Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer by Bettina Stangneth. New York: Knopf, 2014. 579 pages. $35.
Bettina Stangneth quickly and thoroughly demolishes Adolf Eichmann’s Jerusalem courtroom persona of glorified clerk – and subsequent ideas that his evil was banal.
To the contrary, she shows – often with his own words – Eichmann’s enthusiasm for his murderous work. His proudest achievement was deporting 437,402 Hungarian Jews in just weeks, and his greatest disappointment, even humiliation, was the escape of the Jews of Denmark.
“I have no regrets,” he said in 1957, in an inadvertently premature conclusion to recorded interviews that his Argentina Nazi circle planned to use for a book denying the Shoah and portraying Germans as victims.
Eichmann, esteemed as the “Jewish expert” who knew the real numbers, was expected to say 700,000, although he’d admitted 6 million to others. In the interview, he said: “If of the 10.3 million Jews that [a Nazi statistician] identified … we had killed all 10.3 million, I would be satisfied and would say, good, we have destroyed an enemy.”
That was playing big shot by Eichmann, who “acted out a new role for every stage of his life, for each new audience and every new aim,” Stangneth writes. Joining the SS in 1934, he mastered self-promoting bluster. Later tasked with rounding up and shipping Europe’s Jews, he could pretend to negotiate. In Argentina, he promoted his deadly achievements. In Jerusalem, he played the “cautious bureaucrat,” just a small cog in a big wheel.
“If Eichmann ever really wanted to be the placid, harmless Ricardo Klement,” his false Argentine name, “it was not until he was sitting in an Israeli prison cell,” Stangneth says.
“In Eichmann’s language, he didn’t send people to the death camps,” she writes. “The camps were ‘fed with material.’ ” In a POW camp, he used fake names. Escaping, he worked in Germany as “Otto Heninger,” a woodcutter, then a chicken farmer.
In 1947, his wife tried to have him declared dead, a fraud precipitating a renewed search. He fled Europe like other Nazis, through Italy with help from Catholic officials and Red Cross documents, arriving in Argentina in 1950.
Philosopher Stangneth says her book “is, first, an attempt to present all the available material as well as the challenges that come with it.” Throughout, she evaluates sources and tales, occasionally with sarcasm. The book also is “a dialog with Hannah Arendt,” author of the famous Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
Stangneth’s immense research included archives, interviews, listening to Eichmann’s Argentina interview tapes and reading their 1,000-page typewritten transcript. I cannot imagine any work more thorough.
Eichmann was captured by the Mossad outside his house May 11, 1960. His trial returned the Shoah to world (and especially Israeli) consciousness. Given an Israeli court’s only death sentence, he was hung June 1, 1962.
Stangneth criticizes her government for refusing to release its entire Eichmann file. Could that include information shielding him from capture?
In a footnote, Stangneth says: “I expressly refuse to entertain the idea that a Federal German intelligence service could have made efforts to keep Adolf Eichmann a free man, for the psychological reason that I would find it unbearable.”
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.