Adolf Eichmann is rightly seen as one of the supreme embodiments of evil in the 20th century, but at the time of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1946 he was almost unknown. When his name turned up in an early draft of the tribunal's judgement, one senior member wrote next to it: "Who was he?"
Eichmann was mentioned by one of his subordinates and by a former commandant of Auschwitz when they were interrogated by Allied officers, but none of the Nazi-hunters working in Europe immediately after the war set out to find him. They had never heard of him. Yet this was a man responsible for sending more than two million Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps, who after his capture by Israeli secret service agents in Argentina in May 1961 came to be seen throughout the world as the emblem of Nazi genocide, and who through the philosopher Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) triggered a bitter dispute about the "banality of evil" that rages on today.
Eichmann may always remain an indistinct figure, the exact contours of his life blurred by the myths and controversies that surround him and by his own lies and evasions, but Eichmann: his life and crimes enables us to form a clearer picture than ever before of a pivotal figure in 20th-century history. In this powerful and revelatory book, David Cesarani shows how Eichmann became actively and directly implicated in genocide - in the horrible but useful terminology coined after Rwanda, how he became a "genocidaire".
Contrary to a well-entrenched myth, Eichmann was not a misfit who joined the Nazis from a sense of grievance. He was an ambitious bourgeois in many ways typical of his time and place. As Cesarani observes, Eichmann "only joined when the Party had made an electoral breakthrough and achieved respectability. Prior to that time, the Nazis were the misfits, not Eichmann."
Eichmann did not begin as a radical anti-Semite. Like most people in his milieu, his view of Jews was formed by the pervasive influence of Christian anti-Semitism; but the genocidaire who in his Argentine hide-away expressed regret at not killing all the world's Jews was the product of a complicated mixture of circumstances and choices.
When, in 1934, Eichmann became a member of the Nazi Security Service (SD), it was a weak and marginal organisation that had no particular interest in Jews. However, by 1937 Eichmann had absorbed the Nazi fantasy of a Jewish conspiracy against Germany.
In 1939, he played a key role in the ethnic cleansing of half a million Poles and Jews from western Poland. By the time of the Wansee Conference in January 1942 (which he helped to arrange) he was a fully-fledged genocidaire. In 1944, he proposed a "total solution of the Jewish problem in Hungary", involving the deportation of nearly half a million Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most were immediately murdered.
From being a conventional middle- class careerist, Eichmann had become a moral monster. If there is a lesson that Cesarani wishes to draw from this metamorphosis, it is that there was nothing inevitable about it. "Eichmann had to learn what it meant to be a genocidaire," he writes "and then chose to be one."
Cesarani's book is a sustained and at times savage attack on Hannah Arendt's view of Eichmann as a cog in the Nazi machine. Noting that Arendt attended only the first few days of Eichmann's testimony in Jerusalem, Cesarani suggests she used him to validate her theory of totalitarianism. In her seminal study The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt had portrayed the totalitarian state as a perversely rational bureaucracy in which personal responsibility had all but disappeared. In placing such heavy emphasis on the absence of responsibility, Arendt came perilously close to endorsing Eichmann's plea that when he committed his crimes, he was only obeying orders.
In fact, as Cesarani points out, Nazi Germany was far from being the precisely calibrated, well-oiled machine pictured in Arendt's theory. Like other totalitarian states it was largely chaotic, with rival agencies pursuing often conflicting policies. Nazi officials often had considerable freedom of action, and when Eichmann claimed he never did anything but unthinkingly follow orders, he was lying.
While Cesarani shows beyond reasonable doubt that Eichmann was responsible for the evil he did, his assault on Arendt's account of him as a thoroughly banal individual seems to me wide of the mark. Like many of Arendt's critics, Cesarani appears to believe that by describing Eichmann as banal, she was trivialising the Holocaust.
Yet Arendt's point was simply that unremarkable people are capable of extreme evil. There is nothing banal about systematic mass murder, and the Holocaust remains a unique crime.
The fact remains that Eichmann was in no way an exceptional human being, and in rising through the Nazi ranks to become a pivotal figure in history's worst genocide he displayed a petty egoism and capacity for self-deception that are universally human. Now and then he may have experienced revulsion from the worst aspects of his crimes, but this did not prevent him from carrying on. He adjusted his conscience to suit his circumstances, and in the space of a few years he was habituated to genocide. In this, Eichmann was no different from millions of others in Nazi Germany and throughout occupied Europe.
His crimes were monstrous, but Eichmann himself was commonplace. Curiously, given the ferocity of his assault on Arendt, this is actually Cesarani's view. In the end, the Eich- mann he presents is not noticeably different from the nondescript figure portrayed by Arendt.
The core of the idea of the banality of evil is that no special qualities are needed to commit extraordinary crimes. All that is required are the right conditions and ordinary human nature. At a time when ethnic cleansing has returned as an instrument of policy in many parts of the world, it is a salutary reminder. As Cesarani puts it in the closing lines, effectively conceding the substance of Arendt's position: "Eichmann appears more and more like a man of our time. Everyman as genocidaire."
John Gray's 'Heresies: against progress and other illusions' will be published by Granta in SeptemberReuse content