Global interest in the genocidal activities of the Third Reich rose dramatically after the capture and the subsequent trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. The single most influential purveyor of information about the trial and also about the mindset of Eichmann was Hannah Arendt by means of her prominent tome Eichmann in Jerusalem. In this book, Arendt argued that Eichmann was not a virulent anti-semite who derived pleasure from slaughtering Jews. Further, Eichmann’s crimes flowed not from an “evil instinct” but instead from “sheer thoughtlessness.” Put differently, Eichmann simply never realized what he was doing. This was, to use Arendt’s famous expression, the “banality of evil.”
Is Arendt’s delineation of the mindset of Eichmann accurate? Or, is it the case that there was a distinct and abnormal “Nazi personality” into which Eichmann’s personality fit very well? The purpose of this tome by David Cesarani is to shed light on this and other related questions. The author marshals a tremendous amount of information, some of it relatively recent, to shed valuable light on the above questions. A key point made by the author in this book is that if one is to truly comprehend the answers to these questions, then it is necessary to look not at specific temporal sequences in Eichmann’s life but instead at his entire life.
Given this perspective, Cesarani takes the reader on a detailed tour of the life of Adolf Eichmann. We learn that not long after Eichmann’s birth on 19 March 1906 in Solingen, the family moved to Linz, Austria, where Eichmann grew up. The author does a good job of pointing out that contrary to what has often been written, in his early years, Eichmann did not wander around aimlessly in a world with no hope. Instead, he grew up in pretty normal circumstances. In addition, he was not a born anti-Semite but was raised in an Austria that had a long tradition of anti-Jewish political movements and a popular culture that was filled with negative stereotypes of Jews. The author next discusses Eichmann’s early employment history in Austria, his membership in the Austrian Nazi party, his subsequent move to Germany and his early career there. This part of the book tends to drag a little, and it is not altogether clear why it was necessary to provide so many details about what until then had been a relatively pedestrian existence.
The chapters discussing Eichmann’s activities and his life from 1941 to 1945
are engrossing. The author notes that over time, Eichmann adapted to policy that
was not of his making. Therefore, it is appropriate to look at him as a
middle-ranking player who was operating in an environment of conflicting power
elites and policymakers. When looked at in this way, Eichmann’s actions are more
comprehensible, more human, but still reprehensible. Along these lines, the
author chronicles many instances in which Eichmann could have shown compassion
toward the many Jews he dealt with but routinely chose not to. As Cesarani credibly points out, with the passage of time, Eichmann became “inured to horror” and was increasingly incapable of “normal human compassion.”
Eichmann’s trial is well documented in this book. The foibles of both Gideon Hausner, the Attorney-General of Israel, and Robert Servatius, Eichmann’s lawyer, are well recorded, and the author notes that the three judges presiding over the trial did a fine job in difficult circumstances. The author points out, on more than one occasion, that the influence of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem notwithstanding, it is salient to note that she witnessed only a “fraction of the trial.” Finally, in spite of Dr. Servatius’s best efforts, Adolf Eichmann was found guilty of most of the charges against him and he was hanged on 1 June 1962.
How should posterity view Eichmann? According to the author, Eichmann is best understood by comprehending the ideas that possessed him, the society in which they flourished, the political system that conveyed them, and the circumstances that made them acceptable. He goes on to point out that what Eichmann did was made possible, inter alia, by the conceptualization of the “Jewish people as an abstract racial-biological threat and a political enemy.” Therefore, anyone subjected to similar processes might have behaved like Eichmann, and that for this to occur, one would not need to have lived in a totalitarian state.
This is a thoroughly researched book that, in general, does a fine job of intelligently discussing Eichmann’s life and the factors that led him to become an abominable “desk murderer.” The book occasionally rambles, is sometimes repetitious, and assumes that the reader has some prior familiarity with the underlying subject matter. But these are small blemishes, and Cesarani provides what is probably the complete perspective on one of the most notorious implementers of the so called “Final Solution.”