The Liar: The Four Personas of Adolf Eichmann

By Tom TeicholzApril 18, 2015

Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer by Bettina Stangneth

LIKE A FOSSIL preserved in amber, Adolf Eichmann has become fixed in popular memory as “The Man in the Glass Booth,” the Nazi kidnapped in Argentina to stand trial in Jerusalem. Although it was the Israeli District Court judges in the case, Moshe Landau, Benjamin Halevi, and Yitzhak Raveh who would pass judgment and sentence Eichmann to death, Hannah Arendt delivered the phrase that would entomb Eichmann, as the personification of “the Banality of Evil.”

This phrase, divorced from the totality of Arendt’s reporting, has come to signify Eichmann as a bureaucrat in the Nazi machinery of extermination — a paper-pusher who tried to avoid responsibility by claiming he was only following orders, and whose focus on the efficiency of mass murder placed him at a remove from the individual crimes or as German philosopher Bettina Stangneth put it: “an ordinary man who was turned into a thoughtless murderer by a totalitarian regime.”

Since Eichmann’s capture in 1961, several shelves worth of books about Eichmann have appeared, including tomes by Isser Harel, the then Israeli Mossad Intelligence chief; Zvi Aharoni and Peter Malkin, members of the Israeli abduction team; Gideon Hausner and Gabriel Bach, the Israeli prosecutors; as well as by Nazi hunters Simon Wiesenthal and Tuviah Friedman. Eichmann figures in books, documentaries, and films about the Wannsee Conference; the deportation of Hungarian Jewry to Auschwitz; about his dealings in Budapest with Jewish leaders Joel Brand and Rudolf Kasztner, as well as with Swedish diplomat and rescuer Raoul Wallenberg; and about his apprehension in Argentina and trial in Jerusalem. Yet Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann has most permeated popular opinion even among those who never read her book.

In Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer Bettina Stangneth quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau to effect that “in every assumption that leads to injustice, two parties are always involved: the person making the claim, and all others who believe him.” A philosopher based in Hamburg, Stangneth challenges Arendt’s view of Eichmann arguing that we should not just take Eichmann at his word, we should examine his words to understand his lies.

In the course of her persuasive work, Stangneth reviews Eichmann’s writings going back to 1937, publications about Eichmann by his contemporaries, and a number of other sources, some just recently available: the extensive trove of “Argentina Papers” which include Eichmann’s own attempts at autobiography; the Sassen interviews, some 1,300 pages transcribing more than 60 tapes Dutch Nazi collaborator Willem Sassen made with Eichmann in Argentina, some annotated by Sassen and some in Eichmann’s own hand; the transcripts of Eichmann’s interrogations while in captivity in Buenos Aires; his interrogations in Jerusalem and his writings during the trial and after, including another attempt at autobiography (which was published in Israel in 2000), and his last letters to his family.

As Stangneth points out, although some of this material has been hidden or not fully accessible to the public until recently and was dispersed across several archives, none of it is new. Until Stangneth’s work, though, the entire corpus of Eichmann’s dissembling had not been reviewed and subjected to any systematic study. Stangneth doesn’t just share her findings; she takes on the role of dogged and opinionated investigator telling us the story of every archival revelation.

Stangneth’s book is not a chronological account of Eichmann’s life and crimes but rather something more radical — an account of how Eichmann tailored what he said based on his audience and what others said about him, a man caught between self-aggrandizement and calculated evasions, using lies for both, all in the service of being Adolf Eichmann. What emerges corrects Arendt and others’ reading of Eichmann, letting us see Eichmann’s active participation in the mass deportations and murder of Jewish men, women, and children, his personal responsibility for the murders, and his fanatical anti-Semitism.

From this compendium of Eichmann information, one can delineate four distinct chapters to Eichmann’s life. In the first, Eichmann is eager to be noticed, as a member of the Gestapo, of the SD (the Security Division) in Vienna in charge of Jewish emigration from Austria. In becoming a self-professed expert on Jewish affairs, Eichmann allowed others to believe that he was born in Sarona, a German colony in Palestine (rather than in Germany), that he spoke and could read Hebrew and Yiddish (he memorized a few expressions), that he was knowledgeable about Jewish law and ritual, and was familiar with Jewish leaders (he would drop the names of Jabotinsky or Weizmann for effect). Eichmann made much of a 1937 trip to Palestine (where in fact he was only allowed to spend 48 hours in Haifa before being expelled by the British), and traveled to Cairo, where he intended to meet with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (he didn’t then, but he would meet him briefly at a reception in Berlin during the war). The plan to transfer Jews to Madagascar is often attributed to Eichmann, but that too is a lie he encouraged.

