Saturday, January 25, 2020


Taal volcano, Philippines

After the electric fence was switched off
between Birkenau and Auschwitz,
the men’s and women’s camps, they found
each other alive, Veronika and Yakub —

my grandparents, skin stretched
tight against their bones,
eyes burning in their sunken faces,
the grins the grins of joy.

They settled together in a barracks.
Veronika set off in search of food.
Near the warehouses she saw
three women inmates

herded by a Nazi.
As if on a whim, he shouted Halt!
and shot them all —
roared away on his motorcycle.

Veronika hid behind a waste bin;
then started roundabout in the snow,
afraid to pass by the bodies.
She stopped at a wide ditch.

On the other side came up a tall
blond man in civilian clothes.
He stretched out his arm
and pulled her across.

She warmly thanked him in Polish.
He nodded without a word.
And suddenly she saw:
this was an SS officer.

He’d taken off his
and was human.

~ Oriana


Wow... the contrast here between the two: the murdering Nazi and the gentleman. And of course it is symbolic, taking off that whole persona of the inhuman killer with the uniform that sanctioned so many monstrous acts…like the one she had just witnessed, killing for a whim.

Veronika’s first ID photo after Auschwitz 

~ “Two former Nazi concentration camps are increasingly seeing visitors who disrupt memorial tours by voicing far-right sentiments and nostalgia for the camps' previous genocidal purposes.

“We even see anti-Semitic slogans or statements such as ‘if the camps were still in operation, we would have no problem with foreigners,' " Volkhard Knigge, head of the memorial foundation for Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps, told the German Neue Westfälische newspaper, according to The Telegraph's translation.

There are increasing entries in our visitor books that describe National Socialism and the concentration camps as useful and good for Germany,” Knigge said, according to the Telegraph.

Knigge also said that neo-Nazis have disrupted tours of the memorials by raising questions about whether the Holocaust happened.

Buchenwald, one of the first and largest concentration camps, and Mittelbau-Dora, originally a sub-camp of Buchenwald, were both in Germany. They were liberated in 1945.” ~



~ “If Jack London is chased forever from our historical memory by the dog he invented, then we will lose one of the most intriguing, bizarre figures in American history, at once inspiring and repulsive. In his 40 years of life, he was a “bastard” child of a slum-dwelling suicidal spiritualist, a child laborer, a pirate, a tramp, a revolutionary Socialist, a racist pining for genocide, a gold-digger, a war correspondent, a millionaire, a suicidal depressive, and for a time the most popular writer in America. 

In Wolf: The Lives of Jack London, his latest biographer, James L. Haley, calls London “the most misunderstood figure in the American literary canon”—but that might be because he is ultimately impossible to understand. 

London nearly died by suicide before he was even born. His mother, Flora Chaney, was a ragged, hateful hysteric who reacted to anyone disagreeing with her by screaming that she was having a heart attack and collapsing to the floor. She had grown up in a 17-bedroom mansion, but she ran away as a teenager and ended up joining a religious cult that believed it could communicate with the dead. She had an affair with its leader, William Henry Chaney, who beat her when she got pregnant and demanded she have an abortion. She took an overdose of laudanum and shot herself in the head with a—fortunately—malfunctioning pistol. When the story was reported in the press, a mob threatened to hang Chaney, and he vanished from California forever. 

When Flora delivered Jack in the San Francisco slums in 1876, Flora called him “my Badge of Shame” and wanted nothing to do with him. She handed him over to a black wet nurse (and freed slave) named Virginia Prentiss, who let him spend most of his childhood running in and out of her home. She called him her “white pickaninny” and her “cotton ball,” and he called her “Mammy,” no matter how many times she told him not to. 

“I was down in the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery about which it is neither nice nor proper to speak,” he wrote years later. As soon as he left primary school, he was sent to work in a cannery, stuffing pickles into jars all day, every day, for almost nothing. For the rest of his life, he was terrorized by the vision of a fully mechanized world, where human beings served The Machine. The shriek of machinery pierces through his fiction, demanding that human beings serve its whims. 

