F E B R U A R Y 1 9 6 2
by Martha Gellhorn
THE bulletproof glass dock, shaped like the prow of a ship, sits a little man with a thin neck, high shoulders, curiously reptilian eyes, a sharp face, balding dark hair. He changes his glasses frequently, for no explicable reason. He tightens his narrow mouth, purses it. Sometimes there is a slight tic under his left eye. He runs his tongue around his teeth, he seems to suck his gums. The only sound ever heard from his glass cage is when -- with a large white handkerchief -- he blows his nose. People, coming fresh to this courtroom, stare at him. We have all stared; from time to time we stare again. We are trying, in vain, to answer the same question: how is it possible? He looks like a human being, which is to say he is formed as other men. He breathes, eats, sleeps, reads, hears, sees. What goes on inside him? Who is he; who on God's earth is he? How can he have been what he was, done what he did? How is it possible?
The normal reaction to a man alone, in trouble, is pity. One man, caught, held to account for his crime, one small creature, however odious his wrongdoing, becomes pitiful when faced by society in all its power. His loneliness compels pity. Yet this man in the dock arouses no such feeling, not once, not for an instant. Day after day he leans back in his chair, impassive, and listens to the testimony of men and women he tormented. Usually their words seem to weary him; sometimes there is a flicker of irritation, a frown. He comes awake only when documents are submitted in evidence, when he can shift the piles of folders on his desk, sort, search for a paper, make notes: the organization man at his chosen task. No single gesture, no passing expression of his face lays claim to our sympathy -- an emotion men feel for each other because they need it, they could not live together without it, they recognize themselves in each other. This man is exempt from our pity, as he was pitiless beyond the reaches of imagination. We cannot understand him because of this; and we fear him.
Discuss this article in the Community & Society forum of Post &
Return to Flashback: "Remembering Martha Gellhorn"
From the archives:
Two articles from 1946 consider the precedent set at Nuremberg fifty years ago.
We have cause for fear, and what we fear is deeper and stronger than the
tangible terrors we live with: menacing struggles between rival states, weapons
nature's own rights. We fear him because we know that he is sane. It would be a
great comfort to us if he were insane; we could then dismiss him, with horror,
no doubt, but reassuring ourselves that he is not like us, his machinery went
criminally wrong, our machinery is in good order. There is no comfort.
This is a sane man, and a sane man is capable of unrepentant, unlimited, planned evil. He was the genius bureaucrat, he was the powerful frozen mind which directed a gigantic organization; he is the perfect model of inhumanness; but he was not alone. Eager thousands obeyed him. Everyone could not have his special talents; many people were needed to smash a baby's head against the pavement before the mother's eyes, to urge a sick old man to rest and shoot him in the back of the head; there was endless work for willing hands. How many more like these exist everywhere? What produced them -- all sane, all inhuman?
We consider this man, and everything he stands for, with justified fear. We belong to the same species. Is the human race able -- at any time, anywhere -- to spew up others like him? Why not? Adolf Eichmann is the most dire warning to us all. He is a warning to guard our souls; to refuse utterly and forever to give allegiance without question, to obey orders silently, to scream slogans. He is a warning that the private conscience is the last and only protection of the civilized world.
For three months, documents and living witnesses, all tested and checked every inch of the way, have bound this man to the crimes he is accused of: murder in a manner and on a scale unknown in history, and murder for gain. The Jews of Europe were robbed of everything they owned before they were killed; after death, there was still more to be wrested from their bodies -- gold from their mouths, and occasionally in the slashed stomachs of corpses precious stones could be found, the pathetic last hope of buying safety somewhere. This vast plunder greatly enriched the Reich. Aside from the patriotic and spiritual uplift attendant upon murdering defenseless people, to kill Jews was profitable big business. The exact bookkeeping which accompanied the murders is the final loathsomeness. A man should be hanged only for stealing the shoes of children sent barefoot to their death in gas chambers. Their shoes had value, would be noted in a ledger, and shipped to Germany, to keep non-Jewish feet warm.
