[Content warning: Holocaust. This is a complicated and emotional subject and I make no claims to know much more than what I read in the book, which I may not even be getting right.]
For Holocaust Remembrance Day last week I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem (h/t Ben Hoffman).
Adolf Eichmann organized the logistics of the Holocaust – helped get Jews into trains, helped get the trains to the right concentration camps. When Germany lost the war, he escaped to Argentina and lived under a fake name. The newly-formed state of Israel hunted him down, and in 1960 they kidnapped him and put him on trial in Jerusalem.
The Nuremberg Trials were led by an Allied force that wanted to stress that the Nazis committed crimes against humanity. Eichmann’s trial was the first time Jews themselves tried a high-ranking Nazi for his crimes against Jews in particular. Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion wanted (and got) a show trial. Not in the sense of justice not being done (everyone agreed Eichmann was guilty), but in the sense of highlighting the horrors of the Holocaust to the world.
He also wanted to make sure everyone learned the right political lessons:
The Jews in the Diaspora were to remember how Judaism, “four thousand years old and with its spiritual creations and its ethical strivings, its Messianic aspirations,” had always faced “a hostile world”, how the Jews had degenerated until they went to their death like sheep, and how only the establishment of a Jewish state had enabled Jews to hit back, as Israelis had done in the War of Independence, in the Suez adventure, and in the almost daily incidents on Israel’s unhappy borders…[The] Jews outside Israel had to be shown the difference between Israeli heroism and Jewish submissive meekness.
Needless to say, “went to their death like sheep” is not a phrase I remember hearing at the National Holocaust Museum in DC. Actually, there were a lot of weird, surprising, and disturbing things that Arendt recorded in her study of Eichmann’s trial. I found five particularly interesting: Eichmann’s psychological profile, the Nazis’ early pre-war plans for the Jews, the wide German-occupied nations did or didn’t resist genocide demands, the politics around the “degenerate sheep” claim, and the discussion of why more Germans didn’t protest. I want to discuss all of these, then finish with whether this has any relevance for today’s political climate.
Arendt’s psychological profile of Eichmann is most famous for coining the phrase “banality of evil”. Eichmann was neither a charming psychopath nor a blustering villain. As per Arendt:
Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the whole enterprise, and was also rather hard to sustain, in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused so many millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed. What could you do with a man who first declared, with great emphasis, that the one thing he had learned in an ill-spent life was that one should never take an oath (“Today no man, no judge could ever persuade me to make a sworn statement. I refuse it; I refuse it for moral reasons. Since my experience tells me that if one is loyal to his oath, one day he has to take the consequences, I have made up my mind once and for all that no judge in the world or other authority will ever be capable of making me swear an oath, to give sworn testimony. I won’t do it voluntarily and no one will be able to force me”), and then, after being told explicitly that if he wished to testify in his own defense he might “do so under oath or without an oath,” declared without further ado that he would prefer to testify under oath?
Eichmann’s attorney, a somewhat incompetent German man named Dr. Servatius, instructed him to plead innocent. Eichmann could have taken this advice and tried to save his skin. Or he could have taken the high road and confessed his guilt. He chose to do neither:
To each count Eichmann pleaded: “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” In what sense then did he think he was guilty?…”With the killing of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew for that matter – I never killed any human being…I never gave an order to kill either a Jew or a non-Jew”…or, as he was later to qualify this statement, “It so happened…that I had not once to do it” – for he left no doubt that he would have killed his own father if he had received an order to that effect. Hence he repeated over and over…that he could only be accused of “aiding and abetting” the annhilation of the Jews, which he declared in Jerusalem to have been “one of the greatest crimes in the history of Humanity” […]
Would he then have pleaded guilty if he had been indicted as an accessory to murder? Perhaps, but he would have made important qualifications…He did not want to be one of those who now pretended that “they had always been against it”, whereas in fact they had been very eager to do what they were told to do. However, times change, and he, like Professor Maunz, had “arived at different insights”. What he had done he had done, he did not want to deny it; rather, he proposed “to hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth”. By this he did not mean to say that he regretted anything: “Repentance is for little children.” (sic) […]
Throughout the trial, Eichmann tried to clarify, mostly without success, this second point in his plea of “not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” The indictment implied not only that he had acted on purpose, which he did not deny, but out of base motives and in full knowledge of the criminal nature of his deeds. As for the base motives, he was perfectly sure that he was not what he called an innerer Schweinehund, a dirty bastard in the depths of his heart; and as for his conscience, he remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to to – to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care. This, admittedly, was hard to take. Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as “normal” – “More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed.
