If Hannah Arendt (1906-75) leaves no other intellectual legacy, her notion of "the banality of evil" seems certain to ensure her a place in the history of Western thought. The idea, emblazoned in the subtitle of her controversial 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, impressed many people as a fundamental insight into a new and distinctly modern kind of evil. Adolf Eichmann had been a leading official in Nazi Germany's SS, one of the key figures in the implementation of the Final Solution, and he had managed to remain in hiding in Argentina until Israeli agents captured him in 1960. In her critical account of his 1961 trial for crimes against the Jewish people and humanity, Arendt argued that Eichmann, far from being a "monster," as the Israeli prosecutor insisted, was nothing more than a thoughtless bureaucrat, passionate only in his desire to please his superiors. Eichmann, the unthinking functionary capable of enormous evil, revealed the dark potential of modern bureaucratic man.
This idea of evil was almost entirely new. Before the Enlightenment, most theological and philosophical thinking about the nature of evil rested on the assumption that evil deeds are the product of strong passions--pride, ambition, envy, hatred. During the Enlightenment and into the 19th century, many Western thinkers suggested that evil grew less out of man's dark passions than from unjust social conditions, and many assumed that it would eventually be eradicated through social and political transformation. By Arendt's time, that confidence had been shattered by the terrors of Nazi-occupied Europe, Japanese-occupied China, and the Soviet Union. Secular intellectuals were left groping for new explanations, and to many it appeared that Arendt had found one. The killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia have kept the question--and Arendt's answer--very much alive. "We have a sense of evil," Susan Sontag has said, but we no longer have "the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil."
Arendt's thesis about Eichmann was attacked in the popular press and questioned by historians of the Nazi era, but many intellectuals have staunchly supported her. The novelist Leslie Epstein, writing in 1987, argued that "the outrage . . . that greeted Arendt's thesis when applied to Adolf Eichmann indicates the depth of our need to think of that bureaucrat as different from ourselves, to respond to him, indeed, as a typical character in Holocaust fiction--a beast, a pervert, a monster." Epstein's point is that modern bureaucratic man, unthinkingly going about his daily routine, whatever it is, is always a potential Eichmann.
While the controversy over Arendt's idea has continued, the phrase banality of evil has slipped easily into the language, becoming a commonplace, almost a banality itself. Journalists and others freely apply it as an all-purpose explanation--for the racist treatment of African Americans, the terror of Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq, and even, in the case of one theater critic, the betrayal of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. In the intellectual world, it remains an idea of consequence. Bernard Williams, Britain's pre-eminent moral philosopher, cites Arendt in declaring that "the modern world . . . has made evil, like other things, a collective enterprise." It is remarkable how much enthusiasm has been aroused by an idea that is so deeply flawed.
Banal is not a word that one would normally associate with evil. Its modern meaning--commonplace, trivial, without originality--did not arise until the 19th century. In feudal times, banal referred to land or property held in common, or property that feudal tenants were required to use, such as a "bannal-mill." By the 1830s, the neutral word signifying what was held in common had become a pejorative signifying ideas--often concerning scientific and commercial progress--that were popular with the rising middle class. In France, where the term had much the same career, the novelist Gustave Flaubert complained in 1862 that his country had become a place where "the banal, the facile, and the foolish are invariably applauded, adopted, and adored"--a development he blamed largely on the increasing popularity of that most modern creation, the newspaper. "The banality of life," he declared in another letter, "must make one vomit with sadness when one considers it closely." His Madame Bovary (1857) can be seen as a portrait of a woman with profound longings that she can express only in banal language.
It is a long way from Emma Bovary to Adolf Eichmann, but the Eichmann described by Arendt has one thing in common with Flaubert's protagonist: he was, she writes, "genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliche." Even on the day he was to be hanged, Eichmann spoke in cliches. "It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us--the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil [emphasis in original]."
This startling conclusion is given without further explanation, but Arendt had been brooding about the nature of evil for at least two decades. In 1945, she wrote that "the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe." She knew something of the "problem" from personal experience, having fled Germany for Paris when the Nazis came to power in 1933, then taking refuge in the United States in 1941. A student of the philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger during her years in Germany, she eventually made her way onto the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City.
Glimmerings of her banality thesis appeared in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), her first book, in which she argued that the rise of totalitarianism had pointed to the existence of a new kind of evil: "absolute evil," which, she says "could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, thirst for power, and cowardice." She often said that traditional understandings of evil were of no help in coming to grips with this modern variant, and she may have wanted to attend the Eichmann trial, which she covered for the New Yorker, in order to confront it and clarify her ideas.
Arendt must have thought that the meaning of her phrase was obvious, since she did not explain it, but even some of her friends were puzzled. The novelist Mary McCarthy told her that their mutual friend Nicolo Chiaramonte "thinks he agrees with what you are saying but he is not sure he has understood you." And Karl Jaspers suggested that she needed to make clear that she was referring to the evil acts committed by the Nazis: "The point is that this evil, not evil per se, is banal."
Banal was a curious word choice. It is an aesthetic term, not a moral one. It applies more to ideas, as Flaubert used it, than to deeds. One could perhaps speak of the banality of an evil act if one were engaged in the dubious task of judging how inventive a particular evil deed was, as Thomas De Quincey jokingly pretends to do in his 1854 essay "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." Were the murderous deeds committed by the Nazis banal? The question makes no sense. Evil acts, it seems clear, are neither banal nor not banal. The term banality does not apply to evil, just as it does not apply to goodness.
It makes sense to use the term banal when talking about ideas, but are the ideas that motivated the leading Nazis banal? The pseudoscientific categorization of millions of people as less than human and therefore worthy of extermination is a repulsive idea, but it is not a banal or "commonplace" idea. As historian Saul Friedlander says in Nazi Germany and the Jews (1997), "Nazi persecutions and exterminations were perpetrated by ordinary people who lived and acted within a modern society not unlike our own; the goals of these actions, however, were formulated by a regime, an ideology, and a political culture that were anything but commonplace."
Angered by the attacks on Eichmann in Jersualem, Arendt claimed that her book had nothing to do with ideas. "As I see it," she said to McCarthy, "there are no 'ideas' in this Report, there are only facts with a few conclusions. . . . My point would be that what the whole furor is about are facts, and neither theories nor ideas." In a postscript written for the paperback edition, she makes a similar point: "When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial." Indeed, the book's subtitle is A Report on the Banality of Evil.
