fanatical, drunk with power, in the grip of a 'lethal delusion', Eichmann's descent, like that of his nation, was complete.

As the Soviets closed in, he fled to Germany and then, helped by the Vatican, to Argentina, from where he was kidnapped by the Israelis in 1960, tried and executed in 1962.

Eichmann was not born a killer. He became one, stage by grisly stage. He found the mechanics of murder (while observing a mass shooting, he had brains splattered over his leather coat) disgusting. But he worked fanatically to destroy millions of human beings. He did it because, for a variety of personal, professional and ideological reasons and because of the circumstances he found himself in, it seemed the right thing to do. Eichmann was a normal man who became a monster. As Cesarani concludes: 'Everyman as genocidaire.' And that is a lesson for our bloody times.



Eichmann: His Life and Crimes
By Frederick Studemann

Published: September 24 2004 13:46 | Last updated: September 24 2004 13:46

Eichmann: His Life and Crimes by David Cesarani Heinemann £20, 458 pages

Adolf Eichmann was one of the most instrumental figures in the persecution and mass murder of Jews by the Nazis. An official in the security services, Eichmann’s involvement with the “Jewish question” initially centred around plans for the deportation of Jews from central and western Europe.

Later he operated at the centre of the “final solution”, organising the transportation of over two million Jews to their deaths in extermination and concentration camps. In the words of David Cesarani, Eichmann was “the managing director of the greatest single genocide in history”.

Given this, it is astonishing that in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the Allies were hunting down Nazi criminals, Eichmann’s name was not among the most-wanted.

It cropped up once or twice in the interrogation of others, including Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz. When Eichmann’s name appeared in an early draft of the Nuremberg tribunal’s judgement of a former subordinate, a senior American lawyer scribbled next to it: “Who’s he?”

Such ignorance was dispelled by the time of Eichmann’s own trial in 1961 in Jerusalem. Then, following his sensational kidnapping by the Israeli secret service in Argentina, Eichmann stood at the centre of a global media event that attracted hundreds of journalists from around the world.

It generated kilometres of newsprint, hundreds of hours of television, novels, films and poems and was instrumental in raising interest in the subject of the holocaust.

At the trial, Eichmann sought to portray himself as a passionless, if diligent, administrator - an operative, not a policy-maker - who was ultimately just a small part in a machine geared to mass extermination.

It was a version that found some sympathy among the onlookers. In the words of Hannah Arendt, the German-born Jewish writer who covered the trial for The New Yorker and was to write one of the most famous accounts, Eichmann was like so many others “neither perverted nor sadistic” but “terribly and terrifyingly normal”. In Arendt’s enduring phrase, Eichmann represented “the banality of evil”.

Although this view of the dull, desk-bound killer was immediately challenged - by Edward Crankshaw, Richard Crossman, Saul Bellow and others - it is the interpretation that has persisted.

It allowed more distanced observers, particularly in the US, to make sense of the vast amount of often breathtakingly distressing facts that emerged at the trial. By not depicting Eichmann as a depraved, perhaps insane criminal - as some of the quick-shot popular early biographies suggested - but as an intelligent, well-kept, ordinary middle-class man, it made him more like “one of us”.

Another feature of Arendt’s work was the universal interpretation that it offered as a warning to all how - in the words of one commentator - “political passivity could engender such foul phenomena”.

Cesarani’s book - which its publishers claim to be the first biography of Eichmann to appear since the trial - offers a firm riposte to Arendt. With so much of the interpretation of Eichmann based on his trial, Cesarani argues that perceptions were distorted by the nature of courtroom dealings - the dense, awkward, sometimes bewildering procedures - and the defence that the accused chose to offer up.

In Cesarani’s view, Eichmann was neither a “robotic receiver of orders” nor insane, but rather someone who chose to become a genocidaire.

Cesarani’s telling of Eichmann’s story is diligent and balanced. Competing and conflicting sources are given their say. Where facts are uncertain or simply impossible to establish with clarity, he says so.

At times the journey through the chaotic world of Nazi power, where inter-agency rivalry was rife and policy not always clear, can be confusing - even plodding. But that also contributes to the chilling feeling of seeing such gruesome subject matter presented in an orderly, objective fashion.

