Tag Archives: Hannah Arendt

The Man Himself, Far From Banal

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Bettina Stangeth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem:
The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,
Translated by Ruth Martin

      Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann is sometimes euphemistically described as a “transportation specialist.” During much of Hitler’s Third Reich, Eichmann, born in 1906, held the official title of “Advisor for Jewish Affairs” and in that capacity facilitated and managed the logistics required to move Jews to Nazi death camps.  He was famously kidnapped by Israeli security forces in 1960 in Argentina and taken to Israel to face trial on genocide charges.  Found guilty, Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem 1962.  His trial is often credited with refocusing world opinion on the horrors of the Holocaust, after years in which there seemed to be little interest in revisiting the details of Nazi Germany’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.  In Eichmann Before Jerusalem, The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, Bettina Stangeth explores Eichmann’s years in Argentina, after World War II and his escape from Germany with help from the Vatican and the Red Cross, up to his capture in 1960.  Stangeth, an independent writer and historian from Hamburg, Germany, does not address Eichmann’s life prior to the Third Reich, which includes his youth and upbringing in Linz, Austria, not far from where Hitler was born, and his early adult years prior to joining and rising in Hitler’s National Socialist party.

      Stangeth’s title alludes to Hannah Arendt’s famous analysis of the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, first published in book form in 1963.  In her seminal work, Arendt portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology. Arendt’s analysis also gained notoriety for its emphasis upon Jewish leaders’ complicity in the Holocaust.  One of Stangeth’s purposes is to free Eichmann from Arendt’s provocative portrait, based on extensive additional material on Eichmann that was unavailable to Arendt when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, a time when “Holocaust research was in its infancy” (p.xxiii). “One cannot help but feel that the story of the trial has stopped being about Eichmann,” Stangeth writes, and that today we would “rather talk about the debate and various theories of evil [which Arendt’s work engendered] than try to discover more about the man himself” (p.xxiii-xiv).

     Stangeth intends for her readers to discover much more about the man himself.  She makes comprehensive use of the broader Eichmann record now available, several thousand pages of “manuscripts, transcribed statements, letters, personal dossiers, ideological tracts, individual jottings, and thousand of marginal notes on documents” (p.381).  From this record, Stangeth reveals an Eichmann with an unrestrained propensity for self-promotion and what she terms a “talent for self-dramatization” (p.xvi), a complex and perversely talented bureaucrat who wrote prolifically.  Stangeth’s Eichmann is also more ideological and more explicitly anti-Semitic than Arendt had allowed, a man with a frighteningly precise grasp upon how his work fit into the larger picture of the Nazi extermination project.  The man himself in Stangeth’s account is far from banal.

      Eichmann made the revelations about himself and the Nazi project in 1957 and 1958 in recorded and transcribed group sessions organized by Willem Sassen, a Nazi collaborator from the Netherlands who also found refuge after World War II in Argentina, where he became a well-known journalist and led a group of unrepentant anti-Semitic Nazis.  Sassen sought to develop a project that rehabilitated Nazi Germany in the world’s eyes, primarily by debunking as “international propaganda” – by which Sassen and his colleagues meant “Jewish propaganda” – the notion that the Nazi regime had exterminated six million Jews and other undesirables.  Unfortunately for Sassen, he invited Eichmann to participate in the project.  Rather than exposing the six million figure as a desperate lie, Eichmann provided the group with the facts, figures and specificity that left no doubt that Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population had reached the scale imputed to the Nazi regime.  Eichmann’s contribution to the Sassen group constitutes the core of Stangeth’s story of his Argentina years.

      Stangeth tells this story from the perspective of an historian seeking to summarize and interpret the transcripts of the Sassen interviews and Eichmann’s writings from Argentina and his final two years in captivity in Israel.  She emphasizes that she is interested in presenting all the recently available sources on Eichmann, “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” about Eichmann (p.xxiv).  She focuses especially upon “what people thought of [Eichmann] and when; and how he reacted to what they thought and said” (p.xvii).  Herein lies both the book’s greatest strength and its most formidable obstacle for general readers.

      Strangeth pursues the historian’s perspective with an intensity and comprehensiveness that will appeal to scholars interested in amplifying or building upon her portrait of Eichmann.  But this perspective is likely to discourage most general readers.  There is far more deliberation here than the general reader needs about how to evaluate the copious Eichmann record.  The result is a ponderous narrative that makes for slow reading.  At one point, Stangeth surmises that her readers may have “lost sight of the bigger picture amid all these names and connections” (p.130), and I had this sense often throughout her otherwise invaluable, groundbreaking work.