Eichmann quickly realized that Jewish affairs were dear to the Nazi leadership and by promoting himself as an expert in dealing with Jewish communities he brought himself into the Nazi elite and into contact with Himmler, Göring, and Goebbels. Eichmann oversaw the forced emigration of Jews from Prague, from Romania, as well as the expulsion of Jews from Szczecin, Posen, and Berlin. Eichmann became known as a creative problem solver — if by “problem” one meant “Jews.” So much so that when at the Wannsee Conference Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich was tasked with planning a final solution to the Jewish question, Eichmann was a natural to implement it. He traveled to Chelmno to see the mobile gassing vans and to Auschwitz to see the murders of Jews there. Years later in Argentina, Eichmann would actually claim to Sassen that he coined the term “Final Solution.” Yet at his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann would claim that he was merely the secretary appointed to take notes at the meeting.

In Budapest Eichmann’s second chapter began. In a period of some four months in 1944, Eichmann presided over the deportation of more than 420,000 Jewish men, women, and children to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be murdered. Years later, in Argentina, Eichmann gloated that it “was actually an achievement that was never matched before or since.”

Budapest was Eichmann at his most powerful and most deluded. At his trial, Eichmann claimed his negotiations with Budapest’s Jewish leaders such as Rudolf Kasztner and Joel Brand showed that he was working to save Hungarian Jewry, and this has led others to castigate Kasztner and Brand for failing so spectacularly. However, in Argentina Eichmann spoke freely of how he toyed with Kasztner and Brand, his hatred for “that Jewish dog Wallenberg,” and how he never had any intention other than to distract Hungarian Jewry from their imminent demise.

At the Nuremberg trials, Nazi associates such as Dieter Wisliceny and Kurt Becher, in trying to exonerate themselves, indicted Eichmann as being “out of control,” habitually boasting of his personal ties to Himmler, and fanatically pursuing deportations of ever more Jews (even after Himmler ordered him to stop), as well as being drunk much of the time. Eichmann had a different explanation: “As my chief [Gestapo Commander] Mueller expressed it, they were sending in [to Hungary] the master himself, so I wanted to behave like a master.” Mueller would comment: “If we had 50 Eichmanns, we would have won the war.” Wisliceny would testify at the Nuremberg trial that Eichmann’s conscience was clear and that Eichmann told him “he would follow his Führer anywhere, even into death […] he would leap laughing into the pit, because millions of [murdered] Jews would be lying there.”

Eichmann even turns out to be source for estimating the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis as six million. Nazi Wilhelm Höttl testified at the Nuremberg trial that Eichmann had estimated that four million Jews were murdered in the camps, and two million were murdered by the German Einsatzgruppen. This was repeated in Kasztner’s affidavit, and the media seized upon this number and the phrase, “The Murder of Six Million Jews.”

Eichmann’s third chapter begins at war’s end. As Stangneth documents in great and convincing detail, Eichmann had planned his escape well in advance, preparing false identities. So if he indeed told Wisliceny he was ready to follow the Führer “even into death,” he was lying. He spent the first few months after the war as Otto Eckmann, in an American POW camp. From there, he escaped and assumed another identity as Otto Heninger, establishing himself in Northern Germany where he lived peaceably for the next five years. Eichmann had even created a false trail that led many to believe he had fled the country to the Middle East, taking up residence in either Cairo or Damascus, under the protection of the Grand Mufti.

In 1947, Eichmann’s wife, Vera, applied to have her husband declared dead. When Simon Wiesenthal got wind of this, he raised such a protest that what had been an attempt to further Eichmann’s deception only ignited worldwide interest in finding him. As Stangneth notes, the problem Eichmann faced in Germany was twofold: he could not get the recognition he sought for being Eichmann, even as being Eichmann proved to be an increasing danger.

