Skip To Content

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe

What We Know, and Don’t, About Eichmann

Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, And Trial of a ‘Desk Murderer’

By David Cesarani

Da Capo Press, 464 pages, $27.50.

* * *|

Most of what we know – or think we know – about Adolf Eichmann, a notorious Nazi functionary, may be wrong. Or so readers will surmise from “Becoming Eichmann,” David Cesarani’s monumental biography of the man who made the trains run to Auschwitz and, through other enthusiastic bureaucratic decisions and initiatives, effected the deaths of millions. The book arrives wreathed in appreciative notices for its exhaustive, Javert-like research — much of it incorporating sources unavailable until the 1990s — and for its overturning of long-held presumptions concerning Eichmann’s antisemitism, intelligence and motivations for his deeds.

Cesarani, an English historian known for his work on Anglo-Jewish history and on the history of Zionism, has in recent years turned his attention to the Holocaust — both in his research and in public statements concerning Holocaust-denier David Irving. (Calling for legal limits on free speech in Britain, similar to those in Austria that sent Irving to jail, Cesarani is quoted as saying that free speech is “a relic of 18th-century liberalism.”) In his new book, Cesarani sets his sights on a second target: Hannah Arendt, whose explosively controversial reports on the 1961 trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem for The New Yorker were collected into her landmark volume, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” (The Viking Press, 1963) The book’s imperious tone, harsh assessments of some of the Holocaust’s victims and counter-intuitive conclusions — such as the idea that Eichmann was a “normal” man who, for various reasons related to his time, place and situation, committed monstrous acts, albeit at a remove from his victims — continue to attract readers and to trouble many of them, especially in the United States.

Ninety percent of “Becoming Eichmann” reads like a legal brief (which, given that Cesarani is essentially retrying Eichmann, is apt, if not a reason to read it). The final 10% comprises an account of Eichmann’s execution (“Eichmann had died with as much dignity as a hanging allows”) and the cremation of his remains, as well as a chapter called “After Eichmann,” which retraces the intellectual battles that ensued — not over Eichmann’s trial and sentence but rather over Arendt’s book (in particular, Arendt’s assertions that Eichmann wasn’t especially antisemitic and also that some people in the Jewish councils with whom he worked to establish a semblance of “order” in the ghettos and on the train platforms were, themselves, guilty of complicity with the Nazis in their efforts to save their own lives, when they were not self-aggrandizingly issuing currency with their pictures on it). Along the way, Cesarani dismantles the notorious experiments in “following orders” that were conducted at Yale University in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram. “After Eichmann” also rounds up the leading novels and movies that Cesarani feels constitute the cultural legacy of the trial and the controversy over Arendt’s perspective.

Despite its peerless scholarship concerning its central subject, the author’s obsession with legalistic detail at the expense of narrative momentum or analytic insight means that it is not a book that will be widely read, at least not from cover to cover. Cesarani is clearly addressing a highly selective readership of historians and historiographers, as well as segments of the general population who can remember closely following the Eichmann trial, which the author essentially re-reports on something that approaches a day-by-day basis — always with one eye toward correcting Arendt’s mistakes, her “baggage” of prejudices as a German Jew with a privileged prewar university education and what he strongly suggests are her lazy analytic conclusions, owing to her light attendance during the nearly nine months it took for the trial’s 121 sessions to transpire. Indeed, there are passages where it is difficult to tell whether Eichmann or Arendt is in the prisoner’s dock.

The biography rises to a justifying “conclusion” in which the author forcefully presses home his own point that to understand Eichmann — or, indeed, any contemporary “everyman as génocidaire”— one should look not to the individual, as Arendt did, but rather to “the ideas that possessed him, the society in which they flowed freely, the political system that purveyed them, and the circumstances that made them acceptable. What Eichmann did was made possible by the dehumanization of the Jews, the construction of the Jewish people as an abstract racial-biological threat and a political enemy, and the disabling of inhibitions against killing. Anyone subject to these processes might have behaved in the same way, be it in a totalitarian state or a democracy.”

Although this may sound like Arendt’s position, it is actually the opposite, as Cesarani insists. “The génocidaire has become a common feature of humanity and to that extent Eichmann is typical rather than aberrant,” he writes. “This is not the same as saying that ‘we are all potential Eichmanns’; rather, that the matrices which generate the perpetrators of atrocity and genocide have multiplied. In these circumstances normal people can and do commit mass murder or engineer it.” In other words, when the conditions are right, mass murderers will emerge — a behavioral view, it would seem.

Although one cannot take exception to this thesis, per se, it still does not explain why, as Arendt observed, some normal people subjected to such conditions do not become mass murderers: That is, it does not account for the element of personal

responsibility for one’s decisions, nor for individual culpability. More painful for a Jewish reader to say, it also does not address Arendt’s charges of complicity, self-aggrandizement and even cruelty against specific individual leaders of various Jewish communities. Nor does it begin to grapple with Arendt’s observations that some of those leaders who survived went on to become prominent figures in Israeli society, just as many of the Nazis went on to become governmental figures in postwar Germany. Nor does Cesarani refute Arendt’s suggestion that, at the time of Eichmann’s trial, neither the Israeli nor the German government wished to return to the past too intensively to examine the backgrounds of such figures, since the two countries were mutually engaged by the fact that Germany was paying millions in reparations to Israel at the time. He seems to bypass altogether her level of political analysis, an analysis that embarrasses all parties equally. For both books, the history of modern Israel is the elephant in the room, but only Arendt outspokenly acknowledges it as such.

This may madden Cesarani, but his “Becoming Eichmann” seems best as a companion volume to Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Both authors attempt to help us recognize mass murderers, or Cesarani’s génocidaires, before they get started, or to help us to see the potential for mass murder in ourselves; and they offer very different methods for arriving at the vision. Arendt’s technique is to prompt questions and debate; Cesarani’s is to nail down the evidence so that it cannot be disputed. Without the first, we’re in a totalitarian society; without the second, we’re in chaos. The world needs both.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.