Giles Fraser*2 “Why Adolf Eichmann’s final message remains so profoundly unsettling” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/28/adolf-eichmann-final-message-architects-holocaust-evil
Since his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Eichmann has become the subject of continued controversy – much of it not so much about the man himself, but often more about the very nature of evil. Yesterday’s release of a hand-written letter from Eichmann to the then Israeli president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, requesting clemency, will only continue the debate. “There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders,” Eichmann’s letter pleaded. “I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.”
In other words: not my fault, I was only obeying orders. His self-delusion was unassailable, even at the end. Eichmann’s request was denied and two days later he was hanged in Ramla prison.
In her famous account of the trial, the philosopher Hannah Arendt described Eichmann as a small-minded functionary, more concerned with the managerial hows of his job than the moral or existential whys. According to Arendt, Eichmann wasn’t a man for asking difficult questions, he just got on with the job of managing timetables and calculating travel costs – thus her famous phrase “the banality of evil”*5.
Irrespective of the accuracy of Arendt’s disputed portrait, the importance of her account was that it expanded our moral grammar of evil. She persuaded many that moral evil did not need to have all the central-casting Gothic intensity of a horror movie. Evil could be ponderous and bureaucratic. It could be the work of a desk-bound pen-pusher whose emotional range didn’t extend much towards hate and who didn’t particularly care for the sight of blood. But this estimation didn’t fit with what a lot of people wanted to find. Which is why some felt that Arendt was letting Eichmann off the hook.
Despite his best efforts, Eichmann’s English biographer, the late David Cesarani*6 , struggled to distinguish his 2004 portrait of Eichmann from the more philosophical interpretation given by Arendt. Eichmann did not grow up a rabid antisemite. And nor, it seems, did he harbour any particular personal hatred towards Jews, other than the casual default racism common among Austrians in the 1920s. The US title of Cesarani’s book, Becoming Eichmann, suggests that his willingness to participate in mass murder was not always a given. Before 1941, he wanted to rid Europe of its Jews, but more as a way of making space for pure-bred Germans than because he wanted to eliminate Jews per se. For example, in 1937, Eichmann met with the Jewish Zionist and Haganah agent Feivel Polkes in Berlin to discuss the possibility that the Nazis might supply weapons for the Zionist fight against the British Mandate in Palestine, and that Eichmann might arrange for Germany’s Jews to be deported to Israel. Later in 1937, Eichmann travelled on a steamer to Haifa to assess the possibility – a possibility he eventually realised was impractical.
*1:See http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20110801/1312219747 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20110919/1316402409 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20120623/1340377615 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20130502/1367461468
*2: See also http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20050827 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20070822/1187751553 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20110129/1296276852 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20110209/1297271154 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20141011/1412993029 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20141101/1414823222 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20141116/1416104656 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20141130/1417274886 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20150202/1422851433 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20160108/1452219494
*3:See eg. “Yitzhak BenZvi” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/ben-zvi.html “Yitzhak Ben Zvi - Second President of the State of Israel” http://www.president.gov.il/English/The_Presidency_In_Israel/Presidents_Of_Israel/Pages/YitzhakBenZvi.aspx https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yitzhak_Ben-Zvi https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%A4%E3%83%84%E3%83%8F%E3%82%AF%E3%83%BB%E3%83%99%E3%83%B3%E3%83%84%E3%83%93
*4:Agence France-Presse “Eichmann claimed he was 'a mere instrument' in Holocaust, appeal reveals” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/27/eichmann-claimed-he-was-a-mere-instrument-in-holocaust-appeal-reveals
*5:See Judith Butler “Hannah Arendt's challenge to Adolf Eichmann ”http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/29/hannah-arendt-adolf-eichmann-banality-of-evil
*6:See eg. Lawrence Goldman “David Cesarani obituary” http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/26/david-cesarani “David Cesarani, historian – obituary” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11963400/David-Cesarani-historian-obituary.html Jessica Weinstein “David Cesarani has died, aged 58” http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/148060/david-cesarani-has-died-aged-58 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Cesarani