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Eichmann Before Jerusalem

The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer

By Bettina Stangneth

About the Book:

A total and groundbreaking reassessment of the life of Adolf Eichmann—a superb work of scholarship that reveals his activities and notoriety among a global network of National Socialists following the collapse of the Third Reich and that permanently challenges Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil.”

Smuggled out of Europe after the collapse of Germany, Eichmann managed to live a peaceful and active exile in Argentina for years before his capture by the Mossad. Though once widely known by nicknames such as “Manager of the Holocaust,” in 1961 he was able to portray himself, from the defendant’s box in Jerusalem, as an overworked bureaucrat following orders—no more, he said, than “just a small cog in Adolf Hitler’s extermination machine.” How was this carefully crafted obfuscation possible? How did a central architect of the Final Solution manage to disappear? And what had he done with his time while in hiding?

Bettina Stangneth, the first to comprehensively analyze more than 1,300 pages of Eichmann’s own recently discovered written notes— as well as seventy-three extensive audio reel recordings of a crowded Nazi salon held weekly during the 1950s in a popular district of Buenos Aires—draws a chilling portrait, not of a reclusive, taciturn war criminal on the run, but of a highly skilled social manipulator with an inexhaustible ability to reinvent himself,  an unrepentant murderer eager for acolytes with whom to discuss past glories while vigorously planning future goals with other like-minded fugitives.

A work that continues to garner immense international attention and acclaim, Eichmann Before Jerusalem maps out the astonishing links between innumerable past Nazis—from ace Luftwaffe pilots to SS henchmen—both in exile and in Germany, and reconstructs in detail the postwar life of one of the Holocaust’s principal organizers as no other book has done

About Bettina Stangneth:

Bettina Stangneth wrote her dissertation on Immanuel Kant and the concept of radical evil. Ever since then she has been researching a theory of the lie and has written widely on anti-Semitism in eighteenth-century and National Socialist philosophy. In 2000 she was awarded first prize by the Philosophical-Political Academy, Cologne, and she received the German NDR nonfiction book award for Eichmann Before Jerusalem in 2011. Bettina Stangneth is an independent philosopher and lives in Hamburg, Germany.

Read an Excerpt


Ever since Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was published in 1963, every essay on Adolf Eichmann has also been a dialogue with Hannah Arendt. A Jew from Königsberg who had studied philosophy under Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger until National Socialism drove her out of Germany, Arendt went to Jerusalem in 1961 for Eichmann’s trial. Like all philosophers, she wanted to understand. But our understanding is always mediated by our context: we bring to the task our own thoughts and experiences and our own images of the past. Hannah Arendt read about Adolf Eichmann in the newspapers for the first time in 1943 at the latest, and eighteen years later she was familiar with all the research on him. What she expected to find in Jerusalem was something she had already described in detail: a diabolical, highly intelligent mass murderer who commanded a kind of horrified fascination, the kind of murderer seen in great works of literature. “He was one of the most intelligent of the lot,” she wrote in 1960. Anyone who dared to understand him would be taking a great leap toward understanding the Nazis’ crimes. “Am very tempted.”

Arendt, a philosopher with a gift for acute observation, was not the only person who was puzzled by Eichmann in the flesh. Regardless of where they came from, almost all the trial observers received the same impression: Eichmann-in-Jerusalem was a wretched creature, with none of the scintillating, satanic charisma they had expected. The SS Ober­sturmbannführer who had spread fear and terror and death for millions exhausted the observers’ attention with his endless sentences, and his talk of acting on orders and taking oaths of allegiance. Shouldn't the fact that he was so astoundingly good at doing so have aroused suspicions, even in 1961? Voices of doubt were present, but they were very quiet and not at all popular. The crucial difference between these voices and the trial observers was that the doubters all had access to at least part of the Argentina Papers.

