“Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer” by Bettina Stangneth, translated by Ruth Martin. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. $35
Adolf Eichmann was the definition of Absolute Evil. As coordinator of the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” he was responsible for at least 6 million deaths.
After the defeat of Germany in 1945, he escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and established a new identity in the northern region of the country as a forester and chicken farmer. He sold eggs at a premium to refugees, some of them Jews who had survived his system. During the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, he was a kind of ghost, absent but often mentioned.
By 1950, Eichmann feared detection and fled to Argentina. Sympathizers gave him false papers bearing the name of Ricardo Klement, elements within the Roman Catholic Church assisted his escape, and the regime of Juan Domingo Perón offered a wary welcome. Two years later, he brought over his wife and three sons by the same route. They lived a frugal, even austere, existence as he worked at various jobs, the longest lasting an Angora rabbit farm.
He took little care to conceal his background, saying, “I knew that in this ‘promised land’ of South America I had a few friends, to whom I could say, openly, freely and proudly that I am Adolf Eichmann, former SS-Obersturmbannführer.”
Intelligence officials in the new West Germany had a report of his location as early as July 1952 but took no action. When their colleagues in the judiciary issued an arrest warrant for him in November 1956 and asked for information from the embassy in Buenos Aires, the reply was perfunctory. After all, on Oct. 22, 1952, West Germany Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had told the legislature, the Bundestag, “In my opinion, we should call a halt to trying to sniff out Nazis.”
But Israel, the proof that the Nazi “Final Solution” failed, took up the trail in January 1958. Its intelligence and special operations service, the Mossad, abducted Eichmann on May 11, 1962, and brought him to Jerusalem 10 days later. The most emphatic protests came from Argentina, which claimed infringement of its sovereignty, and from high Vatican officials, who “expressed their opinion that the Second World War’s leading Nazis should no longer be prosecuted. They should be playing an active role in the defense of Western society against Communism.”
At his trial, Eichmann portrayed himself as merely “a pencil-pusher,” “a cog in the wheel” of the Nazi system, a bureaucrat following orders. This performance deceived the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt, who proclaimed him “the banality of evil.” It did not deceive the judges, who ordered him to the gallows, the sentence carried out during the night of May 31 to June 1, 1962.
The great merit of Bettina Stangneth’s book is her close examination of Eichmann’s Argentina years.
There, over several months during 1957, he discussed his past in a series of taped interviews with the Dutch Nazi collaborationist Willem Sassen. The transcript is more than a thousand pages, and Eichmann contributed another hundred pages of written commentary. For him, the goal was to eliminate the enemy, and for National Socialism, the enemy was the Jew: “If 10.3 million of these enemies had been killed, then we would have fulfilled our duty.”
And of the moral consequences: “For a German, the law is a German law.” Any assessment of his guilt or innocence had to rest on “the morality of the Fatherland,” viewed in an ethnic German perspective.
Stangneth’s conclusion is utterly damning: “Eichmann wanted to do what he did, but above all, he wanted respect for having done the right thing. ... That is what makes his writing so sickening.”
Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War” (2013).