The names of Adolf Eichmann and Rudolf Hoess rightly conjure up images of monstrosity and inhumanity. There is, however, far more to them- and far more reasons for fright – than meets the eye.

    March Passover 2007 Edition            
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Eichmann on Trial


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Where Evil Lurks

By Peter Bjel

Scarcely had the Second World War ended that the Nazis' victims, war crimes prosecutors, journalists, commentators, and future historians begun asking the same question that has lingered on since then: how could the Nazis, along with their wartime European allies, in the span of twelve years of power, commit such unprecedented acts of aggression and barbarism?

Until the Nuremberg Trials began, no one had ever been charged with something called "crimes against humanity" before, though genocide had taken place before Hitler. The notion of barbaric, savage, sadistic, animalistic – even non-human – perpetrators of Hitler's war and genocide began to spread by way of an explanation, sometimes still resonating today, for how the Holocaust (though not yet called thusly) came to happen.

Writing in 1963, the German historian Joachim C. Fest pointed out that the machinery of Hitler's war against the Jews certainly did reveal to the world a unique, "absolute evil," but that the claim of "savagery of brutes systematically utilized by the [Nazi] leadership" was incorrect. Though pointing out that, in every society, there exist those strata of individuals who fit this popular Nazi stereotype, "Despite differences in individual cases, it was preponderantly a credulous normality, devoted to its ideology and ideas of loyalty, that stamped the features of this horror."

Fest went on to write that this phenomena was part-in-parcel to the system of totalitarianism, that it "arouses the latent willingness of disoriented people, hungry for certainty, to subordinate themselves to a 'higher law' and identify themselves with an 'iron necessity.' Countless simple, conscientious Germans during the years of the Third Reich were the less able to refuse the call of those in power because the regime's ability to present aims and arouse faith met their own longings, reinforced by a weariness of individual responsibility."1

In this article, I shall discuss the memoirs of Rudolf Hoess, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, in this light by utilizing a concept that fits into his case. It is known as the 'banality of evil,' which originated with Hannah Arendt, in her book about the life, career, capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was one of Hoess' contemporaries. Indeed, the two regularly worked together and held the same SS rank. By way of background, I shall discuss Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which is where the concept first originated, before proceeding to discuss some of the ways in which Hoess – and the evidence he has left us – epitomizes the 'banality of evil' that continues to shock and stir disbelief even to this day.

* * *

Arendt's book first came out in 1963, to much controversy. Sent as a reporter to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who had been captured by Israeli Mossad agents in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in May 1960, Arendt was highly critical of the trial itself, its selected uses of historical evidence, and its caricature of Eichmann as the ultimate embodiment of evil. In her book, which combined historical analysis with the current politics of the day and her day-by-day reporting of the Eichmann trial, she presented an unconventional portrait of Eichmann the man, pointing out that he was "perfectly sure that he was not what he called an innerer Schweinehund, a dirty bastard in the depths of his heart; and as for his conscience, he remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do – to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care."2

Eichmann himself admitted that he lacked ambition and drifted from job to job in his pre-SS days, lucky enough that his father was willing to put him up until he found something that worked for him. Perchance, he became friends with Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the future head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), whom he had met in Linz, Austria, and who suggested that Eichmann join the SS, where his aptitudes of organization and negotiation (and, later, his inability to actually think independently for himself), would pay off. Pretty un-extraordinary.

Indeed, Arendt's caricature of Eichmann sometimes borders on the ludicrous, in which she admitted: "Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a 'monster,' but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown."3 Finally joining the SS in 1934 (the same year as Rudolf Hoess), Eichmann wound up working for the RSHA, in Section 4 (the Gestapo). It was sub-sectioned into two fields: field A, which dealt with political "opponents", and field B, which dealt with "sects" of "state enemies," each given a bureau. Eichmann specialized exclusively with the Jewish desk (Section 4, field 2, bureau 4), which remained the case until the end of the Third Reich in 1945.

Hitler conducted two wars after September 1939: one militarily, and the other against the Jews, which only intensified after he began losing militarily.4 Arendt points out that Nazi Jewish policy evolved over the years from marginalizing Jews, to forcing them to emigrate, from concentration/ethnic cleansing, to eventual genocide; the latter 'Final Solution,' decided upon at the January 1942 Wannsee Conference (which Eichmann attended and recorded) required massive logistical organization, and Eichmann was the figure who spearheaded the logistics of deporting Jews to the six killing centres in Poland. It was by this circumstance that Eichmann committed the crimes that made him one of the most powerful men in Nazi occupied Europe, ironic for a man who never rose above the rank of SS Lieutenant-Colonel, but also ultimately wound him up in the dock in Jerusalem.