Eichmann, devotedly and tirelessly organizing the murders, stopping every bolt-hole, never too busy to say no to a plea for mercy, meticulously accounting for the plunder, is now recognized to be what he was: the man in charge of "Jewish Affairs," the executive responsible for destroying European Jewry. Since he was not unleashed on the rest of us, since we are safe in our bodies, surrounded by our possessions, we tend to forget that Eichmann despoiled us all. He robbed humanity of six million lives. Who were they? We know of some -- their names, light as leaves, float through the days of testimony: artists, scientists, teachers, musicians, jurists, saints. The innumerable others, members of a most gifted race, had no time to mold their raw material of brain and heart and spirit. The world needed what they had to give, as a shield against darkness; to avoid becoming the world this man tried to build. He stole those lives, from us all. The world will never know how much it lost, but will always be poorer.
The indictment of the Trial -- unique in history, as the crime is also unique -- is dated: Jerusalem, this fifth day of Adar, 5721. In the state of Israel, that is the usual way to date documents or official correspondence. More than two thousand years before Christ, the patriarchs of this ancient people were writing the history of their nation. Calculating the creation of the world, from Biblical data, they hit upon a year which coincides with 3760 B C as the basis for their chronology. In the year 5721, a Jewish Attorney General in the District Court of Jerusalem in the modern state of Israel rose and said: "When I stand before you here, O Judges of Israel, I do not stand alone. With me are six million accusers." Thus began the Trial of Adolf Eichmann.
AT THE beginning of this grave, scrupulous, heartbreaking Trial, the world's press attended: for a brief time the Trial was the brightest sensation the newspapers had to offer. Then a man, in a silver capsule, hurtled around the earth through outer space; there was other news; the Trial went on and on; people groaned in weariness; protested that the whole thing was useless -- how could one man pay for six million deaths, perhaps having a trial at all was a mistake; most likely it would only start up a wave of anti-Semitism.
I think this so shocking that I cannot find words for my indignation. The Trial was essential, to every human being now alive, and to all who follow us; and, despite its length, its carefulness, the Trial furnishes only a partial record -- for the scene of the crime was a whole continent, the victims were a whole nation, the methodical savages who committed the crimes were as clever as they were evil, ingenious, brilliant organizers, addicts to paperwork. This is the best record we and our descendants will ever have; and we owe the state of Israel an immeasurable debt for providing it. No one who tries to understand our times, now or in the future, can overlook this documentation of a way of life and death which will stain our century forever. No one will see the complete dimensions of twentieth-century man -- and that includes all of us, I insist -- without studying the Eichmann Trial.
Does it by any chance bore us to hear of the agony of a people? Deadness of imagination, deadness of heart are fatal diseases. Or are we afraid to know because we are afraid to examine our own consciences, our own responsibilities, and our immense selfishness? Do we possibly think that this Trial does not concern us -- it concerns European Jews and Germans; and in our blessed land, running over with milk shakes and jars of honey, no such thing could ever happen? The Jews are not a separate breed from the human race, and, alas, neither are the Germans. We are desperately involved, all of us, everywhere.
The massive destruction of innocent people, only because they were born Jews, happened in our lifetime. We must know everything about it; we must be able to recognize every symptom, every sign, to ensure that it never happens again -- under any other disguise -- to any people, anywhere. To turn away is as mad as turning away from cancer, saying that cancer is cruel, painful, unjust, and results in death. Anti-Semitism is cancer, and afflicts the weaker members of the human race. We have seen what Germany became, when the cancer cells multiplied, organized, gained control of the entire body politic. Not only Jews die; everything we believe in -- decency, justice, truth, mercy -- dies too. This Trial is meant for our education, and we are obliged to learn from it, for the safety and honor of our species.
ADMIRATION for the court grew, daily. The crimes covered twelve years in time. Some 2000 documents -- as thick as sheaves, or a single sheet -- were submitted, verified, numbered, accepted or rejected. Witnesses spoke Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Polish, English, more languages. It was visible torture for all the witnesses to speak; one wandered in his head, screamed something wordless but terrifying to hear, fainted, remembering Auschwitz. The audience was tense, still, straining forward to listen, until now and again a voice would cry out in despair; then the police silently led the disturber from the hall. The glaring light -- for the security of the prisoner, for the hidden television -- hurt the eyes. The air conditioning was too cold, and yet one sweated. Every day was more than the mind and heart could bear; and the Trial was kept running, always on time, always under quiet control. No lawyers or judges anywhere else have been presented with such a task or so dominated it. This is not intended as denigration of the Nuremberg Trials, which I also watched; but is intended, humbly, as praise of the coherence, the order, the absolute respect for rules of evidence, the courtesy, the shining justness of the Trial in Jerusalem.
