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The Masks of Hollow Men

The prisoner seated in the glass booth was not the wild-eyed, dark-visaged creature one anticipated, considering the shocking and gruesome contents of the reports. There was no sign that here, caged for its own protection, was a veritable beast.

  • S. R. Tuuri,
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The prisoner seated in the glass booth was not the wild-eyed, dark-visaged creature one anticipated, considering the shocking and gruesome contents of the reports. There was no sign that here, caged for its own protection, was a veritable beast. No perceivable aura of malevolence emanated from the man within the small enclosure. He appears, instead, to be quite human, a "medium-sized, slender, middle-aged" being, with "receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and near-sighted eyes" (Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt, 5). Except for a certain "nervous tic" at the corner of his mouth, he is indeed indistinguishable from the people that one might pass on the street any day of the week: one would not, viewing him among the general population, mark him as criminal. And yet this is Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi indicted by the Israeli court for his role in Hitler's "Final Solution" to the "Jewish question." This banal individual is that "Jewish expert" responsible for the deportation of the Jews of Germany and Europe to concentration camps so that they could be mercilessly exterminated en masse. He is not, amazingly, the voracious, blood-thirsty, devil incarnate portrayed by the media: to the contrary, this man is "terribly and terrifyingly normal" (ibid., 276).

The Easy Life
Thus was Adolph Eichmann, tried, convicted, and duly hanged in Jerusalem for crimes committed not only against one race, but also against humanity and the laws of God. As Hannah Arendt reveals in her book about the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, he was not a rabidly anti-Semitic, sadistic pervert who derived pleasure from ruthless murder on an enormous scale. He was, in fact, an ordinary human being who wanted to live an easy life characterized by "success," a life that would present him with no challenges, controversies, or conflicts of body, mind, or spirit. Adolph Eichmann was an egocentric man, like so many others, then and now, who wanted to preserve his introverted "comfort zone" without having to think and make choices for himself. Instead of adhering to that higher standard that demands we daily make moral choices, the Law which instructs us to set God and our fellow man above ourselves, Eichmann followed the "evil instincts . . . inherent" in the fallen nature of the heart of man and sought to abdicate social and moral responsibility for the course and consequences of his actions in the iniquitous interests of the self (ibid., 288).

Eichmann discovered during his youth that the broad, smooth, untroubled road to the success that he "fervently believed in up to the end," the easy pathway that would eventually lead to the financial, social, and political pinnacle he had trained his sights upon, was to become an inveterate "joiner" (ibid., 126, 32). At the instigation of his parents, Eichmann was exposed to the simple means of membership in various organizations, and this type of life as one of the crowd suited him perfectly. The neatly planned programs and established rules and regulations of the club, group, or organization provided the structure and focus that Eichmann had no inclination to develop for himself. Those in leadership handed down pre-fabricated philosophies and courses of endeavor for climbing the ladder of success, be it social, corporate, or otherwise, which Eichmann happily embraced. He eschewed independent thought and personal responsibility by adopting without comment or criticism the policies and provisos of the group of the moment. For Eichmann the effortless way to self-aggrandizement lay in making his heart a desert, as it were, with no propositions, predilections, or propensities of its own. With no steadfast convictions, he was a vast receptacle for the ideologies of others. He would never have to make the exertion necessary to progress through the initial thought processes, answer the questions of effectiveness and ethics, and reach conclusions himself: it was already done for him. All that was exacted of Eichmann was obedience, which, for him, was merely a matter of mechanics and not intellect.

Eichmann's capacity for unthinking obedience made him a consummate recruit of the burgeoning N.S.D.A.P. Though Eichmann stated in Jerusalem that he had been "swallowed up . . .against all expectations and without previous decision," becoming a confederate of the Nazi Party was not in the least unprecedented (ibid., 33). He was a mentally lethargic follower with aspirations of political and social prominence, and the Nazis were the preponderant and powerful group of the hour with a promising "historic, grandiose, unique" scheme for the rise of Germany and its people: why not join, as his acquaintance Kaltenbrunner had suggested, and see what opportunities for individual advancement might arise (ibid., 105)? Remaining true to form, Eichmann secured his membership in the Party without giving a thought to what it actually signified. He had scant knowledge of the tenets of Nazism, and had not even familiarized himself with the Party platform; he came completely "open-minded," or perhaps "empty-headed," and quite prepared to accept and abide by the principles that were masterfully disseminated by the Nazis. Lacking uncompromising beliefs of his own, and with only "an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement" through the path of least mental resistance, Eichmann was not in the least offended by a program based upon racist, supremacist, nationalistic ideology (ibid., 287). This program was made all the more palatable by the fact that his dreams of success and acclaim might well be realized through the numerous positions within the Party's many branches that were open to anyone who might avail himself of the chance.