But the banality of evil cannot be regarded as a fact. Even Arendt implied as much in a letter to McCarthy: "The very phrase, 'the banality of evil,' stands in contrast to the phrase I used in the totalitarianism book [The Origins of Totalitarianism], 'radical evil.' This is too difficult a subject to be dealt with here, but it is important." In another letter to McCarthy, she seems to admit that she has conflated two different questions: the nature of evil and the nature of the man who committed the evil. "My 'basic notion' of the ordinariness of Eichmann is much less a notion than a faithful description of a phenomenon. I am sure that there can be drawn many conclusions from this phenomenon and the most general I drew is indicated: 'banality of evil.' I may sometime want to write about this, and then I would write about the nature of evil."
According to Arendt, then, she wasn't writing about the nature of evil when she spoke of the banality of evil. She was only writing about the nature of Eichmann, whom she regarded as a banal man--banal insofar as he was an ordinary bureaucrat who "except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement . . . had no motives at all." Her point is that Eichmann, though a high-level Nazi official, was not strongly influenced by Nazi ideas. As she wrote to McCarthy, "One sees that Eichmann was much less influenced by ideology than I assumed in the book on totalitarianism."
Was Arendt right about Eichmann? She was right to say that it made no sense to call Eichmann, as the Israeli prosecutor would have it, "a perverted sadist." And she was right to say that "with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann" (though no serious thinker has suggested that evil people are necessarily diabolic or demonic). But she was wrong to conclude that because Eichmann was not a fanatical anti-Semite he therefore wasn't a fanatic. She herself admits that he was a fanatical believer in Hitler; she speaks of "his genuine, 'boundless and immoderate admiration for Hitler' (as one of the defense witnesses called it)," and she implies that he subscribed to the Nazi formulation of Kant's categorical imperative: "Act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it." Eichmann's fanatical devotion to Hitler led him to reject Heinrich Himmler's orders in the last year of the war to stop the Final Solution. Eichmann was not a Nazi fanatic but a Hitler fanatic--a distinction without a difference, since Hitler was a fanatical anti-Semite. To be sure, if Hitler had changed his mind and said that all Jews should be given apartments on the Riviera, Eichmann would have zealously carried out those orders as well.
Arendt was so preoccupied with proving that Eichmann was an unfanatical bureaucrat that she refused to take seriously the speech he gave before he went to the gallows, in which he made it clear that he still believed in the glories of Hitler's fallen Third Reich. Describing Eichmann's final speech, she says: "He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottglaubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death." In other words, he was still a good Nazi who believed in the Germanic gods; he was not a Christian. Then she quotes Eichmann as saying: "After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them." Arendt dismisses these remarks as so much "grotesque silliness." They are not completely coherent, but the main point is clear: Eichmann is paying homage to the "ideal" Germany of Hitler; he is looking back nostalgically to the glorious days when men like himself were in power.
Perhaps Arendt was so insistent that Eichmann was an ordinary bureaucrat because she thought the key to the evils of the modern world was the increasing power of bureaucracies. In The Human Condition (1958), she argued that bureaucracy, which she defined as "rule by nobody," is "not necessarily no-rule; it may indeed, under certain circumstances, even turn out to be one of its cruelest and most tyrannical versions." In this she was influenced by the great sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), who spoke in despairing terms about the rise of bureaucratic man. "It is horrible to think," he declared, "that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to their jobs and striving towards bigger ones." Arendt, in the postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem, strongly echoes Weber: "The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them." In her view, Eichmann was so much the bureaucratic man that he "never realized what he was doing [emphasis in original]."
Arendt strongly implies that the essence of totalitarianism is bureaucratization, or that there is a high degree of correlation between the two, even though in the 20th century the democracies have become increasingly bureaucratic states without embracing totalitarianism. Moreover, as many scholars have pointed out, the German state bureaucracy at times hindered the Nazi Party's effort to destroy the Jews. What distinguishes Nazi Germany from other regimes is not its bureaucratic nature but its racial ideas. These ideas were what led to the murder of millions, not only in concentration camps administered by impersonal bureaucracies but by wide-ranging special forces who rounded up Jews and shot them after forcing them to dig their own graves.
In her earlier writings, Arendt put more emphasis on the ideology of totalitarian regimes than on their bureaucratic nature. In 1963, however, she told McCarthy that she had overestimated the impact of ideology. What was most disturbing about totalitarian regimes, she often suggested in the last decade of her life, was their production of "ordinary" bureaucratic men who lead compartmentalized lives--dutifully and even eagerly obeying orders to kill and torture people during the day while remaining good family men at night. This notion of a motiveless, thoughtless bureaucratic man was what she meant by the "banality of evil."
Arendt never changed her view of Eichmann. In the introduction to Thinking, which she wrote in the early 1970s, she says: "The deeds [of Eichmann] were monstrous, but the doer . . . was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives." And she repeats what she said in the earlier book's postscript: Eichmann's main characteristic was thoughtlessness, which is not--she says--the same thing as stupidity.
In Thinking she decides to make even greater claims for her thesis by saying that she was not describing a modern kind of evil but attempting to clarify the nature of evil in general. "Is evil-doing . . . possible in default of not just 'base motives' . . . but of any motives whatever? . . . Is wickedness, however we may define it . . . not a necessary condition for evil-doing? Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?"
Given the roll call of "thoughtful" people who have supported evil regimes, it seems odd to blame "thoughtlessness." One of them--at least during the early days of Hitler's triumph--was Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Arendt's mentor (and onetime-lover), who declared in 1933 that "the FŸhrer alone personifies German reality and German laws, now and in the future." Heidegger can hardly be called "thoughtless," unless we say that anyone who has a foolish political idea is thoughtless. Heidegger found in Nazism an antidote to the evils of modernity--bureaucraticization, industrialism, materialism, scientism--which, in his view, deprived human beings of their authenticity, and cost them a loss of Being. Looking at Hitler from the mountain peaks of German philosophical thought, Heidegger may not have noticed that racial anti-Semitism was at the heart of his thinking--but this is giving Heidegger the benefit of the doubt.
Some critics have suggested that there is a connection between Arendt's depiction of Eichmann as "thoughtless" and her defense of the "thoughtful" Heidegger, with whom she maintained a friendship until the end of her life, visiting him on numerous occasions even though his wife was intensely jealous of her. In the Times Literary Supplement recently, novelist and screenwriter Frederic Raphael suggested that "Arendt's 'understanding' of Eichmann might have been a function of her unspoken desire to exempt her Nazi lover . . . from the damnation he deserved." There is no question that Arendt tried to play down Heidegger's connection with the Nazis, saying to the philosopher J. Glenn Gray that Heidegger's pro-Hitler 1933 speech was "not Nazi . . . [but] a very unpleasant product of nationalism." But even though in the postwar years Arendt renewed her friendship with Heidegger, she grew increasingly critical of his ideas. Perhaps her treatment of Eichmann was influenced by her loyalty to Heidegger, but the main idea that shaped her thinking was Weber's notion of bureaucratization.
