Why We Should Read a Nazi Memoir

Adolf Eichmann's memoirs offer a chance to re-examine the discourses and propaganda that haunt nation-states today.

It is no longer bad form to recommend a Mein Kampf or an anti-Semitic tract as ‘good reading’. In this line of thought and practice, allow me to forward as ‘tracts for our times’, Adolf Eichmann’s memoirs. Eichmann, whose trial by the Israeli court was covered by Hannah Arendt and led her to the contentious descriptor of the ‘banality of evil’, was the head of the Gestapo Division IV-B4, Nazi Germany’s Secret Service.

Eichmann, it is commonly known, was the infernal mind that implemented the ‘Final Solution’: the extermination of European Jews, undertaken with the (in)famous German efficiency that also produced Siemens and Daimler-Benz. He was hanged in 1961. Two things enable us to have access via the mind and heart – it may be assumed Nazis did have hearts, even if Dr Josef Mengele had very specific ideas of studying them, among Jews – of arguably the most prominent Nazi after Himmler, Goering and the Fuhrer himself.

First, we now have a transcription of the extensive tape recordings made by Dutch collaborator, Willem Sassen, when Eichmann was hiding in Argentina after escaping from US custody at the end of the war. The volume from this transcript is unequivocally titled, The Eichmann Tapes: My Role in the Final Solution, translated by Alexander Jacob and published by Black House in 2015 as the first English translation. The second volume is False Gods: The Jerusalem Memoirs, which Eichmann wrote in prison, and also published from the same stable.

So why read Eichmann? Do we risk glorifying perpetrators when we do so? The debate on this second question is for a different forum and can go on. The first question’s answers will only be implicit by analogy and comparisons made by the competent and alert reader.

Eichmann in his Foreword writes:

“Colleagues” who have collected and expelled millions of ethnic Germans from Poland, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Soviet Russian “colleagues” who have led Soviet citizens by the millions into camps and death…Israeli “colleagues” who have consigned entire Arab tribes, settled for 1400 years in Palestine to death and expulsion…exactly I collected and deported, on orders, and during the war, over a million Jews. I do not want any pardon: I want justice, the same justice for all concerned, for whatever side they may have performed their service.

Eichmann suggests that he is no monster, he is akin to several such tyrants who at different points in history have undertaken similar extermination pogroms. With this, Eichmann erodes the uniqueness of the Final Solution, simply by saying, ‘look our neighbours have committed similar excesses’. The ease with which he despectacularises his regime’s horrors by saying they are the same as everyone else’s is a smooth rhetorical operation – but two wrongs do not make a right. So, if as a nation we commit excesses against a community and then rationalise through comparison saying a near or distant theocratic nation is as barbaric as us is to deflect attention away from our excesses.

This insidiousness of the logic of state oppression is what Eichmann clearly shows.

Enrolling in the SS

Eichmann tells us how he enrolled in the Schutzstaffel [SS]. He notes how the membership of this paramilitary organisation that would eventually be central to the Third Reich gave him a sense of belonging, identity and purpose. The ‘heroic struggle of the individual soldier’, he writes, fascinated him. He understands the ‘unity of the nation’ for the first time. But that is in fact secondary. When he takes up membership he is coached in its ideology. He references Hitler Youth meetings and campaigns, which provided the groundswell of support for the future plans. We recognise the power of propaganda and hate speech where the emotions of nationalism are always already imbued with a strong sense of being wronged (Eichmann mentions the humiliations of the First World War and the Versailles treaty), of the readiness to scapegoat a community/race and of a military resolution to social problems. Later he gives us a sample of the Nazi party line:

The Jewish population had in percentage terms relative to the rest of the population a disproportionately high share in the management of the economy, in the free professions, in the press, in the radio, in the theatre, etc/. So the enmity between host people and guests, between the Jewish part and the non-Jewish part of the population grew to such an extent that this would have doubtless led at some point to an explosion. That is why the leadership was concerned to reduce the tension in an orderly, normal and legal way.

Eichmann claims that ‘I saw, and see, the necessity and the indispensability of the battle, but only in the political field’. He shows us that the demonisation of a community, the Jews, is the first step. The use of descriptors like ‘guest’ to classify the European Jews signals how the subsequent politics will play out: those identified as guests or invaders will have to be exiled, thrown out, or, if nothing works, exterminated. To identify people as guests after centuries of living in that country serves the Nazis well, for it creates a neat us/them, insider/outsider frame from which to launch their horrors.

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Eichmann teaches us this process of internal alienation of a nation’s citizens.

Soon after this, Eichmann would elaborate the first plans for the ‘treatment of enemies’ (his phrase). This was the ‘emigration policy for the Jews’. He writes:

It [Adolf Bohm’s book, Der Judenstat] inspired me to find a solution of the problem through which a homeland could be given to the Jews, and at the same time the German nation could become “free of Jews”.

To create a ‘Jewish State in Poland’, he says, ‘signified a political solution’. It would be ‘a final solution of the Jewish question, a political, and a bloodless solution’, writes Eichmann.

Also Read: Primo Levi: The Chemist Who Held A Mirror to the Holocaust

Calls to ‘cleanse’ the ‘homeland’ of specific communities, to exile them, or force them to demonstrate citizenship-emotions – all of these Eichmann endorses in the guise of a ‘political solution’. These, let us recall, were real attempts, involving the displacement of people.

The rhetoric of purity – deeply flawed, since life itself begins with mixing, contamination, impurity – that aligns cleansing with extermination is what Eichmann points to.

