Eichmann and the “Banality of Evil”

hch-14-prioritaires HCH 14 / January 2017

Eichmann and the “Banality of Evil”, by Jared Sorhaindo


(Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem, 1961)

I recently finished watching a film about Hannah Arendt, the prestigious German philosopher whose theories have shaped the framework in which we analyze not only National Socialism, but the nature of evil itself. A disciple of Martin Heidegger, Arendt made her mark beyond the world of philosophers in the early 1950s with the publication of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. While a book of profound importance, this is not the space to grapple with its tenets. Rather, I want to take on Hannah Arendt’s famous theory of the banality of evil, which she concluded after observing a small portion of the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem while on assignment for The New Yorker. This was the focus of the aforementioned film. Most people who have heard of Arendt know her mostly for this theory. It gave us the notion of the “desk killer” who, without feeling (either hatred or joy), sent the Jews to their deaths. While perhaps true of some individuals, it was decidedly untrue of the focus of her work: Adolf Eichmann.


(Hannah Arendt, 1969)

A brief summary of his early life: Adolf Eichmann was born in Solingen, Germany in 1906. His family moved to Linz, Austria, when he was a young boy. As a young man, Eichmann worked as a travelling salesman for an oil company. He was drawn to radical right wing politics while in his late teens and early 20s, like so many young men of his generation, who were left stripped from the moral values of their parents by the impact of the First World War. While perhaps not fervently anti-Semitic at this stage of his life, the circles in which he traveled, which extolled the martial virtues of Germandom; the evils of both Bolshevism and capitalism; and the stab-in-the-back legend that blamed the Novemberverbrecher (i.e., Jews and “Marxists”) for Germany’s capitulation in the First World War, were thoroughly immersed in an anti-Semitic worldview. True, not all of them were potentially genocidal anti-Semites like Adolf Hitler, but anti-Semitism was standard in these extreme right-wing circles. Many Austrian Nazis later distinguished themselves during the Holocaust as among the most murderous anti-Semites, including Odilo Globocnik, the destroyer of Polish Jewry who delighted in his work; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the Reich Main Security Office; Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Sobibór and Treblinka extermination camps; and Alois Brunner, Eichmann’s remorseless acolyte who said after the war, “All of them [the Jews] deserved to die because they were the Devil’s agents and human garbage. I have no regrets and would do it again.” There is little banality evident in this evil.

Eichmann was persuaded to join the SS by his family friend, the aforementioned Kaltenbrunner, later his superior (and the highest SS officer tried, and hanged, at Nuremberg after the war). After losing his job due to staff cuts, and after the SS was made illegal in Austria in 1934, Eichmann left for Bavaria, training at an SS unit stationed adjacent to the Dachau concentration camp and smuggling Nazi propaganda into Austria. Eichmann became bored with his assignment and applied to the SD, the SS counterintelligence service run by Reinhard Heydrich. First set up working on gathering information on Freemasons, Eichmann eventually found his niche as the SS “Jewish expert”, compiling dossiers on various Jewish individuals and Jewish organizations in Germany, as well as learning bits and pieces of Yiddish and Hebrew. He had relationships and liaisons with the Jewish community, particularly with certain Zionists, and even met with Zionists in Haifa and Cairo in 1937 to discuss the facilitation of Jewish migration from Germany to Palestine. Eichmann seemed to be ahead of the curve in this regard, understanding that the Jews were the main focus of Hitler’s regime – this would allow him to make his mark as the point man regarding Germany’s most dangerous “enemy.” Throughout, Eichmann showed an affinity for hard work and administrative and organizational talent.


(Adolf Eichmann in 1942 or 1943)

In the late 1930s, and even into at least the summer/autumn of 1941, it was not Nazi policy to murder the Jews, but to forcibly remove them from German-controlled territory. Eichmann demonstrated his value on the “front lines” of this “fight” against the Jews, who the Nazis really did see as their world enemy. The Second World War in Europe is literally unfathomable without this fundamental understanding. (Arendt was frankly wrong in asserting, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, that the Nazis really just went after the Jews because they were an easy target and an easy way to unite the country around a common cause – namely, the demonization and ultimate extermination of a minority group. In other words, it could just as easily have been another minority group. This completely misreads and downplays the murderous obsessions of Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg, and other leading Nazis. It also makes obvious her attempts to shoehorn Eichmann into her theories after observing him for a couple of weeks in Jerusalem).