From banality to thoughtlessness, there is a common denominator in Arendt's attempts to clarify the nature of evil, which is that evil is less a choice than the outcome of certain circumstances. Arendt's seeming embrace of determinism bothered McCarthy: "One cannot help feeling that this mental oblivion [of Eichmann's] is chosen, by the heart or the moral will--an active preference." She said that Arendt was creating a monster of her own. "Perhaps I'm dull-witted, but it seems to me that what you are saying is that Eichmann lacks an inherent human quality: the capacity for thought, consciousness--conscience. But then isn't he a monster simply? If you allow him a wicked heart, then you leave him some freedom, which permits our condemnation." Thus, even Arendt's closest friend and strongest defender had grave doubts about her explanation of Eichmann.
While she grappled for decades with the question of evil, Arendt never seriously considered the objections of her critics. It seems not to have occurred to her that her own attempts to analyze evil were a muddle. No doubt she was fortified by the continuing support for her views in intellectual circles. Writing only recently in the New York Review of Books, the Israeli journalist Amos Elon rehearsed many of the old arguments again, suggesting that those who were unable to accept Arendt's view of Eichmann as an evildoer devoid of evil qualities were led astray by their repugnance toward his crimes. Arendt, Elon said, "made many small errors . . . but she also got many of the big things right, and for this she deserves to be remembered." Not so. She got two very big things wrong: the nature of Eichmann and the nature of evil.
Every morning, the words “Beth Hamishpath” (“The House of Justice”), shouted by the court usher at the top of his voice, make us jump to our feet as they announce the arrival of the three judges, who, bare-headed and in black robes, walk into the courtroom from a side entrance to take their seats on the highest tier of the raised platform at the front of the long hall. They sit at a long table, which is eventually to be covered with innumerable books and more than fifteen hundred documents. Immediately below the judges are the translators, whose services are needed for direct exchanges between the defendant or his counsel and the court; otherwise, Adolf Eichmann, the German-speaking accused party, like all the other foreigners in the courtroom, follows the Hebrew proceedings through the simultaneous radio transmission, which is excellent in French, bearable in English, and sheer comedy—frequently incomprehensible—in German. (In view of the scrupulous fairness of all the technical arrangements for the trial, it is among the minor mysteries of the new State of Israel that, with its high percentage of German-born people, it was unable to find an adequate translator into the only language the accused and his counsel could understand. The old prejudice against German Jews, once very pronounced in Israel, is no longer strong enough to account for it.) One tier below the translators are the glass booth of the accused and the witness box, facing each other. Finally, on the bottom tier, with their backs to the spectators, are the prosecutor, Attorney General Gideon Hausner, with his staff of four assistant attorneys, and Dr. Robert Servatius, counsel for the defense—a lawyer from Cologne, chosen by Eichmann and paid by the Israeli government (just as at the Nuremberg Trials all attorneys for the accused were paid by the tribunal of the victorious powers), who during the first weeks is accompanied by an assistant. Whoever planned this auditorium in the newly built House of the People, Beth Ha’am—now guarded from roof to cellar by heavily armed police, and surrounded by high fences, as well as by a wooden row of barracks in the front courtyard, in which all comers are expertly frisked—obviously had a theatre in mind, complete with orchestra and balcony, with proscenium and stage, and with side doors for the actors’ entrances.
At no time, however, is there anything theatrical in the conduct of the judges—Moshe Landau, the presiding judge, Judge Benjamin Halevi, and Judge Yitzhak Raveh. Their walk is unstudied; their sober and intense attention, visibly stiffening under the impact of grief as they listen to the tales of suffering, is natural; their impatience with the prosecutor’s attempt to drag out the hearings is spontaneous and refreshing; their attitude toward the defense is perhaps a shade over-polite, as though they had it always in mind that, to quote the judgment they handed down, “Dr. Servatius stood almost alone in this strenuous legal battle, in an unfamiliar environment;” their manner toward the accused is always beyond reproach. They are so evidently three good and honest men that one is not surprised to see that none of them yields to the greatest of all the temptations to play-act in this setting—that of pretending that they, all three born and educated in Germany, must wait for the Hebrew translation of anything said in German. Judge Landau hardly ever waits to give his answer until the translator has done his work, and he frequently interrupts the translation to correct and improve it, appearing grateful for this bit of distraction from the grim business at hand. In time, during the cross-examination of the accused, he even leads his colleagues to use their German mother tongue in the dialogue with Eichmann—a proof, if proof were still needed, of his remarkable independence of current public opinion in Israel.
There is no doubt from the very beginning that it is Judge Landau who sets the tone, and that he is doing his best—his very best—to prevent this trial from becoming a “show” trial under the direction of the prosecutor, whose love of showmanship is unmistakable. Among the reasons he cannot always succeed is the simple fact that the proceedings happen on a stage before an audience, with the usher’s marvellous shout at the beginning of each session producing the effect of a rising curtain. Clearly, this courtroom is well suited to the show trial that David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel, had in mind when he decided to have Eichmann kidnapped in Argentina and brought to the District Court of Jerusalem to answer the charge that he had played a principal role in “the Final Solution of the Jewish question,” as the Nazis called their plan to exterminate the Jews. And Ben-Gurion, who has rightly been given the title of “architect of the state,” is the invisible stage manager of the proceedings. He does not attend a single one of the sessions; in the courtroom, he speaks with the voice of his Attorney General, who, representing the government, does his best—his very best—to obey his master. And if his best often turns out not to be good enough, the reason is that the trial is presided over by someone who serves Justice as faithfully as Mr. Hausner serves the State of Israel. Justice demands that the accused be prosecuted, defended, and judged, and that all the other questions, though they may seem to be of greater import—of “How could it happen?” and “Why did it happen?,” of “Why the Jews?” and “Why the Germans?,” of “What was the role of other nations?” and “What was the extent to which the Allies shared the responsibility?,” of “How could the Jews, through their own leaders, coöperate in their own destruction?” and “Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?”—be left in abeyance. Justice insists on the importance of Adolf Eichmann, the man in the glass booth built for his protection: medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes, who throughout the trial keeps craning his scraggy neck toward the bench (not once does he turn to face the audience), and who desperately tries to maintain his self-control—and mostly succeeds, despite a nervous tic, to which his mouth must have become subject long before this trial started. On trial are his deeds, not the sufferings of the Jews, not the German people or mankind, not even anti-Semitism and racism.