Go ahead and try to parse all of that into a coherent worldview. Was he regretful? Was he proud? Was he anti-Semitic? Was he just following orders? I don’t think anyone at the trial ever got a good feel for this. I certainly didn’t. Arendt isn’t sure there’s anything there to figure out:
The judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” – except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
But if she has any thesis at all, it’s that Eichmann believed in something larger than himself. We usually encourage this sort of thing, but I think the prosocial version involves having a specific larger-than-yourself thing in mind. Eichmann (says Arendt) just liked larger-than-himself things in general, and the Nazi vision of eternal struggle for racial supremacy was the largest thing he could find. We’ll later see that he had a strange respect for Zionists, and this was because they too believed in something larger than themselves. Eichmann’s infamous cliches were the cliches of pomp and circumstance and glory and high words, the ones which made him feel like he was engaged in a great enterprise whether or not there was anything behind them. The reason he admitted neither to “just following orders” nor to a deep personal belief in anti-Semitism was that his loyalty to Hitler came from neither. When Hitler said to kill all the Jews, he gladly complied; if Hitler had said to kill all the Christians, he would have done that too. Not because he was a drone following orders to save his skin, but because he believed. Not in anti-Semitism, not even in Hitler, but in whatever was going on at the time.
And so when Eichmann’s direct superior Himmler betrayed Hitler (more on this later) and ordered Eichmann to stop the exterminations, Eichmann – finally – refused an order. Himmler’s betrayal seemed petty; Hitler’s vision seemed grand. And so:
The sad and very uncomfortable truth of the matter probably was that it was not his fanaticism but his very conscience that prompted Eichmann to adopt his uncompromising attitude during the last year of the war…Eichmann’s position, therefore, showed a most unpleasant resemblance to that of the often-cited soldier who, acting in a normal legal framework, refuses to carry out orders that run counter to his
ordinary experience of lawfulness and hence can be recognized by him as criminal.
But with Hitler dead and the war lost, the grandest gesture Eichmann can think of is to try to become a public martyr to edify future generations. So he tried that too.
Even understanding this, there’s another set of mysteries. Eichmann would get so many facts wrong in his testimonies that everyone would figure he was lying; then, without even being asked, he would confess to much worse sins than any of the ones he had denied (a big part of the prosecution’s case rested on Eichmann volunteering the information that he went into concentration camps a few times and saw exactly what happened there, something which otherwise would have been hard to prove and might have left space for an “I didn’t know how bad it was” defense). And he would talk obsessively about his failure to get promoted quickly enough through the Nazi hierarchy, clearly expecting his Israeli audience to sympathize with him:
What makes these pages of the examination so funny is that all this was told in the tone of someone who was sure of finding “normal, human” sympathy for a hard-luck story. “Whatever I prepared and planned, everything went wrong, my personal affairs as well as my years-long efforts to obtain land and soil for the Jews. I don’t know, everything was as if under an evil spell; whatever I desired and wanted and planned to do, fate prevented it somehow. I was frustrated in everything, no matter what.” When Captain Less asked his opinion on some damning and possibly lying evidence given by a former colonel of the S.S., he exclaimed, suddenly stuttering with rage: “I am very much surprised that this man could ever have been an S.S. Standartenführer, that surprises me very much indeed. It is altogether, altogether unthinkable. I don’t know what to say.” He never said these things in a spirit of defiance, as though he wanted, even now, to defend the standards by which he had lived in the past. The very words “S.S.,” or “career,” or “Himmler” (whom he always called by his long official title: Reichsführer S.S. and Chief of the German Police, although he by no means admired him) triggered in him a mechanism that had become completely unalterable. The presence of Captain Less, a Jew from Germany and unlikely in any case to think that members of the S.S. advanced in their careers through the exercise of high moral qualities, did not for a moment throw this mechanism out of gear
What should we make of this? Arendt described Eichmann as having an “almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view”, and this seems right. For him, self-absorbed as he was, the story of World War II was the story of him doing a pretty competent job of Jew-killing but not getting the recognition he deserved from his superiors. He was unable to understand that other people might have a different perspective, or that Israeli Holocaust survivors wouldn’t find his story about unfairness in Himmler’s HR department as moving as he did.
This might explain his pattern of omissions and confessions. He was omitting things that seemed bad to him – tied into his obsessions or made him look like a worse bureaucrat. But he didn’t have enough ability to model his Israeli interlocutors to know that “knew what happened at concentration camps” would seem bad to them, or else he didn’t even realize that “seems bad to the Israelis” was a thing.