Personal Irresponsibility
As a Nazi, Eichmann was never required to be the responsible "`master of his own deeds,'" and it was never even within the realm of possibility for Eichmann to be placed in a position where he would have to plot strategies or conceive new designs on his own initiative (ibid., 136). This was agreeable to Eichmann, who had never wanted to enact such a role, because one who is "`master'" of his deeds must think and reason, and inevitably confront ideas that give rise to mental and spiritual conflict; he must encounter circumstances that force him to take a stand in opposition to the status quo. The socially and morally responsible person does not live a life of isolated tranquility, free to indulge in his private penchants, but instead is often driven to act not for himself but for others. It was propitious, then, that the Nazi Party desired no man to be the "master of his soul," and obligingly furnished all of their minions with comprehensive instructions which were to be carried out exactly as delineated. They sought malleable men just like Eichmann, blank slates upon which to inscribe their twisted conceptions of the destiny of Germany. The Nazis wanted men without moral foundation who would unquestioningly align themselves with the Party credo and willingly subjugate themselves to the will and whim of the Fuhrer.

In the Fuhrer, Eichmann found a role model both to emulate and obey. This "other" Adolph was not only the charismatic and authoritative voice of direction for Eichmann's life, but also the epitome of Eichmann's concept of success. Hitler had overcome the disadvantages of a poor education, the discouragement of years of youth spent in the haphazard and futile pursuit of a career in art; had attained terrific power, unaccountably assumed the leadership of an entire nation; and had united the German people in a crusade for international glory. As Eichmann told the court in Jerusalem, "`His success alone proved to me that I should subjugate myself to this man'" (ibid., 126). Coupled with this was the comforting knowledge that Hitler wished to relieve his subjects of the burden of personal responsibility by supplying pre-packaged thought and ideology and by making all decisions himself. With Hitler at the helm, Eichmann would never have to face a "leaderless and difficult life" devoid of "directives . . . orders and commands" and "pertinent ordinances": these would be dispensed in plenty (ibid., 32). In order to fulfill his duty to the regime and his new leader, Eichmann, along with his numerous peers, was expected only to faithfully and trustfully obey.

Lust for Success
Eichmann could very well have remained one of myriad, "innocuous" Nazis who discharged their duty of obedience by filling positions in the lower echelons. Had Eichmann not possessed, in addition to his desire to evade responsibility, the desire for success, his name would not have become part of the historic record. But Eichmann did want to attain a degree of achievement and honor that would place him on the same plane as the "good society," the select group of influential and highly esteemed Germans that he revered. For this reason Eichmann was extremely "conscientious" in his work: he tackled and completed all of his tasks with energy, enthusiasm, and alacrity. His dedication to the Reich garnered for him the post within the Head Office of Reich Security from which he oversaw first the "emigration," and later the deportation and concentration of the Jews in preparation for extermination. Eichmann felt self-confident in his job, as he discovered that "there were two things he could do well, better than others: he could organize and he could negotiate" (ibid., 45). While Eichmann was never the integral official he was believed to be by the court in Jerusalem, he did become the acknowledged "Jewish expert," skilled in bargaining with the Jewish functionaries and competently carrying out the machinations that robbed the Jews of their property, made them stateless, and sentenced them to certain death. Though Eichmann had hoped to climb even higher up the ladder of the Nazi hierarchy, and though he occasionally attempted to increase his standing by taking credit for the inspirations of others, still he reveled in the little bit of fame and notoriety that he had procured with little trouble to himself.

It seems amazing, at first, that a "normal" human being could be so callous and so careless, so socially and morally irresponsible that he could think only in terms of his own ease and be content in success that was purchased at the price of millions of lives. It might have been slightly more understandable had Eichmann never learned the terminus of the "Final Solution"; but, though he "had no authority to say who would die and who would live," and "could not even know" which individual Jews would be slated for destruction at one time or another, he did know that the "Final Solution" was the grave (ibid., 214). Somehow Eichmann had to still the voice of conscience that whispers within all men, and to deny the truth of the laws of God that forbid murder because it is an abomination; for Eichmann was not, to his chagrin, completely bereft of all moral compunctions. Eichmann glimpsed the Truth when he was shown around the concentration camps, when he heard the extermination process explained, and saw the lifeless bodies dumped without ceremony into vast trenches. Eichmann was initially appalled at these horrors, and had nightmares afterwards. "`I had never thought of such a thing, such a solution through violence,'" he told the court with dismay (ibid., 83-84). Yet this spark of Knowledge, this hint of responsibility stemming from his conscience, was extinguished before it could ignite a moral crisis. Eichmann could not allow himself to search for the reason behind his response to the brutal reality of the "Final Solution"; he could not consider the matter from a perspective unconstrained by his self-imposed myopia, because in doing so he would have been confronted with the abdication of moral responsibility intrinsic to his role as a facilitator of the "Solution" and to his membership in the Nazi Party itself. To prevent such a revelation, Eichmann was entangled in an web of deception woven in the "impenetrable, unfathomable darkness" of his selfish heart, a contrivance of lies and delusions fostered by the Nazi Party, that erected defenses in Eichmann's mind to stand as "proof against reason and argument and information and insight of any kind," especially the kind that might prompt feelings of culpability (ibid., 231, 78).

