Tag Archives: Holocaust

Love Actually


Ann Heberlein, On Love and Tyranny:

The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt

Translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies (Pushkin Press, 2021)

Before she became a celebrated New York public intellectual, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) lived through some of the 20th century’s darkest moments. She fled her native Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933, living in France for several years.  In 1940, she spent time in two intern camps, then departed for the United States, where she resided for the second half of her life.  In 1950, Arendt became an American citizen, ending nearly two decades of statelessness.  The following year, she established her reputation as a serious thinker with The Origins of Totalitarianism, a trenchant analysis of how oppressive one-party systems came to rule both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century.  As a commentator observed in The Washington Post, Arendt’s work diagnosed brilliantly the “forms of alienation and dispossession that diminished human dignity, threatened freedom and fueled the rise of authoritarianism.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism was one of a handful of older works that experienced a sudden uptick in sales in early 2017, after Donald Trump became president of the United States (George Orwell’s 1984 was another).  The authoritarian impulses that Arendt explained and Trump personified seem likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, both in the United States and other corners of the world.  For that reason alone, a fresh look at Arendt is welcome.  That is the contribution of  Ann Heberlein, a Swedish novelist and non-fiction writer, with On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt.  

Heberlein’s work, ably translated from the original Swedish by Alice Menzies, constitutes the first major Arendt biography since 1982, when Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s highly-acclaimed but dense Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World first appeared.  On Love and Tyranny, by contrast, is easy to read yet hits all the highlights of Arendt’s life and work.  Disappointingly, there are no footnotes and little in the way of bibliography. Heberlein makes use of the diaries of a key if problematic figure in Arendt’s life, philosopher Martin Heidegger, which only became public in 2014 and cast additional light on Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies.  But it is difficult to ascertain from the book itself what other new or different sources Heberlein utilized that might have been unavailable to Young-Bruehl.

Although Arendt studied philosophy as a university student, she preferred to describe herself as a political theorist.  But despite the reference to politics in her title, Heberlein’s portrait accents Arendt’s philosophic side.  She emphasizes how the turbulent circumstances that shaped Arendt’s life forced her to apply in the real world many of the abstract philosophical and moral concepts she had wrestled with in the classroom.  As the title suggests, these include love and tyranny,  but also good vs. evil, truth, obligation, responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

At Marburg University, where she entered in 1924 as an 18-year-old first year student, Arendt not only studied philosophy under Heidegger, already a rising star in German academic circles, but also began a passionate love affair with the man.  Heidegger was then nearly twice her age and married with two young sons (their affair is detailed in Daniel Maier-Katkin’s astute Stranger from Abroad, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness, reviewed here  in 2013).   Arendt left Heidegger behind when she fled Germany in 1933, but after World War II re-established contact with her former teacher, by then disgraced because of his association with the Nazi regime. A major portion of Heberlein’s work scrutinizes Arendt’s subsequent, post-war relationship with Heidegger.

Heberlein also zeroes in on Arendt’s very different post-war relationship to a seemingly very different man, Adolph Eichmann, Hitler’s loyal apparatchik who was responsible for moving approximately 1.5 million Jews to Nazi death camps.  Arendt’s series of articles for The New Yorker on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961 became the basis for another of her best-known works, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, in which she portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology.

The phrase “banality of evil,” now commonplace thanks to Arendt, followed her for the rest of her days. How the phrase applies to Eichmann is of course well-ploughed ground, to which Heberlein adds a few insights.  Less obviously, Heberlein lays the groundwork to apply the phrase to Heidegger.  Her analysis of the banality of evil suggests that the differences between Heidegger and Eichmann were less glaring in the totalitarian Nazi environment, where whole populations risked losing their ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

* * *

Arendt was the only child of Paul and Martha Arendt, prosperous, progressive, and secular German Jews.  Paul died when Hannah (born Johanna) was 7, but she remained close to her mother, who immigrated with her to the United States in 1941. Meeting with Heidegger as a first-year student in 1924 was for Arendt “synonymous with her entry into the world of philosophy,” Heberlein writes.  Heidegger was “The Philosopher personified: brilliant, handsome, poetic, and simply dressed” (p.28).  The Philosopher made clear to the first-year student that he was not prepared to leave his wife and family or the respectability of his academic position for her.  She met him whenever he had time and was able to escape his wife.

The unbalanced Arendt-Heidegger relationship “existed solely in the shadows: never acknowledged, never visible”, (p.40) as Heberlein puts it.  Arendt was never able to call Heidegger her partner because she “possessed him for brief intervals only, and the fear of losing him was ever-present” (p.41).   Borrowing a perspective Heberlein attributes to Kierkegaard and Goethe, she describes Arendt’s love for Heidegger as oscillating “between great joy and deep sorrow—though mostly sorrow” (p.31).  For these writers, whom Arendt knew well, love consisted “largely of suffering, of longing, and of distance” (p.31).  The 18-year-old, Heberlein concludes, was “struck down by a passion, possibly even an obsession, that would never fade” (p.31).

Arendt left Marburg after one year, ending up at Heidelberg University.  She later admitted that she needed to get away from Heidegger.  But she continued to see him while she wrote her dissertation at Heidelberg on St. Augustine’s conception of love. Her advisor there was the esteemed theologian and philosopher Karl Jaspers, with whom she remained friends up to his death in 1969.

