Adolf Eichmann: Nazis in Popular Culture and the Trivialization of Historical Knowledge
Adam J. Sacks | 16 December 2019
◇ Modern History | European History | Jewish History | Political History
As we mark the anniversary of the final ruling of the Eichmann trial on 15 December, it is counterintuitive that the personage of Adolf Eichmann grows in historical memory and public prominence with each passing year. In the past year, one can count one major Hollywood film, one large travelling museum exhibit and one role in a hit television series. It brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s immortal words about Schindler’s List: ‘Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 millions people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.’
The Holocaust saw the largest continental European power use all of its resources and approximately 250,000 of its own people (the estimate commonly cited for those directly involved in murder) to attempt to kill 11 million European Jews. It is not believed that Adolf Eichmann killed any single solitary individual himself. As a lieutenant colonel, his level of leadership in the Nazi hierarchy was distinctly second tier. Others, such as Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller, who remains the only top Nazi never confirmed captured or dead, are largely forgotten. This strange turn of events could be read as an unintended consequence of the Eichmann trial itself, engineered by David Ben Gurion as the first public pedagogical exercise in global Holocaust education. Instead of the Eichmann case shining a light on the inner workings of genocide, the spotlight simply looped back on the man himself.
The recent Eichmann upsurge also makes sense for a contemporary moment when the repressed demons of fascism are returning worldwide. This illiberal wave coincides with both the passing of the last living generation that directly experienced the Second World War as well as the firm establishment of Nazi symbolism as a part of global popular culture. The proliferation of Nazi motifs in video games, fantasy, anime and internet memes are too widespread to begin to count. This does not signify a deepening of Holocaust education and awareness but rather a trivialization of historical knowledge and awareness.
Eichmann as a pop-culture meme makes a certain degree of sense as his story uniquely captures the ‘horror show’ and ‘fantastical’ aspects of the Holocaust. Forever linked to Hannah Arendt’s immortal phrase ‘banality of evil’, firmly embedded in pop philosophy, Eichmann illustrates what one might call the Hannibal Lecter school of genocidal psychopathology. By appearances respectable, even learned, Eichmann could almost seem like a petty bourgeois family man (as portrayed by Ben Kingsley in 2018’s Operation Finale) but for the frightful rage that neurotically flashes out.
Seemingly analogous to the misread short-hand version of Arendt’s interpretation, observers have often failed to consider her work as part of a larger oeuvre. When considered in tandem with her Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt meant that genocide was a product of modernity. Not that the murders were not murderous but rather that the atomization, differentiation and anxiety of modern social structures were factors within modern societies that could lead to genocide. The threat lies within a bourgeois European modernity which merely brought home to Europe, albeit in a more condensed and radicalized form with Nazism, what it had been doing under the guise of colonialism for decades elsewhere.
This image of Eichmann flatters bourgeois self-regard, and even perpetuates deceptive mechanisms used by the Nazis to such great effect during the war. The Nazis portrayed themselves as defending European civilization from barbaric half-Asiatic hordes. As George Mosse put it, theirs was a ‘bourgeois anti-bourgeois revolution’, a rescue operation for bourgeois normality, a task at which diffident liberals had proved themselves woefully ill-equipped. Who can oppose happy, healthy people, and a society cleansed of all disturbing elements?
The second major recent depiction of Adolf Eichmann, in the Amazon series Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick) links to what could be called the ‘parallel universe’ theory of genocide etiology. The series involves a fictional premise that the Nazis obtained nuclear weapons which they then used to bomb the United States into submission. Subsequently, they divide the Western Hemisphere along with their Japanese allies, leaving a small buffer zone in-between. Eichmann emerges as the chief planner of a massive invasion of the Japanese states via carpet-bombing to destroy all vital west-coast infrastructure.
The Eichmann here is robust with a Nazi-style high and tight haircut, and seems to have evolved into some futuristic Nazi warrior. The show’s depiction aligns with the main terms of the critique of Arendt put forth by Cesarini, Ezorsky and others. It is claimed that Arendt was duped by Eichmann’s self-minimization and that he was actually an impassioned mass murderer and not a bureaucrat whose perpetrator status was confined to clerical work. The cartoon-like Eichmann in the television series is even a military mastermind beset with fantasies of destruction on a continental scale. Hinted at here is the notion that the Nazis were some kind of alien supermen that mysteriously inhabited the bodies of a few million Austro-Germans and then disappeared into the ether in May 1945. This transformational metamorphosis serves again to bolster self-confidence that the Nazis really came from some parallel universe. The common ground here is that both depictions take as their starting point the unprepossessing ‘everyman quality’ in Eichmann’s appearance.
