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  • Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer by Bettina Stangneth
  • Michael Kelly
Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, Bettina Stangneth (New York: Knopf, 2014), 608 pp., hardcover $35.00, paperback $18.00, electronic version available.

Eichmann Before Jerusalem is, of course, a titular homage to Hannah Arendt’s work Eichmann in Jerusalem. Bettina Stangneth seeks to tell the rest of the story—who Eichmann was, what he did, how he survived in hiding after the war. [End Page 141] Interestingly, she also tries to reconstruct how he thought of himself. While she succeeds remarkably on the former queries, her explanation on the last perhaps assumes too much. Any author who spends years with original material, as Stangneth did after the discovery of a previously unknown cache of documents and notes Eichmann produced while living in Argentina (p. xx), is bound to come to believe he or she is privy to the subject’s inner thoughts and motives.

This is fine, as long as this sense doesn’t enable unsupported explanations based solely on the author’s “ability” to know what the subject was thinking because she or he is so close to him. However, Stangneth succumbs to this urge via two routes. First, she ascribes emotional reaction. For example, when recounting Eichmann’s involvement with the Dürer Circle in Buenos Aires defending National Socialist ideas, she notes, “these media-savvy comrades could enable [Eichmann] to regain what he so desperately wanted: control over his place in history” (p. 182). She also substitutes her thoughts for those of Eichmann himself. Eichmann wrote, “Our happiness found its zenith through the birth of our fourth son. This meant more to me than just becoming a proud father. For me this was a symbol of freedom, and life triumphing over the powers that sought to destroy me” (p. 167). Stangneth responds:

The birth of a child as triumphal victory? Considering Eichmann’s circumstances in 1955, other concerns must have occupied his mind. … The pregnancy had numerous risk factors: this was the 1950s, and at forty-six, Vera Eichmann was very old to be having a child. She was also not in the best of health, having suffered from a severe bilious complaint for years. She was in a foreign country, with an unfamiliar health care system and a language she had not mastered. The father-to-be would have good reason to be worried (p. 167).

To some readers the author could be seen as projecting modern sensitivities onto a man of the 1950s: not only a Nazi, but also a murderer, narcissist, and philanderer. Why wouldn’t he see his child’s birth as more about him? Fortunately, aside from such lapses, Stangneth does an excellent job of recounting Eichmann’s story. Stangneth is much stronger on manifestations of underlying characteristics that explain Eichmann’s murderous tendencies, rather than reconstituting his thoughts.

Eichmann was a manipulator who considered each decision from the point of view of how much it might benefit him. Contrary to Arendt’s portrayal of him as a faceless cog in a gigantic machine, Stangneth more accurately describes Eichmann as a self-server who was at best an unrepentant Nazi and at worst an evildoer disturbingly proud of his horrific accomplishments. The Eichmann who emerges from Stagneth’s book is one unashamed to use any means to further his ends.

How his Israeli captors treated the accused bears this out. The prosecutorial team worried that Eichmann might attempt an insanity defense. Deputy Prosecutor Gabriel Bach sought to head off this possibility by sending “an anonymous copy of Eichmann’s evaluation along with evaluations of other people to a Swiss expert. In his [End Page 142] response, the expert said Eichmann’s psychiatric profile was that of a person with unprecedented murderous tendencies.”1

By far the most interesting part of Stangneth’s book is the account of Eichmann’s adjustment to life in Argentina. Fleshing out his new identity as “Ricardo Klement” while holding on to his rigid beliefs, and living a new lifestyle that was not frugal but certainly not lavish, proved easily achievable. As Stangneth observes, Adolf Eichmann...


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pp. 141-143
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