And Justice turns out to be a much sterner master than the Prime Minister. The latter’s rule, as Mr. Hausner is not slow in demonstrating, is permissive; it permits the prosecutor to give press conferences and interviews for television during the trial (the American program, sponsored by the Glickman Corporation, is constantly interrupted—business as usual—by real-estate advertising), and even “spontaneous” outbursts to reporters in the court building (he is sick of cross-examining Eichmann, who answers all questions with lies); it permits frequent side glances into the audience, and the theatrics characteristic of a conspicuous vanity, which finally achieves its triumph in the White House with a compliment on “a job well done” by the President of the United States. Justice does not permit anything of the sort; it demands seclusion, it requires sorrow rather than anger, and it prescribes the most careful abstention from all the nice pleasures of putting oneself in the limelight.
Yet no matter how consistently the judges shun the limelight, there they are, seated at the top of the platform, facing the audience as from a stage. The audience is supposed to represent the whole world, and in the first few weeks it indeed consisted chiefly of newspapermen and magazine writers who had flocked to Jerusalem from the four corners of the earth. They were to watch a spectacle as sensational as the Nuremberg Trials; only this time, Mr. Hausner noted, “the tragedy of Jewry as a whole was the central concern.” In fact, said Hausner, “if we charge him [Eichmann] also with crimes against non-Jews . . . this is” not because he committed them but, surprisingly, “because we make no ethnic distinctions.” That was certainly a remarkable sentence for a prosecutor to utter in his opening speech; it proved to be the key sentence in the case for the prosecution. For this case was built on what the Jews had suffered, not on what Eichmann had done. And, according to Mr. Hausner, that amounted to the same thing, because “there was only one man who had been concerned almost entirely with the Jews, whose business had been their destruction, whose role in the establishment of the iniquitous regime had been limited to them. That was Adolf Eichmann.” Was it not logical to bring before the court all the facts of Jewish suffering (which, of course, were never in dispute) and then look for evidence that, in one way or another, would connect Eichmann with what had happened? The Nuremberg Trials, where the defendants had been “indicted for crimes against members of many and various nations,” had left the Jewish tragedy out of account, Hausner said, for the simple reason that Eichmann had not been there. Did Hausner really believe the Nuremberg Trials would have paid greater attention to the fate of the Jews if Eichmann had been in the dock? Hardly. Like almost everybody else in Israel, he believed that only a Jewish court could render justice to Jews, and that it was the business of Jews to sit in judgment on their enemies.
If the audience was to be the world and the play was to be the huge panorama of Jewish suffering, the reality was falling short of expectations and failing to accomplish its purpose. The journalists remained faithful for no more than two weeks, and then the audience changed drastically. It was now supposed to consist of Israelis, and, specifically, of those who were too young to know the story or, as in the case of Oriental Jews, had never been told it. The trial was supposed to show them what it meant to live among non-Jews, to convince them that only in Israel could a Jew be safe and live an honorable life. (For correspondents, the lesson was spelled out in a little booklet on Israel’s legal system, which was handed to the press. Its author, Doris Lankin, cites a decision of Israel’s Supreme Court whereby two fathers who had “abducted their children and brought them to Israel” were directed to send them back to their mothers, living abroad, who had a legal right to their custody. This, says the author—no less proud of such strict legality than Hausner of his willingness to prosecute a murder charge even when the victims of the murder were non-Jews—“despite the fact that to send the children back to maternal custody and care would be committing them to waging an unequal struggle against the hostile elements in the Diaspora.”) But in actuality there were hardly any young people in the audience, and it did not consist of Israelis, as distinguished from Jews. It was filled with “survivors”—middle-aged and elderly people, immigrants from Europe, like myself—who knew by heart all that there was to know, and who were in no mood to learn any lessons and certainly did not need this trial to draw their own conclusions. As witness followed witness and horror was piled upon horror, they sat there and listened in public to stories they would hardly have been able to endure in private, when they would have had to face the storyteller. And the more “the calamity [in Hausner’s words] of the Jewish people in this generation” unfolded, and the more grandiose Hausner’s rhetoric became, the paler and more ghostlike became the figure in the glass booth, and no finger-wagging (“And there sits the monster responsible for all this”) could summon him back to life.
It was precisely the play aspect of the trial that collapsed under the weight of the hair-raising atrocities. A trial resembles a play in that both focus on the doer, not on the victim. A show trial, to be effective, needs even more urgently than an ordinary trial a limited and well-defined outline of what the doer did, and how. In the center of a trial can only be the one who did—in this respect, he is like the hero in the play—and if he suffers, he must suffer for what he has done, not for what he has caused others to suffer. No one knew this better than the presiding judge, before whose eyes the trial began to deteriorate into a bloody spectacle, or, as the judgment called it, “a rudderless ship tossed about by the waves.” But if his efforts to prevent this were often defeated, the defeat was, strangely, in part the fault of the defense, which hardly ever rose to challenge any testimony, no matter how irrelevant or immaterial it might be. Dr. Servatius (as everybody invariably addressed him) was a bit bolder when it came to the submission of documents, and the most impressive of his rare interventions occurred when the prosecution introduced as evidence the diaries of Hans Frank, wartime Governor General of Poland and one of the major war criminals hanged at Nuremberg. “I have only one question,” Dr. Servatius said. “Is the name Adolf Eichmann, the name of the accused, mentioned in those twenty-nine volumes [in fact, it was thirty-eight]? . . . The name Adolf Eichmann is not mentioned in all those twenty-nine volumes. . . . Thank you, no more questions.”
Thus, the trial never became a play, but the show that Ben-Gurion had had in mind did take place—or, rather, the “lessons” he thought should be offered to Israelis and Arabs, to Jews and Gentiles; that is, to the whole world. These lessons to be drawn from an identical show were meant to be different for the different recipients. Ben-Gurion had outlined them before the trial started, in a number of articles that were designed to explain why Israel had kidnapped the accused. There was the lesson to the non-Jewish world: “I want to establish before the nations of the world how millions of people, because they happened to be Jews, and one million babies, because they happened to be Jewish babies, were murdered by the Nazis.” Or, in the words of Davar, the organ of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party: “Let world opinion know this, that not Nazi Germany alone was responsible for the destruction of six million Jews of Europe.” Hence, again in Ben-Gurion’s own words, “We want the nations of the world to know . . . and they should be ashamed.” The Jews in the Diaspora were to remember how “four-thousand-year-old Judaism, with its spiritual creations, its ethical strivings, its Messianic aspirations, had always faced a hostile world,” how the Jews had degenerated until they went to their death like sheep, and how only the establishment of a Jewish state had enabled Jews to hit back, as Israelis had done in the War of Independence, in the Suez adventure, and in the almost daily incidents on Israel’s unhappy borders. And if the Jews outside Israel had to be shown the difference between Israeli heroism and Jewish submissive meekness, there was a complementary lesson for the Israelis; for “the generation of Israelis who have grown up since the holocaust” were in danger of losing their ties with the Jewish people and, by implication, with their own history. “It is necessary that our youth remember what happened to the Jewish people. We want them to know the most tragic facts in our history.” Finally, one of the motives in bringing Eichmann to trial was “to ferret out other Nazis—for example, the connection between the Nazis and some Arab rulers.”