* * *

      Stangeth begins with basic background facts on Eichmann’s role in Hitler’s Third Reich.  Contrary to the impression Arendt left in her analysis, Eichmann was well-known during the Third Reich’s heyday.  From 1938, he was the “face of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy” (p.9-10), involved with the “leading experiments” which can now be seen as “prototypes” for genocidal practices that “later became standard” (p.27).  At the notorious 1942 Wannasee Conference, generally acknowledged to be the place and time where Hitler’s subordinates drew up their “Final Solution” to Europe’s “Jewish problem,” Reinhard Heydrich, chairman of the conference, “officially enthroned Eichmann as the coordinator of all interministerial efforts toward the ‘final solution of the Jewish question.’ It was the 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” (p.27).

     In 1950, Eichmann fled to Argentina with the help of a “chain of German helpers, Argentine public officials, Austrian border guards, Italian records offices, the Red Cross, men from Vatican circles, and influential shipping magnates” (p.79). Like many other Nazis going into exile:

Eichmann used a system supported by a number of different parties, not least the professional people smugglers employed by the Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón.  Argentina had an interest in German professionals who could help to drive forward the transformation of an agrarian country into an industrialized nation, and assisting their escape seemed like a solid investment . . . Argentina was not the only country trying to convince well-educated men to emigrate, but it was one of the few that also provided this opportunity to criminals like Eichmann (p.88).

      In 1953, Eichmann moved his family from rural Argentina to Buenos Aires, where he went to work for a newly formed company that was a “Perón-sponsored cover organization for Third Reich technocrats, which existed mainly thanks to a large government contract for developing hydroelectric plants,” with Eichmann’s work a “kind of occupational therapy for those who had recently arrived, only very few of whom were qualified for their jobs” (p.106).  In the Argentine exile community, Eichmann had a reputation for being the “only surviving Nazi with any reliable information on the scale of the Holocaust, and on how the extermination process had worked, which made him increasingly sought after” (p.160).

      It thus did not take long for Eichmann to meet Nazi collaborator and journalist Willem Sassen, who gathered a group of Nazis at his home on Sundays for recorded sessions intended to establish the raw material for his Nazi rehabilitation project. Prior to Eichmann’s arrival, all the participants in the group had “clearly been so convinced that the systematic mass murder of the Jews was a propaganda lie that they really expected that a closer inspection would only confirm their view.  Sassen figured that if ‘the Jews’ were forced to provide lists of names, to prove exactly who had been killed, then it would emerge that the dead would be only a tiny proportion” (p.299) of the six million figure.  But Sassen and his colleagues “hadn’t reckoned with anything like the major insight they received into the National Socialists’ extermination operation. Adolf Eichmann confronted them with the magnitude and, above all, the face of the horror” (p.277).

    Eichmann demonstrated in the group’s recorded sessions that he had an unusual ability to recall facts and especially figures, revealing with unassailable specificity the “monstrous scale of this German crime and the immeasurable suffering of the people who had fallen victim to the German mania” (p.145). In a “discussion group with a tape recorder in the room,” Eichmann provided a “monstrous confession” (p.306) that mass murder and gas chambers “had happened, they were part of German history, and Nationalist Socialists like Eichmann had played a decisive role in creating them, out of their dedication to the cause” (p.308-09).  The “striking accuracy” of Eichmann’s figures on the number of people who fell victim to the Nazis’ murder operations, Stangeth contends, “shows how well informed Eichmann was about the scale of the genocide and how deceitful were his later attempts, in both Argentina and Israel, to feign ignorance” (p.301-02).  Whether he was in the Third Reich, Argentina, or Israel, Eichmann “gave detailed and well-informed accounts of the murder of millions.  He simply adjusted the account of his own role, and his attitude toward the murders, to his changing circumstances” (p.382).

     In his taped interviews for the Sassen project, Eichmann further demonstrated his unrestrained capacity for self-promotion and a “pronounced need for recognition” (p.367).  Although Eichmann could have been a silent, conscientious servant of the German Reich, attracting no attention, that “wouldn’t have been enough for him: he wanted to be a man of importance” (p.125). He worried about his reputation and how he would be perceived by history. He liked to drop names of the high level Nazis to whom he had had access, especially Henrich Himmler, his direct boss during his most productive years working for the Nazi death machine.

