David Cesarani's 'Becoming Eichmann'
Reviewed by Lenni Brenner
Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a "Desk Murderer," by David Cesarani, London and Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006. 368 pages. Glossary and Abbreviations to p. 372. Notes to p. 423. Sources and Bibliography to p. 442. Acknowledgments to p. 444. Index to p. 446. $27.50 cloth.
Reviewed by Lenni Brenner, Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 2007
David Cesarani is a well-publicized British holocaust historian, but the inadequacy of his present work will be obvious to the field's scholars. He wages trivial battle against some commentators on Eichmann and totally evades others. He gives little important new information on Eichmann, nor does he correct his own previous errors. In spite of Da Capo Press's jacket claim that "Cesarani . . . reveals [Eichmann's] initially cordial working relationship with Zionist Jews in Germany," in fact he omits many of Eichmann's previously published statements that may embarrass Zionism (or Cesarani himself). Indeed, the true Eichmann rarely makes a full appearance in his latest biography.
Cesarani devotes much of his book to attacking ex-Zionist Hannah Arendt's celebrated Eichmann in Jerusalem report on his 1961 trial and her famous "banality of evil" description of him. Defending Zionism against her critique drives him to denounce her as "deeply prejudiced. She came from the German Jewish bourgeoisie that had long nurtured a contempt for the Jews of Poland and Russia." He rages against "her nasty, stereotypical comments about Jews. (p. 345) He complains of Arendt's accusations of Zionist collaboration with Eichmann, a topic his trial's prosecution didn't dare touch. "She claimed it deliberately avoided instances of Jewish cooperation with the Nazis, notably by Zionist organizations" (p. 348). But he doesn't explain why many eastern Jews agree with her description of Zionist misleadership. Indeed he doesn't dare quote her directly on the 1930s Zionist-Nazi collaboration, when
Eichmann learned his lessons about Jews. . . . Hitler's rise to power appear ed to the Zionists chiefly as "the decisive defeat of assimilationism". . . . Zionists too believed that "dissimulation," combined with the emigration to Palestine of Jewish youngsters and, they hoped, Jewish capitalists, could be a "mutually fair solution" . . . . The result was that in the thirties, when American Jewry took great pains to organize a boycott of German merchandise, Palestine, of all places, was swamped with all kinds of goods "made in Germany." (Eichmann in Jerusalem, pp. 58-60, 62)
In 1937, Labor Zionist Feivel Polkes invited Eichmann to Palestine. On 2 October 1937, the Nazi visited a kibbutz. Realizing he was a German agent, the British deported him to Egypt, where he eventually met Polkes, who offered to spy for Germany in return for loosened currency restrictions for Zionists.
In 1944, Labor Zionist Reszo Kasztner (a.k.a. Rudolph Kastner) negotiated with Eichmann, offering silence on Nazi plans to deport 750,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in return for Eichmann's promise to send prominent Jews to Switzerland. In 1946, Kasztner reported his activities to the World Zionist Organization. In 1953, the Israeli government on Kasztner's behalf sued a Hungarian Jew for libeling Kasztner as a Nazi collaborator, but the judge found him a collaborator. He was assassinated by right-wing Zionists but the Labor-Zionist dominated Supreme Court ruled posthumously on his appeal. He didn't collaborate because "no law . . . lays down the duties of a leader in an hour of emergency toward those who rely on leadership and are under his instructions" (Ben Hecht, Perfidy, p. 272). But he did perjure himself in a Nuremberg affidavit on behalf of an SS man.
In 1955, hiding in Argentina, Eichmann discussed Palestine and Kasztner on tape. After his capture in 1960, Life magazine published excerpts. On the kibbutz in 1937, he
did see enough to be very impressed by the way the Jewish colonists were building up their land. I admired their desperate will to live, the more so since I was myself an idealist. In the years that followed I often said to Jews with whom I had dealings that, had I been a Jew, I would have been a fanatical Zionist. I could not imagine being anything else. In fact, I would have been the most ardent Zionist imaginable." ("Eichmann Tells His Own Damning Story," Life [28 November 1960], p. 22).
He described Kasztner as
a fanatical Zionist. He agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation -- and even keep order in the collection camps -- if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain. For keeping order in the camps, the price of 15,000 or 20,000 Jews -- in the end there may have been more -- was not too high for me. And because Kastner rendered us a great service by helping keep the deportation camps peaceful, I would let his groups escape" ("I Transported Them to the Butcher," Life [5 Dec. 1960], p. 146).
