Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
In Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (New York: Random House 2014), Bettina Stangneth challenges Hannah Arendt’s hypothesis that Eichmann represents the banality of evil: an ordinary man turned mass murder by extraordinary circumstances (the war and the rise of Nazi totalitarianism). The image of Eichmann that emerges from Stangneth’s book is one of a charming chameleon that deceives others about his intentions and his credentials. Without knowing more than a few words of Yiddish and having no knowledge of Hebrew, Eichmann relied upon the smattering of Jewish culture he got by spying on Jewish leaders to climb the political ladder and obtain an official function as Head of Department of Jewish Affairs in the SD (Security Service of the Nazi Party). Although most of the time he gave the impression of being calm and reserved, he would fly off into an ideological rage—similar to Hitler’s–whenever his objectives were frustrated or when it served his purposes (such as to intimidate Jewish leaders into complying with his orders). As if with the flip of a switch, however, Eichmann could instantly revert to being courteous and collected (for instance, when a German woman would step into one of the ideological meeting). His emotions, like his attachments, were shallow. Although he remained “loyal” to his wife, Veronika Liebl, he cheated on her and dominated her. At one point he boasted that he tore up the Bible of his highly religious wife, though eventually he allowed her to practice Christianity. Their dominance bond was quite strong, however, since Vera patiently–and faithfully–waited for years while her husband lived in hiding after the war and eventually joined him in Argentina, where he managed to escape justice for eleven years.
The picture that emerges from Stangneth’s book is not that of an ordinary man corrupted by power in a totalitarian regime—as Arendt famously indicates in Eichmann in Jerusalem, A report on the banality of evil–but that of a psychopath: a highly narcissistic man without remorse, without conscience and without the capacity for forming deeper human attachments. Hungry for power, Eichmann unscrupulously adapts himself to the norms of the Nazi regime, even anticipating Hitler’s wishes to implement a program of exterminating the Jews after the German invasion of Russia in 1941. War enabled the Nazis to carry out what couldn’t be achieved during peacetime: a systematic genocide of unprecedented proportions carried out, at least in the Eastern campaign, openly and often with the collaboration of the local populations.
Eichmann became responsible for the mass deportations of nearly 6 million Jews to concentration camps, where most victims were sent to the gas chambers. Far from merely following orders—as he later stated during his defense in the trial in Jerusalem—Eichmann showed great enthusiasm and initiative for mass murder. In 1944, when even Himmler had begun to reverse course and issued an order to stop the Jewish deportations, Eichmann went to Hungary to personally oversee the deportation and extermination of the Hungarian Jews. With astonishing efficiency, in a few months, Eichmann managed to send 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, where about 80 percent were killed on the spot and most of the rest died afterwards from hunger, abuse or disease. Only the heroic actions of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg prevented him from sending all of the Jews of Budapest to their deaths. Interestingly, like most psychopaths, Eichmann was a bully only with those in a position of weakness. When Wallenberg confronted him face to face and stopped the deportation of hundreds of Jews, Eichmann didn’t do anything to stop him. Only afterwards, behind his back, he railed against the Wallenberg, calling him “a Jewish dog” and “an interventionist”. Turning moral norms upside down, Eichmann felt that all those who expedited genocide were courageous heroes and those who fought against it were cowards and weaklings.
Although highly manipulative and versatile, Eichmann remained, to the very end, a man without conscience. After the war he even expressed great pride in his genocidal actions, stating that he would “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” He may have boasted about his actions, but like most psychopaths, Eichmann didn’t want to have to pay their consequences. After Germany’s defeat in 1945, he fled to Austria and later, in 1950, to Argentina. There he joined a community of Nazi expatriates. Far from leading a quiet, anonymous life, this mass murderer longed for his former glory and power.
In fact, Eichmann even planned to write a book, based on a series of interviews with Willem Sassen–a Dutch collaborator and Nazi journalist also hiding in Argentina–that would not only leave his Nazi legacy for posterity but also, he hoped, instigate a second coming of the Third Reich during his lifetime. Perhaps it was this psychopath’s extraordinary hubris that finally did him in. Eventually the Mossad, Israel’s Intelligence Service, caught up with him in 1960 and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial. He was charged, among other things, with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. The jury found Eichmann guilty on all counts. He was executed by hanging on May 31, 1962. Perhaps no book on the subject can compete in its influence with Eichmann in Jerusalem, but in one significant respect I found Bettina Stangneth’s account far more accurate than Arendt’s: Eichmann’s evil was anything but banal.