The Holocaust as the uncanny at the heart of European civilization is mirrored in the uncanny of Eichmann who does indeed seem like one of any number of anonymous middle-aged office workers. There is an unspoken assumption of a certain kind of Eurocentricity behind the idea of what is normative and bourgeois. And indeed, one of the more persistent debates among historians is whether or not Nazism and the Holocaust emerged out of a deformation of a specific European process of modernization. For some this has even emerged as a disciplinary fault line between Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
The ‘memification’ of Nazis in pop culture risks substituting historical understanding for the short-cuts of trivialization. A greater risk that hits closer to home among scholars is the profound, if subterranean survival of National Socialist narratives among a more learned and informed audience. To offer a couple of brief examples, though not as widespread as a generation ago, the terms Anschluss and Kristallnacht are still routinely deployed in pedagogical settings. Both are products of a Nazi media-management and propaganda machine so subtle and devious that it persists after the original cover-up. The deception of the nomenclature here is so complete that no successive English language scholastic term has come to usurp its place in the vocabulary of the subject. Very similar issues persist with regard to the so-called ‘Euthanasia’ program.
The canny use of aesthetics by the Nazis from their uniforms designed by Hugo Boss to the eye catching use of banners now seems tailor made for posterity and for co-option into popular culture. Their design strategies drew upon ideals of beauty that quickly found a direct road into the cerebral cortex. Baroque theatrics possessed a seductive power whose spell has not been fully broken. It is all the more incumbent to present new and compelling methods and means of conveying the traumatic horror perpetrated by these minions.
The Eichmann trial was the first major exercise in global Holocaust education. Especially when considering how wildly reception of these events varies around the world, it is imperative to keep the unique reality front and centre. Hitler was not just one of dozens of military strong men dictators but the author of death factories which meant graveyards in the air for millions as their bodies were cremated, the same air we all breathe on this small planet.
Yet there is still so much more to know. To provide an additional instance, how many people think of the role of nurses in the Third Reich, whose arms may have coddled a small child whose defects the nurse received monetary gain to report. Any number of nurses continued to hold such babies as lethal poison was injected into their tiny arms.
Let us not exchange the ‘indigestible gap’ in modern history that challenges comprehension and requires in-depth research for pop tokenism and cultural commodification, as embodied by the popular images of Eichmann.
Adam J. Sacks holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University and an MS in education from the City College of the City University of New York. He is currently a Lecturer in the Faculty of History in the University of Hong Kong and is working on the development of Jewish Studies and Holocaust Studies curriculum for that institution.
 The film derives much of its momentum as a Cold War spy thriller narrative, which, like a recent exhibit that focuses on the Mossad angle, is more of a sensational conceit than a substantive new historical angle.
 It is well documented that Nazi Generals in particular, Franz Halder most famously, with the aid of their American handlers were quite adept at modifying Nazi propaganda into a carefully crafted post-war narrative that fit the Cold War like a glove. Nazis were just ‘pre-mature’ anti-communists.
 Historically, the Nazis were never even close to reaching criticality for chain reactions and had their heavy water depots in Norway destroyed by the Allies.
 This premise is wholeheartedly endorsed by Goldhagen’s ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’, in the sense that Goldhagen found post-war Germany magically cleansed of its historical eliminationist antisemitism.
 I was surprised when taking a poll among my students in Hong Kong, on the question of ‘how does one become a murderer?’ I asked whether they found themselves more convinced by Goldhagen’s emphasis on a culturally specific ideology of hatred or Browning’s more impersonal forces of social pressure, and they overwhelmingly chose the latter.
 Anschluss (in German literally meaning connections, whether social, electrical or telephonic) is used for the Nazi take-over of Austria and Kristallnacht (literally ‘crystal night’ as in fine glass, and incidentally also a part of the name of a very popular beer in Germany) refers to the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, a pogrom against the Jewish population carried out on 9-10 November 1938.
 The use of ‘euthanasia’ itself, which literally means ‘good death’ in the Greek, is particularly perverse. This is an instance where even the standard scholarly alternative ‘T4’ is itself directly borrows the Nazi’s deceptive code language used at the time.