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Mass murderers of conviction

Adolf Eichmann was not just a pen-pushing bureaucrat; like so many Nazi perpetrators, he was an educated man who acted out of intellectual conviction. An interview with Holocaust historian Ulrich Herbert

taz: Herr Herbert, the trial of Adolf Eichmann began fifty years ago today. Hannah Arendt described him as a bureaucrat incapable of moral judgment? Was that an accurate description?

Ulrich Herbert: No. The notion that a bureaucrat is not capable of moral judgment is in itself implausible. Eichmann did what he did because he was convinced that it was right, that it was serving a greater end, also a higher law, even if it transgressed the conventional morality with which he had been raised. He considered his bureaucratic organisation of the transport of Jews to extermination camps in occupied Poland and the fact that the trains ran on schedule as progress over the chaotic way the death squads brought Jews to the execution pits.

At the Jerusalem trial Eichmann portrayed himself as someone who received orders and did as he was told. Was this simply the impression he tried to cultivate?

It's more complex than that. Eichmann certainly did take orders, but at the same time he was convinced of his actions; he was someone who actually wanted to follow these orders. However, in 1962 the Israelis were looking for a key individual responsible for the murder of the Jews, and in Eichmann they found a third tier figure, not someone of standing. To a certain extent this seemed to add insult to the dead.

So Eichmann was not a central figure in the Holocaust?

He did not make key decisions, as Himmler and Heydrich did. Nor was he a regional warlord with almost unlimited power, such as Hans Frank in Poland or the higher SS and police officers in the Soviet Union. But in Vienna, Eichmann had developed a system for registering and deporting the Jews, which he and his staff were able to implement throughout Europe. In this regard he was very important - an organiser who played a clearly identifiable, driving role in both coordinating and escalating the deportation of West European Jews.

Why did Arendt's catchphrase the "banality of evil" have such a resounding impact, when the image of the bureaucrat only partially corroborated with historical facts?

Simply because it was a catchphrase. On the one hand, it expressed the disappointment in the lack of magnitude, even if diabolical, which one would somehow expect from one of the most important organisers of the mass murders, given the millions of victims. On the other, it voiced a certain delayed sense of triumph in the observation: this great murderer, what a nobody! In Germany, however, the phrase readily corresponded with the image of the Nazis as "antisocial criminals". So the perpetrators were bureaucrats and cretins. This picture did not include the fact that the death squads were commanded by men with doctoral degrees, such as Otto Ohlendorf or Otto Rasch.

Was this an evasion tactic?

In the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the 1960s, of all people it was the Junior Squad Leader Oswald Kaduk, formerly a butcher and fireman, who became the icon of the concentration camp murders. Not very bright, a brutal thug. This carried a certain degree of exoneration and self-protection for the German middle class. The "Kaduks of the world" were to blame! And they can be found anywhere.

In retrospect one can identify trends in the perception of the perpetrators, which simultaneously always function as explanations for the Nazi regime. In the 1950s the Nazis were considered underclass criminals…

…"real antisocial elements," as Konrad Adenauer said.

Why didn't historians work to ensure a more detailed picture of the offenders?

In the 1950s and 1960s this was not the primary problem. At the time, research was done about groups of perpetrators, but usually by outsiders. During this period society was asking: How could this happen? And not: Who was responsible? The historians responded to the first question. Also, for a long time there was a reluctance to name names in research on National Socialism. The important Nazi historian Martin Broszat, for example, was convinced that the Nazi perpetrators were insignificant, to a certain extent not historically viable. The structures were what mattered, which is true to a certain extent. A history of individuals alone does not explain anything. But that was only one side of the story. There was also massive resistance to studies about the perpetrators and their relationship to German society.

From whom?

One shouldn't forget that only in the early 1960s did trials against Nazi offenders get underway again in the Federal Republic of Germany, and these were unpopular. Studies and research by historians were met with defensiveness and silence. This was so successful also because the Nazi elites were linked in many ways to the elites of the Federal Republic. For example, the most extensive amnesty for the top figures in the system of terror was enacted by means of a devious legal manoeuvre, through an apparently utterly innocuous law, the Introductory Act to the Regulatory Offences Act or Einführungsgesetz zum Ordnungswidrigkeitengesetz of 1968. It was initiated by an official in the Federal Ministry of Justice and coordinated by the highly respected deputy secretary, Dr. Eduard Dreher, today still a familiar name to every German lawyer as a leading commentator on the penal code.

But some things were known even forty years ago. Take the case of Hans Globke, Adenauer's head of the chancellery and commentator on the Nazi race laws, whose association with Eichmann was covered up by the government in Bonn.