     The Eichmann contributing to Sassen’s project was also both more ideological and more anti-Semitic than in Arendt’s account.  Stangeth emphatically rejects as “insupportable” Arendt’s focus upon Eichmann’s “inability to speak” and his “inability to think” (p.268).  What Eichmann told the Sassen group in Argentina was not “thoughtless drivel but consistent speech based on a complete system of thought” (p.268), Stangeth argues.  Throughout the Sassen interviews, Eichmann assumed as axiomatic that “the Jews” – a diabolical, monolithic force in the world, by then represented by the State of Israel— remained the implacable foe of Germany, bent upon its destruction.  For Eichmann, therefore, “ideology was not a pastime or a theoretical superfluity but the fundamental authorization for his actions” (p.221).

      Eichmann “completely rejected traditional ideas of morality,” in favor of the “no-holds barred struggle for survival that nature demanded.”  He “identified entirely with a way of thinking that said any form of contemplation without clear reference to blood and soil was outdated and, most of all, dangerous . . . The very idea of a common understanding among all people was a betrayal” (p.218).  Eichmann’s only criticism of the National Socialist project was that “we could and should have done more” (p.306).  Eichmann was a National Socialist and “for that reason,” Stangeth argues with emphasis,  a “dedicated mass murderer” (p.307).

     Stangeth devotes minimal space to Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and his execution in May 1962 (Deborah Lipset’s incisive analysis of the proceedings, The Eichmann Trial, was reviewed here in October 2013).  She finishes with a section entitled “Aftermath,” which traces the paper trail of the Sassen transcripts and Eichmann’s own writings in Argentina and Israel up to the present day.  Now, she concludes, scholars need to “put Eichmann where he belongs, rather than be struck dumb by his torrent of words.”  The “curse of a man who was desperate to write and to explain himself is that this urge has put others in a position to read his every word, more thoroughly than he could ever have imagined” (p.422).

* * *

      With her probing dissection of the extensive written now record available, Stangeth’s Eichmann seems likely to supplant that of Arendt as the accepted consensual version of the man himself.  Eichmann Before Jerusalem therefore represents a momentous contribution to our understanding of the enigmatic mass murderer whom Hannah Arendt introduced to the reading public a full half-century earlier.  But readers will need patience and persistence in teasing out Stangeth’s Eichmann.  In her quest for a comprehensive evaluation of the written record, Stangeth allows too many trees to obscure her forest.  My sense is that a book about half this length would have sufficed for general readers interested in learning the basics about Eichmann’s Argentina years.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 17, 2016

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Filed under Biography, European History, German History, History, World History

New Hearing

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Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial

            The 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel is often credited with refocusing world opinion on the horrors of the Holocaust, after years in which there seemed to be little interest in revisiting the details of Nazi Germany’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.  Eichmann, sometimes euphemistically described as a “transportation specialist,” was responsible for moving approximately 1.5 million Jews to Nazi death camps.  He was kidnapped by Israeli security forces in 1960 in Argentina and taken to Israel to face trial on genocide charges.  Eichmann was found guilty and executed in 1962, the only execution to be ordered by an Israeli civil court.  In “The Eichmann Trial,”  Deborah Lipstadt, among the most knowledgeable and respected contemporary scholars of the Holocaust, ranges widely and probes deeply, providing riveting detail to the events leading up to the trial, followed by incisive discussions of the trial itself and its reverberations.

            Lipstadt’s book could also be considered a series of six stand-alone essays.  The first is a two-page dedication to a police officer killed at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., followed by Lipstadt’s formal introduction, describing the civil defamation suit which Holocaust denier David Irving brought against her in Great Britain in 2000.  The third potential stand alone essay is a cloak-and-dagger, James Bond account of how Israeli operatives tracked Eichmann down in Argentina, abducted him and returned him to Israel to face trial.  Lipstadt then moves to the trial itself, the longest of the six essays.  She next turns to an even-handed discussion of Hannah Arendt’s controversial analysis of the trial for the New Yorker magazine, where Arendt coined the now-familiar term “banality of evil.”  Lipstadt concludes with her own thoughts on the significance of the Eichmann trial and aftershocks, more than 50 years later.  Here, she challenges the conventional notion of the trial as instrumental in refocusing world attention on the Holocaust.  Rather, she argues, the trial gave a “new hearing” to the Holocaust, principally through the poignant testimony of its victims, who rendered it more personal for Jews and non-Jews alike. 

 * * *

           Lipstadt begins her book with a moving dedication to Special Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns.  Johns was a security guard at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where Lipstadt was a visiting scholar in 2009.  On June 10th of that year, Johns was killed while on duty by an eighty-eight year old racist, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.  Johns’ murder is a stark and tragic reminder that there are still people willing to act on the violent hatreds that drove the Holocaust. 