This reminds me of my theory that some people are just born without certain cogs in their brain, and especially without theory of mind. Eichmann’s theory of mind was just totally absent. He expected the Jews he deported to be thankful to him for all the hard work he was putting in! The only way I can imagine that working is if Eichmann found his 9-5 job tiring and was so fantastically self-centered that he expected the Jews to see it exactly the same way he did (“Oh, look at that poor Eichmann working so hard to deal with us”). There are interesting implications here – that some level of theory of mind is necessary for basic consistency (ie realizing that other people will stop liking you if you’re inconsistent) and possibly for basic humanity (in order to not want to send people to concentration camps, you have to realize that they have their own thoughts and feelings about it separate from yours).
I should emphasize that some more recent scholars have dissented from Arendt at this point, saying that Eichmann’s apparent dullness and inconsistency was a careful ruse put on to fool his jailers. I don’t know nearly enough history to comment on this one way or the other. But in his last moments on Earth, he died as he lived – saying some faux-profound stock phrases without realizing how weird he sounded:
Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity…He was in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more convincingly than the grotesque silliness of his last words. He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral. It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us-the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.
I had always interpreted “the Final Solution” to mean “the solution that will last forever”. Arendt (and I don’t know if she’s right about this) interprets it to mean “the last of many solutions to be tried”. She discusses the failed First Solution and Second Solution as preludes for the eventual genocide.
The First Solution was emigration. In the early days of the movement, the Nazis seemed to sincerely believe that they could deal with the Jews just by expelling them from Germany and letting other countries take care of them, no killing necessary. I don’t want to let this sound like the Nazis started out okay – Hitler had supported killing the Jews in principle as early as the publication of Mein Kampf in 1925. But for his first few years in power, he distanced himself from his previous positions and accepted emigration as a practical compromise.
When the Nazis first decided to expel the Jews, Eichmann was working as a low-level vacuum salesman in Vienna. He got his big break when he signed up for a job with the Party trying to get Jews to emigrate. This was tough work – many Jews didn’t want to emigrate, and the ones who did needed more paperwork than the German bureaucracy could easily provide. Eichmann displayed some early talent at cutting red tape and figuring out ways to connect Jews who wanted to leave with bureaucrats who wanted to let them, and he rose through the ranks until he was in charge of Jewish emigration from Vienna.
At this point a friend suggested he read Theodor Herzl’s book on Zionism, and Eichmann, bizarrely, fell in love. Arendt says, apparently in earnest, that it “seems to have been the first serious book he ever read” and that “it made a lasting impression on him”:
It may be worth mentioning that, as late as 1939, he seems to have protested against desecrators of Herzl’s grave in Vienna, and there are reports of his presence in civilian clothes at the commemoration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of Herzl’s death…he began spreading the gospel among his SS comrades, giving lectures and writing pamphlets. He acquired a smattering of Hebrew, which enabled him to read haltingly a Yiddish newspaper – not a very difficult accomplishment, since Yiddish, basically an old German dialect written in Hebrew letters, can be understood by any German-speaking person who has mastered a few dozen Hebrew words. He even read one more book, Adolf Bohm’s History of Zionism, and this was perhaps a considerable achievement for a man who by his own account had always been utterly reluctant to read anything except newspapers.
Eichmann seemed weirdly in earnest about all of this, but it was also good for his job – he met with Zionist Jews and even went to Palestine once to meet with the Zionist movement there. As he never tired of pointing out at his trial, Austrian Jewish immigration to Israel was a win-win – it made the Jews happy because they were going to their homeland, and it made the Nazis happy because the Jews were leaving Austria. When he related his self-perception as a basically decent person, he always stressed that this was his idea, and he was a win-win sort of person who had been unfairly transferred to the sending-people-in-boxcars-to-concentration-camps department against his will.
The work was not nearly as win-win as Eichmann liked to think; for example, the Nazis confiscated all of the Jews’ property as the “price” of providing them with the necessary documents. When poor Jews without any property showed up to emigrate, they started shaking down the rich Jews and making them pay extra to help their poorer co-religionists. Finally this turned into outright blackmail, telling Jews in the Diaspora to give the Nazi bureaucracy blood money, or else. In any case, it worked on a tremendous scale – a hundred fifty thousand Jews left Austria during his eighteen months in the business.
What eventually happened we all know too well. Other countries started closing their doors and refusing to accept Jewish refugees. Despite hearing this story a hundred times, the version in Eichmann in Jerusalem was new to me. I had always thought of countries as closing their gates to a few prescient people trying to flee Nazi Germany on their own, or to a few stragglers who managed to escape. The truth is much greater in scale: the Nazis were perfectly willing to let every single Jew in Europe leave, they even had entire bureaucracies pushing for it and trying to make it as easy as possible – and the rest of the world wouldn’t let it happen. The blood on the hands of the people who wouldn’t let them in is not just that of a few escapees, but the entire six million.