In 1950, Eichmann followed a pre-established escape route for Nazi criminals, making his way to Genoa where, as Ricardo Klement, he received a visa and boarded a boat for Buenos Aires, Argentina. Stangneth tells us: “A chain of German helpers, Argentine public officials, Austrian border guards, Italian records offices, the Red Cross, men from Vatican circles, and influential shipping magnates allowed people to escape.” Eichmann’s short-term visa for Argentina came from Horst Carlos Fuldner, a people smuggler who had Argentine leader Perón’s blessing. In 1948 in the same South Tyrol city, identity papers were issued to Eichmann, Josef Mengele (Auschwitz’s sadistic “Angel of Death”), and Ludolf von Alvensleben (Himmler’s adjutant). In 1962, Eichmann would express gratitude to “the organization” for providing safe haven for him and his family in Argentina.

Years after his arrival, Eichmann explained the appeal of Argentina: “I knew that in this ‘promised land’ of South America I had a few good friends, to whom I could say openly, freely and proudly that I am Adolf Eichmann, former Obersturmbannfürhrer” — a rank equivalent to lieutenant colonel. Years later he would recall his feeling upon arrival in Argentina. “My heart was filled with joy. The fear that someone could denounce me had vanished. I was there, and in safety.”

Argentina and Buenos Aires proved quite hospitable to former Nazis. Eichmann was reunited with, among others, Hans Fischböck (the Nazi’s finance minister in Austria), von Alvensleben, Eduard Roschmann (who commanded Riga’s ghetto), Nazi officials Berthold Heilig, Herbert Hagel, Erich Rajakowitsch (in charge of the deportations of Jews in the Netherlands under Eichmann’s command), Josef Schwammberger (commander of camps in the Krakow district), and the infamous Mengele.

In 1952, Vera Eichmann applied for a passport and travel visa for her and her three sons to Argentina. For this reason alone, the German government should have known that Eichmann was in Argentina (and perhaps did). Stangneth demonstrates the ways in which German authorities and even Israeli investigators should have known where Eichmann was, and their possible agendas in not wanting him found (such as potential embarrassment to Germany, or a reminder of the Nazi past). However, Eichmann’s carefully constructed false trails to the Middle East, and rumors of his death or suicide, also kept authorities at bay.

Stangneth demolishes the notion perpetuated in Eichmann films and accounts of his apprehension that Eichmann lived as some sort of impoverished recluse in Argentina. Not only was Eichmann reunited with his wife and three children, they had another son born in Argentina, an event Eichmann saw as a victory against his enemies. He was not exactly incognito: in Buenos Aires, Eichmann would recall, he “made the acquaintance of President Perón, who always had time for us Germans.” Throughout his time in Argentina, Eichmann was consistently given work by German companies. At the time of his capture, Eichmann was working for a Mercedes Benz company and had built a home for his family on a plot of land he had purchased in a suburb of Buenos Aires.

In Argentina, Eichmann was unafraid of speaking out. As Stangneth notes, “Eichmann’s urge to speak had always been greater than his sense of caution.” He spoke to his fellow workers out in Tucumán, at gatherings of Nazi sympathizers in Buenos Aires, in taped conversations with Sassen, and in voluminous manuscripts he produced.

In Eichmann’s writings and taped monologues in Argentina, he speaks with a greater passion and greater confidence than the whiny voice he would adopt in Jerusalem. Eichmann believed deeply in the Nazi ideology of blood and race. He saw himself as sort of a new man, unsentimental, not tied to religion, conventional morality (feeling guilt, he said, was childish), uninterested in the trappings of personal wealth (although he enjoyed them during his Nazi service). The German race, or as he called it, “my blood,” was the cause he served.

Eichmann claimed that it was Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Jews who had forced Germany to invade Poland by Weizmann’s “interference,” and that this necessitated the Final solution. The Nazis were fighting a “total war” against the enemy (i.e., the Jews) that demanded victory by any means necessary — the Jews would do anything, so the Nazis could do anything. It was a blood war, Eichmann said, in which there was no “double standard.” Eichmann and his fellow Nazis did no wrong and could not be guilty because, Eichmann said, both sides committed atrocities. Eichmann’s “inner morality” was not troubled by his actions because he was being loyal to his blood and to the Reich.