 * * *

             In her formal introduction, Lipstadt explains how she became a defendant in Irving’s defamation suit after she had described Irving as a “Hitler partisan wearing blinkers” who, on some level, “seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy” (p.xvi).  In Great Britain, truth is an absolute defense to defamation charges, as in the United States.  But unlike in the United States, the burden of proof in defamation cases in Britain is on the defendant to show that his or her words were not defamatory.  The British court found that Lipstadt had easily met this burden, terming Irving’s claims “misleading” and “reprehensible.”  Irving’s falsification of the historical record, the court noted, was deliberate and “motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence” (p.xxii).  Irving’s case against Lipstadt was the second major court proceeding in which the Holocaust was in some sense on trial, after that of Eichmann.  But before she addresses Eichmann’s trial, Lipstadt provides a lively account of how Israel was able to bring Eichmann to Jerusalem to face charges.     

 * * *

           Eichmann had been arrested after World War II and imprisoned in an Allied POW camp, from which he escaped with the help of former SS officers.  After hiding in Germany, Eichmann fled to Argentina, known to be a welcoming venue for former Nazi officials.  He traveled to Argentina with a Red Cross passport under the name Ricardo Klement which, Lipstadt suggests, high level Vatican officials likely helped Eichmann obtain.   Eichmann arrived in Argentina in 1950, and worked during the 1950s in a metal factory, as a water engineer, and as a mechanic at the Mercedes-Benz plan in Buenos Aires. 

            An unlikely series of events led to Israeli identification of Eichmann in Argentina, followed by Israeli operatives’ covert entry into the country, using false documentation.  After Eichmann’s capture, he was escorted out of Argentina on an El Al plane in a manner which may remind readers of the final airport scene in the 2012 film “Argot.”  Lipstadt recounts this tale of stealth and what she terms “deering-do” (p.194) with obvious gusto.  Its swashbuckling zest stands in stark contrast to the ponderous themes she addresses in her discussion of the trial and the book’s two final sections. 

 * * *

           Argentina protested Eichmann’s capture in the United Nations as a violation of its sovereignty, but subsequently waived any claim it might have had for Eichmann’s return from Israel.  The two countries agreed to end their dispute with a joint statement that they had “decided to regard as closed the incident that arose out of the action taken by Israeli nationals which infringed the sovereignty of the State of Argentina.”  Lipstadt notes dourly that “Eichmann got an apology and Israel got Eichmann” (p.23).  But the idea of putting Eichmann on trial in Israel stirred worldwide controversy.  

            The American Jewish Committee, which arguably represented the Jewish establishment in the United States, feared that the trial would prompt questioning of American Jews’ loyalty to the United States.  Conservative commentator William F Buckley, Jr. found the trial symptomatic of a Jewish “refusal to forgive” which, he feared, could fan the “fires of anti-Germanism” and advance communist aims (p.25).  German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer worried that the Eichmann trial might “highlight that the German government was riddled with former Nazi officials” (p.27).  Israel rejected all objections and charged Eichmann with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against the Jewish people. 

            The trial took place in a Jerusalem cultural center, Beit Ha’am, the “house of the people,” because Jerusalem’s courtrooms were then not only small and shabby but also ill-equipped to handle an international media barrage.  The lead prosecutor was Gideon Hausner, Israel’s Attorney General with an accomplished background in commercial law but no expertise in criminal law or procedure and little courtroom experience.  A three judge panel heard the case, with Moshe Landau serving as presiding judge, flanked by Benjamin Halevi and Yitzhak Raveh, all three “German Jews who received their law degrees in Europe prior to immigration to Palestine” (p.41).  Much of Lipstadt’s account of the trial revolves around how Hausner’s theory of the case differed profoundly from what the three judges thought was at issue. 

           Hausner sought to draw a contrast with the Nurenberg trials, where the murder of Jews had been but another example of Nazi crimes against humanity.  Here, it would be the centerpiece of Nazi crimes.  But while Hausner’s objective was to tell the entire story of the Final Solution, the three-judge panel assigned to the case wanted a “narrowly constructed judicial proceeding that focused on Eichmann’s misdeeds” (p.121).  The judges’ primary objective, Lipstadt explains, was to “conduct a scrupulously fair legal proceeding that would win the respect of the world.”  In contrast, Hausner aimed to “tell the story of the Holocaust in all its details and, in so doing, to capture the imagination not just of Israel’s youth and world Jewry, but of the entire world” (p.21).    