In 1960 Holocaust research was in its infancy, documentary evidence was scarce, and the desire to extract information from perpetrators who were brought to trial made people incautious. Hannah Arendt chose the method of understanding that she was familiar with: repeatedly read­ing Eichmann’s words and conducting a detailed analysis of the person speaking and writing, on the assumption that someone speaks and writes only when they want to be understood. She read the transcripts of his hearing and the trial more thoroughly than almost anyone else. And for this very reason, she fell into his trap: Eichmann-in-Jerusalem was little more than a mask. She didn’t recognize it, although she was acutely aware that she had not understood the phenomenon as well as she had hoped.

No other book on Adolf Eichmann—and probably on National Socialism as a whole—has occasioned more debate than Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book achieved the primary goal of philosophers since Socrates: controversy for the sake of understanding. However, since at least the end of the 1970s, reference to Hannah Arendt has served to distract us from the matter at hand. One cannot help but feel that the story of the trial has stopped being about Eichmann, and that we would rather talk about the debate and various theories of evil than try to dis­cover more about the man himself than a thinker in 1961 could possibly have known. And yet a major development has given us access to other sources entirely—at least in theory.

Since 1979 large parts of the so-called Sassen interviews have become available, and we can now see what Hannah Arendt and all the other trial observers were not allowed to see: Eichmann beforeJerusalem, chat­ting in his friend’s front room, surrounded by former comrades—Nazis in Argentina, just like him. Historians’ engagement with this wealth of information has, however, remained worryingly brief. They have dis­played some reluctance and a notable lack of curiosity regarding this source, even after some of the original tapes surfaced in 1998. A thor­ough reading of the transcripts alone confirms that more happened in Argentina than just a journalist on the lookout for a story meeting up with a washed‑up Nazi on the lookout for a bottle of whiskey, and revel­ing in their memories. If anyone was of a mind to actually argue against Hannah Arendt, rather than continue to lament the success of her book, they could have found plenty of ammunition here. Instead, we go on retelling Eichmann’s stories from Israel, referring to the dates he gave, quoting from an insupportable pseudoedition of the transcripts from a tendentious publisher, and leaving unexamined material on Eichmann sitting in archives, wrongly labeled—material that could put even the legendarily reactionary stance of historians to the test. And so there is at least one thing we should learn from Hannah Arendt: when faced with the unknown, we should let ourselves be tempted.

My book is, first, an attempt to present all the available material, as well as the challenges that come with it. Even the story of how the Argentina Papers came to be distributed among several archives, like pieces of a monstrous jigsaw puzzle, gives us an unexpected insight into the “Eich­mann phenomenon.” And any controversy about this phenomenon is worthwhile. My book presents these sources in detail for the first time, and the route they have taken through history, in the hope that it will enable further research and prompt more questions.

Eichmann Before Jerusalem 
is also a dialogue with Hannah Arendt, and not simply because I first came to this topic many years ago through Eichmann in Jerusalem. Our understanding of history is so dependent on our own time and circumstances that we cannot ignore a perspec­tive like Arendt’s. She had the courage to form a clear judgment, even at the risk of knowing too little in spite of all her meticulous work. And one of the most significant insights to be gained from studying Adolf Eichmann is reflected in Arendt: even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled. We will be able to recognize this mechanism only if thinkers deal bravely enough with their expectations and judgments to see their own failure.

Having written this book, it remains for me to preface it with a warn­ing, in the same words that Hannah Arendt wrote to a good friend before flying to Jerusalem for the Eichmann trial: “It could be interesting—apart from being horrible.”


Introduction to Chapter 1

To this day, we don’t know exactly when Eichmann decided to live in Argentina, but he once explained why he was drawn there: “I knew that in this ‘promised land’ of South America I had a few good friends, to whom I could say openly, freely and proudly that I am Adolf Eichmann, former SS Obersturmbannführer.”

Proud to be Adolf Eichmann? What an extraordinary remark! The fact that Eichmann saw this as a realistic possibility was as grotesque then as it seems now. His name had become a byword for the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews, as he was all too aware. Nobody goes to great lengths to live under a false name, among strangers, without good rea­son. And when Adolf Eichmann was planning his escape, he had an excellent reason: he was simply too well known to remain undiscovered for long.