An American educational foundation could render an immediate service by collecting the stenographic Hebrew reports of the Trial -- a paper mountain -- and translating them into accurate, clean English. The conduct of the Trial was in every way above criticism, but the Israelis could not invent translators who had an equal grasp of Hebrew and English. The English transcripts of the day's proceedings are often opaque if not incomprehensible. We need the volumes of the Trial, in good English, in all our libraries; and we need them now.
For two thirds of the Trial, the Prosecution piled up evidence of the black hell which stretched from the Urals to the Pyrenees, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, and was ruled by Adolf Eichmann. Random excerpts from the testimony may give some slight sense of the climate of a life we never knew. The Trial proceeded chronologically, country by country; two months after taking power in 1933, the Nazis were already hunting down the Jews in Germany.
Everywhere, the Jews were first deprived of all their rights as citizens, then of all their worldly goods, then marked with a yellow star and herded together in Ghettos, to starve and die of the diseases of hunger and filth, and finally, since none of this was quick enough, they were slaughtered in tens of thousands daily. Those who could work were used as slave labor; their death was delayed until they became useless from exhaustion. On the way, all along the way, they were beaten, maimed, and murdered at will. Their bodies were broken quickly and with skill; their spirit seems to have endured even inside the gas chambers. People, being asphyxiated by cyanide gas, no easy way to die, apparently still kept their humanity: for corpses of women were found crouched over their children, trying to the last to protect them, and men and women were found with their hands clasped in love.
Most of the witnesses were middle-aged; some looked older than they can have been; a few were young. There were men in business suits, with gold-rimmed glasses and tiepins, and men in short-sleeved open-necked shirts; women in tailored clothes, women in housedresses. Every one of them, in war, would have received medals for valor. Middle-aged and old men and women had represented the Jews and worked for their safety, stubbornly treating with the Germans, with Eichmann, and so had exposed themselves to special notice and wrath. Younger ones, bereft of their families, used and treated as animals with calculated cruelty, waiting their turn to die, nevertheless had risen against their murderers in doomed revolts. All of the witnesses were humble; none had anything much to say about his own life or acts. They were only reporting what they knew because they had seen and heard it, lived through it. They spoke of others.
An old lawyer, a German Jew, a Zionist leader who had been in prison "for insulting the Gestapo," tried to explain to the Court what life had been like for the Jews in Germany before the war. This was the first phase, when the Nazis were learning their trade, even Eichmann was learning. There was the ban against Jews as humanity -- no work with or for gentiles, no cafes, no transport, no theaters, no shops; Jewish musicians must not play the music of Bach and Brahms, though Mendelssohn was permitted; the books of great Jewish writers were burned, while mobs gloated loudly around the bonfires. Keep the Jew vermin away from the pure Aryan supermen. Boxes of ashes were returned from Dachau on payment of a fee. Synagogues were destroyed. Many of the hunted killed themselves while the rest searched frantically for a country to escape to. At this time, the Germans were merely driving these now penniless people to emigrate. The "Final Solution" is in part the fault of the Western world; the Germans saw the blank casualness of the democracies and decided that no one wanted Jews; Jews were a drug on the market; it did not matter what was done to Jews.
The old man cried out suddenly, "A planet without a visa!"
Here is the guilt of the free democracies. We ought never to forget it. In this, the United States must bear the heaviest share of blame. From 1933 to 1943, we opened our golden doors a miserly crack to admit 190,000 of the millions of doomed Jews. Great Britain? even harder hit by the Depression, small, so soon to be at war, bombed, rationed, quartering its Allies' soldiers on its overcrowded land, took in 68,000 refugee Jews. The comparison speaks for itself, though none of us has cause for self-congratulation.
