Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
(New York: Viking Press, 1963)
312 pages. UCSB: DD247E5A7 1965.
Book Essay written by Margarita Lozano
For Professor Marcuse’s upper division lecture course Germany since 1946
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2004
About the Author
Eichmann in Jerusalem: Self-Interest at its Worst
Hannah Arendt meticulously describes the trial of Adolf Eichmann in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. She provides great detail about the personality and background of Eichmann as well as the power of the Nazi Regime. She also provides a historical account of the war. Throughout the book, Arendt gives readers insight into Adolf Eichmann the man, not the monster. Eichmann gives a simple answer to the question of how a man can send millions to their deaths: he was following orders. Eichmann contends that he never harbored any hatred for Jews, and Arendt highlights a number of examples to support this argument. However, the concealed reason that he followed through with his orders appears to be nothing more than self interest.
Eichmann’s life was filled with a number of failures. As a teenager he was unable to finish high school or even get through vocational school. For many years he went from one unsuccessful job to another. He worked for his father as a minor and then attained a job as a salesman for the Austrian Elektrobau Company for two years. None of these jobs had any meaning for him. He was in no way considered successful by any standards. In hopes of a better future he joined the army and eventually became a Nazi party member. Through the Nazi party he was able to climb to the rank of SS Lieutenant Colonel. In the department of Jewish Affairs and Transportation he found something he was good at and did not want to lose the opportunity to become someone of relevance. As Arendt states, "There were two things he could do well, better than others: he could organize and he could negotiate" (45). These were key aspects that made him successful in the deportation and later extermination of a millions of Jews.
Was Eichmann an Anti-Semite?
Some people might argue that Eichmann was an evil man who harbored hatred for the Jews as many Nazis did. In Arendt’s book, she speaks of Eichmann "despising" assimilationist Jews because he believed that they did not stand for anything (41). Another example can be drawn from an incident where Eichmann openly slapped a Jewish leader in front of his employees. Dr. Franz Meyer testified to an encounter with Eichmann when he treated the leaders of the German Jewry horribly and "comported himself as a master of life and death. He received us with insolence and rudeness" (64). However, one of the most damning things that Eichmann ever did was to remark "I will jump into my grave laughing because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction" (46). If he did not hate Jews, then why would he be so proud of sending so many of them to their graves?
Toward the end of the war, Eichmann was ordered by his superior Heinrich Himmler to stop sending Jews to extermination camps, but Eichmann refused to do so. He had the chance to stop the killing yet he rejected his orders. This can also be interpreted as hatred for Jews. Why would he not stop killing them if there was no personal hatred toward them? Eichmann had also remarked about going to the death camps and commented that the facilities were "monstrous" and that "I am not so tough as to be able to endure something of this sort without any reaction" (87). He knew what awaited the Jews that he sent to the extermination camps, yet he continued to send them in spite of his disgust. He said that it was virtually impossible to evade carrying out orders. This, however, was refuted by Arendt when she pointed out that in the Nuremburg documents no account of murder for not fulfilling orders was ever documented (92). Eichmann went on to say that he thought that not carrying out the orders of the Fuhrer was "unthinkable" and not "admirable". If Eichmann really did not want to facilitate in the extermination of Jews, all he had to do was put in for a transfer as suggested by Eric von dem Bach-Zelewski, but he did not (91).
These incidents, when examined carefully, do not fully support the notion that he hated Jews. Though he was not fond of assimilationist Jews, he had high regards for Zionists. According to Eichmann, they actually received special attention from him and he helped them out whenever he could. Also, after slapping the Jewish leader, he apologized to him in front of his employees because he felt so bad about the incident. Though he treated Dr. Meyer rudely once, it was reported that except for that incident, he was always polite and understanding. As for the remark about killing five million Jews, Eichmann asserted that he said "enemies of the Reich" and that he was misquoted. The supposed misquotation was used to make him sound as if he had contempt for the Jews.