After university, Arendt worked in Berlin, where she met Gunther Stern, a journalist, poet and former Heidegger student who was closely associated with the communist Berthold Brecht.  Arendt married Stern in 1929 at age 23.  Sometime during her period in Berlin, she cut off all contact with Heidegger.  But after the Nazis came to power, Arendt began hearing alarming rumors about several specific anti-Semitic actions attributed to Heidegger at Fribourg University, where he had been appointed rector.  She asked him in a letter to clarify by responding to the rumors, and received back a self-pitying, aggressive response that she found entirely unconvincing.

1933 was also the year Arendt and her mother left Germany and wound up in Paris. There she met Heinrich Blücher, a self-taught, left wing German Jewish political activist. She and Stern had by then been living apart for several years, and she divorced him to marry Blücher in early 1940. The couple remained together until Blücher’s death in 1970. They were sent to separate intern camps just prior to the fall of France in 1940, but escaped together through Spain to Portugal, where they immigrated to the United States in 1941 and settled in New York.

Arendt’s first return trip to Europe came in late 1949 and early 1950.  With Blücher’s approval, she sought out her former teacher, then in Fribourg, meeting with Heidegger and his wife Elfried in February 1950.  Understandably suspicious, Elfried seems to have understood that Arendt was in a position to help rehabilitate her husband, besmirched by his association with the Nazi regime, and accepted that he wanted Arendt to again be part of his life.  Arendt maintained a warm relationship with her former professor until her death in 1975 (Heidegger died less than a year later), writing regularly and meeting on several occasions.

In the post-war years, as Arendt’s star was rising, she became Heidegger’s unpaid agent, working to have his writings translated into English and negotiating contracts on his behalf.  She also became an enthusiastic Heidegger defender, going to great lengths to excuse, smooth over, and downplay his association with Nazism.  She once compared Heidegger to Thales, the ancient Greek philosopher who was so busy gazing at the stars that he failed to notice that he had fallen into a well.

On the occasion of Heidegger’s 80th birthday in 1969, she delivered an over-the-top tribute to her former professor, reducing Heidegger’s dalliances with Nazism to a “10-month error,” which in her view he corrected quickly enough, “more quickly and more radically than many of those who later sat in judgment over him” (p.236).  Arendt argued that Heidegger had taken “considerably greater risks than were usual in German literary and university life during that period” (p.237).  As Heberlein points out, Arendt’s tribute was a counter-factual fantasy: there was no empirical support for this whitewashed version of the man.

Heidegger had openly endorsed Nazi “restructuring” of universities to exclude Jews when he became rector at Fribourg in 1933 and his party membership was well known. His diaries, published in 2014, made clear that he was aware of the Holocaust, believed it was at least partly the Jews’ fault and, even though he ceased to be active in party affairs sometime in the mid-1930s, remained until 1945 a “fully paid-up, devoted supporter of Adolph Hitler” (p.238).  Arendt of course didn’t have access to these diaries when she rose to Heidegger’s defense, but it seems unlikely they would have changed her perspective.

Arendt’s 1969 tribute left little doubt she had found her way to forgive Heidegger for his association and support for a regime that had murdered millions of her fellow Jews, wreaked destruction on much of Europe, and forced her to flee her native country to start her life anew an ocean away. But why? Heberlein writes that forgiveness for Arendt was the conjunction of the conflicting powers of love and evil.  “Without evil, without betrayal, insults and lies, forgiveness would be unnecessary; without love, forgiveness would be impossible” (p.225).  Arendt found the strength to forgive Heidegger in the “utterly irrational emotion” that was love. Her love for Heidegger was “strong, overwhelming, and desperate. The power of the passion Hannah felt for Martin was stronger than the sorrow she felt at his betrayal” (p.226).  But whether it was right or wrong for her to forgive Heidegger, Heberlein demurely concludes, is a question only Arendt could have answered.

Did Arendt also forgive Eichmann for his direct role in transporting a staggering number of Jews to death camps? Is forgiveness wrapped within the notion of the banality of evil? Daniel Maier-Katkin suggests in his study of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship that in her experience with Heidegger, Arendt may have come to the notion of the banality of evil “intuitively and without clear articulation.”  That experience may have prepared her to comprehend that each man had been “transformed by the total moral collapse of society into an unthinking cog in the machinery of totalitarianism.”

Heberlein’s analysis of Eichmann leads to the conclusion that the notion of the banality of evil was sufficiently elastic to embrace Heidegger.  Heberlein sees the influence of Kant’s theory of “radical evil” in Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil.  For Arendt, as for Kant, evil is a form of temptation, in which the desires of individuals overrule their “duty to listen to, and act in accordance with, goodwill” (p.198).   The antidote to evil is not goodness but reflection and responsibility.  Evil grows when people “cease to think, reflect, and choose between good and evil, between taking part or resisting” (p.138).  Arendt’s sense of evil recognizes an uncomfortable truth that seems as applicable to   Heidegger as to Eichmann, that most people have a tendency to:

follow the path of least resistance, to ignore their conscience and do what everyone else is doing.  As the exclusion, persecution, and ultimately, annihilation of Jews became normalized, there were few who protested, who stood up for their own principles (p.199).

For Arendt, forgiveness of such persons is possible. But not all evil can be explained in terms of obedience, ignorance, or neglect. There is such a thing as evil that is “as incomprehensible as it is unforgiveable” (p.200).   In Heberlein’sinterpretation of Arendt, the genuinely evil person is the one who is “leading the way, someone initiating the evil, someone creating the context, ideology, or prejudices necessary for the obedient masses to blindly adopt” (p.201).  Whether Eichmann falls outside this standard for genuine evil is debatable. But the standard could comfortably exclude Heidegger, as Arendt had in effect argued in her 1969 tribute to her former teacher.

