Monthly Archives: October 2014

The debate over the motives of Adolf Eichmann – reflection on the work of Bettina Stangeth

Bettina StangethIn recent weeks, there has been a lot of attention within the literary and academic worlds to the new book by Bettina Stangeth on the motivations of Adolf Eichmann.  (Well, “new” in the sense that it has been recently translated into English, because Stangeth wrote Eichmann before Jerusalem a few years ago already in German.)  It attracted a lot of attention, because it challenged a popular portrayal of Eichmann being a “banal” Nazi bureaucrat who took pride in the efficiency of his timetabling of trains of Jews being sent to death camps.  This latest trend in this debate over Eichmann raises a lot of poignant questions about the nature of History.

What is the debate?

Adolf EichmannAdolf Eichmann was a SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organisers of the Holocaust. Eichmann was charged by Reinhard Heydrich with facilitating and managing the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps. In 1960, he was captured in Argentina by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. Following a widely publicised trial in Israel, he was found guilty of war crimes and hanged in 1962.

One of the observers in the trial was a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, Hannah Arendt.  Arendt noted that despite the monstrosity of his deeds, Eichmann came across as a very banal, functional, unthinking bureaucrat who lacked ideological motivation.  According to Arendt, Eichmann exhibited “neither guilt nor hatred”.  He took pride in being a good bureaucrat, who found creative solutions to ensure that the logistics of sending Jews to death camps was as efficient as possible.  Arendt coined the phrase, “banality of evil to describe this observed phenomenon of functionaries who unthinkingly participated in organised evil without any intrinsically evil motivations.

Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal(Arendt)

Hannah ArendtAt that time, Arendt attracted a lot of criticism for seemingly whitewashing Eichmann.  But those critics actually missed her point.  Arendt was in fact suggesting that we needed to expand our philosophical understanding of evil.  Evil people and deeds do not necessarily involve hatred or malevolent intention.  Evil can be systemic, and people who unquestionably accept the system can become perpetrators. Arendt was approaching a historical subject with philosophical interests about the nature of evil.

But supposing that Arendt made a very valid philosophical point about the nature of evil, was Eichmann an example of that “banality of evil” she so described?  Stangeth strongly disagrees.

Contexts of Bettina Stangeth

Stangeth is a German philosopher in political ethics.  She is currently a researcher and writer in the Hannah Arendt Institute.  She is an open admirer of Arendt’s work on political philosophy, and remains so today despite her obvious disagreement with Arendt over the motivation of Eichmann.

Aside from her profession as a philosopher, Stangeth is also a trained historian.  Like many German trained historians, she is well trained in archival research.  This is a key feature of the Rankian tradition, though it obviously has influenced other schools of historiography.

This led Stangeth to follow Eichmann’s trail to the previously unanalyzed collection of Eichmman’s documents, diaries and letters during his exile in Argentina from 1945 to 1961.  It is her close reading of Eichmann’s documents from 1945 to 1961 that led her to a very different characterization of Eichmann.

Stangeth’s argument – Eichmann was no banal bureaucrat!

At that time, many key Nazis and Nazi sympathisers formed exiled communities in Argentina.  Eichmann, as a former member of the Nazi echelon, was feted as a celebrity within that circle.  The documents were either written by him or by people who were communicating with him within that circle, or official correspondences.  Of particular importance was a set of manuscripts known as Argentina Papers.  Stangeth explained the importance in an interview with a Jewish online magazine, Forward (11 Sept., 2014):

The Argentinean Papers are the testimony of a large project conducted by a group of Nazis to bring the idea of National Socialism back to power. Eichmann was a part of this group, consulted because of his firsthand knowledge of the “Jewish question.” The alleged “Sassen Interview” is the protocol of their meetings. Members of the group wrote their own drafts for discussions, and Eichmann planned to publish his own book together with Willem Sassen, who was the conductor of this perverse historian’s club. So the Argentinean Papers shows us both the portrait of a radical Nazi group with incredible international connections, and Eichmann’s thoughts and eloquence outside the glass box in Jerusalem.

What emerged from these documents was an ideologically motivated Nazi who was committed to the “resolution of the Jewish question”.  Eichmann was also plotting along with his fellow Nazis to return Germany back to National Socialism.  He had tasted power, and the idea of living out the rest of his life quietly in exile was not appealing.

If this was true, then the image of a banal bureaucrat of death was a lie, a lie perpetuated by Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem and accepted by many who observed the trial, including Arendt.  Eichmann was convinced that if he successfully portrayed himself as a functional banal bureaucrat, he could escape the death penalty, even in an Israeli court.  Thus far this interpretation has been overwhelmingly accepted by historians, and seen as the “definitive” interpretation of Eichmann’s motives.

Were her sources more important than contexts and purposes?

