RUDNER: Train Schedulers, Accountants, and Ordinary Men

By LEN RUDNER

A few minutes past midnight on June 1, 1962 – 58 years ago today – Adolf Eichmann, among the chief architects of the Holocaust, was hanged at a prison in Ramla, Israel. The execution, in accordance with the decision of the Jerusalem District Court and upheld by the Supreme Court, was the only time capital punishment was imposed by Israel. 

In the decades that have past, it’s become difficult to speak of Eichmann without immediately thinking of the phrase that was popularized by the most famous of the reporters who covered his trial. Hannah Arendt expected a monster. Instead, what she saw was the Banality of Evil.

But what was on display in that courtroom was not banality but rather the all-too-human capacity for evil. 

Eichmann knew he was facing the noose and so performed for his life, attempting to transform his role as one of the architects of Jewish annihilation to that of a simple bureaucrat; from enthusiastic participant to mere functionary. He portrayed himself as the man who simply followed orders. Yes, the Holocaust happened. True, he did not like Jews. But no, he didn’t think their annihilation was a good idea.

Adolf Eichmann -1942

But he understood the nature of those orders all too well. He was not only the man who arranged the transportation of Jews to the death camps, but also the cold-blooded functionary who felt no guilt at facilitating the fate that he knew awaited them.

Indeed, in 1957, in an interview with Willem Sassen, Eichmann offered this revealing self-portrait: “The cautious bureaucrat, that was me, yes indeed. But … this cautious bureaucrat was attended by a … a fanatical [Nazi] warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright…”

So, there was nothing banal about Eichmann. On the contrary, he received his orders and executed them with creativity and zeal. He ultimately admitted that his phrase, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction” was not a bland assertion about the enemies of the Reich, but rather a specific reference to Jews.

The similarity between Eichmann and Oskar Gröning, the so-called accountant of Auschwitz, is that both were parts of an elaborate mechanism of murder. But Eichmann was a piston in the engine while Gröning was a cog in the odometer.

To Eichmann and Gröning, we can also add the names of men like Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, a former policeman who presided over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Or the “ordinary men” of historian Christopher Browning’s book on Police Battalion 101, who, when given the choice of whether to participate in the murder of Jewish civilians, chose unanimously to do so because murdering defenseless men, women and children was “the new normal.”

None of these men were born evil, yet they came to be evil – and to perform evil deeds – because it was advantageous, or at least unremarkable, to do so. Contrary to the proverb, it is not good intentions that pave the road to hell, but bad decisions.

Arendt concluded that it was possible for evil to be done by people who were themselves not evil, but such a conclusion lets Eichmann – and humanity – off the hook.

Perhaps it was necessary for Arendt to see things as she did in order to portray totalitarian systems as murderous frameworks that require nothing more from its workers that blind (or bland) obedience. But such a conceit deprives perpetrators of their agency and ignores the evidence of individuals who have risen above the prejudices of their time to do better things, if not always the right thing. Indeed, a 1988 study by David Kitterman found multiple examples of German soldiers who refused orders to murder civilians or prisoners of war. None of these men were punished for their refusal.

So, the lesson of Eichmann and his fellow perpetrators is not that evil represents a barely reachable nadir of human values, or that it is a slippery slope that delivers us quickly from the heights to the very depths. Rather, it is a destination that can be reached along a wide and gently descending staircase, with each step more easily taken than the one before, and with a sturdy handrail in place to give us confidence in our descent.

As Jews, we honour the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to oppose Nazism and refused to be parts of the machinery of genocide. We may argue that their number was too few, but each chose to stand against evil rather than be co-opted by it. And if one person can choose to stand against evil then the choice, no matter how perilous, exists for all of us.


Len Rudner

Len Rudner is a human rights consultant and educator. He is a former director of the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.