Arendt compounded her difficulties with the separate argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jewish councils that the Nazis established in occupied countries cooperated in their own annihilation.  The “majority of Jews inevitably found themselves confronted with two enemies – the Nazi authorities and the Jewish authorities,” Arendt wrote.  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.”

The notion that Arendt was blaming the Jews for their persecution “quickly took hold,” Heberlein writes, and she was “forced to put up with questions about why she thought the Jews were responsible for their own deaths, in virtually every interview until she herself died” (p.192).  After Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt was shunned by many former colleagues and friends, repeatedly accused of being an anti-Israel, self-hating Jew, “heartless and devoid of empathy . . . cold and indifferent” (p.192).  When her husband died in 1970, Arendt’s isolation increased.  She was again in exile, this time existential, which surely enhanced her emotional attachment to Heidegger, the sole remaining link to the world of her youth.

* * *

Arendt’s ardent post-war defense of Heidegger, while generating little of the brouhaha that surrounded Eichmann in Jerusalem, is also a critical if puzzling piece in understanding her legacy.  Should we consider the continuation of her relationship with Heidegger as the simple but powerful triumph of Eros, an enduring schoolgirl crush that even the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust were unable to dispel?  Heberlein’s earnest biography points us inescapably in this direction.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 12, 2021

[NOTE: A nearly identical version of this review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog  maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]




Filed under History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

Being Ordinary in Nazi Germany


Konrad Jarausch, Broken Lives:

How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century  

(Princeton University Press)

The words “ordinary Germans” in Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century sent me back immediately to a searing academic debate that riveted a recently reunited Germany and much of the rest of the world in the 1990s between two American scholars, Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen.  Browning and Goldhagen sparred over the extent to which the anti-Semitism that gave rise to the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s project to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population, was engrained in the German population.

Browning’s 1992 work Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, and Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, published four years later, both examined mass executions committed by Reserve Battalion 101 of the German Uniformed Police Force (Ordungspolizel) in Poland in 1942.  The reservists had been randomly conscripted and were mostly middle-aged, with few ideological fanatics or even Nazi party members among them.  Their commander, the two scholars agreed, gave the reservists the opportunity  not to participate in the killing, but most declined to  opt out.   The two scholars offered contrasting interpretations of why so many chose, seemingly willingly, to participate in mass killing, with the difference captured by the words ordinary “men” in Browning’s title and ordinary “Germans” in that of Goldhagen.

Browning attributed the reservists’ participation in mass atrocities to universal factors, such as peer pressure, deference to authority, and adaptation to roles within an occupation unit stationed in enemy territory during wartime — attributes of human nature and group dynamics not unique to Germany or Germans.  Goldhagen, by contrast, emphasized what he described as an “eliminationist” anti-Semitism so deeply embedded in German history and culture that it caused virtually all Germans to kill Jews with enthusiastic cruelty when given the opportunity.  In essence, Goldhagen was arguing that a uniquely lethal anti-Semitism was embedded into the German national character.

There is no explicit mention of the Browning-Goldhagen exchange in Broken Lives, although implicitly Jarusch seems to be distancing himself from Goldhagen in this work (and it’s worth noting that Jarausch and Browning both served in the history department at the University of North Carolina and both did their graduate work at the University of Wisconsin in the same time frame).  But Jarusch’s work might be considered an attempt to restore an ordinary meaning to the term “ordinary Germans.”  Broken Lives gathers together a treasure trove of around 70 autobiographies, memoirs, diaries and journals composed by Germans who lived through and survived the Nazi era, ranging, Jarusch indicates, from enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi regime to courageous opponents.

Somewhat awkwardly, Jarusch calls his group the “Weimar cohort,” although he also uses “memoirists” and “authors.”  Most were born in the decade after World War I and retain childhood memories of the Germany of the 1920s, during its ill-fated experiment with liberal democracy, the Weimar Republic.  About two-thirds of the Weimar cohort were men, one-third women.  These are not “elite memoirs,” Jarusch emphasizes, but rather “untutored accounts” which provide a “more vivid and personal picture of what it meant to live through the twentieth century” (p.11).

The Weimar cohort consists mostly of “apolitical folks who merely took pride in surviving the Third Reich through ingenious stratagems” (p.4; among the cohort, assiduous readers of this blog will recall Joachim Fest, later a noted German historian, whose Not I, a memoir on growing up in the Third Reich, was reviewed here in 2016).  The cohort does not include those “fanatical Nazis” who “did not want to write about their complicity in crimes” (p.4).  Alluding to his title, Jarusch observes that the autobiographies and memoirs collectively demonstrate that Germans “overwhelmingly experienced a sense of broken lives in the twentieth century, disrupted beyond repair” (p.12), in which the normal life cycle progression from childhood to adult was interrupted by forces outside the memoirists’ control.

Jarusch utilizes the individual accounts to compile a fact-intensive, before-during-after narrative of what everyday life was like from World War I onward in Germany, divisible into five segments: 1) the Weimar cohort’s youth in the 1920s; 2) the different ways members of the cohort reacted as the Nazis gained power in 1933 and tightened their grip as the decade proceeded; 3) the cohort’s war experiences; 4) their immediate post-war experiences, in the initial months and years after the end of hostilities; and 5) longer term post-war experiences, as Germany became a Cold War battleground, with a Soviet satellite in the East and a largely capitalist West, and thereafter reunited in 1990 (these five segments coincide with those that Columbia University professor Fritz Stern described in his 2006 memoir, Five Germanys I Have Known; Stern is listed among the “minor individuals” who contributed to Broken Lives, indicating that Jarusch makes only limited reference to his contribution).

