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We are obsessed with Nazis. For the past 70 years, since the Second World War ended, dozens of books have been published annually about Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich and the Holocaust. In a new work, German philosopher Bettina Stangneth explores Adolf Eichmann’s ability to hide from Nazi hunters for well over a decade before he was caught and tried in Jerusalem in 1961. I reached her in Hamburg to talk about Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, a runner-up for the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature, sponsored by McGill University. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Eichmann was able to avoid capture for a long time after the war. He lived in northern Germany under a pseudonym and then, in the 1950s, he moved to Argentina, with the help of the Red Cross and Juan Peron.
We should never forget that Eichmann, when he was in power, had a lot of experience with immigration because at first the Nazis planned to deport the Jews, not execute them. He was an expert in escape, hiding himself, dealing with money and papers. He recognized in 1944 that the war would be lost, so he had a long time to prepare his own escape and find hiding places. He tried to kill as many Jews as possible in the last months of the war and the next aim was to think about his life post-Hitler. He began to prepare papers for a false identity and to make preparations with his family.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt witnessed Eichmann’s trial. Her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, suggests Eichmann presented himself as an average man unthinkingly conducting mass murder. You disagree.
Eichmann had a long time to prepare for this trial and to think about the role he wanted to play. He decided to show himself as a bureaucrat. Arendt concluded that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews, which could have accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual. He was following orders.
At the trial, he learned how to look like a grey, confused bureaucrat. He was a very good actor. This ability to lie and manipulate was his big talent. But in Jerusalem his poker face didn’t work. There was too much evidence of his guilt. There were too many documents, too many testimonies, too many survivors. You cannot hide such a crime, the biggest crime in history.
Eichmann boasted that he created the term “The Final Solution,” and it was he who originally claimed six million Jews had been killed. He was proud of his work and even after the war sought acknowledgement of his deeds, except when he was on trial for his life.
For Eichmann the war wasn’t over in 1945. Like many determined Nazis, he believed the war with the Jews would continue. He was prepared to fight again even though he had no gas chambers, no Adolf Hitler. For him the only weapon left was the pencil in his hand. In Argentina, Eichmann planned to write books his whole life to prepare for the next battle.
Eichmann left thousands of pages of conversation and tapes from interviews in the 1950s. Why would he allow people to interview him, especially when Nazis were being hunted?
A lot of Nazis were willing to talk. Nazis were members of a club in Argentina and had the same aim: to get back to Germany, to get into power and to kill the Jews again. Their plan was to teach the world how great the National Socialist idea was and to try it again.
Being in the Nazi party during the 1940s was the biggest, most emotional time of their lives. They were young men and their careers stopped in mid-life, when they were in their 40s. In Buenos Aires they had the illusion that if they had managed in 1933, they could manage it again.
Germany after 1945 was not strong; there was no stability and no one knew what would happen. There were many dangers for the young democracy. Eichmann actually wanted to fly to Frankfurt and give a press conference to explain his reasons for doing what he did. He didn’t like life in Argentina. He wanted his famous name back. His friends and family convinced him not to do it.
“… . In Germany, a lot of people were convinced admirers of Adolf Hitler. After 1945 they said they hadn’t been Nazis … they had no choice. This big lie was comfortable. …”
What also amazes me was that Germany didn’t impose stiff sentences on former Nazis; they received short sentences.
It is a shame. In Germany, a lot of people were convinced admirers of Adolf Hitler. After 1945 they said they hadn’t been Nazis, they were just obeying orders, they were victims themselves, they had no choice. This big lie was comfortable and it became the religion of the Germans after the war. They liked to tell each other, “OK, we had no idea about Auschwitz, we had no idea about the deportation to the east. We are innocent.”
You are German but you seem very angry by how your country reacted so slowly to seek out Nazis.
I am disappointed. This disappointment has something to do with the fact that trying to hide the past still isn’t over. I tried to get access to the Eichmann files from the German secret service. I got a large part of these files but many pages aren’t available. They are blacked out. This is my Germany. I was born in 1966. Today, still, Nazi files are hidden and are not available for research and I have to ask why. It makes me angry. Why should it be dangerous for our image in the world to write about Eichmann today? He has been dead for over 50 years and we fear him even today.
Why write a book about Eichmann when Hannah Arendt wrote one?
Hannah Arendt is very important to me. She is living proof that it is possible to be a woman and a philosopher. She is one of the reasons I wanted to look at Eichmann. I had no plans to criticize her but I found many new sources.
We need her notion of the banality of evil. It is an evil with thoughtlessness. It is possible to go to your office every day and never ask yourself if what you are doing is evil. I don’t think Arendt is wrong but I don’t think it is enough to explain what happened.
We still have a small movement here who believe National Socialism was good. This group is larger than we would like to believe. It’s scary. People in Germany are convinced (Chancellor) Angela Merkel has only one aim: to destroy the German race. They think that is why she is inviting Syrians to come. We need a multicultural society. It is the only way to fight against people who are dreaming about a pure race.