            Hausner’s opening statement is among the best known passages of the trial.  Evoking “J’accuse,” Emile Zola’s impassioned plea for justice during France’s late 19th century trials of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, Hausner told the court that although he stood before them to lead the prosecution of Eichmann, he did not stand alone: 

 With me in this place and at this hour, stand six million accusers.  But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards the man who sits in the  glass dock and cry: “J’accuse.”  For their ashes were piled up in the hills of Auschwitz and in the fields of Treblinka, or washed away by the rivers of Poland; their graves are scattered over the length and breadth of Europe.  Their blood cries out, but their voices are not heard.  Therefore, it falls to me to be their spokesman and to unfold in their name the awesome indictment (p.61-62). 

 This statement marked a milestone for world Judiasm and the State of Israel, Lipstadt argues, with Hausner a “representative of the Jewish people speaking, not as a supplicant begging for help, but as a government official demanding long-delayed justice.”  For the first time, the Jewish people, who “during the war had looked this way and that for someone to speak on their behalf, had risen, not to implore others to save them but to prosecute” (p.62). 

            Hausner  was able to show that Eichmann was “proactive, energetic and a creative master of deception” who, working with dedicated subordinates, “arranged the deportations of a great portion of German Jews.”  He “pursued individual victims with the same zeal with which he deported multitudes – and sometimes even greater zeal” (p.65).  Hausner summoned a wide range of witnesses, many of whom had no direct link to Eichmann.  The witnesses told their stories in what Lipstadt describes as an:

 unprecedently concentrated fashion. . . testifying in the full meaning of the word. . . The retelling and the size and profile of those who would be listening would be entirely different.  Never before had they told their stories in front of such a broad international audience. . . never before had there been such consistently high level media coverage of this tragedy (p.66).  

           Eichmann’s main defense was that he was “exclusively a carrier out of orders” (p.43).  He contended that he “made absolutely sure to get instructions from my chief on even the most minor matters” (p.107).  He invoked memory loss when needed and contended that he was no anti-Semite but rather was working with Jews to extricate them from the problems they encountered.  This testimony broke the solemnity of the proceedings, as spectators greeted it with “derisive laughter” (p.108).  Equally risible was Eichmann’s contention that he too was a victim.  Having the misfortune to find himself in an “inferior position” during the Nazi era and unwilling to shirk his duty, Eichmann told the court that he was no general but rather a mere “tool in the hands of stronger powers and stronger forces, and of an inexorable fate” (p.115).     

           Although his focus was far broader than what the three-judge panel desired, Hausner presented an “overwhelming body of incriminating evidence to prove that Eichamann’s excuses were shams” (p.128).  Lipstadt characterizes Hausner’s closing argument as “impressive” and “sweeping” yet “wrong in many respects” (p.138).  Hausner accused Eichmann of many things he was not responsible for.  “Pushing past the evidence,” Hausner “painted the Holocaust as a well-organized top-down bureaucratic endeavor, though it had been a far more incremental and sometimes even haphazard operation” (p.138).  Linking Eichmann too closely to Hitler not only “turned Eichmann into a caricature” but also:

 diminished the culpability of Himmler, Müller, Heydrich, and many others, and put the onus on one man.  Unable to bring these higher-ranking Nazis to court, Hausner placed their guilt on Eichmann.  It may have served Hausner’s short-term historical goal, but it did not serve the cause of history (p.138).

           To no one’s surprise, the court found Eichmann guilty as charged.  The court nonetheless chastised Hausner for not focusing more narrowly on the specific acts that would have established Eichmann’s culpability, and for utilizing the court as a “forum for clarification of questions of great import” (p.141).  But it went on to find that Eichmann had not offered “truthful evidence. . . His entire testimony was nothing but one consistent attempt to deny the truth and to conceal his real share of responsibility” (p.144).  The panel imposed the death penalty, the first in Israel’s history, which was affirmed by Israel’s Supreme Court on May 29, 1962.  Although many leading Israeli scholars and intellectuals urged Israeli President Ben-Zevi to commute the death sentence, the President rejected all pleas for mercy and Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962, the second anniversary of his capture.  But, as Lipstadt writes, the debate about Eichmann and his trial was in no sense over.  Rather, it was “about to enter a new, far more vigorous, acerbic, and intellectually active phase, one that reverberates to this day” (p.147).     