If these had been the only justifications for bringing Adolf Eichmann to the District Court of Jerusalem, the trial would have been a failure on most counts. In some respects, the lessons were superfluous, and in others they were positively misleading. Thanks to Hitler, anti-Semitism has been discredited, perhaps not forever but certainly for the time being, and this is not because the Jews have become more popular all of a sudden but because not only Ben-Gurion but most people have “realized that in our day the gas chamber and the soap factory are what anti-Semitism may lead to.” Equally superfluous was the lesson to the Jews in the Diaspora, who hardly needed a great catastrophe in which a third of their people perished to be convinced of the world’s hostility. Not only has their conviction of the eternal and ubiquitous nature of anti-Semitism been the most potent ideological factor in the Zionist involvement since the Dreyfus Affair; it must also have been the cause of the otherwise inexplicable readiness of the German-Jewish community to negotiate with the Nazi authorities during the early stages of the regime. This conviction produced a fatal inability to distinguish between friend and foe; the German Jews underestimated their enemies because they somehow thought that all Gentiles were alike.
The contrast between Israeli heroism and the submissive meekness with which Jews went to their death—arriving on time at the transportation points, walking under their own power to the places of execution, digging their own graves, undressing and making neat piles of their clothing, and lying down side by side to be shot—seemed a telling point, and the prosecutor, asking witness after witness, “Why did you not protest?,” “Why did you board the train?,” “Fifteen thousand people were standing there and hundreds of guards facing you—why didn’t you revolt and charge and attack these guards?,” harped on it for all it was worth. But the sad truth of the matter is that the point was ill taken, for no non-Jewish group or non-Jewish people had behaved differently. Sixteen years ago, while still under the direct impact of the events, a former French inmate of Buchenwald, David Rousset, described, in “Les Jours de Notre Mort,” the logic that obtained in all concentration camps: “The triumph of the S.S. demands that the tortured victim allow himself to be led to the noose without protesting, that he renounce and abandon himself to the point of ceasing to affirm his identity. And it is not for nothing. It is not gratuitously, out of sheer sadism, that the S.S. men desire his defeat. They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold . . . is incomparably the best for keeping a whole people in slavery. In submission. Nothing is more terrible than these processions of human beings going like dummies to their death.” The court received no answer to this cruel and silly question, but one could easily have found an answer had he permitted his imagination to dwell for a few minutes on the fate of those Dutch Jews who in 1941, in the old Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, dared to attack a German security police detachment. Four hundred and thirty Jews were arrested in reprisal, and they were literally tortured to death, being sent first to Buchenwald and then to the Austrian camp of Mauthausen. Month after month, they died a thousand deaths, and every single one of them would have envied his brethren in Auschwitz had he known about them. There exist many things considerably worse than death, and the S.S. saw to it that none of them was ever very far from the mind and imagination of their victims. In this respect, perhaps even more significantly than in others, the deliberate attempt in Jerusalem to tell only the Jewish side of the story distorted the truth, even the Jewish truth. The glory of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and the heroism of the few others who fought back lay precisely in their having refused the comparatively easy death that the Nazis offered them—before the firing squad or in the gas chamber. And the witnesses in Jerusalem who testified to resistance and rebellion, to “the small place the uprising had in this history of the holocaust,” confirmed the known fact that only the very young had been capable of taking the “decision that we cannot go and be slaughtered like sheep.”
In one respect, Ben-Gurion’s expectations for the trial were not altogether disappointed, for it did indeed become an important instrument for ferreting out other Nazis and criminals—but not in the Arab countries, which had openly offered refuge to hundreds of them. The wartime relationship between the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Nazis was no secret; he had hoped they would help him in the implementation of some “Final Solution” of the Jewish question in the Near East. Hence, newspapers in Damascus and Beirut, in Cairo and Amman, did not hide their sympathy for Eichmann or their regret that he had not “finished the job;” a broadcast from Cairo on the day the trial opened went as far as to inject a slightly anti-German note into its comments, complaining that there was not “a single incident in which one German plane flew over one Jewish settlement [in Palestine] and dropped one bomb on it throughout the last world war.” That Arab nationalists have been in sympathy with Nazism is notorious, and neither Ben-Gurion nor this trial was needed “to ferret them out;” they were never in hiding. The trial revealed only that all rumors about Eichmann’s connection with Haj Amin el Husseini, the wartime Mufti of Jerusalem, were unfounded. (Along with other departmental heads, he had once been introduced to the Mufti during a reception at an S.S. office in Berlin.) Documents produced by the prosecution showed that the Mufti had been in close contact with the German Foreign Office and with Himmler, but this was nothing new. But if Ben-Gurion’s remark about “the connection between the Nazis and some Arab rulers” was pointless, his failure to mention present-day West Germany in this context was surprising. Of course, it was reassuring to hear that Israel “does not hold Adenauer responsible for Hitler,” and that “for us a decent German, although he belongs to the same nation that twenty years ago helped to murder millions of Jews, is a decent human being.” (There was no mention of decent Arabs.) While the German Federal Republic has not yet recognized the State of Israel—presumably out of fear that the Arab countries might thereupon recognize Ulbricht’s Germany—it has paid seven hundred and thirty-seven million dollars in reparation to Israel during the last ten years; the reparation payments will soon come to an end, and Israel is now trying to arrange with West Germany for a long-term loan. Hence, the relationship between the two countries, and particularly the personal relationship between Ben-Gurion and Adenauer, has been quite good, and if, as an aftermath of the trial, some deputies in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, succeeded in imposing certain restraints on the cultural-exchange program with West Germany, this certainly was not hoped for, or even foreseen, by Ben-Gurion. It is more noteworthy that he did not foresee, or did not care to mention, the fact that Eichmann’s capture would trigger the first serious effort made by West Germans to bring to trial at least those war criminals who were directly implicated in murder. The Central Agency for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, which was belatedly set up by the eleven West German states in 1958 (barely two years before—in May, 1960—the West German statute of limitations wiped out all offenses except first-degree murder, for which the time limit is twenty years), and of which Prosecutor Erwin Schüle is the head, had run into all kinds of difficulties, caused partly by the unwillingness of German witnesses to coöperate and partly by the unwillingness of the local courts to prosecute on the basis of material sent to them from the Central Agency. It was not that the trial in Jerusalem produced any important new evidence of the kind needed for the discovery of Eichmann’s associates but that the news of Eichmann’s sensational capture and the prospect of his trial had an impact strong enough to persuade the local courts to use Mr. Schüle’s findings and to overcome the native reluctance to do anything about the “murderers in our midst” by the time-honored expedient of posting rewards for the capture of well-known criminals.
