Vol. 16 No.1 (January 2006), pp.7-10


CRIMINAL CASE 40/61, THE TRIAL OF ADOLF EICHMANN: AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT, by Harry Mulisch (trans. by Robert Naborn). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.  208pp. Cloth. $27.50/£18.00. ISBN 0-8122-3861-3.


Reviewed by Rhonda L. Callaway, Department of Political Science, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX  77341. E-mail: rhonda.callaway [at] shsu.edu


Harry Mulisch, an up-and-coming novelist from the Netherlands, witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel and wrote a series of articles that first appeared in a Dutch weekly, Elseviers Weekblad.  The entire collection was then published in 1961 under the title, “De Zaak 40/61: Een Reportage.”  In 2005, the University of Pennsylvania Press published the English translation with a new forward by Deborah Dwork.  Mulisch provides the reader with a novelist’s perspective on the trial and utilizes literary devices, particularly the use of imagery, to complete his picture of Eichmann.  The image that the reader takes away is that the most frightening enemy might be the average man walking down the street or even the face in the mirror.  As Mulisch suggests, “We do not have to continue to be wary of criminals; we must continue to be wary of perfectly ordinary people” (p.117).  


The articles provide Mulisch an avenue in which to have a dialogue, perhaps more accurately a monologue, regarding the evolution of Eichmann from ordinary man to mass murderer.  Mulisch is “less concerned with what he has done than with who he is” (p.111).    In fact, this is the ultimate objective of the book.  Although the crimes committed by the Nazis have been and will continue to be documented by historians, and the role of the state and the international community when it comes to justice has been and will continue to be debated by academic scholars and legal minds, what interests Mulisch the most is the man himself.  In other words, Mulisch addresses the question, who is Adolf Eichmann?   Mulisch disagrees with other Dutch journalists and writers who describe Eichmann as “a non-man, a phenomenon of absolute godlessness and non-humanness” (p.43).  He asserts that this is too easy of an explanation.  Instead, Mulisch searches and ultimately finds literary references as a means to convey the nature of all the key figures. 


The first character, the god-like figure, is Adolf Hitler.  Heinrich Himmler serves as the true believer, fulfilling the second category.  Mulisch can easily find images of Hitler and Himmler in pre-Nazi literature, but has trouble placing Eichmann, whom he describes as the most “horrifying” and the “non-believer,” the “heretic.”  He finally pinpoints the characterization of Eichmann as that of a machine.  At last, he finds a literary metaphor for Eichmann in the automated doll, Olympia, in E. T. A. Hoffman’s THE SANDMAN.  Hitler, in Mulisch’s literary version of the Holocaust, can easily be seen in the character of Coppelius, one of the inventors of Olympia.  As Mulisch relates, “Olympia cannot escape his power.  She does not [*8] believe in him, but as a robot she has to obey him.  And if we decide that in Olympia we are facing Eichmann, then we suddenly see him in a long tradition” of other literary figures ranging from the “Iron Fly of Regiomontanus, the Iron Man of Roger Bacon, the Artificial Man of Albertus Magnus . . . And further still: to the automats of the Pythagoreans”(pp.116-117).  Much like Olympia, Eichmann operates under the philosophy that “an order is an order.”  Eichmann is quoted as stating that “My whole life I was used to being obedient, from the nursery until May 8, 1945” (p.56).  And in Eichmann’s world, the order was an eternal one, one he stood by until Hitler was gone. 


Eichmann is what Mulisch refers to as a “symbol of progress.”  By this he means that Eichmann exhibits the characteristics of a new age, an age where orders and technology combine to create the potential for both good and evil.  In Eichmann, we see the evil associated with the combination of orders and technology, which is then facilitated by an oath.  We see a man driven, perhaps even obsessed, by perfection, regardless of the task.  In fact, Mulisch seems convinced the Eichmann was not so much obsessed with the murder of the Jews, rather the order to murder the Jews.  When pondering why Eichmann did not commit suicide like many others, Mulisch suggests that he could not because he had not been “ordered to do so.” So, why does Eichmann become a peaceful citizen in Argentina?  According to Mulisch, “for exactly the same reason that he behaved like an intimidating murderer in Europe:  this is what was expected of him” (p.119). 


Was Eichmann anti-Semitic?  In an ironic twist, Mulisch points out that Eichmann looked Jewish.  In retrospect, “nothing indicates that he simply hated the Jews” (p.18), and in fact he regularly interacted within the Jewish community while in Vienna.  He studied all things Jewish, even becoming a Jewish expert.  To demonstrate the obsessive personality of Eichmann, Mulish describes a visit Eichmann made to Palestine in 1937.  Returning from that visit, Eichmann was quoted as stating that “I did see enough to be very impressed by what the Jewish colonists were building upon their land.  I admired their desperate will to live . . . In the years that followed I often said to Jews with whom I had dealings, that, had I been a Jew, I would have been a fanatical Zionist . . . I would have been the most ardent Zionist imaginable” (p.22).  So, it does not seem that ideology is a driving factor.  Regardless of where Eichmann found himself, he was going to perfect whatever he was engaged in—much like a machine.


