- Did Eichmann Think?
“Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,” is the new English translation of Bettina Stangneth’s exhaustive history of the life of Adolf Eichmann. Her book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to try to understand Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi lieutenant colonel who was responsible for the logistics of the Holocaust.
Stangneth has pieced together the scattered transcripts of the interviews Eichmann gave with the Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen in multiple archives; she has tracked down full essays and fragments of Eichmann’s own writing in mislabeled files that have never been considered before; and above all, she has pieced together the written record of Eichmann’s life with a diligence and obsessiveness that is uncanny and likely never to be repeated. Stangneth knows more about Adolf Eichmann than any other person alive and probably more than any person in history, past or future.
Stangneth writes that her book has two aims. The first is “to present all the available material, as well as the challenges that come with it.” The second is to engage in a “dialogue with Hannah Arendt, and not simply because I first came to this topic many years ago through Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Stangneth traces her interest in Eichmann to Arendt’s book, a book that in Stangneth’s words, “had the courage to form a clear judgment, even at the risk of knowing too little.” Her plunge into the depths of Eichmann’s soul is an effort to reckon with power and provocation of Arendt’s judgment.
Stangneth goes to great lengths to praise Arendt in interviews and in her writing, citing Arendt as an inspiration and model for fearless and [End Page 193] critical thinking about difficult and horrible events. In the end, however, Stangneth concludes that as brilliant as Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial is, Arendt herself was mistaken in her characterization of Eichmann as banal: “one of the most significant insights to be gained from studying Adolf Eichmann is reflected in Arendt: even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.” In other words, Arendt expected Eichmann to be thoughtless; in concluding that he was banal, she was fooled by him.
One hardly recognizes Stangneth’s respectful and scholarly tone in the avalanche of reviews (already two in the New York Times) suggesting her book “shatters” Arendt’s argument. Not all reviewers are as bad as Richard Wolin’s effort in the Jewish Review of Books. Wolin, who has spent a lifetime trying to discredit Arendt by tarring her to Nazis through her affair with Martin Heidegger, once again trots out the canard about Arendt of blaming the Jews for the Holocaust. He also claims that Arendt thought Eichmann not a criminal, citing an interview she gave to the journalist Jürgen Fest, in which she says: “[Eichmann] is a new type of criminal, I agree with you on that, though I’d like to qualify it. When we think of a criminal, we imagine someone with criminal motives. And when we look at Eichmann, he doesn’t actually have any criminal motives. Not what is usually understood by ‘criminal motives.’ He wanted to go along with the others. He wanted to say ‘we,’ and going-along with the rest and wanting-to-say-we like this were quite enough to make the greatest of all crimes possible. The Hitler’s, after all, really aren’t the ones who are typical in this kind of situation—they’d be powerless without the support of others.” Wolin reduces Arendt’s effort to explain how it is that Arendt is a new type of criminal without the usual criminal motives to the claim that “Eichmann had no criminal motives.”
Stangneth herself is more circumspect. Her dual claims are: first, Arendt did not have enough information available to her; and, second, that partly as a result of her lack of information, Arendt was fooled by Eichmann...