But that is apparent to you gentlemen, is it not? That must be apparent to everyone.
—Eichmann in the Sassen circle1
The Contracted Parties
In Argentina, Adolf Eichmann knew the magnitude of the horror behind the phrase “the Final Solution of the Jewish question” better than anyone. He was also well aware of how much danger lay in historical research and any kind of investigation. Compared to Eichmann, even Josef Mengele and the former camp commandant Josef Schwammberger had only limited insight. This pair, far away from Berlin, the decision-making process, and the decision makers, had experienced only the end result of the extermination plans. Rudolf Höß’s memoirs reveal an atmosphere in which contempt for human life, torture, and murder had become the norm, and in this atmosphere, facts, figures, and concepts become hazy. But from where Eichmann was stationed, he had both distance and oversight. He was the appointed coordinator, by the grace of Himmler, and many different strands of the operation came together in his office. Even while Hitler was in power, Eichmann was one of the few people who were able, at least in some measure, to gain a real overview of the National Socialist extermination of the Jews. By 1957 all his superiors were dead, and Eichmann’s knowledge was unparalleled. The awareness of his own authority must have allowed him to enter into discussions with the Dürer circle with confidence. Of course he ran the risk that the others’ curiosity might touch upon things that could endanger his ideal version of history, but he would always have the upper hand. Understandably, the last thing he wanted was to open people’s eyes to reality. He was fifty-one years old and had been living in Argentina for almost seven years—long enough to have asked around and got the measure of Eberhard Fritsch and Willem Sassen. When the recordings began, sometime around the end of April 1957, Eichmann certainly thought he knew enough about his partners to take part in the project.
The Publisher: Eberhard Fritsch
From Eichmann’s perspective, the least dangerous of those involved was the man who offered the infrastructure to make his book a success: a publishing house, and a range of relationships with National Socialist circles both old and new. Eberhard Ludwig Cäsar Fritsch was born in Buenos Aires on November 21, 1921,2 and thus was fifteen years younger than Eichmann. For this reason alone, he had no insider knowledge. The German Reich, its Führer, its debauched everyday life, war, and extermination were all things he had never experienced. Contrary to rumors that he had worked for Goebbels in Berlin, Fritsch had visited the legendary Third Reich only once, for the international congress of the Hitler Youth, which took place near Berlin in 1935.3 For a Hitler Youth leader who had grown up in Buenos Aires, Hitler’s Germany during an accelerated economic recovery must have appeared an intoxicating prospect—even more so than it did to the international and more adult audience who fell for the facade of the Olympics the following year. In Argentina, which was generally friendly toward Germany, nothing prevented the young Fritsch from immersing himself in his Hitler mania and declaring anything that didn’t fit this high ideal to be malicious propaganda. The news that emerged after the German defeat did nothing to change this enthusiasm, and in Argentina, radical political views didn’t prevent a young man from getting a job teaching German at the Fredericus School. Things were slightly different when it came to his youth work: the camp that Fritsch set up during the school holidays was so overenthusiastically modeled on the Hitler Youth that even the Sassens found it excessive and brought their daughter home after just a short time there. The driving force behind this parental rescue may admittedly have been Sassen’s wife, Miep, who was never able to reconcile herself to her husband’s extremist friends, but this episode still demonstrates the overzealous nature of Fritsch’s work.4 He was more Nazi than the Nazis, Saskia Sassen remembers, without any distance or humor—but then, it was much easier for Fritsch to be an idealist than it was for the exiles. He had never witnessed the horror. For him, National Socialism remained the unsullied dream that he had dreamed as a boy on the campsite, now enriched by heroic tales from the newcomers in Argentina. His Argentine perspective meant he had both a friendly inclination toward Germany and enough skepticism toward the United States that any Allied explanation of the Hitler regime’s crimes sounded untrustworthy to his ears. And Fritsch was surrounded by National Socialists from Germany, who mentioned wartime atrocities and crimes against humanity only when they were trying to incriminate the people who had actually been their victims. He heard about the “victor’s justice” of Nuremberg and “torture in the CIC camps,” and as his articles in Der Weg show, he dismissed any criticism of the Hitler regime as anti-German propaganda. He dedicated himself to trying to improve the position of his “comrades” who had been incarcerated, got involved in Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s Kameradenwerk, and helped spread the National Socialist philosophy. As he wrote to one of his authors in 1948, he wasn’t interested in articles “that defame the past, which is close to many Germans’ hearts.”5 He wanted a “philosophy to heal our people, and with them Europe and the world,” without the “impotence that comes from anti-ethnic perspectives.”6 On his travels through Latin America, he found that these “ethnic perspectives” were essential, especially in the face of “the angry half-negro mob” in Brazil.7 In order for Fritsch to take an interest in the poor and the persecuted, they did, of course, have to be Nazis in exile. He had no time for stories of the other refugees from Germany—Argentina’s Jewish immigrants, for example.
Fritsch’s aid was not entirely selfless: offering his many services to Nazi fugitives was how he made his living. He was what we would today call a successful networker. He had no direct connection to the government or (unlike Horst Carlos Fuldner and Rudolfo Freude) any way of rescuing Nazis from Europe and helping them start over in Argentina; but he still managed to offer stranded Nazis a place to start in Buenos Aires, and he obtained support from all sides.8 The Dürer House was a meeting place where people fresh off the boat could exchange addresses, have innocuous reunions, and buy German-language books. Through placing ads, providing courier and travel services, and, not least, furnishing the German fugitives with fascist kitsch from the Fatherland, Fritsch had established what you might call a lucrative one-stop store for Nazis in exile. American intelligence service files indicate that Fritsch received support from the highest circles: Horst Carlos Fuldner was named as one of the Dürer House’s financiers.9 In practice, this support may not actually have been financial, but the enterprise would have been untenable without the right political backing. While the Argentinisches Tageblatt, the liberal paper read by many Jewish immigrants, repeatedly had to battle publication bans or allocation limits on imported paper, Fritsch carried on publishing, unhindered.10 We know very little about the business’s financial background, but Fritsch must have been a man of some means, at least part of the time. He managed to keep the publishing house above water in difficult circumstances, and he owned real estate: the first house that Willem Sassen rented in Buenos Aires belonged to none other than his publisher.11
Eberhard Fritsch had an unconventional combination of characteristics. On the one hand, he was an eccentric Nazi enthusiast, standing at a safe distance in South America, who liked to prattle on about the “Fourth Reich” and whose admiration for National Socialists knew no bounds. On the other, he was a shrewd exploiter of those who still felt a sentimental longing for what they had lost when the Third Reich collapsed. Later events also reveal him as a gullible man who admired Willem Sassen and was almost in thrall to him.12 Admittedly, Fritsch wasn’t alone in this respect: Hans-Ulrich Rudel stuck by Sassen with a faithfulness that his associates didn’t always understand.13
Two details illustrate Adolf Eichmann’s attitude toward Fritsch. Eichmann called him “Comrade Fritsch”—a form of address he usually reserved for people he looked on as fellow soldiers (SS men) and the contacts who had helped him during his escape and in Argentina. These naturally included “my dear Comrade Sassen.” If Eichmann didn’t regard someone as being of equal rank to him, he simply called them by their last name. During his trial in Israel, Eichmann would make a great effort to downplay Fritsch’s role in the Argentine publishing project,14 although the Dürer circle no longer existed by this point, at least in Buenos Aires. Much suggests that Eichmann even put Fritsch in touch with his family in Linz, when Fritsch emigrated to Austria with his wife and children in 1958.15
The “Co-author”: Willem Sassen
None of the National Socialists who fled to Argentina fulfilled the cliché of the vivo as much as Willem Sassen. He was a multifaceted bon vivant, a man of many talents (which didn’t include any form of self-restraint). He liked to party and was always on the lookout for the big coup, the fast buck—but he had no staying power, either in his private or his professional life. If there was one constant in Sassen’s life, it was his fascination with National Socialism, which, unlike Fritsch, he had experienced firsthand. Wilhelmus Antonius Maria Sassen16 was born into a Catholic family on April 16, 1918, in Geertruidenberg (North Brabant, Netherlands). After leaving school, he considered studying theology before deciding on law, and at university he became closely acquainted with National Socialism. As an eighteen-year-old, his trip to the Olympic Games sparked his fascination with Adolf Hitler to such an extent that when he returned home, he made an emphatically pro-German speech that got him thrown out of Ghent and lost him his place at the university. Sassen’s first journalistic experience was on newspapers, and he started to write for the military when he was drafted in 1938. He didn’t spend long in the Utrecht Artillery: when the Germans marched in, Sassen was briefly taken as a prisoner of war, then demilitarized. He returned to journalism. He also married for the first time in 1940 and became a father, then started to look around for a second wife. During the Russian campaign, Sassen signed up for the Dutch Voluntary SS and joined the “Kurt Eggers” SS squadron. This was a reservoir of propaganda assistants, where writers and broadcasters like Henri Nannen and Vitus de Vries spurred the troops on to final victory. Sassen knew them both. According to Stan Lauryssens, he was also a witness to war crimes: he once watched as the SS forced twenty-seven Jews to beat one another to death.17 Sassen’s path led him across Poland to Russia, into the middle of the Caucasus offensive of 1942. On July 26, Sassen was so severely wounded that he had to spend the next eight months being patched up in military hospitals in Kraków, Munich, and Berlin. This got him a promotion to SS Unterscharführer and made him a war hero to his fellow Nazis. Sassen had belonged to the Waffen-SS and had the frontline experience and the scars to show for it, while Eichmann was in the General SS, which the frontline soldiers looked upon with disdain. His only scar was from a motorcycle accident, and his broken hand had been caused by a slippery parquet floor. This lack of combat experience was still an obvious stigma among ex-SS comrades in exile, and Eichmann was painfully aware of it.18
After Sassen’s recovery in April 1943, his career really took off. He was allowed to make live broadcasts, in contravention of the censorship laws, which became so successful and popular that even Radio Sender Bremen broadcast his reports. Until mid-1944, Sassen worked for Sender Brüssel, setting a new benchmark for extreme anti-Allied radio with his heavy-handed, hair-raising, tear-jerking style. This same mix of pornographic violence, pathos, and sentimentality would characterize his writing in Argentina. He was skilled in catering to mainstream tastes, producing vast numbers of reports, and earning a commensurate amount of money. The personal high point of his career as a war correspondent was a live frontline broadcast from Normandy on June 6, 1944 (D-day), when at times he found himself behind enemy lines as the Allies landed. When the evacuation order came for troops to return to Germany, Sassen started working for mobile war broadcasters, propaganda sheets, and radio stations. However, he increasingly became a gossip-column character himself, plundering supply depots and disobeying orders. Only his good contacts repeatedly prevented him from suffering serious consequences. In March 1945 Sassen fled to Utrecht and continued to broadcast his miserable slogans about perseverance there until the power failure on April 7. At that point Sassen seems to have realized it was time to look elsewhere. He made contact with his brother, who had also been in the Waffen-SS since 1944 and had built up a network to help Dutch Nazis go underground. It was a systematic counterfeiting operation to support the creation of new identities that used mobile radio broadcasters as contact media. After Hitler’s death, the brothers fled to Alkmaar and went underground themselves.
Sassen’s CV features some impressive escapes: on June 5, 1945, he was imprisoned and interrogated by British Field Security in Fort Blauwkapel, before managing to escape the camp in December with forged papers, money, and food. Shortly afterward he was arrested and interrogated again in Berlin. His captors then tried to hand him over to the Dutch authorities; Sassen used the transfer to effect his final escape. In May 1947 he made the journey to Ireland, and a few days later his second wife, Miep Sassen (née van der Voort), and their daughter joined him. Sassen’s friendship with the daughters of the schooner captain Schneider, one of whom lived with the Sassens for a while,19 provided him with an opportunity to escape to Argentina. Many years later Inge Schneider said she had never known how Sassen made his living in Ireland, but he had traveled a lot, and during their last year there, he had a very nice apartment. In September 1948, Sassen boarded the schooner De Adelaar in Dublin, with his pregnant wife and their daughter Saskia. He set foot on Argentine soil on November 5. He used a false name during his escape, traveling as Jacobus Janssen, in the company of two Belgian war criminals and their families. Sassen was a charmer and a gifted linguist. He learned his fifth language on board and showed an obvious interest in Antje Schneider, the captain’s second daughter. This affair didn’t stop him from describing the arduous voyage in his novel from the point of view of a devoted husband with an extremely pregnant wife. The level of horrific detail in this section gives the reader a very vivid impression of seasickness.20 The Argentine immigration authority issued entry permits for the whole group.21 After they arrived, Sassen, his wife, and their two daughters lived in Pilar with the Schneider sisters for a time: money was tight, and they were eager to help one another out.22 Shortly after their arrival, as Inge Schneider remembers, Sassen started working for magazines in the Federal Republic. The first commission was apparently a two-page investigation for Stern,and Sassen told his family he also worked for Der Spiegel and Life.23
By the time Adolf Eichmann arrived in Buenos Aires in mid-1950, Sassen was already established.24 He had quickly gone into the fugitive-aid business with Hans-Ulrich Rudel and was now working as his chauffeur and ghostwriter. He was also writing the memoirs of Adolf Galland, the second flying ace to make an emergency landing in Argentina, and he was welcome in all the Nazi-friendly circles within Argentine society. Sassen was a talented actor in Buenos Aires’s German Theater—and an irresistible Don Juan, both on and off the stage. He was a politically ambitious friend of the president, a correspondent for European magazines, and a gifted author who enjoyed playing around with names as much as he loved poker: he was Wilhelm, Willem, Wim, Willy, Sassen, and W. S. van Elsloo, to say nothing of his many pseudonyms. This fugitive had made it. He was soon able to afford a small house for himself and his family on the most desirable street in Buenos Aires, at 2755 Liberdad in Florida. He never managed to create a life of ease for them, but that was purely due to his own inability to deal with money. He was a born survivor, and one might almost think fondly of this hard-drinking, sociable man with his education and his gift for languages, were it not for the burning enthusiasm he still harbored for Hitler and for German plans for world domination, and his implacable hatred of the Jews. He was fond of conspiracy theories and had a talent for unscrupulous manipulation, which he employed to lie about everything, to everyone. His behavior toward his wife was decidedly disrespectful: his contemporaries give the impression that no woman could withstand Sassen’s charms, even if she was in a relationship with one of his friends.25 In any case, whatever he was doing, he seemed to give little thought to his wife or children. This was probably not how Miep Sassen imagined her life would turn out, trapped in financially unpredictable circumstances with a notoriously unfaithful husband, particularly as she didn’t share his outlandish political views and avoided his SS comrades. This was partly because her brother had been part of the Belgian resistance during the occupation.26 Still, she tolerated the presence of Adolf Eichmann and the others in her house, despite her annoyance that the visits took place on Sunday, the family day. For several months in 1957, Miep Sassen proved an attentive hostess to at least two mass murderers and thus lent her own support to the Sassen-Fritsch project.
“Comrade Sassen” became one of Eichmann’s most important attachment figures within the Dürer circle. Even as the evidence mounted that Sassen had betrayed him and his family, Eichmann still spoke of him with admiration and only reluctantly accepted the unfavorable reports he was given. In Israel, Eichmann named Sassen as his “co-author,” adding that a “friendship” had developed between them “over the years.”27 Even Vera Eichmann found “Herr Sassen” to be a helpful man, who seemed to be doing everything he could to aid her and her family.28 The change that the Sassen discussions wrought in her husband cannot have escaped her notice, even if she was seeing much less of him on the weekends. In her husband’s eyes, Sassen was providing a gateway back into political life, back to dynamism and importance.
The Sassen Interviews
Only in the spring of 1957 did the Dürer circle decide to record their conversations about the National Socialists’ extermination of the Jews. They had already tested this method with other book projects. Hans-Ulrich Rudel had recorded his recollections onto tape for the book Zwischen Deutschland und Argentinien, so that Sassen could then polish them to a pathos-rich shine. Pedro Pobierzym, a former Polish soldier in the Wehrmacht who had a business relationship with the scrap metal magnate Dieter Menge, said that Sassen bought the tape recorder from him especially for this project. Pobierzym had smuggled it into Argentina from the United States.29 Willem Sassen also used tape for his own texts and was plainly fascinated by its possibilities. At the time, the tape recorder was a very modern piece of technology. He started using it as a matter of course, and played with it in private as well, recording plays, dance music, and his own singing and whistling, which can still be heard on the few surviving tapes.
Together with the transcripts and Eichmann’s corrections, the recordings that reemerged in the late 1990s present a very precise picture of Sassen’s working methods. The tapes were typed up relatively quickly by various helpers, then recorded over. New tapes were expensive, both in Buenos Aires and elsewhere, and they weren’t easy to get hold of. Today we have around one thousand pages of the transcript (including the pages of corrections) and twenty-nine hours of recordings, including doubles of tapes that were copied later. Not only do they prove that the transcripts are an authentic source; they are also a window into the year 1957—and the front room of the Sassen house.30
A group of middle-aged men met in the neat living room of a house in Florida, a popular district of Buenos Aires. Their surroundings suited the aspirations of their project: the room was also a kind of study, full of books, records, art, pictures, and European furniture—with an atmosphere that made the conversations seem meaningful. Sassen’s was a convivial house, full of “Dutch comforts.”31 He liked to live at the very limits of what he could afford: apart from National Socialism, he valued beautiful objects, education, and expensive whiskey. Games of “guess the composer” and discussions about books were part of the family’s dinner table conversation, even when the children were small.32 Sassen’s living conditions were by no means luxurious, but they were still very different from what Eichmann was used to. He spent his weeks “on the ranch,” providing loving care for the Angora rabbits, and he didn’t inhabit rooms like Sassen’s at home, either. But this wasn’t the only reason his weekends with Sassen were like taking a trip to another world.
The meetings themselves were what really mattered: being reunited with former fellow travelers, having access to literature, and taking part in discussions that gave his life another dimension once again. The Sassen circle’s politics had some obvious far-right features, and Eichmann was made to feel that his knowledge and his judgments were an indispensible part of the new movement. It wasn’t mere flattery: they really needed this one surviving insider. When it came to the question of victim numbers, so hotly debated in far-right circles, Eichmann was generally regarded as the only person with an overview of all the mass shootings, death-by-labor operations, starvation, and gassing—a reputation he had cultivated himself. In Argentina this image had always been his entry ticket to postwar Nazi circles.
Four years later, when he was on trial in Israel, Eichmann managed to draw a veil over the true scale of the Sassen conversations. His defense strategy essentially rested on his no longer being a National Socialist and having spent the last fifteen years as a blameless, unremarkable, and above all apolitical citizen. He had left all his old resentments—in particular, his anti-Semitism—behind long ago. If the background to the Sassen circle were ever to come to light, there was no way he could maintain this lie, so Eichmann told his lawyer a story about Sassen being a headline-hungry journalist who had met the harmless Argentine citizen Klement by chance in a café. Sassen then paid him regular visits at home with a tape recorder, convincing him these discussions would help him write his biography. And yes, with the aid of a lot of alcohol, Sassen occasionally tempted Eichmann to lapse into old habits, and then had distorted everything afterward, the way journalists do. According to Eichmann, not a word of the resulting material corresponded to what he had really said. This version of events was in perfect accord with the game of hide-and-seek being played by the other witnesses, none of whom wanted to admit to sitting around a table with Eichmann. Sassen, in particular, made an effort to conceal his National Socialist convictions behind the façade of the professional journalist.