Polish Jews being arrested. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Bundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0

Shifting the onus

Eichmann then shifts the onus to other countries:

Had other countries at that time been more willing to accept the Jews, then hardly a single Jew would have still been left in a concentration camp.

As a form of scapegoating, this is, even for a Nazi, something stunning. When the Nazi state derecognised its citizens, they were to be exiled. The fault, he says, was with other nations who did not welcome the Jews! So the onus is on other countries to accommodate a nation’s suddenly excommunicated and alienated peoples. The Nazi state itself was purging its citizenry but that, according to Eichmann, was perfectly justified – after all a nation must be ‘pure’ – but the refusal of other nations to be more accommodating is what generated the necessity of the Final Solution and the camps.

This shifting of responsibility by states who abdicate their ‘responsibility to protect’ their own citizens is Eichmann’s unwitting revelation of the work of the nation-state.

The ‘Jewish state in Poland’, as Eichmann terms it, did materialise: it was called Auschwitz. At some point, a displaced persons camp or a refugee camp begins to take on the shape of a ghetto. The camp no longer, then, serves as a space of refuge or shelter, nor is it any manner a ‘state’. When states today call for ‘camps’ to be created to ‘accommodate’ specific communities not enrolled in national registries, they are not being offered refuge: these are spaces of concentration – I use the term with its full semantic scope from the Nazi era – where these communities are subject to total control, militarised and surveilled.

Also Read: ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’: The Hell-Gates of Dachau

Then Eichmann shows us the Theresienstadt ghetto, which was both ghetto and concentration camp, designed as a midway point to the extermination camps but also to ensure the death of as many Jews as possible (Hans Günther Adler’s Theresienstadt, 1941–1945: The Face of a Coerced Community, now available in an English translation, 2017, gives us the intimate details).

This creation of spaces where the unwanted can be mapped, surveilled and destroyed with impunity – because in that space, a ‘concentrationary universe’ (David Rousset’s term) no laws apply – is Eichmann’s documentation of Nazi Germany’s spatial politics.

Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ xiquinhosilva CC BY 2.0

Legality of the Final Solution

Eichmann then seeks to foreground the mechanisms of extermination. Through his narrative he emphasises the legality of the Final Solution. There were circulars and diktats, rulings and orders that were systematically issued to smoothen the process. Eichmann lists ‘Establishment of Hostility to the Nation and State’, ‘Confiscation of Assets’ and ‘Withdrawal of German Citizenship’, among other regulations, appeared in the Reich Gazette every fortnight, he writes. This official pronouncement and enacted legislation is not mere jurisprudential history for us. Eichmann tells us:

The Jew was proclaimed an enemy of the state by the legitimate national government. The government must have had its reasons to remove this enemy as a matter of urgency. After this order had been issued, it had also to be carried out. It was not our task to question what reasons the government had for regarding this enemy as a danger to the people and the state. As the police we only had to act in accordance with the law.

This, by far, is the Nazi state’s most effective weapon. By issuing orders, the ‘legitimate national government’ empowered the SS to take action against the Jews. The SS would not question the foundations of the order: it was enough there was an order. That is, the implementation of any unjust legislation was legal and legitimate. It enabled Eichmann and several Nazis to claim at the Nuremberg trials they were simply carrying out what the law asked them to do.

What is frightening is not the execution of the law, but the enactment – or abrogation – of laws that legitimized genocide and forms of victimisation. The law too, as Eichmann’s text demonstrates, comes out of an ideology: hence, all laws enacted by the fundamentalist Nazi state, with the Party having absolute majority and no opposition, served to further the Final Solution against the Jews. Nothing Eichmann or his cohorts did was of course then illegal. That the state can craft laws that can then be used to victimise specific communities with impunity is what ought to frighten us – given the examples from Nazi Germany alone in the 20th century.

Eichmann’s emphasis on the legality of the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not a solitary instance nor a frivolous rhetorical ploy. At the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), lawyers and activists argued that ‘strictly speaking the actions of the Nazis were legal’. Hence, working backwards, the Nuremberg trials sought to base the trials on ‘the laws of human conscience which were higher than national laws’.

Also Read: Ethics of a Nazi Judge

As Johannes Morsink has noted with substantive evidence in his excellent work, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Holocaust (2019), much of what the UDHR became may be traced to the Nazi era’s horrors. What Nuremberg and the UDHR demonstrate is that an action based on an unjust law may be legal/legitimate but not necessarily ethical or fair.

This evidence of the immorality of certain kinds of legislation is what Eichmann inadvertently cautions us about.

Defendants in the dock at the Nuremberg trials. The main target of the prosecution was Hermann Göring (at the left edge on the first row of benches). Photo: US Government, Public Domain

So why read Adolf Eichmann?

We have seen several reasons here. Perpetrator writings show us how even the worst form of tyranny and oppression can be perfectly legitimate yet unethical. It shows us how effectively citizens can be turned into aliens. It shows us how the organisation of territories and spaces can effectively segregate communities for slow extermination.

Eichmann’s text is a horror story of the efficient manner in which a nation turned against a section of its citizens, how it used all available state machinery – from the legislature to the military – to harass, coerce and then extinguish vast populations. The cold, calculating exposition of the Nazi ideology and Final Solution should teach us that there can always be explanations found for the most horrendous acts on earth.

Finally, to read Eichmann is to re-examine the discourses, propaganda, state apparatuses of exclusion and collective hurt that haunt nation-states today. The Eichmann Tapes: My Role in the Final Solution is a pre-text for us to stay watchful – for, the signs we glean from Eichmann are all too visible around us.