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Eichmann portrait

"All Our Work Was Paperwork"
- Adolf Eichmann

Book Essay on: David Cesarani, Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a 'Desk Murderer'
(Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2006), 472 pages.

by Jessica Kasper
March 13, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Jessica Kasper

I am a senior History major with an emphasis on European history. I studied abroad in London last year, and although I did not get to visit Germany, family stories about Germany during World War II have always piqued my interest. I chose to write about Adolf Eichmann because I have always questioned the mindset and motivations behind the millions of Germans who took part in genocide.

Abstract (back to top)

David Cesarani deals with the life and crimes of SS officer Adolf Eichmann. As the first thorough biography of Eichmann since Hannah Arendt's famous Eichmann in Jerusalem, Cesarani is faced with the daunting task of reworking an image of Eichmann that has stood unchallenged for decades. Cesarani attempts to refute Arendt's theory that Eichmann's career is an example of the "banality of evil" By tracing Eichmann's life from early childhood until his trial and execution, Cesarani argues that Eichmann was indeed a typical man with no fanatical antisemitic views as Arendt pointed out, but that his partaking in mass genocide resulted from a conscious decision to put his bureaucratic skills to use in a time of war, and not as the result of an inescapable totalitarian government bent on bending the minds of its people. I argue that neither of these arguments can stand on their own-while Eichmann's work within the bureaucracy of Nazi Germany certainly pushed him towards his final profession, the antisemitic atmosphere of Nazi Germany allowed him to consciously partake in genocide.

Essay (back to top)

Much ink has been spilt over the psychological leanings of those Germans during World War II who adopted the extreme antisemitic views of Hitler and the Nazi Party. One man whose life story has become synonymous with this study is Adolf Eichmann. In Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a ‘Desk Killer,’ David Cesarani provides a thorough biography of Adolf Eichmann, including an in-depth look at the trajectory of Eichmann’s career. Within the biography, Cesarani touches on the controversial issue concerning Eichmann’s development into a “génocidaire.” Prior to Cesarani’s biography, Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” theory had reigned supreme in regard to Eichmann’s path towards genocidal tendencies, arguing that careerism and bureaucracy within the totalitarian Nazi state, not a conscious decision, were to blame for Eichmann’s genocidal actions. Cesarani, however, argues that while Eichmann’s capacity for evil was not inborn, the antisemitic atmosphere of Nazi Germany and the dehumanization of Jews within the Third Reich created an environment in which Eichmann was able to become a knowing accomplice to genocide. This paper investigates both arguments and comes to the conclusion that that a combination of both Cesarani and Arendt’s arguments is necessary to create a comprehensive view of Adolf Eichmann. His opportunism and careerism certainly propelled him into the Nazi Party, while the extreme antisemitic atmosphere of the Nazi Party allowed him to consciously assist in the deportation and murder of millions of Jewish people.

Before Adolf Eichmann’s career path can be examined, it is necessary to analyze his early formative years. Eichmann was born in 1906 to Adolf Karl and Maria Eichmann, and spent his adolescence in the Austrian town of Linz. His mother died at a young age, whereupon his father married a Protestant woman of Viennese respectability who had Jewish relatives through marriage. Despite being raised and schooled in the same town as Adolf Hitler, the young Eichmann did not maintain the same extreme antisemitic tendencies. In fact, he worked for a prominent Jew in Linz and even maintained a friendship with a Jewish boy, Mischa Sebba, throughout his childhood and his early years in the Nazi Party. Thus, contrary to 1962 reports that he was “repeatedly mistaken for a Jew at school and beaten up, which left him a lasting antipathy for Jewish people,” Eichmann’s youth was quite normal (Cesarani, 19). This is not to say that he harbored no antisemitic values, as for many Austrians and Germans dislike of Jews was nothing new. Cesarani writes that “Anti Jewish programs…were commonplace” and “You didn’t need to be a fanatical antisemite to join the Nazis” (Cesarani, 33). Rather, Eichmann’s early political views came from his father, whom Eichmann reported at his trial, “‘always had an open ear for Nationalist ideas’” (Cesarani, 26). Consequently, when Eichmann joined his first youth political organization and later the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), it was not because of antisemitic values or what many people deem a “Nazi Personality,” but rather because of the shame and economic difficulties the Versailles Treaty had imposed on Germany. Therefore, when Eichmann became Nazi Party member number 899895 on April 1, 1932, there was no firm reason to believe that he would one day become a leading assistant in genocide.

