The Lies of Adolf Eichmann
German philosopher Bettina Stangneth reexamines the Nazi commander—and the true nature of evil.
As head of the Jewish Department within the Nazi SS, Adolf Eichmann held operational responsibility for the extermination of European Jewry through crucial years of World War II. To his chosen work of murder, Eichmann brought a zeal and commitment that he sustained even through 15 years of exile after the war. At his trial in Jerusalem in 1960, the Nazi leader attempted to present himself as a self-effacing servant of the German state, dutifully following orders from a higher command. The image of Eichmann as a technocratic bureaucrat has endured even as subsequently discovered testimony in his own handwriting and voice have revealed a man ferociously devoted to Nazi racial ideology—and utterly unrepentant for his vast crimes.
Bettina Stangneth, a German philosopher and historian, undertook the daunting task of mastering the Eichmann archive, including his postwar writings and hours of tape-recorded discussions with fellow Nazi exiles in Argentina. Her work was published in Germany in 2011 and released this year in English as Eichmann Before Jerusalem, a title that invites comparison with the classic work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt that did so much to fix and perpetuate the false image of Eichmann as a passionless bureaucrat. I interviewed Stangneth by email in the last week of September. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed.
David Frum: In the years between World War II and his capture by Israeli intelligence in Argentina in 1960, Adolf Eichmann had a great deal to say about his life and crimes. Can we begin by briefly explaining to readers: What is this material, how much is there, who collected it, and how does your use of this material differ from that of scholars and historians before you?
Bettina Stangneth: The answer is not so simple. I needed 600 pages to explain it, so perhaps I’m not the best person for a quick answer. But perhaps this will work:
My book is based on a wide variety of sources: newly discovered and previously examined documents from Eichmann and other Nazis from the Nazi era and from exile in Argentina, publications from the Nazi regime, and documents on postwar Germany from various intelligence services, press archives, and private estates. As an example, I read every single newspaper report from Eichmann’s trial. And there were over 800 books about Eichmann to be read. So most of the time there were no “hidden, secret, spectacular” sources—just hard work. As the saying goes: Sometimes “new material” is just “unused material.”
I found many unknown papers in the German archives. I got access to over 2,000 pages from the files of the German Intelligence Services. I found the private papers of the police officer Avner W. Less, who interrogated Eichmann in Israel. And I examined the papers of many other Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in Europe. We are talking about tens of thousands of pages here. Some of them were previously released, but not used or not used systematically. Others only resurfaced in 2009 through my research. It’s a big, cruel puzzle, spread over 30 archives.
The crucial component is the Argentina Papers. The Jerusalem court decided not to accept large parts of the so-called “Sassen Interview” as evidence because they couldn’t get proof of its authenticity. If the court didn’t accept a source it meant that the source wasn’t available to journalists. But that was not the main problem.
The prosecution was able to acquire around 700 carefully picked pages from the Argentina Papers, including 70 pages handwritten by Eichmann. However, nobody knew that it was only a part of a much bigger manuscript—it was absolutely impossible to recognize the real content of these fragments of a fragment of a manuscript. Think about your own writing. If I took some pages from the middle of one of your books, with the explicit desire to manipulate readers and hide the rest, it would be easy to mislead your audience. That’s exactly what Eichmann’s friend, Willem Sassen, did. Nobody was able to recognize the bigger picture. Today we have over 1,300 pages—along with marginalia from Eichmann—and we have much more information. This has changed a lot.
The Argentina Papers are the testimony of a group of Nazis who aimed to bring back the idea of National Socialism. Eichmann was a part of this group, consulted because of his firsthand knowledge of the “Jewish question.” The alleged “Sassen Interview” are the minutes of their meetings. Members of the group wrote their own drafts for discussions and Eichmann planned to publish his own book along with Willem Sassen’s book. We can reconstruct and synthesize these different manuscripts, transcripts, and papers. In short, the Argentina Papers provide a portrait of a radical Nazi group with incredible international connections and Eichmann’s thoughts and eloquence outside his glass box in Jerusalem.
Frum: As you tell it, the Nazi exile community in Argentina made remarkably little effort to conceal itself. It gathered in convivial social meetings for discussions like those you quote. Most remarkably of all, well into the mid-1950s, the Nazi exiles published newspapers and magazines and imagined a restoration of their political influence at home. And in all this, Eichmann was a central personality. How and why did the West German authorities overlook these activities?
Stangneth: I’m not sure West German authorities overlooked these activities. In fact, we know that the German authorities had some information. The CIA collected a huge file on former Nazis in South America. Many members and affiliates of the exile community also continued to maintain connections to West Germany: Eberhard Fritsch, a pro-Nazi publisher living in Argentina; his friend, Hans-Ulrich Rudel, who played a big role in German politics; and Otto Skorzeny, who worked within the intelligence services himself, among others. Not every convinced Nazi was on the search list as a war criminal. German intelligence definitely monitored this group and sought to protect their young democracy from Nazi influences, like Fritsch’s prohibited Der Weg magazine, but they took little action.
Maybe they were just relieved to have these dark reminders as far away as possible?
