June 1st, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 1962, the architect of the Final Solution received such justice as could be meted to him on earth at Israel’s Ramla Prison.
Adolf Eichmann, the vacuum cleaner salesman turned SS Obersturnbannfuhrer, remains the only person judicially executed in the history of modern Israel, whose intelligence services kidnapped him from Argentina where he had settled after the war.
Other Nazis had used the “only following orders” defense with little success in the Nuremberg Trials shortly after World War II. On trial years later (and at the hands a Jewish state) Eichmann — a bookish, unmenacing man who invoked Kant — posed the questions of individual responsibility and human psychology in starker terms.
To be sure, he was no anonymous functionary. Neither, however, had he dirtied his nails at the stomach-churning business end of the Holocaust: rather, he had engineered the stupendous logistical project of deporting Eastern Europe’s Jews for extermination, an (impressive) accomplishment worth exponentially more lives than any Einsatzgruppe could ever account for, yet simultaneously abstract from the upshot.
Eichmann said he did it without ill-will towards its subjects — simply to obey and to achieve.
The Banality of Evil
[I]f it was of small legal relevance, it was of great political interest to know how long it takes for an average person to overcome his innate repugnance of crime, and what exactly happens to him once he has reached that point. To this question, the case of Adolf Eichmann supplied an answer that could not have been clearer or more precise.
Hannah Arendt took him at his word* and saw in Eichmann the abyss gazing back into us, into his judges — not a monster but a man unsettling in his normalcy, whose job was not TPS reports or quarterly sales results but turning humans into ash.
The company man. The career man. Every man, standing in for countless thousands more who pushed the papers that drove the trains to Auschwitz.
What for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world.
Not everyone accepts her conclusions, but Arendt’s characterization of “the banality of evil” has become the man’s epigraph. And Eichmann disturbs us precisely because we seem to be able to meet him on his terms, even sympathize with him when the horror of his crimes begs for a monster like Streicher or Goebbels we could safely consign to the Other.
Arendt’s turn of phrase has a certain breezy (hackneyed, even) life in the public discourse, but her analysis of Eichmann’s careerism remains a challenging and deeply relevant one for we heirs of the world that hanged him.
* Albeit with some reservations; others have argued that Eichmann was considerably more personally invested in his mass-murder project than his demeanor at trial admitted. Certainly he had an interest in showing the mellower Eichmann when he was on trial for his life.
Also on this date
- 1739: Michael Blodorn, "selvmordsmord"
- 1307: Fra Dolcino, Apostle
- 193: Didius Julianus, who bought the purple from the Praetorians
- 1453: Çandarli Halil Pasha, after the fall of Constantinople
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Germany,Hanged,History,Infamous,Israel,Language,Milestones,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,War Crimes