 * * *

            The catalyst for the new and acerbic debate was Hannah Arendt and her famous analysis of the trial for the New Yorker magazine, which was later used for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt’s  “perspectives on both perpetrators and victims continue to constitute the prism through which many people’s view of the Holocaust is refracted” (p.149), Lipstadt contends.  Arendt’s conclusion that “many of the perpetrators were not innately monsters or diabolical creatures but ‘ordinary’ people who did monstrous things not only seems accurate but is the accepted understanding among most scholars of the perpetrators” (p.169).  Yet, Lipstadt finds Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann “strangely out of touch with the reality of his historical record” (p.169). 

             Arendt gained notoriety for her emphasis upon Jewish leaders’ complicity in the Holocaust.  The “pathetic and sordid” behavior of Jewish governing councils was for Arendt the “darkest chapter” of the Holocaust – darker than the mass shootings and gas chambers because it “showed how the Germans could turn victim against victim” (p.151). Arendt wrote at another point that the “majority of Jews inevitably found themselves confronted with two enemies – the Nazi authorities and the Jewish authorities,” a statement which, Lipstadt reluctantly concludes, sustains Arendt’s critics who accused her of “closing the gap between perpetrator and victim” (p.162). 

             Although Lipstadt finds that Arendt overemphasized the role of Jewish complicity in the Holocaust, Arendt’s fundamental shortcoming was not rooting her analysis in centuries of European anti-Semitism.  Arendt was too vested in European culture, “torn between the particularism of her Jewish roots and the universalism of the intellectual world to which she was so wedded” (p.183), Lipstadt concludes.  Her analysis failed to grasp that Eichmann and his cohorts:

 did not randomly go from being ordinary men to being [murderers].  They traversed a path paved by centuries of anti-Semitism.  They “knew” this road and, given the society in which they lived, it seemed true and natural.  Arendt, so deeply and viscerally committed to the European culture that nurtured the animus, seemed unable to acknowledge this reality ( p. 183).

            Acknowledging that Arendt “spoke with many voices” (p.180), Lipstadt finds that she too often seemed “more interested in turning a good phrase than in understanding its effect.  She wanted to needle her readers to examine their assumptions” (p.184).  Unfortunately, Arendt “seamlessly elided the ideology that was at the heart of this genocide.  She related a version of the Holocaust in which anti-Semitism played a decidedly minor role” (p.187).  

 * * *

            In her final section – the book’s last essay — Lipstadt provides her view of how the Eichmann trial should fit into our attempt to understand the Holocaust.  The term “Holocaust,” although used prior to the trial, in some senses owes its modern usage to the proceedings in Jerusalem.  These proceedings “cemented” the term Holocaust  “into the lexicon of the non-Hebrew population” and “greatly accelerated” Holocaust studies as a recognized field of research and scholarship  (p.188).  The trial further “reinforced the notion that there is universal jurisdiction over genocide.  Even though legal scholars differ over whether Israel was justified in trying Eichmann, there is now a virtual consensus among democratic states that genocidal killers cannot take refuge behind claims of obedience to superior orders” (p.189).  The trial also strengthened Israeli conviction that “the nation had a legitimate right to represent world Jewish interests” (p.194). 

            But these outcomes might not have been possible without the new hearing which the trial afforded to Holocaust victims, generating or accelerating a process whereby the “private and very personal world of the survivor met the public world of commemoration” (p.201).  This hearing was the direct result of Attorney General Hausner’s broadly focused trial strategy, which so irritated the court.  “Hausner’s determination that this trial would be founded on the human story of the Jewish victims’ suffering stands, from a perspective of five decades, as the trial’s most significant legacy” (p.192), Lipstadt concludes.  Through the testimony of victims:

 what happened to European Jewry was transformed in the public’s consciousness.  The trial and the debate that followed inaugurated a slow process whereby the topic of the Holocaust became a matter of concern not only to the Jewish community but to a larger and broader realm of people (p.193)

             Lipstadt closes by linking an affecting description of a reunion between Rwandan genocide victims and Holocaust survivors with what might be considered her “bottom line” lesson of the Eichmann trial.  A young Rwandan man who had lost his entire family in his country’s genocide told her, “Future generations, those who were not there, must remember.  And we who were there, must tell them” (p.203).  This, Lipstadt concludes, may be the “most enduring legacy of what occurred in Jerusalem in 1961” (p.203).  With ever fewer Holocaust witnesses still living, Deborah Lipstadt seems eminently well placed to tell their story, as she demonstrates throughout her lucid, razor-sharp account of the Eichmann trial and its implications.   

 Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

October 20, 2013

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Filed under German History, History, Politics, Rule of Law, Uncategorized

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

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Daniel Maier-Katkin, Stranger from Abroad,

Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness

            Daniel Maier-Katkin’s “Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness” explores the life-time relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.  When Arendt was a precocious 18 year old, in her first year at Marburg University in 1924 Weimar Germany, philosopher Martin Heidegger was one of her teachers.  Married with a son and twice Arendt’s age at 36, Professor Heidegger took a shine to the young student and – violà — a campus romance ensued.  Although few self respecting parents would be comfortable with their daughter in such a relationship, campus liaisons between starry eyed undergraduates and older teachers are probably more commonplace than parents of college-aged daughters would care to admit — I’m willing to bet that there might even be a present-day example at one of our institutions of higher learning here in the United States.  But the Heidegger-Arendt relationship has historical interest for two reasons: both Heidegger and Arendt would go on to become formidable 20th century intellectuals  — Heidegger was already a rising star in 1924 in the world of academic philosophy; and Heidegger would enthusiastically embrace the Nazi party when it came to power in 1933, while the Jewish Arendt was forced to flee the Nazis and Germany later that year, and would never again live in the country of her birth. 

            Arendt’s flight took her first to France, then to New York in 1941, where her professional career flourished.  Her first major work was “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” published in 1951, an analysis of Communism and Nazism that found parallels in the way the two systems exerted control over their populations.  But Arendt is probably best known for her writings on the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann for the New Yorker magazine, a series of articles that evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt found the mass killer Eichmann to be distinguished only by his ordinariness and stunning mediocrity, far more a proficient bureaucrat than a cold-blooded killer.  Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil” has itself become commonplace in our language.  Maier-Katkin suggests that Arendt’s conclusions about the ordinariness of Eichmann may have been consistent with inchoate views she had already formed of Heidegger, and help explain a subsequent reconciliation with her former teacher, notwithstanding his embrace of Nazism.   

            Arendt’s university affair with Heidegegger began shortly after her arrival at Marburg University.  For Arendt, the air around her brilliant professor “seemed to crackle with ideas and questions” (p.29). Arendt “seems to have loved him from the very first day, and he seems to have been drawn to her immediately” (p.29).  Although Heidegger made clear at the outset of their affair that he would never leave his wife, his family, or the respectability of his university position, Arendt was “confident that the love between them deserved to be preserved and nurtured independently of any social convention or competing obligation” (p.36).  Heidegger’s personal life was already awash in prevarication and deceit, but these characteristics did little to lessen Arendt’s admiration and love for the man.  “Even after Hannah began to understand that he [Heidegger] was a liar who said whatever was necessary to manage a moment, she always believed that Martin loved her more than he loved anyone else” (p.44-45).   

            Through Heidegger, Arendt “began a lifetime of thinking, including a persistent line of thought about thinking, about what we are doing when we are thinking” (p.28).  For Heidegger “meditative thinking,” the term he used to describe thinking about thinking, had the “potential to lead us toward an understanding of the significance or meaning of existence” and “nothing was more powerful than questions about the meaning of existence . . . why should anything exists, why should there not be just nothing” (p.29).  Meditative thinking is surely a fine exercise for philosophers seeking to understand the meaning of existence.  But if one were to judge by Heidegger, such thinking does not necessarily lead to sound political choices. 

            Although Heidegger’s political views prior to the Nazi era are difficult to pin down, he was “no democrat,” plainly anti-Communist, and was drawn to German “’ways of being,’ often thought to contain a degree of authoritarianism” (p.76).  When the Nazis came to power, Heidegger collaborated with party officials in order to be named Rector at Freiberg University, where the incumbent refused to fire Jewish faculty members.  Once Heidegger obtained the post at Freiburg, he signed off on the dismissal of all Jewish faculty members, including his former mentor and world famous philosophy professor Edmund Husserl. If not an anti-Semite,” Maier-Katkin contends, Heidegger was “certainly an opportunist” (p.94).   “Grandiosity, arrogance, pride, provincialism, and ambition” all contributed to Heidegger’s readiness to embrace the Nazi cause (p.80).  But Heidegger’s embrace went beyond “foolish grandiosity.”  His intellectual stature “helped to legitimize the Nazi seizure of power at a time when ordinary Germans were still wondering whether the Nazis had the sophistication and intelligence to govern Germany.  It was no small thing that Martin Heidegger had confidence in them” (p.100).    

