The request for clemency by one of the key architects of the Holocaust is a grim reminder: being ordinary is no protection against doing great evil
Had it not been for an unguarded conversation between Adolf Eichmann’s son and the Argentinian girl he was dating, the chances are that the shabby “Ricardo Klement” would have lived out his days in obscurity a few miles north of Buenos Aires. Unlike Josef Mengele, the sadistic camp doctor at Auschwitz, who was feted in the more glamorous circles of Argentinian society, Klement was a failure in his adopted country. He ran a laundry business for a while but it went bankrupt. He lurched from job to job. And when he was captured by Mossad agents on 11 May 1960, shuffling home from the bus stop, they couldn’t quite believe that this was the high-ranking Nazi officer who was responsible for the deportation of millions of Jews to the death camps.
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”.
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, 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.
All of which doesn’t make Eichmann any less disturbing. It makes him more so. For what Arendt’s Eichmann did was to demonstrate that ordinariness is no protection against doing great evil. Cesarani too, sees Eichmann as a sort of “everyman”. No, he wasn’t just a travel agent, indifferent to the destination of his passengers. He was personally responsible, a responsibility he blindly denied right to the end. Which is precisely why the moral message of his story remains profoundly unsettling: if ordinary people were capable of such great evil, then, given the right circumstances, so are the rest of us.