As late as 1956, Eichmann considered surrendering to Germany through an open letter to Konrad Adenauer, in order to speak the truth of the Nazi era, assuming that he would only receive a four- to six-year sentence such as other prominent Nazis had received.

Eichmann devoured books about the Holocaust, and kept himself apprized of the Kasztner case, reading Joel Brand’s book as well as the Kasztner report. Stangneth argues that Eichmann’s goal was not greater understanding but rather to find weaknesses he could exploit when constructing his own narrative (and later, his defense).

Eichmann was constantly writing. Early in his Nazi service, Eichmann claimed to have written a book on implementing The Final Solution, which he said had to be destroyed before war’s end. He also claimed to have begun writing a memoir immediately after the war, in Northern Germany, which he professed to have burned before leaving. In Argentina, he wrote a 260-page manuscript to explain himself to his family, which remains in their possession, as well as a 107-page draft autobiography called The Others Spoke, Now I Want to Speak.

Stangneth makes much of the importance that Nazism placed on words and on books. Hitler, famously, launched Nazism with Mein Kampf. Stangneth writes:

National Socialism had a great — perhaps too great — respect for the power of the written word. People burn books only when they attribute power to them; in other words, because they fear them…. The National Socialists didn’t just rewrite history through their actions. From the outset theirs was also a cultural and literary project: they vilified the culture industry as “Jewish” and discredited whole branches of academia as “too much under foreign influence.” […] Sorting and burning books — as the Nazis went on to do with humans — was just the first step. The second was to care for the German race, and to found a Nazi culture and academic tradition…. This new culture was promoted by the self-proclaimed ideological elite, in particular the SD [to which Eichmann belonged]. The SD strove to be “creative” […] Eichmann’s work was shaped from the beginning by the production of texts.

In 1950s Argentina, Germans and Nazi sympathizers imagined the press was exaggerating when they wrote that six million Jews had been murdered in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Cocktail parties were held where Eichmann held forth in answer to their questions (and which were recorded). Sassen also interviewed Eichmann at length at his home, for a proposed book, even though Eichmann often appeared with his own manuscript.

In Argentina, Eichmann was uninhibited about the murders and his role in them. He told one assembly:

As a conclusion […] I must first tell you: I have no regrets! […] I balk inwardly at saying that we did anything wrong. No, I have to tell you quite honestly that if […] we had killed 10.3 million [Europe’s estimated total Jewish population], I would be satisfied, and would say, good, we have destroyed an enemy […] We would have fulfilled our duty.

Faced with the truth of the Holocaust, the Germans in Argentina eventually abandoned any hope of a resurgent National Socialist Party. The Peronists lost power in 1955, and Konrad Adenauer was reelected by a strong majority in Germany. In the latter half of the 1950s, the search for Nazi war criminals became more active. Germany issued arrest warrants. Even in Argentina where Eichmann had done little to conceal his identity, there was a change in attitude. Mengele, paranoid by nature, saw the writing on the wall and began to avoid Eichmann and moved on to greater anonymity in Paraguay and Brazil.

Eichmann stayed in Argentina, unwilling to stop receiving recognition for being Eichmann; which led inexorably to his apprehension. From the moment of his capture on the street before his house on May 11, 1960, Eichmann began to craft his defense. This is the fourth chapter in Eichmann’s life, the final persona he created, which Arendt would dismiss so definitively.

By the time Eichmann, who was himself well versed in interrogation techniques, found himself in the glass booth in Jerusalem, he had had many, many years of preparing answers and monologues. He had read much of the extant literature and knew which facts were most malleable and where doubt might best be practiced. In Israel, Eichmann put the past behind him, assured that his Argentine papers would not haunt him, and secure that those who might challenge his versions were for the great part either dead or never going to set foot in a court in Israel.

Eichmann wrote constantly in Israel, constructing a new narrative for himself, claiming that his whole life had been guided by the principles of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative — so while Nazism may have been morally repugnant to him, he was following a greater law, which was obeisance to the Reich. Eichmann argued that no one could judge him guilty by applying a system of morality that is different than the one he was operating under during the war. Arendt was not impressed.

