I found something hugely unsettling about Neal Bascomb’s chilling, authoritative and timely book about the capture of Adolf Eichmann, the man about whom the political philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” in her 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem.”
At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. At one level, Mr. Bascomb’s work is an exhaustive, well-researched volume that supersedes prior accounts of how a small band of Mossad and Shin Bet operatives captured the former SS officer and spirited him from Argentina to Israel in May of 1960. SSLt. Col. Eichmann, it must be remembered, worked so hard at exterminating Jews that at one point according to Mr. Bascomb, he ignored a superior’s orders to stop the slaughter and had to be threatened by Reichsfhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler to desist or face death.
The book describes in detail how the SS lieutenant colonel escaped from Germany using a false identity and a Red Cross passport to make his way to Argentina. There, under the name of Ricardo Klement, he lived a miserable life, commuting hours from his hovel of a home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to work at a Mercedes factory.
In a parallel story, Mr. Bascomb describes how postwar Nazi hunters tried but for many years failed to pinpoint the location of the man many believed to be the true architect of the Holocaust. And he chronicles how Mossad chief Isser Harel finally located, identified and, in the spring of 1960, dispatched a team of volunteers to capture the fugitive Nazi killer and bring him to justice in Israel.
They accomplished their mission. On April 11, 1961, in Beit Ha’am — the House of the People — “a white stone and marble four-story edifice in the middle of modern, chaotic Jerusalem … Adolf Eichmann, dressed in a dark blue suit and tie and wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses, was brought into the courtroom and directly into a bulletproof glass booth on the left side of the converted auditorium.” There, he was put on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Adolf Eichmann: the man in the glass booth.
It is a fascinating story, and told much more completely than in any of the other books on the subject — including Mossad chief Harel’s — that have come before.
It is also a repellent story. Until the very last, Adolf Eichmann refused to admit any guilt over his unspeakable acts. “I have not sinned,” he told the Rev. William Hull, “a Canadian Protestant missionary in Jerusalem [who] on his own initiative … petitioned the Israelis to act as Eichmann’s spiritual counsel.”
“I am clear with God,” the former SS officer told Mr. Hull. “I did not do it. I did nothing wrong. I have no regrets.” He made much the same claim when, in May of 1962, he was hanged in Israel’s Ramla prison. “I had to obey the laws of war and my flag,” he said moments before the gallows “platform opened with a clang [and] Eichmann fell ten feet into the room below without a sound.”
“…fell ten feet into the room below without a sound.” The words actually made me gasp. And then, rereading the passage about Adolf Eichmann’s execution, I realized why Mr. Bascomb’s book was so disturbing to me. Disturbing because it is impossible to read “Hunting Eichmann” without making the jump from the delusionary self-justification of Adolf Eichmann talking about himself — “I was but a faithful, decent, correct, conscientious, and enthusiastic member of the SS and of Reich Security Headquarters, inspired solely by idealistic feelings toward the fatherland to which I had the honor of belonging” — to the chop-logic Web site posts and earnest, misguided video declarations of Hamas suicide bombers, al-Qaeda in Iraq beheaders, Serbian ethnic cleansers, and other “true believers” who commit unspeakable acts out of what they claim to be deep faith and allegiance to the tenets of their religion, their dogma, their creed, their tribe, their gang or their party.
On his 38th birthday, March 19, 1944, SS Obersturmbannfhrer Eichmann led a column of 140 command cars and trucks and more than 500 SS troops from Austria into Hungary. His mission: to eliminate Hungary’s 725,000 Jews. “In devising his plan for Hungary over the past weeks, Eichmann had been able to draw on his eight years of experience overseeing Jewish affairs for the SS. As chief of Department IVB, he was responsible for executing Hitler’s policy to annihilate the Jews. Eichmann ran his office as if he were the division head of an international conglomerate. He set ambitious targets; he recruited and delegated to effective subordinates; he traveled frequently to keep tabs on their progress; he studied what worked and failed and adjusted accordingly; he made sure to account to his bosses in charts and figures how effective he had been. … He measured success not in battles won but instead in schedules met, quotas filled, efficiencies realized, guidelines followed.”
Reading Mr., Bascomb’s book, it occurred to me that Adolf Eichmann could have worked nicely for Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong or Pol Pot. He would have fit right in with Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic’s troops as they ethnic-cleansed the former Yugoslavia. He might have found innovative ways in which to increase the efficiency with which Tutsis and Hutus killed one another. He probably could advise the current Chinese government on how to solve its nasty Tibetan problem and deal with the troublesome ethnic Uighur community in Xianjiang Province. Certainly, he could advise the Sudanese president about managing the nettlesome rebels in Darfur. Or become a well-paid political adviser to Robert Mugabe.
In the words of David Cesarani, the author of 2004’s “Becoming Eichmann,” “Eichmann appears more and more like a man of our time.” We are living, writes Mr. Cesarani, ominously in the age of “Everyman as genocidaire.” This is the lesson Mr. Bascomb’s book of history also teaches, with horrific clarity.
• John Weisman’s recent novels “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.