In the earliest years of Eichmann’s Nazi career he was sent to Germany in 1933 and placed under the control of Heinrich Himmler along with many other young Austrian SS and SA men. He spent several weeks training and learning about different fighting techniques, after which he participated in multiple drills and prided himself on the fact that he withstood the strenuous tasks while others dropped out. This dedication to standing out in the crowd and working towards promotion within the Nazi Party played a large role in his eventual profession. At the same time as these early promotions, however, his antisemitism was taking a stronger hold as seen in an incident where Eichmann and his comrades became irate after hearing “Jewish Music” in a local café. Nonetheless, after being placed in multiple offices of the Nazi Party, in 1934 he finally settled in the small Sicherheitsdienst (SD) office in Berlin, which was responsible for collecting intelligence on the enemies of the Third Reich. Eichmann began work compiling a card index of Freemasons throughout Germany, unaware that he would ultimately become the head of Jewish Affairs within an office that would “emerge as the driving force of ‘Jewish policy’ in Nazi Germany” (Cesarani, 39). As the SD grew in size and influence, Eichmann became more knowledgeable of Jewish affairs by tracking the number of Jews in Germany and elsewhere while also discussing emigration policies with Zionist officials. As a Lieutenant-Colonel at the highest point in his career, Eichmann was responsible for the forced emigration of all Jews from Germany and other occupied lands. However, after failed efforts to relocate Jews to Madagascar, Palestine, and other less than desirable locales, the Third Reich’s attitude towards the “Jewish Question” took a devastating turn. In 1941, Hitler ordered the physical annihilation of all Jews. At his trial in Jerusalem in 1960 Eichmann recalled his reaction to the Fuhrer’s order, “At first I couldn’t grasp the implications…I’d never thought of such a thing, of a so violent solution. With that everything disappeared for me. All work, endeavors, all interest; I was as it were extinguished” (Cesarani, 91). Eichmann felt that his career as an expert of Jewish emigration had been destroyed, but he soon found another niche within the Nazi Party. Instead of pushing Jews out of the country, he would deport thousands to their deaths in concentration camps.

