Letter to the New York Review of Books

Published: 2013-12-13

The New York Review of Books
435 Hudson Street, Suite 300
New York, NY 10014
Tel 212 757-8070
Fax 212 333-5374

12 December 2013

Letters to the Editor:

I am writing to comment on Mark Lilla's article, Arendt & Eichmann: The New Truth, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/nov/21/arendt-eichmann-new-truth/

Professor Lilla defines his approach to history at the beginning of his article:

"Every advance in research that adds a new complication to our understanding of what happened on the Nazi side, or on the victims’, can potentially threaten our moral clarity about why it happened, obscuring the reality and fundamental inexplicability of anti-Semitic eliminationism."

I find this a very strange view of history. History is made up of complicating details because humans exist in complicated relationships. Details are necessary to understand history. But Professor Lilla leaps over the details to his greater "moral clarity”. He does this with the excuse that a historian is "obliged to render the mass of material into a coherent object of thought and judgment. Without a profound simplification the world around us would be an infinite, undefined tangle..."

As a Revisionist, I take an opposite view. I believe that history is rarely gotten right the first time, particularly in time of war. It needs to be reviewed, discussed and revised. Rather than run from complicating details, we should understand and integrate them into as accurate a history as possible.

Professor Lilla puts theories of his "New Truth" to use in his review of Margarethe von Trotta's new film Hannah Arendt and in a broader critique of Ms. Arendt herself. We learn that "it can never be emphasized enough that the Holocaust is not an acceptable occasion for sentimental journeys.” We learn that, however corrupt, oppressive, and stupid Jewish collaborators with the National Socialists were we should not judge them because (speaking in the first person) "I do not know, and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer.”

Above all, Professor Lilla is concerned with the "truth" of the film. The professor makes an amazing claim: Arendt held "a position we now know to be utterly indefensible—as Arendt, were she alive would have to concede”. This anathema is Arendt's portrayal of Eichmann as "not radically evil" and her shifting "of attention from anti-Semitism to the faceless system in which he [Eichmann] worked”.

It is worth pointing out that most historians share Arendt's view of Eichmann. As

The BBC History website reads:

"He [Eichmann] adapted to fluctuating anti-Jewish policies, and endeavored to act with dedication, being motivated by unbridled careerism, concern for his status and rank, and feelings of frustration over his failure to achieve promotion, and over the disdain exhibited towards him and his inferior education."

Professor Lilla claims his "New Truth" is supported by "a great body of evidence”, mainly accumulated over the past fifteen years. However, he produces only one quote from a book by Bettina Stangneth. Ms. Stangneth has, according to Professor Lilla's footnote 2, also shown that Eichmann was part of "an international network of ex-Nazis who received significant support from within the Federal Republic of Germany”. Ms. Stangneth, according to Professor Lilla, recently unraveled the "confusion, intrigue, misinformation, and disinformation" which surrounded notes and tapes made by a mysterious Willem Sassen in the 1950's.

In fact, the Sassen notes and transcripts of the tapes are not news. They have been public and the subject of discussion since 1991. They are rambling and contradictory. How Professor Lilla cobbled together his Eichmann quote without including contradictory statements by Eichmann is not clear but seems to involve a liberal use of ellipses. The most interesting new information about Sassen raised by Ms. Stangneth is a draft letter dated 1956 and supposedly sent by Mr. Eichmann from Argentina to the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, proposing that Eichmann return to Germany to stand trial. If true, that is a complicating detail indeed.

How did Eichmann trick Arendt into believing what was "utterly indefensible”? Like the Devil, Eichmann was a master of falsehood and disguise. Professor Lilla writes:

"Arendt was not alone in being taken in by Eichmann and his many masks."

Professor Lilla's “New Truth” aside, there are many "complications" which support the belief that Eichmann "adapted to fluctuating anti-Jewish policies." For example, we know that Eichmann worked with Jewish American groups in the late 1930's to help tens of thousands of Austrian Jews leave German control. In 1937 he traveled to British-controlled Palestine to discuss the possibility of large scale Jewish emigration to the Middle East, but returned without success due to British resistance. In 1940 Eichmann worked on the Madagascar Plan. None of these plans were "eliminationist”. They represented successive guidelines followed by German bureaucracy, followed in turn by Eichmann.

Eichmann's collaboration with Rudolf Kastner in 1944 resulted in at least 18,000 Hungarian Jews being sent to the Strasshof family camp near Vienna, and Eichmann originally spoke of transferring 100,000 people there. Most of the Strasshof detainees survived the War. One could discuss the role of Eichmann in the light of works like Christopher R. Browning's The Origins of the Final Solution, or Professor Arno Mayer's Why did the Heavens Not Darken?, but suffice it to say that there truly is a “great body of evidence” which shows Mr. Eichmann had no role in formulating an "eliminationist" plan.

Professor Lilla seems to be a man with strong views on what is or is not a proper subject for a film, or what is or is not an acceptable excuse for crimes of collaboration. Those are moral or artistic judgments and I suppose those held by Professor Lilla's are as good as mine. But I believe it is hazardous for all when a professor feels justified in handing us a "profoundly simplified" account of history designed to protect (his) "moral clarity”. And I feel constrained to dispute Professor Lilla's claim to being the holder of such an exclusive "New Truth”.

Thank you for consideration of my letter.

David Merlin
Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust
PO Box 439016
San Ysidro, California
Tel: 209 682 5327
Email: [email protected]

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Author(s) David Merlin
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Dates published: 2013-12-13, first posted on CODOH: Dec. 7, 2015, 7:38 a.m., last revision: n/a
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