FIELDS: Eichmann’s evil no longer banal

New exhibit reveals Nazi’s zest for Jews’ extermination

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BERLIN

Angela Merkel’s Germany is losing its edge politically as her party suffers setbacks in local elections and is sidetracked by France’s assertion of leadership toward the Arab Spring. Culturally and intellectually, however, Berlin is still the European capital pushing the envelope. Berlin drives the engine for thinking and rethinking Germany’s past.

A new exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which ran in Jerusalem for nine months beginning in April 1961, continues this critical rethinking. “Facing Justice - Adolf Eichmann on Trial,” at the Topography of Terror, which documents the Nazi apparatus in the Third Reich, brings it back for updated reflection, with photographs and videos of witnesses, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges.

While the victims get a strong voice in telling of their suffering, Eichmann remains the central figure, who in his own words captures our attention for his matter-of-fact distortion of truth and his self-satisfied lack of remorse. If ever there was a man who gave definition to George Orwell’s word “doublethink,” it was Eichmann, director of “Section IV D4” for “Jewish affairs” in the Reich Security Main Office.

Hannah Arendt occupies a small part of this exhibit, presented in a photograph and in excerpts from the pages of the New Yorker magazine, for which she reported the trial. But the exhibition is an accumulative refutation of her thesis that Eichmann reflected the “banality of evil,” the ordinariness of a bureaucratic criminal merely following orders and not the anti-Semitic zealot he was, carrying out the Nazi program of extermination of the Jews with pride, pleasure and perniciousness. He explained his actions for getting rid of Jews with dull understatement, but he was considerably more than a small cog in the vast Nazi machine, who claimed to fear for his life if he refused to execute policy.

In fact, as this exhibit makes clear, no one who objected to following orders in the extermination of the Jews was severely punished. Arendt regretted using the phrase “banality of evil” in relation to Eichmann - which was the subtitle for her book about the trial, because there was nothing ordinary or boring about him. He fascinates as he hides in plain sight, manipulating through rhetorical tricks a revisionist history of his past. One scholar puts it succinctly in the catalog that “Arendt had been hoodwinked to a degree by Eichmann’s staging of himself at the trial as an obedient “receiver of orders.”

The exhibition relies more accurately on research that emerged in the last decade of the 20th century that shows Eichmann as a man who plotted to “improve” the effectiveness of the murder of Jews, who was constantly in action, not as a puppet but as an active anti-Semitic warrior against “the Jewish enemy.” The Berlin exhibit coincides with the publication of Deborah Liptstadt’s new book, “The Eichmann Trial,” which also faults Arendt’s failure to bring attention to his key role in organizing the Holocaust, partly because she left the trial early and wrote less as a personal witness to his testimony than from dry transcripts which lack his sinister inflection. Her social and political prejudices also infected her analysis.

“I wasn’t only issued orders, in this case I’d have been a moron, but I rather anticipated [them], I was an idealist,” he testified, smug from behind the protection of his bulletproof glass booth. His “idealism” was employed in perfecting the efficiency of genocide. As early as 1938 he had roughed up a leader of the Jewish community in Vienna, a man 20 years his senior, “to get the Jewish trotting along.” He beat to death a Jewish boy for stealing fruit from his tree in Budapest.

The Holocaust offered him greater “rewards” for malevolence. As he became increasingly obsessed with destroying Jews, he described himself as rational rather than emotional, even calling himself a Zionist who preferred finding another land for the homeless Jews rather than sending them to the death camps.

Evil need not be theatrical to expose itself. Eichmann was no Doctor Faustus, ambitiously making a pact with the devil. He was a puny man when he wasn’t inflated by the grandeur of power. Like most villains when caught, he was reduced to defending himself with tawdry half-truths, admitting complicity in evil deeds but denying responsibility. A large map shows his presence in Prague, Vienna, Budapest and various concentration camps between 1937 and 1945, confirming his whereabouts before, during and after the crimes against the Jews. “You’d never know when I’d turn up,” he told an Argentine interviewer, a former SS agent, after World War II.

So he’s turned up again in Berlin, of all places, where a new generation gets to draw its own conclusions. They, too, will find nothing banal about it.

Suzanne Fields is syndicated columnist.

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