The evidence shows that the discussions were never held at Eichmann’s house but at Willem Sassen’s, where regular debates about the “Final Solution”33 were held on Saturdays and Sundays from April 1957.34 It is entirely possible that other people hosted similar sessions: contemporaries have mentioned discussion groups hosted by the affluent former SS man Dieter Menge, and some at the Dürer Verlag’s premises. But these discussions probably weren’t recorded. Evidence shows that the recordings were made in Sassen’s house. The tapes contain the sounds of Sassen’s wife and daughters in the background, noises from the same doors and windows throughout, and most significant, a few private snippets from Sassen’s everyday life. Rooms have their own characteristic sounds, and the tapes contain none that suggest a location other than Sassen’s house.
Contrary to what Eichmann would later claim, alcohol didn’t play an important role at these meetings. The tapes and the transcripts contain references to the noise of bottle corks, but alcohol appears to have had no influence on the course of the conversation. In the 1950s, almost all social gatherings involved alcohol, and these were no exception: spirits were part of a well-laid coffee table, and a “gentlemen’s discussion” was unthinkable without them. Tobacco also came with the coffee and alcohol, which must have been extremely welcome to a chain-smoker like Eichmann. But the typical indications of drunkenness are nowhere to be heard: there are no slurred words, and even during the most heated debate, everyone is alert and concentrating. Tempted as we might be by the cliché of drunken Nazis toasting one another with “Sieg Heil” until their crystal glasses shatter, the recorded conversations were very disciplined. There were no toasts, no clinking glasses, just the rustle of paper. Everyone remained polite and considerate, even after a verbal duel. These men were deadly serious about their discussions. The characterization of the meetings as “tavern talk” is obviously a defensive move by an accused man, and we should stop helping Eichmann perpetuate it.
With one exception, all the men addressed one another using the formal Sie and sometimes as “gentlemen,” though with a relaxed and occasionally even friendly undertone. This was expressed in the old familiar titles: Eichmann frequently used “Comrade Sassen,” “my dear Comrade Sassen,” and also “Comrade Fritsch.”35 Absent members of the group and old associates were simply referred to by their last names.36 Only Sassen and Ludolf von Alvensleben used the informal du with each other. In general, real names were used, rather than pseudonyms or aliases. There was no Ricardo Klement in Sassen’s house, only Adolf Eichmann.37
The atmosphere and the course of the discussion are most reminiscent of a subject conference: a changing cast of participants spent hours at a time discussing historical theories, interpreting documents together, and arguing—occasionally fiercely—over the evaluation from the perspective of their own individual experiences. They read and discussed exhaustively every book they could get hold of. Sassen often set assigments between meetings and urged the participants to devote some proper attention to them.38 The men made notes, read out their commentaries on the books, formulated new questions, and even gave lectures. The original recordings show that as a rule, people spoke very slowly, accentuating their words. A lecture by Dr. Langer, preserved both on tape and in transcript form, lasts for twenty minutes but covers only a page and a half of typescript, which conveys an impression of how long these discussions must have lasted.
The stamina of those present sometimes wavered, but the debate was mostly concentrated. The participants made material available to one another for the meetings: Sassen lent Eichmann books and distributed copies of important documents;39 Eichmann brought newspaper articles he had received from Europe.40 Sassen once translated an American magazine article for the group. People reported things they had read in the Argentine press and discussed current events in world politics, as well as the increasing juridical effort in West Germany to come to terms with the Nazi past. A few of these discussions lasted well over four hours and certainly do not give the impression of being a relaxed, enjoyable way to spend one’s leisure time. The seriousness with which even the most absurd theories were constructed can be seen on every page.
Dating and the Advantage of Dilettantes
In a few cases, references to political events of the day allow us to pinpoint the particular week that a conversation took place. On tape 3, Eichmann mentions the year of the recording (1957), and in tapes 8 and 9, the arrest of Eichmann’s colleague Hermann Krumey is still a hot topic. (He was arrested on April 1, 1957.) On the same day Eichmann refers to the assassination of Kasztner (who was attacked on March 3 and died on March 15). This must have been old news by then, as Eichmann ponders aloud: “He died at the start of this year, I believe, not before.”41 The discussion also covers a newspaper article from the Argentinisches Tageblatt of April 15, 1957.42 On tape 37, Sassen translates an English article from the current edition of Time (August 1957), and on tape 39, Eichmann mentions the celebrations to mark Ballin’s one hundredth birthday, which he has recently read about in the Argentinisches Tageblatt (again, August 1957).43 Finally, tape 72 contains a direct reference to the sentencing of General Ferdinand Schörner inMunich (October 15, 1957).44 Eichmann also occasionally alludes to times that give us further insights: “yesterday evening”; “for four months now”; “a few weeks ago.”45 Sassen talks about another meeting the following week. All this shows that the recording sessions began in April 1957 at the earliest and lasted until at least mid-October of the same year.
The rather unprofessionally produced transcripts reveal that Sassen and Eichmann were not the only people involved in the discussions. The surviving tapes provide audio evidence not only of other participants but of passive listeners as well. Nobody can listen to a conversation for hours at a time without making some kind of noise: throat clearing, coughing, paper rustling, footsteps, murmured excuses, hurried farewells, banging doors, jammed windows, the noises of drinks and cigarette lighters. In places it is possible to discern six separate people making these noises in the room. Contemporaries in Buenos Aires always implied that a lot of people knew about these sessions with Eichmann, and one took a certain pride in being able to say one had been there. Of course, we can’t rule out the possibility that some people who met Eichmann elsewhere confused their experience with the Sassen circle, or that people said they had been at the discussions to make themselves look important. But the documents and tapes prove that they really were a big event.
The transcripts have one foible that greatly increases the difficulty of reading them: the person who typed them up omitted any indication of who was speaking. There are no names or initials, and nothing to show whether something is a question or an answer. Sometimes there are handwritten marks (F for Frage, or question; A for Antwort, or answer), but sometimes they are simply wrong.46 The consistency with which names were omitted suggests that it was deliberate. The precaution was undoubtedly sensible: with such an extensive project lasting several months, pages from the transcript could very well end up in the wrong hands, and not everyone was as keen as Eichmann to see their names in print. This way, at first glance the transcript appeared anonymous. Unfortunately a huge amount of concentration is required to read transcribed conversations in which the speakers are not identified, especially if several people are speaking at once. To cap it all, the transcribers occasionally forgot to start new lines, meaning a change of speaker can only be surmised from the content and style. Quotations are also unmarked. When Sassen or his companions read long passages from books, as they often did, this is only apparent to someone who recognizes the quotes and can differentiate between them and the speaker’s own words. Over 10 percent of the Sassen transcript is made up of quotations from books.47 All this makes a perfunctory reading of the transcript impossible. But if you have enough time, it is possible to distinguish between the speakers: Eichmann and Sassen’s speech patterns are so individual that they quickly become recognizable when you immerse yourself in the text. The fact that we now have a few of the original tape reels also means we don’t have to rely completely on a feeling for language and our own reading experience.48
For the most part, the sequence in which the recordings were made corresponds to the numbering of the tapes, as the topics and the transitions show.49 There is only one weekend (tapes 58–61) that Sassen seems to have accidentally misfiled. The correct chronological order is therefore: 1 to the middle of 54; then 58 to 61; then the middle of 54 to 57; and then 62 to 69 and 72 to 73.50 (An “unnumbered tape” containing a short recording of a conversation between Sassen and Eichmann, in the middle of a “private tape by W. S.… filled with music and a Flemish stage play,” appears to belong with tape 61.)51 In spite of some small aberrations, an attempt was obviously made to work in an orderly and systematic way over the course of many months, and today we are largely able to follow the order of the tape labels. The material, however, demonstrates the fact that no one involved had any experience of a project on this scale or was familiar with the scholarly methods that would have been helpful for conducting it.
As surprising as it may sound, bad transcripts have an undeniable advantage over those that were professionally produced. They reveal a lot about the people who typed them, whose mistakes—repeated typing errors, for example—become identifying marks. The observant reader can decipher each transcriber’s idiosyncrasies. The full transcript was typed on three different typewriters, the majority on a single machine. But because each transcriber leaves an individual and easily identifiable set of marks, three different typists can be discerned. The first and last tapes were done by people with some secretarial experience. The paragraphs are clearly separated, the transcript reproduces what was said right down to the grammatical errors, and the mistakes made with names, places, and internal Nazi affairs suggest that the typist had no insider knowledge of German history. Contemporaries recall that Sassen liked to make use of Dürer Verlag’s secretaries for various other activities, and it seems likely that he had them make the first transcriptions. By contrast, most of the tapes were typed out by someone we can clearly identify as a man with Nazi experience: the abbreviations he uses for ranks, people, and institutions correspond to Nazi bureaucratic usage. This typist also has a particular quirk—he cuts repetitions as he goes and communicates with Sassen in more than one hundred comments added in brackets. Some raise direct objections, but others have a clearly political tone. The typist addresses Sassen as “Comrade Sassen,” which was the norm in the discussion group, and all the parenthetical remarks are clearly addressed to him. They go far beyond comments like “could he have spoken any faster?!,” “thoughtlessly unclear,” “words unclear, it’s enough to drive you mad!,” or “thank you for the tape information.” There are also sarcastic comments after Eichmann’s speeches, like “blah blah blah” or “drivel,” and petulant remarks directed against Eichmann, like “pig-headed Austrian” or “peddler” (in reaction to Eichmann using a foreign word that another speaker usually used). The remarks show that the typist was eager to take part in the discussion, at least remotely, as he scatters “humorous” comments through the typescript. Thus Eichmann’s statements are sometimes followed by a comment like “aha” or “Buenas Noches” and, after a story that Eichmann tells about Göring, a “poor Heinrich.” There is even some friendly ribbing about Sassen’s sexual proclivities. The same typist makes a note of noises (“a tomcat yowls in the background, God have mercy”). Obviously a little envious, he remarks that he can hear a “wine bottle,” and four pages (around two hours) later, “another bottle of wine already.” A professional typist clearly wouldn’t permit himself these cheeky or personal comments. But a comparison of the transcript with the original tape shows why Sassen relied on a friend for the most part: this man was sympathetic, able to distinguish between the conversations useful to the project and those that were not, and he was equal to the content. He was obviously aware of the project’s aims and so allowed himself to cut conversations, leave out Eichmann’s personal anecdotes, and omit repetitions. Nazi history was neither foreign nor, apparently, distant to him. It would otherwise have been an unreasonable demand for him to type out some of these detailed descriptions of war crimes and atrocities. Sassen relied on an “initiate” for most of the transcription, and in return he tolerated his high-handed comments. One of the tapes contains a dictation by Sassen in which he gives express instructions for the transcription. He wants the recorded conversations to be “gone over and edited” and explains that “this means any incorrect sentence constructions, any unfinished sentences, any sentences that are no good, I mean, that are far too long, make them shorter, without losing the natural sense or changing the wording.”52 Sassen’s instructions extend to guidelines for spelling and abbreviations, although the transcripts show that the typist often had his own ideas. We do not know this man’s identity.
Despite all the cuts and comments, a comparison of the transcripts and the original recordings (where both exist) reveals one thing very clearly: what we have today is a direct transcription of the tapes. Some material may have been cut, but this is in no way an edited version. The transcript is incomplete and contains some intrusions, but there is no evidence of deliberate distortion or falsification. It is a reliable transcription of the project, and although from an academic point of view we might wish it were more complete, we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this extensive source.
A Social Event
Eichmann read most of the transcript in Argentina and added his corrections and comments right up to the final tape. He knew just how difficult it was to read the text in this format and used this fact in Israel to lessen the threat posed by this paper witness. He promoted the image of secret one-on-one conversations between the drunk, sentimental ex-Nazi Eichmann and the inquisitive journalist Sassen, in Eichmann’s kitchen, far from the eyes of the world. This story must have aroused suspicion immediately, as Eichmann’s wife categorically denied there were any recording sessions in their house.53 The transcript also clearly shows that more than two people participated in the discussion. But most of the rumors still circulating about the members of the Sassen circle have their roots in Eichmann’s deliberate disinformation. The only person he mentioned who was really present was “the publisher” (Eberhard Fritsch). However, although Fritsch can be easily identified on tape 47, Eichmann claimed he was there only for the first few recordings. All the other names he gave were just shameless false leads.
In Eichmann’s version of events, Rudolf Mildner was invited to the meetings as an expert. He had been, among other things, head of the Political Department at Auschwitz and chief of the Gestapo in Katowice from 1941, then commander of the SiPo (Security Police) and the SD in Denmark. Mildner’s name often came up in the Sassen discussions, but not because he was present. On the contrary, the participants wondered whether anyone knew where he might be, and the tapes and transcripts suggest that they thought him “missing.”54 In 1960 Eichmann had an obvious motivation for claiming he had “picked apart” Nazi history with Mildner “for the first time, around three years ago, … in the presence of a certain Herr Sassen.”55 He still had a score to settle with Rudolf Mildner, whom he held responsible for one of his greatest defeats (and a personal insult): the failed deportations from Denmark.56 He also resented Mildner’s incriminating testimony at Nuremberg. Finally, the Mildner story was a diversion: a senior Nazi had spoken in the Sassen group, in the person of Ludolf von Alvensleben, and Eichmann knew it was only a matter of time before someone came across that fact in the transcript. Eichmann could cover for him effectively only by using another high-ranking name. His main motive in choosing Mildner for this role seems to have been a desire for delayed revenge.57
As a rule, Eichmann didn’t betray any of his former colleagues during his trial, as long as he didn’t feel they had betrayed him. He mentioned names only of people who were long dead, and even then he made an effort to cause confusion wherever possible. During his interrogation, he tried to protect Alois Brunner by failing to correct the authorities’ confusion of him with Anton Brunner, who had been executed after the war. He also protected a member of the Sassen circle by leaving his name uncorrected: reading the Sassen transcripts in 1961, Polish journalists had discovered the name Langer. When Eichmann was asked about it in court, he had the presence of mind to shorten the name to “Dr. Lange, alias Dr. Klan,” a man he had happened to meet at the time of the Sassen interviews. This started a wild-goose chase for the notorious “Dr. Rudolf Lange,” who had been involved in the Einsatzgruppen mass shootings and was present at the Wannsee Conference.58 The hunt was unsuccessful, as Lange had not survived his encounter with an antitank gun in February 1945. If we want to find out about the discussion group, we can expect little help from Eichmann’s testimonies. Happily, the documents and tapes are more cooperative.
We are a long way from knowing everything about the members of the Sassen circle, but the transcripts have significantly more to tell us than people have seen to date. In addition to Eichmann, Sassen, and Fritsch, there is clear evidence of at least two others: Dr. Langer and Ludolf von Alvensleben, a guest from Córdoba who seems to have been entirely overlooked until now. Certain clues hidden in the transcript suggest women were present. Word of the meetings at Sassen’s house obviously got around quickly, and they became a social event. Much was expected of this project, which was certainly no secret and attracted a great deal of attention. Eichmann, undaunted, spoke quite frankly even when he didn’t know some of the guests. He was only occasionally unsettled by their questions. In one case, he notes a complaint on the transcript: “It is too annoying to read further on page three how certain assumptions were made about me here. I am thankful that Dr. Blau edited this collection [referring to a book]. It proves to this peculiar questioner how stupid it is to assume, when you are not much troubled with expertise in the matter.”59 But Eichmann seems not to have asked who the peculiar questioner was. On the tape of another session, he can be heard whispering that he doesn’t like a listener who has just departed, whose name he doesn’t know. Nobody who was worried about their safety and anonymity would be this relaxed.
Sassen was not always happy with his guests, either. In one case, his irritation shows as he tells the person transcribing the latest recordings about “a Patagonian show-off” he has met “this afternoon.” “Between you and me,” he remarks, “that was another little kick in the pants.” He then gets his revenge by stating for the record that the show-off arrived “in a crappy old car … that wasn’t exactly the image of the fat new cars people drive in Patagonia.”60 It just so happens that at the start of the 1950s an old rival of Sassen’s from his early years in Argentina had moved to Bariloche: Hans Juan Maler (real name Reinhard Kopps).
Like Sassen, Maler was a prolific writer. Four years older, he had made himself indispensable to Dürer Verlag in Der Weg’s first years. He specialized in finding cunning and illegal methods of circulating the magazine, one of which was the use of a distribution point in Hamburg, Maler’s hometown.61 Some differences of opinion developed with the magazine’s editors, as Maler, the anti-Freemason expert, increasingly deviated from the line taken by Fritsch, Leers, and Sassen. Maler developed a crazed theory that could have been put to excellent use in starting a cult, had he not been driven by paranoia. He no longer felt safe in Buenos Aires and thought murderers were pursuing him. He also considered himself a great intellect.62 In the early 1950s, Maler moved to Bariloche in Patagonia, where he intended to start up a rival to the Dürer House. Despite founding his own hotel and travel agency, things didn’t turn out as he had hoped. The business became a self-publishing enterprise for books that were largely unmarketable, though in his memoirs he nevertheless boasted about his great successes. Bariloche was popular with exiled Nazis. Around eight hundred miles from Buenos Aires, it lay at the foot of the Andes and was reminiscent of the Swiss mountains, which made it particularly popular with émigrés from the Alpine regions. Franz Rubatscher, and Gustav and Friedrich Lantschner, former Gauamtsleiters in Innsbruck, worked in this popular tourist area as ski instructors, and Erich Priebke ran the successful Wiener Delikatessen butcher. Rudolf Freude also had a house there.63 Bariloche was a fashionable metropolis, and the “fat cars” that Sassen referred to were part of the cliché. Fritsch had evidently stayed in touch with Maler, so he might have invited him over to get an idea of the project. It’s possible that we even have a recording of him: one of the fragments of tape contains a voice with a strong Hamburg accent.64 In any case, people came from far and wide to see what Sassen was up to in Buenos Aires. And the “show-off with the crappy old car” doesn’t seem to have been invited by Sassen himself.