LATER on, a brave old man, a German Christian, Pastor Grueber, spoke again in the same way. He had earned the right to speak; he helped the Jews in Germany openly; he believed the teachings of his Lord; and he paid for his faith by imprisonment in Dachau. After the pogroms organized by the Nazis throughout Germany in 1938, Pastor Grueber went to Switzerland to beg for more foreign visas for Jews: "All the official institutions, embassies, they did not reveal any understanding or interest in the lot of these Jews. Very often we came out of those places full of anger, not only full of shame at the lack of readiness to help.... May I be permitted to say that had these foreign countries at the time shown only a small percentage of the responsibility and interest being revealed now in the lot of refugees and displaced persons and immigrants, it would have been possible to save millions of souls?"
But he would not tell the court the name of a compatriot, now living in Germany, who had helped Jews during the Nazi regime. "I could bring to the Court a whole file of threats and derision which I received, especially in connection with my trip to Israel.... To me these things do not mean much . . . but I would not like to cause this suffering to others."
What is the sickness of Germany?
Pastor Grueber knew Eichmann well; he was often in Eichmann's office, pleading uselessly. "The impression he [Eichmann] made on me was that of a block of ice or marble, completely devoid of human feelings."
In hundreds, the Israelis wrote letters to thank and bless Pastor Grueber. For them, one good man redeemed a nation.
A Jew from Greece, a poor merchant, described what had happened in Salonika; he spoke in a wondering voice, as though hardly able to believe this story himself. Their fellow citizens, the Greeks of Salonika, were given carte blanche to take anything they wanted from Jewish shops, paying with a cynical IOU. And, alas, they did so, like locusts. The Jews, dispossessed of all they owned, were crowded into Ghettos, where typhus immediately raged; the Germans feared typhus. This man probably survived because the Germans were loath to winkle him out as he lay sick in his hole. The Germans, following their usual practice of deceit, told the Salonika Jews that now they were going to leave all this misery and be happily settled in Poland and live together in peace. With their last hoarded savings, the people bought worthless zlotys (the disgusting theme of robbery recurs again and again); moreover, they bought umbrellas, for surely it rained in Kraków, unlike the sunny land of Greece. Doubt as to their future must have come quickly when they found they were seventy-eight people packed into sealed freight cars meant to hold forty. This was the regulation number of "transport material," as the Germans called the Jews, to each goods wagon. The journey was very long; no freight car ever arrived without its load of dead. One can barely imagine the days and nights in those suffocating boxes, the thirst, the filth, the sickness, the fear, and the faces of the children. There had been 56,000 Jews in Salonika; afterwards there were 1950. This man had a mother, a father, a wife, four brothers, four sisters. "I remain alone," he said, and looked about him as if he did not know where he was.
Now there is a young man who grew up in the death camp of Treblinka. At the age of fourteen, separated from his mother, as was the custom at the entry to the concentration camp, he shouted to her where to write to him in Warsaw; his mother, of course, was sent straight to the gas chamber along what the Germans humorously called the "Himmelstrasse," the barbed-wire path to heaven. By his first night, the boy had understood this place and he tried to kill himself, but an old Jew saved him, telling him it was his duty to live and help others, and since he was young, he might have the strength to survive, and then it was his duty to tell the world.
The young man explained Treblinka in the voice we became used to: you could almost see muscles straining in the effort to speak clearly and calmly. Before 1943, the bodies from the gas chambers were pitchforked into ditches or dumped by a crane; after a visit from Himmler, the pyre system was adopted as more efficient. There were thirteen separate gas chambers, and once, in thirty-five minutes, 10,000 people were killed in them. He had many jobs, this child, from cutting off women's hair for mattress stuffing to pulling out the gold teeth of corpses. Then, one day he found his sister's corpse on the pile. (He took a very deep breath; he held himself rigid.) From these teeth, eight to ten kilos of gold were collected each week and shipped in suitcases to Berlin.
Behind me, in the public section of the courtroom, an old woman with a worn fine face, wearing a kerchief on her head and a newspaper around her shoulders, against the unaccustomed air cooling, wept -- without movement, without sound, and without stopping.
Another Polish Jew, an older workman, described Chelmno, a more primitive extermination camp, as it operated before the experiments in mass murder had reached Cyclon B, the cyanide crystals filtered into gas chambers disguised to look like shower rooms. At Chelmno, they still used trucks; gave the people a towel and a piece of soap, told them they were on their way to get a bath, see the doctor, receive fresh clothes, and start their new life. Then the sealed trucks were driven into a forest, and carbon monoxide was pumped into them. It was a slow death, wasted precious SS time, and killed too few people per truckload. Some Jews, of whom this man was one, were kept alive to dig the great trenches in which the corpses were buried; but this work gang was killed too, for sport, since the labor supply was not only unlimited but meant to be expended.
