HANNAH ARENDT set enduring terms for the debate about Adolf Eichmann when she called her famous New Yorker coverage of his 1961 trial in Israel, "a report on the banality of evil."
The debate may be revived by the publication of this edited, rearranged (and much abbreviated) transcript of Eichmann's lengthy pre-trial interrogation. It was conducted for almost 300 hours, over several months, by Capt. Avner Less of the Israel police. The result will not, I think, overthrow Arendt's controversial perceptions. For better or worse, she grasped the repellent but essential truth about the Gestapo functionary who between 1939 and 1945 ushered millions of European Jews to exile and death.
But for his guilt of this great crime, Eichmann would be interesting only as a study in almost pathological single-mindness. A rootless Austrian, a failure at the oil business, Eichmann wandered, with friends, into the Young Veterans Association. Then, by undramatic steps, he came in the late 1930s to the sinister Bureau IV, Section 4, of the Gestapo. He brought with him no traditional or stable views, and, on the evidence here, not even the palest reflection of Hitler's obsessions. Among the youth groups, politics was a sort of game, he explains to Less: monarchism or nationalism, what did it matter? "At home the subject was never mentioned. My father wasn't interested in politics."
Eichmann's first job in the Nazi apparatus was as a sorter of materials on freemasonry--of which, naturally, he knew little or nothing. It bored him terribly. It was, in fact, a great relief to move to the bureau dealing with Jews, where his first assignment was to abstract Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State, the classic Zionist tract. This was the stage at which "resettlement," perhaps in Madagascar, was briefly thought of. Later Eichmann, posing as a newspaper editor, tried to get into Palestine, a little pilgrimage of this period that was thwarted by British intelligence. Still, he explains, his sympathies were with the Jews, not the Arabs; he took care, in Haifa, to hire a Jewish driver to take him up Mt. Carmel!
Indeed, and it is a familiar paradox, Eichmann's capacity for robotic obedience to orders (and, it is more than once suggested, though he denies it, petty bullying of the helpless) was coupled with sentimentality and false bonhomie. "I had no difficulty with the Jewish functionaries (who negotiated with him in Austria about exit visas, property transfers, and the like). . . . They knew I wasn't a Jew-hater. . . . As a child in elementary school I had a Jewish friend and the last time we met we went for a walk together. . . . I already had the party badge in my buttonhole and he thought nothing of it." (No doubt!)
Oh, he was quite a nice guy, this Eichmann, so sympathetic at times. He apologized to the venerable Dr. Lowenherz, with whom he had negotiated Jewish emigration from Austria after the Anschluss, for slapping him in a fit of rage. "In the department I ran later, I did not tolerate physical violence." But did he, Captain Less inquires at one point, level with his friends the "Jewish functionaries" about what was likely to happen to their coreligionists at Auschwitz? Oh yes: "I'm the kind of man who can't tell a lie."
Many are the shallows of the man, but consider the indignant protestation to his interrogator that no, he could not possibly have forced Greek Jews ill with typhus or tuberculosis onto the death trains. Why not? "I'd have gotten a terrible chewing out. . . . I could easily have drawn the worst kind of . . . official sanctions on my head."
The major interest of this repugnant document is the skill with which Less, a Berliner born, having digested dozens of documents, interrogated Eichmann--allowing his evasions and prevarications full play, then puncturing them with the evidence. It was a weird coincidence, if only that, that most of the other major conspirators in mass murder (eg., Hoess, commandant of Auswitz) fingered Eichmann, again and again, as a zealous executor of Hitler's unwritten order in June 1941 that "physical extermination" was to be the fate of the European Jews. In truth Eichmann was active in every phase of the persecution, from forced emigration through concentration and, finally, after the Wannsee Conference of 1942 (he participated) the "final solution."
Document upon document, cited by Less, shows that behind the pose of helpless obedience to orders, tempered by sympathy for the victims, Eichmann was an eager beaver, of a heartlessness astonishing, even, to some of his fellow thugs. Even as the Reich reeled in 1944- 45, and Himmler was thinking of how to save his skin (and seeking to call off the murder accordingly) Eichmann the zealot was in Hungary, setting tens of thousands off on forced marches which few could survive.
And yet, oddly, while it is almost irrelevant to ask whether one so steeped in mass bloodletting enjoyed his cruelty, there is little evidence of sadism. Indeed, he was "horrified," he got the shakes, when treated at Lublin to his first sight of a gassing operation. "Even today, if I see someone with a deep cut, I have to look away. I could never have been a doctor." No, not a doctor, he was too squeamish, but he readily supplied skulls and skeletons--or rather living people who would soon serve that purpose--to the Fuehrer's medical crackpots.
Throughout the interrogation, Eichmann mustered alibis and excuses. He was only a people-mover, you see, whose responsibility ended once deportation was arranged. At all times he was the helpless subject of higher orders, orders from Hitler or Himmler or Heydrich which must be obeyed. All responsibility, all freedom of will, all discretion, all mercy, dissolved in the great excuse: Befehlsnotstand. That is, "command constraint." Higher orders.
Were it not for the skill of Captain Less' pursuit, and the lurid glitter of his crimes, this book would be as characterless as any other police transcript. There is no depth in Eichmann, only the puerile zeal of the small-bore functionary with the bookkeeper's mentality, released from social constraint by the commands of shrewder, madder superiors off-stage.
It is, indeed, still the papier-mach,e Mephistopheles Hannah Arendt saw in the dock in Jerusalem 20 years ago. Whether this makes his role in mass murder more or less appalling is not apparent, at least to this reviewer; nor is it a terribly interesting question. It is a fact. Evil need not dress gaudily nor speak brilliantly. It can be as gray and bland--as banal--as the Circumlocution Office.