At this point in his career, it can be argued that Adolf Eichmann was more or less a “replaceable cog in the Nazi machine” as Hannah Arendt claims (Cesarani, 245). However, his actions beginning in 1942 invalidate this model. After mass genocide was decided upon at the Wannsee Conference Eichmann quickly began drafting train timetables for Jews to be taken to the camps. His early role, however, was not as large as the prosecution argued during his trial. In fact, he was only organizing groups of Jews throughout Germany while the “Nazi regime had already embarked on mass murder and genocide through policies and agencies working quite independent of Eichmann” (Cesarani, 107). Nevertheless, while not directly responsible for the events within the concentration camps, Eichmann was largely responsible for rounding up and deporting millions of Jews to their deaths at the camps. Thus, when he argued at his trial that, “I never killed a Jew…I’ve never killed anybody. And I never ordered anybody to kill a Jew,” it must be looked at with suspicion (Cesarani, 117). Even more so when we have Eichmann on record in 1943 stating that since Nazis had “begun to intensify measures against the Jewish enemy, he [the Jewish enemy] has been trying…to escape the fate he deserves” (Cesarani, 156). This statement certainly contradicts Eichmann’s later assertions that he never harbored antisemitic feelings. The issue is clouded even more when Eichmann’s recollections of the concentration camps are discussed. Upon visiting Chelmno in 1942, he witnessed naked Jews being herded into a gas van, whereupon the doctor suggested he look through a peephole to watch what happened. During interrogation before his trial, Eichmann recalled, “‘I couldn’t look. This was the first time I had seen and heard such a thing--sure, I had striven for the solution of the Jewish question, but not this way” (Cesarani, 106). He continued on to recall a child being shot and a dead man having his gold fillings pulled out with pliers. Thus, while these memories may arouse doubts as to whether Eichmann actually knew the future of the millions he sent to concentration camps--it must be noted that this tour of the camps took place in 1941, and his antisemitic statements shown above occurred in 1943. Within this period of time, Eichmann went from a bureaucratically minded “desk killer” to a man conscious, accepting, and proud of his own hand in the death of millions of Jews. In fact, as a farewell speech to his fellow Nazis after the fall of Berlin, his colleague Dieter Wisliceny noted Eichmann stating, “‘I will laugh when I leap into the grave because I have the feeling that I have killed 5,000,000 Jews. That gives me great satisfaction and gratification’” (Cesarani, 197). This statement does not sound like that of a mindless bureaucrat; however, Cesarani does make an attempt at to enlighten the reader to Eichmann’s mindset at the time, stating that “the most plausible explanation is that in his mind the Jewish enemy had also paid heavily for the war” (Cesarani 198). Nevertheless, at his trial from 1960 to 1962, Eichmann and his attorney Dr. Robert Servatius attempted to lessen Eichmann’s involvement in genocide.

After fleeing Germany in 1945, Eichmann established himself in Argentina. In 1960, however, word reached Jerusalem of his whereabouts and he was controversially transported to Israel and tried under the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law. At the trial, Dr. Servatius tried to nullify Eichmann’s connection to genocide by pointing to the bureaucratic nature of his work. Eichmann insisted that he “was shocked at seeing dead Jews en masse...‘I myself already at that time considered this to be a monstrous deed, where I regrettably, bound by my oath of loyalty, had in my sector to deal with some matters relating to transport aspects” (Cesarani, 293). He went further to discuss the difference between the human guilt he felt from his actions and the legal guilt he felt he was entirely absolved of. In the end, however, the jury found Eichmann guilty on nearly all charges and he was sentenced to death. However, the lasting impression of Eichmann’s career was only beginning. Soon, historians and psychologists alike began delving into the notorious “desk killer,” seeking the rationale behind his actions.

It was at this point, after having viewed the trial, that Hannah Arendt developed her “banality of evil” thesis, arguing that Eichmann was terrifyingly normal and completely absent of any murderous tendencies. Instead, Arendt argued, Eichmann was an avid opportunist and careerist, bent on working his way to the top of the bureaucratic ladder. She placed the blame for his actions on the Nazi Party itself, absolving Eichmann and other Nazi members of their individual actions. In her argument, the bureaucratic mindset of a totalitarian regime could brainwash individuals into committing atrocities without even knowing it. By using the popular social experiments of Stanley Milgram, she claimed that Eichmann’s crimes “flowed not from ‘evil instinct’ but from ‘sheer thoughtlessness’” (Cesarani, 348). Arendt’s argument did much to alleviate Eichmann’s own commitment to genocide, albeit in opposition to historical evidence. In fact, Cesarani provides evidence of Eichmann’s own involvement in the procurement of Zyklon-B for the gas chambers, transportation of human skulls for euthanasia programs, and explicit examples confirming Eichmann’s knowledge of the fate of the millions of Jews he sent to concentration camps. While Cesarani admits to Eichmann’s lack of extraordinary antisemitism in his youth and early SS days, he argues that the highly antisemitic environment of the Nazi party--which provided a space within which the act of murdering millions of people seemed normal--ultimately led to Eichmann’s decision to knowingly and deliberately partake in genocide.

