At the end of the War, Eichmann had “nothing to do” and was even excluded from the R.S.H.A. officials’ daily lunch. His only remaining duty was overseeing Theresienstadt, and when the Red Cross visited it, he complained “about Himmler’s new ‘humane line’ in regard to the Jews.” Himmler told him to pick prominent Jews as a bargaining chip in postwar negotiations. Kaltenbrunner had redirected Eichmann to build a commando force, but as soon as they were ready, the war was declared over. Eichmann’s testimony to the police examiner ends here, but a book published just before the trial by Moshe Pearlman, who worked for the Israeli government, can help fill in the details of Eichmann’s life after the war.
Eichmann’s radical insistence on following Hitler’s “law” and carrying out the Final Solution even after Himmler ordered it to stop left him powerless and irrelevant in the Nazi bureaucracy at the end of the war. The prosecution’s insistence that he was all-powerful hides the truth that he failed to win even the status and recognition he always sought from his co-conspirators—that his thoughtless evil did not even get him what he wanted.
Eichmann first went to Kaltenbrunner, who rebuked him, and then was caught by Americans and interned. They could not figure out who he was, however, and he did not even contact his family. Starting in November 1945, his name arose repeatedly at the Nuremberg Trials, and the next January he managed to escape the camp. He worked for four years as a lumberjack near Hamburg, “probably bored to death,” and soon contacted an underground organization that brought him to Italy, from which a Franciscan priest sent him to Buenos Aires under the name of Richard Klement.
Eichmann’s improbably clever escape, while so many high-ranking Nazis faced judgment at Nuremberg, likely contributed to his notoriety and the international attention surrounding his trial. In fact, there was nothing glamorous or fulfilling about his life, especially since his status in organizations had long been his only metric of self-worth.
By July, Eichmann had fully adopted his new identity in Argentina, where he finally wrote to his family and began working a series of odd jobs. His wife and children came over in 1952, and Eichmann soon found steady employment in a Mercedes-Benz factory. He was not at all sly about his identity: his newborn son took the surname “Eichmann” and his wife never dropped it. With his sons, he built a house in a poor Buenos Aires suburb that lacked electricity or running water. He was quite poor, and his children were scarcely motivated by the prospect of upward mobility. He also socialized openly and widely with Argentina’s other Nazis, eventually even interviewing with Dutch Nazi journalist Willem S. Sassen, which when published (while anonymously) obviously gave away his identity.
Living in such uncomfortable conditions, it is no wonder that Eichmann continued to base his life around the Nazi Party. Notably, even though he became more or less open about his identity, he never claimed to regret or repent for his crimes until he arrived in Jerusalem. He continued to rely on the clichéd Nazi promise that he would be remembered forever as a great agent of History, but of course he could not do so anonymously, and the trial—especially the prosecution’s inflation of his guilt—seems to have perversely given him the recognition he sought.
In fact, Arendt wonders how the Israelis did not find him out much sooner. While Ben-Gurion argues that Eichmann was “found out” but not necessarily kidnapped by Israeli agents, clearly this is an inversion of the truth: the Israelis learned his identity elsewhere and then “only picked him up.” Eichmann knew he was being pursued, but decided to “let things catch up with [him].”
As when the prosecution lied about Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust to suggest that he personally committed murder, Ben-Gurion inverted the truth about the kidnapping to suggest that Israel acted within the conventions of international law, instead of admitting that a new framework was necessary to address the unprecedented evil of the crimes in which Eichmann participated.
Although he was clearly willing to stand trial in Israel, the defense did not want to admit this because its case centered on the legality of the Israeli kidnapping. Israel neither confirmed nor denied that it was an “act of state,” but Argentina and Israel declared that they agreed to view the matter “as settled.” Arendt notes that this would never have happened were Eichmann a full citizen of Argentina. While he was still technically German, he certainly could not appeal to Germany for help, so he was effectively stateless, much like the millions of Jews he shipped to their deaths.
Arendt continues to suggest that Israel and Germany manipulate the law in parallel ways. Ironically, Arendt implies that the “act of state” argument with which the defense challenged Israel’s jurisdiction over Eichmann is the only way that Israel can itself justify violating international law. Eichmann’s vulnerability because of his statelessness is more ironic still—but it also demonstrates that the loopholes the Nazis exploited to bring genocide in line with German law have still not been closed.
Eichmann was kidnapped when he returned home from work on May 11, 1960 and brought to a house elsewhere in the Buenos Aires suburbs, where he immediately confessed his identity and said he knew his captors were Israelis. He signed a prepared statement claiming that he was prepared to be tried in Israel, but added that he wanted “to be at peace with myself at last” and noted his difficulty remembering details. The statement omitted the day—meaning Eichmann might have signed it in Jerusalem—but this was already irrelevant by the time of the trial. Ten days after his capture, he was flown to Israel. His “astounding cooperation with the trial authorities” had two motives: he was tired of being anonymous, and he did not want Germany’s youth to feel guilty for his generation’s crimes. Of course, he could have gone to Germany for trial, so these statements were clearly more examples his usual empty but elating talk, as was his unemotional declaration that he knew he would face the death sentence.
While Eichmann’s coerced statement was intended as a way for Israel to (illegally) circumvent the legal challenges raised by its (illegal) kidnapping of Eichmann in Argentina, Eichmann essentially turned it into a voluntary statement by appending his own language to it. Arendt wants to imply that his desires to find “peace” and absolve Germany’s youth of its guilt are clear fronts for the fact that he just thought global notoriety would be preferable to his miserable, irrelevant life in Argentina, in which he was just as unexceptional and powerless as he had been before joining the Nazi Party. Like this desire for fame, his empty talk shows that he failed to break the spell of amoral Nazi ideology even after 17 years.
Three counselors volunteered to defend Eichmann, but he immediately chose Servatius (who had directly contacted his stepbrother) and signed papers before realizing that his newly-retained lawyer might lack the resources of the prosecution. Servatius promised to employ “a group of attorneys” but did not, and Eichmann became his own lawyer’s main assistant.
Eichmann’s immediate decision to hire Servatius shows not only his thoughtlessness but also his initial blindness to how consequential the trial could be (for him and for the world).
After four months of trial and four months of deliberations, the judges deliver their judgment on December 11-12, 1961. Eichmann is found guilty on all 15 counts (but “acquitted on some particulars”). Four counts are “crimes ‘against the Jewish people’” (but restricted to the period after 1941, when he learned about the Final Solution). Eight counts are “crimes against humanity,” which oddly include genocides against other groups and all other violence that was not specifically motivated by ethnicity, and so these are in many respects redundant with the first set of counts. The last three counts are for belonging to “criminal organizations”: the S.S., S.D., and Gestapo (but not the Nazi leadership in which the prosecution wanted to prove his membership). Each of the first twelve charges is punishable by death.
Arendt seems to think that the court had two important responsibilities to the world: first, impartially pursuing the truth and enforcing justice, and second, making sense of Eichmann’s unique and unprecedented crimes. The judges’ refusal to convict Eichmann for membership in the Nazi Party elite or his actions before 1941 shows that they saw past the prosecution’s rhetoric—that they fulfilled their first responsibility—but the charges they did convict him on are muddled and overlapping, which suggests that they failed to achieve the second.
The court recognizes Eichmann’s argument that he was only “aiding and abetting” crimes, but responds that these concepts cannot apply in their ordinary form to the Nazis’ crimes, “for these crimes were committed en masse” in terms of both victims and perpetrators. In fact, the court concludes, “in general the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.”
The court clearly progressed toward some understanding of what made the Nazi genocide unique—its bureaucratization and the diffused responsibility that it engendered—as well as the inadequacy of conventional definitions of murder that rely on “us[ing] the fatal instrument” (which fueled the prosecution’s obsession with proving that Eichmann personally killed someone or ordered a specific person killed).
After the judgment, the prosecution again calls for the death penalty; Servatius again talks about “acts of state,” calls Eichmann a “scapegoat,” and argues that he should have been tried in Germany or Argentina (where there is no death penalty and his crimes were older than the statute of limitations, respectively). Eichmann then gives his final statement: he claims that the court did injustice by him, and he was never “a Jew-hater” or true murderer but merely the obedient subordinate—the victim, even—of his criminal superiors. Two days later, he receives the death sentence.
Servatius’s last speech is, in a word, pathetic: he repeats arguments that the court has already rejected. Eichmann’s final defense centers on the notion of “base motives” in the indictment—in other words, on his intentions rather than his actions. The court seems to have rightly rejected this aspect of the indictment as illegitimate. Perhaps, it seems, he actually was “not guilty in the sense of the indictment”—but, of course, he was still guilty nonetheless.
Eichmann appeals before the Israeli Supreme Court three months after his sentencing. Servatius appears with the same arguments and a new, badly fact-checked list of witnesses who are mostly irrelevant, absent, or even, in one case, dead. Along with the numerous errors in Servatius’s appeal, his careful return to treating gassing as a “medical matter” and attacks on the credibility of Israel do little to persuade the court. In fact, the Supreme Court’s judgment—shorter than the earlier one but still substantial—almost entirely agrees with the prosecution, claiming that Eichmann “gave all orders in matters that concerned Jewish affairs” and “eclipsed in importance all his superiors.” It even claims that Eichmann’s “fanatical zeal” and “unquenchable blood thirst” were crucial to the initial plan for the Final Solution.
Servatius’s comically self-defeating incompetence seems almost like an echo of his client’s carelessness and inability to ever give up Nazi ideology, even more than a decade later. Arendt clearly finds the Supreme Court’s judgment profoundly discouraging, since it blatantly disregarded what seemed like undeniable facts in order to retrofit Eichmann’s actions to the inadequate terms under which he was indicted. The Israeli Supreme Court, just like the Nazis, distorted the law and truth to fit its political goals (although it achieved justice rather than injustice as a byproduct).
Later that day, Eichmann sends the Israeli President a handwritten “plea for mercy,” as do hundreds of people worldwide, including Jewish leaders in the United States and Israel. Less than two hours after learning that the President has rejected all these pleas, Eichmann is hanged. Perhaps this quick turnaround is an effort to stop Servatius’s two last appeals, Arendt says; regardless, after Eichmann’s death, protests against the sentence arise around the globe. Some think that “Eichmann’s deeds defied the possibility of human punishment”—while his actions were unimaginably worse, Arendt argues, this does not mean he should escape punishment. Others find the sentence “unimaginative” and fantasize about torturing Eichmann. The only consistent argument against Eichmann’s punishment comes from anti-death penalty activists.
Eichmann’s previous insistence that he would face a just sentence and not repent for his actions was clearly an opportunistic cliché, and he forgot it as soon as repentance became his only opportunity to escape death. The global response to his punishment reflects the public’s difficulty in coming to terms with the sheer magnitude of his crimes, which were necessarily worse than any punishment that could be inflicted on a single person. While no justice system can inflict as much suffering on an individual as that individual can inflict on the world, this relies on a concept of punishment as proportional retribution for crime rather than the theory Arendt develops in the Epilogue, which considers punishment a way of restoring moral order.
Jewish philosopher Martin Buber offers Eichmann’s own justification in reverse: he fears that the death penalty will make Germans lose their sense of guilt. Arendt thinks this misses the point, for in fact many Germans have continued their lives unimpeded despite their profound guilt, and so the outward expression of guilt is a “cheap sentimentality” compared to the active indignation Germans should feel and the political response they should demand. Buber’s claim to feel “no pity at all,” Arendt continues, ignores the deepest problem Eichmann poses to the law: recognizing our “common humanity with those whom we accuse and judge and condemn.”
Arendt’s discussion of the difference between responsibility and guilt at the end of the Postscript helps clarify her argument here: only Nazis are guilty for their crimes, but other Germans should feel a responsibility to address them (rather than guilt because their countrymen committed them). The law, it seems, is the most important site for the kind of independent moral reflection of which Eichmann was incapable, precisely because he failed to recognize his victims’ humanity.
“With great dignity,” Eichmann drinks half a bottle of wine, refuses to talk to a minister, and refuses to wear a black hood for his execution. “Completely himself,” he speaks his final words with “grotesque silliness”—he proclaims that he does not believe in an afterlife and then says, “after a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men.” Elated as though giving a funeral oratory, “he forgot that this was his own funeral.” His words also summarize his trial’s greatest lesson: “the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
Eichmann’s banality is on full display as he follows his declaration of atheism with a religious platitude and blocks out the reality of his impending death with his canned speech. Even 17 years after the end of World War Two, it seems that nothing could break him out of his thoughtless commitment to Nazi ideology and into reality.