Verbal Deception
The Nazis helped to sustain this encompassing deception through a system that was "aimed at preventing conflicts of conscience from even arising" (Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer, 65). "Remoteness from reality" was ensured by the employment of "language rules" designed to prevent their minions from "equating" the killing of the Jews "with their old `normal' knowledge of murder" (ibid., 288, 86). The officials of the Third Reich communicated with each other in code words, catch-words, and cliches created by those at the top of the hierarchy so that the repugnance of the extermination of the Jews was hidden behind a facade of euphemistic terminology. Eichmann adopted the formulated phraseology of "uplifting phrases with no real meaning" without consciously noting that they were ruses to embellish and expedite his self-deception (ibid., 198). He and his colleagues were taught to refer to the "Final Solution" in "`objective'" terms, to speak of "`administration'" and "`economy'" instead of killing and death (ibid., 69). The phrase "Final Solution" itself was a product of the "language rule," depicting the murder of the Jews as the welcome resolution to some pressing problem.

"The practice of self-deception," which had "become so common" in Germany at this time that it was "almost a moral prerequisite for survival," was at its fullest in Eichmann's rigid obedience to the law (ibid., 52). Eichmann both assuaged his conscience and avoided personal responsibility by wearing the respectable mask of a law-abiding citizen. As an officer of the Reich, Eichmann consistently, unswervingly "did his duty . . . to obey orders" and "obeyed the law" (ibid., 135). The law for Eichmann, and for the majority of Germans, was every word that proceeded from the mouth (or pen) of Hitler, for "Hitler's orders . . . possessed the `force of law' in the Third Reich" (ibid., 25). Eichmann had long been dependent upon the directions and decisions of others, and had trained himself to follow without thought: this was the route both comfortable and safe, as it not only spared him the distress of intellectual activity, but also appeared to deflect responsibility away from Eichmann and onto someone else. Thus Eichmann was certain to be shielded by the law in all that he did, and he never stopped to consider the moral implications of that law. Eichmann did not ask himself whether the laws of Hitler were just and moral. Despite his purportedly Christian upbringing, Eichmann did not search for a higher standard, some greater Law by which to measure and evaluate all others, including Adolph Hitler's. He embraced Hitler as the ultimate legal, ethical, and moral authority, and deceived himself that in giving total allegiance to this demi-god he was a responsible person, when in reality he was recklessly, detrimentally irresponsible.

Escape From Responsibility
While on trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann advanced in justification of his role in deporting the Jews the fact that "no one, no one at all . . . was against the Final Solution" (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 116). "Conscience as such had apparently got lost in Germany" to the extent that, from the highest Nazi officials, to the average man on the street, no one spoke out in defiance of the will of Hitler (ibid., 103). Eichmann was adamant that no one, not even the clergy, ever reproached him for what he was doing, and this was probably true. But the reason that Eichmann was never upbraided for his abdication of responsibility was not because it was right, but because "the whole of respectable society," and even the not-so-respectable, "had succumbed to Hitler" and the desires of their own dark and sinful hearts (ibid., 295). They, too, did not want to be socially or morally responsible; they, too, had discovered that the easy way was not to oppose, but to sway and bend with, the prevailing wind. Eichmann said that the dearth of resistance to the "Final Solution" gave him a kind of "`Pontius Pilate feeling,'" making him feel "`free of all guilt,'" but Eichmann chose to overlook the reality that, while Pilate may have washed his hands, this abdication of his responsibility could not remove the "damned spot" that branded him as guilty (ibid., 114). Pilate was just as answerable for the death of Christ as those who had driven in the nails. So, too, was Eichmann responsible, though he never consciously realized the evil that he effectuated, for the "extremity of [his] evasions," for his ultimate moral failure, and for the death of the Jews (Inside the Third Reich, 163).

No Uniqueness
Eichmann's tale and the story of the degradation of Nazi Germany are not isolated, erratic incidents. They are the evidence of what can and will happen when men heed not the Law of God but hearken instead to the selfish, seductive beat of the "heart of darkness." When men fail to fulfill their responsibility toward God, they inevitably fail in their responsibility to His creation, man. The results are not often as awful as they were in Eichmann's case, but this is not to say that the magnitude of destruction and devastation reached in Nazi Germany can never happen again. There were and still are "so many" men essentially like Eichmann. So many men in our own country wear the mask of the responsible, tax-paying, law-abiding citizen, and never bother to ask themselves if the taxes they pay are spent on programs that are just and moral, if the laws they follow echo the Laws of God. So many men prefer to number themselves among the "`blindly believing masses'" who unquestioningly accept the cliche-ridden promises and policies of contemporary politicos, to remain "comfortably numb" to their surroundings and simply drift with the dominant current so that they do not have to exert their intellectual and moral capacities (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 127). And in this way we ourselves, through our own refusal to be responsible, create the circumstances in which another holocaust of some nature may arise if it is not already upon us.