Frum: You lead the reader deep into the ideological self-justification of the Nazi exiles. Among other themes, they argue that their crimes pale in comparison to the depredations of the Jews against Palestinians. They argue that their anti-Semitism was a reasonable response to prior wrongs committed by the Jews. And—when they don’t deny the Holocaust outright—they complain that Jews are exploiting the Holocaust for financial and political gain. All of these themes continue to be sounded to this day. Is it fair to read your book as arguing that there is nothing new about Europe’s “new anti-Semitism”?
Stangneth: I’ll add another of their arguments: The Islamic world must take up the baton and fight the Jews. Even the wish to use foreigners for our own devices is nothing new.
German anti-Semitism has a language of its own that has endured beyond Hitler’s death. Unfortunately, legitimate sympathy for Palestinians has frequently become a cover for anti-Semitism and a way to recruit new soldiers for an old war. It’s also not surprising that people have trouble discerning justifiable criticism of state policies from old, hateful stereotypes.
Anti-Semitism, with its particular mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-capitalism, anti-communism, anti-globalism, and xenophobia, with a clear enemy, is a dangerous cocktail. By examining these Nazi exiles we can try to understand modern anti-Semitism’s origins, and decipher its code. The “new anti-Semitism” may have new circumstances, but I fear its only proposed solution is still the final one [Endlösung].
Frum: Do you still encounter people who believe in the Eichmann described by Hannah Arendt: a mediocre bureaucrat who literally could not think, whose acts impersonally fulfilled the logic of a larger system?
Stangneth: It wasn’t just Arendt whom Eichmann convinced in believing that, “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal...” Even Eichmann’s interrogator struggled with Eichmann’s expert manipulation, and he shared a table with Eichmann for over 275 hours. Eichmann’s lies led millions of people to their death, so his continuing manipulation during his trial is no surprise.
A liar hides in the truth. Arendt discovered the banality of evil because Adolf Eichmann unwillingly revealed the inside of his murder apparatus, even as he undertook the role of a subordinate. Her discovery is vital to our understanding of state crimes and macro-criminality.
There’s a greater lesson, though. Humans simply prefer hope to despair. The theory of the banality of evil is a theory of hope: If evil arises from ignorance, the solution is as easy as a project of enlightenment. If we help people think for themselves, the world will be better. But—and this is an ugly “but”—there is an important difference between an inability to think and an unwillingness to accept thinking as worthwhile. Eichmann could think, and his writings and speeches are evidence of this. Follow the arguments, and you will find the thinker. This difference between “inability to think” and “mistrust of thinking itself” is crucial. Otherwise, we underestimate the real danger of National Socialism and every other ideology that wages war against reason. That’s the purpose of my research: to show that philosophy is defensible against this fundamental aggression. But I understand only too well why people, especially intellectuals, refuse to recognize this threat.
Frum: Your last answer directs us to an important point: Eichmann’s lying. Scenes from the Eichmann trial are available on YouTube. Viewers will see an accused whose manner is formal, whose style of speaking is precise and even pedantic, who easily cites dates and places. He invites his audience to regard him as—if nothing else—at least a reliable narrator. Yet you catch Eichmann in deceit after deceit. What was his purpose in continuing to lie at this last hour.
Stangneth: It’s always easy to lie if you possess firsthand knowledge. And Eichmann wanted to play the role of his own storyteller, researcher, historian, and philosopher. He wanted to survive, and he trusted in his ability to lie his way out of death.
Perhaps there’s another reason: Lying can produce a feeling of power. If you make someone believe a lie, you have power over him or her. Believing a lie means you lose a part of the real world, of yourself. The liar is given the power to rebuild the world around us, and we operate according to his or her rules. Think about an inverted street sign: If you are the one who turned the sign, you can take pleasure in watching people run in the wrong direction to catch a train. If you read Eichmann’s note written in his cell (and not available for journalists and spectators in 1961), you can find hints that Eichmann savored this special feeling of power, even as an accused. After he heard the death sentence, he told his lawyers, “I didn’t expect them to not believe me at all.” (Original: Ich habe nicht gedacht, dass man mir so gar nicht glauben würde.)
Frum: Eichmann yearned for recognition by future generations of Germans. What has been the reception of your book in Germany? At a time when anti-Semitic feeling seems on the rise on the European continent—when a German chancellor finds it necessary to speak publicly against anti-Semitic incidents—do you see your book as something more than a work of history?
Stangneth: I’m a philosopher, and philosophers can’t write about anything without exploring the deeper meaning. I’m not a prophet, though, and I don’t think any writer could answer these questions. You would have to ask the readers.
I think we miss the point, though, when we talk only about anti-Semitism and Europe. I believe modern anti-Semitism is a symptom of a much bigger problem today, because we have forgotten its origins: The anti-Semitism of the Nazis was, above all, a disbelief in human equality! The Nazis were convinced that our world is too small for us, that we don’t have enough resources, that some humans are superior to others, and that only those humans have the right to survive—and the obligation to kill those who don’t. For them, the Jews symbolized internationalism, rationalism, globalism, and universal moral standards. The ideology is tough to decipher, and hence incredibly dangerous. And if you ask me, their thinking still persists—specifically, the conviction to be better than others and to have more rights. We are buildings walls around our “Western World”; we try to suppress or influence the democratic and economic development of other countries, and we preach that freedom, equality, and liberty are sometimes not as important as national security, national pride, religion, or our laws. Strength comes from our ability to navigate our world as it is, not from destroying what we don’t understand.