In response to the my essay on “Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem,” I have been asked repeatedly how to access the Sassen papers, the more than 1,300 pages of memoir and interview transcripts that Eichmann produced while he was in Argentina. The first answer is simple: Read the two issues of Life magazine from November 28 and December 5, 1960 in which a large chunk of these interviews are excerpted.
To actually read these excerpts is to be struck by how long they are, how detailed, and how chilling. And also it is to become aware of how important they were for Arendt’s own attempts to understand Eichmann.
Historians who now are digging through the Sassen papers are somewhat dismissive of the excerpts. Bettina Stangneth, the very best and most responsible of these historians, writes that excerpts in a popular magazine are not meaningful sources for serious scholars. And in one important sense, she is correct.
The excerpts are of course mere excerpts. Further, they were prepared by Willem Sassen, a Dutch-German Nazi and war criminal who along with others interviewed Eichmann over many months in 1957 in Argentina. Sassen was a journalist and gifted writer, and the original plan seems to have been for him and Eichmann together to publish a memoir or biography and split the profits, along with Eberhard Fritsch. Beyond pecuniary considerations, Sassen and Fritsch hoped that Eichmann would assist them in their aim of denying the Holocaust. Eichmann did not do so and, on the contrary, he confirmed it and boasted of his role in it. The three did not see eye to eye and publication plans were abandoned. After Eichmann was kidnapped and brought to Israel for trial, Sassen assembled the excerpts from the interviews and sold it to Life Magazine. Clearly, such tainted documents need to be taken with some care.
That said, the excerpts published in Life are remarkable documents and as they are widely available on Ebay and in libraries in the U.S., they are easily the most accessible way for English speakers to read Eichmann’s self-justification and self-presentation in Argentina, years before he was brought before Jewish judges in a courtroom in Jerusalem.
In what follows, for your Weekend Read, I offer some excerpts from these excerpts. Here, for example, is Eichmann describing his first encounter with the physical destruction of Jews:
When I rode out the next morning they had already started, so I could see only the finish. Although I was wearing a leather coat which reached almost to my ankles, it was very cold. I watched the last group of Jews undress, down to their shirts. They walked the last 100 tor 200 yards—they were not driven—then they jumped into the pit. It was impressive to see them all jumping into the pit without offering any resistance whatsoever. Then the men of the squad banged away into the pit with their rifles and machine pistols.
Why did that scene linger so long in my memory? Perhaps because I had children myself. And there were children in that pit. I saw a woman hold a child of a year or two into the air, pleading. At that moment all I wanted to say was, “Don’t shoot, hand over the child….” Then the child was hit.
I was so close that later I found bits of brains splattered on my long leather coat. My driver helped me remove them. Then we returned to Berlin. …
Having seen what I had in Minsk, I said this when I reported back to [Heinrich] Müller: “The solution. Gruppenführer, was supposed to have been a political one. But now that the Führer has ordered a physical solution, obviously a physical solution it must be. But we cannot go on conducting executions as they were done in Minsk and, I believe, other places. Of necessity our men will be educated to become sadists. We cannot solve the Jewish problem by putting a bullet through the brain of a defenseless woman who is holding her child up to us.”
Müller did not answer. He just looked at me in a fatherly, benevolent fashion. I never could figure him out.
In another excerpt, Eichmann describes his first experience viewing mobile gassing centers.
A doctor who was there suggested that I look at the people inside one bus through a peephole in the driver’s seat. I refused. I couldn’t look. This was the first time that I had seen and heard such a thing and my knees were buckling under me. I had been told that the whole process took only three minutes, but the buses rode along for about a quarter of an hour. …
When I reported back to Müller in Berlin, he chided me for not having timed the procedure with a stop watch. I said to him, “This sort of thing can’t go on. Things shouldn’t be done this way.” I admitted I had not been able to look through the peephole. This time too, Müller behaved like a sphinx. He forgave me, so to speak, for not having looked. Perhaps “forgive” sounds like an odd expression here.
The executions at Litzmannstadt and Minsk were a deep shock to me. Certainly I too had been aiming at a solution of the Jewish problem, but not like this. Of course, at that time, I had not yet seen burned Germans, Germans shrunken like mummies in death. I had yet to see the heavy, imploring eyes of the old couple in a Berlin air raid shelter who lay crushed beneath a beam, begging me to shoot them. I couldn’t bear to shoot them, but I told my sergeant to do so, if he could. If I had known then the horrors that would later happen to Germans, it would have been easier for me to watch the Jewish executions. At heart I am a very sensitive man. I simply can’t look at any suffering without trembling myself.