The results were amazing. Seven months after Eichmann’s arrival in Jerusalem—and four months before the opening of the trial—Richard Baer, successor to Rudolf Höss as commandant of Auschwitz, was finally arrested. Then, in rapid succession, most of the members of the so-called Eichmann Commando—Franz Novak, Eichmann’s transportation officer, who had been living as a printer in Austria; Dr. Otto Hunsche, his legal expert and his assistant in Hungary, who had settled as a lawyer in West Germany; Hermann Krumey, Eichmann’s second in command in Hungary, who had become a druggist; Gustav Richter, former “Jewish adviser” in Rumania; and Dr. Günther Zöpf, who had filled the same post in Amsterdam—were arrested, too. (Although evidence against these five had been published in Germany years before, in books and magazine articles, not one of them had found it necessary to live under an assumed name.) For the first time since the close of the war, German newspapers were full of stories about trials of Nazi criminals—all of them mass murderers—and the reluctance of the local courts to prosecute these crimes still showed itself in the fantastically lenient sentences meted out to those convicted. (Thus, Dr. Hunsche, who was personally responsible for a last-minute deportation of some twelve hundred Hungarian Jews, of whom at least six hundred were killed, received a sentence of five years of hard labor; Dr. Otto Bradfisch, of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units of the S.S. in the East, was sentenced to ten years of hard labor for the killing of fifteen thousand Jews; and Joseph Lechthaler, who had “liquidated” the Jewish inhabitants of Slutsk and Smolevichi, in Russia, was sentenced to three years and six months.) Among the new arrests were people of great prominence under the Nazis, most of whom had already been denazified by the German courts. One was S.S. Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, former chief of Himmler’s personal staff, who, according to a document submitted in 1946 at Nuremberg, had greeted “with particular joy” the news that “for two weeks now a train has been carrying, every day, five thousand members of the Chosen People” from Warsaw to Treblinka, one of the Eastern killing centers. He still awaits trial. The trial of Wilhelm Koppe, who had at first managed the gassing of Jews in Chelmno and then become the successor of Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger in Poland, in a high post in the S.S. whose duties included making Poland judenrein (Jew-clean)—in postwar West Germany, he was the director of a chocolate factory—has not yet taken place. Occasional harsh sentences were even less reassuring, for they were meted out to offenders like Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, a former S.S. Obergruppenführer. He was tried in 1961 for his participation in the Röhm rebellion in 1934, was sentenced to four and a half years, and then was indicted again in 1962 for the killing of six German Communists in 1933, tried before a jury in Nuremberg, and sentenced to life. Neither indictment mentioned that Bach-Zelewski had been anti-partisan chief on the Russian front or that he had participated in the Jewish massacres at Minsk and Mogilev, in White Russia. Should a German court, on the pretext that war crimes are no crimes, make “ethnic distinctions”? And is it possible that what was an unusually harsh sentence (for a German postwar court) was arrived at because Bach-Zelewski was among the very few Nazi leaders who had tried to protect Jews from the Einsatzgruppen, suffered a nervous breakdown after the mass killings, and testified for the prosecution in Nuremberg? (He was also the only such leader who in 1952 had denounced himself publicly for mass murder, but he was never prosecuted for it.) There is little hope that things will change now, even though the Adenauer administration has been forced to weed out of the judiciary a hundred and forty-odd judges and prosecutors, along with many police officers, with a more than ordinarily compromising past, and to dismiss the chief prosecutor of the Federal Supreme Court, Wolfgang Immerwahr Fränkel, because, his middle name notwithstanding, he had been less than candid when he was asked about his Nazi past. It has been estimated that of the eleven thousand five hundred judges in the Bundesrepublik, five thousand were active in the courts under the Hitler regime. In November, 1962, shortly after the purging of the judiciary and six months after Eichmann’s name had disappeared from the news, the long awaited trial of Martin Fellenz took place at Flensburg in an almost empty courtroom. The former Higher S.S. and Police Leader, who had been a prominent member of the Free Democratic Party in Adenauer’s Germany, was arrested in June, 1960, a few weeks after Eichmann’s capture. He was accused of participation in, and partial responsibility for, the murder of forty thousand Jews in Poland. After more than six weeks of detailed testimony, the prosecutor demanded the maximum penalty—a life sentence, to be served at hard labor. And the court sentenced him to four years, two and a half of which he had already served while waiting in jail.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the Eichmann trial had its deepest and most far-reaching consequences in Germany. The attitude of the German people toward their own past, which all experts on the German question had puzzled over for fifteen years, could hardly have been more clearly demonstrated: they themselves did not care much about it one way or the other, and did not particularly mind the presence of murderers at large in the country, since none of these particular murderers were likely to commit murder now, of their own free will; however, if world opinion—or, rather, what the Germans call das Ausland, collecting all countries outside Germany into a singular noun—became obstinate and demanded that these people be punished, they were perfectly willing to oblige, at least up to a point. When Eichmann was captured, Chancellor Adenauer had foreseen embarrassment and had voiced a fear that the trial would “stir up again all the horrors” and produce a new wave of anti-German feeling throughout the world—as it did. During the ten months that Israel needed to prepare the trial, Germany was busy bracing herself against its predictable results by showing an unprecedented zeal for searching out and prosecuting Nazi criminals within the country. At no time, however, did either the German authorities or any significant segment of public opinion demand Eichmann’s extradition, which seemed the obvious move, since every sovereign state is jealous of its right to sit in judgment on its own offenders. (The official objection of the Adenauer government that such a move was not possible because there existed no extradition treaty between Israel and West Germany is not valid; it meant only that Israel could not have been forced to extradite. Fritz Bauer, Attorney General of Hessen, applied to the federal government in Bonn to start extradition proceedings. But Mr. Bauer’s feelings in this matter were the feelings of a German Jew, and they were not shared by German public opinion. His application was not only refused by Bonn, it was hardly noticed and remained totally unsupported. Another argument against extradition, offered by the observers the West German government sent to Jerusalem, was that Germany had abolished capital punishment and hence was unable to mete out the sentence Eichmann deserved. In view of the leniency shown by German courts to Nazi murderers, it was difficult not to suspect that this objection was made in bad faith. Surely, the greatest political hazard of an Eichmann trial in Germany would have been that a German court might not have given him the maximum penalty under German law.)
