In a normal trial, Arendt suggests, she could turn to the defense’s case. But the facts of Eichmann’s guilt were well-established, and even though the prosecution mostly fails in its attempts to show Eichmann as guiltier than he actually was, the defense never addresses or challenges the basic facts of the matter. It never mentions Eichmann’s distorted belief that he was working in Jews’ self-interest in the early days of the Third Reich, saving them by helping them leave Germany, perhaps because this would have proven that he was more than a “small cog” in the Nazi Party. But this kind of ignorant distortion remains popular in the German public, and even among German intellectuals.
In the trial, neither side actually worried much about the truth of Eichmann’s guilt. The prosecution was focused on exaggerating Eichmann’s responsibility to suggest that Israel successfully avenged the Jews against the Nazis, and the defense’s case was almost entirely about questions of jurisdiction. Arendt thus thinks both sides missed the most interesting dimensions of the case, which revolve around Eichmann’s distorted mindset regarding his work with Jews and ultimate inability to recognize what he was doing.
Before the War, the Nazis were closely allied with the growing Zionist movement. Ninety-five percent of German Jews belonged to the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, which dedicated itself to the “fight against anti-Semitism”—this Association was considered an enemy of the State, leaving the small Zionist minority the only group willing to negotiate with the Nazis. While the Nazis were outwardly anti-Semitic, they secretly appreciated Zionists’ nationalist thinking and made it easier for Jews to migrate to Palestine, ensuring the easy transfer of currency and negotiating with emissaries who came from Palestine seeking “suitable material” for settlements.
Although Israel tries to push Zionism as the only paradigm for Jewish identity after World War Two, in fact it was a fringe movement before the war, and troublingly, the Nazi willingness to collaborate with and spare Zionists likely led to its relative expansion among Jews who survived the war. The parallel between German and Jewish nationalist ideologies of ethnic purity is clear, as is Ben-Gurion’s motivation for doing whatever he can to cover up Zionism’s early alliance with Nazism.
Eichmann remembers almost none of this, however—besides one functionary who invited him to Palestine (from which he was promptly deported). The fact that he so fondly recalls his time in Vienna after this trip suggests that this truly was one of the happiest periods in his life, even if the Nazis had already given up their Zionism by then. Eichmann remembers Jewish leaders who collaborated with him, but never those who dissented, such as Dr. Franz Meyer, who (like the prosecution and judges) noticed Eichmann’s “genuine and lasting personality change” after his promotion in 1939. Indeed, he was promoted four times from 1937 to 1941 and, although he could rise no higher, was considered an expert on “the Jewish question” and matters of emigration. The Reich Center for Jewish Emigration, established in 1938 and headed by Heinrich Müller, was based on Eichmann’s Vienna office.
Again, Eichmann undermines his own case by failing to remember the early work that he believed he was doing on behalf of Jews. His happiness, however, was completely unrelated to the substance of his work: he was delighted to finally win power and recognition within his organization, and quickly began imitating the mannerisms of someone as powerful as he seemed to have become. The internal structure and ideology of the Nazi bureaucracy entirely determined his personality, motivations, and actions; beyond his apparent inability to think from other people’s perspectives, he was also unable to think for himself.
In March 1939, Eichmann was sent to Prague, where he implemented the same system as in Vienna and confronted a world decreasingly willing to accommodate more Jewish emigrants after hundreds of thousands had already fled Germany, Poland, and Rumania. The Second World War began six months later, in September, and Eichmann returned to Berlin to take over Müller’s post at the Reich Center for Jewish Emigration, just as the Nazis were giving up on emigration as a possible solution to “the Jewish question.”
Beyond threatening Eichmann’s role, which depended on his expertise in matters of emigration, this turn of events reflects the international community’s unwitting complicity in the Third Reich’s shift toward a policy of mass murder, as other countries refused to take in more refugees (and often gave horribly anti-Semitic justifications for doing so).