Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer

Cover of "Eichmann Before Jerusalem"From time to time, I want to share with you my thoughts about books that I think are important contributions to the study of the Holocaust. In a recent New York Times article (9/3/2014) Jennifer Schuessler wrote: “More than 50 years after its publication, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem remains enduringly controversial [for] her depiction of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, as an exemplar of the ‘banality of evil,’ a bloodless, nearly mindless bureaucrat who ‘never realized what he was doing.'”

In Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, first published in German in 2011 and just published in English, Bettina Stangneth fundamentally changes Arendt’s depiction and thereby our perception of Eichmann. Drawing upon a vast amount of archival evidence, Stangneth paints a portrait of a manipulative, mindful murderer who knew exactly what he was doing.

Eichmann Before Jerusalem is dense, detailed, and disturbing. In its almost 600 pages, we meet a man who for years hid in the open in Argentina, his identity well known to a circle of former Nazis whom he enthralled with his stories. This Eichmann proclaims to his interviewer, Dutch journalist and former Nazi collaborator, Wilhelm Sassen, “if of the 10.3 million…. we had killed 10.3 million, I would be satisfied, and would say, good, we have destroyed an enemy” (p. 304). This Eichmann was no “cautious bureaucrat,” as he chose to present himself at his 1961 trial, but a proud contributor to genocide and a skilled and inventive liar who could say, “‘I too am a victim.'” (pp. 363 -4)

Through her meticulous research Stangneth has stripped away the mask of the master manipulator and shown us the face of the mass murderer. It is a difficult book to read, but a truly magisterial one.