Adolf Eichmann: Nazis in Popular Culture and the Trivialization of Historical Knowledge


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.[1]

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?[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

Cover image: Adolf Eichmman during the trial, 1961.

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From Windhoek to Auschwitz? The colonial ‘Sonderweg’ and Transcolonial approaches

Mads Blog

The colonial world is often seen within the confines of the colonial powers and is divided into ‘British’, ‘French’ or ‘German’ territories. However, if we are to truly understand the context in which colonial rule and resistance to it operated, we need to see it outside the scope of the European national borders extended to the colonial world.

German Southwest Africa (GSWA), present day Namibia, remains a striking case for a nationally-derived historiography. Between 1904-8, the German Schutztruppe (‘protection force’) embarked on a brutal campaign against the Herero and Nama peoples that ended in the first genocide of the twentieth century. Concentration camps were established where the prisoners were kept in inhumane conditions and were subjected to forced labour, intentional malnutrition and even medical experiments.

Over the last 15 years, German colonialism has received increasing attention by historians. However, the tendency in the historiography has been to link the genocide in GSWA as a precursor to the Holocaust. Some have observed either subtle or explicit continuities while others have even argued for a causal link ‘from Africa to Auschwitz’. [1] This has rekindled the old notion of Sonderweg – the idea that Germany took a unique path to modernity which deterministically ended in the Holocaust – and brought it into colonial history.

There remains a central problem, however. The ‘colonial’ Sonderweg confines the history of the rebellion and genocide in GSWA to a history in which the German nation is its nucleus. Consequently, other perhaps more plausible contexts are obscured. For instance, the concentration camps of GSWA are arguably more suitably seen in the context of the camps established by the British a few years prior in South Africa rather than those of Nazi Germany much later. Also, this inter-colonial context indicates that colonial powers shared tools of empire across the colonial borders. Indeed, some scholars have pointed to a shared Anglo-German ‘colonial project’ intended to uphold colonial rule and stability, particularly in the colonial borderlands. [2]

Rather than solid demarcations, colonial borderlands were contact zones and was where colonial hegemony was at its weakest. They were punctured by entanglements and cross-border interactions, whether they were guerillas utilizing the borders to their advantage or the colonial administrations cooperating (or opting not to). To consider GSWA itself as a solely German colony would also be rather mistaken. Not only was it dependent on Cape imports, but half its white settler population was also either British or Afrikaaners. This does not mean that we ought to completely disband the spheres of influence in the colonial world, but rather that we should not consider them rigid and impenetrable. [3]

Understanding the genocide in GSWA within the context of the Holocaust also diminishes the comparability to other colonial wars such as the Second Matabele War in 1896, the brutalities in the Congo Free State or the Black Wars in Tasmania in the 1860’s. [4]

The consequence of drawing causal links or continuities to the Holocaust is that the colonial context is lost for the sake of highlighting the scale of violence. Instead, if the genocide in GSWA is to be understood in a broader context, it should be in a transcolonial one, where transfers of methods such as concentrations camps or comparable incidents of violence are more viable and constructive than a nationally-deduced Sonderweg. [5]

At the time of writing, the issue over reparations for the genocide in GSWA is still unresolved. Key to the demands for reparations is the supposed link to the Holocaust. This is, in a sense, paradoxical. For while we may sympathize with the desire to address the wrongdoings of the past, it is imperative that the history of those colonized is not reduced to one of passive victimhood. Moreover, the effect of rendering the genocide a mere precursor to the Holocaust is that it is taken out of Africa and placed into a Eurocentric history of violence. Yet, remarkably, this view is implicitly promoted by the descendants of those who actively resisted German colonial rule and suffered for it.

Mads Bomholt Nielsen is a Carlsberg Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for English, Germanic and Romance Studies at the University of Copenhagen. He completed his PhD at King’s College London in 2018 and currently works on the confiscation of Germany’s colonies at the end of the First World War.

[1] See Benjamin Madley, ‘From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe’, European History Quarterly, 35, 3 (2005), 429-464. Also, Jürgen Zimmerer, Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz? Beitrage zum Verhältnis von Kolonialismus und Holocaust (Münster, 2011). [/ref]

[2] For Anglo-German colonial collaboration and ‘colonial projects’ see Ulrike Lindner, Koloniale Begegnungen. Deutschland und Grossbritannien als Imperialmächte in Afrika 1880-1914 (Frankfurt-am-Main, 2011). For an English publication on this see, Ulrike Linder, ’Colonialism as a European Project before 1914? British and German concepts of colonial rule in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Comparativ 19, 1 (2009), 88-106. [/ref]

[3] Tilman Dedering,  ‘War and Mobility in the Borderlands of South Western Africa in the Early Twentieth Century’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 39, 2 (2006), 275-294.  [/ref]

[4] This point was actually made by the German delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 in a response to British demands to confiscate German colonies on the basis of their inhumane record in GSWA. [/ref]

[5] See Mads Bomholt Nielsen, ‘Selective Memory: British Perceptions of the Herero-Nama Genocide, 1904-1908 and 1918’, in Journal of Southern African Studies, 43, 2 (2017), 315-330. [/ref]


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