There are also other personal events that support Eichmann’s claim that he did not hate Jews. One major assertion for not hating Jews was that he had Jews in his family. It is reported that "he helped a half-Jewish cousin and a Jewish couple in Vienna for whom his uncle had intervened" (137). Arendt also states that Eichmann had a Jewish mistress in Vienna during his time there. If he truly hated Jews he would not have helped them escape or taken one as a mistress.
Another major event that can maintain Eichmann’s claim that he had no grudge against Jews was when he chose to divert a train destined for an extermination camp. Eichmann openly disobeyed orders to send a train full of Gypsies and Jews to Riga and Minsk and instead sent them to the ghetto Lodz because he knew that death was awaiting them in the other camps. He did not get in trouble for his actions because he was protected by his superiors, however, he did not try this stunt again. Though Eichmann was not in the practice of saving Jews whenever possible, it seems that it is not fully accurate for people to assume that he committed these crimes because he hated them.
What conclusion can be drawn about Eichmann’s feelings towards Jews? Was he really an Anti-Semite? Based on the evidence, it is apparent that even though Eichmann contends that he did not have a personal vendetta against Jews, he clearly acted in an
Anti-Semitic manner. He openly associated himself with an Anti-Semitic group and willingly sent Jews to their deaths. He did not protest against, "a solution through violence" which he said he was opposed to (84). Instead he carried out his orders to the fullest and sometimes beyond what was necessary.
Was he following orders or his own self interest?
The fact that Hitler and his regime had a strong grip on the citizens of Germany made it easy for many people like Eichmann to wash their hands of the blame. Eichmann is quoted as saying that after the Wannsee Conference, "I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling" (114). This meant that he did not feel that he was individually responsible for his actions. He went on to argue in court that it was not his fault that many people died in the camps, he was ordered to send them there and he did his job like a good citizen. He thus tried to absolve himself from blame by placing the blame on others. In his view, he was a sheep just following the commands of the shepherd.
Eichmann took an oath to follow the orders of Hitler, and he followed his orders even when he was not sure that he was doing the right thing. Eichmann continuously asserted during the trial that he had never physically killed anyone. As far he was concerned, he was only doing his duty. The loyalty which he pledged to Hitler was of deep importance to Eichmann. He believed that by carrying out the orders given to him, he was a law abiding citizen and a good Lieutenant Colonel. "As he told the police and court over and over again: he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law", because the orders of the Fuhrer were the law of the land (133). The orders of the Fuhrer were never opposed or contradicted by Eichmann. Hitler’s influence was extremely powerful, but the influence of success and belonging was just as influential.
Being a good citizen and following orders were the reasons Eichmann gave for continuing his work of transporting Jews. He said that he could not be blamed for doing so because such actions were legal under the government in power at that time. Eichmann wanted the court to believe that he was not responsible for his actions because he was ordered by his superiors and he had to follow through with those orders. However, there were a number of instances when Eichmann did not follow the orders of his superiors like not sending the train full of Jews and Gypsies to Minsk. Google marcuse 133c to find where this essay is published on the web. Also, he did not cease the trains being sent to death camps after his superior Himmler ordered him not to. Eichmann even helped a Jewish couple escape, which definitely went against his superiors orders. Therefore, Eichmann’s defense that he was only following orders does not hold water. It is clear that through the whole ordeal Eichmann made his own choices. He chose when to carry out orders and when not to of his own free will and orders had nothing to do with it.
Being a member of the Nazi party was a big deal for Eichmann. He had never been a part of anything before. When the Germans were defeated, the first thoughts that ran through his mind were, "I sensed I would have to lead a leaderless and difficult life…no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me" (32). This quote makes it clear that Eichmann was neither able nor willing to think for himself. He was perfectly content to take orders and fulfill them to the best of his ability. This is the reason why he never spoke out against the final solution. He witnessed "the elite of the good old Civil Service vying and fighting each other for the honor in taking the lead in these ‘bloody’ matters" and figured that if they thought the solution was suitable, who was he to complain (114).
