HEINEMANN £20 (458pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Eichmann: his life and crimes by David Cesarani

Genocide as an office job

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 September

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss