Jacob Heilbrunn

Germany's Memory of the Holocaust: the Eichmann Case

 The banality of evil, a phrase popularized by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, has never seemed all that convincing. It represents an attempt to drain the emotion out of evil, to portray the Nazis as mechanical automatons carrying out the murder of the Jews from behind their desks with clinical, detached efficiency. Michael Kimmelman, writing in today's New York Times, notes that this isn't quite right.

Kimmelman focuses on the refusal of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, which was set up, partly at the behest of the United States, by former major-general Reinhard Gehlen after World War II to combat the Red menace, to release copious files—numbering around 4,000 pages—about Adolf Eichmann's life in Agentina until he was captured by the Mossad in 1960. The Eichmann trial, which Arendt attended and wrote about for the New Yorker, is the subject of a new book by the historian Deborah Lipstadt. The trial first brought the Holocaust, as an event, to public prominence in the sense that the murder of the Jews had not been widely recognized as being at the heart of the Nazi project to remake humanity.

Germany has confronted the Nazi past. But does it, as Kimmelman asks, want to take a hard look at the immediate postwar era, when numerous Nazis were reintegrated into society and government under chancellor Konrad Adenauer? A recent flap at the German Foreign Office over a notice praising a former Nazi who served as a diplomat in the postwar era suggests that it remains a contentious subject. The fact is that the German bureaucracy was filled with Nazis. Similarly, Austria made little attempt to expel Nazis from government service. On the contrary, Austria portrayed itself as a victim of German aggression—memories of the Vienna's Heldenplatz filled with cheering masses welcoming the Fuhrer back to his homeland in March 1938 were conveniently forgotten. The Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard later wrote a work denouncing his countrymen with the simple title Heldenplatz.

Eichmann, like his Fuhrer, was an Austrian (as was the odious Dr. Kurt Waldheim, who ended up becoming United Nations Secretary General). It's commonly thought the Austrians were among the most zealous anti-Semites. One theory is that the closer you get to the Ukraine, the more virulent anti-Semitism becomes. Yet Arendt tried to portray Eichmann as a nobody, an empty cipher. It turns out, however, that this was bogus. Eichmann was proud of what he did. His only regret, he later reminisced to another Nazi in Argentina, was that he hadn't managed to prosecute his work—murdering Jews—more thoroughly. It's more evidence, if such evidence is really needed, that good and evil existed, and continue to exist, then as now.

Already the BND is moving to examine its own history. Eventually, the Eichmann files will have to be opened to historians as well. They will surely reveal that the government knew far more about Eichmann and his whereabouts than it let on. But in a Germany that appears to have gone psychologically off the rails, denouncing America for having perpetrated some kind of alleged war crime in killing Osama bin Laden, it might serve as a useful jolt of reality to examine more fully its own record.