Yes, the Globke case was the prime scandal of the 1950s and 1960s. The Adenauer government also wanted to prevent public trials against people like Eichmann, which generated a great deal of international attention, regarding them as a threat to the "German reputation". Today this seems almost naive. Nevertheless, the Globke case served as a distraction from the fact that almost all high-ranking Nazis, also those in the Gestapo and SS, who had survived the war and the post-war period and had been living peacefully in the midst of our society for decades. In the 1960s and 1970s former top SS figures went in and out of the police headquarters across from my school in Mülheim on the Ruhr. Otto Bovensiepen, who organised the deportation of the Berlin Jews "to the East" from 1941 to 1943 as the chief of the Berlin Gestapo, lived in Mülheim until 1979. He was the managing director of an insurance company. It was apparently a known fact in the city, and it was completely normal.

Why is it still so difficult today to disclose how the German Intelligence Service (BND) and the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) protected perpetrators like Eichmann and Barbie? That doesn't fit with the country's self-image as a world champion in confronting its past.

For one thing, until the late 1990s all administrations were careful to ensure that these "security-relevant" topics remained hermetically sealed. Only now is access being carefully allowed to the files. For another, the perception that the project of dealing with the past has been successful is in fact false and contributes to myth building. Just a reminder, not until the 1960s were the Sinti and Roma considered to have been persecuted by the Nazis, either in legal terms or in the eyes of the public. In other words, they were viewed as criminals who were placed in concentration camps with good reason. It has taken many years and an incredible amount of effort to change this. Such "dealing with the past" was in actuality a fight for the truth and a struggle against conspiracy and secrecy that lasted decades. In retrospect it then appears as if it all had been public knowledge and everyone had been in favour of getting at the truth from the very start.

Fifteen years ago you published a biography about the SS intellectual Werner Best. He also lived in Mülheim until his death in 1989. Did you ever meet him?

No. I discovered that in the files. I had no idea.

The SS man, a corporate attorney and management consultant who lived in the same city - a symbol of the elite who continued to lead their lives quite undisturbed in the Federal Republic of Germany?

One could certainly see it that way.

In the 1930s Best was Heydrich's deputy in the Gestapo; later he helped organise the occupation of France and Denmark. Did he participate in mass murder?

Best was responsible for the SA murders of 1934; he then set up the organisational structure of the Gestapo. In the autumn of 1939 he commanded the death squads that carried out mass murders in Poland, but from Berlin. In France he advocated that French hostages should not be shot but instead that the Jews be deported to the East, because this seemed to him a more effective approach. As Reich Commissioner in Denmark, he initially suggested deporting the Jews and then subsequently helped - in a very contradictory, complicated manner - enable Jews to save themselves. He was not someone who stood at the edge of the execution pit, but someone who organised structural apparatuses and developed political and legal justifications for Nazi crimes.

A so-called "desk chair murderer"?

Yes, that too. He was at the helm of the apparatuses of persecution and murder. Moreover, he provided the arguments as to why it was necessary and essential to kill certain peoples. He was in the business of legitimization. His thinking was utterly National Socialist. "The extermination and expulsion of alien peoples does not, according to historical experience, contract the laws of existence, if carried to completion," he wrote in 1942 in Die Zeitschrift für Politik.

Best, as you describe him, is rational. Does he represent the paradox of the rational anti-Semite?

Best viewed himself as an anti-Semite without anti-Semitic emotions, rejecting the anti-Semitism of the street and considering the persecution of the Jews as "historically necessary". This kind of self-portrayal could be found quite often in the Nazi movement, largely among students. Best and others were convinced that biological systems were decisive and that the combinations of traits from different peoples and races were responsible for the contradictions of modernity. For people like Best, anti-Semitism and racism were a rational approach to understanding the world. For them, the course of history is explained by viewing peoples and races as historical subjects.

How important is the group of perpetrators with this biographic profile for the Nazi system?

It is one of many different profiles, but it's a very important one, because it was found particularly often in key positions of power within the terror regime - as especially Michael Wildt has stated very clearly. However, one hardly finds this personal type within the party. The fact that one finds so many young academics precisely among the leadership of the SS and the Gestapo contradicts the picture painted by Friedrich Meinecke, for example, shortly after the war, in which educated Germany stood for the "other Germany". That's not how it was. The intellectual progress of the past 30 years confirms the realisation that these extreme mass murderers were often competent, intelligent, and often even charming gentlemen, not monsters. This thought is still difficult to bear.


This article was originally published in the taz on 11 April, 2011.

Ulrich Herbert is Professor for Recent History in Freiburg and one of the leading German researchers on the Holocaust. The 59-year-old became well known for his studies on forced labourers and for the biography of the SS intellectual Werner Best. A new edition of "Best" was recently published by J. H. W. Dietz.

Stefan Reinecke and Christian Semler are political editors for the taz.

Translation: Laura Schleussner

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