For students of historiography, this latest chapter in the Eichmann debate provides some interesting food for thought.  It is, for instance, very difficult to see how Stangeth’s contexts played a major role in influencing her interpretation.  She admired Arendt, and thinks that her overall philosophical point about the nature of evil remains valid.  Like Arendt, Stangeth had initially approached Eichmann with the mindset of a philosopher.  Her purpose was to further explore the philosophical problem of evil.  However, it was the chance discovery of the Argentine Paper that led her to adopt the approach of a historian.  Eichmann, in the end, turned out not to be a philosophical problem but a historical problem.  It was the evidence that turned out to be far more influential than her initial purposes for research or the large-than-life intellectual influence of Hannah Arendt.

This leads to a few more questions.  Firstly, has Stangeth reached that definitive interpretation of Eichmann’s motives, an objective view of the past, that “holy grail”?  A number of reviewers certainly seem to think so.  However, this is still early days, and it will not be surprising if subsequent historians will find problems with how she approached her sources, or read the sources differently due to differences in cultural contexts and temporal contexts.  Nonetheless, Stangeth’s interpretation of Eichmann’s motives does look unassailable.  It is backed by very careful and thorough reading of primary sources, and she came to that conclusion despite her affinity with Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy and despite that the fact that she initially assumed Eichmann to be the prime example of “banal evil”.

This leads to another question.  Does the volume of sources help one’s search for historical understanding?  Common sense would suggest yes.  As EH Carr pointed out, historians of ancient history typically suffer from a lack of evidence. Therefore, their views of the past often tell you a lot more about their contexts.[1] According to Stangeth, there are now more primary sources on Eichmann than on Hitler!  However, according to E.H. Carr, large amount  of primary sources can also create problems for historians (often modern) who get lost in their sources.  The largeness of the JFK archive, including recently declassified Soviet archives did not end the seemingly endless debate about JFK’s role in Vietnam conflict escalation, or the role he played during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War.

Certainly, Stangeth was lucky.  Not only did she chance upon the Argentine Papers, the new sources seem to give pretty clear directions.  Furthermore, though the discovered sources were voluminous, they were nowhere near the size of JFK archives, nor did they suffer from the problems associated with the Stressemann archives (see Carr, chapter 1).

Not many historians are that lucky.

A question of presentation

It seems the sensations caused by Stangeth’s work are due entirely to the nature of her claims about Eichmann’s motives and the apparent strength of her research, rather than the popularity of her work.  While some have described as impeccably organised and well researched, others have criticized it as “dense” and “unreadable”.  This might be a result of the translation as well as cultural differences between historical cultures in the English-speaking world and the German-speaking world.  But Stangeth clearly had her academic peers in mind as audience for her book.  Stangeth’s educational context as an academic philosopher and historian might not have impacted her conclusion, but it clearly impacted on how she presented her work.

But Stangeth is a creature of the 21st century.  She understands that academic work can only reach a limited audience and she has a professional responsibility to communicate with the general audience.  Therefore, Stangeth has been doing online magazine interviews and radio interviews.  (E.g. ABC, Deutsche Welle)  In that sense, her circumstances are in fact comparable to recent historians with “celebrity” status like Jared Diamond and (heaven forbid, but here it comes) Niall Ferguson, in the sense that they all understand historians have a responsibility to communicate to the public and engage the public in discussions about the past.  This creates obvious tensions between the historians’ academic roles versus their public roles, a tension that historians cannot avoid, and must balance thoughtfully and responsibly[2].


Stangeth’s latest work raises some interesting historiographical issues.  It would appear that Stangeth had arrived at her conclusions despite her intellectual contexts and philosophical bias, rather than because of them.  Her past training in historical research would have helped, but her original intention was to research Eichmann as a philosophical problem about the nature of evil rather than as a historical problem.  It was historical evidence that turned her to the conclusions.  This makes you wonder if the spirit of Ranke is not yet dead and buried.  But perhaps this begs us to re-read the last paragraph of the first chapter of Carr’s work, and reflect on Carr’s argument that sources and contexts live in a dynamic relationship.  It is not a deterministic relationship.

However, there is no question that Stangeth’s contexts affected the way she presented her work.  She is an academic historian and philosopher who live and breathe in the 21st century.  Like her peers, she understands her dual role as an academic historian committed to researching the past in as truthful and as balanced manner as possible, and her role as a public historian to communicate the substance of her research to the public in a way that engages them.


[1] This can be seen in the debates over the motives about Tiberius Gracchus, pitting historians of left-wing sympathies versus those with more conservative sympathies, as well as debates over the characterization of Cleopatra, which pits feminist historians versus those read the sources more plainly.

[2] In this sense, one must question the extent to which Niall Ferguson has fulfilled his responsibility as a public historian, in the sense that he openly views “history as a business”.


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