The transcript and tapes also allow us to rule out a few people as possible listeners. Everything speaks against the concentration camp “doctor” Josef Mengele having been present. Eichmann and Sassen knew Mengele personally, and Eichmann would have insisted on drawing him into the conversation, as he did with other participants. When the discussion turns to Höttl, he addresses “Dr. Langer,” as “he knows Höttl professionally.” Eichmann also likes to take on a familiar tone, in order to avoid having all the questions directed at him. “Well, you know Heydrich,” he says. He would have handed responsibility for the discussion to Mengele on certain topics, given the latter’s knowledge of Auschwitz and Nazi “medicine”—two issues from which Eichmann tried to distance himself as far as possible. Several times he expresses his regret at having nobody to back him up: “It’s a shame I don’t have any comrades from this time whom I worked with, as I have come to realize, having abstained from all these thoughts for many years, that there is much I have forgotten.”65 Sassen also gives a lengthy reading from a text about Mengele; surprisingly, the typist doesn’t recognize the name and, as he does with other unfamiliar names, simply leaves a space. Josef Mengele, as his diaries show, was mistrustful and exceedingly cautious. For this reason alone he would never have involved himself in an undertaking as open as the Sassen discussions. However, Sassen must have spoken to Mengele about Auschwitz at some other point: he was still justifying Mengele’s “experiments” on people in the camp, and talking about how “cultured” he was, in an interview for Argentine television in 1991. Mengele, he said, had always sought to discover “the essence, the philosophy” of human existence, by examining people “under exceptional circumstances.” Sassen saw sadistic torment without sense or reason as “a demonstration of humanity.”66 He prudently omitted to tell the interviewer that, after Eichmann had been abducted, he had accepted payment from Mossad to track Mengele down.
Not everyone in 1957 was as publicity shy as Mengele. During his extensive investigations, the Argentine author Uki Goñi met a surprising number of people who claimed to have witnessed the discussions between Eichmann and Sassen. The fact that people with no access to the Dürer circle made such claims is only human nature. Goebbels’s acolyte Wilfred von Oven even said he introduced Fritsch and Sassen, despite having only arrived in Argentina in 1951, long after Sassen. All this boasting just shows how attractive these ghoulish gatherings and their protagonists must have been. Anyone who thought they were anyone claimed to have been there. In one of the first recording sessions, Eichmann hints at the reason he allowed himself to become a public attraction in far-right circles: “They stopped looking for me a long time ago, that much is clear.”67
The Lady Visitors
We have grown so used to the image of a Nazi fugitive’s secret life that, when reading difficult source documents, we sometimes overlook something obvious:68 the Sassen circle was not only large, it was a social event to which even women were admitted. This fact, documented in one of the first transcripts, allows us to dismantle the picture of the Sassen circle Eichmann later painted. The women’s visit was a disaster. At the end of the recording, “the ladies” are ushered out courteously, before Eichmann explodes with rage: “It was only because I kept myself under control that I was able to say a conventional farewell to the ladies.”69 What had happened?
We don’t know exactly how the discussion began, because the tape was defective and didn’t start recording right away. But the transcript shows that the conversation began in a rather clichéd fashion, with the same question Goethe’s Gretchen put to Faust: So tell us, Adolf, where do you stand on religion? Eichmann tells them about his wife, who was deeply religious. “My wife even reads the Bible. I let her read it,” he says, giving an insight into his marriage. “I once tore up a Bible and threw it away, and afterward my wife was unhappy. And then she took a second Bible—we had another one—and at some point I tore that one as well, but only into two parts.… And now my wife reads the two parts, and I have sworn to let her read them, so she is happy.” He just wants his family to have a better life than he had, and before anyone can start thinking he has lost sight of the political hoizon, he adds: “I do everything I can for my wife, as I did for Germany, and my family is only a little piece of Germany.”70
In spite of the Bible incident, Eichmann was largely accepting of his wife’s religious nature, even though the SS regarded it with disdain. His own family’s religious background might have played a role here. Eichmann’s father was a Protestant, and when the family moved to Linz, he found himself in the minority. Still, he played an active part in the community and was even a presbyter. When his first wife died, Karl Adolf Eichmann consciously chose a woman from his own church to join his large family. Maria Eichmann, whom Adolf Eichmann still called “my new mother” in 1957, was a religious woman who often read the Bible. When her stepson acceded to his father’s wishes and went to work in the mine for a while, she gave him his own Bible. He “was very pious at that time,” as Eichmann later told Sassen in confidence. Whether as a result of his upbringing or the traditional piety of mountain dwellers, the sixteen-year-old Eichmann read the book—though in his typical manner. “I read my Bible every evening, underlining the passages that particularly interested me, with red and blue pens. The battles of the Old Testament.”71 These color-coded meditations were soon followed by a special religious conversion: Eichmann became gottgläubig, an adherent of the racially based religion advocated by National Socialism. However, he left the church for good only at the start of 1938, three years after his wedding.72 When Eichmann married Vera Liebl, he agreed to a church ceremony against the wishes of the SS and repeatedly defended his wife’s decision not to give up her faith. But he probably didn’t tell her that in November 1943 he officially reported to his masters that his wife was “now gottgläubig.”73 The documentary evidence of this deception that he was shown during his interrogation in Israel clearly made him uncomfortable. Eichmann’s concept of religion was one of the few topics on which he remained frank and consistent for the rest of his life. He even went against the advice to profess Christian beliefs that he was given in his final months. But however true he remained to his decision, he was aware his wife had other needs. He acquiesced to her wish for their youngest child to attend a Catholic school. And when the Reverend Hull, the theologian who visited him in Israel, suggested sending Vera his prison Bible, he did that too.74 We can therefore assume that he really was as sorry about the torn book as he claimed to have been to the inquisitive ladies in 1957.
On the tape, Eichmann also gives a vivid account of his “professional” life. He chats about the room in the office for Jewish affairs where he and his colleagues played music at the end of the murderous working day: “My assessor played the piano, I was the second violin, the noncommissioned officer played first violin, he was a much better musician than me.” He also recounts his heroic deeds at the war’s end, when all his colleagues crowded around the men who were producing forged identity papers: Eichmann didn’t want any, preferring to kill himself in the event of a final defeat. The fact that the man with the death wish is alive to tell this tale in Buenos Aires doesn’t knock Eichmann off his stride. He boasts of the recognition he got from his superiors: “Müller said to me once, if we’d had fifty Eichmanns, we’d have won the war for sure. And I was proud.” This chatter then apparently starts to irritate him: “That should have given you an insight into my interior—since you don’t know me, not from within, and that is important.”75
The inner life of a mass murderer seems to arouse the ladies’ curiosity, and they want to know more about Eichmann. “And if you are such a fanatical Nationalist [meaning National Socialist],”76 someone asks, is there perhaps also a “mysticism, a doctrine, aworldview of völkisch life that plays into this for you?” At this point the tape cuts out, but the transcript shows how enthusiastically Eichmann answered this question. Yes, his first commanding officer, Gregor Schwartz-Bostunitsch, was a mystic. Schwartz-Bostunitsch stood five foot eleven, with flat feet and a goatee, and he had actually been a kind of comical curiosity, a carnival demagogue with a fake professorship. Once he had launched into one of his endless monologues about the danger of Freemasons, it was difficult to stop him, as his deafness shielded him from objections. He had been an object of suspicion even in Himmler’s circles—and Reichsführer-SS Himmler was someone who had charts drawn up by witches, thought the Externsteine rock formation in northern Germany was “ur-Germanic,” and believed all sorts of other nonsense about grails and fraternities that could only very generously be described as “mysticism.”77 Eichmann had little interest in it. “I don’t see anything in mysticism … we have to ensure that our offspring live a proper life, and that’s that. I have to forge my weapons according to the strength of the resistance.” But he was also no stranger to the tempting idea of a grand mission, which is obvious even in the fragmentory transcripts. “The integration into the whole, because in the whole lies the völkisch, one blood.”
Eichmann wasn’t lying: he had always believed the ritual-murder horror stories about Jews were propaganda and had recognized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a forgery from the beginning—much to Sassen’s surprise. Eichmann used this stuff when it came to manipulating foreign representatives, but he didn’t need it to persuade himself to commit murder.
At this point, the person typing up the tape inserts five dashes and picks up again only with what Eichmann says once the ladies have left. Still, it is clear what has happened. “And for this we gave everything,” Eichmann splutters, losing his composure. “Everything, youth, everything, and freedom, and others gave still more, even their lives. And so I can’t stomach somebody saying to me, what could have been worse, worse [than] National Socialism taking the reins on January 30, ’33? I’m going to lose it!”78 One of the “ladies” had dared to touch on something that nobody would follow up in the discussions over the months to come: she had asked about the inherently criminal nature of the totalitarian state, which was revealed when the Nazis “seized power” in Germany in 1933. It doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to work out that the ladies must have been ushered out politely but hurriedly, before Eichmann’s patience wore out. “It was only because I kept myself under control that I was able to say a conventional farewell to the ladies.”79
The episode is remarkable because it shows how little consideration was given from the very start to who witnessed the discussion and whether the guests held similar beliefs to the principal protagonists. We don’t know who the women with the reasonable views were. One may have been a secretary from Dürer Verlag, who came from Belgium and had a relationship with Sassen.80 Inge Schneider, the schooner captain’s daughter from the Lüneberg Heath, who had crossed the Atlantic with Sassen, remembers her sister Antje telling her she had been present at these recording sessions. Antje Schneider, whose married name was Löns (and whose husband was Bayer’s South American representative), still carried a torch for Sassen and collected his photos and theater reviews. Inge Schneider later married the submarine captain Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (played by Jürgen Prochnow in the 1981 film Das Boot). She was much more distanced from the Dürer group and insisted she had never attended the meetings herself, meeting Eichmann only at other social events.81 Unlike the man they met, the women who made Eichmann boil with rage were clearly not “fanatical National Socialists.” He was a fanatic, who didn’t hide what he believed and gave them an unsolicited insight into his “attitude of mind” (an important concept in the philosophy of Kant). Eichmann, Sassen, and Fritsch were certainly not afraid of people who thought differently. And who would the women have told about Eichmann’s views, in Buenos Aires? It was no secret that there were unreconstructed Nazis in Argentina, and their names were no secret either. Nobody would have been interested in hearing that “if we’d had fifty Klements, we’d have won the war for sure.”
The Unknown Helper: Dr. Langer
—Sassen whispering to Dr. Langer82
These occasional visitors were not the only guests: Sassen made very few recordings of himself and Eichmann alone. In most cases, a man whom everyone called “Dr. Langer” was also present.83 This man played a large part in shaping the Sassen interviews, and it is a mystery why his role has been overlooked. We have not only a wealth of his questions and opinions but also a long lecture, which has been preserved both on tape and in the transcripts. With palpable excitement in his slightly hesitant voice, Dr. Langer describes the character of Wilhelm Höttl, whom he knew very well from his work in Vienna. He also gets into some heated exchanges with Eichmann. And to forestall any questions: we don’t know who this man was, though he obviously had a remarkable Nazi career behind him.
Langer, as Eichmann often remarked smugly, had been with the SD in Vienna and had done no military service. During a heated discussion, Eichmann asks him why he is getting involved in things he clearly has no idea about; or as he phrases it: “You ridiculous pipsqueak! Did you fight at the front?”84 But Langer knew about law, and when Eichmann speaks about his time in Austria following the annexation, he emphasizes his experience: “At this time I worked in another part of the SD in Austria, and within the framework of this law we had the task of assessing civil servants, i.e., determining whether or not they were Jews.”85 In other words, Langer was one of the men who implemented the Civil Service Restoration Act of 1933 in Austria. He had decided who was allowed to remain a civil servant and who was not.
This Dr. Langer from the Vienna SD was clearly a man of no small importance, having held at least one position that still made Eichmann envious in 1957. When Eichmann explains that his commanding officer, Heydrich, was so busy in Prague that he had little time for RSHA problems in Berlin, Langer firmly contradicts him: “I don’t believe that, he at least took time to sign things.” Eichmann bristles and replies: “You don’t believe that, then I must say, then you were lucky you were in the SD, … everything else, in Department IV, was signed by Müller at that time.” But Langer doesn’t give up easily. “In Department IV—but I remember very well, we got a lot of things with his signature on them.” He then adds, rubbing salt into the wound, “and he certainly took the time for it when I was with him in Prague.” This leads Eichmann to say, awkwardly: “I was with him in Prague as well”86—as if anyone in the group would have doubted that. This silly game of My-Heydrich-Your-Heydrich reveals Eichmann’s attacks as an attempt to downplay Langer’s obvious importance. Heydrich was one of the most ambitious men in the Reich, and he didn’t grant an audience to just anybody. Langer emerges as an expert on the percentage of Jews in the SS: “It was small, though there were a few more after the Aryan Certificate, it wasn’t possible to establish a percentage, there were probably more in Austria than in the Old Reich.”87 He is able to give personal impressions of prominent Nazis like Hans Rauter and Arthur Seyss-Inquart,88 and even Eichmann occasionally defers to his superior knowledge, when it serves his purposes. “We’d have to make specific inquiries to Dr. Langer on whether H[eydrich] was also the president of the International Criminal Police Commission in 1939.”89
We may not know who Dr. Langer was, but his position cannot have been lowly. “I had an Ustf. [Untersturmführer] in my office, who found out he was a quarter Jew, he wanted to kill himself, I stopped him, then he went into the Luftwaffe, and was a great hit there … and I was told he played a large role in Austria again after the war, in the new national movement.”90 His obvious pride in his men also has another significance. In reply to a question about his staff, Langer complains to Eichmann that he kept losing his best men: “I was disadvantaged by the RSHA department heads always taking the good people away from me [!].”91
In spite of their rivalry, Dr. Langer had information that Eichmann was keen to hear. In one session, Eichmann presses Sassen to question Dr. Langer on a topic that had caused him particular headaches: the witnesses to his boastful speech at the end of the war. Eichmann points out that “Dr. Langer … knows Höttl professionally.”92 He should therefore be asked to talk about it. For around twenty minutes, Langer gives a sort of lecture on Wilhelm Höttl: he can be heard using prepared notes, which include interpretations of the Höttl book. Despite his aloof, fussy style, over time Langer loosens up and speaks with a degree of humor about Höttl’s terrible reputation and scheming ways. But now too much attention is being given to Eichmann’s rival, and he gets impatient and interrupts. With an irritable interjection (“Is that everything, then?”) he embarks on a long-winded explanation of his own, which is so lacking in content that you cannot help but get the impression that he was just making sure the other man didn’t take up any more of the session.
Langer puts some critical questions to Eichmann, which at times suggest he may have a sense of guilt. Still, it would be wrong for us to imagine that the former SD man from Vienna represented the last vestiges of morality within the Sassen group. The original tapes betray something the transcriber in Argentina chose to leave out: Dr. Langer had access to the Mauthausen concentration camp. “During one of my frequent visits there, the Dutch Jews were paraded in front of me.”93 Through his close relationship with Commandant Franz Ziereis, Langer also heard about an order to exterminate the Dutch Jews through labor. He recalls “a personal experience, when the camp commandant explained to me: this group of Jews, they were assigned to this work that, in practice, was work that a person could only manage for a few days.”94 The Sassen circle discusses the horrific methods of extermination through labor openly and with interest.
Nor is Langer out of place in the Sassen circle in other regards. He shares their belief in the Jewish world conspiracy and, like Sassen, keeps a keen eye out for stray facts that might serve the “Jewish” academic community. When Eichmann talks with comparative candor about his superior officer’s capricious tendencies, Langer points out the danger: “You are, of course, giving the enemy even more arguments that will allow him to claim capriciousness ruled.”95
Hardly any of the stories about Langer’s own involvement in the Holocaust were reproduced in the transcript, suggesting that Sassen had guaranteed him a level of discretion. Sassen certainly doesn’t seem to have brought him into the circle because he was interested in hearing specifics from him. Langer had something very different to offer. Unlike Sassen and Fritsch, he was in a position to be able to evaluate at least some of what Eichmann said. It is inconceivable that Langer and Eichmann didn’t have at least a fleeting acquaintance from their time in power. If nothing else, then in the final months of 1944, Eichmann’s appalling death marches would surely have brought his name to the attention of an SD man of Langer’s rank. Langer was able to judge and to ask questions where Sassen foundered. He was there to run Eichmann through the mill on Sassen’s behalf. A former employee of Der Weg stressed that Eichmann was literally interrogated in the Sassen circle.96 During a concentrated discussion between Eichmann and Langer, Sassen can be heard on the recording whispering “keep drilling!” But Eichmann quickly discovered how to handle Langer—by turning his own weapons against him: laws and regulations. He liked to cite one of the books that the Sassen circle discussed page by page and put his superior knowledge to good use, backing up his partly dishonest theories by saying: “Lange[r] also saw it for the first time when he saw Dr. Blau’s collection of statutes.”97
Eichmann also relied on a skill he had used to promote his interests during interministerial negotiations in Berlin: playing the petty-minded bureaucrat. For example, on one tape, a text is put before him where his department is referred to as “IV A 4.” Eichmann at first becomes nervous, and then nitpicking: “IV A 4—just a moment. What?? Can I see that please? Look at this, you can see this jackass of an author, you know. These authors believe they sucked wisdom at the teat. And if you ever see a collection of Roman numerals and upper and lower case letters, these morons will have mixed them up. That’s IV A. IV A is a completely different group!” And then Eichmann gives a long-winded, self-assured, overbearing, and ultimately convincing explanation of why this departmental designation could not have existed.98 But the fact of the matter is that from March 1944, Eichmann’s department really was IV A 4. His office had four different designations over the years: IV R; IV D 4; IV B 4; and finally IV A 4.99 He knew very well that these numbers were all that linked a file to a particular department, and that if you removed the labels, you could deny those dossiers had anything to do with you, and make whole mountains of documents vanish. The Israeli interrogating officer Avner W. Less was almost amused at “the incredible doggedness and vehemence” with which Eichmann denied every department name except IV B 4. Eichmann carried on batting official terms and internal designations back and forth until documents were submitted to remind him that all his attempts to baffle the authorities were in vain.100 Things had been very different when the Nazis were in power. When your job is murder, you don’t have to win anyone over, you just have to play for time. Numerous documents prove that Eichmann used tricks to create precedents for things he wanted to do. Bureaucratic chicanery is different from bureaucracy itself, and no one knew this better than Eichmann, who found all bureaucracy by definition tiresome. This was what staff were for. “These matters to do with bureaucracy,” he explained to Sassen, “I just relied on my civil servants for them.” He deployed these “living articles,” like Ernst Moes and Fritz Wöhrn, as “bureaucratic brakes.”101 With Langer, he took up the position of “living article” himself, for as long as it served his needs. And if a question still made him too uncomfortable, he quickly changed tack: “You can’t put [yourself] in my shoes, you can never do that, because you were in the SD until the very end.”102
Who was Dr. Langer? Whose was the voice with the slight Viennese accent, who said a polite “God bless you” when someone handed him a drink, but whose reminiscences about the horrors of Mauthausen never stuck in his throat? Once again Eichmann-in-Jerusalem is no help to us. There he claimed he had briefly met a man named “Lange,” the former head of an Oberabschnitt division in Austria, around the time of his conversations with Sassen in his kitchen. He said this man’s real name was “Dr. Klan.”103Significantly, there was only one person Eichmann knew with this exotic-sounding name: the doctor in the Mossad team who cared for Eichmann immediately after he was abducted. None of these names have yet been discovered in Argentina. In contrast to the way the SS was divided, there were no SD Oberabschnitte in Austria, since the whole of Austria came under a single division, SD Oberabschnitt Donau.