On hearing the news of Hitler's 'final solution' for the Jews, Arendt reports that Eichmann just took it like any other job. "This was the way things were, this was the new law of the land, based on the Fuehrer's order; whatever he did he did, as far as he [Eichmann] could see, as a law-abiding citizen. He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law."5 And later, eerily parallel to Rudolf Hoess' memoirs, "Since, in addition to performing what he conceived to be the duties of a law-abiding citizen, he had also acted upon orders – always so careful to be 'covered' – he became completely muddled, and ended by stressing alternatively the virtues and the vices of blind obedience, or the 'obedience of corpses,' Kadavergehorsam, as he himself called it," justifying all this with his belief in following Immanuel Kant's moral (and idealistic) philosophy.6

Arendt argues that it is Eichmann's un-extraordinariness that makes him so extraordinary; this is behind her concept of the 'banality of evil.' In his last statement in Jerusalem, which echoes the last pages of Hoess' memoirs, Eichmann pointed out that he had never been a Jew-hater, and had never willed the murder of human beings. "His guilt came from his obedience, and obedience is praised as a virtue" which, he claimed, had been "abused" by the Nazi echelons. "But he was not one of the ruling clique, he was a victim, and only the leaders deserved punishment."7

It is only at the very end of her book that Arendt defines Eichmann as the banal bureaucrat and Nazi functionary, whose simplicity and ordinariness could not detract from the millions he had sent to their deaths in camps run by those like Rudolf Hoess. "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. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together," she wrote, adding that Eichmann and many others like him, "commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong."8

* * *

Turning to the memoirs of Rudolf Hoess, we find that the upper Nazi leadership – Hitler, Himmler, and others – knew what to look for in a potential administrator of genocide. Fest writes that SS chief Henrich Himmler selected Hoess to be Commandant of Auschwitz because of his "moral longing," powerful but without direction, which fit into the "totalitarian ethic" containing "everything he was seeking: simple formulas, an uncomplicated schema of good and evil, a hierarchy of normal standards oriented according to military categories, and a utopia."9 It was only through a hardening process of seeing murder taking place constantly (never-ending in Auschwitz) that Hoess could claim achievement. It was something that, judging from his pre-SS recollections in his memoirs, he had failed to do. A flight from individualism had something to do with this too; hence why Hoess had an affinity for First World War, Freikorps and eventual SS service, as well as an affinity for prison life and the Artaman society.

Reading Hoess' memoirs, one finds that the text is saturated with the idea of orders and following them, which is a cause for disbelief. There is no place for individuality in them. Much like Arendt's depiction of Eichmann, it borders on the simplistic. It is, however, a very real reason for his crimes. In discussing the women's camp in Auschwitz and of his role in the war, Hoess writes, "There was only one goal that was important to me: to continue trying to improve the general situation, so I could carry out my orders. Himmler demanded that each SS man perform his duty…. Everyone in Germany had to give 100 percent so that we could win the war."10

Such a mentality made it easy to commit murder; we see this when, a little later, Hoess is confronted with Hitler's verbal order (summer 1941) of using physical killing as a means to eliminate Europe's Jews. "Of course, this order was something extraordinary, something monstrous. However, the reasoning behind the order of this mass annihilation seemed correct to me. At the time I wasted no thoughts about it. I had received an order; I had to carry it out. I could not allow myself to form an opinion as to whether this mass extermination of the Jews was necessary or not."11 This idea manifests repeatedly: that the order from Himmler emanates from Hitler, and that following the order is a holy act, for which one must die for, if necessary.12

If it was not his father telling him what he should be doing in the future, then it was his commanding officer on the Iraqi front, his Freikorps commander(s), the prison warden and, after joining the SS and working in the concentration camp field, Theodor Eicke, the - then Chief Inspector of Concentration Camps, who instilled in Hoess the regimented ruthlessness that he later sought to emulate in Auschwitz and apply to other camps after November 1943, when he was transferred to become Chief Inspector of Camps. Several points emerge from Hoess' memoirs that indicate his epitome of the 'banality of evil.' They are also among the main features to be gleaned from his memoirs.

Hoess was able to categorize and justify his task, even though he occasionally slipped and admitted to himself (and his readers) that he knew full well what it was that he was doing; he never denies, in his memoirs, that killing and attempted genocide is what is taking place. Thus, in describing the Jehovah's Witnesses in Sachsenhausen, and the reasons for their persecution, Hoess says that because of their pacifism, they were instant draft-dodgers, but that they were a threat to Germany because their pacifism – anathema to the Third Reich – could spread. They fell in line to Eicke's 'Enemies of the State' motto.

