In 2022, I read two excellent books – Hannah Arendt’s report of the Adolf Eichmann trial “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and Gitta Sereny’s interviews with Franz Stangl, “Into That Darkness” (see links below). Both set out to try to understand how individuals could facilitate mass murder.
One of the only meanings you can claw from such horrific events is how to avoid it happening again.
The best way to learn about the Holocaust and both individuals is to read the books. The extermination of around six million Jews is one of the most horrific crimes ever committed. It is generally agreed that the program was planned and undertaken by a relatively small number of people within the Hitler chancellery but based on a widespread bed of historical antisemitism. As the program progressed, more and more people became aware of what was going on, but generally via rumour and noisy reports. Many looked the other way. After the end of the war, the truth began to emerge, with accounts reaching a peak in the 1960s, as many books and histories were published.
Eichmann was a logistics man, providing the administration that made mass murder possible. Eichmann’s trial takes place in Israel in 1961. He was tried by an Israeli court, found guilty of crimes against Jewish people, and humanity, and sentenced to death. Eichmann was hanged on 31 May 1962.
Stangl was involved in the early Euthanasia Programme, and was later Kommandant of Treblinka, one of the most infamous extermination camps. Stangl was tried in Germany in 1970 following capture in Brazil. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of heart failure shortly after the trial in 1971, only hours after last speaking to Sereny.
The murder of millions of people generally took two routes. A first was the so-called Einsatzgruppen, a paramilitary squad that travelled eastward from Germany killing two million people, 1.3 million of which were Jewish. Death typically came via firing squad, with mass graves littering the countryside. A second was the extermination camps. There were six of these spread across Poland. These camps are different from the oft-depicted “concentration camps”. Sereny provides a nice explanation of the differences: extermination camps were only designed for the death of hundreds of thousands of people, typically in train loads of thousands per day. The details are horrific beyond words. Eichmann and Stangl were more associated with the extermination camps.
One of the key architectures of the Holocaust was Reinhard Heydrich. In an alternate history, not-lived and without the financial collapse of Germany following the Treaty of Versailles, Heydrich is a talented but bitter orchestral musician. In our history, he was the ruthless architect of the campaigns against the Jews and his political enemies. Of course, there is a question of whether some of the “lone intellectual monster” narratives were conveniently attached to this individual following his death in the middle of the war…
How to Interview & Report
Both Arendt and Sereny offer a masterclass in journalism. They often let the facts or parties speak for themselves. They are also not afraid to ask the big, difficult questions. Their skill is rare. Often history is a battle between dry prosaic pedantry and competitive sensationalism. As Sereny herself states, the reality is more complex, more ambiguous, but also often more unbelievable.
The skill Sereny has in speaking to her sources is evident. She reports how a German lady also tries to talk to Stangl, but the lady ends up berating him for not remembering a group of orphans that had been killed. The horrible truth is that Stangl doesn’t remember, and was likely not even in the camp at the time; through witnessing the death of millions, specific deaths become immemorable. Despite her best intentions, the lady is not able to talk to Stangl without judgement, thus preventing any access to the truth. Sereny has the courage to talk without judgement, and thus likely at times comes closer to the truth than others.
Unreliable Narrators and the Fog of History
What comes out from both books is that while events happened in a particular way, the remembering of those events is not an objective exercise. Both Eichmann and Stangl have every reason to purposely lie, but you get the feeling that most of the time they are not actively fabricating. Instead, they are peering into dark and chaotic times in their own lives and are drawing out half-memories that are then subconsciously crafted to provide a more flattering self-view. This appears no different from the times when friends and family tell stories of past exploits and events. Details become smudged or omitted to favour a positive self view and a better fit with conventional narratives. Only a few individuals are able to remember accurately, and victims as well as perpetrators remember events with logical (but normally not emotional) inconsistencies.
However, out of a chorus of noisy voices, clear pictures do emerge. It is not a relativistic free-for-all, where every remembered history is a “true” version of events. If you listen to the harmonies in the collective retelling, facts repeat and reinforce across different individuals and different retellings. This then allows you to glimpse the general outline of the original happenings. Likewise, the dissonance of the lies naturally rises, and makes them surprisingly conspicuous.
The books remind us that history is a fragile thing. Even with writing, sources are lost, survivors pass on, primary sources become secondary sources, and interpretations change. In the modern world, there is often an assumption that history is like science, that it improves and gets more accurate with the passing of time. But reading these accounts from the 1960s and 1970s, a generation away from now yet also a generation away from the acts in the war, you get a feeling that the truth is perishable, that it needs constant care, use, and maintenance to avoid decay and warping. In my lifetime, Holocaust deniers have moved from extremely fringe, upper-class nutjobs to having the ear of key political figures. The pressure of stupidity weighs heavily on our backs.
Two Different Individuals with Similar Justifications
From reading both books in relatively quick succession, you do get a feel for the individual characters of Stangl and Eichmann. Care needs to be taken that the closeness to Stangl does not overly influence our judgement of character; there is more of an enforced distance on Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann, which adds a certain objective coldness. There are both differences and similarities in their stories.
