Exploring Adolf Eichmann and the Nature of Genocide

Article excerpt


It is scarcely possible to think of Adolf Eichmann without immediately thinking of Hannah Arendt's term, "the banality of evil." Perhaps, then, the subtitle of David Cesarani's book, "Becoming Eichmann," should be "Deconstructing Arendt," for the central thrust of it is to explain how and why "her depiction of Eichmann was self-serving, prejudiced and ultimately wrong."

Mr. Cesarani, a British historian specializing in Anglo-Jewish and Zionist subjects, has produced a work that is both a biography of Eichmann - the first in four decades - and an examination of the Holocaust. Both aspects of the book are well presented and exhaustively documented, and both serve primarily to support his argument against Arendt. Mr. Cesarani writes that her notion of the "banality of evil," combined with Stanley Milgram's (now discredited) theses on people's predilection for obedience to authority, "straitjacketed research into Nazi Germany and the persecution of the Jews" well into the 1980s.

Arendt's image of Eichmann was of a faceless, colorless bureaucrat, a cog in the Nazi machinery of genocide. It arose, Mr. Cesarani believes, more from her highly influential 1963 book, "Eichmann in Jerusalem," than from the 1962 trial on which it was based.

There are two problems here, in his view. One is that because Arendt attended only a very small part of a very long trial, she based her assessment on a phase in which Eichmann "was deliberately passive so as not to give the prosecution ammunition for the claim that he was a fanatic."

The other is more complicated, but equally well argued. Mr. Cesarani shows that Arendt's own prejudices against some of the Israelis who brought the trial skewed her vision, particularly her extreme dislike (as a Jew with German heritage) of the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner - a Polish Jew, an Ostjude.

On the other hand, neither was Eichmann a crazy man or fanatic. Mr. Cesarani leans toward the conclusions of recent researchers, notably Christopher Browning ("Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland"), and Daniel Goldhagen ("Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust").

"As much as we may want Eichmann to be a psychotic individual and thus unlike us, he was not," Mr. Cesarani writes. Eichmann was conventionally bourgeois. Early on he was a successful businessman, not the embittered failure of previous accounts.

He joined the Nazi party, then the SS, because he saw they offered opportunities. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, he developed the "conveyor belt" for Jewish emigration, staffed and run by Jews themselves. …