Langer’s identity remains a puzzle. All we have are his stories, his voice, and his name: no aliases were used in Sassen’s house, and as Eichmann and Langer could easily have met through their work, it would have made no sense for Langer to conceal his identity from Eichmann.104 SS lists,105 the records of doctorates awarded in law or politics from the University of Vienna,106 and the expertise of many colleagues107 have thus far yielded no further insights, apart from a long list of people to rule out. The example of “Dr. Langer” shows how much remains to be discovered in the Sassen interview material, and ultimately how little we know about the Nazis in exile.
The Weapon: Violence by Words
SASSEN: “Can you just hit the fly with that?”
Sounds of slapping and laughter
SASSEN: “A Jewish-minded fly …”
SASSEN: “A corpse fly.”
What makes the Sassen documents such a powerful source in the first instance is the men’s language, which the text and the recordings bring to us in an unmediated form. Anyone who has heard Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation by Avner W. Less, or listened to the trial recordings, will be familiar with his idiosyncratic speech, by turns whining, cold, and occasionally petulant, as he speaks about himself and his crimes against humanity. His endless sentences are full of twists, turns, and circular thinking as he exhausts listeners with descriptions of opaque hierarchies and responsibilities, and with excuses about a sense of duty and being under orders. The experience of listening to Eichmann-in-Argentina, in a circle of sympathizers, is clearly different (and still more intolerable). It is impossible to hear the material on the tapes without getting at least some impression of how he must have appeared to people in Argentina. If we want to analyze what the Sassen circle produced over those months in 1957, we must take a moment to expose not only their thought but their language. Apart from anything else, this is one of very few sources that give us access to the jargon of these self-proclaimed sages.109
At first glance, the discussions are dominated by Eichmann’s perfidious phrases. This man had his own way of categorizing his victims. His sole concern had been “Jews of a level that made them important to the Reich”; “a common or garden Jew was of no interest.”110 To his mind, there were “valuable Jews,” and then “old and assimilated” Jews who were no use to anyone. The fanatical racist explained this as if it were the most self-evident thing in the world. The Jews, he argued, also wanted to preserve “biologically valuable Jewish blood.”111 “It is exactly the same as when I have a chicken farm today, and I need one hundred or ten thousand egg-laying hens, in truth I have to let two hundred thousand chickens hatch in the incubators, because half will be cocks and half hens.”112
Naturally, care was taken with the deportations, “since it wasn’t in our interests for the material to be used for labor in the concentration camps to arrive completely useless and needing repair.”113 Eichmann was proud of the fact that he had frequently been successful: “Look, how can you make 25,000 Jews, or people, or let’s say 25,000 cows, how can you simply let 25,000 animals just disappear en route.… Have you ever seen 25,000 people in a pile? … Have you ever seen 10,000 people in a pile? That’s five transport trains, and if you pack them in the way the Hungarian police planned, then at best you’ll get no more than 3,000 people in one transport train.”114 The people to whom Eichmann is speaking have no idea of the problems faced by someone trying to organize an extermination operation: “Loading a train is a tricky business anyway, whether it’s with cattle or flour sacks … and so much more difficult to load it with people, especially when you have problems to reckon with.”115 It was always the same. To start with, things looked “very hopeful,” the transports “rolled in the beginning, you could say it was glorious.”116 Deportations progressed “splendidly and without any difficulty.”117 Some operations were “particularly nice and neat, with all the bells and whistles,”118 but then the “damned problems” arose.119
Eichmann’s brainchild was to send people hundreds of miles on foot, in the middle of winter, during the last months of the war. But he didn’t call them “death marches.” “These Jew-treks, as I called them,” were carried out “in the most elegant way.”120 And without hesitation, he adds: “I can tell you today that I saw two bodies on the whole route, they were old Jews—it’s clear, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. And were no eggs broken when much larger contingents of Germans marched from the East after 1945?” Eichmann thought it absolutely fair to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to their deaths: the transports were “to everyone’s advantage, including the Jews themselves.”121 Men like Kurt Becher wanted to let the Jews live just so they could rob them—but not Eichmann. “While we were working with the Jews to solve the Jewish question, the others used the Jews as a means to an end, to milk them for their own ends.”122 Better a respectable Final Solution than underhanded extortion—Eichmann naturally never stooped to that himself, even though it meant not squirreling anything away for his family: “Thank God I did not become a swine.”123 Regrettably, however, not everyone realized this fact: “And this is why there are still a whole lot of Jews enjoying life today who ought to have been gassed.”124
Naturally, these things were considered only on a large scale. There was no interest in individual cases: “Whether one bellyacher or another … somehow played a role” carried no weight.125 It wasn’t worth making a fuss over “a few little remainders or groups”—the Jews who couldn’t be murdered. Still, you always had to take care not to make any exceptions: “The single individual no longer plays a role in such a crowd, but I couldn’t do it in front of my lawyers, who had to keep a close watch on these regulations.”126 In a systematic extermination, people who have been overlooked are called “folks,” who “have been kept alive and did not suffer typhus or a physical extermination.”127 But his colleagues occasionally “took care of these left-overs.”128 Wisliceny, for example, “then also finished off the Jews in Slovakia.”129
If the Jewish representatives entertained hopes of being able to achieve something through discussion with Eichmann, it meant they had already lost: he saw these encounters as nothing more than an intellectual challenge: “I loved playing an open hand against all the Jewish political functionaries.”130 “For me, ‘open hand’ is a winged word.”131 As he freely admitted, this “game,” which he played in Hungary with Rudolf Kasztner, was really just about “him continuing to play his role as appeasement councilor [!] with his Jewish community.”132 Eichmann was clearly proud of the tricks and lies he used to achieve his aims: “Over the years I learned which hooks to use to catch which fish.”133 Unscrupulous blackmail was part of the “game”: “Naturally I used the Brandt family to pressurize Kasztner, well, that’s a game the Abwehr played, it’s understandable”134—or at least, Sassen and the others understood it.
In Eichmann’s world, people who risked their lives for the sake of humanity were worthy only of verbal assaults. Raoul Wallenberg did everything in his power to provide refuge and Swedish papers for people who were being persecuted in Hungary. To Eichmann, he was just a “pseudo-diplomat” who “made himself at home” there.135 Anyone acting for the Jews and holding up the “extermination machine”136 was an “interventionist,” who didn’t understand what was at stake. Many of them “had very limited horizons, from going to church every Sunday.”137 Anyone who spoke to the enemy about the extermination program, like Kurt Gerstein, “is an a … with ears.”138 The transcriber makes a polite omission here as he felt the expletive was improper (unlike detailed descriptions of torture and murder). Talking about a subordinate who did not meet the deportation quotas, Eichmann insinuates that “it is humanitarian intentions here, allowing him to hide comfortably behind decrees, acts and laws”—for what was human fellow-feeling if not an “excuse”?139
The language becomes entirely perverted where Eichmann turns metaphors on their heads, talking about expulsion and murder using gentle images of life. An institution for forced emigration was his “first child,”140 where he was able to “be creative in my work.”141 All the individual acts of robbery and expulsion that took place in Austria were committed to “provide [the country] with injections of Jewish solutions.”142 Even exterminations and deportations were “born.”143 This was why he felt so superfluous in Budapest, when he was forced to stop deporting people to Auschwitz: “As far as I know, I couldn’t have done anything fruitful anymore.”144 When the fruits of your labor lie in the rising columns of murder charts, you need a rather different understanding of growth and life. In Eichmann’s language, he didn’t send people to the death camps; the camps were “fed with material.”145
Resistance was not anticipated in this “business of the Final Solution,” and when it happened, Eichmann found it completely incomprehensible—for example, when concentration camp officials were “beaten to death by some Jew who had gone crazy.”146 Anyone who survived the inferno had “absconded.”147
Neither Eichmann nor his interlocutors had a problem calling things by their names: Jews were “gassed”; “idiots sent to the slaughter”; those who were deported were “killed nonstop in concentration camps like on a conveyor belt.”148 As Himmler had hoped, people seemed to feel more strongly when they didn’t beat about the bush. “It made no difference to me,” Eichmann casually declares on one recording, “where the Jews went, as far as I was concerned they could have marched to Madegascar, or gone to Globocnik to be gassed, as far as I was concerned they could have gone to Auschwitz, or to Riga.”149 But even tastelessness is individual, and all the particpants have their own particular preferences: Sassen favors sexual innuendos about the “technical implementation of the reproductive urge” and “men’s desires,” when faced with the atrocities in the camps.150 Anyone who seems suspect is a “jackass” or a “chump.” Alvensleben likes to bluster about “the way crowds of Jews can be incredibly rowdy”151 and a “responsibility” that “is in the blood.”152 Dr. Langer, meanwhile, enjoys giving detailed accounts of the torture methods used in Mauthausen.153
But let no one say that these men didn’t also have delicate feelings. Eichmann, as he tells his comrades here, feels “genuinely heartsore for the Reich.” “I trembled for the Reich,”154 he says, from which people could see “how fully I was committed to this struggle, with my whole being.”155 He was shocked to hear about the extermination plans for the first time and comforted himself using Himmler’s words: “The word is easy to say, but it is monstrously difficult.”156 “The whole business of the Final Solution”157was a “killer of a job”—words Eichmann spoke without any sense of irony.158 Only Himmler’s calls not to murder with “unnecessary cruelty” were “music to my ears.”159 This was the reason some Jews were allowed into the “Theresienstadt old people’s home,”160because “there they received the lightest work, work for the elderly who through some oversight were not yet dead.”161
Eichmann still had plenty to be proud of in Argentina in 1957. Deaths had been necessary: “The only good enemy of the Reich is a dead one. In particular I have to add, when I received an order, I always carried out this order with the executioner, and I am proud of that to this day.”162 “If I had not done this, they would not have gone to the butcher.”163 Hungary, and the mass deportation of more than four hundred thousand people in a few weeks, had been his masterwork: “It was actually an achievement that was never matched before or since.”164 If only there had not been all those problems before that point! The thing that pained Eichmann most was when the trains weren’t full. It was “a very poor business in Belgium.”165 And it was even worse in Denmark, when he wasn’t allowed to transport people to their deaths as he wished. “I had to recall my transports, for me it was a deadly disgrace.”166
Cynical, pitiless, misanthropic, morally corrupt, with no understanding of tact or limits—these are all inadequate descriptors for the words Eichmann, Sassen, and their group came out with in 1957. There is nothing here to remind us of the future prisoner in Jerusalem, about whom Shlomo Kulcsár noted: “The examiner is well acquainted with the style of Nazi literature. E.’s style was quite different, more dry, lacking the Kraftausdrücke [strong words]. It was not made to provoke emotions.”167 And although Hannah Arendt may have been right to point out the “macabre humor” with which horror sometimes tips over into comedy, in light of the Argentine documents, her characterization of Eichmann’s “inability to speak” and “inability to think” seems insupportable.168Eichmann’s words in Argentina, like those of the other participants, weren’t thoughtless drivel but consistent speech based on a complete system of thought. They were, we might say, judgments in excess. It isn’t the foundations of the argument that are missing here, but the group’s willingness to criticize the structures of totalitarian thought and to change their dogmatic approach. These men valued consistency for the violence that it allowed them to wield over themselves and others. It became an end in itself. Twelve years after the war, they still hadn’t obtained any degree of distance from it: Fritsch, Sassen, and Eichmann were still ideological warriors, in the midst of the battle, who had lost all weapons but language and magniloquence. For this reason, confronting their language can open up these documents in ways that knowledge of historical facts and the power of imagination alone cannot. This language reflects the disconnection from civilized society that allowed the National Socialists to commit monstrous crimes against their fellow man. Systematic mass murder is not just the sum of isolated instances of sadism but the result of a political thinking that is perverted from the ground up. In the same way, the discussions in Sassen’s living room were radically alienated from any measure of morality. If the term worthless is ever justified, then it is in relation to the system of thought upon which these men’s speech was based. This is what makes reading the Sassen transcript so taxing in comparison to Eichmann’s words in Jerusalem. In his interrogation and trial, we see an Eichmann who is clearly more withdrawn. The voices of those addressing him in Jerusalem are oriented toward reason and justice: the interrogating officer, the judge, and the prosecutors—and not least, the press, commenting on it all. They allow us to retain a sense of moral values and to feel that we and they are in the majority. In the Argentine discussions, however, we are on our own.
At no point in the material from the Sassen circle does anyone object to the tone of the discussion. For these gentlemen, the language is evidently suited to the topic, and no one thinks to call for respect for human rights and humanity, or to bring things to an end, or at least to leave in protest. Nobody is sickened; no one is horrified. The only arguments are over exactly what it means to be German, and anyone leaving the circle expresses his regret at having to go.169 Arrangements for other projects and day-to-day business follow on effortlessly from confessions of murder.170 When Sassen leaves the tape running as he tidies up after a meeting, in order to dictate a few instructions for the transcript or to make scurrilous remarks about the recently departed guests, he can be heard whistling cheerful tunes and talking to his family, like anyone else returning home, satisfied with a good day’s work.171 The “business of the Final Solution” is as routine here as it was when murder was more than just a discussion topic. Examining the language used by the group gives us an idea of the violence that met people whom the National Socialists declared to be non-German: they could then be denied all rights, ultimately including the right to exist. Our norms have no voice within the Sassen group, whose speech comes from a spiritual abyss—though that doesn’t seem to worry anyone. There is no better argument for the need to listen to language: there the possibility of a moral universe finally dies. Once thought has arrived at categories of this sort, no argument will prevent it giving rise to murderous deeds.
The Enemy: Books
Authors lie left and right, left and right, I say. Whether it’s Poliakov or this clown, what’s he called? Reitlinger! Well, he lies even more than Poliakov. Or Kogon—or whatever they’re called, the brothers.
—Eichmann, Sassen discussions172
Reading and evaluating books together played a crucial role in the Sassen circle from the outset. In 1957 the secondary literature on the National Socialists’ extermination of the Jews was still negligible, so it is striking that the group in Buenos Aires managed to obtain a copy of every German-language book on the subject—particularly as some of them had been brought out by small publishers. Sassen and his colleagues had done their research thoroughly, and at some expense, since German books didn’t come cheap in Buenos Aires. Der Weg had its own reviews section, but Dürer Verlag wasn’t able to rely on being given review copies. Banned from distributing so many of its products in West Germany, the publishing house had a terrible reputation, and it was unlikely anyone would value a review from that corner of the world or send a book on a costly journey there at their own expense. For this reason, Eberhard Fritsch repeatedly used his editorials in Der Weg to implore his faithful readers for help, asking them to send in books or newspaper articles on relevant themes. Of course, for individual requests, Fritsch also had recourse to his authors and his former colleague Dieter Vollmer. In any case, the group made an effort to hunt down every available publication. The list of books they discussed at Sassen’s is a further indication of the systematic approach he and his associates took to the emerging historical research.
Eichmann and Sassen quote from texts on the very first recording. Eichmann reads from the transcript of the Nuremberg Trials;173 Sassen asks about key phrases in Alex Weissberg’s Advocate for the Dead: The Story of Joel Brand174 and Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution.175 They discuss these two books over the course of almost thirty tapes, and the discussion of Léon Poliakov and Josef Wulf’s document collection Das Dritte Reich und die Juden (The Third Reich and the Jews) lasts just as long. From tape 39, the conversation also covers Nazi lawmaking, following the first attempt that had been made to summarize it: Das Ausnahmerecht für Juden in Deutschland 1933–1945 (1954) by Bruno Blau.176 Blau was someone Eichmann might have remembered: he had been an involuntary inmate of the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, where Jews who could not immediately be deported were interned. There is evidence that Eichmann visited the hospital, which fell under his department’s jurisdiction. Wilhelm Höttl’s The Secret Front took on a special significance, though this was largely to do with Höttl himself and his role as chief witness to the mass murder, as well as the fact that Langer and Eichmann knew the author personally. But the group devoted the most attention to the German translation of Reitlinger’s Final Solution, returning to it again and again. Even the final recordings were spent arguing with this mammoth work.177 Sometimes parts of the books were copied so that participants could read them at home, but Langer, at least, also had his own books, as we can see from the preparations he made for his Höttl lecture.
In addition to the volumes discussed as a group, there were books and articles that Eichmann and the others read independently. Eichmann mentioned Der SS-Staat (The SS State) by Eugen Kogon, and Das Urteil von Nürnberg (The Nuremberg Judgment), an edition with a foreword by the American prosecutor Robert Kempner. We know Eichmann read almost everything there was on the topic.178 He also contributed information on newspaper articles: he received cuttings from the German and Austrian press from his family, and unlike Sassen, he also read the Argentinisches Tageblatt, a traditional German-language newspaper in Buenos Aires, which was considered liberal and, more important, Jewish. Perusing the “enemy press” was evidently one of the professional duties he continued in Argentina—and it was also useful for finding out whether anyone was on his tail. The articles Eichmann chose to bring Sassen show that he was still monitoring “the enemy.” And the book-lined front room of Sassen’s house offered the luxury of current European newspapers and magazines. These periodicals didn’t come just from the right-leaning corner of the market, like Thadden’s Reichsruf (for which Sassen had also written) or the Wiking-Ruf; there was also Stern, Der Spiegel, and the Dutch paper De Volkskrant. The head of the household occasionally translated articles for the others from the current issue of Time.179 By the end of the 1950s, probably no one had made such a detailed study of the literature on the Final Solution, in such a well-informed group, as the men in Buenos Aires—although they understood hardly any of it, as the principal aim of their reading was not to broaden their horizons.
Three years later in Israel, Adolf Eichmann must have been grateful, on many occasions, for this period of study. One of the most famous photos of him shows him sitting at the table in his cell, before the start of the trial, books piled high in front on him. They are all books he knew well, and the numerous slips of paper marking particular pages show that he knew exactly how to make use of them.180 Avner W. Less, the captain of the Israeli police who interrogated Eichmann, noted it with concern: “As it emerged, the man was so well-versed in this area, it was incredible!”181 Less said how difficult it was for him and his colleagues to get a handle on the literature in such a short space of time, and he neatly summarized: “Reitlinger was our Bible.” Their prisoner knew this Bible backward before the investigating officer had even purchased a copy. Eichmann showed his awareness of the advantage that Sassen had given him by the fact that he tried to hide it. He pretended to be thankful that he was finally allowed to read books again and, in an exceptional display of deceit, expressed his regret that he hadn’t had the opportunity before. Of course, he had not only read the books in Argentina, he had practiced his rejoinders to them. You might say that in battling with the secondary literature, Eichmann had preempted the interrogation that awaited him. Sedate reading had never been how Eichmann engaged with books.
