Memoirs of an accidental mass murderer

Adolf Eichmann was just a former salesman of electrical goods who, through no fault of his own, became the chief technician of the Holocaust. At least, that's the way he tells it
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The man who installed the gas chambers in Auschwitz and made sure that the trains to the concentration camps ran on time is spreading his poison again. Nearly 30 years after his execution for war crimes, Adolf Eichmann is showering posterity with his sickening self-justifications - exactly what the Israeli authorities wanted to prevent by locking up his rambling recollections for all eternity. But the game is up: extracts from Eichmann's memoirs have surfaced in the German newspaper Die Welt, and any day now all 1,300 pages will be streaming down the Internet.

There will be no revolution in the world of Nazi research as a result of this book. The German historian Hans Mommsen and other scholars who have skimmed the leaden prose, strung together in Eichmann's Israeli jail cell, have found few nuggets of fact to justify rewriting the textbooks. But the memoirs are certainly proving to be an insight into the soul - if that word is in any way appropriate here - of one of the century's most efficient mass murderers.

Adolf Eichmann did not kill for pleasure, and he may not even have hated the Jews all that much. There are rumours of Jewish ancestry and even a Jewish mistress. But his job was to organise the "physical elimination", as he puts it in the memoirs, of European Jewry. And Eichmann was very good at his job.

Obedience, he writes, is a very German trait. He is proud of that, but at some moments seems willing to admit that he may have taken it a bit too far. And, in the course of 1,300 pages, he explains exactly how that came to be.

Everything Eichmann did, he claims, was because of his upbringing, and - yes - he had a rotten childhood. The memoirs begin with his first day on Earth, 19 March 1906. He was born into a middle-class family in the Rhineland, and he wonders whether his parents truly rejoiced at his arrival. Eichmann's father did not much like the little Adolf, that was patently clear.

"My father treated me with a strictness that was not evident in his dealings with my brothers and sisters. And yet I was in no way a difficult child. On the contrary, I was acquiescent and obedient."

A nice Aryan kid, in other words, deeply misunderstood by his elders but destined to go far.

"I recognised my father, and my mother who died early, as absolute authority. I acknowledged teachers and later professional bosses as authority, and even later, military and service superiors."

We are beginning to get the picture. At his trial in Israel, Eichmann's defence was that "I was only following orders". Now posterity is being offered a surprisingly Freudian explanation for the murder of six million Jews: the Final Solution's final arbiter was merely acting out psychological damage inflicted by paternal spanking. He could not say "no" to the Fuhrer, it turns out, because his old dad had knocked the stuffing out of him before the onset of puberty.

It is an interesting defence for a macho Nazi, but not unprecedented. Psychological chinks and almost tender weaknesses in the personae of Eichmann and his cohorts have been remarked upon before. The leading biographer of senior Nazis, Joachim Fest, described Eichmann as "a totally malleable man, able to bring utterly incompatible elements into equilibrium without a hint of inner discomfort". In other words, the head of the Gestapo's Jewish department was a wimp with a gift for double-think.

Maybe that was all you needed to get ahead in Germany between the wars, though Eichmann did not set the world on fire in any of his pre-Nazi activities. After that difficult childhood, spent mostly in Linz, Austria, young Adolf failed his engineering studies and worked for a while as a labourer in Papa's mine. There followed a succession of unimpressive jobs: one as a salesman in an electrical company, another as a travelling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company.

He joined the Austrian Nazis in 1932, not so much out of conviction, but because his friend Ernst Kaltenbrunner said it was a good idea. Kaltenbrunner, who was to become head of the Reich Main Security Office, crops up many times in the memoirs as the source of all those orders Eichmann had dutifully been following. We shall never be party to Kaltenbrunner's version of events, because he was one of the first Nazis to be hanged in Nuremberg after the war.

Thanks to him though, Eichmann raced up the National Socialist career ladder. After a 14-month military training, Eichmann joined Himmler's Security Service. Within a year, he became the official in charge of "Jewish questions". His talent for organising the large-scale transport of reluctant humans came to the fore in 1938, when he was put in charge of Vienna's "Office for Jewish Emigration". In December 1939, he took over Jewish affairs and evacuation at the Gestapo.

That made Eichmann the chief technician of the Holocaust. The initial "mass evacuations" - the shunting of Jews from one country to another - turned into mass murder after the Wannsee Conference of 1942. From his tidy office desk in Berlin, Eichmann laid on the trains, the barbed wire, the gas to complete the diabolical plan.

He turned out to be good at giving orders, too. There were no excuses for camps that did not fulfil their quotas. Eichmann badgered commanders and complained bitterly that friendly countries, such as Vichy France, Italy and Hungary, were not pulling their weight. He travelled from camp to camp, on what he calls "business trips", to make sure no one was falling behind.

What he saw in the camps did make some impact, however, as he writes in the memoirs.

"Corpses, corpses, corpses. Shot, gassed, corpses in a state of decomposition, and blood fantasies pressing up from the mass graves. An inferno, a hell, and I did not know at first whether I was mad, or if everything was, after all, unreal."

In fact, it was neither. Everything was real and Eichmann was completely sane - and he was deeply appreciated by his peers. In March 1944, he was given the whole of Hungarian Jewry to take care of - a job he took on with a sense of foreboding, as he recalls in the book: "It was my fate, to start anew something I could not complete." This failure would not be for lack of effort on his part, however. With Soviet troops approaching, Eichmann wiped out three-quarters of Hungary's Jewish population in less than a year.

After the war he somehow got away, persuading the Americans that he was only a minor filing clerk. He washed up in Argentina, where the Israelis spotted him. A Mossad team was sent to kidnap him, bringing him to Israel, where he penned his memoirs while awaiting public trial.

The trial itself turned into a cathartic experience for the young Jewish state, shattering the long silence over the Holocaust. The lasting memory is of Eichmann standing in the dock, insisting throughout that he really had only been following orders. Even as he was led to the gallows, on 31 May 1962, he proclaimed: "I had to obey the rules of war and my flag."

And that, unfortunately, is about all he has to say to future generations. In the memoirs, he admits that maybe there was a personality flaw, but claims that it had been his destiny to follow orders, and that is all he had done.

"Today, 15 years after 8 May 1945, I know ... that a life of obedience, led by orders, instructions, decrees and directives, is a very comfortable one in which one's creative thinking is diminished."

As we might expect of a mass murderer who went to his death unrepentant, Eichmann's memoirs treat the events of which they tell with a degree of poetic licence. But his is the art of selectivity, rather than creativity. He does not deny giving instructions to gas Jews. He just does not boast about the way he countermanded some orders when it suited him. For instance, the one from Himmler towards the end of the war, ordering the suspension of gassing at concentration camps.

And sometimes Eichmann's retrospective cringing is just too obviously faked. "I knew what I was allowed to do and what was forbidden," he confesses. "Between these two boundaries I could live freely. The jurisdiction of the SS police stood guard over that." The head of the Gestapo's Jewish Department afraid of the SS? Pull the other one, Adolf.

David Aaronovitch, page 3