Eichmann was captured on May 11, 1960 outside Buenos Aires and brought to trial exactly 11 months later, on fifteen counts encompassing “crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.” Each of these carried the death penalty, and Eichmann cryptically pleaded “not guilty in the sense of the indictment” to each of them. No one bothered to ask him what this meant, but Servatius explains this to the press by claiming that “Eichmann feels guilty before God, not before the law.”
From the moment of his capture, the legal challenges surrounding Eichmann’s trial are obvious and multiple: there is the legality of his kidnapping, the nature of and relationship among the kinds of crimes for which he faces charges, whether a conventional indictment is sufficient for his extraordinary crimes, and the difference between moral and legal guilt (if there is, or should be one).
Servatius’s own explanation centers on the notion that Eichmann was committing “acts of state,” not crimes, because he was quite literally carrying out the law. Eichmann insists that he never killed anyone, nor ordered anyone to kill anyone, and so was only guilty of “aiding and abetting” the Holocaust, which he admits was “one of the greatest crimes in the history of Humanity.” The defense ignores this question.
The defense’s argument is essentially about jurisdiction: one government cannot prosecute the agents of another. Of course, he leaves open the question of whether such “acts of state” could ever warrant punishment by another body.
Meanwhile, the prosecution tries endlessly to prove that Eichmann had indeed killed people, and they end up focusing on a dubious handwritten note by a German official reading, “Eichmann proposes shooting.” In reality, the eight thousand Jews in question were already being shot, and when asked whether he would coordinate their deportation instead, Eichmann refused. Inexplicably, at the trial, he claims the document was forged; regardless, he clearly had no power to order around the Army generals who coordinated the shootings on the ground. Eichmann considers himself “a law-abiding citizen” following the Nazi regime’s highest law of all: Hitler’s orders. He never pretends to have opposed the Holocaust or to regret his actions, but does suggest he might “hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth.”
The prosecution’s insistence that Eichmann personally killed or ordered killings demonstrates its inability to grapple with the especially frightening character of Eichmann’s crimes: he facilitated murder at a distance, from behind a desk, by following orders. The conventional concept of murder as one individual killing another is obviously inadequate to address Nazi crimes. Within a few lines, Eichmann claims to be intensely remorseful and then not regret his actions at all; this inconsistency, and his inability to see a clear chance to exonerate himself on the prosecution’s claim to connect him directly with murder, shows his incompetence.
Eichmann tries to explain why he did not meet the indictment, which suggested that he acted “out of base motives and in full knowledge of the criminal nature of his deeds.” He believes he had no base motives and in fact would have had a bad conscience had he refused to follow his orders “to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death.” The half-dozen psychiatrists who interview him consider him remarkably “normal,” indeed psychologically healthy (even though the prosecution later claims he is a bloodthirsty sadist). He also clearly has no particular hatred for Jews.
Arendt introduces the paradox of conscience under the Nazi regime: Eichmann appeared psychologically “normal” and believed he was following the law, not committing crimes. This means that, technically, he probably does not meet the indictment, but this fact also proves the indictment’s inadequacy to deal with the special character of his horrendous crimes. The prosecution seemed unwilling to come to terms with this moral conundrum, and instead suggests he was like any other murderer.
The court finds this all remarkably difficult to stomach—it seems impossible that a “normal” person “could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong.” This draws them into a dilemma: Eichmann was “normal” because he followed the Nazi law, but “normal” also implies that he should have realized he was acting criminally—in fact, under the Third Reich, “only ‘exceptions’ could be expected to react ‘normally.’”
It seems that being “normal” no longer requires moral common sense: Eichmann’s normalcy lay in his willingness to follow orders instead of thinking for himself. Indeed, the Nazi regime seems to have inverted the structure of normal conscience, so that anyone who followed their moral sense and spoke out would be considered an enemy of the state.
Eichmann was born in 1906; in his memoirs, despite his professed atheism, he credited “a higher Bearer of Meaning,” a term that echoes the language of Nazi military ranks. While his four siblings did fine in school, Eichmann failed out of both high school and the vocational school he attended instead. He finally admits this during his interview with the Israelis, which is remarkable, given how eagerly he tends to bend the truth. His father gave him a job at his mining company, and then in sales at the Austrian Elektrobau Company. Through Jewish relatives, Eichmann then found work as a traveling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company. Indeed, he never forgot their contributions and emphasizes that he “never harbored any ill feelings against his victims”—he even had a Jewish mistress for a time in Vienna.
Early in his life, Eichmann was apparently completely unable to do anything for himself: his family supported him through all his failures and despite all his incompetence. He somehow managed to participate in the extermination of Europe’s Jews despite his personal ties with them; he not only put his job duties above his private moral sense, but also seemed not to realize that the latter could meaningfully bear on the former.
Although Eichmann was happy and enthusiastic in his job for some time, after being transferred from Linz to Salzburg in 1932 he suddenly “lost all joy” in work and was fired soon thereafter. He joined the Nazi Party and S.S. in the same year. Ernst Kaltenbrunner invited him, as the two men’s fathers were friends—but Kaltenbrunner treated Eichmann as a social inferior, which showing his demotion from his middle-class upbringing.
After working at the Vacuum Oil Company, Eichmann also stumbled into the Nazi Party through family connections. His incompetence clearly disappointed his family; it already seems astonishing that such a mundane and directionless man could have become one of history’s greatest war criminals.
From his childhood until the end of World War Two, Eichmann was a “joiner,” always a member of some organization or another—in fact, in 1932 he was forced to choose between the Nazis and a Freemasons’ club organized “to cultivate merriment and gaiety,” but the latter kicked him out after he invited older members for a drink. He joined the Nazi Party without reading its platform or Hitler’s Mein Kampf; he joined the S.S. because, “why not?” Frustrated with his job, the Nazis offered him a chance to become part of History and, in particular, to “start from scratch and still make a career” despite his earlier failures. He says he likely would have preferred to be hanged as a high-ranking Nazi official than to die an irrelevant traveling salesman.
Eichmann’s tendency toward “joining” shows his difficulty conceiving his identity independently from membership in a larger group, and his ill-fated sojourn in the Freemasons’ club shows how little he actually thought through joining the Nazis. He did so in order to find acceptance, rather than out of any political motives or inclinations. With his life characterized perpetual failure, the Nazis offered Eichmann the prospect of a job as mundane and unremarkable as his personality. He seems to have ultimately come into his prominent role through no fault or intention of his own.
After Hitler’s election in 1933, Austria banned the Nazi Party, so Eichmann went to Germany, where he still had citizenship, and started military training with the S.S. But he hated “the humdrum of military service” and decided to apply for a job at the Reichsführer’s Security Service, or S.D.
Eichmann quickly realized he had stumbled into an unsatisfactory job, and so stumbled his way into another part of the enormous Nazi bureaucracy.