His ability to be invisible, behind the scene adds to the mechanical image.  Mulisch is effective in describing the ability of Eichmann to simply fade to black: “before the war he was an invisible SD clerk. During the war he was an invisible operating SS officer.  After the war he was an invisible, hiding Nazi.  During the past year he was an invisible prisoner in Israel . . . And now Eichmann has suddenly become visible” (p.36).  However, the image of Eichmann as a machine becomes blurred with each passing day of the trial.  He becomes more human.  This monster that Mulisch manages to portray as a machine is quite human.  In fact, the image of Eichmann at the trial is one of contrasts.  On the one hand, we have a [*9] picture in our mind’s eye of the archetypical Nazi, perhaps the black image depicted on the WWII anti-Nazi propaganda posters.  My own vision of the Holocaust will always consist of images in black and white, not color.  Mulisch queried those who remember Eichmann from the camps, how much he changed, and “all they could remember was a hat, shiny boots, and a pair of square riding pants” (p.41).  Yet, the person in the defendant’s box does not seem all that intimidating. “He turns out to be human: a somewhat grubby man with a cold, wearing glasses” (p.37).  From Mulisch’s view, “if they had put an empty SS uniform in the cage, with an SS hat hovering above it, they would have had a defendant of greater reality.  When they arrested him in Argentina and put an SS hat on to identify him, the moment of truth was nearer than now, when the breathing, digesting, sneezing man appears in the courtroom” (p.41).  In reality, according to Mulisch, Eichmann was the everyman . . . and that is the frightening part.  In the end, Mulisch concludes that while Eichmann was an ordinary man, in fact human – he was “the smallest human being – with that portrait we are getting closest to the likeness.  And he was able to be so small because the technology was so great:  the railways, the administration, the gas chambers, the crematoriums.  This small man with his great technology is the one we are fighting.  With the arrival of the H-bomb, man has become even smaller . . . Here lies the difficulty in our fight against nuclear weapons” (p.161). It is with technology that humans can be machines. 


Throughout the work, Mulisch relies on imagery, a useful tool given the graphic nature of the subject.  The descriptions of Israel, the Holocaust, of the city of Berlin during and after the war, and of Eichmann provide the reader with constant and lasting images.  Several examples here will suffice. This use of imagery comes through in two chapters, “Jerusalem Diary I” and “Jerusalem Diary II,” which chronicle not only the events at the trial, but Mulisch’s travels through Israel.  He depicts Israel as human, an entity that is growing.  In describing the Sea of Galilee, Mulisch writes, “warm and calm it lies in the deep, against the rugged mountains of Syria on the other side.  On this motionless water the God walked, and the first thing I see, once we are down there, is a man on water-skis behind a motor boat.  Again, I am the only one who begins to laugh” (p.61).   In describing Eichmann, Mulisch provides a series of photos of Eichmann.  The first photograph is divided in half and each is a reproduced and matched against itself to create two additional photos.  One photo is the two left-sides put together and the other photo contains the right-side of the face in its mirror image.  One photo portrays an average, perhaps banal middle-aged man.  The second image is that of a monster or as Mulisch describes, a beast.  Thus, we have the “two faces of Eichmann,” one good, the other evil.  This emphasis on imagery plays a major role in providing a portrait of Eichmann, at least from the perspective of Mulisch, the novelist and witness.  


So, how is this offering important to social scientists and other academics?  What should we gather from this novelist’s perspective?  One might even be tempted to ask, why translate and republish, why now?   An unfortunate familiar phrase comes to mind—crimes [*10] against humanity and war crimes tribunals.  It seems that the lessons of World War II were short-lived, if ever learned at all.  The crimes against humanity in Rwanda, Kosovo, and Iraq have produced their own trials, with key figures such as Jean Kambanda, Slobodan Milosevic, and Saddam Hussein as the latest to sit in judgment.  Each episode conjures up unique images, much like the unique images of the Holocaust.  In Rwanda, a primitive genocide accomplished with machetes, in the former Balkans one has eerie visual reminders of the Holocaust, and in Iraq there are the images of men, women and children gassed to death.  Reading Mulisch now might provide insight into the character of those currently on trial.


In the area of international law and justice, Mulisch examines and questions the validity of the trial, particularly the authority of Israel to actually conduct the trial.  The Eichmann trial differed from the Nuremberg trials in the same manner that the Saddam Hussein trial is different than the war crimes tribunal for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia.  The Eichmann trial was and Hussein trial is conducted by one state, not the international community.  Yet, in both cases, the international community is watching.  Mulisch expressed some of the same concerns as there are today.  Will the proceeding be a fair one?  Are the witnesses providing actual witness testimony or providing images of horror that can not be easily tied to one particular person?  Should it be the international community conducting the trials? 


 In the end, we can talk about the causes of war, the role of differing capabilities among and between states, and the role of the international community in meting out justice, but in reality war and war crimes boil down to the actions of individuals.  John Stoessinger, in WHY STATES GO TO WAR, insists that the role of the individual is key in the decision to go to war.  The same can be said about war crimes.  Ultimately, what Mulisch offers the social scientist is a dose of reality.  Preiswerk (1981) suggested that perhaps we should study international relations as if people mattered. I would guess that Mulish would agree, as he provides a human, dare I say, normative perspective to the study of war crimes. 



Hoffman, Ernst T. A. 1817/1885. THE SANDMAN. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons.


Preiswerk, Roy.  1981. “Could We Study International Relations as if People Really Mattered?” in Gordon Feller, Sherle R Schwenninger, Diane Singerman (eds). PEACE AND WORLD ORDER STUDIES: A CURRICULUM GUIDE.  New York: Institute for World Order.


Stoessinger, John George. 1998. WHY STATES GO TO WAR.  New York: St. Martins.


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Rhonda L. Callaway.