When emigration stopped working, the Nazis turned to the Second Solution – resettlement. Arendt doesn’t think the plan to move all the Jews to Madagascar was ever taken seriously at the highest level, but for a while it was something like official policy. The only problems were that the Nazis didn’t technically own Madagascar, that they didn’t have nearly enough ships to transport six million people, and that all the water in between was controlled by British warships intent on sinking any Germans they could find. The send-the-Jews-to-Madagascar plan seemed to be a loose alliance of high-level leadership looking for a cover story while they prepared for genocide, with very stupid people who liked bad ideas. No guessing which group Eichmann was in.
(Actually, Eichmann got super-confused and apparently thought Madagascar was the same place as Uganda, which Herzl had mentioned as a possible Jewish homeland if Israel was unavailable. He announced the good news to some of his Jewish contacts, who gave him a remedial lesson in African geography.)
There was a slightly more serious proposal to create a Jewish homeland in Radom District, Poland (note that “Jewish homeland” meant basically a country-sized prison, not a self-governing Jewish state.) This had the advantages of the Nazis actually controlling Poland and of decent transportation that meant they probably could have brought all the Jews there if they had wanted. It failed because some overly enthusiastic Nazis just sent a trainload of thousands of Jews there without informing the Governor of Poland, and he got confused and angry, plus a lot of the Jews escaped.
Then some people briefly tried to turn the Czech city of Theresienstadt into a Jewish territory, but it was really small and eventually it just ended up as a slightly-less-murderous-than-usual concentration camp.
Arendt interrupts the story of Eichmann for a long and fascinating digression about which European nations did or didn’t protect their Jews.
Remember that most nations of Central and Eastern Europe were occupied by or allied with Germany during this period. The Nazis made it clear that deporting their Jews to the concentration camps in Nazi territory was a condition for continued good relations; a serious threat, when bad relations could turn a protectorate-type situation into an outright invasion and occupation.
Pride of place goes to Denmark and Bulgaria, both of which resisted all Nazi demands despite the Germans having almost complete power over them. Most people have heard the legend of how, when the Germans ordered that all Jews must wear gold stars, the King of Denmark said he would wear one too. These kinds of actions weren’t just symbolic; without cooperation from the Gentile population and common knowledge of who was or wasn’t Jewish, the Nazis had no good way to round people up for concentration camps. Nothing happened until 1943, when Himmler became so annoyed that he sent his personal agent Rolf Gunther to clean things up. Gunther tried hard but found the going impossible. Danish police refused to go door-to-door rounding up Jews, and when Gunther imported police from Germany, the Danes told them that they couldn’t break into apartments or else they would arrest them for breaking and entering. Then the Danish police tipped off Danish Jews not to open their doors to knocks since those might be German police. When it became clear that the Nazis weren’t going to accept any more delays, Danish fishermen offered to ferry Jews to neutral Sweden for free. In the end the Nazis only got a few hundred Danish Jews, and the Danish government made such a “fuss” (Arendt’s word) about them that the Nazis agreed to send them all to Theresienstadt, their less-murderous-than-usual camp, and let Red Cross observers in to make sure they were treated well. In the end, only 48 Danish Jews died in the entire Holocaust.
Bulgaria’s resistance was less immediately heroic, and looked less like the king proudly proclaiming his identity with oppressed people everywhere than with the whole government just dragging their feet so long that nothing got done. Eichmann sent an agent named Theodor Dannecker to get them moving, but as per Arendt:
not until about six months later did they take the first step in the direction of “radical” measures – the introduction of the Jewish badge. For the Nazis, even this turned out to be a great disappointment. In the first place, as they dutifully reported, the badge was only a “very little star”; second, most Jews simply did not wear it; and, third, those who did wear it received “so many manifestations of sympathy from the misled population that they actually are proud of their sign” – as Walter Schellenberg, Chief of Counterintelligence in the R.S.H.A., wrote in an S.D. report transmitted to the Foreign Office in November, 1942. Whereupon the Bulgarian government revoked the decree. Under great German pressure, the Bulgarian government finally decided to expel all Jews from Sofia to rural areas, but this measure was definitely not what the Germans demanded, since it dispersed the Jews instead of concentrating them.
The Bulgarians continued their policy of vaguely agreeing in principle to Nazi demands and then doing nothing, all the way until the Russians invaded and the time of danger was over. The result was that not a single Bulgarian Jew died in the Holocaust.
Surprisingly given the bad associations I have with the word “fascist”, Mussolini’s Italy may win third prize in the Righteous Among The Nations stakes. Arendt describes it as “sabotaging” the Final Solution within its borders despite nominal alliance with Germany:
The gentlemen of the Foreign Office could not do much about it, because they always met the same subtly veiled resistance, the same promises and the same failures to fulfill them. The sabotage was all the more infuriating as it was carried out openly, in an almost mocking manner. The promises were given by Mussolini himself or other high-ranking officials, and if the generals simply failed to fulfill them, Mussolini would make excuses for them on the ground of their “different intellectual formation”. Only occasionally would the Nazis be met with a flat refusal, as when General Roatta declared that it was “incompatible with the honor of the Italian Army” to deliver the Jews from Italian-occupied territory in Yugoslavia to the appropriate German authorities.