"Yes, forty of us were left -- forty-one. The others were killed. On Sundays there was no work, and we were placed in a row; each man had a bottle on his head, and they amused themselves by shooting at the bottles. When the bottle was hit, the man survived, but if the bullet landed below the target, he had had it. The others stayed behind to work."
An attractive dark-haired woman, who had been deported to the women's section of Auschwitz at the age of twenty-one, spoke of a man whose name we all know by now, and revile: Dr. Mengele. He is alive in the world still, hidden somewhere. He was the chief doctor at Auschwitz: The Germans practiced subhuman experiments on living flesh, in various camps: Dr. Mengele, of Auschwitz, seems to have been the most debased sadist of them all, an abomination among men.
The young woman was a block leader; in this capacity she had some freedom of movement, and thus could visit the gypsies in the camp. (It should be noted that the Israelis were also trying Adolf Eichmann for the planned racial murder of gypsies, whom the Germans had decided to exterminate because they were an "asocial element." The dead gypsies have no one else to speak for them.) The young woman was beaten -- and lucky not to be killed by the whip, as so many were -- for warning the gypsy women never to say they were ill, never to complain, never to ask for missing members of their families: the German answer to all such remarks was immediate death in the gas chamber. One day, in the gypsy camp, she saw newly born gypsy twins, returned to their mother; but Dr. Mengele had sewed them back to back, being interested apparently in creating Siamese twins. And again, since birth was not allowed to Jews, a baby was taken from its mother and thrown on a handy fire: the mother walked into the electrified fence to kill herself. But, said the girl, women were always doing that; it was the quickest way.
Behind me, like soft surf, I could hear women in the audience, an indrawn sob of horror and grief. Horror and grief were the common daily emotions in that courtroom.
IT IS impossible to convey the anguish felt only by hearing of the anguish suffered. Despair for mankind, a real darkening of the mind, would have drowned us, had it not been for the few, beautiful examples of human solidarity against human evil.
The Danes, led by their King Christian X, saved their Jews -- to the furious rage of Eichmann. The Jews in Denmark never wore a yellow star, because the King said he would be the first to wear one, if such an order was imposed on any of his people; nor were they herded into Ghettos. The Nazis tried, as usual, to inflame the Danes into anti-Semitism by publishing obscene lies about Jews. The Danes, without hesitation, ferried their Jews across the water to Sweden. They hid old Jews in their hospitals, under Danish gentile names; they saved the sacred objects of the synagogue in the crypt of a Lutheran church. No Dane disgraced himself or his nation by betraying a Jew to the Gestapo. Many Danes paid for their humanity with their lives.
Those few hundred Danish Jews -- out of some seven thousand -- whom the Gestapo managed to capture while escaping were deported to Theresienstadt, the least murderous of the German concentration camps. When the Danes learned of the hunger there, everyone from King to cobbler contributed money and sent to their people in captivity the food they needed to remain alive. The Danes see nothing extraordinary in their record.
The Swedes, though neutral in war, were not neutral in their humanity. They gave asylum to any Jew who could reach their shores; they were so freehanded in creating sudden Jewish Swedish citizens that Eichmann issued special orders against them -- any Jew known to be obtaining neutral citizenship must be deported to the East, to the gas chambers, immediately. And the Swedes produced a saint, named Raoul Wallenberg, the Counselor of the Swedish Legation in Budapest. At the rate of 12,000 a day, Eichmann was sending Hungarian Jewry to its death -- this was when the war was clearly lost, in the summer and autumn of 1944. Raoul Wallenberg rented houses in Budapest, flew the Swedish flag over them, and filled them with Jews who were now called Swedes. When, at last, freight cars were unobtainable and Auschwitz was closed down before the approach of the Russian armies, Eichmann -- still determined to eradicate surviving Jews -- ordered the atrocious winter death march of Jews from Hungary to Austria. This was such open and appalling murder, for everyone to see, that Himmler finally commanded Eichmann to stop it. Wallenberg drove beside the stumbling column of people and distributed food, blankets, medicines. He was a fanatic too, on the side of the angels. The Russians captured Wallenberg in Hungary, and he is dead. It passes understanding how the Russians, who had themselves suffered so fearfully from the Germans, could have harmed this noble man.