Later, in the second Life Magazine excerpt, Eichmann describes his famous final speech to his men in Berlin, perhaps the most quoted line from the Sassen interviews. He says:
I made my last report to Himmler less than a month before the final surrender of Germany. The Reichsführer had been for some time negotiating with Count Bernadotte about the Jews. He wanted to make sure that at least 100 of the most prominent Jews we could lay our hands on would be held in a safe place. Thus he hoped to strengthen our hand, for almost to the end Himmler was optimistic about making separate peace terms. “We’ll get a treaty,” he said to me, slapping his thigh. “We’ll lose a few feathers, but it will be a good one.” It was then mid-April 1945….
During those last days I called my men into my Berlin office in the Kurfürsten Strasse and formally took leave of them. “If it has to be,” I told them, “I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals.” (“Enemies of the Reich,” I said, not “Jews.”) I spoke these words harshly and with emphasis. In fact, it gave me an extraordinary sense of elation to think that I was exiting from the stage this way.
The Life Magazine excerpts ends with a transcription and translation of Eichmann’s final outburst when, fed up with Sassen’s attempt to deny the Holocaust or to diminish it, he bursts out in a fit of self-justification:
But to sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing. Adolf Hitler may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German army to Führer of a people of almost 80 million. I never met him personally, but his success alone proves to me that I should subordinate myself to this man. He was somehow so supremely capable that the people recognized him. And so with that justification I recognized him joyfully, and I still defend him.
I will not humble myself or repent in any way. I could do it too cheaply in today’s climate of opinion. It would be too easy to pretend that I had turned suddenly from a Saul to a Paul. No, I must say truthfully that if we had killed all the 10 million Jews that Himmler’s statisticians originally listed in 1933, I would say, “Good, we have destroyed an enemy.” But here I do not mean wiping them out entirely. That would not be proper—and we carried on a proper war.
Now, however, when through the malice of fate a large part of these Jews whom we fought against are alive, I must concede that fate must have wanted it so. I always claimed that we were fighting against a foe who through thousands of years of learning and development had become superior to us.
I no longer remember exactly when, but it was even before Rome itself had been founded that the Jews could already write. It is very depressing for me to think of that people writing laws over 6,000 years of written history. But it tells me that they must be a people of the first magnitude, for law-givers have always been great.
To read these excerpts is chilling and also illuminating, both about Eichmann and also about Arendt’s report on his trial.
Arendt wrote her articles and her book not simply at the mercy of the trial in Jerusalem and Eichmann’s self-presentation before Israeli judges. She had access to the excerpts in Life and many of her most controversial conclusions are clearly traceable to these pages. It is undoubtedly true that scholars should approach the original documents and not rely on excerpts translated in a popular magazine. But no one who has looked at the originals has made the case that anything published in Life is wrong or misleading.
For those who want more, the best source for learning about the Sassen papers is Bettina Stangneth’s book Eichmann vor Jerusalem. In good news, it will be published later this year or early next year in English. Stangneth’s book is often mentioned in the same breadth with much-less-responsible books by David Cesarani and Deborah Lipstadt, as collective examples of books that use new information from the Sassen reports to prove Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. But this is not exactly right.
Stangneth does write that Arendt “fell into a trap because Eichmann in Jerusalem was wearing a mask;” Stangneth also claims that “Eichmann manipulated Arendt, and the result was that she saw her own expectations confirmed.” Like Cesarani and Lipstadt, Stangneth wants to claim space from Arendt, to say that the new documents allow the modern scholar a wider perspective.
And yet, Stangneth also insists that Arendt “was very aware of the fact that she was not getting the whole picture.” Stangneth writes of her own book that,
Eichmann before Jerusalem is a dialogue with Hannah Arendt. This is not merely due to the fact that my own interest in the topic was aroused many years ago by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. Our understanding of history is dependent on understanding the era and the circumstances in which events occurred, and so a perspective like Arendt's is indispensible. She showed courage in her ability to reach a clear judgment of the situation while aware of the risk, despite her meticulous research, of not knowing enough.
To read Stangneth’s book in its entirety is to see her in continued dialogue with Arendt as she makes her way through the Sassen papers and is to be impressed with her scholarship as well as by her honesty. If you read German, Eichmann Vor Jerusalem is your best way to learn more about the Sassen interviews. It is your Weekend Read if you don’t to wait for the English translation coming soon.
