Thursday, April 09, 2009

Eichmann book review

Adolf Eichmann

Apr 2nd 2009
From The Economist print edition

Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi
By Neal Bascomb

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 400 pages; $26. To be published in Britain by Quercus in September
BRINGING old Nazis to justice was not a priority in the immediate aftermath of 1945. The three Western powers wanted to turn their zones of Germany into the Federal Republic, a functioning cold-war ally. Justice was delayed, denied or tied up in bureaucratic knots. But did that shabby, perhaps shameful compromise justify Israel’s action in kidnapping Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 and putting him on trial in a country that did not exist at the time when he was planning and executing the Holocaust?

The unspoken assumption of Neal Bascomb’s book is that the Israeli secret service’s daring and risky plan was not only heroic and skilful, but also justified. It starts by retelling the long and frustrating hunt for Eichmann, whom sympathisers had helped flee to Argentina after the war (a shocking tale in itself). It was a chance remark by one of his sons to a girlfriend who, unknown to him, was half-Jewish, that gave the first clue. Even so, it took years to follow up.

Those who like to believe that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, is the epitome of spookish efficiency may find themselves blinking at some of the mishaps and near-disasters that its posse encountered in Argentina. Clumsy snooping alarmed the Eichmanns, though not enough to prompt them to go into hiding. Having caught their quarry, the Israeli spy chiefs risked detection by ordering a further, madcap attempt to find another fugitive Nazi, Josef Mengele, a doctor responsible for hideous experiments at Auschwitz.

Nonetheless, the operation was both daring and brilliant. Eichmann was snatched from the street on his way home from work. One of the kidnappers—in an unplanned move—managed to persuade him that it would be to his advantage to stand trial in Israel, and put his side of the story. He boarded an El Al plane without protest, disguised as a crew member.

Mr Bascomb’s understandable distaste for his subject does not prevent him giving a good flavour of Eichmann’s slippery arguments once he went on trial: sometimes denying that he did anything wrong, sometimes saying he was only obeying orders, sometimes pleading other extenuating circumstances. He brings out well the paradox of Eichmann’s genuine interest in Jewish history and culture (he greeted his captors with a Hebrew prayer), and the abominable crimes he committed.

Argentina, in those days infested with Nazi sympathisers, was furious at Israel’s action. So were some other countries. Israel was unrepentant. The book spends a bit too long on the minutiae of the hunt and skates rather too quickly over the legal and ethical issues that it raised. Was it really so impossible to put Eichmann on trial in West Germany? The book criticises the prosecution’s conduct at the trial, but with a frustrating lack of detail. A bigger flaw is the re-creation of dialogue 50 years on, a trick that gives the narrative immediacy but erodes the credibility that the author’s research has earned.

Eichmann himself comes across as a pathetic figure, dwarfed both by the evil he committed and the efforts made to catch him. Like most of his fellow Nazis, he was monstrous only when fate gave him power. Without it, he was just a crotchety émigré with unpleasant views on Jews. Yet the story remains a gripping one: the shadowy world of ex-Nazis hiding away in a far-off continent, Germany’s own struggle of memory against forgetting, and a young country’s clamorous desire for justice.

Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi.
By Neal Bascomb.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 400 pages; $26. To be published in Britain by Quercus in September

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