In the midst of careful reconstruction of bureaucratic turf warfare, the account of specific events are starkly horrifying and snatches of evidence can be heart-rending - such as the bad-temperedness of Parisian children when woken early to be carried off on a meticulously organised transport east.

On the central question of how Eichmann came to do what he did, Cesarani offers a plausible factual account and a frustrating, depressing conclusion. The first is the gradual transition of an ambitious and energetic anti-Semite who established his expertise in offering a “political solution” - i.e. deportation - to the “Jewish problem” into the executive of genocide.

This was after the 1942 Wannsee conference, which Eichmann attended, had changed the Nazi policy towards one of organised physical annihilation. Cesarani accepts Eichmann’s later claims of misgivings about the shift, but points out that these were quickly mastered as his activities moved into their new phase.

As we know, he was highly efficient and zealous in his new role - even to the point of ignoring orders towards the end of the war to cease the deportations from Hungary to the death camps.

In one of the most damning bits of evidence, Cesarani refers several times to Eichmann’s farewell speech to colleagues and subordinates in Berlin in the final days of war. According to one of those present, “he said that the knowledge of having five million Jews on his conscience gave him extraordinary satisfaction - he would leap into his grave laughing.”

The frustrating conclusion comes in Cesarani’s view that there is no definitive explanation of what made Eichmann do what he did. Evidence points in different directions; the raft of psychological estimations devoted to the case are contradictory. Instead he suggests that rather than looking for the answer in Eichmann the man, one needs to look at “the ideas that possessed him, the society in which they flowed freely”.

It forms the basis for Cesarini’s conclusion that as each generation has seen what it wanted in Eichmann - the pathological type; the aberrant unthinking bureaucrat - in the present-day world where ethnic cleansing and refugees dominate the news, the notion of the “everyman as genocidaire” appears highly contemporary.


         The  Herald

The evil this man did


August 02, 2004-08-31

Eichmann: His Life and Crimes David Cesarani William Heinemann, £20

Nazi atrocities were bad enough before Adolf Hitler, Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler hit on the so-called final solution. Before then there were many local massacres and small-scale regionalised genocides. For example, between September 1939 and August 1941, 70,000 Germans (most of them non-Jews) with physical or mental disabilities were murdered by poison gas because they were deemed "unworthy of life".

But it was not until the end of 1941 that a policy for the total extermination of Europe's Jews was formulated. When the policy was implemented, Adolf Eichmann was the central figure. Eichmann was directly responsible for transporting millions of Jews to their deaths at camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. But he never attained a rank higher than that of lieutenant-colonel and was unknown to the Allies as they prepared for the Nuremberg trials in 1946.

He managed to make his way to South America and remained in obscurity until he was kidnapped by the Israeli secret service in 1960. His capture in Buenos Aires, his dramatic delivery to Jerusalem and his well-publicised trial catapulted him to worldwide infamy. Although he was brilliantly represented by a distinguished German lawyer, Dr Robert Servatius, Eichmann was found guilty of war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, and other crimes. After his unsuccessful appeal, he was executed by hanging.
In a relatively short period of time, Eichmann had become an emblematic figure, a much-analysed icon of evil, a means to remind a forgetful world of the sheer scale of Germany's crimes against the Jews, and a much-picked-over psychological specimen.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University. He has written an acclaimed biography of Arthur Koestler. His new book is not an orthodox biography of Adolf Eichmann, although it has the merits of the best biographies. He does present the detail of Eichmann's life and career with meticulous care, and he avoids a shrill tone. He eschews emotion, though he writes – he has to, in this context – about the misery that Eichmann inflicted on innocent men, women and children. But he is not judgmental. As he himself notes, his book is in great part about a trial "and the judges did a very fine job". And so, rather than a conventional life, the book is first an analysis of the making of a practitioner of genocide, and secondly a discussion of the implications of Eichmann's extended trial in Jerusalem, which was one of the first global media events. The trial was scrupulously conducted, but it was the subject of some sensational reporting and commentating. Many of the writers who covered it did not acquit – if that is the right word – themselves particularly well.

The proceedings were thorough; so thorough that many of those who had flocked to Jerusalem to report them left when the trial had barely started. One of the many who quit after a shamefully short period was the writer Hannah Arendt, who left to join her husband in Switzerland.