The Sassen circle agreed on one point: this literature came “from the enemy,”182 “from the opposing side”;183 it was “enemy propaganda,”184 “enemy literature”185 by an “enemy author,”186 “enemy press,” 187 and above all, “enemy reasoning.”188 In short, it had all been written by the “Jewish enemy.”189 They reproached the victims’ side for writing on the topic, while on the perpetrators’ side, nobody had yet been interested enough to write their own book. In labeling the books “Jewish,” they were also making the supposition that they were dealing with propaganda, not proper research. “It’s very simple for these Jews,” Eichmann explained, “to scribble away after the event, writing whatever they like, as it suits them.”190 If he didn’t like the content, Eichmann attested that the author was either “ignorant or malevolent.”191 “Hacks,”192 “bunglers,”193 “jackass,”194 and “swine”195 are Eichmann’s customary titles for authors who we recognize today as pioneers of historical research on the Holocaust, though he and his associates refused to see them as such. The Sassen circle all shared his reservations that the whole body of research was “so-called scientific effusions.”196
But this lack of respect for the research was more than just an attempt to defend themselves against accusations by striking out at anything within range. As a result of its crude racial theories, National Socialism rejected any “international” or nonracial system of thought. Ultimately, this meant that nonracial sciences could not exist either. There was a “German physics” and a “Jewish physics”—indeed, even the science commonly accepted as the epitome of universality was not spared this division: for National Socialists, there was also a Jewish mathematics.197 Even science was a racial battle for final victory, bringing all scientific and scholarly endeavor down to the level of simple tactics. In other words, the search for truth had to weaken the “enemy’s ideological struggle.” Naturally, they assumed their “enemies” were also behaving in this way. Ultimately, everyone was playing a tactical game, the Jews most of all: “As the author of his book, why should the Jew Brandt lie any less than accords to the Jewish mentality?” After all, proclaims the specialist Eichmann, Joel Brand is “the son of a half rabbi.”198
Really, who had written the books was irrelevant: Eichmann discredited the volume by Wilhelm Höttl with the same consistency. Höttl’s text “is ridiculous, is stupid claptrap, is fibs from people taking any opportunity to try and make themselves interesting, or even wanting to carve out personal advantages after ’45.”199
The Sassen circle read these books principally in order to discover how the authors manipulated the facts to bring out their truth. They wanted to learn how to blow open these alleged tactics and, where necessary, put them to better use themselves. They were convinced that everyone in this war for interpretational sovereignty was manipulating the truth. At least, they did everything they could to convince themselves. They weren’t always successful: even the readers in Buenos Aires weren’t immune to the persuasive power of this wealth of information.
The more Sassen and Langer immersed themselves in this literature, the more frequently they found themselves worrying that what they read might actually be true. So many of the details were impossible to doubt. Even the things Eichmann actually admitted to were more than the men wanted to hear. Eichmann, who could see that this was problematic, borrowed the most Germanic of phrases from Goethe to describe the books: “It’s like I said already, the whole library that has appeared from the calamitous days of ’45 to the present is a hodgepodge of Dichtung und Wahrheit [truth and fiction].”200 It didn’t occur to him that some people found days other than those at the end of the war “calamitous.” Anyone who talks as much as Eichmann did will occasionally give the game away: in a fit of exuberance, he revealed the criteria by which he separated “truth” from “fiction”: “Everything … in the book that speaks against me leaves a bad taste in the mouth—I take it to be lies.”201
His self-declared war on enemy literature saw Eichmann fighting on two fronts. While the others concentrated on defending their fantasy version of history against the research, Eichmann was also attempting to tell the Sassen circle what they wanted to hear. He knew his interlocutors would not be fellow soldiers but enemies. He had to put a slant on his interpretations, diverting the group away from facts that he knew only too well. Sassen and Fritsch may have been refusing to acknowledge historical facts, but Eichmann had to conceal knowledge that went far beyond the literature. This must have cost him a huge effort: knowing the magnitude of the crime, he first had to find out what was written about it, then consider how to distract the others from the books’ threatening content, while simultaneously appearing to share their perspective, which was one of denial. And then the specialist consultant had to add “new” information to the discussion—though without exposing himself too much. Most important, he had to avoid getting caught doing any of it. It’s no wonder Eichmann was in peak condition for his police interrogation in 1960.
The additional difficulty in this already complex situation was that, when the Sassen conversations began, most of the books were new to Eichmann. Generally speaking, he was familiar only with the reviews, not with the books themselves. Sassen frequently used this advantage to try to offset Eichmann’s huge head start on the information. He would confront Eichmann with historical details without revealing his source. Of course, Sassen’s alliance with the books didn’t go unnoticed by Eichmann, and he kept asking specific questions about the books’ contents. But above all, Sassen aroused Eichmann’s curiosity about what might actually have been written about him and his crimes. The process was always the same, starting with the first book that Sassen lent him,Advocate for the Dead: The Story of Joel Brand. In one of the early discussions (tapes 6, 8, 9, and 10), Eichmann mentions that he isn’t familiar with it: “I have not read the book either, unfortunately I have not had access to it, it was published only a few months ago, but I have read several reviews in various newspapers.”202 Sassen deliberately ignores his hints, reassuring Eichmann that he knows the book well. Eichmann doesn’t dare ask straight out to borrow the book. But he does make frequent, pointed remarks about how reading it would be sure to jog his memory, if he were able to “study” it at some point:203 “I might be able to say more if I had the stimulus, through one of the explanations in his book, or if some other tome makes reference to something he says.”204 But Sassen held out for weeks, and the books were read only communally, during the discussion sessions. Only on tape 24 is Eichmann allowed to look at the book for himself and read out his own notes on it without interruption from the others.205 Sassen, as Eichmann quickly realized, wasn’t naïve, and at bottom, he wasn’t really a friend.
But then, the books were not just the enemy, either. One of Eichmann’s most dangerous talents was for making effective use of all kinds of interpretations, even if that meant misusing them. As a trained ideological warrior, he naturally feared an attack from the “enemy” on every page. He saw the manipulation of history as the political aim of “the Jews.” But perhaps more surprisingly, he also sought help from these same volumes. Even the review of Weissberg and Brand’s publication fueled Eichmann’s hope that the books could support his claims, as he explained to Sassen: “If I now speak of a discussion with Dr. K[asztner], I can do this because today, after Joel Brand brought out his book, people will believe me, I doubt that they would ever have believed me before the book by the Jew JB came out.”206 At first glance, this hope may seem reckless, but it isn’t as crazily naïve as it appears: Eichmann had had years of practice in using books to support his theories, counter to the authors’ intentions. In 1938 he had exploited a seminal work on the history of Zionism to such an extent that the author never wrote another word. Eichmann learned early on that books could be his allies, provided that the focus of his interpretive technique was not to learn anything. Even Sassen thoroughly underestimated this ability of Eichmann’s; time after time he failed to put him off his stride by quoting from books. Sassen did not realize—nor would anyone who reads books in order to learn from them—that he would never catch up with Eichmann by using books or producing documents. For someone who has been “there,” books are an aide-mémoire, whereas for someone with no firsthand experience, they only tell him things he doesn’t already know. While Sassen was trying to formulate a rough idea of Eichmann’s activities from the books, Eichmann was reading them from a different perspective: knowing more than the authors, seeing their misunderstandings and the gaps in their knowledge, and making unfair use of their scholarly fairness. But this is how war works: you use your enemy’s weaknesses to every possible advantage. Consequently, Eichmann often referenced books that were actually denouncing him, as part of his strategy of lies and self-justification. “I believe one of the authors said that in a book,”207 he liked to say. When someone raised grave doubts about some of his observations, he replied with the advice: “I would ask you to look it up in the relevant literature that has been published since the war.”208 It is possible to make anything set out in black and white look as if it supports quite different theories from the author’s own.
If Eichmann genuinely wanted to learn one thing from these books, it was battle tactics. He seemed to be constantly on the lookout for tricks to use in constructing his own version of events. The introduction to Advocate for the Dead advises the reader, in a spirit of honesty, that the dialogues it contains have been reconstructed by Weissberg and Brand, and while they are an approximation of the truth, they are not reliable sources. Eichmann sees “Jewish artfulness” here rather than the desire for transparency. And he was obviously very impressed by this “artistic license,” as he started to explore its possibilities for himself. “It is clearly very difficult,” he noted for Sassen on the transcript of this tape, “to work up the memories of a lot of things after so much time has passed. And if we are sticking to the truth, this has to be expressed in the book as well. Joel Brand and his author did something similar, of course.”209 Four years later, when drafting “Götzen,” his last great piece of self-justification, Eichmann would use this argument as if it were self-evident, to render himself immune to attacks at the outset: “This writerly endeavour cannot be weighed in the scales of the articles of law.”210
As Sigmund Freud says, you can judge an author by the way he treats his readers. Eichmann shows that this maxim also works the other way around. He treated books the way he treated the people he made into his victims: violently, without respect or scruples, and with the end result of annihilation. His reading habits may teach us something about his great success as the “Adviser on Jewish Affairs.” The agility with which Eichmann—who hadn’t finished school and was certainly no intellectual—made use of texts is every bit as surprising as the career that saw this former salesman become a master of unprecedented and terrible improvisation, in the business of exterminating human beings. At least one cause of this deadly effectiveness is plain: Eichmann had determined his own course of action long before involving himself in books or discussions, and this course was war and annihilation. The fatal mistake the Jewish representatives made in dealing with him was to believe they could still exert an influence on his decisions. He, meanwhile, had already set his sights on murder and was unreceptive to any doubt. He did the same with texts, which was what made his use of them so fast and effective. He went through a book the way a burglar goes through an apartment: he took whatever he could use, judging everything purely on its functional interest. He cared little for what was broken in the process, or for what he left behind. What Eichmann looked for between the covers of a book was not confirmation of his thinking but material to back up his lies. This difference is crucial, because the latter excludes the possibility of doubt. A real reader remains open to doubt, even if it means questioning himself. This openness to doubt, this distance from one’s own thought, takes time, if the author’s interests and the text’s inner coherence are to come into their own. To put it simply: a reader is usually looking for a conversation with an author. But Eichmann was interested only in neutralizing this enemy, disguising his intent under an apparent interest in the literature, and feigning openness to other theories and respect for the people proposing them. This made him a faster reader than anyone who was interested in a serious discussion. In particular, it makes him a threat to historians: academic study is oriented toward integrity and solidity, and it is vulnerable to no enemy more than one who views scholarship as just another tactic. In turning to books, Eichmann once again revealed his desire to destroy anything that upset his conception of reality and threatened his self-image. Whether in his office at 116 Kurfürstenstraße or in Sassen’s living room, anyone believing he could influence Eichmann using fact or argument had lost before he even began. For someone waging a total war, discussion is a weapon just like any other. Eichmann’s problem in Argentina was that he couldn’t decide whether to use this weapon against Sassen or explain it to him.
The Realization: Extermination
I am by nature a very sensitive person, it’s not easy for me to just see something like that, it gives me the shudders.
—Eichmann, Sassen discussions211
For men like Sassen and Fritsch, the Eichmann experience must have been a radical one. They had hoped to learn from the discussions, but they hadn’t reckoned with anything like the major insight they received into the National Socialists’ extermination operation. Adolf Eichmann confronted them with the magnitude and, above all, the face of the horror. Just as he would do at his trial in 1961, he spoke about the inhuman murder campaigns he had seen with his own eyes: the mass shooting of men, women, and children; people being rounded up and deported; murder by gas vans; extermination camps; selections; the burning of corpses. His words confirmed and gave substance to everything that Der Weg had dismissed as enemy propaganda. He knew enough about it, even though—as at Auschwitz—he hadn’t wanted to see this industrial mass murder close up and had kept his distance, preferring to let the commandant describe it to him “in the most colorful way.” “But I never saw the whole extermination process right from the beginning, I was not the man for that.”212 The open incinerations at the end of the process had been enough for him. Eichmann thought it had been right to exterminate the Jews, but he had taken no delight in confronting the victims’ fears, torment, and death in person. “When I went to the camp, it was for matters that did not stem from my personal curiosity,” he asserts in the transcript, and we can believe him. He tells how the camp commandant “took pleasure in showing a pencil-pusher the situations here that he was burdened with day after day.”213 A few of Eichmann’s descriptions convey the impression that as he told his listeners what he had seen and experienced, he was doing to the Sassen circle something like what Höß had done to him. His reports are frank and detailed, and they don’t sugarcoat. There is no talk of smoothly functioning killing machines, quick deaths, or German efficiency when it came to murder. Instead, Eichmann describes how awful mass murder was—awful for him, naturally: he was ordered to observe, he felt sick, and his “kneecaps trembled.” The problem wasn’t that children had been put to death; it was that he had been forced to watch—when, at that time, he had two children of his own. “I am one of those people who can’t stand to see corpses,” he confessed to the Sassen circle.214 His stories are full of horrendous self-pity, for the burden of having to watch other people suffer fates that he had set in motion. But Eichmann manages to play the witness in these accounts, a mere historian of the horror, persuading himself and the others that he had nothing to do with the extermination. He couldn’t have changed anything, and these “business trips” made him “an unhappy man.”215
But something else is at work in these descriptions. Heinrich Himmler had told the Auschwitz commandant that he must carry out the slaughter so that the generations to come wouldn’t have to. This imperative turned the extermination of the Jews into something that men like Höß and Eichmann had missed out on: fighting on the front lines. Not that any of Eichmann’s staff, or men with comparable positions in “reserved occupations,” would have traded places with soldiers in Stalingrad. We have no evidence that anyone from Eichmann’s department actually requested a transfer to the front lines. But they still felt they were missing out on the much-lauded experience of camaraderie, proving oneself in battle, gallantry, and heroic deeds, and the frontline troops never really acknowledged the office staff as comrades. The Waffen-SS disliked and mocked the Allgemeine-SS (the “general” SS). Understandably, anyone who had been promoted while surviving the conditions at the front didn’t take kindly to someone earning the same reward behind a desk in Berlin. This distinction was still being brought home to Eichmann in Argentina.216 And so it pleased him not only to recall this recognition that Himmler had given them but to demonstrate to the others that during his visits to the extermination camp, he had proved himself. Fountains of blood and splintering bones, willpower and acts of violence: Eichmann had come through it all as well. He too had known comradeship and supported his fellow soldiers. On the tape, he leaps to the defense of Höß, the commandant of Auschwitz, saying he was so very different from how you might imagine a man in his position. “And if I had had to take up the post of commandant of a concentration camp,” he says in defense of his dead comrade, “I would not have acted any differently. And if I had received the order to gas Jews or to shoot Jews, I would have carried out that order. And I have already said I am neither grateful nor ungrateful to fate that I did not receive that order. Because, you know, there’s no point peeing against the wind.”217 But by the time he screams at someone in Sassen’s living room, “You ridiculous pipsqueak! Did you fight at the front?,”218 he has obviously come to believe in his own frontline experience. “Just take a moment to think,” he continues, “about how I told you that we had a total war, and the front and the hinterland had become completely blurred, and today I have to expressly oppose and fight against obstinate intellects, including Germans, who are of the opinion that the last war was fought only on the front lines.… There is no difference between the annihilation of enemy powers when a total war has been declared.”219 Eichmann really had seen some terrible things, but he had clearly forgotten that his “enemy powers” had been defenseless, frightened humans, and that he had been chauffeur-driven to their annihilation in a warm winter coat. He wanted to prove that he too had suffered for Germany. This desire goes a long way to explaining why Eichmann describes the horror so frankly.
His listeners react in different ways. Dr. Langer starts talking about the torture and extermination he heard about in Mauthausen, but the confrontation with reality renders Sassen and Fritsch speechless. They make no queries, in the main: they have already heard more than enough. Sassen instructs the transcriber to leave out repeated accounts of extermination campaigns. The listeners’ horror and revulsion are obvious: Sassen the novelist might have indulged in excesses of violence when it came to the torture allegedly inflicted on Germans by the “victorious powers,” but the suffering of the Jews silenced him. And not because he didn’t believe Eichmann and Langer. While these two had both been involved in concentration camps and were able to share their experiences and their self-pity with each other, Sassen was quite clearly horrified. But he granted Eichmann’s wish for recognition, as he then dictated a trenchant sentence with which Eichmann could doubtless identify: “The battlefields of this war were called death camps.”220 Here was the respect that Eichmann was demanding for his “frontline experience.” However, the long dictation in which Sassen recorded his thoughts also includes the assertion that the crimes against humanity in which Eichmann, Höß, and Odilo Globocnik were involved could “not be forgiven.”221 Sassen then hurriedly says their actions could be “understood”: Eichmann, and other people all the way up to Hitler, had simply been manipulated. Still, Sassen never revised his opinion that these crimes were unforgivable. And in the transcript, when the group reaches the reports of the children’s transports—which Eichmann refers to in all seriousness as the “children story”—even Sassen’s “understanding” deserts him temporarily.222 Eichmann clearly notices Sassen’s horror and shamelessly denies that any such thing had happened: “But you have found so many documents and papers, and now I am wondering where the documents on the matter of the children are, I mean documents that can be believed. And so I have nothing further to say on this matter for the moment.”223 We cannot know if Sassen was reassured. He couldn’t prove Eichmann wrong, and he didn’t want to. Eichmann would finally get to see the documents on these crimes in Israel. But he obviously always knew they existed and that he had been the one who set the “children’s transports rolling.”224
What separated Sassen and Fritsch, as well as Alvensleben, from Langer and Eichmann, was the latter’s personal experience of the camps’ reality. Langer, so the transcripts suggest, had admittedly witnessed only a fraction of the crimes Eichmann had, learning most of what he knew from conversations with the commandant of Mauthausen. However, Langer and Eichmann were noticeably united in their conviction that they had been the victims here. Langer, who had seen such abominations as the “stairs of death” with his own eyes, bemoaned the fact that he had been shown this sort of thing, displaying a sensitivity that neither he nor Eichmann had been able to muster for the real victims. Both gave the impression that they had looked on powerlessly—as things were enacted that they had helped bring about. The same self-centered attitude can be found in the accounts of many other perpetrators, all the way up to Himmler, whose Posen speech was full of sympathetic words for the poor, suffering murderers.
This reversal of perpetrator and victim is a psychodynamic shift that does more than just ease the perpetrator’s burdensome memory of what he has done; it is more than an act of retrospective repression. It is the suppression of the very consciousness that allowed these perpetrators to commit their deeds in the first place. Eichmann was clearly aware of the need to shield himself as much as possible. “But there is one good thing nature gave me,” he explains. “I can switch off and forget very quickly, without trying to.”225 He had some effective methods for helping this process along, the primary strategy being the consumption of alcohol. His knowledge of the mechanisms of repression, however, like his self-awareness, went far beyond the use of this simple drug.226 The conscious mind can be deliberately distracted, and not only by escaping into nature, as he described in “The Others Spoke.” “I still have a very devout saying from my youth,” Eichmann explains to the Sassen circle, “and I always do it when I find something horribly unpleasant and I can’t stop thinking about it. And in order to forcibly distract myself, do you know what I say? You’ll laugh! I believe in God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, died under Pontius Pilate, suffered and so on and so on, was raised from the dead, and so on.”227
Father Anton Weber, one of the people who helped Nazi fugitives obtain new identities in Rome, said there was a trick he used to check that they had really found their way back to the Faith. “I made them say the Our Father. Then it quickly emerged who was genuine and who wasn’t.”228 Eichmann would certainly have impressed him with the pace of his creed, managing it in five seconds: “I somehow realized early on, as a child—still a devout believer at that time, of course—that once I’d said that, I didn’t think about anything else.”229
Breaches of Trust
I can read only one single motive in this report, a single impetus: he hates you like sin.
