Adolf Eichmann was a regular guy who found his calling by being an efficient government worker. A deeper look into his life reveals a not-so-average guy who had failed in many things, including academically and at several jobs. Nevertheless, he was a dedicated public servant and a pretty good community organizer who worked on a program that destroyed the lives of millions.
One thing that grounded me while reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, (Hannah Arendt, 1963), is how objectively normal his life seemed before and while in government. He was born on March 19, 1906, in Solingen, in the Rhineland — a German city that is famous for its knives, scissors and surgical instruments. The normalcy of Eichmann cannot be overemphasized. Arendt notes that his relationship with his wife and children, his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and friends was “not only normal but most desirable,” and he was “a man with very positive ideas.”
Eichmann was arrested and extradited from Argentina to Israel to stand trial for war crimes during World War II. In spite of his role in the holocaust — the death of more than 6 million Jews — his defense was one of ignorance, and of following executive orders.
According to Eichmann, the indictment for murder was wrong:
“But I had nothing to do with the killing of Jews. I never killed a Jew, or, for that matter, I never killed a non-Jew — I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill a Jew nor an order to kill a non-Jew; I just did not do it.” Or, as he was later to qualify this statement, “It so happened…that I had not once to do it.”— for he said explicitly that he would have killed his own father if he had received an order to that effect.
Eichmann went to considerable lengths to prove that he had never harbored any ill feelings against Jews, Arendt wrote and added; Jews in his family were among his “private reasons” for not hating Jews.
That being said, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy with the negatively tainted rhetoric coming from the U.S. President-elect against Mexicans and Muslims and its similarity to 1930s Germany’s vicious criticisms against the Jews that resulted in the holocaust.
How many law-abiding government workers are in a position to cause grief and even death upon another human being merely by executing, to the best of his or her ability, the full force of the law in the United States? Think about the millions of undocumented people in America who are in peril of deportation to who knows where because of place of birth or religious beliefs. Will they be sent to places where their livelihoods are in jeopardy?
Arendt writes that Eichmann:
recalled perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do — to ship millions of men, women and children to their death with great zeal and most meticulous care.
I relate what happened in Germany during World War II to what is happening in the United States today. In both, there is a patriotic movement to capture the hearts and minds of the public. I am reminded about days of past — when Hitler criticized the Treaty of Versailles, saying that it undermined the German economy and created massive unemployment. This sounds familiar to me: many of today’s trade agreements are criticized by the president-elect and the blame for unemployment and crime are placed on a targeted group of people. Americans who feel left behind believe Trump can bring things back the way they were. I fear that history is repeating itself with a government that says it wants to empower the entitled citizen.