When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.
The new Hannah Arendt bio picture by Margarethe von Trotta has been released in Europe. It will hit theatres in the US in May, although it is making the rounds of festivals now. The good news: “Hannah Arendt” the film is really wonderful. I’ll have more to say about the film at some point soon, but until then we’ll be passing along the most interesting reviews. To get us started, here is a write up by David Owen, who teaches political theory at the University of Southampton. If you see the film and have some thoughts, pass them our way and we’ll post them on the blog.
The opening scene of the film shows the organised abduction of an ordinary-looking older man on a country road before cutting to a woman, obviously European in her movements, listening to classical music in a room whose decor is clearly American. These people are, of course, Adolf Eichmann and Hannah Arendt – and thus the film signals its central focus, namely, Arendt’s relationship to the event of Eichmann’s Trial in Jerusalem and the questions that Arendt’s report and the reactions to it raise concerning the relations of the private and the public, the personal and the political, and, more specifically, the conditions (and wisdom) of a philosopher speaking philosophically about politics in public.
The film’s portrayal of Arendt is unfolded through her relationships, most notably with her husband Heinrich Blücher, her friend Mary McCarthy, her once class-mate and now friend and colleague Hans Jonas, her old political mentor and friend the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, the editor of the New Yorker William Shawn, and her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger. All except the last of these are played out within a linear dramatic narrative that tracks Arendt’s circle from the capture of Eichmann through the trail in Jerusalem to the composition and publication of, and reaction to, Arendt’s New Yorker articles. The relationship to Heidegger is interspersed into the narrative through flashback’s that are Arendt’s memories of her relationship with Heidegger and his disastrous foray into public political speech in the Rectoral Address of May 27th 1933, a public act which he later spoke of privately as ‘die größte Dummheit seines Lebens’ but which he never publically renounced. This figuring of her relationship to Heidegger within the dramatic structure of the film is unfortunate in a number of ways, not least the portrayal of Heidegger as a clownish naïf, but primarily because through the use and positioning of these flashbacks within the film, von Trotta offers an open-ended analogy between Heidegger’s and Arendt’s acts of public speech. Even if von Trotta means only to raise the suggestion, since these flashbacks are Arendt’s, that Arendt reflects on her Report on the Eichmann Trial through the prism of her personal relationship to Heidegger and his own abrogated stress on the necessity of thinking, it gets in the way of the rest of the film which is a beautifully shot and compelling piece of narrative drama with a strong ensemble cast, not least in the sensitive use of documentary footage in the reconstruction of the Eichmann trial.
In different respects, Blücher and McCarthy are presented as Arendt’s supports. Blücher’s wandering eye and philandering (which Arendt is portrayed as accepting as a fact about which it would be hopeless to rail) are offset by his role as loving companion and sounding board for her thoughts. McCarthy is the female confidant, a blousy American whose insecurity in her personal life and work contrasts with and highlights Arendt’s European roots and location in an older tradition.
By contrast, the relationships with Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld are offered as both deep but also, finally broken, by Arendt’s writing on Eichmann. This is given early expression in, first, an argument between Jonas and Blücher about Eichmann’s abduction to be placed on trial in Israel which foreshadows the more dramatic rupture between Jonas and Arendt – and, second, Arendt’s visit to Blumenfeld’s family in Jerusalem (on her way to cover the Eichmann trial) in awkwardness and already emerging disagreement are covered over by the depth of their friendship. Later, after the report is published, Arendt will dash to Jerusalem to visit a seriously ill Blumenfeld in his sickbed only for him to turn his back to her. The issue von Trotta raises here concerns not so much whether Arendt’s arguments are right or wrong but rather how much one can reasonably ask one’s friends to bear in respect of one’s own commitment to intellectual integrity. For Blumenfeld, Arendt’s remarks on the role of the Jewish leaders in co-operating with the Nazi organization run by Eichmann and hence facilitating the Shoah are a betrayal of the Jewish people. Arendt’s response — that she does not think of herself as having such an obligation — adds only insult to injury. For Jonas, Arendt’s fault is arrogance — and certainly the portrayal of her relationship to William Shawn, an editor overwhelmed by awe at Arendt which she shows no compunction in exploiting, is given as testimony to this side of her character. This issue is raised for us acutely by the climax of the film to which I’ll come shortly but there are two other features that deserve comment first.
