German philosopher Bettina Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, is garnering a lot of critical attention now that the English-language edition of the 2011 German original has been released.
Her work comes at a time when a rising tide of antisemitism that cannot be ignored sweeps across major European centres, making Stangneth’s historical research, even if not immediately related to today’s events, all the more poignant. Still, unsettling developments in Europe, including, most regrettably, in areas of Germany itself, send a chilling reminder of the circumstances surrounding the Nazis’ genocide of Europe’s Jews and of Adolf Eichmann’s central role in it. (Stangneth’s inquiry holds surprises: for instance, she writes: “Scandalously, the German authorities still hold files on Eichmann that have not been released to the public because their contents are deemed to be a danger to the common good.”)
Contrary to Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann at his 1961 trial in Jerusalem as an unthinking bureaucrat carrying out orders, as reported in her extraordinarily influential 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Stangneth argues that Eichmann was a fully engaged manager of the Holocaust – the very opposite, in fact, of the “small cog” in Hitler’s war on the Jews, as Eichmann described himself at his trial. It was this image Arendt conveyed to the world as a prime illustration of what she called the “banality of evil.” (“A Report on the Banality of Evil” was in fact the subtitle of her book.)
Ever since Arendt coined that terminology, debate over the meaning of the “banality of evil” has filled volumes.
In carefully reviewing recently available archival material – the “Argentina Papers,” more than 1,300 pages of Eichmann’s notes while in post-war exile, and the “Sassen” interviews, taped (and transcribed) conversations undertaken there with fellow Nazi Willem Sassen, in which he bragged about his central role in the Final Solution, Stangneth refutes Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis.
Stangneth claims that, since the publication of Arendt’s controversial 1963 book, “every essay on Adolf Eichmann has also been a dialogue with Hannah Arendt.”
Stangneth, however, seems willing to grant Arendt a dispassionate neutrality in covering Eichmann’s trial (“Like all philosophers, she wanted to understand”) which may not be warranted. She appears to allow that, had Arendt had access to all archival material from Argentina (Arendt did have access to the notes Eichmann made preparing for the Sassen interview), she may not have been seduced by Eichmann’s innocuous demeanour at his Jerusalem trial (and, arguably, might have written something more consistent with her own prior depiction of evil in her work on antisemitism, as in her 1958 book The Origins of Totalitarianism).
Yet, having noted that Arendt had studied philosophy in Germany under Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, Stangneth does not deal with the unsavoury facts that Heidegger was an unrepentant Nazi and that Arendt, Heidegger’s lover while a student, never lost affection for him, even after she was aware of what Heidegger had become. Indeed, following the war, Arendt became Heidegger’s primary champion in the West, serving to revive his philosophical prominence. (In her fascinating 1995 book Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, Elzbietta Ettinger traces what she calls the “ineradicable bond” Arendt always felt for Heidegger, even against stern warnings from Jaspers.)
To what extent Arendt’s bond to Heidegger may have affected the way she depicted Eichmann and his trial is an important question, as is indeed her notorious judgment in her book that “this [Judenrat] role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story [of the Holocaust].”
On May 31, 1962, his appeals exhausted, Eichmann was hanged in Jerusalem. Though she has little to say about Heidegger, Stangneth reveals that, just before his execution, and knowledgeable about Heidegger’s National Socialist commitments, Eichmann asked his brother Robert to find out what Heidegger thought about last rites.