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Becoming Eichmann

David Cesarani

Rethinking the Life, Crimes and Trial of a "Desk Murderer"

(Da Capo)

On the cover of David Cesarani’s new biography of Adolf Eichmann, there’s a quote from the New York Times: “There may never be need for another biography of the man.” It’s clearly meant as an endorsement, but out of context, it’s difficult to know what kind of an endorsement this is; it seems to beg the question why there have already been so many biographies of “the man.” So much has been written about Eichmann already, so many documents unearthed and interviews transcribed, one can’t help wondering whether or not all this attention would not be better off directed toward the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, rather than one of its most important perpetrators.


But then, there were six million victims, and there was only one Eichmann. Unless you believe Hannah Arendt, that is, who famously characterized Eichmann as a mere “desk murderer,” a mindless, motiveless bureaucrat who never quite realized the full extent of what he was doing, a simple cog in the machine, implying that anyone, given the right constellation of circumstances, could turn into an Eichmann.


David Cesarani disagrees. Through his carefully balanced research, he makes the case that Eichmann was neither a crazed killer not a blind-sighted bureaucrat, but an ordinary, ambitious clerk, not especially charismatic or talented, but with a head for administrative details and a talent for paper-shuffling. While he may have been well regarded by his superiors for his loyalty and obedience, he was never a leader, neither in the SS nor anywhere else. His talents and usefulness were limited. He proclaimed himself to be a specialist on “Jewish matters,” and he had experience in regulating emigration and population movement. Contrary to popular opinion, his climb through the Nazi ranks was unusually slow.


Nor was he even particularly anti-Semitic, at least at first; members of his family had married into Jewish blood, and he even counted a few Jews among his friends. It was only after being exposed to Nazi indoctrination within the SS during the mid-1930s that Eichmann’s ordinary Austrian nationalism become transformed into ideologically-grounded, racially based antipathy toward the Jewish “plague,” a “plague” that his own department had been trying to alleviate through a policy of “regulated, forced emigration.” His expertise, as Cesarani explains, was in population movement; by the end of 1941, however, “forced deportation” had proved to be completely impossible; more than half a million Jews had already been slaughtered, and the killing had started to grow indiscriminate.


And still Eichmann opposed it. He found mass killing to be just as impractical a solution as forced emigration. Personally, he had been revolted by the murders he’d witnessed, at Auschwitz and elsewhere. He opposed the “Final Solution” because it wasn’t political enough, and wouldn’t allow him to get ahead as he did when he was in charge of Jewish emigration. And yet, by the mid-1950s, he was able to comment to a colleague that “To be frank with you, had we killed all of them, the 13 million, I would be happy and say: all right, we have destroyed an enemy.” By the demise of the Third Reich, it seemed, Eichmann was by all accounts genuinely full of fanatical zeal for the extermination of the Jews.


This was a very different person than the pitiful, balding desk-clerk put on trial and executed in Israel 20 years later. This Eichmann seemed to have little in common with Eichmann of the SS, and seemed confused on facts and details. But then, 20 years is a long time, and while one might be expected to recall horrifying, world shaking events quite vividly, remember, most of the time these events were routine for Eichmann, who spent his days in an office shuffling papers. He did have distractions, though. He loved to ride; he loved the countryside, for a while, he had an amphibious vehicle which in which, as Cesarani puts it, he “travelled up hill and down dale.” After the collapse of the Third Reich, when Eichmann was in hiding, he raised chickens for two years, and ended up as a down-at-heel garage mechanic in Argentina.


There aren’t enough details like this in Becoming Eichmann. While there may indeed “never be need for another biography of the man,” I would not describe Cesarani’s book as a biography. It is a history book, full of facts, statistics, and details of administrative programs, for people (and there are lots of them) with a very close interest in the complex internal politics of Nazi Germany. There are virtually no details of Eichmann’s personal life in Cesarani’s book. True, there are references here and there to his wife, his mistresses, his sexual and romantic inclinations, his relationships with his friends and his children, but these things are mentioned in passing, as if incidental to what mattered—Eichmann’s political career.


Perhaps it is impossible to unearth these personal details, to reconstruct Eichmann’s private psychology. Or perhaps Cesarani decided that to include these kinds of details would humanize Eichmann too much. But surely, in order to explain how this rather undistinguished young bureaucrat “became” Eichmann, we need to understand his inner life, and its relationship to his political convictions. Otherwise, how can we really understand the flesh and blood behind the scenes?

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Mikita Brottman is an author, psychoanalyst, and chair of the humanities program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. Her book, The Solitary Vice, was published as a PopMatters imprint in 2008 (see 1 of 3 excerpts here). She lives in Ojai, California. Her website is available here.


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