At the core of Cesarani's book is an attack (and an exceptionally fierce one) on Arendt, the Jewish philosopher who, although she attended the trial for such a brief period, proceeded to write a portentous book about it, called Eichmann in Jerusalem.

The trial spawned many books, the majority of them hastily prepared and ill considered, but it was Arendt's that made the most impact. It was a sensation and was influential and much discussed. Unfortunately, according to Cesarani, its influence was malign.

Born in Germany, Arendt had moved to the US as a refugee from the Nazis. There she established a reputation as a biographer and political theorist. In her book she portrayed Eichmann as a small-time bureaucrat, an ordinary functionary, a sedulous, low-level corporate manager who was, in essence, just doing his job. She coined the much-used phrase "the banality of evil". For Cesarani, these are weasel words. He devotes many pages to his rebuttal of Arendt's account of the trial, and her conclusions. His assault on her interpretation of Eichmann is unremitting, forensic and ultimately devastating.
Although Arendt herself came from the German-Jewish bourgeoisie, Cesarani accuses her of nursing "base prejudices" and of veering into direct racism in her "nasty stereotypical comments about Jews".
Even more significant is Cesarani's belief that Arendt helped to foster the idea that the mass murder of Jews was not so much a colossal crime against humanity as "the zenith of modern bureaucracy". Arendt's book, which was possibly even more discussed than the trial itself, helped to shape the view that Nazi Germany was a super-centralised modern state in which power passed downwards; the annihilation of the Jews was an economic rationalisation carried through by professional men. Thus genocide came perilously close to being excused. Cesarani's book is a sustained and eloquent refutation of this dangerous sanitising of barbarity.

Inevitably, given its subject matter, Eichmann: his Life and Crimes is a grim book. But there are moments of grisly comedy. It is commonplace to regard Israelis as super-efficient but Eichmann's capture in Argentina – though successful – was very nearly botched. Then, after his hanging, his body fell off the improvised fork which was to lift it into the makeshift oven in which it was to be cremated.
Cesarani's description of these farcical episodes helps to provide a little relief as he moves to his bleak and pertinent conclusion that Eichmann appears "more and more a man of our times". This fine book serves as an effective and salutary wake-up call to early 21st-century complacency.



Sun August 8, 2004

Tireless toiler in the Jewish killing fields


Eichmann: His Life and Crimes
David Cesarani
Heinemann, £20

LATE in 1941, Adolf Eichmann visited the concentration camp at Auschwitz which had, earlier in the year, been established as a death factory. He was, in effect, a production manager inspecting a component in a large industrial conglomerate. Unfortunately, he failed to show the requisite insensitivity to the suffering he observed. He recollected how the staff at the camp "laughed, naturally, when my nerves broke down and I couldn’t keep my military dignity".

"This isn’t what I imagined," he later remarked. "It probably isn’t what any of us imagined, because it’s not a political solution. We were still talking about a political solution up until then - that was the approved line. But this wasn’t a political solution." The testimony suggests that, at first, Eichmann was a reluctant murderer. But if reluctant at the beginning, he grew efficient by the end. He learned how to be a brutally effective manager of genocide.

Eichmann was an administrator, not an initiator, of policy. Because his involvement in the Final Solution was that of a functionary, his importance was not initially recognised and he was able to escape to Argentina in 1950, where he remained until his capture in 1960. The Israelis showed little interest in hunting him down; in the end it was the Germans who led Mossad to Eichmann.

As David Cesarani demonstrates in this disturbing book, judging Eichmann has, over the years, proved difficult. While he sent millions of Jews to their death, he was far removed from their suffering. The blood on his hands was purely metaphoric. "All our work was paperwork," he claimed during his interrogation in Israel after his capture. While that was obviously an attempt at dissociation, it was essentially true.

Unfortunately, the idea of a pen-pusher did not sit well with a prosecution team who wanted a high-profile trial of a barbaric, sadistic murderer. For the purposes of closure and retribution, the prosecutors needed to transform an accountant into a diabolical killer. In order to make this persona more convincing, a disturbed childhood had to be invented. A myth of abnormality was created in order to underline the lessons to be learned.