The first is the presentation of the charge made against Arendt by her public critics that she is cold, without feeling, and McCarthy’s defense of her as simply having a courage that her critics lack, in the context of a portrayal of Arendt among students and friends as a caring and humorous person who, at one point, privately breaks down in the face of the reaction to her report. The second is the portrayal of the process of composing her writing of Eichmann which combines two elements: the engagement with a vast mass of empirical material, piles of folders of paper (court transcripts, etc.) are arranged around the study and apartment, and the difficulty of writing: Arendt sits reading and is haunted by voices from the trial, she spends a lot of time lying down on a divan smoking endless cigarettes, she types in a controlled frenzy. Here it seems to me that the film is linking these features in a way that is insightful and important, namely, that Arendt had to steel herself to write her report at all, that she had to set aside her own feelings and relationships to others in order to be able to try to serve truth, that intellectual conscience (redlichkeit) makes demands that are hard to bear. In this sense, the film suggests that the critics (who remind me of Martha Nussbaum on tragedy) are right to see her writing as cold and without feeling but quite wrong in their judgment of the significance of this fact and the courage that the writing required of her. At the same time, her response to William Shawn that her writing about the Jewish leaders was purely factual raises for the viewer the question of whether she has lost the ability to discriminate between her judgment and facts in this process. In making this point, the film does not attempt to adjudicate the question of whether Arendt was right or wrong to write the report that she composed, rather it tries, I think compellingly, to make intelligible how she could come to speak in the way that she did (it may also explain why she was entirely unconcerned that Eichmann was hanged).
Let me now turn to the climax. As the drama following the publication of her report unfolds, Arendt is presented as treating from public space and, against McCarthy’s advice, refusing to engage publically with the criticisms directed at her work by critics for whom she has no intellectual respect (echoes of Heidegger’s postwar silence are raised here). When she returns to The New School, at that time almost entirely a Jewish institution, her colleagues shun her and she is asked to resign from teaching her classes which she refuses to do — but she does acknowledge an obligation to the students, who have supported her (and whom the film portrays her as feeling responsible to, for example, in the scene where McCarthy arrives at her class to tell her that Blücher has had a heart attack and is in hospital, and her first shocked reaction is to return to finish her class). When she has offered her explanation to a lecture hall packed with students and the three staff before whom she was hauled for dressing down and discipline, she rebuts – albeit not wholly convincingly — the charge by a staff member that she is blaming the victims for their own victimhood and is given rapturous applause by the students. As they leave, she sees that Hans Jonas is also in the audience. His face, in a bravura piece of acting by Ulrich Noethen, gives us no clue as to what is to come next but seems to express a process of internal struggle. Arendt goes to him, hopeful that her explanation will have healed the rupture of their friendship, but far from it — Jonas rejects her account, she has gone too far, and, in a bitter expression of the end of their friendship, refers to her as “Heidegger’s little darling”.
The question raised by this film is that of ‘thoughtlessness’. Arendt presents Eichmann as a creature who cannot think, for has abdicated the realm of thinking, and at the same time she sees Heidegger as a philosopher whose movement into the public realm is marked by a shift to thoughtlessness (a view that allows her to continue to engage Heidegger’s philosophical work after 1933 in contrast to Jonas). Is Arendt similarly ‘thoughtless’ is her reflections on the Jewish leaders? The film asks us to consider this question but not, I think, quite in Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness but in the broader sense that underlies it. Her commitment to understanding, to making intelligible, to truthfulness is given clear expression as too are the demands this makes on her — but what about the demands that this makes on her friends, is there not a kind of thoughtlessness here? Is there not a kind of thoughtlessness in her failure to anticipate the entirely predictable response to her moralized interpretation of the role of the Jewish leaders, whose cooperation with the Nazis, she writes, should strike Jews as the darkest episode of a dark chapter of human action?
I don’t think that the film ultimately takes a stance on this issue – rather it raises for us the question of the relationship of Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness to our ordinary sense of that word. And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews. The film is composed in a context in which we, and von Trotta, know this — and I think the film’s refusal to resolve the issues that it raises is precisely an acknowledgement of this context. In this respect, Thomas Assheuer’s review in Die Zeit which suggests that Arendt’s reading of Eichmann was directed against that of the Israeli Prime Minster David Ben Gurion who represented him as a monster of evil for ideological purposes may have some force but not against the film. Rather the film leaves us with questions concerning the relationship between friendship and the service of truth, of emotional life and the conditions of writing truthfully, and of the conditions and costs of public speech.