An element of farce had never been lacking even in Italy’s most serious efforts to adjust to its powerful friend and ally. When Mussolini, under German pressure, introduced anti-Jewish legislation in the late thirties he stipulated the usual exemptions – war veterans, Jews with high decorations, and the like – but he added one more category, namely, former members of the Fascist Party, together with their parents and grandparents, their wives and children and grandchildren. I know of no statistics relating to this matter, but the result must have been that the great majority of Italian Jews were exempted. There can hardly have been a Jewish family without at least one member in the Fascist Party, for this happened at a time when Jews, like other Italians, had been flocking for almost twenty years into the Fascist movement, since positions in the Civil Service were open only to members. And the few Jews who had objected to Fascism on principle, Socialists and Communists chiefly, were no longer in the country. Even convinced Italian anti-Semites seemed unable to take the thing seriously, and Roberto Farinacci, head of the Italian anti-Semitic movement, had a Jewish secretary in his employ…
What in Denmark was the result of an authentically political sense, an inbred comprehension of the requirements and responsibilities of citizenship and independence – “for the Danes . . . the Jewish question was a political and not a humanitarian question” (Leni Yahil) – was in Italy the outcome of the almost automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people.
Less happy is the story of France. The Germans realized that the Vichy French were attached to assimilated French Jews, so they started by demanding only those foreign Jews who had come to France as refugees. There were a hundred thousand of these, and Marshal Petain of France said that they had “always been a problem” and he was glad to have “an opportunity to get rid of them” (in his defense, he was under the impression that Jews sent to Germany would be “resettled in the East”). After this had been going on for a while, Eichmann figured that the French were on his side, and asked for permission to take the native French Jews as well. The French, having sent tens of thousands of stateless Jews to the concentration camps, were suddenly outraged that the Nazis would dare lift a finger against French Jews, and shut down the entire deportation program. I am sure the French count this as a moral victory nowadays, though it’s a very selective sort of morality.
Last place goes to Romania, which had been anti-Semitic since the beginning of time and was genuinely excited to have Nazi orders as an excuse to carry out their own worse impulses:
In Rumania even the S.S. were taken aback, and occasionally frightened, by the horrors of oldfashioned, spontaneous pogroms on a gigantic scale; they often intervened to save Jews from sheer butchery, so that the killing could be done in what, according to them, was a civilized way.
The Romanians started their own concentration camps to supplement the Nazi’s, “more elaborate and atrocious affairs than anything we know of in Germany”, but they didn’t always need them – “deportation Rumanian style consisted in herding five thousand people into freight cars and letting them die there of suffocation while the train traveled through the countryside without plan or aim for days on end; a favorite followup to these killing operations was to expose the corpses in Jewish butcher shops.” Things became so bad that Nazi emissary Manfred von Killinger, intervened and asked them to stop and defer to German efforts. I feel like when a Nazi named Commander von Killinger is horrified by your brutality, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate whether you may have crossed a line.
Other interesting profiles include Greece (hopelessly depressing), Slovakia (very Catholic, in favor of killing Jews but got in a bunch of fights with the Nazis about ethnic Jews who had been baptized into Catholicism), Hungary (ruled by an Admiral despite being landlocked; otherwise hopelessly depressing), Belgium (deliberately left the trains unlocked so the Jews could escape!), Holland (kind of like France; the local Gentiles tried to help, but the assimilated Jews sold out the refugee Jews in the hope of placating the Nazis; the Nazis were not placated; three-quarters of Jews died), and Poland (I don’t even want to talk about how hopelessly depressing this one is).
The Israeli authorities conducting the trial had an uncomfortable tendency to return to the idea of the European Jews as complicit in their own destruction.
The Nazis ordered Jewish communities to organize into Judenrate (“Jewish councils”) which could tabulate the number of Jews in their community, help confiscate property, and choose who would go first to the camps. Cooperation was ensured by a combination of special treatment for community leaders and threats of collective punishment if they didn’t comply. The special treatment turned out to be a sham (if the leaders were lucky, they were killed last); the collective punishment was all too real.
The community leaders thought they were negotiating themselves into a position where they would be better organized and could help delay the Nazis and steer them away from the most vulnerable parts of their community, mitigating the damage. This almost never happened; in the rare cases where it did, it was almost never worth it. Thousands of people were subjected to the sorts of heart-wrenching ethical dilemmas usually found only in philosophy lectures involving trolleys.
