EICHMANN BEFORE JERUSALEM: THE UNEXAMINED LIFE OF A MASS MURDERER by Bettina Stangneth

(Adolf Eichmann in the witness box during his trial in Jerusalem, April, 1961)

Bettina Strangneth new book, EICHMANN BEFORE JERUSALEM: THE UNEXAMINED LIFE OF A MASS MURDERER offers a major reassessment of how we should interpret the life of the man whose work was integral to the extermination of six million Jews during World War II.  After his capture by the Israeli Mossad in 1960, Adolf Eichmann tried to convince people that he was a small cog in the Nazi bureaucracy and that he was not a mass murderer.  He tried to present himself as a man who was always in the background during his Nazi career and was not involved in any major decision making.  In 1963 following the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt published her work, EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM: A REPORT ON THE BANALITY OF EVIL where she argued that her subject was nothing more than a bureaucrat who performed his tasks as best as he could, like a good civil servant who wanted to further his career.  He went to work each day and tried to meet the goals that his job demanded.  If his work involved “evil,” that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was just carrying out what his superiors expected of him.  Arendt’s line of thinking was very controversial at the time and it went against the generally accepted idea that, in fact, Eichmann was guilty, and was not an ordinary man who was turned into a thoughtless murderer by a totalitarian regime.  Following his escape after the war Eichmann claims to have been “an empty shell,” an apolitical person who tried to enjoy a normal life with his family while before his capture by the Israelis and his trial in Jerusalem.   In the last few years documents have surfaced in several archives that contain “Eichmann’s own notes made in exile and [they] can be examined in conjunction with the taped and transcribed conversations known as the Sassen interviews.”  These materials (about 1300 pages) reflect that “not once during his escape and exile did Eichmann seek the shadows or try to act in secrecy.  He wanted to be visible in Argentina and he wanted to be viewed as he once had been:  as the symbol of a new age.” (xx)  Employing this perspective, and making excellent use of the Sassen interviews, also referred to as the Argentina papers, Bettina Strangneth has written a fascinating book that disproves Arendt’s line of thinking and shows without a doubt that Eichmann was a major cog in the Nazi extermination apparatus and the persona he presented in Israel during his trial was nothing more than an act to gain sympathy from his captors and as lenient a sentence as possible.

Strangneth states from the outset that her goal is to uncover what was the “Eichmann phenomenon,” how and why did it develop, what people thought of him and when, and how he reacted to what people thought and said about him.  Strangneth succeeds in unmasking Eichmann who throughout his career assumed different roles; as a subordinate, a superior officer, perpetrator, fugitive, exile, and finally a defendant.  The only one of his roles that has become well known is that of a defendant at his trial in Jerusalem.  His intention was obvious, to remain alive and justify his actions.  For Strangneth, we must return to the period before Eichmann’s arrival in Jerusalem to see the real Eichmann.  The author effectively accomplishes her mission by examining a myriad of primary and secondary sources in a number of languages, and she uses Eichmann’s own words that were taped and written as part of interviews conducted by Willem Sassen, a Dutch Nazi collaborator and member of the SS journalist corps during the war and was the organizer and host for the interviews and discussions with Eichmann in 1957.   Once the Argentina papers surfaced and Eichmann was brought to trial it created a number of problems for a West German state that sought a smooth transition to becoming a new nation free of its past.  In addition to officials in Bonn, other Nazi officials who escaped after W.W.II, former Nazis who were free and serving in the West German government, and the Vatican prelates all feared what Eichmann might say.

(Reinhardt Heydrich, Chief of Reich Main Security Office and Eichmann’s superior in 1942)

The first section of the book, “My Name Became a Symbol,” focuses on Eichmann’s argument in Jerusalem that he was not an important figure in the Nazi regime and had little to do with the Holocaust.  Strangneth methodically refutes Eichmann’s arguments by examining his career from 1934, when he joined the Nazi Party through his successful escape from Europe by boarding the Giovanni C in Genoa’s harbor in June, 1948.  The author delineates Eichmann’s attempt to accumulate power as he worked his way up through the Nazi hierarchy and his success in making his name known, and establishing relationships with key Nazi figures.  For example, Reinhard Heydrich,  chief of Reich Main Security Office that included the Gestapo and SD, and making himself an expert on the Jewish people and their religion.  The author traces Eichmann’s movements during the prewar period as he set up emigration offices in Berlin, Vienna, and Prague, and the war itself as he employed his emigration, transportation, and organizational skills to implement the Final Solution.  Eichmann’s creation of excessive publicity around his own name is in sharp contrast to the “shadow” figure he presents in his jail cell in Israel.  The author ends the first section by determining the accuracy of the myths surrounding Eichmann’s escape from Europe and details how he arranged his travel and settlement in Buenos Aires.