Virtually all the Weimar cohort reported “surprisingly benign” childhoods during the 1920s, “quite happy in contrast to later suffering”(p.368-69).  The period of innocence began to give way to more trying times for the cohort with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuring worldwide economic depression, which hit Germany particularly hard.  The Nazi assumption of political power in 1933 “largely dispelled ‘the carefree atmosphere of childhood’” for the cohort (p.63-64).  The war itself, which began in September 1939 and lasted through May 1945, constitutes the pivotal experience of the autobiographies and memoirs, with some memoirists detailing life on the front lines and in combat, while others, mostly women, describe their lives on the home front.  In the post-war period, memoirists living in West Germany enjoyed economic prosperity and “considerable freedom for individual growth that allowed a plurality of life plans to unfold into maturity and old age” (p.303), while the autobiographies and memoirs of those living in East Germany exhibit a “peculiarly defensive character, since their authors attempt to justify individual lives in spite of having to admit the [East German] system’s failure” (p.357).  West Germans memoirists supported reunification in 1990 more enthusiastically than did those from East Germany.

In his narrative , Jarausch uses the material that the cohort provided  primarily in short snippets, inserted into the text in a mechanical manner.  The members of the cohort come and go quickly, a short sentence about x here, another about y there; then we don’t see x or y for several pages or the next or a following chapter.  We never really develop a rapport with x or y, or any of the 17 “key individuals” whose experiences are the flesh and bones of this work.  Despite the richness of the historical raw material, the resulting narrative is wooden and desultory.  Moreover, Jarusch does little questioning of his sources in the narrative.

Almost all the memoirs are retrospectives, written many years – most often decades – after the events they recount, where experiences and memories “blend in a unique fashion that can make it difficult to tell them apart.” The memoirs are thus “selective, biased, and exculpatory, offering an incomplete picture” (p.13).  While their assertions nonetheless may be valuable in “showing how earlier experiences are remembered” (p.13), Jarusch argues, for the most part they are incorporated as fact into the text, with few attempts at qualification.

Women’s memoirs differ from those of men, Jarusch notes at several points.   Both male and female memoirists used their texts to reconcile early Nazi enthusiasm with later disillusionment.  But Jarusch finds more ambivalence in the memoirs of women about their roles in the Third Reich, especially their war experiences.  Drafted by the Wehrmacht and sent to the front, men experienced the war as a “paroxysm of gendered violence against enemies, foreign women, and racial inferiors” (p.102).  Most women in contrast “followed a traditional pattern of caring for their families, dealing with shortages, and keeping up the home front.  At the same time, they coped with the separation from the men by writing letters to soldiers and sending packages in order to keep up their morale” (p.187).

As war fortunes worsened for Germany, many women were required to go to work in war production facilities.  Women were equally exposed to Allied saturation bombing, which often failed to differentiate military from civilian targets.  With the collapse of the Eastern Front and the advance of the Red Army, many women had to organize precipitous flight, combined with the “crowning indignity of mass rape, with its attendant brutalization, pregnancy, and shame that sexually signaled defeat” (p.370).  After the war, the female memoirists were frequently “haunted by ‘anger, grief, shame, and remorse’” (p.187), more so than the men.

Any portrait of Germans being ordinary in extraordinary times cannot escape issues of German victimhood, comparative suffering, and collective guilt.  Jarusch notes the tendency of the autobiographies and memoirs to emphasize personal suffering while making at best only passing reference to the pain of Nazi victims.  Most of his authors, writing years and decades after the Nazi era, saw themselves as “misguided victims in order to minimize their own contribution to the Third Reich” (p.95).  German soldiers, instead of being heroes, came to “see themselves as betrayed victims of a megalomaniac Führer and Nazi dictatorship.  Because their heroism had become meaningless, they were left only with claims of victimization” (p.231).

In several passages, Jarusch considers the degree to which the ordinary Germans of the Weimar cohort might have aided and abetted the crimes of the Third Reich, as close as he comes to weighing in on the Browning-Goldhagen debate.  The memoirs and autobiographies of the cohort suggest that “more ordinary Germans were involved in the Holocaust than apologists admit, but at the same time fewer participated than some critics claim,” (p.218), he writes.  The memoirs and autobiographies “only hint at the full extent of the violence because its graphic description would be too unsettling” (p.134).  Although none admitted to involvement in militarily unnecessary atrocities, the texts “do reveal a widespread knowledge of the Nazi project of annihilation” (p.135).  While most of the cohort “witnessed the persecution without intervening and did their duty during the war effort,” many continued after the war to “claim not to have harmed anyone directly” (p.218-19).

Jarusch addresses the controversy over the exhibition of the Hamburg Institute of Social Research, “War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941–1944,” which toured Germany between 1995 and 1999, at the same time the Browning-Goldhagen debated was roiling the country.  The exhibit raised the question whether the German army, the Wehrmacht, should be considered itself a criminal organization, and if so, whether that makes everyone who was part of it a criminal (in Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, reviewed here last month, Susan Neiman also considered the impact of this exhibit).  Without answering the question directly, Jarusch concludes that the autobiographical accounts “tend to support the version of considerable military participation in atrocities and murder” (p.103), hardly a startling conclusion.