The Nazis swooped fast in Norway, but even so, the Norwegian underground managed to lead half of Norway's Jews to safety in Sweden, over terrible mountain country in sub-zero weather, past a dangerously patrolled frontier. The Dutch staged general strikes, in protest against the treatment of Jews; the strikes were repressed by the usual German firing squads. The Nazis raised the bribe for betraying Jews; the Dutch continued to hide Jews; always more Jews were found. Grumbling documents from Eichmann's office discussed this maddening attitude of the Dutch, who refused to "sympathize" with the German policy. There are countless examples of Italian humaneness which neither a Fascist government, nor war, nor defeat (twice defeated, by the Germans, by the Allies), nor the incomprehensible official silence of the Pope could weaken.
An Italian Jewess, the daughter of a university professor, found herself alone (the rest of her family lost, caught) with five small children, her own and her missing brother's: "I wish to add that I saved my children by handing them over to Christian families whom I did not know before -- different strata of life of the gentile population.... Each child with another family. My children and my brother's children.... I was helped by the clergy and also the lay population -- laborers and others, in the city of Rome, the intellectuals.... The goodness, the kindheartedness I met with on my way. Every Italian Jew owes his life to the Italian population."
The gates of Luxembourg were open to all fleeing Jews. There, in that tiny defenseless country, they could rest, hide, remember -- in the kindness of the Luxembourg people -- that they were human beings, not hunted animals; and with time and luck, some could obtain visas to safety in neutral territory. Under the moral leadership of Elizabeth, Queen Mother of the Belgians, and with the support of the Primate of Belgium, the Belgian underground aided groups of Jews to escape and managed to derail several death trains.
There were these brave, isolated acts of humanity, and for them we must be eternally grateful.
There were more, in all the German-occupied countries, nameless individuals who protected their fellowmen against the savages. The penalty for helping Jews was death. Everyone who took the risk, rather than aid barbarism or watch from a safe distance or close his eyes, bought back a piece of the honor of mankind. And they were effective; they did save lives; they did cheat Eichmann and his servants of their prey. If there had been many many more, millions more, could Eichmann have succeeded as he did?
The Jews themselves were not sheep led to the slaughter. They were too civilized to believe that Germans, a reputedly civilized nation, could behave as these Germans did. The Germans tricked the Jews, lied, raised hope and destroyed it, mocked, lied again: the soap in the Auschwitz gas chambers. where the people expected a shower bath, was made of stone; on death trains the people were given picture postcards of an imaginary place, "Waldsee," and forced to write cheerful news back to the Ghetto. No ruse was too mean if it served to lull the Jews and keep them from acts of desperation. There were not so many troops to allot to Jew-killing, despite the bureaucratic mania of Eichmann.
And yet, broken in health, starving, and helpless, the Jews revolted, even in Auschwitz and Treblinka and Sobibor. The revolts could not be more than acts of undaunted defiance; few people survived. The uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto remains a monument to courage; and twenty people live to tell the tale, out of half a million. Jewish partisans, escaped from the massacre, fought in the woods of Poland, in Hungary, in France.
The little man sits in the dock and listens, day after day; and he alone is unmoved; he alone is not burdened by the weight of grief and shame and outrage which we all carry. He proved this, without knowing what he did, on the first day of his testimony in his own defense.
On the morning when we would finally hear the silent man in the glass dock, the courtroom was packed. Dr. Servatius, Eichmann's German lawyer, presented his client and his case. Dr. Servatius' voice had changed, he became a quavering elderly gentleman, beseeching these honorable strong Judges of Israel to pity an insignificant underling. All during the Trial, the Court treated Dr. Servatius with the most benign courtesy: one had the impression that everyone in the streetcar was rising to give his seat to an old lady. Dr. Servatius is the good, fat, honest German -- a pre-war figure of affection or caricature, depending on taste. He could come here (fee of $25,000 paid by the Israeli government) to defend Eichmann because his own record is clean: he was lucky enough to be in a Wehrmacht regiment all during the war, and so had no hand in the horrors committed by and in the name of Germans.
