We cannot speak of the systematic extermination of millions of men, women, and children without mentioning his name—and yet people are no longer even sure what his first name was: Karl Adolf? Otto? It’s the simplest of questions yet it can still surprise us, long after we thought we’d established who he was. But are there really still such large gaps in our knowledge of a man who has been so thoroughly investigated for so many years, by both academics and the media? Adolf Eichmann’s fame surpasses even that of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. So why write another book? It was the simplest of questions: I wanted to find out who knew Adolf Eichmann before Mossad famously snatched him from Argentina and put him before a court in Israel. Eichmann’s answer, given in Israel, is not hard to find: “Until 1946, I had next to no public profile, until Dr. Hoettl . . . branded me the murderer of 5 or 6 million Jews.” We should not be surprised to hear these words from an accused man—and this one in particular. Eichmann, after all, is famous for saying that he had been “just a small cog in Adolf Hitler’s extermination machine.” What is surprising is that, until now, the secondary literature on Eichmann has dutifully parroted this view. Other great controversies might surround the man behind the genocide, but everyone is agreed that until his trial in Jerusalem, the name Eichmann was known only to a small circle of people.
The suspicion that something was amiss, both in Eichmann’s story and in the research, arose when I started to read old newspapers. On May 23, 1960, the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, unexpectedly announced to the world that Adolf Eichmann had been captured and was to stand trial. What followed was not a puzzled silence but pages and pages of detailed articles describing a man about whom, supposedly, very little was known, by very few people. A glance at some even older publications confirmed my suspicion unequivocally. Long before the start of his trial, this “unknown” man already had more nicknames than most other Nazis: Caligula; Czar of the Jews; Manager of the Holocaust; Grand Inquisitor; Engineer of the Jewish Genocide; the Final Solutionist; the Bureaucrat; the Mass Murderer. All these epithets were applied to Eichmann between 1939 and 1960. They didn’t arise after his arrest—they appeared long before that, in newspapers, pamphlets, and books.
You have only to read these materials to find out exactly what people knew and thought about Eichmann, and when. During this period, only one group claimed, with equal unanimity, to know nothing about him. They were the postwar Nazis, his former colleagues, who were desperate to play down what they knew. But the evidence raises the questions: How did this knowledge come to be lost? How could a man cause himself to disappear, retrospectively, from the eyes of the world? The answer leads us to the problematic heart of the singular crime against humanity that we call the Holocaust, the Shoah, the extermination of the Jews.
We like to imagine criminals as shady figures, committing their crimes in secret, fearful of public judgment. When they are unmasked, we like to imagine a consistent reaction from the public, an instinctive wish to ostracize them and bring them to justice. The first attempts to consider the perpetrators of the disenfranchisement, expulsion, and murder of the European Jews were wholly in line with this cliché of shady characters, terrorizing their victims while society’s back was turned. But we have long since moved on from this vision of a small group of pathological, asocial freaks within an upstanding population who would have mounted a collective resistance, if only they had known what was going on. We now know a lot about how the National Socialist worldview functioned. We know about the dynamics of collective behavior and the impact of totalitarian regimes. We understand the influence that an atmosphere of violence can have, even on people with no particular inclination toward sadism, and we have explored the disastrous effect of the division of labor on people’s sense of individual responsibility. Of course, huge disagreement remains about where and how we should classify a perpetrator like Adolf Eichmann. Depending on whose account you read, he comes across variously as an ordinary man who was turned into a thoughtless murderer by a totalitarian regime; a radical anti-Semite whose aim was the extinction of the Jewish people, or a mentally ill man whose innate sadism was legitimated by the regime. We have a multitude of irreconcilable images of Eichmann, made even more so by the controversy around Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The public view, however, largely remains an empty shell. We are still missing a view of the “Eichmann phenomenon” before Jerusalem: the way Eichmann was perceived during the different periods of his life.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells us that in every assumption that leads to injustice, two parties are always involved: the person making the claim, and all the others who believe him. We can learn a good deal about the danger inherent in this curious collaboration by looking at the public perception of Adolf Eichmann. The greatest danger arises when someone has as clear an understanding of this collaboration as did the notorious “Adviser for Jewish Affairs.” For this reason, my book tells Eichmann’s story not as a chronological account of his crimes or his actions as they developed, but as a study of the impact he made: who knew Eichmann and when; what people thought of him and when; and how he reacted to what they thought and said. To what extent, I ask, was the Eichmann phenomenon shaped by his talent for self-dramatization? What did this role-playing contribute to his murderous career, and what can it contribute now to our understanding of his story?