—Sassen on Wisliceny, Sassen discussions230
Over time Sassen must have come to recognize that these discussions weren’t bringing him close enough to Eichmann. His interlocutor was always a little faster, always a little more agile in his engagement with documents and information, and it seemed impossible to catch up with his head start on the facts. Neither the additional listeners, nor Dr. Langer’s critically framed legal questions, managed to unsettle him. However, Sassen’s growing frustration was also due in part to his reluctance to hear the truth about the Nazis’ crimes against humanity; he therefore assumed that this truth had to be a lie. He wrongly imagined that the truth was hidden, and he wanted to get at it. By tape 41, Eichmann had become so self-assured that he gave a short address to the group, and at the end of August Sassen decided to change tack: he laid a trap for Eichmann.231
The conversation began as it usually did. Sassen picked up the book by Poliakov and Wulf, but he didn’t tell Eichmann that the document they were about to discuss was not written by an “enemy”; nor was it “Jewish scribblings.” Rather, these were the words of a man Eichmann believed to be one of his best friends: Dieter Wisliceny.232
Eichmann had first met Wisliceny, who was five years younger, in the fall of 1934, though it isn’t clear from Eichmann’s statements whether it was in Munich or Berlin. At first their contact was rather infrequent, but once Wisliceny was transferred to Department II 112 in February 1937, they worked more closely and saw each other on a daily basis. For a short while, Wisliceny was Eichmann’s superior officer, but when Wisliceny failed to get a promotion, he left Berlin and worked in the SD in Danzig until August 1940. When he returned to work for Eichmann in his department, their contact again became more regular, but then Wisliceny was deployed as an “adviser on Jewish affairs” in the Balkans, and they had few opportunities to meet in person. Only in March 1944, when Wisliceny joined Eichmann’s special operations commando in Hungary, did the two form a close relationship once again. This connection allegedly suffered at the end of 1944, as a result of Wisliceny’s futile attempts to create a better image of himself for the postwar world. Eichmann later refuted the claim that they had fallen out, and he may have been telling the truth: Wisliceny stayed with Eichmann until April 1945, though he did his best to deny it afterward.233
Eichmann and Wisliceny had a complex personal relationship. Eichmann clearly felt that he and Wisliceny, after whom he named his third son, were true friends. He openly admired the younger man’s education and intelligence. (Wisliceny had studied theology but had broken off his study because his family was in need of money.) Decades later Eichmann would still remember their discussions. But for Wisliceny, the relationship had another dimension. In 1946, when he was in jail in Bratislava and the authorities asked him to write about Eichmann, Wisliceny came up with a dossier containing twenty-two densely written pages about this one man. Reports on “The Final Solution,” the “Grand Mufti,” “The Fiala Affair,” and numerous other topics fill more than one hundred additional pages, in which ever more details about Eichmann emerge.234 For all his attempts to degrade Eichmann, Wisliceny’s texts still show signs of admiration and attachment: over the years, he seems to have observed everything and everyone around Eichmann, and he continued to proclaim his intimate knowledge of his boss even where it harmed his own line of defense. He also knew what had happened during the period when he and Eichmann had worked in different places—he had kept himself well informed while he was away. This attentiveness has all the hallmarks of obsession. Wisliceny knew the color of Eichmann’s eyes, his scars, the sound of his breathing, and the way he moved; he even remembered his teeth. He would recognize Eichmann’s “gold crowns even on his corpse.”235
Wisliceny made several offers to track Eichmann down, so he could be brought before a court. The authorities refused to release him for this purpose, but he still took pains to list everywhere he could think of that Eichmann might be hiding, which also demonstrates how well Wisliceny knew him. All his suggestions turned out to be wrong, but only because Eichmann wasn’t as predictable as everyone thought. Wisliceny’s testimonies were obviously shaped by two motives: self-defense and a strong emotional connection to Eichmann. This attachment was sometimes expressed positively through idealization, and sometimes negatively, in a sort of impulse for revenge. In Bratislava, as Wisliceny attempted to distance himself, his strong emotional connection became a blind hatred. It unleashed a huge number of lies and attempts to libel Eichmann, which went far beyond what others had done, and for which there seems to have been no rational cause. His behavior cannot be explained purely as an attempt at self-defense.
By 1957 Eichmann knew that Wisliceny had testified against him in Nuremberg—it had been in all the papers—and that he had been executed in Bratislava.236 Eichmann may have told Sassen the testimony was an exaggeration, but he knew Wisliceny had been telling the truth. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was understandable. However, Eichmann hadn’t reckoned on what Wisliceny wrote afterward. He thought of his friend as a victim of the Allies’ “victor’s justice” and maybe even of “torture” at their hands—and Eichmann knew very well what you could achieve by that means, having made frequent use of it himself.237 In Argentina, Eichmann enjoyed talking about Wisliceny and did so at length. Wisliceny had specifically applied to be part of the Hungary commando and had always been one of his most dependable men. Eichmann would dearly have liked to promote him, but unfortunately there was one SS norm that Wisliceny didn’t conform to: he refused point-blank to get married. Eichmann had tried and failed to talk him into it in Hungary. He could never figure out why.
In the transcript, Sassen begins to read from Wisliceny’s text on “The Final Solution” (which had been published as part of Das Dritte Reich und die Juden). Eichmann does not know who the author is. As usual, he tries to contradict this so-called “author,” exposing his lies and “childish inexperience”238 to protect himself and his colleagues. He even ends up defending Wisliceny against what was, unknown to him, Wisliceny’s own testimony. Sassen plays this bizarre game over two tapes on this particular day,239watching for hours as Eichmann gets his teeth into the text and works himself into a rage, using flimsy arguments to attack every sentence this author has written. The author seems to pose a real threat, and, continually spurred on by Sassen, Eichmann finally claims that “there is a lot of truth in this, but the author has also not gone into the matter thoroughly.” Sassen then reveals just how thoroughly the author was acquainted with the facts: “This report is by Wisliceny.” Eichmann is shaken by this news, as the transcript shows: “What is truth? Do you know what truth is? I know it, you don’t. How was he interrogated?” Sassen listens to this stammering for a while, then ups the ante: “I can only tell you my personal feeling, that in my opinion this report was absolutely not obtained under any direct, immediate force, torture or similar, and I can read only one single motive in this report, a single impetus—not redemption in general, this doesn’t play too large a role with intellectual people, which I am starting to realize that W[isliceny] is—he has a basic motive and it is a very primitive motive: he hates you like sin.” “Envy[…] became a pure hatred, particularly as he had been caught, and Eichmann hadn’t.” To cap it all, Sassen then gives a detailed account of how eager Wisliceny was to help the Allies find Eichmann. Eichmann, apparently exhausted, replies: “That is groveling.” Perhaps he is referring in part to himself. The day’s discussion ends with one of the very few moments that give us a glimpse of Eichmann without his mask—tired, disappointed, perturbed, and wounded: “I don’t understand all this … I don’t understand it all.”240
Sassen had deliberately put Eichmann in an awkward situation, which obviously overwhelmed him. But Sassen didn’t know enough about interrogation techniques to realize that this method leads to success only when there is enough time to carry on the discussion afterward. It works in lengthy interrogations, when someone is under arrest. But when the person you have just shaken to his core then has the option of going home, he’ll realize what has taken place, and the result will be reversed. This is exactly what happened in Argentina: Eichmann recognized that Sassen had been playing on his emotions and had entrapped him. In the discussions that followed, his contributions became more halting, filled with latent or open aggression. The convivial tone of the previous sessions vanished at a stroke.241
Sassen, the keen poker player, had overplayed his hand. His notes give us a clue as to why he took such a great risk: he was convinced that Wisliceny was still alive. “Personally, I want to assert once more,” he dictates for the tape, “that I do not believe Wisliceny is dead. Wisliceny is being held in reserve as long as they remain unsure about Eichmann.”242 Who “they” were was self-evident to Sassen—they were the Jews again, with their secret machinations, pretending to the world that Wisliceny had been executed in Bratislava. In reality, “international Jewry” needed someone who could repeat on demand that millions of Jews had been murdered. Then—as Sassen’s fairy tale continues—Israel could extort payments from Germany. But because the millions were only a “legend,” “international Jewry” couldn’t be sure that Eichmann would confirm it. Significantly, Sassen told Eichmann nothing of this crazy theory, because in reality it was Sassen himself who was “unsure about Eichmann.” He was plowing all his resources into the effort to find out which “side” Eichmann was really on, and he did everything he could to isolate him, attempting to discredit every one of his superiors and colleagues: Heydrich had been a mere policeman working for clandestine forces; Müller wasn’t really a National Socialist at all. Eichmann’s subordinates had been renegade liars or incapable underlings, none of which Eichmann had noticed. Sassen was trying to shore up his conspiracy theory, according to which Eichmann was a puppet in the hands of the international conspirators, and that meant he first had to make Eichmann see that everything he believed was wrong. There was no greater threat to Sassen’s version of history than the existence of a group of devoted National Socialists who had committed genocide against the Jews, consciously and by consensus. In order to co-opt Eichmann as the chief witness to his story, Sassen had to unsettle him to such a degree that he would lose all certainty, until he acknowledged and supported Sassen’s “truth.” This process, also known as brainwashing, didn’t succeed with Eichmann. He immediately realized that a very dangerous document existed, about which he had known nothing—and it had already been published. He realized that the former colleague he had thought of as his best friend had done everything he could to turn him over to the enemy. And he realized that the man he thought of as his new friend in Argentina wasn’t afraid to manipulate him. Eichmann learned that he had been betrayed by two so-called friends, one old and one new. It was Langer, not Sassen, who led the next discussion, and the topic was relatively innocuous: they continued reading through the collection of National Socialist “Jewish legislation.” But this deescalation strategy did no good—quite the opposite. Over the sessions that followed, the discussion lurched from one dispute to the next. Eichmann put his own opinions across quite forcefully, even when Sassen didn’t want to hear them. No, of course he been acting on Hitler’s orders, and no, the extermination of the Jews had not been “un-Germanic”: it had been a fundamentally German operation, which they had to keep on justifying, and he was the German officer who had carried it out. Eichmann, the specialist on Jewish questions, had implemented exactly what Hitler wanted. “Read through the speeches, ask a psychiatrist, and you’ll see I’m right.”243 The tapes reveal the keen, implacable, and consistent Eichmann whose vague presence would still be felt in Israel. This man didn’t need a uniform to spread fear and terror among old comrades. Sassen, Fritsch, and Langer could do little in retaliation; the discussion sometimes veered off course, and the project threatened to collapse. “My thoughts are of no concern to you, at least not today, because I’m annoyed,” Eichmann complains in the transcript, “because there has been an attempt to derail the whole matter.… Yes, gentlemen, if people are not remaining objective, I may remain objective, but then I will not say anything.”244
The Arbitrator: Ludolf von Alvensleben245
(For Uki Goñi, to whom a part of this chapter belongs in any case)
In the last third of the Sassen transcript, we suddenly encounter an entirely new interviewer. In a discussion conducted with gentle insistence, someone tries to get through to Eichmann. “Of course, I’m not claiming I know you through and through,” the new man begins unctuously, then goes on to make tentative, thoughtful inquiries about the feelings of the mass murderer, who “must have had his concerns.”246 Again and again the group tries to lead Eichmann into confessing that he was an instrument manipulated by foreign powers. The identity of this new influence is revealed by the long interview that Sassen conducts with him on tape 56.247 It is Ludolf von Alvensleben.248
The discovery that the highest-ranking Nazi in Argentina had found his way into the Sassen circle is as irritating as the fact that his presence could easily have remained undiscovered, although most of Sassen’s in-depth interview with him was available for all to see. In 1957 Ludolf von Alvensleben had been living in Córdoba, another hub for immigrants with a certain kind of past, which over many years became notorious for its Midsummer Night celebrations. Hans-Ulrich Rudel also had a house there. But Alvensleben was still, without doubt, a frequent participant in the debates at Sassen’s house in Buenos Aires and helped him get Eichmann to talk. The theory that there was little or no contact between the Nazi fugitives, because “only a few of them knew each other before, or met after their escape,” is insupportable, particularly when it comes to Alvensleben. Even his escape route went by the same points of contact as Adolf Eichmann’s and Josef Mengele’s.249
“So, you’d like to know what I think of Heydrich? I’ll try and say it in a few words.” So begins the conversation between Willem Sassen and Ludolf von Alvensleben: two friends chatting. They are familiar and comfortable with each other, using the informaldu,joking and talking about the past. But they also look to the future and to an idea that still enthralled everyone present: that “crystal clear” worldview called National Socialism. The section of the conversation available to us begins (cryptically, for anyone unpracticed in deciphering the Sassen transcript), with exasperated remarks from the man typing it up, explaining that the tape was faulty. The result is a stuttering text that gives a good impression of the mangled tape. Anyone who doesn’t give up at this point (and who is also familiar with the books being read in the group) will quickly realize what these men are talking about. They are reading from Wilhelm Höttl’s The Secret Front: The Story of Nazi Political Espionage. For the conversation with Alvensleben, Sassen has selected the chapter about Reinhard Heydrich, to discover what Alvensleben thinks of him. Fortunately, the tape then starts working again, and we are able to follow the discussion as it covers Heydrich, Himmler, Nazi plots, Nazi ideology, the murder of the Jews and the reasons behind it, SS morality, and the Führer’s dreams.
Sassen could not have found a better interviewee on the subject anywhere in Argentina. The man from Saxony had been big in more senses than just his mighty six-foot frame. Alvensleben had been a member of the “movement” from the outset, meeting Goebbels in the early 1930s and spending years working as Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s chief adjutant. He then went to Poland and the Crimea, to implement Nazi policies and all their iniquities there. He ended his career as a Höherer-SS und Polizeiführer(higher SS and police leader), the personal representative of the Reichsführer-SS in Dresden, before sneaking away from the scene of the crime. Alvensleben, as he phrased it, knew “most of the gentlemen who played in this orchestra well.” They called one another by their nicknames in official letters, and everyone in Nazi circles knew (and still knows to this day) who “Bubi” was. His victims didn’t forget his arrogance and high-handedness either, let alone his cataclysmic impact in Poland and the Crimea. He led the “Ethnic Germans’ Self-Defense” initiative, to which an estimated twenty to thirty thousand people fell victim in the space of four months, and that even hard-bitten SS henchmen found overly savage. It targeted Polish intellectuals, priests, Jews, and anyone else Alvensleben regarded as a “partisan.” His direct participation in 4,247 murders in Poland sufficed for him to be sentenced to death in absentia, and an arrest warrant would be issued for him in West Germany in 1964. But Alvensleben and his family had escaped to Buenos Aires after the war, which was a stroke of luck for Sassen and his friends. Alvensleben, who used to send his “dear Reichsführer” sycophantic letters and photos of his children, had not even been tarnished by insulting the Goebbels family and making some extremely critical remarks about Hitler. Among the surviving Nazis worldwide, he was one of those with the most insider knowledge, and he was the highest-ranking Nazi functionary in Argentina: an SS and Police lieutenant general, who by 1944 had become number 147 in the SS250 (with Himmler being number 1), and number 90 in the Waffen-SS251—numbers, it should be noted, that pertained to the whole Third Reich.
As Himmler’s adjutant, his sphere of influence and his fame were tremendous. The adjutant’s job was to coordinate the Reichsführer-SS’s daily activities, including all visits and trips. As a result, the lanky Alvensleben can be seen in many of the films that show Himmler on his travels. He had been at the center of power from the word go, and as his evaluation of 1938 says, he knew “how to place himself and his work firmly in the foreground.”252
Alvensleben can be clearly identified from just three of the many pieces of information he gives about himself in the transcript: he was born in Halle an der Saale, had been a Reichstag deputy, and was a lieutenant general in the Waffen-SS. Further details merely serve as confirmation: his proximity to and acqaintance with Himmler; where he was deployed in Russia in 1942; the respect and authority he commands in his stories about the Nazi era; an obvious class-consciousness; and not least, the friendships he mentions with big names in the music scene, like Paul van Kempen and Herbert von Karajan. “In Dachau,” Alvensleben recounts with some pride, “the Americans picked up a photo of me when they couldn’t find anything else, and hung it on a tree and shot at it.” It would not have been difficult for them to find the photo, which had been in every Reichstag handbook since 1933.
Several people put questions to Alvensleben during the interview, but Adolf Eichmann could not have been present. For one thing, Eichmann had a tendency to interrupt someone when he felt they were taking up too much of the discussion time,253 and for another, he couldn’t help interjecting when his own role in a story ran counter to his self-image. The participants in the session with Alvensleben make plenty of statements that would have directly offended Eichmann. Alvensleben gives free rein to his arrogance as he rails against social climbers and careerists, which, measured on his scale, Eichmann had been. Alvensleben speaks of Eichmann’s “heroes” Heydrich and Müller in a way that Eichmann did not usually tolerate, and what he says about anti-Jewish policy is so controversial that even Sassen feels moved to contradict him. And Eichmann would have made a violent objection to the way the participants evaluated the “successes” of forced Jewish emigration. Eichmann’s work on “Jewish emigration,” which he claimed had been so “constructive,” was one of the main pillars of his grandstanding.
No evidence has yet emerged to show when and under what circumstances Alvensleben and Eichmann first met, but it was very likely while the Nazis were in power: Alvensleben was Himmler’s adjutant in 1938– 39, at a time when Eichmann was beginning to establish his reputation as a “specialist,” through his “Vienna model” and his “successes” in the forced emigration of Jews from Austria. Alvensleben had a placement at the RSHA in April–May 1941, learning how it was organized and about the work it did, just when Eichmann’s department was becoming increasingly important. Alvensleben and Eichmann were also some of the last people Himmler summoned to the Ziethen-Schloss at Hohenlychen at the end of the war—a fact to which Alvensleben explicitly referred.254The two men had plenty of opportunities to meet, and as Alvensleben belonged to Himmler’s retinue and Eichmann was the adviser on Himmler’s favorite project, we can assume that in Buenos Aires they both knew exactly who they were dealing with.
