Sunday, February 1, 2015

Adolf Eichmann in South America

From The Spectator:
Over Christmas I finally got around to reading Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth.  I cannot recommend this book – newly translated from the German – highly enough.  It challenges and indeed changes nearly all received wisdom about the leading figure behind the genocide of European Jews during World War II.

The title of course refers to Hannah Arendt’s omnipresent and over-praised account of Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil.  I would say that Stangneth’s book not merely surpasses but actually buries Arendt’s account.  Not least in showing how Arendt was fooled by Eichmann’s role-play in the dock in Jerusalem.  For whereas Arendt famously portrayed the man in the glass booth as a type of bureaucrat, Stangneth shows not only that Eichmann was not the man Arendt took him to be, but that she fell for a very carefully curated and prepared performance.  Putting together a whole library of scattered documents from Eichmann’s exile in Argentina in the 1950s, Stangneth puts the actual, unrepentant Eichmann back centre stage.

There are a number of startling discoveries in the book, not least among them being the extent to which Eichmann had kept up with the books and scholarship on the Holocaust as they came out so that by the time he was awaiting trial in Jerusalem he was fully on top of all primary and secondary material put to him.  There is also the extent to which Stangneth is able to show (through accounts from various members of the South America Nazi circles) how well known the true identity of ‘Ricardo Klement’ actually was within the German expat community in those years.

But Stangneth’s principle scholarly triumph has been her ability to piece together and make sense of the extant transcripts and recordings known as the Sassen conversations.  Together with Eichmann’s contemporary attempts at memoir-writing they bring a wholly new interpretation on his years in Argentina.  These conversations – recorded by the journalist and Nazi Willem Sassen in the 1950s – came to light before Eichmann went on trial.  But in Jerusalem Eichmann threw doubt on their authenticity and for this reason (as well as the complex dissemination and distribution of the transcripts plus disputes over ownership as well as attempts to disown them) the complete picture of these interviews has taken until now to come to light.  Stangneth’s work on these materials is extraordinary and the results more than reward her considerable efforts.  For instance she shows that those who participated in the conversations (including Sassen himself) tried very hard to cover over exactly what had gone on after Eichmann was abducted by the Mossad.  And Stangneth startlingly shows the extent to which these discussions were far from being one-on-one interviews but were in fact semi-public events.

The nature of these events, and their content, is of considerable contemporary as well as historical relevance.  For two reasons in particular.  The first relates to the ongoing European discussion of free speech and Holocaust denial laws.  Because Stangneth shows that as an increasing amount of information on the Holocaust came to light in the 1950s the immediate reaction of the remaining Nazis and neo-Nazis in South America was denial.  Some of the Argentina Nazis sincerely believed that the Federal German Republic would not last and that their belief system might yet return to save the German people.  But even these remote fantasists realised that the news of the Holocaust presented problems for their rehabilitation.  And so they hoped to expose the Holocaust.  Their first attempts were not only crude but were swiftly overtaken by an unstoppable flood of information and scholarship.  By the mid-1950s even the most committed remaining Nazis clearly found ignoring the weight of evidence to be an uphill struggle.  And so this group of Nazis in South America, brought together by Sassen, thought that Eichmann might provide the solution to their quandary.  They believed that Eichmann would be able to help them not just because he had been the person most closely involved in the Nazi programmes against the Jews, but as the man cited at Nuremberg as having first used the six million figure.  The Buenos Aires Nazis assumed that if they got Eichmann on record then they could show the world that the six million figure was a lie, or at least a great exaggeration.

By this point Eichmann was also thinking of breaking his cover in some way.  In 1956 he once again attempted to write a book, this time provisionally titled Die anderen sprachen, jetzt will ich sprechen [The Others Spoke, Now I Want to Speak!].  But the conversations with the Sassen circle – which came from the same instinct of his to break his silence – turned out to constitute an attempt to square an impossible circle.  For Eichmann saw the Sassen circle’s efforts to minimize the Holocaust as something like a spitting on his life’s work.  Eichmann knew that the six million figure was accurate, and seems to have only gradually realised that his audience were hoping for something quite different from him.  The discussions clearly broke down under this unresolvable issue.  Among the reasons why I would suggest that this has some contemporary relevance is that it is the clearest possible reminder of how in open discussion even the people most committed to trying to prove the Holocaust did not occur (former leading Nazi officials) ended up being unable to disprove the facts. On that occasion – as so often – they slunk away.

But the second reason why Stangneth’s book seems relevant for more than historical reasons is because of what it tells us about a stream of poison which remains very much at the centre of current events. (Read more.)

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