            By 1936, Heidegger had fallen out of favor with the Nazis, in part because he was deemed insufficiently dedicated to the cause.  He nonetheless continued to pay party dues for several years thereafter.  After the war, Heidegger minimized his involvement with the Nazi regime and academically was entirely rehabilitated, “without apologia or mea culpa” (p.244).  In seeking reinstatement at Freiburg University,  Heidegger argued that he had joined the Nazi party because it “facilitated his efforts to protect the university” and because he “hoped that the participation of intellectuals would deepen and transform National Socialism” (p.171).  He had dismissed Jews from the university “reluctantly and passively only to keep the university from being closed” (p.171).  He too had been a victim of Nazism, “spied upon, marginalized in academic and intellectual circles, his work denied the national and international visibility it deserved” (p.172).  In 1950, the Freiburg University Senate reinstated Heidegger’s right to teach. 

            Arendt followed Heidegger’s career while she was forging her own outside Germany, a “stranger from abroad.” After an unsuccessful marriage in 1929, Arendt married Heinrich Blücher in 1940, and the couple remained married until Blücher died in 1970.  Arendt and Heidegger corresponded after Arendt fled the Nazis and Germany in late 1933.  Maier-Kotkin documents several instances after the war when they met.  The first, in 1952, was a “joyous moment of reconciliation, an instant recognition of continuity of interest, affection, and attraction in a shattered world” (p.183).  Heidegger and Arendt met on several occasions in the 1960s and, for the last time, in August 1975, a few months prior to Arendt’s death and less than a year before that of Heidegger.   

             Arendt appears to have forgiven Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism.  In a speech she delivered in 1968, in honor of Heidegger’s 80th birthday, Arendt came closely to saying so publicly.  Here, she termed Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation an “escapade” which she ascribed to a need to avoid the “reality of the Gestapo’s secret rooms and the torture cells of the concentration camps” (p.304-05).   Seeking to understand why Arendt seemed so untroubled by Heidegger’s “escapde” with the Nazis, Maier-Katkin suggests that the views Arendt expressed in her Eichmann writings may afford a clue.  

             Arendt’s experience with Heidegger may have “prepared her to comprehend, when she saw Adolf Eichmann, that a ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ man – or even a man of extraordinary intelligence like Martin Heidegger – might be transformed by the total moral collapse of society into an unthinking cog in the machinery of totalitarianism” (p.286).  While the notion of the “banality of evil” seemed to be a shocking epiphany which came to Arendt while covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Maier-Katkin surmises that Arendt may have developed the notion “intuitively and without clear articulation in [her] relation to Heidegger” – he too was “at the epicenter of evil” but was motivated “less by racial ideology than by careerist opportunities” (p.286).  Arendt’s observation that Eichmann was human and not a devil, Maier-Katkin argues, could be seen as a

 logical corollary of her earlier understanding of totalitarian systems: that they secure the complicity of whole populations – the Eichmanns and the Heideggers – through the use of terror, propaganda, and largesse to undermine any moral compass and to manipulate culture, language, and all the affiliative herd impulses so that average, normal citizens and even truly exceptional people become confused about right and wrong (p.286-87).

           After her husband’s death in 1970 and that of another key mentor, Karl Jaspers, Heidegger became Arendt’s “only remaining link to the world she had known in her youth” (p.314).  In her solitude, Arendt became “increasingly absorbed in her effort to comprehend the relationship between thinking and moral judgment; and she was never far from her gratitude to Martin Heidegger, the ‘hidden king of thinking’ with whom she had first been introduced to the life of the mind” (p.314-15). 

            For Maier-Katkin, the central question in assessing Arendt’s reconciliation with Heidegger ought to be “whether Heidegger was so deeply associated with the Nazis as to be among the Germans with whom reconciliation was inappropriate, or whether Arendt was correct to judge him as a flawed human being with redeeming virtues” (p.346).  Unfortunately, I found this important question for the most part unanswered in this otherwise well-written and easy-to-read work, part of my disappointment that it doesn’t delve deeply enough into Arendt’s psyche to explain adequately her continued affinity for the “hidden king of thinking.” 

            Maier-Katkin’s supposition that Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil could be applied to Heidegger in the manner she had applied it to Eichmann is intriguing but not demonstrated here, notwithstanding an extensive written record left by a woman who wrote prolifically and candidly.  Absent the probing analysis into Arendt’s psyche, I couldn’t put aside the naïve suspicion when I finished the book that her reconciliation with Heidegger might represent the simple but powerful triumph of Eros, the continuation of a school-girl crush that even the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust were unable to dispel.   

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

October 8, 2013

 

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