Ludolf von Alvensleben was a prize catch for Sassen in several respects. He was able to clarify connections that no one else could have explained, since he had been closer to people in power than any of the other exiled Nazis. To Alvensleben, most of the key historical figures were not just names but people he had known. This gave him a different, elevated perspective, where the others had only a view from below. He saw things differently from an Obersturmbannführer (even an exceptional one) with his own department, or a Dutch war correspondent who had occasionally seen Goebbels from a distance, or an SD lawyer from Vienna with access to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Alvensleben was a prominent Nazi with the corresponding level of insider knowledge,which was more important for Sassen and his circle than the possibility that his lofty position had made him out of touch. Sassen and Alvensleben were clearly bound by friendship, and Sassen was sure that he and Alvensleben shared “high” National Socialist ideals,255 which made him a reliable ally.
But the debate between Sassen and Alvensleben was by no means unproblematic. Alvenleben’s continued admiration for Heinrich Himmler, whom Argentina’s far-right circles saw as an irredeemable figure, was an unbridgeable divide.256 But more problematic still was that Alvensleben acknowledged the Holocaust as a historical fact and as a crime. The Alvensleben of 1957 saw Nazi anti-Jewish policy not only as a mistake but as inhuman. Despite the fact that he was openly racist and anti-Semitic, he described the Holocaust as “distinctly savage,” “un-Germanic,” and “ignoble.” It didn’t occur to him that his own position as accomplice to and defender of a murderous “war on partisans” might also be described in these words. He managed to tell anecdotes about Herbert von Karajan and talk about racist persecution in the same breath. “I am personally resistant to the idea,” he explained to Sassen, “of taking defenseless people, even if it’s my greatest enemy, defenseless people who have done nothing whatever against me personally, only through their birth—and simply hounding them into a gas oven.”257
This stance created difficulties for Eichmann, who was forced to hear that his lifetime achievement, namely having killed millions of “enemies of the Reich,” had suddenly become “un-Germanic” in the eyes of other National Socialists. It brought Eichmann to the limits of his self-control, and unexpectedly, Sassen was also riled by Alvensleben’s views on National Socialist anti-Jewish policy. Alvensleben, as all his statements show, was not an anti-Semite of a specifically Nazi stripe; he represented a rather old-fashioned, nineteenth-century anti-Semitism based on envy. He made no secret of the fact that he—a man whose hatred of the Poles meant he had no problem ordering thousands of people to be shot and enriching himself at every opportunity—thought the attempt to exterminate the Jews was a lunatic project.
This vestige of humanity, expressed in a circle of racial anti-Semites, moved Sassen, who usually kept his own views under wraps, to make a radically anti-Semitic confession. He, Willem Sassen, saw the very existence of the Jews as a threat. National Socialist anti-Jewish policy had been no mistake, from where Sassen was sitting, but the order of the day. His conversation with Alvensleben reveals something we can only guess at from the rest of the transcript, namely the connection between Sassen and Eichmann. They shared the insane idea that a war of the races really existed and that it would still come down to the “final battle,” which only one race would survive. This was where Sassen’s motives lay, and this was the reason for his encounters with Eichmann. As much enthusiasm as Alvensleben had for the “crystal-clear National Socialist worldview” and the “SS idea,” on this point he couldn’t agree with Sassen’s vision. From Sassen and Eichmann’s perspective, Alvensleben, who was anything but the noble member of the Nazi aristocracy he made himself out to be, must have looked like he hadn’t grasped the “real danger.” He could imagine sharing the world with Jews; Eichmann and Sassen couldn’t.
In Argentina in 1957, Eichmann and Alvensleben were bound by more than just a shared admiration for Heinrich Himmler. As they fled Germany, they had both used identity papers produced in the same South Tyrol commune. Three prominent Nazis had traveled on papers issued in Termeno: Josef Mengele, with papers from April 1948; Alvensleben (May 1948); and Eichmann (June 1948). We are a long way from knowing everything about Alvensleben’s escape, but what we do know is surprising and reveals a great deal about the way this route was organized. I am able to tell at least a small part of this complex story following a lunch I had with the Argentine journalist and historian Uki Goñi. I told him about the Alvensleben discussion, and he confided to me his suspicion that Alvensleben had used a Red Cross passport in the name of “Kremhart.” The Austrian historian Gerald Steinacher had searched in vain for Kremhart’s true identity.258 Over the following weeks, meticulous comparisons of handwriting and photographs proved Goñi’s suspicion to be correct.
Alvensleben’s escape began with a letter sent from Lübeck, in northern Germany. On November 30, 1946, a “Lona Kremhart” wrote to the police in Bozen, asking about her husband, “Theodor Kremhart,” whose name might also be written “Kreinhart.”259 He had been born in Posen (Poznań) on September 18, 1905. The last information she had received about him came from Innsbruck. And they had three children. The answer to this slightly odd letter came promptly: Kremhart had been in Bozen since September 1946, in the Zwölfmalgreien guesthouse. A closer look at Frau Kremhart’s handwriting reveals something astonishing: it belonged, without a shadow of a doubt, to Ludolf von Alvensleben.260 Following a spell in a prisoner of war camp in Neuengamme, he had managed to escape on September 11, 1946 (according to Karl Wolff). Early on, he was suspected to be hiding in the north. Alvensleben had family in Lübeck, so it’s no surprise that he wrote from there to Bozen, the town in South Tyrol where Eichmann would collect his new papers. But why was he posing as a woman, asking about two spellings of a name, and saying he had three children? The answer seems to be that this man was looking for a new identity and wanted to leave Europe with three children.261 The fact that a letter to a South Tyrolean authority helped him achieve this identity still comes as a surprise, even to people who have spent years researching National Socialist escape routes. But the application form for Theodor Kremhart’s Red Cross passport still has a photo of Ludolf von Alvensleben attached to it. And to cap it all, the applicant’s signature is incredibly similar to that of Lona from Lübeck.262 The Red Cross records show that he presented an identity card issued in Termeno in May 1948 and that his application was supported, like Eichmann’s, by the Catholic priest Edoardo Dömöter, proving that this would-be escapee received preferential treatment.263 “Kremhart” was planning to travel on the Cabo Buena Esperanza, the very same ship that Melitta von Alvensleben would name on her application for an Argentine passport a few years later. It docked in Buenos Aires in December 1949. Uki Goñi found both names on the passenger list—and this was how the escape route of the highest-ranking Nazi in Argentina was discovered.
We can only guess at what lay behind the fateful letter. Did Alvensleben initiate the route in this way? Did Eichmann and Mengele do the same thing to organize their own escapes, or was Alvensleben looking for a separate route? The answers may be revealed by searching the Bozen city archive for more letters written by concerned wives with masculine handwriting, looking for their husbands with a number of spellings. But it is now certain that Alvensleben used the same papers as Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann for his escape, all of them produced in three consecutive months. In the face of this information, it would take some nerve to continue talking about improvised escapes by a variety of routes. In fact, it suggests there was an even greater degree of organization than previously thought.
When Ludolf von Alvensleben stumbled across the Sassen circle, he was reunited with at least one man who had not only idolized the same superior officer but had the same people to thank for his new life. This must have been more than just coincidence, even if he subsequently decided that Eichmann was far too common for him. Alvensleben applied for and was granted Argentine citizenship for himself and his family in 1952, which effectively protected him from being prosecuted by the Federal Republic. He made a good life for himself in Argentina, becoming the manager of a fish farm in Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, Córdoba. He was the head of the Argentine office for fishing, hunting, and sailing in his district and posed for photos as president of the soccer club Clubo Atletico Union. Juan Maler even said that for a few years, Alvensleben had been mayor of the nearby Nazi enclave of Villa General Belgrano.264 Despite the death sentence the Polish authorities passed on him in absentia for thousands of murders, and attempts by the Federal Republic to prosecute him in 1964, he would die peacefully in Argentina in 1970. In a television interview, a family member from a younger generation defended the possibility that Alvensleben had reformed during his Argentine exile, abandoning his National Socialist convictions as quickly as he had his homeland.265 Obviously in 1957, when Alvensleben sought out Sassen, Fritsch, Langer, and Eichmann and spent days deep in conversation with them about the Nazi era, the extermination of the Jews, and the pure ideas of National Socialism, this conversion had not yet taken place.
Sassen’s deployment of Alvensleben was effective only for a short time. Eichmann adjusted to this new interviewer very quickly and defended the “sanctity of his struggle,” complete with death camps, against the conspiracy theorists. He refused to be intimidated—once again—even by men of the highest ranks, when he believed he had been fulfilling an order from the Führer. Alvensleben’s entry into the Sassen circle reveals the scale of the group’s ambition for this project. They weren’t just producing the memoirs of an adviser on Jewish affairs (Eichmann wasn’t even the subject of the Alvensleben interview) or hosting a reading group; they were undertaking a wholesale revision of history, targeted at redeeming Hitler and National Socialism. Even Alvensleben wanted to be part of it, despite his genteel reserve and sense of caution. Later, when Sassen dug out the transcripts to sell them, he removed almost the entire transcript of the tape with the Alvensleben interview on it. This suggests that we have the second part of the interview only because Sassen forgot about it. He may well have assured Alvensleben of his discretion, as he did Langer. In any case, he never put the interview up for sale, although the confessions of the man who had been Himmler’s chief adjutant would have been easy to sell. He didn’t even try after Alvensleben’s death. Sassen’s greed reached its limit at personal alliances. Eichmann never betrayed Alvensleben either, inventing the presence of Rudolf Mildner to cover him, though he may well have had Alvensleben’s patronizing Nazi-aristocrat manner in mind when he complained in Israel about the “salon officers in white gloves”—the men who hadn’t understood the core of the National Socialist movement.
“The Lie of the Six Million”
I did speak to Höttl very often, that’s true, and probably about the extermination of the Jews, what else would we have been talking about.
—Eichmann, Sassen discussions266
No topic provoked the Dürer circle more than the number of Jewish victims. By 1957, no one in Buenos Aires still believed that articles like “The Lie of the Six Million” and the Hester Report could throw the genocide into doubt—mainly because the Dürer circle had been largely responsible for manufacturing these revisionist denials. Once the new body of source material became available, all they could do was try to make the scale of the genocide appear as small as possible. It is difficult to understand why the question of victim numbers continues to occupy old and neo-Nazis, and the New Right, like no other, considering that the legal and moral problem of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews does not depend on an absolute number. The “reparations” negotiations would hardly have had a different outcome if four or eight million, rather than six, had been the figure under discussion. It is as if these men, who had mastered the power of symbols with their cult of the Führer, were always more afraid of their “enemy’s” powerful symbol—the six million—than anything else. But another question has a simpler answer: who was the source named by all the post-1945 witnesses, and who was the first person to mention this unimaginable figure? Der Weg itself heralded the appearance of this witness in 1957. In the July issue, another “reader’s letter” said it was “particularly regrettable that it has not been possible to track down the person who, according to all the Jewish publications and witness statements in the Nuremberg IMT trial, is regarded as the only person qualified to speak on this entire complex: SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann. After the deaths of Adolf Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, and Kaltenbrunner, he may be the only credible inside witness to what really took place.”267 The vigilant “reader” then asks whether anyone has any information on this key witness, who has thus far been “impossible to find.”
Published at the end of 1955, the collection of documents edited by Léon Poliakov and Josef Wulf gave readers access to Wilhelm Höttl’s full three-page declaration under oath, in which he set out his conversation with Eichmann. Document PS-2738 had been one of the most important documents in the Nuremberg Trials.268 Here Höttl says that Eichmann had come to his Budapest apartment at the end of August 1944, as usual wanting information on the military situation. Höttl took this opportunity to ask him about the exact number of Jews murdered, and Eichmann answered: “Around four million Jews have been killed in the various extermination camps, while a further two million met their end in other ways, the majority being shot by the Security Police’sEinsatzkommandosduring the Russian campaign.” Höttl emphasized Eichmann’s credibility as a source in some detail: “I have to assume that this information I had from Eichmann was correct: of all the relevant people, he was definitely the one with the best overview of the number of Jews murdered. Firstly, he ‘provided’ the Jews to the extermination camps, so to speak, using his special commandos, so he knew this number precisely. Secondly, as departmental head in Office IV of the RSHA, which was also responsible for Jewish affairs, he definitely had the best knowledge of how many Jews had died in other ways.” Eichmann had even written a report for Himmler, who thought his figures too low.
Naturally, everyone in the Dürer circle was familiar with Höttl’s statement. Der Weg had polemicized against it, but reading the occasional newspaper article was a very different matter from undertaking a close reading of the text itself. Sassen recognized immediately that Höttl’s declaration had to be discredited if his group were to have any possibility of denying the Germans’ systematic extermination of the Jews. He questioned Eichmann directly, at the very start of the discussion, about “the theory of the six million” and his conversation with Höttl, then returned to it again and again.269 The group tried to find out as much as they could about this witness, and to discover his every personal weakness, by asking Dr. Langer to give a lecture on him. The crucial question for Sassen was “how to make a mockery … of this explanation?”270
The problem was compounded by the fact that Dieter Wisliceny had quoted numbers of a similar magnitude from his former superior. In Nuremberg he reported several conversations with Eichmann on the topic, in which the figure had always been at least four million. And he repeated Eichmann’s notorious farewell speech in Berlin, with the words: “He would leap laughing into the grave, because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience gave him an extraordinary sense of satisfaction.”271 Unlike Eichmann, who knew exactly who had been present when he made these claims, Sassen had no idea how many other witnesses might remember this sort of statement. During Eichmann’s trial, Theodor Grell, adviser on Jewish affairs at the mission in Budapest and Eichmann’s ally, would testify that in late fall 1944, Eichmann had proudly told him he was responsible for the deaths of “six million people.”272 Sassen became aware of the greatest hindrance to his efforts much too late—namely, the fact that a high body count really did give Eichmann an extraordinary sense of satisfaction. Still, Eichmann took great pains to tell Sassen and his associates what they wanted to hear. No, of course he had never talked about millions of murdered Jews, only “enemies of the Reich.” No, he had not said “people,” either: he had definitely said “enemies of the Reich.” Only during his trial in Israel would Eichmann be forced to admit that he had said “Jews” after all. In a momentary lapse, he had actually written it down himself.273
In Argentina, Eichmann said it was inexplicable that he, of all people, should have “this explanation falsely attributed” to him.274 Höttl had just “happened upon the same lie as Wisliceny.”275 Eichmann even said the statistics he had prepared for Heydrich before the Wannsee Conference were a forgery, made at a later date.276 He “did not know [the] extermination figure at all,”277 as he had never prepared any statistics—and here his vanity proved treacherous, as he added that in any case, Himmler would never have been dissatisfied with his statistics.278 Eichmann sometimes overdid his reticence to the extent that Sassen had to remind him why he was there in the first place, namely as a guarantor for the figures. “We have to throw all our weight against the theory that Eichmann’s office had no overview of the numbers,” he complains to Eichmann on one tape, “all our weight!” Eichmann can only answer: “Of course, if it helps.”279 If it all weren’t so cynical, it might be comical: Eichmann denied what he knew to please Sassen’s circle, while they were consulting him precisely because he was the only one with that knowledge—except that they imagined what he knew was something very different. In this charade, Sassen is the impatient beau, using honeyed words to convince the beauty he adores to remove her mask at long last, not imagining in his wildest dreams that behind it lurks a snake-headed Medusa.
In this complex constellation, the attempt to refute the Jewish “lie of the six million” became a farce in two senses. The group read one murder statistic after another—tellingly, leaving out those they themselves had falsified over the preceding years.280 In 1953Gerald Reitlinger arrived at 4.2 to 4.7 million; the report to the World Jewish Congress from June 1946 put it at six million; Léon Poliakov thought eight million was possible. The Sassen circle tried to analyze each figure in the Wannsee transcript and in Korherr’s report to Hitler from 1943. They read the statement by Camp Commandant Höß about the extermination capacity of Auschwitz. Sassen rounded the numbers down; Eichmann rounded them up. Eichmann exaggerated the number of survivors; Sassen cast doubt on this, and together they tried to extrapolate a figure. Reading this discussion sometimes feels like being in a bazaar: once again only numbers, not people, exist for Eichmann: “So, he [Reitlinger] says 65,000, I say 40,000, so let’s call it around 50,000.”281 Another instance: “381,000 is a little high, but it may have been around 300,000.”282 And whenever Sassen starts to be even slightly optimistic, Eichmann’s words invariably throw everything into confusion again. “Half of them always lived,” Eichmann claims on the selections in Auschwitz, and although this is an incredible underestimation of the murder rate for the transports from Hungary, Sassen’s reaction is almost panicked: “No, no, we worked out that the absorption capacity was around 250,000, but if two million went there in total …,” then a million Jews would have been gassed in Auschwitz alone.283 As we now know, this is close to the truth, but it certainly wasn’t what Sassen wanted to hear in 1957.
The Sassen circle’s grotesque tug-of-war over the numbers reveals a cynical misanthropy that is almost as unbearable as the thought of the National Socialist genocide itself. The only emotions displayed during this discussion are impatience or annoyance at the slow progress being made. The participants make hardly a single allusion to the victims, let alone express sympathy, shame, or guilt. And still, the researcher who is listening to these men conduct their investigations in Sassen’s living room, and struggling through the transcript, notices that despite their will to deceive and to deny everything, they were unable to make any headway against the might of the facts. However hard they tried, they still heaped up number after number, even without meaning to. As the total grew under their sharpened pencils, the magnitude of this crime against humanity started to look like the writing on the wall. All the participants, apart from Eichmann, had clearly been so convinced that the systematic mass murder of the Jews was a propaganda lie that they really expected that a closer inspection would only confirm their view. Sassen figured that if “the Jews” were forced to provide lists of names, to prove exactly who had been killed, then it would emerge that the dead would be only a tiny proportion.284 The fact that this very method would prove the opposite over the following decades was something he began to sense only gradually. Ultimately, no one can examine something this closely without also reexamining their own views. For his part, Eichmann learned that the first “final balance” he had given in “The Others Spoke” was indefensible, and he grasped the fundamental problem of using statistics to back his lies. In Israel he would be more cautious, implying that the number of Jews murdered would never be known for certain.
Paradoxically, the men in Argentina were moving closer to reality, precisely because they had imagined a very different reality. They delved into an area of research that had only just begun, with all its beginners’ mistakes. In the first decade after the war, all the historians who tried to work to high academic standards, using only figures that could be proved, arrived at totals that we can now see were much too low. But the beginnings of this research were incredibly difficult: contrary to the idea of a systematic murder operation carried out with Germanic efficiency, the extermination of the Jews was an improvised and sometimes chaotic crime. The Germans then tried to burn their records—but even they had no real overview of what they had done. What went on in the death camps bore no resemblance to the clinical, “humane” killing of Himmler’s plans for extinction, which were modeled on pest control. In the camps, where the sole aim was to produce mountains of corpses, it was probably inevitable that all sense of structure and procedure would collapse over time. To imagine that historical research could ever yield an exact number of victims is to idealize the circumstances of this gigantic crime. And anyone trying to gain an accurate picture of these processes would require access to many more documents than were available in the mid-1950s. At that point, only the perpetrators had any real details, even if some of the survivors had some idea of the scale of what had happened. Raul Hilberg estimated 5.1 million in 1961. Martin Gilbert’s estimate of 5.7 million in 1982 was not sufficiently backed by evidence. Only since the 1990s, and the opening of the Russian archives, have we understood that the true magnitude of the crime is close to the figure that Theodor Grell heard (and that Höttl claimed to have heard) from Eichmann in 1944.