Covering the trial for the New Yorker magazine, Hannah Arendt drew a different judgment. She had her own theories of totalitarianism to peddle, and she therefore stubbornly forced Eichmann into her predetermined models of behaviour. She decided that he demonstrated the "banality of evil" - the idea that Nazi Germany was administered by a multitude of ordinary individuals who were not ideologically driven nor predetermined toward wickedness. Instead they were simply cogs in a giant machinery of hate, men separated from decision and conscience. "The trouble with Eichmann," Arendt wrote, "was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal."

ARENDT’S CONCEPTION of a bureaucracy of evil remained popular until around 1980. Since then, a series of studies have attempted to establish that the extermination of Jews was anything but bureaucratic and impersonal. In other words, individual men and women took decisions, for reasons distinct to them, to join in the killing process. This is the thesis pursued by Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners and David Browning in Ordinary Men.

At the heart of Cesarani’s argument is the assumption that, while we might not be entirely free agents, we all make decisions at crucial points in our lives which determine the path on which we travel. Eichmann was not programmed for evil because of hardships suffered early in his life; in fact his childhood was entirely normal. He was instead someone who, at various points in his life, made choices which funnelled him towards a leading role in the Final Solution.

"I was an idealist," Eichmann wrote. "When I reached the conclusion that it was necessary to do to the Jews what we did, I worked with the fanaticism a man can expect from himself." As Cesarani demonstrates, Eichmann was an ambitious man determined to do his job well. His job was to solve the ‘Jewish problem’. At first he favoured forced emigration, an idea he explored with Zionists in the late 1930s.

But war eventually put paid to these schemes. When transporting Jews to another country became too expensive and complicated, killing them became the only foreseeable option. This new policy was confirmed at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, which Eichmann helped organise.

As indicated above, Eichmann preferred a ‘political solution’, but he did not turn away from the idea of genocide. He was deeply shocked by his first exposure to mass murder, but eventually grew used to it. In time, the author writes, "the deportation of humans to their death was treated with the same problem-solving, can-do, corporate mentality as arranging shipments of gasoline to petrol stations".

This is a difficult book, not just because of its loathsome subject. I expected an intriguing psychological study, but found instead a rather dry academic analysis which tried my patience and left me cold. Cesarani seems so concerned to refute earlier assessments of Eichmann that more effort is directed to describing what the man wasn’t rather than what he was. Argument eventually kills narrative - so much so that Eichmann’s development, crucial to understanding his behaviour, is not coherently presented. Cesarani believes that there are Eichmanns all around us. Given the evidence of Rwanda, East Timor and Yugoslavia, that is not a difficult case to prove. "It is not necessary," the author argues, "to be abnormal to become a practitioner of genocide." On that point, however, I’m afraid I must disagree. Granted, Eichmann wasn’t a classic psychopath. He didn’t kill for the enjoyment of killing. But he was an extraordinarily weak individual whose desire to impress his superiors overwhelmed all semblance of morality.

Eichmann decided at some point that Jews had no intrinsic claim to life. It was at that moment that he abdicated from humanity. For me, his abnormality lies in his inability to recognise the consequences of his actions, to perceive their evil nature and to turn back.






The petty official who killed millions

Reviewer Steven Welch
December 24, 2004

Eichmann: His life and crimes
By David Cesarani
William Heinemann, $59.95

David Cesarani's excellent new biography of Adolf Eichmann tells the fascinating yet deeply depressing story of how an ordinary man becomes a genocidaire. Cesarani's use of the French neologism - coined in the aftermath of the recent genocide in Rwanda - is deliberate; the word specifically describes a person implicated in the crime of genocide, and thus is more precise than the commonly applied term "perpetrator".

When the Holocaust was first given international public exposure at the Nuremberg trial in 1945-46, Eichmann was still a shadowy figure whose key role in the mass murder of European Jewry remained obscure. The appearance of Eichmann's name in a draft of the Nuremberg judgement prompted Francis Biddle, the senior American judge, to scribble in the margin: "Who was he?"

All this changed in May 1960 when Israeli agents, after being tipped off by a West German official, captured the 54-year-old Eichmann outside his home in Argentina. Eleven months later, he stood before three judges in Jerusalem charged with multiple counts of crimes against humanity.

s head of the section within the SS responsible for Jewish affairs, Eichmann was instrumental in organising and implementing the "Final Solution". Having acquired expertise in "forced emigration" of Jews from Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1939, he applied his organisational skills during the war to the task of rounding up and deporting Jews from across Europe to the Nazi death camps.