Eichmann comes across as the smaller man. A morally-flexible middle-manager, with a dull intellect. Eichmann would not be out-of-place writing on the Internet. He has an inflated view of his own moral worth and abilities, but at best is a good salesman. He cites Kant without really understanding him. He hides behind a sense of duty to the law, but believes it is not up to him to question what that law is. Eichmann is a coward, constantly ducking difficult decisions. He is a bureaucrat. He is an every man. He could be found in a million different small businesses, accountancy firms, or provincial public services.
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”Eichmann in Jerusalem
Stangl is more of a gentleman. As repulsive as the idea seems, many of the people he interacts with call him a “good man”. He is thus the more psychologically challenging, harder to dismiss with intellectual snobbery or simple binary schemes of morality. He both stands above the “tube” that feeds thousands of naked people to their deaths in the gas chambers and is a good husband and father. He cites many examples where he helps individual Jews but “does not know” what happens to them just hours later. He declares he “has no choice” but seems to have several occasions where he can step away.
Both genuinely believe they are right in doing their jobs well. Both are driven by ambition and social standing (seen but not admitted directly). This is not an immoral scheming with glee at nefarious ends. Rather it is the kind of ambition that is encouraged by governments and employers. Stangl’s wife is a devout Catholic, but also shares her husband’s desire for success. “Striving” without moral guidance and practice is dangerous.
“What he fervently believed in up to the end was success, the chief standard of ‘good society’ as he knew it.”Eichmann in Jerusalem
Both also channel a form of fatalism – “it could not have been any other way”. Tragically, this view is also shared by survivors. It is disturbing to realise that it is a belief in this fatalism that allows Eichmann and Stangl to do nothing – we are left to imagine what would be the case if they were constantly told to believe in their own causal efficacy, regardless of the actual measurable effect of that efficacy.
Both Eichmann and Stangl are weighed down by the past but neither finds it straightforward to consider or admit to their own guilt.
Eichmann seems worryingly untroubled by severe guilt. He appears to truly believe he has a clear conscience. He creates a moral system built out of duty. He has no reason to suspect he is doing wrong at the time, as he is within echo chamber of approval. Later on, after the war, he laments how standards change but at the time he acted in accordance with both the law and the spirit of the law. He displays a form of terrible pedantry.
As Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution.Eichmann in Jerusalem
Stangl seems to wobble more often, possible because he was not able to be hidden from horrific scenes day after day as Eichmann was. Just before he dies he admits a form of guilt via his presence. This is painted in a fairly tragic manner: “there was no other way”. He seems to create a form of split personality, where another character, coarser, ruddier, takes over when emotionally pressured. Stangl’s grief and guilt definitely manifests physically – he has a series of heart attacks over a number of decades, and finishes the war in a pretty poor state.
Both individuals appear to mentally balance their actions in a chain of mass murder with individual acts of good intention. Stangl recalls acts of kindness to individuals in a manner that seems completely inconsistent with their murder several hours later. It’s almost as if a normal pattern of middle-class kindness is transported into a hellscape with complete ignorance of the dissonance. But it makes more sense when we hear Stangl decry that he did not kill with his own hands. This is also echoed by Eichmann. The human brain appears to apply a large “moral discount” when it compares bureaucratic killing at a distance to to killing in person (much as how the law has murder in the first degree and manslaughter). Hence, both individuals can cleanse their consciences by mentally tabulating individual acts of suffering and kindness, despite their actions in mass acts of suffering being incomparable. Again, this is another indication that the human mind cannot cope with scale, seeking to always apply a small simple model of the world onto acts that affect millions. This makes it all the more worrying.
Replaceability & Fatalism
A core tenet of Eichmann and Stangl’s fatalism is the thought that if they did not fulfil their role or duty, somebody else would. It is worth considering this. Indeed, both perversely used this thought to justify doing their jobs well, with the result that they were likely more effective at killing people than someone with a greater sense of individual agency.
With Stangl, we have the natural experiment of the other Kommandants of Treblinka – Irmfried Eberl and Kurt Franz. Both were considered much worse by the small number of survivors.
Eberl was a psychiatrist from the Euthansia Programme. His organisational skills were poor and he presided over a Heart-of-Darkness mess of dead bodies and looted belongings. Stangl was brought in to replace him, likely because of his better grasp of administration. Stangl greatly improved the functioning of the camp, but this efficiency possibly led to hundreds of thousands more deaths. If the camp had been left to fall into chaos and disarray under Eberl, there is a possibility it would have been closed down or widely reported a year or two earlier (although it is likely other methods of mass murder would have been attempted).
Franz was a sadistic guard that enjoyed beating and shooting prisoners. He collated a photo album named “Good Times”. He only managed the camp for a few months.
Similarly, Eichmann appears relatively good at his job. If he was replaced, would the replacement be as good? And if the replacement is not as good, would this lead to more mistakes and a greater likelihood of detection?
So ironically both believed in their own replaceability, which led to them performing their roles with a unique efficiency, which resulted in an efficiency of death that greatly increased mass human suffering.