Hoess pays attention to areas on the genocidal system's possible improvement. In describing the gassings at Auschwitz, Hoess points out some of the objections he received from victims and co-murderers in the camps over what was taking place under his auspices. "And I, who countless times deep inside myself had asked the same question, had to put them off by reminding them that it was Hitler's order. I had to tell them that it was necessary to destroy all the Jews in order to forever free Germany and the future generations from our toughest enemy."13

Hoess sought out collective groupings from an early age, and had it instilled in him about the virtues of authority. At home, then, "It was emphatically pointed out again and again that I carry out the requests and orders of parents, teachers, priests, and all adults, even the servants, and that this principle be respectfully obeyed. I was not permitted to leave anything unfinished. Whatever they said was always right. This type of training is in my flesh and blood."14 In joining the SS, Hoess says that he anticipated a return to soldierly work. "I arrived at Dachau and became a recruit again, with all its joys and sorrows, and then I became a drill instructor."15

"My tremendous love for my country and my feeling for everything German brought me into the NSDAP and into the SS. I believed that the National Socialist world philosophy was the only one that suited the German people. The SS was, in my opinion, the most energetic defender of this philosophy, and the only one capable of leading the German people back to a life more in keeping with its character."16 According to Fest, Hoess' last deed, of pleading guilty to the Polish Supreme People's Court, who tried and executed him for his crimes at Auschwitz in April 1947 "against the Polish people," was, in itself, another order that Hoess carried out.17

Hoess believed that gassing inmates would spare SS soldiers the burden and guilt of killing by shooting.18 He later wrote: "I was always horrified of death by firing squads, especially when I thought of the huge numbers of women and children who would have to be killed. I had had enough of hostage executions, and the mass killings by firing squad ordered by Himmler and [Reinhard] Heydrich."19

Reflecting on his own feelings, and those of others in the camp, he said: "The married men who worked the crematory or the open-pit burnings often told me that the same thoughts had occurred to them. When they watched the women enter the gas chambers with their children, their thoughts naturally turned to their own families."20 Hoess, though a member of the Nazi Party since 1922 because of his political sympathies, was hardly an avowed follower of Hitler. According to him, though following orders from above was important, he admits that "the National Socialist state and its leaders, acted wrongly…I can see now that the leadership of the Third Reich is guilty of having caused this monstrous war with all its consequences by their policies of tyranny."21

Hoess' moral and physical disgust at violence shows that he was certainly not sadistic, animalistic, barbaric, monstrous, etc., for many times in his memoirs, he goes to great lengths to point out the apparent primitive barbarity and disorder of others around him. Thus, he graphically points out the animal-like inclinations of the Sonderkommandos, who "never stopped eating," even while doing the most revolting work of dis- and re-interring corpses.22 Hoess complains about the epidemic of poor cooperation ethic in the then-fledgling Auschwitz camp in 1940. It is in the same vein that he pointed out the senseless brutality of block leaders in Dachau, where he first worked with Eicke, the sadistic barbarism of the burglar in prison, who described how he murdered an entire family while trying to rob them, and even before then, the Freikorps violence somewhere in the Baltics just after the First World War.

Nowhere in his memoirs does he turn such scrutiny upon his own culpable actions. Echoing Eichmann, Hoess spells out what is the thesis of his memoirs and experience: "May the general public simply go on seeing me as the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions, because the broad masses cannot conceive the Kommandant of Auschwitz in any other way. They would never be able to understand that he also had a heart and that he was not evil."23 This claim says it all because, stripped to its bone, it is the truth.24


    Before I conclude, I think that there is something that is important to point out, especially as we look at the ordinariness of these criminals. It relates to understanding versus forgiving – and here, I paraphrase Christopher R. Browning's reasoning: understanding how so many people were murdered in such a short time span, and how the murderers were able to do so, does not denote forgiveness or acceptance.25 With that said, Hannah Arendt's concept of the 'banality of evil,' which she applied to Adolf Eichmann (and others like him) helps to explain how, on an administrative and functional level, the Holocaust took place. For our purposes, it also fits the experience of Rudolf Hoess, who knew the gravity of what he was doing, but carried right on to the end. There was far more to these two "functionaries of totalitarian rule" than meets the eye.26

    Peter Bjel is a freelance journalist and graduate student at the University of Toronto's Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. This article is adapted from a presentation he delivered on the subject. He can be reached at


    1 Joachim C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), pp. 276-277.

    2 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963), p. 22.

    3 Ibid., p. 49.

    4 Quoting Raul Hilberg, see the Introduction to Joseph November's monograph "The Trial of Klaus Barbie: An Epic of Memory," at

    5 Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 120

    6 Ibid.

    7 Ibid., pp. 225-226.

    8 Ibid., p. 253.

    9 Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 279.

    10 Rudolf Hoess, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, ed. Steven Paskuly (New York: DaCapo Press, 1996), p. 152.

    11 Ibid., p. 153.

    12 Ibid.

    13 Ibid., p. 161.

    14 Ibid., p. 50.

    15 Ibid., p. 81.

    16 Ibid., p. 185.

    17 Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 286.

    18 Hoess, Death Dealer, p. 28.

    19 Ibid., p. 157.

    20 Ibid., p. 163.

    21 Ibid., p. 182.

    22 Ibid., p. 45.

    23 Ibid., p. 186.

    24 Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 302, further explores this point.

    25 See Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), p. xx.

    26 This is the grouping in which Fest places those like Hoess and Eichmann, in his The Face of the Third Reich.


    from the March Passover 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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