Friday, 15 May 2015

Bettina Stangneth, "Eichmann Before Jerusalem" (2014)

Subtitle: "The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer."

Stangneth offers a close, meticulous, and exhaustive analysis of texts produced by Adolf Eichmann between the end of World War II and the early 1960s, when he was captured in Argentina and taken to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. Her book is not for the casual reader. For those with some knowledge of the period, of World War II, of the Holocaust, or of the post-war hunt for Nazis, Stangneth has produced a wealth of knowledge.

Eichmann before Jerusalem holds several critical aspects. Firstly, Stangneth unearths the murky history of documents produced by Eichmann and some of his acquaintances in Argentina. Often referred to as the Sassen papers, these transcripts of audio recordings shed light on Eichmann's post-war thinking, his perceptions of the Nazi era, world politics during the 1950s, and his own culpability in what most would view as horrific crimes. In itself, her explorations of these texts and their history could serve as a single book.

The second value of this text is its exposure of how little Eichmann and other (former?) Nazis did to try to hide themselves. Given the gravity of their crimes, the thin veneer of changed identity these men engaged in, and that many of their friends and family were aware of, is shocking.

Finally, with the abundance of textual resources Stangneth has marshalled, she offers a fascinating psychological profile of Eichmann, revealing how his ideas change over time, how he represented them differently depending on his audience, and particularly how his testimony at his war crimes trial did not correspond with testimony he had recorded previously from in hiding.

I had produced digital extensive notes from the book, and tragically the file was lost. I may someday try to revisit the book and recreate some of these notes. Until then, I can say that this book is very fine history writing, although it is likely a bit of a laborious read for even those interested in the topic. The closest comparison I can make is Adam Tooze's Wages of Destruction, which I commented on in 2010.

The NY Times ran a fair review of the book, written by Steven Aschheim.