The greatest “idealist” Eichmann ever encountered among the Jews was Dr. Rudolf Kastner, with whom he negotiated during the Jewish deportations from Hungary and with whom he came to an agreement that he, Eichmann, would permit the “illegal” departure of a few thousand Jews to Palestine (the trains were in fact guarded by German police) in exchange for “quiet and order” in the camps from which hundreds of thousands were shipped to Auschwitz….Dr. Kastner saved exactly 1,684 people with approximately 476,000 victims.
By Arendt’s telling, sometimes the councils went beyond merely doing what was necessary for survival:
In Amsterdam as in Warsaw, in Berlin as in Budapest, Jewish officials could be trusted to compile the lists of persons and of their property, to secure money from the deportees to defray the expenses of their deportation and extermination, to keep track of vacated apartments, to supply police forces to help seize Jews and get them on trains, until, as a last gesture, they handed over the assets of the Jewish community in good order for final confiscation. They distributed the Yellow Star badges, and sometimes, as in Warsaw, “the sale of the armbands became a regular business; there were ordinary armbands of cloth and fancy plastic armbands which were washable.” In the Nazi-inspired, but not Nazi-dictated, manifestoes they issued, we still can sense how they enjoyed their new power – “The Central Jewish Council has been granted the right of absolute disposal over all Jewish spiritual and material wealth and over all Jewish manpower,” as the first announcement of the Budapest Council phrased it. We know how the Jewish officials felt when they became instruments of murder – like captains “whose ships were about to sink and who succeeded in bringing them safe to port by casting overboard a great part of their precious cargo”; like saviors who “with a hundred victims save a thousand people, with a thousand ten thousand.
This turned out to be important. Arendt gives the case of Belgium, where most of the Jews were a hodgepodge of refugees and most of the elders fled early. The Belgian Jews’ lack of organization didn’t hurt them; it just made them impossible to organize for deportation and extermination, and so more of them survived than in other comparable areas. And:
Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The
whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people. According to Freudiger’s calculations about half of them could have saved themselves if they had not followed the instructions of the Jewish Councils.
As comfortable as it would be to forget about all of this, the Israeli government had the opposite incentive. Their goal wasn’t just to broadcast the horrors of the Holocaust. It was to send the message that Jews who believed they were safe among Gentiles were fools, and Jews who wanted to negotiate and concede points in their conflicts with Gentiles were collaborators.
I was struck by Arendt’s psychological profile of the Israeli leadership. The year in 1960. David ben Gurion is seventy-four, near the end of a long life of military struggle. The Israeli leadership is still very much of the generation that survived World War II, the Israeli War of Independence, and the Holocaust. But they’re starting to realize that this will not always be true. The younger generation just attaining voting age doesn’t remember the Holocaust at all. Everyone knows their history, but not everybody knows it. And the people, maybe new immigrants from America, who didn’t go through the Holocaust, they start asking – do we really need a purely Jewish nation? Do we really have to be so hostile and suspicious of Gentiles all the time? Does the country have to be quite so heavily militarized? Maybe we should just be a normal peaceful friendly member of the community of nations a bit more?
And as Arendt tells it, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues felt like they had this driving duty to communicate the incommunicable truth that this was not going to work. They felt like this was an endlessly seductive position, that maybe they had been seduced by it themselves when they were younger, but that bitter experience had taught them that had to be rejected utterly. If they dwelt on the failures of the Jewish Councils of Europe a little too long, if maybe they were a little unfair to people who had lost in lose-lose ethical dilemmas, it was because they didn’t know how else to tell younger Jews not to let themselves be those people. I guess the active construction of a cultural payload of reflexive resistance bordering on paranoia, capable of being handed down to younger generations, helps explain a lot about Israeli history.
Arendt dwells on the obvious question: why didn’t people refuse?
She had already given part of the answer. Some people did refuse. The entire populations of Denmark and Bulgaria. Most of Italy. France, eventually, with prodding. Shouldn’t Germany have been filled with some of the same people?
She says no. At every point, she stressed how little genuine opposition Hitler had. It wasn’t just the Nazis’ 90+% approval rating. It was that even the people who hated the Nazis, loathed the Nazis, generally didn’t mention the Jewish genocide. Even the conspirators in the von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler were mostly angry that he was a bad commander and was probably going to lose. This opinion was at least within the Nazi Overton Window. That they should resist the Holocaust seems to barely have occurred to them.