In 1944 he took a leading part in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Within just three months he organised the transport of more than 437,000 Jews to Auschwitz; more than 75 per cent were murdered within hours of their arrival.

Eichmann's trial was a media event that catapulted him from obscurity to international notoriety. His status as the archetypal perpetrator of 20th-century genocide was firmly established with the publication in 1963 of Hannah Arendt's extraordinarily influential Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Arendt presented Eichmann as the classic armchair killer, a petty bureaucrat who thoughtlessly and diligently discharged his duty without giving any moral consideration to the consequences of his actions. As Eichmann defensively remarked to his Israeli interrogators, "I've never killed anybody . . . All our work was paperwork". A detached, passionless administrator whose guiding principle was obedience to authority, he embodied, in Arendt's famous phrase, "the banality of evil".

Although Arendt's interpretation profoundly affected public understanding of Eichmann, her view did not go unchallenged. In the aftermath of the trial a series of popular biographies painted a very different and much more lurid portrait of Eichmann as a depraved, ideologically driven psychopath.

These works depicted Eichmann as the brutal SS man whose rabid anti-Semitism logically drove him to commit mass murder. He was portrayed as the typical manifestation of an abnormal "Nazi personality type". The Israeli prosecutor gave expression to this view when he labelled Eichmann a "Satanic personality": not the embodiment of the banality of evil but of evil itself.

Cesarani sets out to demolish both of these common, "mythologised" understandings of Eichmann. His book is an exercise in historical revisionism, one that incorporates elements from both of the prevailing views of Eichmann but reconfigures them into a new, more complex and ultimately more disturbing portrait.

Cesarani argues that Eichmann was not a natural born killer, hard-wired for genocide. He convincingly discredits simplistic approaches that explain Eichmann as evil, mad or naturally anti-Semitic. Rather, Cesarani insists, Eichmann "learned to hate and he taught himself to be a practitioner of genocide". Exposure to Nazi indoctrination within the SS in the mid-1930s transformed his run-of-the-mill Austrian anti-Semitism into an ideologically grounded racial anti-Semitism that identified the Jew as a deadly enemy who had to be eliminated. The great strength of Cesarani's book lies in its careful reconstruction of the process - by no means preordained - through which Eichmann became a mass murderer.

Cesarani also rejects Arendt's characterisation of Eichmann as a mindless, motiveless modern bureaucrat who never realised what he was doing. Eichmann participated in mass murder out of conviction, and he was proud of the suffering he inflicted. As he stated to a confidante in the mid-1950s: "To be frank with you, had we killed all of them, the 13 million, I would be happy and say: all right, we have destroyed an enemy." Cesarani's detailed account leaves no doubt about Eichmann's initiative, zeal and genuine fanaticism in the pursuit of extermination.

Eichmann is a significant contribution to the growing body of work that stresses that practitioners of genocide come from the ranks of normal, ordinary people. In adopting this position, Cesarani undoubtedly "humanises" Eichmann (he is neither monster nor robot). But this is not an exculpatory account. Cesarani leaves no doubt Eichmann was a deadly criminal, "a knowing and willing accomplice to genocide".

Cesarani's larger aim is to discredit interpretations that explain genocide by reference to specific political systems, particular personality types or models of modernity. What really matters are the pernicious effects of processes that dehumanise the "other" and disable inhibitions against killing.

"Anyone subject to these processes," he writes, "might have behaved in the same way, be it in a totalitarian state or a democracy."

The disturbing implication of Cesarani's analysis is that no society can consider itself immune from the danger of perpetrating genocide; there are no built-in protections. Eichmann, Cesarani concludes, is Everyman: "Everyman as genocidaire."

Steven Welch teaches modern German history at the University of Melbourne.


October 8, 2005

Non fiction
reviewed by ross leckie

EICHMANN: His Life and Crimes
by David Cesarani
Vintage, £9.99
£8.99 (free p&p)

We have no word for it in English. German too must circumlocute. It took the genocide in Rwanda, some 50 years after the subject of this book epitomised the idea, for the French to coin the word génocidaire. Otto Adolf Eichmann, “a metonym for. . . the mass murder of the Jews”, was responsible for transporting more than two million Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz and other camps. This is his story.