Neither stunning quote is in Becoming Eichmann.
In 1961, Ben Hecht, a celebrated American journalist and Zionist, wrote Perfidy (Julian Messner, 1961) about the libel trial. His quotes from the judge's decision attracted worldwide attention: "Eichmann did not want a second Warsaw. For this reason, the Nazis exerted themselves to mislead and bribe the Jewish leaders. The personality of Rudolph Kastner made him a convenient catspaw for Eichmann and his clique" (Perfidy, p. 179). But Hecht and Perfidy are not listed in Cesarani's sources and bibliography.
In 1983, my Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, which detailed Kasztner's collaboration and the libel trial, was published in Britain. In 1987, Jim Allen used it and Perfidy in writing his play Perdition. The Zionist establishment, using Cesarani's "Perdition, by Jim Allen: A Report," drove the play out of a London theatre, two days before its scheduled opening. Cesarani admitted that Allen cited "evidence of a symbiosis of Zionism and Nazi ideas about the volk, etc." But "Racial theories permeated all ideologies at this time, and it is banal to observe that Zionism was expressed in, and legitimated according to, the discourse available. Zionism could not have transcended the thought of the period" (David Cesarani, "Perdition, by Jim Allen: A Report," p. 5).
The show biz purge generated such attention that a nationwide, prime time TV debate was organized. Allen, Marion Woolfson, and I took on Stephen Roth, who worked with Kasztner, historian Martin Gilbert, and Rabbi Hugo Gryn, an Auschwitz survivor. Ultimately Cesarani confessed, in London's 3 July 1987 Jewish Chronicle, that the public thought the theatre "had been bullied into censoring the play." Nothing of this is in Cesarani's present book. The Essential Lenny Bruce is listed in the bibliography for an Eichmann joke, but apparently Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, Jim Allen, Perdition, and Cesarani's report do not merit mention.
Cesarani admits that Fritz Bauer, Attorney General of Hesse, West Germany, discovered that Eichmann was hiding in Buenos Aires. "Yet the Israelis showed remarkably little interest in pursuing the leads . . . they practically had to be led to the fugitive Nazi" (p. 14). When they caught him, they "skirted round sensitive issues such as the contact between Zionists and Eichmann in the 1930s, and the negotiations over the fate of the Hungarian Jews in 1944 that involved Ben-Gurion himself" (p. 14).
But this isn't fast breaking news. In 1973, Andreas Biss, who worked with Kasztner, wrote of his offer to testify against Eichmann, whom he had contact with in Budapest. A date was set until the prosecutor learned that Biss would defend Kasztner's role. The prosecutor asked Biss "especially to pass over in silence what was then in Israel called 'the Kasztner affair'" (Andreas Biss, A Million Jews to Save, p. 231). He refused and was dropped as a witness. Biss's book is in Cesarani's bibliography, but he goes unmentioned in the text.
Zionism is a major theme in Eichmann's life from 1935, when he read Theodor Herzl and studied Hebrew, through the 1944-45 Hungarian slaughter. It again became part of his life with the 1950s libel trial and tapes. Then he was captured, tried and executed by Israel in 1962. Reading him and about him raises questions for general readers and specialists: What made Zionism so attractive to him? Who in the Zionist establishment did Polkes report to regarding his negotiations? Why wasn't Israel looking for Eichmann after the libel trial? Had the prosecutor asked, what would he have testified about Kasztner, who Israel's high court declared wasn't a collaborator? Cesarani tells us that a Zionist historian "begged for a stay of execution on the grounds that it would folly to kill such a unique witness to history" (p. 320). Why weren't historians allowed to query him in depth before his execution (which of course was justice served)?
In 1947-8, many UN delegations and much of world opinion supported Israel's creation because of what Hitler had done to the Jews. Few, Jew or gentile, knew what Zionists did or didn't do for the Jews.
By now, Cesarani knows both. But he came upon Zionism's shameful relations with Eichmann as a Zionist zealot and has, for decades, consistently applied his ideology to the facts, instead of fact checking his beliefs. He grudgingly accepts the reality of repeated collaboration, but he refuses to treat it systematically.
The 14 May 2006 New York Times is correct: Cesarani is "a writer in control neither of his material nor of himself." For all his rage against Arendt personally and her expose of Zionism, when it comes to interpreting Eichmann, nominally the topic of his book, the Times was correct: "what is striking is how far [Cesarani's] research goes to reinforce [Arendt's] fundamental arguments."