Eichmann looked different, yellowish-gray, afraid at last. His voice was low when he began to speak, telling us the story of his life and times. A modest young man, he saw an opening in a little known field -- the problem of the Jews. He chose this career, but he was nobody important; he just happened to have taken up Jews as his specialty. Nazism wasn't primarily against Jews, that was the second issue: Nazism was against Versailles, against the democracies. He was far too obscure to foresee where all this would lead; though, for himself, he went straight as an arrow into the SS.
Recounting his early struggles to get ahead in life and the SS, Eichmann said that he desired to learn Hebrew and this provoked the ridicule and even the suspicion of his superiors. But he had seen a Hebrew newspaper published in Riga, and he thought if he could learn the language, he would get much useful information. He wanted to take lessons from a rabbi; his superiors feared that in close contact with a rabbi he might be influenced and talk of other things than the Hebrew language. Finally he overcame their doubts: "It would have been easy to say, let's grab a rabbi and lock him up and he'll have to teach me; but no, I paid three marks per hour, the usual price."
Eichmann was so startled by the low wave of sound this statement evoked from the courtroom that, for the first and only time, he turned his head, and stared in an instant's bewilderment at the public. How could he know, this hollow man, that what seemed to him a natural phrase exposed wastelands of feeling to people who, under no circumstances on earth, would have imagined that you could "grab" an innocent scholar and jail him in order to get lessons for nothing. After all the years in hiding, the weeks in this court, Eichmann was the same SS officer; he regarded Jews as objects, still. Being an honest man, he had treated an object correctly, though under no obligation to do so. He paid the object three marks; he refrained from seizing and locking up the object. The reaction in the courtroom was spontaneous and complex; disbelief, revelation, disgust -- a groaning murmur. As time went on, we realized that Eichmann would never know why or how ordinary people reacted to him or his crimes.
Hourly, Eichmann grew surer of himself. His grasp of the complexities of Nazi bureaucracy was dazzling. He never faltered when explaining a machinery which seems too involved to have been workable; but it was, it was. The workings of his own department -- RSHA IV B of the Gestapo, charged with the "Final Solution" -- were so efficient that Eichmann stands out as the greatest organization man of all time. One branch of the Nazi government, dedicated to the extinction of one branch of the population of Europe, killed six million civilians, of whom one million were children, in six years. In World War II, spread over the entire globe, the total of the dead combatants of twenty-four nations was 14,700,000.
Eichmann's memory was fabulous, when he so desired. It gave out, when expedient. And even replying to his own lawyer, he would not speak to the point. It took him five minutes of double-talk not to answer a simple question as to whether he had, or had not, been in Berlin on a certain date.
Dr. Servatius bumbled; he mixed documents; he could not find the paper he wanted. Eichmann, in control of all papers always, sent the required document from his glass dock to his attorney's desk. Very soon, he was conducting his own defense, saying, "The assertions I am making will be proved in later documents."
His voice is ugly, with a hard R, a sound that makes one think of a hammer and a knife. Neither by voice, accent, nor vocabulary is he an educated man. As Dr. Servatius fumbled, Eichmann's voice sharpened: the cold snarl, the bark that many of the witnesses remembered was there, one tone beneath what we heard. From the first day of his testimony, we could imagine Eichmann clearly as an old Hungarian Jewish aristocrat had described him: "an officer in boots, with one hand on his pistol, in all the pride of his race."
On the second day, Eichmann established his line of defense and stuck to it until the end: "I had no special positions or privileges -- they gave me instructions." Furthermore, he was exclusively concerned "with matters of pure transport." This is the reverse of Goebbel's Big Lie; this is the Little Lie. He was not unnerved by the testimony of witnesses who knew him and dealt with him in his years of power, or saw him on his concentration camp visits, nor by the avalanche of documents showing that he commanded the fate of the Jews as no general was able to command a whole theater of war. He wriggled, he talked a great deal; he returned again and again to the same lies. He was only a minor bureaucrat. It is possible that the outside world -- lazy, busy with other things, glancing briefly at headlines -- will believe him. Should the State of Israel execute this man, there may well be an outcry in the unharmed, spectator countries, and the adjective "vengeful" will be applied to the Jews. I am not inventing this peculiar if not perverse line of thought; I have already heard it bruited about. People who are forever opposed to the death penalty, anywhere for any crime, have the right to this opinion. Others should study the entire trial, as a moral obligation, before they dare to condemn the punishment meted out to Eichmann. In that courtroom in Jerusalem, there could be no doubt as to Eichmann's guilt, nor the immensity of his guilt. We were not impressed by the Little Lie.