Too many people knew him and knew about his part in the disenfran­chisement, expulsion, and mass murder of the Jews. If this fact is not as clear to us today as it was to Eichmann in the late 1940s, it is due to his extraordinary success in presenting himself in Jerusalem. After being kidnapped in 1960, he did his utmost to paint himself as an unimport­ant head of department, one among many, a “small cog in the machine” of the murderous Third Reich. He was ultimately an anonymous man who had been “made a scapegoat” through error, chance, and the cow­ardice of others, an unknown SS officer with no influence to speak of. But Eichmann knew very well that this image was a lie. By no means had his name been known only to a very limited circle of people; nor did it become common currency only during the trial. On the contrary, his reputation played a fundamental part in the enormity of the crime for which Eichmann remains notorious to this day.

As his name developed into a symbol of the Holocaust, Adolf Eich­mann kept a close watch on it; indeed, both he and his superiors specifi­cally encouraged the development. He wanted to be anything but the “man in the shadows” that he sometimes claimed to be. Only before the court in Israel did he try to give the impression that he had been a nameless, faceless, disposable minor official—but then, who wouldn’t want to be invisible when threatened with the death penalty? Still, the Eichmann Before Jerusalem idea that Eichmann had been a man in the shadows seemed plausible to many people. Some even saw his invisibility as the key to his mur­derous success. Yet obvious clues tell us that by 1938 at the very latest, Eichmann was neither unknown nor interested in operating behind the scenes. As we follow these clues, a far more colorful picture of this shady character will emerge.


The Ideal Symbol

Adolf Eichmann was not the first person to realize how useful a public image can be. The use of ideals and symbolism was one of the secrets for the Nazi Party’s success. Hitler’s Mein Kampf also provides a warn­ing never to underestimate the effect of a symbolic figure. Speaking in the 1950s in Argentina, Eichmann would say that wartime was when he had finally become famous: “They knew me wherever I went.” He even turned up in a book published by some of his comrades in Vienna, though his name was spread largely through his visibility to his victims: “Through the press, the name Eichmann had emerged as a symbol. . . . In any case, the word Jew . . . was irreversibly linked with the word Eichmann.” And his various official departments with their nondescript and frequently changing names soon just became known as “Eichmann’s office.” These concepts were so powerful that they can be found in witness statements from the Nuremberg trials, along with the term “Eichmann’s special commando” for his representatives abroad. This usage cannot be wholly explained by the fact that Eichmann, unlike many officials in the RSHA, remained in his post throughout the war. He would never have gained this reputation without the public per­formance that went with it, and without that reputation, “Eichmann’s office” would not have had the position of power that it achieved over the years. A single person’s influence extends only as far as his arm or his commands can reach. His image, however, can have an impact in places he never goes, provided he finds someone to carry it there—even if that someone is his enemy. “Much more power . . . was attributed to me than I actually had,” Eichmann explained. And “this fear” of his presumed power meant that “everyone felt he was being watched.”

The Nazi Party’s concept of power was very personalized, and the rapid success of this concept was repeated further down the organiza­tion. Eichmann and his colleagues quickly learned how useful a Führer-like figure can be, as a focal point for gathering power. This was one of his fundamental reasons for not hiding in the shadows or shying away from public displays. The Nazis needed a shop-front sign to which the Jewish question could be “irreversibly linked,” and Eichmann was the name to fulfill that symbolic function. Eichmann would later try to make this choice look like pure chance—a view that surfaces occasion­ally in books and articles on his role. But what other name could even have been considered for the position?