When Stangneth’s book was first published in Germany in 2011, much of the attention in the German press was directed at Stangneth’s claims that Germany knew, or should have known, about Eichmann’s whereabouts as early as 1952. Eichmann was not apprehended until the Israelis did so in 1960 because, as a January 2011 article in Der Spiegel put it, “Germany was unready and unwilling to put him on trial.”

Here, in the United States, since the book’s September 2014 publication, most of the discussion has not been about Eichmann but rather about Arendt, and whether “Eichmann in Jerusalem” was “right” or “wrong.” So much so, that a New York Times blog post by Seyla Benhabib of Yale University asked: “Who’s on trial, Eichmann or Arendt?”

Arendt’s chronicle of the Eichmann trial as first published in The New Yorker offended many because she departed from coverage of the trial itself to judge harshly the behavior of Jewish leaders in the ghettos and the camps which, to her many critics over the years, seemed at best misguided and not relevant to Eichmann’s guilt, and at worst a misplaced transference of Jewish self-loathing complicated by her relationship with Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger and the horror of what those Jews who remained in Europe during the Holocaust did to survive.

As for Eichmann himself, Arendt adjudged him not special in any way: not particularly smart or educated; he had no substantial accomplishments prior to his Nazi service; was physically slight of build with a whiny voice and spoke in tortured circumlocutions of circular logic. Eichmann, Arendt wrote, had a weak understanding of philosophy and the obedience issue. Arendt concluded that “the banality” of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism and the “thoughtlessness” of his allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi regime’s victory allowed him to perpetrate genocide.

According to Stangneth, what Arendt failed to grasp was that Eichmann wanted his “audience” to believe that poorly or not, he was a person of conscience who was obeying orders out of a misplaced loyalty. Stangneth points out that each of Eichmann’s captors and interrogators would later report that they believed that they were important figures to Eichmann. Eichmann had flattered them into believing so. “Again and again,” Stangneth writes, “Eichmann and his texts led people to false conclusions.”

As Arendt did not have access, as Stangneth has, to the full texts of Eichmann’s Argentine papers, interviews, and his jailhouse writings, she could not know that Eichmann derided conscience during war as a lie, and any expression of remorse, “cheap hokum,” or that Eichmann was an ideologue whose credo placed him beyond philosophy in “total war.”

Arendt’s defenders such as Benhabib in The Times, Roger Berkowitz in The New York Review of Books, and Kazue Koishikawa on Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center blog explain that Arendt’s use of “thoughtlessness” in no way minimized Eichmann’s guilt, and that, in fact, Arendt had acknowledged Eichmann’s personal responsibility for the murders. Instead, they argue, Arendt meant to explain Eichmann’s lack of conscience for his acts — that what allowed Eichmann to commit mass murder was his lack of a conscience, which was itself a failure of thoughtfulness, of Eichmann’s insufficient ability to think.

Arendt wasn’t wrong about any of this; but the persona Eichmann presented in Jerusalem and in his writings was purposely dissembling. What Stangneth demonstrates is that what matters most is not what Arendt or anyone else thought about Eichmann in Jerusalem, but rather what Eichmann thought of Eichmann. The truth of Eichmann is to be found in the totality of his words, in the various truths he proffered and, most tellingly, in his lies.

Eichmann left about 8,000 pages from his time in Jerusalem. His last words to his wife on his way to the gallows were: “I have peace in my heart and this is proof to me that my belief is correct.” Eichmann’s final words, delivered in German were:

After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. I have lived believing in God and I die believing in God. Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the countries with which I have been most closely associated and shall not forget them. I had to obey the rules of war and my flag. I am ready.

Eichmann would have had us believe he was nothing more than a patriot and an officer who served country and cause in wartime. Eichmann may have not been exceptional, but his fanatical anti-Semitism was criminal and his enthusiastic participation in the murder of so many millions of innocent Jewish men, women, and children, placed him outside the circle of normative human behavior. Eichmann died a criminal’s death and the stain of his being was erased from the Earth: he was cremated and his ashes dumped into the Mediterranean. Thanks to Stangneth, we now know better the full extent of his evil. For as Stangneth put it: “A man who wears so many masks is always tempted to reveal who he is.”


Tom Teicholz is a contributor to and The Huffington Post.

LARB Contributor

Tom Teicholz is a contributor to Forbes and The Huffington Post.


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