One of the creepiest passages in the book described the Wahnsee Conference. Hitler and Himmler and a few other highers-up had decided on the Final Solution; a policy change from forced emigration to extermination. They wanted to inform the civil service of their decision, but they expected trouble:
The problem was much more acute, however, with respect to the higher career men in the Civil Service, directly under the Ministers, for these men, the backbone of every government administration, were not easily replaceable, and Hitler had tolerated them, just as Adenauer was to tolerate them, unless they were compromised beyond salvation. Hence the undersecretaries and the legal and other experts in the various Ministries were frequently not even Party members, and Heydrich’s apprehensions about whether he would be able to enlist the active help of these people in mass murder were quite comprehensible. As Eichmann put it, Heydrich “expected the greatest difficulties.” Well, he could not have been more wrong.
The aim of the conference was to coordinate all efforts toward the implementation of the Final Solution. The discussion turned first on “complicated legal questions,” such as the treatment of half- and quarter-Jews – should they be killed or only sterilized? This was followed by a frank discussion of the “various types of possible solutions to the problem,” which meant the various methods of killing, and here, too, there was more than “happy agreement on the part of the participants”; the Final Solution was greeted with “extraordinary enthusiasm” by all present, and particularly by Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, Undersecretary in the Ministry of the Interior, who was known to be rather reticent and hesitant in the face of “radical” Party measures, and was, according to Dr. Hans Globke’s testimony at Nuremberg, a staunch supporter of the Law. There were certain difficulties, however. Undersecretary Josef Bühler, second in command in the General Government in Poland, was dismayed at the prospect that Jews would be evacuated from the West to the East, because this meant more Jews in Poland, and he proposed that these evacuations be postponed and that “the Final Solution be started in the General Government, where no problems of transport existed.” The gentlemen from the Foreign Office appeared with their own carefully elaborated memorandum, expressing “the desires and ideas of the Foreign Office with respect to the total solution of the Jewish question in Europe,” to which nobody paid much attention. The main point, as Eichmann rightly noted, was that the members of the various branches of the Civil Service did not merely express opinions but made concrete propositions. The meeting lasted no more than an hour or an hour and a half, after which drinks were served and everybody had lunch – “a cozy little social gathering.”
There were occasional protests about killing Jews because it would get Germany in big trouble if they lost the war. This was discussed seriously, always with the point being made that the Allies would view it as a dire crime, never with anybody stopping to ask whether maybe the Allies were right.
By far the most successful movement in this direction, one I had never heard about before, was Musy’s meeting with Himmler. A few months before the war ended, some Jews in Switzerland happened to meet Jean-Marie Musy, one of Himmler’s childhood friends; they asked him to use his influence with the Nazi second-in-command to get him to stop killing Jews. Musy went to Germany and told Himmler that they both knew the Allies were winning the war, that he’d heard the Allies were really mad about the Holocaust, and that maybe if Himmler stopped the Holocaust he could get better treatment after the war. Himmler thought about it for a few minutes, and then he stopped the Holocaust. He ordered the gas chambers destroyed, he countermanded Hitler’s directive to kill as many Jews as possible before the Allies liberated the camps, and started transporting Jews out of Nazi territory by trains. Hitler heard about this and got enraged and ordered everybody to stop listening to Himmler. There was a brief period of confusion as the two highest-ranking Nazis gave opposite orders, and then the Allies liberated the concentration camps anyway and the point became moot. It wasn’t much. Himmler’s order probably saved a few tens of thousands of people, out of millions. But it was something. And there were countless smaller incidents like this. And they all shared one thing in common: they succeeded by appealing to Nazis’ self-interest, not to their conscience.
As Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution.
And where this wasn’t true, people started developing consciences again. Nazi commanders who had been in Denmark for long enough started to go native. When Himmler’s agents came to crack down on Danish resistance, they found the local German officials somewhere between hesitant and actively obstructionist:
Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role
played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage.
The same thing happened in Bulgaria as was to happen in Denmark a few months later – the local German officials became unsure of themselves and were no longer reliable.
Are there any lessons to be learned from all of this horror?
First, the refugee aspect of all of this is even more important than I thought. I said it before, but I think it bears more emphasis. The Western nations’ failure to accept refugees from Nazi Germany didn’t just kill a couple of Jews who made it out before the killing started. Germany started off perfectly willing to let every single Jew in Europe emigrate to any country that would take them. Nowhere would. This obviously doesn’t absolve the Nazis of any blame, but it sure doesn’t make the rest of the world look very good either.
Second, it’s worth remembering that the Final Solution was the Nazis’ third or fourth plan, not their first. Eichmann argued that this ought to humanize him; sure, he wanted Germany Judenfrei, but at least he had the decency to try to do it humanely before moving on to genocide. But even if he’s right, humanizing Nazis is a two-way street. The more human and comprehensible the Nazis’ evil becomes, the closer it gets to the lesser evils of our own day. White separatists complain that they are misrepresented; that they have no intention of killing anybody, that they just want to help everybody get the right to live separately among their own people. I accept that they believe that and that it is unfair to misrepresent them. But having acknowledged their position, the next step is to acknowledge that the Nazis seem to have genuinely believed that too. For a while.
