Thursday, 4 December 2014

Book Review - Eichmann before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth

Eichmann before Jerusalem : the unexamined life of a mass murderer by Bettina Stangneth, translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Melbourne: Scribe, 2014                                                        ISBN: 9781925106176

When we think of Adolf Eichmann, we think of a small-minded bureaucrat with an endless monotone voice - the picture of Arendt's banality of evil, the pen-pusher who mindlessly facilitated the Final Solution.

With a towering piece of scholarship, Bettina Stangneth shatters that image once and for all in this groundbreaking new book. Drawing on recently discovered material, and a concerted effort on her part through the various archives that hold material related to Eichmann, Stangneth shows that, far from being a bureaucrat, Eichmann saw himself as being on the front line of the extermination of the Jews, revelled in his notoriety, and had no regrets for what he had done. The Eichmann we saw in Jerusalem was an elaborate front, created to minimise the damage to himself and his colleagues in what was a misguided attempt to keep alive the flame of Nazism.

Stangneth starts her investigation by looking at Eichmann's career in the SS, where she shows that the image Eichmann tried to portray in Jerusalem, of being a man behind a desk working with files and signing requisitions, was far from the truth. He was an ambitious and ruthless organiser and perpetrator of the destruction of the Jews: he enjoyed his growing notoriety, and his falsely gained reputation of being a Jewish expert, which Stangneth shows as Eichmann merely being a few steps ahead of the mass of Nazis, rather than having any deep learning. Still, he used this myth to increase fear amongst the Jews, and trick them into negotiating with him in the false sense that they had something to gain from the process.

Of course the Jews couldn't change their fate under Nazi rule, and we know Eichmann joked about this during his sojourn in Argentina - we know because he was taped joking about it. Stangneth has used the taped recollections of Eichmann heavily in this book to reconstruct his thoughts and actions. While these tapes - known as the Sassen Interviews - were known to exist at the time of the trial, they were not known in their entirety, and Eichmann effectively denounced them as his drunken ramblings, egged on by an ambitious reporter. Stangneth shows this to be far from the truth.

Eichmann did not enjoy his slide into the shadows after the war, and his sessions with Willem Sassen were far from drunken ramblings: they were the first part of a bigger project to not only write a life of Eichmann, but to restore the glory of the Third Reich to the wider world. Sassen was not only a journalist, but also part of a small but active group of ex-Nazis and fellow travellers that published books and newspapers extolling the lost Reich and Adolf Hitler.

Sassen was initially drawn to speak to and publish Eichmann because of the latter's knowledge of the Final Solution. By the time the project began, in late 50s, the World was finding out more and more about the horror of the Holocaust, and Sassen and his cronies were determined to deny the so-called "lie of the six million". They thought by getting the information directly from one of the architects of the murder of the Jews they could definitively prove that those who claimed that six million Jews were murdered were lying.

The dreadful irony is that Eichmann agreed to the project for exactly the opposite reasons - he wanted to show that he was indeed the architect of the murder of six million Jews, and that it was ordered by Hitler, and that, far from being remorseful, he "would leap laughing into the pit, because millions of Jews would be lying there with him."

The whole project of the interviews collapsed once the Sassen circle realised that, far from vindicating the Nazis, Eichmann's story would condemn them from their own mouths. Hence everyone, for different reasons, wished to suppress this material once Eichmann was captured and faced trial. The interviews did however, have a big impact on the trial itself, in an unusual way.

When Sassen was interviewing Eichmann, he had copies of all the latest books published on the Holocaust provided for Eichmann to read and comment on. Of course the Israelis had no idea once they had him in custody that Eichmann had already read the works they showed him, and therefore he was one step ahead of them when it came to interrogation (of course his previous career ensured he was well-versed in interrogation techniques, and so had a counter to many of the ruses of the Israeli interrogation team). Eichmann knew exactly what the Israeli's knew about him, and what they didn't know, and used this to his advantage - while it didn't save his life, it did change the perspective of the world toward him and in fact the Holocaust itself - it wasn't a project that had a life of its own owing the efficiency of mindless German bureaucrats as Eichmann tried to portray it, but a murderous policy actively pursued and orchestrated by dedicated Nazis, with the passive collusion of much of the German and European population.

While the Eichmann version of events has slowly been deconstructed over the years by various scholars, Eichmann before Jerusalem now deconstructs Eichmann's trial version of his own life and activities. It is the first of what will no doubt be a revisionist wave of scholarship to do with this most evil of men, and of the milieu that allowed him and those like him to escape and live comfortable lives across the seas after the War.

This is a must read.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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