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Amorality, Guilt and Being Ordinary

The opening statement in a PBS article about Adolf Eichmann states that perhaps no one besides Adolf Hitler was as obsessed with killing European Jews as SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann. This statement is very fundamentalist in nature because it out rightly says that Adolf Eichmann was villainous.


Eichmann was not sinful; he was simply amoral. When asked to describe his boss, one of Eichmann's aides said, "He did not indicate any human feelings toward these people. He was not immoral: he was amoral and completely ice-cold in his attitude."


Adolf Eichmann, the son of an accountant, was born on March 19, 1906, in the Rhineland. After dropping out of a mechanical engineering school, he worked as a traveling salesman and laborer. During WWI, Eichmann's family relocated from Germany to Linz, Austria. His life before the Nazis was ordinary. He was a traveling salesperson for an oil firm in Oberösterreich (Upper Austria). However, he lost his job during the Great Depression.

 
Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem

Eichmann joined the Nazi Party in Linz in April 1932 and quickly progressed through the ranks. In November 1932, he joined Heinrich Himmler's SS, the Nazi paramilitary force, and then after leaving Linz in 1933, he attended the Austrian Legion's terrorist training in Lechfeld, Germany.


In January 1942, a conference of Nazi high-ranking officials was organized in Berlin's Wannsee region to prepare the logistics of what the Nazis referred to as the "ultimate solution to the Jewish question." Although it was not widely recognized at the time that the ultimate solution was mass execution, Eichmann was designated as the chief executioner. Following that, he organized the identification, gathering, and transport of Jews from all over occupied Europe to their final destinations at Auschwitz and other extermination camps in German-controlled Poland.

 
Image from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Source: Britannica)

What is frightening here is that Eichmann was just like any of us. According to TIME’s account of the trial, this is what they say: “a thin, balding man of 55 who looked more like a bank clerk than a butcher: a thin mouth between protruding ears, a long, narrow nose, deep-set blue eyes, a high, often wrinkled brow. ”

“The trouble with Eichmann was precise that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” - Hannah Arendt

When Eichmann escaped from the Allied forces that had captured him after World War II, he disappeared and was presumed dead by some but Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion swore he would be held accountable for his crimes.


The story of how he was apprehended in Argentina in May of 1960 is the subject of debate for many. But the capture was, in many ways, only one part of the historical importance of that story. What happened next would raise new questions about the very meaning of concepts such as justice, evil, and guilt.


The idea that Eichmann would stand trial in Israel was controversial. Diplomats and editorialists questioned the legality of kidnapping a man from one country to stand trial in a second for crimes committed in a third. Meanwhile, Argentina dealt with a situation under which its sovereignty was infringed and [its] laws against abduction were flouted by Israel. Chaotic? The story does not end here.


Some commentators believed Eichmann should be prosecuted in Germany, if at all, or by an international tribunal. Some contended that while the country was legitimate in prosecuting Eichmann, it should not engage in the practice of executions. Some believed that the essential thing was to serve him with justice, or anything resembling justice (although no sentence could be enough).

 
Adolf Eichmann – Anthropomorphic Portrait (Art Forum, Judenplatz)

Israel undermined International Law and Argentina’s sovereignty while trying to portray itself as the messiah (over the Nazis). As a nation that was just born, was Israel justified in carrying out the execution? When you take a close look at the trial, we see that a sturdy judicial system had not been set up. To determine Eichmann’s fate (which was already decided), the judiciary came up with directives as it went. So when we blame Eichmann for not questioning authority, a sense of skepticism develops because when Israel disregarded sovereignty internationally, we must question that as well.


Morally speaking, Eichmann was wrong because morality is a human trait. No matter what, your gut should always ask you to question the kind of work you are doing. Whether Eichmann chose to ignore that gut feeling or put his materialistic gains at a higher level, we would never know. Yet the outcome was, a lot of humans died. It was a war against humanity.


I believe the entire trial can be summed up in one sentence. “Eichmann is the symbol of an era, a dreadful precedent.” The trial’s purpose was to put the Holocaust on trial. Eichmann was just a tool to achieve it. However, the moral lesson of Eichmann's account remains deeply unsettling: if ordinary individuals are capable of such immense atrocity, then, given the appropriate settings, so are the rest of us.

 

Bibliography:


  1. Rothman, L. (2018, August 29). Operation Finale Shows the Capture of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. But What Happened at His Trial Changed History, Too. Time. time.com/5377670/operation-finale-adolf-eichmann-trial

  2. Berenbaum, M. (2021, May 27). Adolf Eichmann | Role in the Holocaust, Trial, & Death. Encyclopedia Britannica. britannica.com/biography/Adolf-Eichmann

  3. Fraser, G. (2017, May 5). Why Adolf Eichmann’s final message remains so profoundly unsettling. The Guardian. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/28/adolf-eichmann-final-message-archite cts-holocaust-evil

  4. Arendt, H. A. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem Quotes by Hannah Arendt. GoodReads. goodreads.com/work/quotes/1023716-eichmann-in-jerusalem-a-report-on-the-banali ty-of-evil

 

Teshi Sharma is a debater, blogger and absolutely loves traveling. She prides herself on her cooking skills, having received a great response from her smoke alarms. Her hobbies also include reading, spoiling movies/series and being sarcastic. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and on her Blog.

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