Overall, the dominant experience shared in the retrospectives of the Weimar cohort, Jarusch concludes, was the “disruption of their own life courses by historic forces outside of their control.  Their existence was not the expected progression from happy childhood via turbulent adolescences to mature adulthood with professional success and loving family, but rather a constant struggle against the surprising challenges of depression, dictatorship, war, privation, and the like” (p.366).  Capturing how ordinary Germans lived through and survived the Nazi era is assuredly a tale worth telling.  But while Broken Lives provides much valuable ground-level information  about the ordinary Germans of the Weimar cohort,  it falls disappointingly short in creating affinity with the individual members of the cohort.


Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 21, 2020



Filed under German History, History

The Man Himself, Far From Banal



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


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

Global Hubris


Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights 

      In The Endtimes of Human Rights, Stephen Hopgood delivers a scathing critique of the practices and institutions associated with present day global human rights. Over the course of two introductory sections and five subsequent chapters, Hopgood argues forcefully that today’s global human rights machinery is unsustainable and on the verge of collapse, as the word “endtimes” in his title suggests.  Hopgood uses initial capital letters, “Human Rights,” to describe this broken system, which he contrasts with “human rights” without initial capital letters.

     Lower case human rights refer to ground level, indigenous movements to be free from human rights abuses, which Hopwood wholeheartedly endorses. The endtimes “can never come for this form of ’human rights,’” he argues, “in the same way that nothing can stop people banding together to demand their own freedom or justice in whatever language they prefer” (p.viii).  Upper case Human Rights, by contrast, consist of a “global structure of laws, courts, norms, and organizations that raise money, write reports, run international campaigns, open local offices, lobby governments, and claim to speak with singular authority in the name of humanity as a whole” (p.ix).

    For Hopgood, upper case Human Rights are based on an elitist, one-size-fits-all approach, “overambitious, unaccountable, alienated and largely ineffectual” (p.182).  In their hubris, Human Rights advocates have sought, and have largely succeeded, in arrogating to themselves and the institutions they represent the authority to define the fundamental global norms that are “applicable always, without discretion” (p.122).  The tension between Human Rights and human rights, he argues, is “exactly” the “tension between top-down fixed authority and bottom up (spontaneous, diverse, and multiple) authorities.” (p,x).  The forthcoming collapse of (upper case) Human Rights means that locally inspired (lower case) human rights movements will have space to flourish.

    Hopgood’s arguments against Human Rights focus primarily upon international criminal justice, the process which seeks to hold accountable those who violate international norms against, for example, torture and arbitrary arrests and killings, occurring in the context of what we often term mass atrocities, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.  International criminal justice institutions of concern to Hopgood include the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and, especially, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, along with non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, gatekeeper organizations dedicated to identifying and publicizing human rights abuses and advocating for accountability for abusers.  Human Rights also embraces humanitarianism — the treatment of military and civilian personnel in wartime and crisis situations — and, more recently, has included efforts to secure equal treatment for women and for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender (LGBT) individuals.  These strains of Human Rights, although mentioned in Endtimes, are of less concern to Hopgood, a professor of international relations at the University of London and the author of Keeper of the Flame, Understanding Amnesty International.

     Readers may be surprised to discover that very little of Hopgood’s work involves a direct critique of the day-to-day practices of Human Rights. Readers need to look elsewhere if, for example, their interest is whether hearsay evidence should be admissible before the ICC.  Hopgood addresses Human Rights from a far broader perspective.  His core argument is that although contemporary international criminal justice seeks to secure accountability for human rights abusers through what purports to be a judicial process, the process is almost entirely political.  Hopgood’s interest is in exposing the political underpinnings of this process. A crucial portion of his argument against contemporary Human Rights lies in his elaboration of its European origins.

* * *

     Today’s Human Rights may be traced to what Hopgood terms 19th century European humanism, when progressive, middle class Europeans created a “secular replacement for the Christian god” (p.x) which borrowed heavily from Christian values and concepts, especially the need to alleviate suffering.  Of particular importance was the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, the “first international church” of secular humanism (p.25). The ICRC, founded in 1863 in very Protestant Geneva, Switzerland, was a neutral organization dedicated to providing assistance to soldiers wounded in war.  The ICRC gave rise to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which established standards for the provision of relief in armed conflicts.

      A decade later, the Geneva-based Institut de Droit International (International Law Institute) came into being as a supplement to the ICRC. The institute, a standing council of international jurists charged with providing expert commentary on the laws of war, served as the first step toward international war crimes tribunals, Hopgood contends.  The League of Nations, created in the aftermath of World War I and also based in Geneva, constituted an “epiphany” for secular humanism, the “first truly international organization authorized explicitly by the idea of humanity, not the Christian god” (p.41).  The League was to be a “permanent, transnational, institutional, and secular regime for understanding and addressing the root causes of suffering” (p.41-42).

      This phase of global secular humanism “came crashing to the ground in 1939. The Holocaust and the Second World War destroyed the moral legitimacy and political power, if not the ideological ambition and cultural arrogance, of Europe” (p.xi).  But the Holocaust and World War II gave rise to a perceived need to create institutions better equipped to preserve and advance secular humanism across the globe.  The creation of new institutions began in 1945 with the United Nations and the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, which served as a model for future war crimes tribunals.  The years 1945-49 were the “last time Europe held such a central place in the design of world order. It was a last moment to embed the humanist dream before the empires were gone” (p.49), Hopgood argues.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Anti-Genocide Convention, both dating from 1948, along with a revised 1949 Geneva Convention, were products of this era and remain key instruments of global Human Rights.