Neither of these arguments can stand on their own, thus, in order to provide the most complete depiction of Adolf Eichmann, segments of both Arendt and Cesarani’s theories must be synthesized. Eichmann did not maintain any severe antisemitism in his early years, and as Arendt argues, the bureaucratic mechanism of the Nazi party certainly propelled Eichmann in the direction of Jewish affairs and transportation. But this alone cannot explain why Eichmann scheduled the trains that drove millions to their deaths. The hostile Nazi environment that Cesarani points to is also crucial in illuminating Eichmann’s actions. After all, documents prove that Eichmann was entirely aware of his actions, and that his antisemitism coarsened throughout his career--proving that he was not thoughtless but that he made a conscious decision to partake in genocide. New York Times editor Barry Gewen supports this argument, insisting that Eichmann became enveloped in the Nazi bureaucracy and atmosphere especially after he “saw his superiors accepting and implementing the Final Solution,” proving further that both environment and Nazi procedure led to Eichmann’s ultimate decision.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the trajectory of Adolf Eichmann’s Nazi career is one full of contradictions and remarkable psychology. David Cesarani does an excellent job of detailing the life and crimes of Eichmann, providing insight into both his own opinions of the man while still allowing the reader to form their own opinions. In the end, however, it is quite clear that Eichmann was responsible for the crimes he committed during World War II. While he certainly was not a mindless bureaucrat, he was not a destined murderer either. Mounds of evidence paint a picture of Eichmann as a genocidal collaborator, and clearly his work consisted of more than mere paperwork.


Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/27/09)

Book Reviews:

Gewen, Barry. "The Everyman of Genocide." The New York Times 14 May 2008.
Gewen attacks Cesarani for ultimately agreeing with many of Arendt’s arguments while trying to refute them. He does, however, assert that Cesarani was correct in stating that by the time mass genocide was occurring, Eichmann had transformed into a man committed to eliminationist antisemitism, but that the ideology itself was not the motivating force for his actions.

Miller, Roger K. "Exploring Adolf Eichmann and the Nature of Genocide." The Washington Times 7 May 2006.
Miller offers a favorable review of the book, stating that it is an exhaustively documented biography of both Eichmann and the Holocaust, with a successful deconstruction of Arendt’s argument.

Brottman, Mikita. "Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a ‘Desk Murderer’” (July 2007.).
Brottman argues that while Cesarani does a good job of laying out the facts surrounding Eichmann’s place in the Third Reich, he does not address Eichmann’s personal life sufficiently. Brottman argues that this may be because Cesarani did not want to humanize Eichmann in that way, and as a result it proves impossible to detect the true reasons behind Eichmann’s conscious partaking in genocide.

Web Sites:

PBS Online, “Eichmann Timeline” (archive.org: May 1998, last revised March 2005), <http://remember.org/eichmann/timeline.htm>.
This page provides a very detailed timeline of Eichmann’s life from birth to his execution in Jerusalem.

The History Place Biography, “Adolf Eichmann” (Created 1997), <http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/biographies/eichmann.htm>.
This page provides a concise biography of Adolf Eichmann. It touches on the most important aspects of his life from birth to death.

Wikipedia, “Adolf Eichmann” (accessed March 1, 2009), <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Eichmann>.
This page provides a detailed biography of Eichmann, highlighting events from his time in the Nazi party and his trial in Jerusalem. It also contains a section discussing the numerous texts written about Eichmann, including Hannah Arendt’s.

Books and Articles:

Ruth Sachs, Adolf Eichmann: Engineer of Death (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2001), 110 pages. (amazon link).
By examining original documents wherever possible and relying upon testimony from Eichmann’s trial, Sachs delves into the personality behind Eichmann as a genocidal Nazi. She ultimately refutes Hannah Arendt’s argument, seeing it as a senseless defense of a murderer.

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (Penguin Classics: 1994), 312 pages. (amazon link).
This book coined the term “banality of evil”. Arendt argues that Adolf Eichmann was a normal German, and that it was the totalitarian environment, not a conscious decision on Eichmann’s part, that turned him into a murderer.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/23/09; last updated: 4/19/09
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