When Eichmann joined the S.D. in 1934, Reinhardt Heydrich was its head, and its mission was to spy on other Nazis for the S.S. Eichmann was disappointed—he thought it was the personal security service for Nazi officials, and he returned to the bottom of the hierarchy. He was assigned to research Freemasons and then Jews, although well before the Nazis had begun persecuting them openly. They had, however, excluded Jews from the Civil Service, public offices, and universities, and small-scale Jewish emigration was beginning. Anti-Jewish policy did not accelerate until Kristallnacht in 1938; the 1935 Nuremberg Laws “deprived the Jews of their political but not of their civil rights,” making them noncitizens but still Germans, but Jews largely thought themselves safe and independent under their separate law.
Eichmann again realized that his position in the Nazi Party was not what he anticipated, and he found his role in Jewish affairs entirely by accident. Notably, Germany’s legal system became a tool for disenfranchisement and persecution, not for the administration of justice or protection of people’s rights. Of course, this gradually expanded over the years, and it underlines the importance of the Israeli judges’ insistence on impartiality and seeking justice over twisting the law to political ends. It is also worth mentioning that Arendt was part of this earliest wave of Jewish emigration from Germany.
In his new job, Eichmann was required to read Theodor Herzl’s crucial Zionist text Der Judenstaat and became an avowed Zionist himself, seeking to find land for the establishment of a Jewish state. He learned some Hebrew so that he could understand Yiddish, and continued to read about Zionism (which was remarkable, because he almost never read prior to this in his entire life) before starting to spy on Zionist groups and meetings.
While Hausner and Ben-Gurion portray Zionism and Nazism as irreconcilable opponents, in fact Eichmann favored the creation of Israel in the early years of the Third Reich, and seemed genuinely eager to learn about Judaism and Jews’ prospects for self-determination before he ended up participating in the Holocaust.
Zionism appealed to Eichmann because he considered Zionists just as “idealist” as himself—meaning they would live and die for their ideas. One such Zionist “idealist,” Dr. Rudolf Kastner, later worked with Eichmann to deport hundreds of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz in exchange for a few thousand winning free passage to Palestine.
To Eichmann, “idealism” means using imagined ends to justify cruel means; his praise for “idealism” recalls Servatius’s dubious argument that the Nazis should be credited with Israel’s creation. While Israel may not have formed except in response to the Nazi regime, during the war it actually served as an excuse to justify deportations rather than as a counterweight to them.
In 1938, Eichmann went to Vienna to begin coordinating Jewish emigration, which was—in violation of the official Nazi Party platform, that the Party never followed regardless—no longer voluntary but now forced. His expulsion policy was remarkably successful, but only because of Heydrich’s plan to make rich Jews pay a fee that could be used to fund poor Jews’ emigration. Here Eichmann also learned about his own “special qualities”—he was a good organizer and negotiator. He created “an assembly line” of bureaucrats to speed up the process of obtaining emigration papers. Jewish organizations obtained the foreign currency emigrants needed to enter other countries, sold it to them at exorbitant exchange rates, and used the profits to fund their own activities and help poorer Jews emigrate.
The professed Nazi platform was a convenient political tool rather than a sincere commitment to principles. By pointing to its defined policy goals, the Nazi regime could reassure its opponents that they were not to be targeted before ignoring their platform and targeting them anyway. Eichmann’s success in his job, for the first time ever, likely cemented his unquestioned allegiance to the Nazi hierarchy, irrelevant of policy or ideology. Heydrich’s fee policy not only made emigration easier, but also allowed Jewish organizations to expand—not in order to fight the Nazis, but to help facilitate further deportations.
One of Eichmann’s vices is bragging: he boasted about his role in the Holocaust and claimed responsibility for ideas that surely were not his. This is why he was captured and became seen as a central figure in the Nazi regime.
Caught up in his desire for status, Eichmann failed to see what he was falsely claiming responsibility for. Since his role in the Nazi regime was his only source of identity and pride, he overplayed his contributions without fully realizing that he was bragging about committing mass murder.
Eichmann’s “more specific” and “more decisive” issue, however, is “his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view.” He seems to think he was helping the Jewish community, which genuinely wanted to emigrate. The lengthy police examination is “a veritable gold mine” on this matter, and indeed “outright funny” in some cases, like “Eichmann’s heroic fight with the German language, which invariably defeats him.” He cannot speak except in received clichés, which may be why the psychologists consider him normal and the judges think he’s lying.
Eichmann’s incredible failure of empathy is already apparent in his obviously inconsistent claims to be proud of, but also need to repent for, his role in mass murder. His clichés are tools for him to regulate his own emotions in the moment and avoid confronting the truth. Not only does he fail to take “the other fellow’s point of view,” but he is also unable to form a coherent viewpoint of his own, as he becomes literally unable to speak for himself and simply parrots received Nazi ideology.
Arendt insists, however, that Eichmann is simply unable to think from anyone else’s perspective: he thought it wise to complain to a Jewish police officer about his inability to get promoted in the S.S., and seems to expect sympathy from the world for his difficulties and failures. Meeting an old friend who was detained in a concentration camp, Eichmann told him, “What rotten luck!” and says he felt “a great inner joy” to have seen the man and assigned him slightly less backbreaking labor. (The man was shot dead six weeks later.)
Eichmann’s incompetence is almost more horrifying than the possibility that he is simply evil. He could not realize that people were suffering because of the job he cherished, and seemed to see his friend’s detention as an unfortunate act of the universe over which he had no control. He clearly never considered the man’s horror at his impending death or feelings about seeing his former friend as a Nazi officer, not to mention the morality of his own actions.
Eichmann is no “ordinary criminal,” Arendt says; whenever he was unsure of himself, he would think back to the Nazi regime’s slogans and lies, shielding himself from reality and deceiving himself out of his guilt. In fact, this was so common and ingrained in the German public that, in many ways, “mendacity has become an integral part of the German national character.” This allowed him to boast about his actions even after fleeing to Argentina, but also proclaim that he hoped “to find peace with [his] former enemies.” This was a stock phrase, frequently spoken among Nazi officials and one among many that Eichmann repeats throughout his interview and trial.
Eichmann’s criminality, Arendt suggests, was unique because he failed to see that he was a criminal: the totalitarian Nazi regime so carefully cultivated moral blindness that he never considered the possibility that his government might not need to commit a genocide. The horrendously insulting notion of “find[ing] peace” with Jews as “former enemies” shows Eichmann’s failure to recognize the magnitude of Jewish suffering and the one-sidedness of Nazi violence against them.
Eichmann’s memory is also horrible: he forgets most of the main events of the Nazi regime but always remembers important dates from his own career and, of course, the Nazis’ stock phrases, which give him a “sense of elation” no matter how inconsistent they are. This makes it hard to take him seriously in trial, for he is not only obviously ludicrous but also incompetent about “everything that was not directly, technically and bureaucratically, connected with his job.” He seems like a clown, not a monster, and contradicts himself recurrently throughout his trial.
Again, Eichmann focused on his own professional advancement; he had no holistic perspective on the Nazis’ broad political and military goals. This creates a problem for the prosecution: Eichmann was too ignorant about his own party’s strategy and actions to have plotted or coordinated the Holocaust.