Cesarani’s telling is flat, factual. The prose is emotionless, and almost bland. That is as well, for in the face of these truths anything more would be too much to bear. This is a long book, thoroughly researched and carefully argued. The case against Eichmann is marshalled inexorably, and that rising calm is as terrible as the silence at Jerusalem’s memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Voshem.

The big question is: why? Previous explanations cast Eichmann as a psychopath at best. The horror of this account comes from its proposition of Eichmann as an ordinary, balanced man who simply put his prewar training in transport and logistics to the Führer’s use. Educated and reasonable, emotion for Eichmann was to call someone who opposed him “ein alter Scheissack”, (“an old shitbag”). But all the time he was pursuing a “cosmic enemy, a fantastic concoction”. For him, Jews were “a virus in human form”. In Kosovo, let alone Rwanda, genocide has blighted mankind again. Behind it are génocidaires. Like Eichmann, are they everyman?


On Point, February 8

February 8, 2005


In defending his use of the term "little Eichmanns" for those who died on 9/11 in the Twin Towers, Professor Ward Churchill has on more than one occasion explained that Eichmann was a "bureaucrat" or "technocrat." "He's everyman," said Churchill. "There's nothing special about Eichmann."

Oh, no? In fact, Adolf Eichmann was an energetic killer whose commitment to the Final Solution was emphatic. As Professor David Cesarani, an expert in Jewish history at Britain's Southampton University, has written, Eichmann routinely "belabored officials" who procrastinated in rounding up Jews, making "numerous interventions to prevent a single Jew being exempted from the transports."

For that matter, according to Cesarani, "In March 1944, after German forces invaded Hungary, he travelled to Budapest with a special task force and personally directed the plunder, ghettoisation, and deportation of over 437,000 Jews in the space of eight weeks, most of whom were murdered on arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau. . . . He even defied his chief, Himmler, who at the end of 1944 finally commanded the killing to stop."

True, Eichmann's hatred of Jews seems to have been cold and impersonal, but it was a profound hatred nevertheless. And Professor Churchill to the contrary, that hatred - and the actions it inspired - made Eichmann special indeed.


Professor emeritus Edward Alexander of the University of Washington writes to say he has figured out Ward Churchill's motto. It is "the other country, right or wrong."



Published 01-02-2002

Adolf Eichmann: The Mind of a War Criminal

By Professor David Cesarani

Adolf Eichmann systematically applied the logistics of commerce to the annihilation of Jews during the Holocaust. David Cesarani examines the mind of a Nazi war criminal

Early influences

Adolf Eichmann was born in 1906 in Solingen, a small industrial city in the Rhineland. His father was an accountant with a local power company, but was assigned to a superior posting in Linz, Austria, in 1913. Eichmann and his five siblings followed. In 1916 his mother died and his father quickly remarried. Eichmann senior was an active member of the Evangelical Church and his son remained in the faith until 1937, long after most SS men broke with religion.

Eichmann was very much under his father's influence, and older male authority figures would continue to mould his life. Nevertheless, he did not work hard or do well at school and left without any qualifications. His father, who had meanwhile started an oil-extraction business, gave him a job. Eichmann worked on the surface and in underground oil-shale tunnels before moving to an apprenticeship with an electrical engineering firm. In 1927 his father used family contacts to get him a job with another oil company.

Little attention has been paid to Eichmann's work experience, but it had a significant bearing on his career in the SS. Eichmann was adept at learning practical skills on the job, under the tutelage of seniors he respected. While he continued to live at home, he ranged over Upper Austria selling oil products, locating sites for petrol stations, and setting them up. He also arranged kerosene deliveries. On Saturday he conscientiously completed his paperwork and reported to his superiors.

Eichmann did well and was transferred to the Salzburg district. But by 1933 he had tired of the job and, anyway, was laid off. He had learned a lot, though: how to identify prime sites at communication junctions, how to timetable and organise deliveries, how to sell a product and persuade people to do your bidding. After he was made redundant he went north to Germany, partly in search of work but mainly in fulfilment of a new passion: politics.

Drawn to the Nazis

During his trial he pretended to be apolitical, but Eichmann came from a strongly German nationalist family. Like many Germans his father lost his wealth during the post-war economic crisis and had the embittering experience of starting all over again. He enrolled his son in the Wandervogel youth movement which, while ostensibly apolitical, was strongly imbued with völkisch ideas about the Heimat (homeland). Later, Eichmann joined the Linz branch of the Heimschutz, a right wing paramilitary association of army veterans. He considered joining a Masonic club that recommended itself to him because it excluded Jews.