Another aspect of the matter was at once more delicate and more relevant to the political situation in Germany. It was one thing to ferret out mass murderers and other criminals from their hiding places, and it was another thing to find them prominent and active in the public realm—to encounter innumerable men in the federal and state administrations whose careers had bloomed under the Hitler regime. To be sure, if the Adenauer administration had been too sensitive in employing officials with a compromising Nazi past, there might have been no administration at all. For the truth is, of course, the exact opposite of what Dr. Adenauer asserted it to be when he said that only “a relatively small percentage” of Germans had been Nazis, and that “a great majority were happy to help their Jewish fellow-citizens when they could.” (At least one West German newspaper, the Frankfurter Rundschau, asked itself the obvious question, long overdue—why so many people who must have known, for instance, the record of Wolfgang Immerwahr Frankel had kept silent—and then came up with the even more obvious answer: “Because they themselves felt incriminated.”) The logic of the Eichmann trial, as Ben-Gurion conceived of it—a trial stressing general issues, to the detriment of legal niceties—would have demanded exposure of the complicity of all German bureaus and authorities in the so-called Final Solution of the Jewish question; of all civil servants in the state ministries; of the regular armed forces, with their General Staff; of the judiciary; and of the business world. But although the prosecution went as far afield as to put witness after witness on the stand who testified to things that, while gruesome and true enough, had only the slightest connection, or none, with the deeds of the accused, it carefully avoided touching upon this highly explosive matter—upon the almost ubiquitous complicity, stretching far beyond the ranks of the Party membership. (There were widespread rumors prior to the trial that Eichmann had named “several hundred prominent personalities of the Federal Republic as his accomplices,” but these rumors were not true In his opening speech, Mr. Hausner still mentioned Eichmann’s “accomplices in the crime [who] were neither gangsters nor men of the underworld,” and promised that we should “encounter them—the doctors and lawyers, scholars, bankers, and economists—in those councils that resolved to exterminate the Jews.” This promise was not kept—nor could it have been kept in the form in which it was made, for in the Nazi regime there were no “councils that resolved” anything, and the “robed dignitaries with academic degrees” made no decision to exterminate the Jews; they came together only to plan the necessary steps in carrying out an order given by Hitler.) Still, one case of complicity was brought to the attention of the court—that of Dr. Hans Globke, who, more than twenty-five years ago, was co-author of an infamous commentary on the Nuremberg Laws and, somewhat later, author of the brilliant idea of compelling all German Jews to take “Israel” or “Sarah” as a middle name, and who is today one of Adenauer’s closest advisers. And Globke’s name—and only his name—was inserted into the proceedings by the defense, and probably only in the hope of “persuading” the Adenauer government to start proceedings to extradite Eichmann. Still, former Ministry Official and present Undersecretary of State Globke doubtless had more right than the former Mufti of Jerusalem to figure in the history of what the Jews had actually suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
And it was history that, as far as the prosecution was concerned, stood at the center of the trial. “It is not an individual that is in the dock at this historic trial, and not the Nazi regime alone,” Ben-Gurion said, “but anti-Semitism throughout history.” The tone set by Ben-Gurion was faithfully followed by Hausner. He began his opening address (which lasted through three sessions) with Pharaoh In Egypt and Haman’s decree “to destroy, to slay, and to cause them [the Jews] to perish.” He then proceeded to quote from Ezekiel’s words “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee: ‘In thy blood, live!,’ ” explaining that they must be understood as “the imperative that has confronted this nation ever since its first appearance on the stage of history.” It was bad history and cheap rhetoric; worse, it was clearly at cross-purposes with putting Eichmann on trial at all, since it suggested that perhaps he was only an innocent executor of some mysteriously foreordained destiny, or even, for that matter, of anti-Semitism, which had been necessary to blaze the trail of “the bloodstained road travelled by this people” to fulfill its destiny. A few sessions later, after Salo W. Baron, Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, had testified to the more recent history of Eastern European Jewry, Dr. Servatius could no longer resist temptation and asked the obvious questions: “Why did all this bad luck fall upon the Jewish people?” and “Don’t you think that irrational motives are at the basis of the fate of this people? Beyond the understanding of a human being?” Is not there perhaps something like “the spirit of history, which brings history forward . . . without the influence of men?” Is not Mr. Hausner basically in agreement with “the school of historical law”—an allusion to Hegel—and has he not shown that what “the leaders do will not always lead to the aim and destination they wanted?” And Dr. Servatius added, “Here the intention was to destroy the Jewish people and the objective was not reached and a new flourishing state came into being.” The argument of the defense had now come perilously close to the newest anti-Semitic theory about the Elders of Zion, which had been set forth in all seriousness a few weeks earlier in the old Egyptian National Assembly by Hussain Zulficar Sabri, Nasser’s Deputy Foreign Minister: Hitler was innocent of the slaughter of the Jews; he was a victim of the Zionists, who had compelled “Hitler to perpetrate crimes and to create the legend that would eventually enable them to achieve their aim—the creation of the State of Israel.” Except that Dr. Servatius, following the philosophy of history expounded by the prosecutor, had put History in the place of the Elders of Zion.
Despite the intentions of Ben-Gurion and the efforts of the prosecution, there remained an individual in the dock, a person of flesh and blood, and even if Ben-Gurion, as he claimed, did not “care what verdict is delivered against Eichmann,” it was undeniably the sole task of the Jerusalem court to deliver one.
Otto Adolf, son of Karl Adolf Eichmann and Maria née Schefferling, caught in a suburb of Buenos Aires on the evening of May 11, 1960, flown to Israel nine days later, brought to trial in the District Court of Jerusalem on April 1, 1961, stood accused on fifteen counts; “together with others,” he had committed crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes during the whole period of the Nazi regime and especially during the period of the Second World War. The Israeli Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950, under which he was tried, provides that “a person who has committed one of the . . . [three] offenses . . . is liable to the death penalty.” To each count Eichmann pleaded, “In the sense of the indictment, not guilty.” In which sense, then, did he think he was guilty? During the long cross-examination of the accused—Eichmann asserted that it was “the longest ever known”—neither the defense nor the prosecution nor any of the three judges ever bothered to ask him this obvious question. Dr. Servatius answered the question in a press interview—“Eichmann feels guilty before God, not before the law”—but this answer was never confirmed by the accused himself. The defense would apparently have preferred him to plead not guilty on other grounds: that under the Nazi legal system he had not done anything wrong; that the deeds he was accused of were not crimes but “acts of state,” over which no other state has jurisdiction (par in parem imperium non habet); that it had been his duty to obey; and that, in Dr. Servatius’ words, he had committed acts “for which you are decorated if you win and go to the gallows if you lose.” In Germany (at a meeting of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria that was devoted to “the ticklish problem” of “the possibilities and limits of coping with historical and political guilt through criminal proceedings”), Dr. Servatius went a step further, and declared that “the only legitimate criminal problem of the Eichmann trial lies in pronouncing judgment against his Israeli captors, which so far has not been done”—a statement, incidentally, that is somewhat difficult to reconcile with certain of his most often repeated and most widely publicized utterances in Israel, in which he called the conduct of the trial “a great spiritual achievement” and compared it favorably with the Nuremberg Trials.
