Category Archives: Role of History

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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Extracts of an interview with Jared Diamond

I have been quite fascinated by Jared Diamond as a teacher of historiography, for many reasons. He is not a historian by training, and his methods and choice of sources are not what most academically trained historians would have chosen or focused on, but his work is undoubtedly historiographically significant.

I have included here part of an extract of an interview he did with NPR.

What led you to this topic, the collapse of societies? 

It’s simple. It was the most fascinating as well as the most important subject I could think of, and one that I’d been interested in for decades, just as many people develop a romantic interest in sites of collapsed societies, like the Maya cities overgrown by jungle or the Anasazi skyscrapers in the U.S. desert. So there was this romantic mystery that drew me to it. There was also the puzzle of why some societies collapse and other societies have gone on in the past for thousands of years without collapsing. Then, finally, there was the importance: what we can learn today in facing problems, many of which are essentially the same as the problems that undid past societies. Maybe we don’t have to repeat their mistakes, maybe we can learn. So I did it because I thought it was so fascinating and also so important.

You write in the introduction that when you set out on this project, you thought it would be more narrowly about just environmental damage. Did something change over the course of your research to broaden the scope of the book?

Yes, something changed. Namely, I learned that there is no case of a pure environmental collapse. Easter Island comes closest, but you still have to ask, Why did the Easter Islanders do these foolish things, like cutting down the trees? So there’s still the human element. But in virtually all cases other than Easter Island, there’s not only human environmental impact, but in many cases there’s climate change, and usually there are issues of enemies who try to walk in on a society when the society gets weakened for any reason. There are also issues of friends or trading partners who may be getting weak and collapsing themselves, so that even if you’re managing your own resources okay, you may be done in by your neighbors’ problems. And then there’s the whole human element of how people either respond or fail to respond to these problems. So, in short, the framework got complicated as I learned, and I realized that life is more complicated than my initial naive fantasy.

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John Hope Franklin on the role of a historian in confronting social injustice

ProfessorJohn Hope FranklinA highly respected African-American historian, John Hope Franklin passed away in 2009. His life and work is very thought-provoking as to the debate over what roles historians should play in public life.

John Hope Franklin, Scholar and Witness‘ (New York Times, 29 March 2009)

Notable extracts (bold emphasis are mine):

Dr. Franklin was first and foremost a major historian, whose landmark book, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans,” first published in 1947, was a comprehensive survey that sold more than three million copies. The book also permanently altered the ways in which the American narrative was studied. “What distinguishes his history or historiography is that he, like few other historians, wrote a book that transformed the way we understand a major social phenomenon,” said David Levering Lewis, the New York University historian, who like Dr. Franklin studied under Theodore Currier at Fisk University in Nashville.

What makes good history?  What makes a good historian?  According to Rankian paradigm, a historian should approach his sources without any preconceived assumptions, or any preconceived bias.  One can delineate from that there should be a clear separation between the professional responsibilities of a historian and his/her personal politics.  Furthermore, the role of a historian should, in the words of Ranke, be to present the past as it was.  Many historians seem to delineate from that a good history then is this authoritative, well-researched book filled with facts.  Cold, dry facts.  Yet, as historians like John Hope Franklin seems to show, a great historian needs to do more.  A good historian must take the pain to communicate with the public.  And where one’s research topic (e.g slavery) has direct bearings on contemporary politics (e.g. civil rights), then a great historian must help to transform public understanding of the past to effect changes in the public.

I also find what Andrew Yarrow (New York Times Correspondent) said very illuminating.  Again, emphasis are mine.

Dr. Franklin often argued that historians had an important role in shaping policy, and no example was more personally salient than his experience with Thurgood Marshall’s team of lawyers as they worked to strike down segregation in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. As he recalled in a 1974 lecture, “Using the findings of the historians, the lawyers argued that the history of segregation laws reveals that their main purpose was to organize the community upon the basis of a superior white and an inferior Negro caste.”

Students of the history war debate in Australia between Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle should see parallels between Franklin and Reynolds.  Both are, in their own right, excellent empiricist historian.  But both envisioned their responsibilities beyond the confines of the university lecture theatres.  Both saw important connections between past and present that need to be engaged.  This connection is echoed by E.H. Carr, who describes a neverending dialogue between the past and present.

Other notable quotes from John Hope Franklin.

On being an historian and an activist (bold emphasis are mine):

The writing of history reflects the interests, predilections, and even prejudices of a given generation. This means that at the present time there is an urgent need to re-examine our past in terms of our present outlook.” African-American Biography, Vol. 2

“One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988

“I think knowing one’s history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion. I can not imagine how knowing one’s history would not urge one to be an activist.” Emerge March 1994

“I want to be out there on the firing line, helping, directing or doing something to try to make this a better world, a better place to live.” Associated Press, October 2005

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