Eichmann kept a close watch on his growing reputation, and it could not have escaped him that his exploits were becoming increasingly noto­rious. The international press reported on them, and the Nazis went over the press of “international Jewry” with a fine-tooth comb. Review­ing the press was a reconnaissance mission in a war that was partly being fought with “intellectual weapons.” Eichmann’s significance, both in his own estimation and for his colleagues, grew in direct proportion to the number of plans and campaigns to which he managed to link his name. By this time, many people were also familiar with Eichmann from his appearances at interministry meetings and planning conferences. With all due caution about viewing history through an individual biography, it is surprising how many of the participant lists for important meet­ings feature Eichmann’s name. He was involved right from the start, leading experiments—like the Vienna Central Office, Doppl, Nisko, the Szczecin deportations, ghettoization, and even the first attempts at mass extermination—which can now be seen as prototypes for practices that later became standard. At the notorious Wannsee Conference, Heydrich officially enthroned Eichmann as the coordinator of all interministe­rial efforts toward the “final solution of the Jewish question.” It was the logical next step for his career. A lunatic project like this required someone who had experience in unconventional solutions, someone who wouldn’t get caught up in the usual bureaucratic formalities. Eich­mann’s leadership of the Vienna Central Office, and everything that came after, proved he could do just that. He had a talent for organiza­tion, and for making possible things that had never been done before. When others were at a loss, he was the man they called on. For example, a professor at Strasbourg University was adamant that he wanted the “skulls of Jewish-Bolshevist Commissars” to add to a collection of skel­etons, despite the fact they were still alive. With Eichmann on board, this too could be organized.

Eichmann enjoyed his reputation for being the man for tricky assign­ments. Even when he was neither the initiator nor the driving force of a project, he still managed to convince others he had originated it. The so-called Madagascar Plan is still linked to his name today, although the original idea was verifiably not his, and he never worked on its details. But still he triumphed: in spite of all evidence to the contrary, even today no one can talk about this resettlement plan without mentioning his name. In later years, when circumstances had changed, Eichmann would make an immense effort to divert attention away from himself and play down his role. But that effort only provides further evidence of the position he had really held during the Nazis’ glory years. No one would do that unless they had something to hide, and Eichmann did it surprisingly effectively.

It has therefore taken some time for historians to recognize the sig­nificance of the gigantic eviction and resettlement plans in which Eich­mann played a substantial part. As head of Special Department IV R, he was responsible for “the central processing of Security Police matters during the implementation of the eviction in the East.” The connections were clearer to Eichmann’s contemporaries, as we can see from a report by the Ministry of the Interior, claiming that in September 1941 Eich­mann advocated extending the definition of Jews to include half Jews. He was "strongly in favor of the new ruling, though with no real view on the form it should take." The biographical note on him read: "Eichmann set up the Central Offices in Vienna and Prague, and led the deportation of Jews from Szczecin etc. to the General Government."

The expulsion of the Jews from Szczecin on the night of February 13, 1940, and the deportations from Posen and Schneidemühl that fol­lowed, were the overture to the planned reordering of occupied Eastern Europe in its entirety. These events caused worldwide press attention, which was closely monitored by the Reich and made a lot of people nervous. But Eichmann used the attention, just as he had the failure of Nisko, to build up pressure in meetings with Jewish representatives in the months afterward, and to threaten them with a similar “resettle­ment” program if the emigration quotas were not met. Eichmann’s public persona made the press inflate his role in the resettlement. He liked to give the impression he was behind everything and everyone. Newspaper coverage of the affair created a threatening picture, which only those watching from a distance could afford to underestimate. At this point in time, reports of excessive violence, and even propagan­dist exaggeration in the international press, served to help Eichmann rather than hurt him. The more reports went around that “this Eich­mann did that,” and the more incidents were “attributed [to him] out of pure habit,” the greater his reputation became. Eichmann not only saw through this mechanism; he used it to further his own interests.


Meticulously researched, compellingly argued, engagingly written. Bettina Stangneth confronts Hannah Arendt’s notion of the 'banality of evil' with important new evidence and nuanced insight, permitting a fresh and informed reassessment of this riven debate. Arendt would surely have applauded the Stangneth challenge.” —Timothy Ryback

“Thrilling in its purpose. . . . there is no doubt of its importance: Stangneth’s research, full of forgotten papers, lost interviews, and buried evidence, turns the conventional wisdom about Eichmann on its head.” —Publishers Weekly

“A riveting reconstruction of a fanatical National Socialist’s obdurate journey in exile and appalling second career in Argentina. . . . Stangneth masterfully sifts through the information. . . . A rigorously documented, essential work not only about Eichmann’s masterly masquerade, but also about how we come to accept appearances as truth.” —Kirkus (*starred review*)

Other books by Bettina Stangneth