Eichmann’s own attitude, it appeared, was different. First of all, the indictment for murder was wrong: “But I had nothing to do with the killing of the Jews. I never killed a Jew, or, for that matter, I never killed a non-Jew—I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill a Jew nor an order to kill a non-Jew; I just did not do it.” Or, as he was later to qualify this statement, “It so happened . . . that I had not once to do it”—for he said explicitly that he would have killed his own father if he had received an order to that effect. Thus, he repeated over and over a statement that he had first made in the so-called Sassen documents—an interview that he had given in 1955 in Argentina to the Dutch journalist Willem S. Sassen, a former S.S. man who was also a fugitive from justice, and that, after Eichmann’s capture, was published, in part, by Life in this country and by Der Stern in West Germany. He said that he could be accused only of “aiding and abetting” the almost successful annihilation of the Jews, and in Jerusalem he declared this annihilation to have been “one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity.” The defense paid no attention to Eichmann’s own theory, but the prosecution wasted much time on an unsuccessful effort to prove that Eichmann had once, at least, killed with his own hands (he was supposed to have beaten to death a Jewish boy in Hungary). It spent more time, more successfully, on a note that Franz Rademacher, the Jewish expert in the German Foreign Office, had scribbled on a document dealing with Yugoslavia, made during a telephone conversation, which read, “Eichmann proposes shooting.” This turned out to be the only “order to kill,” if that is what it was, for which there existed a shred of evidence.
The evidence that he had “proposed shooting” was more questionable than it appeared to be during the trial, when the judges accepted the prosecutor’s version as against Eichmann’s categorical denial that he had ever killed or given an order to kill—a denial that was very ineffective, since it involved an implication that he had forgotten, as Dr. Servatius put it, “a brief incident [the killing of a mere eight thousand people], which was not so striking.” The incident took place in the autumn of 1941. The German Army had occupied the Serbian part of Yugoslavia six months earlier, and had been plagued by partisan warfare ever since. At length, the military authorities had decided to solve two problems at a stroke by shooting a hundred Jews and Gypsies as hostages for every dead German soldier. To be sure, neither Jews nor Gypsies were partisans, but, in the words of the responsible civilian officer in the military government, a certain Staatsrat Harald Turner, “the Jews we had in the camps [anyhow]; after all, they too are Serb nationals, and besides, they have to disappear.” The camps had been set up by General Franz Böhme, military governor of the region, and housed Jewish males only; neither General Böhme nor Staatsrat Turner had sought Eichmann’s approval before starting to shoot Jews—or Gypsies, for that matter—by the thousand. The trouble began when Böhme, without consulting the appropriate police and S.S. authorities, decided to deport all his Jews, probably in order to show that no special troops, under a different command, were required to make Serbia judenrein. Eichmann was informed, since it was a matter of deportation, and this was precisely his job. He refused to coöperate, because it interfered with other plans of the S.S. outfit to which he belonged, the Head Office for Reich Security, or R.S.H.A. (the Reichssicherheitshauptamt), but it was not Eichmann, it was a man named Martin Luther, of the Foreign Office, who reminded General Böhme that “in other territories [meaning Russia] other military commanders have taken care of considerably greater numbers of Jews without even mentioning it.” In any event, if Eichmann actually did “propose shooting,” he was only telling the military that they should go on doing what they had been doing all along, implying that questions of hostages were entirely in their own competence. This was an Army affair, obviously, since only males were involved. (In Serbia, the implementation of the Final Solution started about six months later, when women and children were rounded up and disposed of in mobile gas vans.) During cross-examination, Eichmann, characteristically, chose the most complicated and least likely explanation: Rademacher had needed the support of the Head Office for Reich Security for his own stand on the matter, and had therefore forged the document. Rademacher himself explained the incident much more reasonably at his own trial, before a West German court in 1952: “The Army was responsible for order in Serbia and had to kill rebellious Jews by shooting.” (This sounded more plausible but was a lie, for we know—from Nazi sources—that the Jews were not “rebellious.”) If it was difficult to interpret a remark made over the phone as an order, it was more difficult to believe that Eichmann had been in a position to give orders to Army generals.
Would Eichmann, then, have pleaded guilty if he had been indicted as an accessory to murder? Perhaps, but with certain important qualifications. What he had done was a crime only in retrospect, and he had always been a law-abiding citizen, because Hitler’s orders, which he had certainly executed to the best of his ability, had possessed “the force of law” in the Third Reich. (The defense could have quoted in support of Eichmann’s thesis the testimony of one of the best-known experts on constitutional law in the Third Reich, Theodor Maunz, who is currently Minister of Education and Culture in Bavaria. In 1943, in “Gestalt und Recht der Polizei,” he stated, “The command of the Führer . . . is absolutely the center of the present legal order.”) Those who today told him that he could have acted differently simply did not know, or had forgotten, how things had been. He did not want to be one of those who now pretended that they “had always been against it,” whereas in fact they had been very eager to do what they were told to do. However, times change, and he, like Professor Maunz, had “arrived at different insights.” What he had done he had done; he did not want to deny it. Rather, he proposed to “hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth.” By this he did not mean to say that he regretted anything. “Repentance is for little children.”
Even under considerable pressure from his lawyer, Eichmann did not change this position. During a discussion of the offer Heinrich Himmler had made to Zionist representatives in Hungary, in 1944, to exchange a million Jews for ten thousand trucks, and of Eichmann’s role in this plan, Dr. Servatius asked, “Mr. Witness, in the negotiations with your superiors, did you express any pity for the Jews and did you say there was room to help them?” Eichmann replied, “I am here under oath and must speak the truth. Not out of mercy did I launch this transaction”—which would have been acceptable, except that it was not Eichmann who “launched” it. He then continued, quite truthfully, “The reasons which made me think of this transaction I explained this morning.” They were as follows: Himmler had sent his own man to Budapest to deal with matters of Jewish