(while in exile in Argentina, Eichmann managed a rabbit farm)

In 1953 he was able to bring his family to Buenos Aires and it was clear there was very little interest in pursuing Eichmann and bringing him to justice. At the time, Konrad Adenauer, the West German Chancellor announced to the Bundestag: “In my opinion, we should call a halt to trying to sniff out Nazis.”(146)  While in Buenos Aires Eichmann grew angry that many of his accomplices and colleagues used their relationship with him to obtain lighter sentences.  He wanted to defend his honor.  On his arrival in Argentina, Eichmann had been taken in by the Durer group, led by Willem Sasser and Eberhard Fritsch, who published right wing magazines.  As Eichmann’s anger at former cohorts increased he wanted to set down his ideas in a book with the assistance of Sassen and Fritsch.

(Willem Sassen, a member of the Durer group who interviewed Eichmann for the Sassen/Argentina Papers)

1955 became a watershed year for Eichmann.  His personal circumstances changed as his wife Vera gave birth to their fourth son and he turned fifty years old.  In addition, the Peron government that had assisted Nazi exiles since the end of the war was overthrown in a coup resulting in an unstable political situation that placed Nazi escapees in the dark as to their futures.  Other events became public during the course of the year that concerned those who sought a resurgence of National Socialism when Austria signed the Independence Treaty; military occupation of West Germany ended and it was allowed to join NATO and form its own military, and represent its own interests abroad.  With Nazi exiles failing to influence West German elections, and with Moscow releasing German POWs, any hopes of a Nazi resurgence appeared dim at best.  Along with these events during 1955 the first major historical works and documentaries began appearing that described in intricate detail the role of “the Grand Inquisitor without magic, Adolf Eichmann.” (176)  The wealth of information and documentation that included Nazi letterhead, signatures, and other evidence could not be dismissed as Jewish propaganda.  It began to dawn on many of the doubters in the German community in Argentina, that Nazi denials about the Holocaust were lies.  This community led by Sasser, Fritsch and others needed someone with knowledge of what really happened to refute the books, articles and other media.  For them, Eichmann was the answer, and this project gave birth to the Sassen interviews.

(Eichmann reading in an Israeli prison)

Stangneth effectively argues that when Eichmann was in Argentina he did not live a solitary life and he talked about his career incessantly.  Sassen began to record Eichmann sometime around April, 1957 as Eichmann wanted to correct the historical record that was being presented in the burgeoning Holocaust literature.  Eichmann’s writing in Argentina was prodigious and the Sassen transcripts would reach 1000 pages, plus another 100 pages that Eichmann had written before the interviews began.  Strangneth spends a great deal of time analyzing Eichmann’s writing and convoluted logic, as he saw himself as a victim of malicious defamation, and misrepresentation.  For Eichmann, he was the irrefutable witness as all the other leading Nazis were dead.  The Durer group obtained all the leading books and articles pertaining to the Final Solution and examined each book with a fine tooth comb.  This process allowed Eichmann to see what the rest of the world believed and he would use that knowledge to prepare his arguments to refute it.  This approach was very helpful when he was imprisoned in Israel as he had practiced the major arguments against his position for years.  Strangneth points out that he “presents us with his irrefutable truth in an accusatory tone, with the self-assurance of a demagogue.” (215)

The author provides descriptions of the tapes that recorded Eichmann’s views and she speculates about dates and who was in attendance.  The author provides numerous verbatim comments by Eichmann; i.e., “The only good enemy of the Reich was a dead one….when I received an order, I always carried out this order with the executioner, and I am proud of that to this day.  If I had not done this, they would not have gone to the butcher.” (267)  Stangneth’s thoroughness is exceptional and through her analysis of the Sassen transcripts she provides insights into Eichmann’s thought process that culminates with his closing remarks where he confesses as to what was his real role in the Final Solution.  This is a far cry from the Eichmann in Jerusalem who presented himself as the “cautious bureaucrat.”

The Sassen papers developed a life of their own and Strangneth recounts in detail the road the papers take once Sassen learns of Eichmann’s abduction.  They seem to travel from Buenos Aires to Eichmann’s half brother Robert in Austria, then to be stolen from his office.  Sassen sells part of the material to ­Life and Stern magazines who publish excerpts from the material.  The most complete transcript fell into the hands of Polityka, a Polish magazine, but when published it did not create much interest.  The Israeli prosecution team in Jerusalem acquired a great deal of information, but most of it was ruled as inadmissible in court because their copies were of such poor quality, and the tapes that could have been used to show how disingenuous Eichmann’s testimony was, were not in their possession.

Strangneth brings her monograph to a close by examining the accuracy of books that were published after the trial that purported to use the Sassen documents and admonishes some for not living up to high academic standards, something that she has done throughout her work.  EICHMANN BEFORE JERUSALEM, can be somewhat dry in spots but overall it is an amazing study of a subject that needed clarification and it brings to the fore primary documents that will assist future historians.  One can only hope that documents that have not been released pertaining to the Sassen papers, as well as documents held by the German government will soon be made available for historical research so we can obtain an even more accurate picture of what the Nazis perpetrated throughout Europe during W.W.II.

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