Ironically, Höttl’s statement is still regarded as unreliable. Much of what he told American investigators after the German defeat in 1945 was not information he had heard himself: he “borrowed” it from other people’s reports and added the occasional exaggeration of his own. It was a perverse attempt to make himself indispensable as a witness and to show his worth as a potential spy for the U.S. intelligence service. At that point, he was in contact with Theodor Grell and Dieter Wisliceny and would have been able to avail himself of their recollections as well. Höttl’s biggest problem was distracting people from his own role in the Nazi regime. His meeting with Eichmann in Hungary clearly had had nothing to do with historical research; he was sounding out his own position as the regime collapsed. Eichmann was in touch with Heinrich Himmler, who was one of the greatest unknown quantities in the plans that Höttl and his superiors were making to save themselves. Through Eichmann, he could also discover what the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, was planning. Höttl was no small cog in the machine either, but being a man of importance would do him no favors with the Allies. Instead, he managed to dodge any probing questions, loudly proclaiming a different story to distract people from his own. This is exactly what he did with his conversation with Eichmann in Budapest in August 1944. And we can’t rule out the possibility that this detailed story was a macabre attempt by Höttl to outdo his competition.
Later, Höttl would unintentionally strengthen people’s doubts about his credibility. In his autobiography, he claimed to have been aware that this statement would make him a sought-after (and well-paid) witness to the Nazi period. In his final years he managed to start a television career based solely on this statement, then hinted several times that he had never really believed the scale of the Holocaust was so vast. This suggestion, like many things in his last book, proves how easy Höttl found it to spend a lifetime saying things he didn’t believe. In one of his last interviews, he said: “As is so often the case, something I lied about came true.”285
It is remarkable that Eichmann should have named such a large figure at this point in time, prior to the notorious death marches from Budapest and prior to the gassing operation in Ravensbrück, with which he can also be linked. From his visits to Theresienstadt and the remaining concentration camps (Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Dachau) during the final months of the war, he obviously knew people were dying en masse in the abysmal conditions there. But Theodor Grell was not the only one who thought Eichmann was just boasting in 1944. Eichmann had had nothing to do with the Einsatzgruppen mass murders that started behind the eastern front in 1941, though he had heard reports about their scale. Still, he clearly wanted to take responsibility for the total. He therefore impressed upon everyone that the various extermination campaigns perpetrated against the Jews were all part of a single large project. Viewed from the periphery, much of it might have appeared improvised, actionistic, and arbitrary, but viewed from Berlin, every anti-Semitic attack was a realization of what the Nazis were striving for. Eichmann identified himself with “Project Genocide” the way a director sometimes does with his production, seeing his will enacted even when the actors are improvising or interacting with the set. The atmosphere of possibility created an effect that makes Eichmann’s identification with everything that happened in the German Reich understandable. He and others constantly fed the atmosphere of violence that led to innumerable atrocities. He was aware of it and voluntarily added all the murders to his own conscience.
Even so, the fact remains that Eichmann gave a very close approximation of the number of people who we can now prove fell victim to the Nazis’ murder operation. Whether he said five or six million (or perhaps both, depending on the point in time and who he was speaking to), he came close to the correct figure decades before historians managed to gather enough material to prove it. This striking accuracy shows how well informed Eichmann was about the scale of the genocide and how deceitful were his later attempts, in both Argentina and Israel, to feign ignorance. Sassen and his associates turned to Eichmann because they were certain Höttl was lying, and only the man whom Höttl had claimed to be quoting could prove it. Eichmann had to make a public declaration that he had never mentioned that kind of figure. And so he spent months assuring Sassen that he too wanted to travel “the streets of truth” and disprove “the lie of the six million,” by giving another Eichmann quote—a real one, this time. But each document the Dürer circle read became a paving stone on an entirely different road. By the time Sassen noticed, it was too late to turn back: his own key witness had unexpectedly overtaken him in the inside lane and made the Argentine discussion group witnesses to a new confession that could not be refuted.
An Untimely Peroration
This is just by way of a conclusion … which I also feel compelled to tell you.
—Eichmann, Sassen discussions286
The version of the transcripts that Sassen sold in 1960 ended with the notorious tape 67. Its last two pages, “Eichmann’s Concluding Remarks,” immediately became the section of the transcripts most quoted by journalists and historians. But the little speech Eichmann gave in 1957 was by no means the end of the Sassen interviews. It was, admittedly, an unusual meeting for the Sassen circle, the mere announcement of which had been enough to give Eichmann the mistaken impression that it was going to be a celebratory finale to the project. He therefore prepared an explicit “conclusion.” The background noises on the tape reveal the presence of a relatively large group. Eichmann refers to his audience as a Tischrunde, a round-table group. He must have assumed that this session, which took place in September or October 1957, would be the ideal setting for another of those parting speeches that had become notorious among his colleagues—and in the history books. Using skill and intuition, he found the right moment to launch into his address, during a discussion of the final documents in Das Deutsche Reich und die Juden. He gave this speech in the same tone he struck elsewhere when speaking from notes rather than off the cuff: accentuated and strident, but also slow and solemn, with frequent pauses for effect. We have the whole of this speech, along with the preceding discussion and the reactions to it, on one of the original tapes.287 The significance of this speech for an understanding of the Sassen discussions and, above all, as proof of how valuable Eichmann’s statements in Argentina are as a source, make it worthy of a full word-for-word transcription.288 Explanations of various words and phrases are given in the endnotes.
EICHMANN: … and please don’t try and confuse me on this after twelve years, whether it was called Kaufmann289 or Eichmann or Sassen, or Morgenthau,290 I don’t care. Something happened, where I said to myself: fine, then I must drop all my misgivings. Before my people bite the dust, the whole world should bite the dust, and then my people. But only then!
I said this. I—and I tell you this as a conclusion to our matters—I, “the cautious bureaucrat,”291 that was me, yes indeed. But I would like to expand on the issue of the “cautious bureaucrat,” somewhat to my own detriment. This cautious bureaucrat was attended by a … a fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright, and I say here, just as I have said to you before: your louse that nips you, Comrade Sassen, does not interest me.292 My louse under my collar interests me. I will squash it. This is the same when it comes to my people. And the cautious bureaucrat, which of course I was, that is what I had been, also guided and inspired me: what benefits my people is a sacred order and a sacred law for me. Yes indeed.
And now I want to tell you, as a conclusion to all these records,293 for we will soon be finished, I must first tell you: I have no regrets! I am certainly not going to bow down to that cross! The four months294 during which we have gone over the matter here, during the four months in which you have taken pains to refresh my memory, a great deal of it has been refreshed, it would be too easy, and I could do it cheaply for the sake of current opinion … for me to deeply regret it, for me to pretend that a Saul has become a Paul.
I tell you, Comrade Sassen, I cannot do that. That I cannot do, because I am not willing to do it, because I balk inwardly at saying that we did anything wrong. No. I have to tell you quite honestly that if of the 10.3 million Jews that Korherr295 identified, as we now know, we had killed 10.3 million, I would be satisfied, and would say, good, we have destroyed an enemy. Now through the vagaries of fortune, most of these 10.3 million Jews remained alive, so I say to myself: fate wished it so. I have to subordinate myself to fate and destiny. I am just a little man and don’t have to fight against this, and I couldn’t, and I don’t want to. We would have fulfulled our duty to our blood and our people and to the freedom of the peoples, if we had exterminated the most cunning intellect of all the human intellects296 alive today. For that is what I said to Streicher,297 what I have always preached: we are fighting an enemy who, through many many thousands of years of schooling,298is intellectually superior to us. Was it yesterday or the day before, or a year ago, I don’t know, I heard or read: even before the Romans had their state, before Rome had even been founded, the Jews there were able to write. This is an understatement. They should have said, aeons before the Romans erected their state, aeons before the very founding of Rome itself, they were able to write. Look at the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Look at a race that today has recourse to, may I just say, six thousand years of written history, a race that has been making laws for let us say five thousand years or six thousand years—and I am not wrong, I believe, when I estimate a seventh millennium. The fact that the Christian church today makes use of this law making299 is very depressing for me. But it tells me that this must be a race of the first order of magnitude, since lawmakers have always been great. And because of these realizations I fought against this enemy.
And you must understand that this is my motivation when I say, if 10.3 million of these enemies had been killed, then we would have fulfilled our duty. (Pause for effect.) And because this did not happen, I will say to you that those who have not yet been born will have to undergo that suffering and adversity. Perhaps they will curse us. (Pause for effect.) Alone, we few people cannot fight the Zeitgeist. We have done what we could.
Of course, I must say to you, human emotion also plays a role here. I too am not free of this, I too was defeated by the same weakness. I know this! I too am partly to blame for the fact that the real, complete elimination, perhaps foreseen by some authority, or the conception that I had in mind, could not be carried out. I gave you some small examples of this. I was an inadequate intellect and was placed in an office where in truth I could have done more, and should have done more.
What I told you must serve as an apology: one, that I lacked a profound intellect. Second, that I lacked the necessary physical toughness. And third, that even against my will there were a legion of people who fought this will, so that while I myself already felt handicapped, I was then also curtailed in carrying out the other things that would have helped me to a breakthrough, because for many years I was bogged down in a struggle against the so-called Interventionists.300 I want to close by telling you this.
Whether you will put this in the book, I do not know, perhaps it is not a good idea at all. And perhaps it should not go in. This is just by way of a conclusion, to what I have taken on in all these months of refreshing my memory, and which I also feel compelled to tell you.
A long, tense silence; fidgeting around the table.
EICHMANN: We’re done with the whole recording now, yes?
SASSEN: Excuse me?
EICHMANN: We’re finished now, yes? Aren’t we?
SASSEN: Actually, no. I still have a few pages to discuss. But I’m sure we can manage that.
EICHMANN: Oh, we’re really not done with the book?
Sassen laughs (half sympathetic, half indulgently).
EICHMANN (anxious and confused): I think we’re done with … that’s why I … I gave a little conclusion … er … address to … to … er, the group.
SASSEN: Doesn’t matter.
It is only at this “Doesn’t matter” that Eichmann seems to realize how out of place his “little address to the group” was. When there is no immediate reaction, he asks Sassen directly what he thinks of the speech and, not getting a reply, the no-regrets orator finally acknowledges that he is aware of the monstrosity of his words: “It is hard, what I have told you, I know, and I will be condemned for being so hard in my phrasing, but I cannot tell you anything else, for it is the truth! Why should I deny it?” It came “in the moment, from my heart,” which is why he wanted to say it, for the future and for posterity, “for study of some kind.” Anyone who can bear to listen to the complete version on tape will not fail to notice that during the “address,” the style and content of this pathetic performance makes the audience increasingly uneasy and alarmed. It’s no surprise that Sassen then attempts to gloss over this grotesque scene, as Eichmann has done nothing less than caricature the whole Sassen project and make fools of its initiators. They had spent months trying to distance National Socialism from “the one thing of which we are always accused”—namely the Holocaust—finding reasons to discredit each statistic as “enemy propaganda,” and trying to minimize the figures as far as possible, in order to be rid of the problem that they believed had been created by Eichmann and his speeches during the final days of the war. And now the man they hoped would be their chief witness had laid a few million more lives on the table. Everyone present must have realized that the attempt to correct Eichmann with Eichmann had failed. Furthermore, this incomprehensibly cynical speech made it quite plain that when Wisliceny and all the others quoted Eichmann’s confession about millions of deaths, it hadn’t been because the straitened circumstances of Allied occupation had made them lie. And perhaps the detested Wilhelm Höttl had been exaggerating to make himself look important, but he still fell short of the reality that emerged at Sassen’s table in 1957. The group had not exposed the “six million” speech, that most hated of quotations, as a desperate lie told under torture, or as an enterprising invention by Wilhelm Höttl. Instead, they had made themselves witnesses to this monstrous confession, confirming it once and for all. Eichmann had really said it in 1945. And twelve years after the war’s end, in a discussion group with a tape recorder in the room, the mass murderer gave an unsolicited repeat performance of his confession. The extermination of Jews had taken place; he had helped to plan millions of murders—a total genocide, in fact; he still believed this aim to be right; he was satisfied with his part in it; and his only criticism of this lunatic National Socialist project was that “we could and should have done more.” Instead of shaming the “enemy” in Israel and every Jew the world over, by proving “the lie of the six million” to be a Jewish battle tactic, Sassen and Fritsch had inadvertently proved that the real enemy of their own fanciful idea of “pure National Socialism” lay in the midst of Nazi ideology itself, personified in one of its most successful functionaries, one of the last devoted National Socialists still chasing Hitler’s ideal: Otto Adolf Eichmann, SS Obersturmbannführer (still retired). As much as Sassen tried to play it down, his project ended here, in failure. Anything else—victims’ testimonies, rediscovered statistical documents, telegrams about murder rates and books of the dead, films and photos and studies of every kind—the group could have cast doubt on, describing it as “anti-German,” “propagandist,” “exaggerated,” or “counterfeit.” But they couldn’t doubt Eichmann, when he had confirmed the whole thing so convincingly. Eichmann was a National Socialist and for that reason a dedicated mass murderer—nothing, nothing at all, could have “mattered” more.
An End Without a Conclusion
It boils down to Eichmann only believing in his own word.
We can only guess how that evening must have continued, as the tape recorder was then switched off, despite Sassen’s announcement that he still had a few pages left to discuss. Nobody seems to have had much enthusiasm for working on the literature anymore: the advertised discussion didn’t take place until the following week, starting on tape 68. What happened next suggests that Eichmann had received a clear impression of the group’s general lack of understanding. Immediately afterward, he wrote Sassen a riposte to his unsuccessful “conclusion,” sheepishly requesting more material to support his crude understanding of the “Kaufman Plan” and the “Jews’ impulse” toward their own destruction. He was attempting a redraft in accordance with Sassen’s interpretation of history.302He clearly thought it necessary to tell Sassen what he wanted to hear, both in his letter and in the words he composed for the discussion following this incident, with which tape 68 begins.303 “Yes, I want to register one point,” he stutters. “During or in the course of the last records that were recorded … I gave a kind of concluding statement.… Now I have read this book by Poliakov and found … er … things there that were done … I no longer feel this conclusion was correct in the form in which I gave it.”304 Eichmann is obviously aiming to please, like a schoolboy with a guilty conscience. But he is not entirely successful in playing the contrite orator: he can’t help but add that he will relent only if “the documents are genuine, and not bogus documents.” However, he immediately backpedals: “which admittedly, given the whole situation etc., I almost doubt, and I believe that a few things have to be accepted as genuine.… What do you think?” On the tapes that follow, Sassen is obviously too irritated to think anything anymore and is also seriously lacking in motivation. He continues to read from books, slowly and with less concentration than usual, then stops, starts again from another point, and breaks off again, for minutes at a time. He seems to ask questions more out of habit than of interest. Only Eichmann retains his usual level of engagement, though he is increasingly mistrustful of Sassen. He begins to answer much more evasively: “I am hearing that for the first time, … but I have to tell you I cannot say anything about it, since I had nothing to do with it”; “I don’t know”; “I’ve forgotten.”305
Sassen barely follows up on Eichmann’s remarks, putting very few queries, not wanting to probe further, and simply checking off each subject on his agenda. The transcripts are also incomplete, and in the text, the ordering of the tapes becomes uncertain.306 The final tapes and transcripts give the impression that Sassen had simply lost interest. It was impossible for him to re-create the excitement of the earlier tapes. Eichmann had become a disappointment for his circle. He was forced to recognize that he had failed to take Eichmann in hand, though he had employed plenty of tactics, books, and helpers in the attempt. In the end, Eichmann remained Eichmann. His meetings with Sassen had been just another opportunity for him to put across his version of history, and his plans: “Your louse that nips you, Comrade Sassen, does not interest me.” And as cunning as Sassen had proved himself to be when he interviewed South American politicians, he was no match for Eichmann’s love of hearing his own voice. Like everyone who has come into contact with Eichmann and his texts, Sassen simply became irritated—not only by his regular guest’s terrible sentence structures and neologisms but also by the realization that the idea of Germany under National Socialism that Sassen had been nurturing was so flawed as to be untenable. Sassen’s daughter stressed several times that her father could not and would not deal with the subject of the Holocaust, because it didn’t accord with his dream of the “pure idea of National Socialism.” But through Eichmann, Sassen had come to understand that ignoring the Holocaust was the same as denying it. Mass murder and gas chambers had happened, they were part of German history, and National Socialists like Eichmann had played a decisive role in creating them, out of their dedication to the cause. Sassen may have been a dedicated National Socialist and a racial anti-Semite, but he viewed this kind of murder project as a crime, and he was too self-aware to see denial as a solution. He failed in his attempt to write a book based on these discussions that would please him as well as Eichmann. The project had only served to make him realize that if he wanted to remain a National Socialist, he had to stop working with Eichmann. It would be possible to falsify history, and dissociate Hitler and “Germanness” from the murder of the Jews, only by going against Eichmann.
The fall of 1957 brought with it a significant change for postwar Nazis the world over. Konrad Adenauer won the election in West Germany with an absolute majority. The far-right movement in both Germany and Buenos Aires had dreamed of preventing this election victory and of effecting a turning point in German postwar politics—a dream that was far removed from reality even in the 1950s. It had come to nothing, along with the prospect of using this route back to a seat at Germany’s top table. The German population, as Adenauer had realized, was no longer keen on experiments.307 Everyone had now come to appreciate that there was no way back, and they would have to adapt to the new world as it was. Eberhard Fritsch, Ludolf von Alvensleben, Willem Sassen, and Hans-Ulrich Rudel, as their biographies show, were slowly beginning to grasp that Hitler had been dead a long time: the Third Reich was past and would never return. Even the most sentimental of dreams, in the isolation of exile, had a limit, when the rest of the world was moving on—and the world had moved on significantly, even in Argentina. In 1957 the country was a long way from the vibrant boom years it had enjoyed a decade previously, under Perón. The “movement” had become outmoded, and those who didn’t want to be stuck in the past had to start keeping pace with the new world and its possibilities. Even Der Weg ceased publication. And so the Sassen project didn’t go out with a well-orchestrated bang or a dramatic bombshell; it simply died of boredom and disappointment.
But Eichmann’s confession had changed not only the eyewitnesses in Argentina. It was spreading inexorably among the other people who were still dreaming of the Führer-state’s return. The first role that the Sassen interviews played in Eichmann’s downfall was to help destroy the virulent sympathy for the National Socialist worldview that had protected the perpetrators of crimes against humanity for so long.