He didn’t get a toothbrush until he was 19, by which time his teeth had rotted. London grew up into America’s first great depression, slumping from one unbearable job to another. He shoveled coal until his whole body seized up with cramps. He tried to kill himself for the first time by drowning, but a fisherman saved him. He began to notice the legions of toothless, homeless men on the streets, broken by brutal work and left to die in their 40s and 50s. He responded, at first, with a cold Nietzschean individualism, insisting he would escape through his own personal strength and courage. 

But in the despond of the depression, new ideas were emerging in America. London said they were “hammered in” to him, against his will: “No lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom.” 

When the tramps organized a march across America to demand jobs in 1894, London hit the road with them—only to be arrested at Niagara Falls for “vagrancy.” When he asked for a lawyer, the police laughed in his face. When he tried to plead not guilty, the judge told him to “shut up.” He was shackled and jailed for a month. London had always known the economic system was rigged against him, but now he came to believe even the law was rigged.

When he was released in 1894 at the age of 18, he began to deliver impassioned speeches on street corners, and soon he was on the front page of San Francisco papers as “the Boy Socialist,” urging the workers to rise up and take the country from the robber barons.
He was offered a place at a posh prep school, and escape seemed possible for a flickering moment. But he soon dropped out after the parents at the school protested against his supposedly coarsening influence on their little darlings. He enrolled in another academy—only to be thrown out for completing the entire two-year curriculum in four months, embarrassingly outclassing all the rich kids. 

London felt humiliated and enraged. Soon after, he charged off to the Canadian Arctic, where there were rumors of gold. He watched his team of gold diggers die around him of drowning, cold, and scurvy. A passing doctor inspected him and told him he, too, would die if he didn’t get urgent care. He was 22 years old, and he vowed that if he lived, he would become a writer, whatever it took. 

His first works—like The Sea-Wolf(1904), a novel about a shipwreck survivor who is rescued by a ship captain only to be enslaved and tortured in increasingly deranged and homoerotic ways by him—injected into American literature a hard, terse vernacular style that seemed to hack Edith Wharton to death with an axe and feed her to the wolves. It was as discordant and brutal as the machines London had operated and as rough as the landscapes he battled through. Readers were startled by the crude, rude energy of the writing. It ripped out manners and replaced them with mania: His characters were violent and thuggish and real. 

The richer London became, the more radical his politics were. He was soon praising the assassination of Russia’s political leaders and saying socialism would inevitably come to America. Even as he employed small battalions of servants, he insisted he was a Robin Hood figure: They would be made to wait on the tramps and trade unionists he invited to his mansion. 

And yet there is an infected scar running across his politics that is hard to ignore. “I am first of all a white man, and only then a socialist,” he said, and he meant it. His socialism followed a strict apartheid: It was for his pigmentary group alone. Every other ethnic group, he said, should be subjugated—or exterminated. “The history of civilization is a history of wandering—a wandering, sword in hand, of strong breeds, clearing away and hewing down the weak and less fit,” he said coolly. “The dominant races are robbing and slaying in every corner of the globe.” This was a good thing, because “they were unable to stand the concentration and sustained effort which pre-eminently mark the races best fitted to live in this world.” 

And for those who are not “best fitted to live in this world”? In his 1910 short story “The Unparalleled Invasion,” the United States—with the author’s plain approval—wages biological warfare on China to decimate its population. It then invades and takes it over. It is, the story says, “the only possible solution to the Chinese problem.” Haley, in an otherwise solid and competent biography, is horribly soft on London’s racism, saying only that he thought the races should be separate. He didn’t: He frequently thought whites should kill the rest. 