It was no small railway clerk who dealt directly on the highest level with foreign governments. Again and again, through diplomatic channels, Eichmann was requested to locate and spare one Jew, or two or three, by name. For some reason, these individuals troubled the conscience of Germany's allies. Again and again, Eichmann replied icily that these Jews could not be found; his local representatives were instructed to discourage "on principle" such time-wasting demands for mercy. If the named Jew or Jews were not already dead, Eichmann ordered immediate deportation to the gas chambers, thus closing the file against future intrusion on his work.
The Laval government tried to save one Jew -- a man whose gallantry in the French Army could not be forgotten. Eichmann answered officially that the whereabouts of this hero was unknown, but arranged for his instant, secret removal to Auschwitz and Cyclon B. Admiral Horthy, the Fascist dictator of Hungary, directed his police to stop a death train of 1200 Jews and return the Jews to their camp near Budapest. That night Eichmann sent buses to collect these reprieved people and drive them to rejoin the train far from the capital. Horthy's interference annoyed and hampered Eichmann; soon Horthy was deposed and a thoroughly cooperative puppet was installed.
The duties, the authority of a minor bureaucrat? A new emotion spread and became common to us all: flat contempt for the man who had valued no other lives but so shamelessly cherished his own.
Eichmann knew what was happening; he states this himself in his deposition -- a four-volume document, covering months of questioning during which the Israeli police superintendent acted as a gently prodding psychiatrist and Eichmann talked and talked. He deplored what he saw: he found the screams of people strangling in the gas trucks in Poland unbearable; a fountain of blood, which gurgled up through the ground of a mass grave, revolted him. Specifically, somewhere near Minsk, he saw naked Jews moving forward to the edge of a pit where the SS riflemen shot them; some shots were sloppy, the half-dead squirmed, so they fired into the heaped bodies as well. Eichmann reported this scene to an SS leader in Lemberg. "'Yes, that is horrible,' I said to him. 'There the young people are being educated to become sadists.... How can you just bang into a pile of people, women and children, how is that possible!' I said. 'This can't be. The people must either turn crazy or become sadists. Our own people.'" Everything about this man is the stuff of nightmare: he never thought of the murdered; he thought of the effect they made on him, and the probable bad effect on the nerves of the young SS.
He said he was too squeamish for this sort of thing; "people have told me I could never have been a doctor." So, instead of watching exterminations, he increased the range of the operation, speeded it up, wove a net meant to catch every living Jew, and sent them to what he knew but really could not bear to look at.
In a single sentence, Eichmann divided the world into the powers of light and darkness. He chose the doctrine of darkness, as did the majority of his countrymen, as did thousands throughout Europe -- men with slave minds, pig-greedy for power: the Vichy police, the Iron Guard, big and little Quislings everywhere. He stated their creed in one line: "The question of conscience is a matter for the head of the state, the sovereign."
Absolved of thought, of responsibility, of guilt, and finally of humanity, all is well: the head of the state thinks for us, we need only obey. If the head of the state happens to be criminally insane, that is not our affair.
The purpose of all education and all religion is to fight that creed, by every act of life and until death. The private conscience is not only the last protection of the civilized world, it is the one guarantee of the dignity of man. And if we have failed to learn this, even now, Eichmann is before us, a fact and a symbol, to teach the lesson.
Martha Gellhorn is an American novelist and short-story writer who feels happiest when working abroad. She wrote her first novel in Paris at the age of twenty-three. As a foreign correspondent she covered the Civil War in Spain; Munich; Czechoslovakia; Finland; and the war in China before Pearl Harbor. London was most frequently her headquarters during the Second World War.
Copyright © 1962 by Martha Gellhorn. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1962; "Eichmann and the Private Conscience"; Volume 209, No. 2; pages 52 - 59.