After the Anschluss, in which Germany incorporated Austria in March 1938, Eichmann was sent to Vienna, where it was his duty to register the Jews of Austria and to induce them to leave the country. While many Austrian Jews stayed, not wanting to leave their country and believing that this would all blow over, many did indeed leave after their people were made to clean Vienna’s streets with toothbrushes by jeering SS men and forced to sell their businesses to “Aryans” at outrageously low prices. If poorer Jews could not afford to pay for their transit, richer Jews were forced to pay for them. Due to his supremo performance in Vienna, which led to tens of thousands of Jews “migrating” from Austria, Heydrich announced Eichmann to be his “Jewish specialist.” Eichmann later used this Vienna blueprint in Prague (after Germany’s takeover of Czechoslovakia in March 1939) and Berlin.

After Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Eichmann embarked on implicitly genocidal plans to deport Jews either to marshy land outside of Lublin, Poland or to Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean. Both foresaw the extreme decimation of the Jewish population. Rather than being the mere taker of orders, Eichmann was entrepreneurial in his attempts to ethnically cleanse German-controlled territory of Jews. Heydrich gave the broad parameters, but it was Eichmann who acted with considerable initiative and resourcefulness in attempting to bring these plans into being (both failed under the crushing weight of reality). Eichmann himself went to the SS and Police Leader of Katowice to arrange deportations of Jews to the envisaged “Jewish reservation” outside of Lublin, and it was he who sent his deputy Rolf Günther to make similar arrangements to deport Jews from Vienna. So while Himmler and Heydrich were the policymakers, they gave Eichmann a wide berth in which to carry out the policy, as was typical Nazi practice (unlike the streamlined, highly structured hierarchy in which it is fashionable to think the Third Reich operated, the Nazis in fact demanded initiative from lower-ranking individuals and there was substantial cross-fertilization of ideas). The Himmler-Heydrich-Eichmann dynamic is perhaps the key exemplar of this fact. Later, Eichmann used his considerable talents to send Jews from throughout Europe to the gas chambers.

Arendt seems to have fallen for Eichmann’s act. His very defense strategy relied upon him to look “banal,” to appear as a taker of orders who had no say, no mind, no real authority. He wanted to appear meek and mild. How could such a meek and mild man be the murderer of millions? This unassuming man, who stood to attention and showed the utmost respect for the Israeli court: this was the monstrous logistician of the Holocaust? With this strategy, Eichmann was able to blame Himmler, Heydrich, and Müller and rinse his hands of the murder of the Jews. His act worked for Arendt and for many others who, to this day, remark on Eichmann’s “normal” appearance. How was he supposed to appear? Like a demon breathing hellfire, with scaly skin and talons? I do not think that Eichmann truly believed that he was somehow detached from and not culpable for the sufferings and deaths of Jews on the trains that he arranged, or for their gassing upon arrival. Eichmann knew where they were going, as the prosecution team in Jerusalem proved eminently clear: he visited a shooting site outside of Minsk, the Chełmno extermination camp outside of Łódź, and Auschwitz-Birkenau several times, including just before the summer 1944 deportations of Hungarian Jewry, when he visited to make sure the killing installations were ready for his “cargo.”


(A Hungarian Jewish old woman walks with small children to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 1944. The Auschwitz Album, # 119. Yad Vashem)

It was during these summer 1944 deportations that Eichmann truly revealed himself to be driven by an immense and incomprehensible hatred of the Jews. He barked orders at his Jewish liaisons, sneered at them, toyed with them, threatened them, and then ultimately sent them and their families to a destination at which he knew they were to be murdered. He continued to send the Jews to Auschwitz even after the Hungarian government, in July 1944, demanded that the deportations cease. Eichmann even went against the express orders of his superior Himmler who, seeing the writing on the wall, demanded that the transports be halted. After he finally gave in, Eichmann forced the Jews to march from Budapest to Vienna to build fortifications against the rapidly-advancing Soviet juggernaut. Many of these Jews were killed. Indeed, Eichmann refused to leave Budapest until the Soviets were just about to encircle the city, because he wanted to make sure that his murderous tasks had been completed as much as possible. Toward the end of the war, he bragged to his associates that he would leap gladly into his grave knowing that he had the death of five million Jews on his conscience. After the war, he boasted about his murderous accomplishments to the Dutch neo-Nazi Willem Sassen. It was only when he was captured by the Israeli Mossad, interrogated, and then put on trial for his life that Eichmann assumed his banal façade. It was an ultimately failed attempt to cheat the hangman.

hch-jared-photo-bw Jared Sorhaindo, Washington, D.C., April 23, 2016

Originally published on Al-Zilzal on April 23, 2016

More articles by Jared in Jared’s corner