For the better part of his life, Eichmann was unremarkable, and once he became important, he did not want to give it up no matter the cost. He loved being considered the expert on the Jewish problem and he loved being in control. His selfishness can be seen when Jewish leaders describe him as being helpful and cordial during meetings and then turns on them. When he begins to treat the Jews in a harsher manner is significant because this was a time when he was promoted to "a post with executive power" (64). It can be assumed that he was only being nice to the Jewish elders to get them to cooperate with him so that he can show his superiors what a good job he was doing. Once he attained his promotion there was no longer any need to be nice to them, therefore he became abrasive towards them. The only times Eichmann became unhappy was when his job was in jeopardy, for example when the deportations decreased, or when his rival Kurt Becher was promoted to Standartenfuhrer, the very rank that Eichmann had made his goal to attain.
Holding a significant position in the Nazi party became very important to Eichmann. If maintaining his position meant carrying out things he might normally not have done, then he was going to do it. Once he was informed about the final solution, his reaction was, "I now lost everything, all joy in my work, all initiative, all interest; I was so to speak, blown out" (84). This feeling did not last long, however. Once he attended the Wannsee Conference in January 1943 and saw the support behind this "solution", he cooperated one hundred percent. By not cooperating with the regime he might have jeopardized his position or the possibility of a promotion, and that was something he was not willing to do.
Eichmann continuously boasted about all of his accomplishments. The fact that he was successful in the Nazi party made him feel worthy and gave him a reason to live. He was so proud of what he had achieved under the Nazis his boastings in Argentina eventually led to his capture. He said that he was, "fed up with being an anonymous wanderer between the worlds" (47). The joy he received from doing well at his job and being held in high regard as an expert on a topic left a void when he fled Germany. And the void could not be filled by being a simple farmer in Argentina. He wanted recognition for all the hard work he had done. The recognition he sought after the war is what led to his capture. He could not help himself; he needed the recognition of being significant. Therefore, his capture was also a part of his own self-interest to be acknowledged for his achievements.
Since it appears that Eichmann might not have much hatred toward the Jews, what can explain his actions concerning them? Hate seemed to be the only logical explanation for someone to continuously send people off to their deaths and rob them of their rights. In spite of this, hate does not appear to be the drive that compelled Eichmann to do the things that he knew were wrong. What kept Eichmann loyal and unwavering was not hate but self-interest. He wanted people to believe the only reason he sent people to their deaths was because he was ordered to. Nonetheless that was not the only reason. In the end, Eichmann was a selfish man who obeyed his orders in hope of moving up in the ranks.
Eichmann tried to place the blame of his actions on the fact that he was just following orders. This type of justification for his actions fails to mention Eichmann’s ulterior motive. Eichmann did not send millions of Jews to their death because he hated them. Nor did he send them to their death solely because he was ordered to. Eichmann participated in the Holocaust and the killing of millions of innocent people because he felt that it could help him with his career. He had faith in the Nazi party and while he was following its orders it was constantly in the back of his mind that if he did what he was told to do to the best of his ability, he might get promoted. Promotions meant a great deal to this man because it showed that he belonged to an organization and that he was good at his job. Eichmann did not hold himself in high regard and that was the reason why he was constantly striving to prove that he could be better. Though Arendt does not explicitly talk about the selfishness of this man as a main reason for his participation, his veiled motives behind sending people to their deaths are quite clear. He could not even live out the rest of his life in hiding because he wanted to make sure that all of his "accomplishments" were recognized. It was evident to the Israeli courts that he was guilty of participating in the transportation of Jews to extermination camps and for that
they sentenced him to death. On May 31, 1962 Adolf Eichmann was hanged, in Israel, for his crimes against humanity.
This article is about research conducted to see how public opinion changed towards Jews and Germans.