It teaches us that efficacy for efficacy’s sake, without moral guidance can be disastrous. We can never be sure of the effect of our replaceability, so should act as if we do make a difference, because the best case is that we do, and the worst case is that we don’t.
What would you do?
Reading these accounts makes you question the popular notions of free will and evil. Both Stangl and Eichmann come across as normal people, people you would meet in the street that display very human failings and nuances. Both Stangl and Eichmann justify their actions after the fact by emphasising a lack of ill-will, they “had friends that were Jews”, although they performed the actions there was no mens rea or intent. Stangl was a police officer, and clearly relishes going after “villains”, yet cannot see that he himself is one.
Most of us would at first instinctively say we could not have possibly done what they did. We would point to aspects of background or nationality; we would never act in the same way. We would rather die than play an active part in the horror.
However, the devil is in the detail. Stangl believed the Euthanasia Programme was a good thing, helping those with terminal illnesses, signed off by two doctors. He started there. The arguments in favour of the Programme were similar to those put forward by progressive and compassionate Euthanasia groups today. Would you say “no” to a high-paying job in a Euthanasia charity? Would you join the local Conservative Party or UKIP if you knew it would get you a bigger house? Very many do, and many that don’t are only confident through their own lack of access.
Eichmann felt he had the recognition he finally deserved. The alternative was a life as a downwardly mobile member of the lower-middle class in a dead-end provincial job. What job would you take to afford a home rather than a flat? To move to a nicer area of town? To afford foreign holidays? To impress your partner and feel that you had made it? None of these factors are unusual, they are the compromises life presents to us every day. Normally we don’t think of the consequences, are happy in our ignorance, in our justified striving.
But I’m not antisemitic you may say. Neither Eichmann or Stangl hated Jews. At most they were indifferent. Eichmann likely had a Jewish mistress in Linz, the Stangls Jewish friends. Their speech in the 1970s shows a slight casual antisemitism but this seems no stronger than what was regularly found in TV shows at the time. Their actions were not motivated by ideological passion; they were “just” doing a job. Frau Stangl seems genuinely sickened when she learns what her husband is doing, but later finds ways to forgive him.
From these accounts, the ideological fuel for action seems to be supplied by a handful of “other people” (Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich) and even then it is difficult to discern real hatred from Realpolitik. There is an aside from an unreliable Italian translator that the mental image of a meth-addicted, plate-smashing, carpet-chewing Hitler was specifically cultivated after the war to make the narrative of victory easier; in many cases, he impressed those he met as a softly-spoken charismatic man. By creating monsters in our narratives there is a risk that we then fail to spot them in our own lives.
Much of our lay reflection doesn’t go any further than “what if these folk had been assassinated or never been born”. At a top of a hierarchy this seems possible – if only we’d killed Hitler or Himmler. But on closer inspection we find this doesn’t work in practice. Heydrich died in June 1942 following an assassination attempt, but the mass killing rolled on without him throughout 1942 and 1943. The twenty first century also shows the limitations of simplistic character narratives. Taking out Gaddafi, Hussein, Bin Laden or the Taliban, didn’t instantly provide a new dawn. It instead created a vacuum that was either filled with a not-to-different alternative or the hierarchy itself collapsed, being replaced with an oligarchy of war lords with similar or worse moral failings. Indeed, both books hint at causal threads that spin from Germany into Egypt and Damascus after the war, which offers a surprising perspective on future events within the Middle East.
Fear and Forgetting
As soon as I finish these books I start to forget. This scares me. Grasping onto the memory of the text doesn’t help – life moves on, daily life intervenes, a new book comes along. Social media seems particularly bad at catching us in the stream. Onto the next, no time to reflect or stop.
Does it make a difference that individuals educate themselves about these events? Is it a statistical game where we hope that those who half remember carefully checked and crafted reports outnumber those that read emotionally-flattering and narratively-simpler online diatribes? Looking at all the things humans have forgotten over their history I’m not entirely optimistic. Many of our green and pleasant fields cover mass graves.
Events often have more of a causal effect in their emotional memory. Beyond accurate conscious recollections of times, people, and places. Just there, a shaking fearful hand guiding future actions. Violence begetting violence. Violence then laid down in the brains of a new generation to burst through in new dark flowerings decades later.
When reading the books, you see the individuals and their families repressing or skipping over the difficult thoughts, in the way we all do. You wonder what would happen if they had an hour of sitting in silence and just looked without judgement at the thoughts and feelings that bubbled up, at what they were trying to repress.
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Eichmann-Jerusalem-Penguin-Classics-Hannah-ebook/dp/B002RI97KC
Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Into-That-Darkness-Killing-Murder-ebook/dp/B00BCZY31Y/
HHhH by Laurent Binet – https://www.amazon.co.uk/HHhH-Laurent-Binet-ebook/dp/B007NG91ZO/
Moral Minds by Marc Hauser – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Moral-Minds-Nature-Designed-Universal/dp/0349118094/
The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lucifer-Effect-Good-People-Turn-ebook/dp/B004XIVP7W/