       Echoing a theme which Barbara Keys developed in Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s, reviewed here in November 2015, Hopgood goes on to argue that Human Rights gained impetus in the 1970s when the United States began to prioritize human rights abroad as a key consideration in its foreign policy.  More than any other single factor, Hopgood argues, American power turned lower case human rights into upper case Human Rights, with the “secular religiosity” of European humanism giving way to a “more political, openly pro-democratic form of advocacy” that embraced the “logic of money as power” and “made explicit what had been implicit within international humanism: Human Rights and liberal capitalism were allies, not enemies” (p.12-13).  Human Rights thus became “intimately tied to the export of neo-liberal democracy using American state power” (p.xii).

     The apogee of Human Rights was from 1991 to 2008, the “unipolar moment” of American post-war dominance, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of international tribunals to investigate and prosecute mass atrocities in the ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  During this period, moreover, 120 countries approved the Rome Statute of 1998, the founding charter for the ICC, which Hopgood terms the “apex of international criminal justice” (p.129; the United States was one of just seven states to vote against the Rome statute, along with China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar and Yemen).  The ICC began hearing cases in 2002. The period also witnessed the emergence of an international “responsibility to protect” victims of human rights abuses, often shortened to R2P, now a recognized basis for humanitarian interventions authorized by the United Nations Security Council.

     But at the very moment when the notion of Human Rights was at its apogee, the “foundations of universal liberal norms and global governance [were] crumbling” (p.1), Hopgood argues.  The United States no longer retains the power it enjoyed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to foist its neo-liberal vision upon the rest of the world.  Nationalism and religious conviction have reasserted themselves throughout the world, and competing world powers, particularly China and Russia, are not proponents of liberal democracy.  Neither the United States nor any other entity is today capable of speaking and acting on behalf of the international community.

     Rather, we are entering what Hopgood terms a “neo-Westphalian world,” a reference to the 1648 peace treaties which ended Europe’s Thirty Years War and established a system of political order in Europe based on state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.  The neo-Westphalian world is one of “renewed sovereignty, resurgent religion, globalized markets, and the stagnation or rollback of universal norms about human rights” (p.166).  The “core modernizing assumption” of Human Rights, Hopgood argues, that “history brings secularism, a sense of oneself as an individual rights holder, and the erosion of collective beliefs and loyalties” is “fracturing alongside the Western power that sustained it” (p.166). Neo-Westphalia means “more politics, less morality, and less Europe,” in which the notion of genuine global solidarity becomes little more than a “conceit of human rights advocates in Geneva, New York, and London” (p.177).

    Hopgood looks with favor at the forthcoming collapse of Human Rights, its “endtimes,” much as many Christians look forward to an eschatological endtimes that culminate with the second coming of Jesus.  As Human Rights declines with declining American power, “local interpretations of what rights are and which rights might be sustainable will be essential if human rights are to flourish” (p.xv).  Once lower case human rights replace upper case Human Rights “other alliances can grow” (p.22), with “more international funding and expertise in areas like public health, disease, communication, and mediation – the Médecins Sans Frontières approach—which is more conducive to longer-lasting and effective change than are the often symbolic efforts of large-scale global institutions” (p.21).

     In the endtimes, only “issues of security, natural resources, and trade will excite multilateral engagement” (p.20), along with “very practical but time-limited relief work in logistics, search and rescue, medicine, disease control, and food and shelter” (p.21).  International Human Rights organizations will “turn increasingly to self-promotion. They will be concerned more than ever with themselves” (p.20). The one area where Human Rights seems likely to retain some clout is sub-Saharan Africa, precisely because this is the globe’s single area where Europe retains at least limited influence. “Africa will remain a laboratory for European moral spectatorship, although given Europe’s’ relative global decline, self reliance and church support will likely be the future for the poor and the suffering south of the Sahara” (p.21).

     Despite his searing rhetorical assault on contemporary Human Rights, Hopgood’s specific criticisms of the ICC and, by extension, international criminal justice, are tepid and hardly unconventional: the ICC’s prosecutions have been primarily against lower level state actors, rather than heads of state; they have focused almost exclusively on Africans, with few actions against persons from other regions; and the United States, having refused to ratify the Rome convention, remains an “embarrassing outlier for claims about liberal global norms” (p.129). The “true tragedy” of the ICC is that it is a court that “cannot conceivably exercise political jurisdiction over great powers, creating a permanent two-tier justice system in which strong states use global institutions to discipline the weak” (p.167).

* * *

     Hopgood’s polemical and passionately argued case against modern Human Rights is problematic in several respects.  He offers maddeningly few specifics to support his broad theme that international Human Rights elites, in their hubris, have foisted “universal” and “secular” norms upon unwilling local populations.  The scattered examples he provides are drawn from efforts to secure greater rights for women and LGBT individuals in certain non-Western cultures, difficult and delicate exercises to be sure but well removed from his primary focus on international criminal justice.  Further, it is facile to argue that “renewed sovereignty” threatens international criminal justice. Nationalism and state sovereignty have always been, and are likely always to be, challenges to the aspirations and objectives of international institutions and organizations across the board, not simply to those of international criminal justice — just ask the mavens in Brussels charged with trying to hold the European Union together.

     Hopgood stops short of explicitly recommending abolition of the ICC and other publicly financed international criminal justice institutions and organizations, but his arguments lead inescapably to this recommendation. His contention that the resources presently applied to these institutions and organizations should be redirected to humanitarian relief means that any process seeking accountability for human rights abusers will have to be locally driven.  Given the weak state of domestic justice systems in much of the world, this means still less accountability for those who commit war crimes and mass atrocities than is the case with today’s admittedly imperfect international criminal justice machinery.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 4, 2016


Filed under American Politics, Politics, Rule of Law

More Alike Than Different



Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies:
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields 

       In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower, a professor of history at California’s Claremont McKenna College, highlights the roles that women played in Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust. To date, Lower contends, these roles have been largely “suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched” (p.4). Nearly all histories of the Holocaust, Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, leave out half the population of Germany during the Third Reich, “as if women’s history happens somewhere else,” resulting in an “illogical approach and puzzling omission” (p.14). But the Holocaust, she writes, “could not have been accomplished if a sense of duty had not prevailed over the sense of morality. In favoring perceived duty over morality, men and women were more alike than different” (p.111).

     Lower’s exhaustively researched and lucidly written study revolves around thirteen women who participated actively in the Holocaust. She seeks to demonstrate that their experiences were typical of a vast number of women drawn into the Nazi regime.  Lower provides short autobiographical sketches of the thirteen women and returns to their stories at different points throughout the book. But the full historical record of women’s precise roles in Nazi atrocities is scant, consisting of original wartime documentation, such as marriage applications, personnel records, and Nazi party reports, “devoid of personality or motive,” supplemented by more revealing postwar “self-representations” of women contained in testimonies, letters, memoirs and interviews (p.12). This thin historical record precludes Lower from bringing her thirteen women to life in the way that Eric Lichtblau does in his study of Nazi activists who sought refuge in the United States, The Nazis Next Door, reviewed here in October 2015. Nonetheless, Lower makes a strong case that the experiences of the thirteen women should not be dismissed as anecdotal or aberrational.

     In Lower’s analysis, women were frequently witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities. Less frequently, but not insignificantly, they were themselves perpetrators who “killed Jews and other ‘enemies’ of the Reich, more than had been documented during the war or prosecuted afterward” (p.4). The Nazi ideology did not exhort German women to be killers; that function was, officially if nonetheless implicitly, reserved for German men. Women were above all expected to be fertile, the bearer of “racially pure” Aryan children to serve the Third Reich in the future. In Hitler’s Germany, the “female badge of honor was the pregnant belly” (p.116). Although the Nazi regime “trained thousands of women to be accomplices, to be heartless in their dealings with the enemies of the Reich,” the regime “did not aim to develop cadres of female killers . . . [I]t was not expected that women would be especially violent or would kill. Those who did kill exploited the ‘opportunity’ to do so within a fertile sociopolitical setting, with the expectation of rewards and affirmation, not ostracism” (p.52).

       This opportunity arose most frequently on Germany’s Eastern Front, Poland and the Western Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics.  Lower describes the Eastern Front as a “European stage where Hitler and his supporters fulfilled their imperial fantasies,” a space for the Nazis to “carry out criminal policies with impunity” (p.125). She estimates that approximately 500,000 women were assigned to the Eastern Front or volunteered to go, seeking to “fulfill their ambitions and the regime’s expectations, to experience something new, and to further the Nazi cause” (p.85). Of the thirteen women Lower studies, most did not begin their war experiences with the fierce hatred for Jews that underlay Nazi ideology. But their experiences on the Eastern Front “proved transformative. It was in the eastern territories that Nazi anti-Semitism found its fullest and most profound development” (p.163).

* * *

        The thirteen women in Lower’s study came from different parts of Germany and, in two cases, from Austria. They were from middle and working class backgrounds, and from urban and rural areas. They were Catholic and Protestant, with and without university level education. All were “ambitious and patriotic” and, in varying degrees, shared “qualities of greed, anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialistic arrogance” (p.164). Most were startlingly young, in their early 20s, part of what Lower characterizes as a post-World War I baby boom, born during the fledgling Weimar Republic and coming of age in Hitler’s Third Reich.

      Approximately 3,500 women found roles as prison guards on the Eastern Front, very few of whom “exhibited a humane attitude toward the prisoners in their purview” (p.21). Female guards could “choose how cruel and sadistic to be toward prisoners” (p.52).  When female guards abusively managed the prisoner population, Lower argues, they “helped make mass murder standard operating procedure. They lent their organizational know-how and individual skills to the machinery of destruction” (p.109). However, the “first Nazi mass murderess was not the concentration camp guard but the nurse” (p.120).

       Nursing took on an “acutely nationalistic and ideological character” during the Third Reich, leaving “little room for traditional humanitarian ideals” (p.44).  It was the profession that “brought the largest number of German women directly into the war and the Nazi genocide, as nurses occupied a variety of traditional and new roles in the developing racial state” (p.43). Centrally planned mass killing operations, Lower explains, began in the hospitals of the Reich. The Nazi euthanasia program “involved the recruitment of female midwives and of medical personnel, both doctors and nurses. These professionals would eventually murder more than two hundred thousand people in Germany, Austria and the annexed Reich borderlands of Poland, and the Czech lands” (p.121). The first methods were the “sleeping pill, the hypodermic needle, and starvation” (p.120).  The first victims were children.  During the war, “nurses gave thousands of deformed babies and disabled adolescents overdoses of barbiturates, lethal injections of morphine, and denied them food and water” (p.120).

       The Nazi regime also engaged in an extensive program of forced sterilizations of non-Jewish German women. German women and girls were betrayed by mid-wives and nurses who, upon arrival of a child with reported alleged defects, recommended sterilization. In the “civil war for perfect Aryan babies that was underway even before the outbreak of World War II, women made cruel life-and-death decisions for other women, eroding moral sensibilities and implicating women in the regime’s crimes.” (p.23).