Instead, in April 1932, he joined the Nazi party. At the instigation of the local gauleiter, who knew his family, he attended a Nazi rally and was approached by an SS man called Ernst Kaltenbrunner, whose father had business dealings with Eichmann senior. Kaltenbrunner must have known that Eichmann was ripe for the party because he told him: 'You belong to us'. Eichmann combined commerce with activism in the Austrian SS until 1933, when the party was outlawed and Kaltenbrunner arranged for him to go to Germany. He spent some time at an SS training centre and with an exiled Austrian SS unit before he was posted to Dachau concentration camp. From there he applied to join the SD, the Nazi Party Security Service, and was accepted for work at one of its Berlin branches.

Eichmann claimed that he joined the SD by error, but it suited his talents. He worked as a clerk in the section that monitored Freemasons before he was spotted by the head of the Jewish section of the SD, Edler von Mildenstein, who became his next 'mentor'.

The Jewish question

Von Mildenstein took a special interest in Zionism and Jewish emigration to Palestine as a solution to Germany's 'Jewish Question'. He encouraged Eichmann to study Jewish society and history so as better to understand the Jewish enemy. Eichmann excelled and earned a series of promotions, but the SD was a minor part of the SS machine at this time and its Jewish section was a backwater. Other departments of the Third Reich set the pace regarding policy on the Jews. Eichmann rose to prominence in this field only because from the mid 1930s the SD under Reinhardt Heydrich targeted Jewish issues and built a reputation as a centre for clear, scientific thinking on race.

While rabble-rousers like Joseph Goebbels railed against the Jews, and called for ever harsher but directionless measures against them, the SD quietly promoted Jewish emigration. To this end Eichmann contacted Zionist envoys and even made a visit to Palestine in 1937.

This trip, aborted after one day, revealed the true extent of his sympathy for Zionism: he warned the SD that it would be foolish to promote a strong Jewish state. Instead, it should encourage Jewish emigration to backward countries where they would live in poverty. Soon after he completed this mission, Eichmann was assigned to the SD in Vienna.

Business practice

In March 1938, Germany occupied Austria and a reign of terror broke over the Austrian Jews. Eichmann was given the task of accelerating Jewish emigration and easing the numerous bottlenecks through which aspiring emigrants had to pass. Eichmann used business practice to create order. He surveyed the relevant agencies and ordered them to locate their offices in one place. He ordered the creation of a central Jewish organisation so that he would have leaders with whom to negotiate, and allowed Zionist organisations to operate. Money was extracted from well off Jews to fund the emigration of the mass of poor Jews.

Finally, he established an 'assembly line' system whereby a Jew could up at the Central Emigration Office with his papers and proceed from desk to desk until he arrived at the end, with a passport and an exit visa but stripped of his property, cash and rights. Within a few months, the office had emigrated 150,000 Jews.

After this triumph, Eichmann was ordered to set up a similar office in occupied Prague, and in October 1939 was appointed to Department IV D 4 of the Gestapo in Berlin, which handled emigration from the Reich. The rational 'Jewish policy' advocated by the SD men now held sway, but emigration opportunities were few and Germany had just acquired over a million more Jews in conquered Poland. Eichmann explored a fresh option: deporting the Jews to a designated Jewish territory. He travelled to Poland to identify an appropriate location and then ordered that thousands of Czech and Viennese Jews be rounded up and sent eastwards to lay the basis for this 'territorial solution'.

Within a few months, however, the plan was scrapped. Eichmann's office lacked the resources for it and other SS projects had preference. At the same time he was brutally evicting hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews to make way for ethnic Germans transplanted from Eastern Europe into the newly annexed areas of the Reich. As a temporary measure the displaced Jews were packed into ghettos, but where would they go eventually? After the fall of France, Eichmann took up a plan emanating from the German Foreign Office to ship four million European Jews to Madagascar. He devoted great energy and research skills to the scheme, but it too foundered.