I have written before on how the current crop of demagogues, as bad as they are, aren’t Literally Hitler. But this should be understood in context of Mussolini not being Literally Hitler, or even of the Nazis themselves not being Literally Hitler at the beginning. The cause for concern isn’t that anyone you can see on TV is plotting a Fourth Reich right now. It’s that some common factor causes people who start out as only moderately objectionable to predictably become something much worse. And modern populists share a suspicious number of characteristics and policies with their WWII-era fascist analogues (though “fascist” is the wrong word here; remember that Mussolini’s Italy did a better job saving Jews than a lot of the supposed ‘good guys’), and one can rightly be afraid that they’re drawing from the same underlying natural kind.
This is exactly the sort of thing I should resist the urge to put here (source)
Third, at least during World War II conscience was a collective phenomenon. Why did some countries’ citizens cooperate almost universally with the Final Solution, while others resisted it at every turn? “Culture” is inadequate; there’s not much light between Danish and German culture, but the two countries acted in opposite ways. I’m tempted to credit single individuals; Hitler setting the tone for Germany vs. King Christian setting the tone for Denmark – but do people really respect their leaders that thoroughly? Or is this backwards causation; a country like Denmark would end up with a King like Christian, a country like Germany would elect a Fuhrer like Hitler? I don’t know. The alternative is to posit one of those chaotic networks where tiny differences in initial conditions can compound and lead to very different end states. Arendt herself offers little, beyond saying that Italy saved its Jews out of “the automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people”. Yeah, well, Japan was an old and civilized people too, so there goes that theory. But with what do we replace it? All I can think of is maybe looking into the pre-existing anti-Semitism level, but I don’t know if that just passes the explanatory buck.
Did you know the Intro Psych explanation of Asch’s conformity experiments gets them backwards? Although it’s true that in each experiment a few people would conform with majority opinion, the majority of subjects didn’t conform and stuck with the evidence of their own eyes. This is encouraging, but makes the international variation in behavior even more perplexing. Whatever the cause, despite some heroic individuals everywhere the between-country variance was more important than the within-country variance.
Fourth, resistance worked. Not for the Jews, who generally had no good options. But for the Gentile population of occupied countries, absolutely. It didn’t need heroic martyrs willing to stand in front of Panzers Tiananmen-style. It just took a general attitude of annoying obstructionism. The Germans said “Give us a list of all the Jews in your country by next week,” and the police said “Oh, yeah, sure”, and then the next week the Germans asked where their list was, and the police said, “Sorry, we must have forgot.” When the attitude was so universal that the Nazis didn’t know who to punish, or didn’t dare punish everyone for fear of rebellion, they generally gave up. This isn’t to trivialize anything. There were thousands of individuals who died horribly resisting the Nazis, often to no avail. But when whole countries and cultures decided to resist, it made a big difference.
Even more – and I think Arendt’s frequent repetition of this fact is entirely justified – it started to change the Nazis’ minds. The Nazi officials in Denmark and Bulgaria became just a little bit obstructionist themselves. Nothing spectacular. No throwing off their jackboots and joining the resistance. Just a very slight tendency to question what was going on and ask “Are we the baddies?”
Just as humanizing the Nazis is a two-way street, so pointing out the bizarre lack of dissent in Nazi Germany is both distressing and encouraging. Distressing because how could ordinary humans tolerate that? Encouraging because…well…it seems almost possible to imagine a world where something goes wrong and America ends up overtly fascist. But even in my worst nightmares I can’t imagine a world where America ends up overtly fascist and nobody is annoying and obstructionist about it. Arendt’s picture of Germany, where the ruling party has 90% approval and dissent is unthinkable – you can’t get there from here. We’re never unaninimous about anything.
I thank G-d for the annoying obstructionists, for the nitpickers, for the devil’s advocates, for the people who hear something that’s obviously true and strain to come up with an absurd thought experiment where it might not be, for the reflexive contrarians, for the people who think being banned on Twitter is a violation of their human rights, for the people who vote third party even though they know it’s wasting their vote, for the people who urge you to sign petitions on whitehouse.gov because “then the President has to respond”, for the people who have two hundred guns in their basement “just in case”, for the mayors of sanctuary cities and the clerks who refuse to perform gay weddings, for the people who say “well, actually”, and for the people who swear eternal hostility to the people who agree with them on 99% of everything. On the spectrum from “totally ungovernable” to “vulnerable to fascism”, I would like to think we are probably a lot closer to the left end of the scale.