        One of the nurses whom Lower studies, Pauline Kneissler, was a Nazi party activist and a member of the Reich Nurses League who worked in Minsk, Belarus during the war.  Promoted to deputy senior nurse in Minsk, Kneissler “could order others to kill and administer deadly doses of sedatives” (p.237). Each day about seventy-five patients died in her ward.  When her boss asked if she was ready to murder without his guidance, she responded that she could and “had done so already” (p.237). After the war, Kneissler told a friend that German medical teams also gave lethal injections to wounded German soldiers, “our own,” as she put it, a subject that was — and, Lower indicates, still is — “taboo” (p.123).

       The women who worked as secretaries and in other administrative positions on the Eastern Front made “enormous” but “publicly minimized” contributions to the implementation of the Holocaust (p.61). They “took dictation and typed up the orders facilitating the robbery, deportation, and mass murder of Jews. They performed these duties with the knowledge that they were contributing to the goal of total extermination of the Jewish people” (p.102).  By the end of 194I, the elite killing squads known as the Einsatazgruppen had completed its first wave of massacres in the Soviet Union, killing close to 500,000 Soviet Jews. “So extensive was the documentation of their gruesome work that after the war American prosecutors conducted a special Nuremberg trial against leading Einsatazgruppen members.” But, Lower notes, “little has been said about those who typed up this damning evidence of the Holocaust” (p.107).

        Another woman in Lower’s study, Liselotte Meier, barely twenty years old when she arrived on the Eastern Front in Lida, Belarus, fell in love with the Nazi Commissar for the region and became his administrative assistant.  Meier participated in the planning of massacres that occurred in 1942-43 in the region, and was by some accounts the most knowledgeable person in the Lida office. She had access to the office safe where most of the secret orders were stored. She kept the office stamp in her desk drawer, which allowed her to sign on behalf of the commissar. This gave her authority to determine “who was and who was not a Jew” and therefore to “decide who would be killed, [and] who could be a spared” (p.104). During secret planning meetings before a mass shooting, Meier took the notes and coordinated the action with the executioners, being “careful about how much she committed to paper” (p.104).

        Whether as camp guard, nurse, secretary, or other function, women on the Eastern Front became adept plunderers of goods and property — crates of eggs, flour, sugar, clothing, and home furnishings — in what Lower terms the “biggest campaign of organized robbery and economic exploitation in history,” with German women “among its prime agents and beneficiaries” (p.101). This indulgence was “not condoned by the regime; Jewish belongings were officially Reich property and not meant for personal consumption. Some plunderers, women among them, were punished and even executed for stealing from the Reich” (p.101).

        Most of the secretaries and administrative support personnel whom Lower identifies would best be described as witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities rather than actual perpetrators. But some engaged directly in the perpetration of atrocities. Such women “slipped into another role – a hybrid characteristic that embodied the stiff Nazi patriot, brazen cowgirl, and cold-blooded anti-Semite. They carried whips, they brandished pistols and rifles, they wore riding pants, and they rode horses” (p.125). Lower documents the shocking case involving Johanna Altvater, who worked as a secretary in Ukraine, where she specialized in killing children. One observer noted that Altvater “often lured children with candy. When they came to her and opened their mouths, she shot them in the mouth with the small silver pistol that she kept at her side” (p.127).  Another secretary, Lisel Riedel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander, shot children from her balcony, with her own child standing next to her.

        Altvater was one of the few women working in administrative positions to be prosecuted after the war.  Despite extensive eyewitness testimony against her, she was twice acquitted, the second time in 1982.  But she was the exception. Very few women were called to account for their role in Nazi atrocities once the war ended.  Women, “especially those who appeared matronly and meek, did not seem capable of committing such atrocities. The physical appearance of the women and gender stereotypes held by the mostly male investigators and judges usually worked in favor of the female perpetrators, whose acts were in some instances as criminal as their male counterparts” (p.196).  Most women returned from the Eastern Front and “quietly resumed normal lives” (p.168), refraining  from speaking publicly about the atrocities they had seen and participated in.  Their silence, Lower argues, was rooted in “feelings of shame, grief, and fear” (p.97), although, she notes elsewhere, their shame “was not necessarily about culpability” (p.9).

         How and why women overcame their stereotypical passivity to participate directly in Holocaust killing are among the book’s central questions. Lower’s penultimate chapter, “Why Did They Kill,” is dedicated to the subject, but she addresses it throughout the book. The crimes committed by female perpetrators, Lower explains, “occurred within a web of professional priorities and tasks, personal commitments and anxieties.”  The perpetrator who accepted the perceived necessity of killing “could in the course of one day shoot Jewish children and then arrive home to coddle her son or daughter.  There is no contradiction here in the mind of the perpetrator: there is, rather, a startling degree of clarity” (p.162). That clarity in Lower’s interpretation may be traced to official anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, which “permeated everyday life, shaped professional and intimate relationships, and generated criminal government policies” (p.155).  Under the Nazi ideology, “Germans and Jews could not coexist.  Female killers, like their male counterparts, developed this conviction after years of conditioning in the Reich, [and] absorbed it from a general climate of popular and state-condoned anti-Semitism in Germany and across Europe” (p.162).

* * *

        Minimizing the violent behavior of Nazi women, Lower cautions, “creates a false shield against a more direct confrontation with genocide and its disconcerting realities” (p.158).  In seeking to remove that shield and enlarge our knowledge of the unfathomable Holocaust, Lower’s chilling account provides another reminder of how a whole class of people, in this case women, could be swept into the orgies of violence to which Hitler’s murderous ideology gave rise.

Thomas H. Peebles
Paris, France
December 29, 2015


Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Gender Issues, German History, History

New Hearing


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


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