The Final Solution

When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 an expectation swept through the agencies responsible for Jewish affairs. It was anticipated that soon Jews could be transported to the east and dumped there. Meanwhile, mobile killing units, Einsatzgruppen, swept across Russia slaughtering Jews who were deemed Bolshevik enemies. Eichmann had little to do with this, but in the summer his office (now designated IV B 4 and, significantly, no longer concerned with emigration) was called upon to investigate ways to dispose of 'unwanted' Jews.

By this time decisions had already been taken to murder those Jews in the Polish ghettos who were not deemed capable of work. Eichmann was advised to check on how it was being done. Over a few months he saw gassing operations at Chelm, mass shootings in Minsk, and visited Auschwitz. He prepared the ground for the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, at which Heydrich secured the co-operation of the various departments of state, the Nazi party and the SS in the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question'.

Eichmann later claimed that he was shocked to hear that 'evacuation to the east' meant death, but the concurrence of high-ranking officials absolved him of responsibility and guilt. It is hard to reconcile this with the zeal he devoted to organising the registration, expropriation, rounding up and deportation of Jews from Germany, Austria, France, Holland, Belgium, Slovakia, Greece, Italy and, above all, from Hungary to the death camps. He sent out trusted assistants to make the local arrangements, chivvied them if they did not make fast enough progress, and belaboured officials who prevaricated or objected. He made numerous interventions to prevent a single Jew being exempted from the transports.

In March 1944, after German forces invaded Hungary, he travelled to Budapest with a special task force and personally directed the plunder, ghettoisation, and deportation of over 437,000 Jews in the space of eight weeks, most of whom were murdered on arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau. When, under international pressure, the Hungarian regime stopped the deportations he circumvented its orders and dispatched a last trainload to the gas chambers. He even defied his chief, Himmler, who at the end of 1944 finally commanded the killing to stop.

Tape recordings

In hiding in Argentina in the mid 1950s, Eichmann recorded on tape his recollections of these final days. 'I called my men into my Berlin office ... and formally took leave of them. 'If it has to be', I told them, 'I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals.' This statement gives a clue to how Eichmann's mind worked. The Jews were the enemy. He had nothing against them personally, but in war the enemy has to be destroyed. Eichmann did not kill a single Jew with his own hands and he was often courteous towards Jewish leaders who did his bidding. Yet he could also be abusive and violent: as his power burgeoned and his bourgeois inhibitions were eroded, he became increasingly coarse.

Even so, Eichmann was not the central, demonic figure of the Nazi regime he was made out to be in his trial, and as he has become in popular memory. He did not make any key decisions on Jewish policy and at no point before mid 1941 could he have known where it was leading. The genocide was set in motion by others and at first proceeded independently from his office.

That he committed atrocities before then is beyond doubt, and there is no disputing the fact that he became an accomplice to a widening circle of mass murder that he helped to sustain with all his might. What makes his crimes so chilling is that they were not preordained by any evident pathology or inbuilt racism. Eichmann learned to hate, and to hate in a controlled and impersonal way. He applied business methods to the handling of human beings who, once they had been dehumanised, could be treated no differently from cargoes of kerosene. In his mind there was little difference between setting up a petrol station or a death camp.

Find out more


Final Solution : Origins and Implementation edited by David Cesarani (Routledge, 1997)

The Holocaust : A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War by Martin Gilbert (Henry Holt, 1987)

The Nazis: A Warning from History by Laurence Rees and Ian Kershaw (New Press, 1999)


PBS [http://www.pbs.org/eichmann/] : This site features information on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, including quotations, activities and details of the trial proceedings.

Imperial War Museum [http://www.iwm.org.uk/] : The website features an online exhibition [http://www.iwm.org.uk/lambeth/holoc-ex1.htm] telling the story of the Nazis' persecution of the Jews and other groups before and during the Second World War.

About the author

Professor David Cesarani is Professor of 20th century Jewish history and culture at Southampton University. He is director of the AHRB Parkes Centre for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, and a member of the Home Office Holocaust Memorial Day Strategic Group.

Related Links


            A View of the Holocaust - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwtwo/holocaust_overview_01.shtml

            Is Forgiveness Possible? A Jewish Perspective - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwtwo/forgive_01.shtml

           Churchill and the Holocaust - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwtwo/churchill_holocaust_01.shtml

          The Vichy Policy on Jewish Deportation - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwtwo/jewish_deportation_01.shtml