How did he become like this? His mother was a crazed racist. Panicked by her loss of status, she found living near black people a permanent humiliation. London, too, seems to have felt a strong impulse to identify with people “trapped in the abyss.” But he also found it humiliating, and so needed an Untermenschen class below even them. Yet there at his origins was also Virginia Prentiss, who virtually raised him. Didn’t he think of her when he compared black people to monkeys? At times, for tantalizing moments, the man who could be so eloquent in his compassion for one group of undeserving victims seems to sense that he is saying something vile about another. At one point, London says socialism’s strength is that it “transcends race prejudice”—but then that prejudice returns, just as vicious as before. When he visits Hawaii, he is in awe of its native culture, but then demands the United States conquer it just the same. 

His near-constant guzzling of whisky made his thoughts even less consistent or coherent. Every day, he was unwittingly finishing off his mother’s pre-natal attempt to kill him. He wrote: “So obsessed was I with the desire to die that I feared I might commit the act in my sleep, and I was compelled to give my revolver away to others who were to lose it for me where my subconscious hand might not find it.” He staved off this deep, darkening depression with booze, work (he wrote 1,000 words a day, every day), and socialism. It was his transcendent cause. He said he could go to political meetings in despair and be “lifted out of self, and in the end return home happy, satisfied.” 

He was happy to write entertainments, but he didn’t see them as his driving purpose. So London would be surprised to discover he is remembered now, almost entirely, for The Call of the Wild(1903), the novel about a pampered dog who is kidnapped, forced to be a sled dog in Alaska, and eventually flees to live among the wolves. Like almost all London’s heroes, he is forced into a harsh, hideous landscape, where he must fight or die. There’s a proto-environmentalism to the story, with its message that you can’t escape nature; it will reclaim us all, no matter how civilized we seem. 

But his writing—after an initial efflorescent burst of hard reality—deteriorated as surely as his kidneys. The less he experienced out there in brutal reality, the more his work wilted and became mannered—the very tone he had set out to sucker punch.

Even as The Call of the Wild became one of the best-selling books in American history, newspaper editorials were calling for London to be jailed or deported for his Socialist speeches. By the age of 40, he was broken. He was taking morphine to stop the pain from his booze-burned kidneys and liver. 

As he lay killing himself with whiskey, London grew increasingly despondent that the United States was failing to become the Socialist republic he prophesied. “I grow, sometimes, almost to hate the mass, to sneer at dreams of reform,” he wrote to a friend. He resigned from the Socialist Party, saying it had become too moderate and reformist and should be pushing for direct action—but he took none himself. Cut off from his great redeeming cause, he was dead within a year. His manservant found his almost-dead body, accompanied by a note calculating how much morphine it would take to kill him. Flora Chaney’s bullet had hit, 40 years behind schedule.

Doesn’t that tale deserve to be remembered, in the end, as amounting to more than a solitary dog story?



London got seduced by Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman and Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest.” That, along with alcoholism, dragged him down. On the other hand, when I was much younger and more receptive, not yet aware of the warning that alcoholics (but not only) regard themselves as “separate, different, and superior,” I was quite fascinated by The Sea Wolf, with its increasingly deranged captain Wolf Larsen, an amazing specimen of the Aryan “blond beast.” I also remember being moved by Martin Eden and his heroic struggle to educate himself — and his final defeat and suicide. 

Now, it could be argued that London actually resisted Nietzsche’s influence — hence his socialism. But perhaps he was too permeated with the “vulgar Nietzscheanism” and social darwisnism so popular in his era not to be deeply affected. He drank the poison not just of alcohol, but of the deluded individualism that still troubles the Western culture. Worse, he seems to have gone along with the idea that “inferior races” were to be eliminated. 

I think it’s probably all to the good that now London is remembered mainly as an author of young-adult adventure fiction — yes, the dog stories, and the real wolves in the wild.


“Let us not forget that the causes of human actions 
are usually immeasurably more complex and varied 
than our subsequent explanations of them.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot


Yes. And that's perhaps the main reason we can't really explain someone like Jack London. But then every human being is a bundle of contradictions.

“I yearn for my work, because it always helps me make sense of things. For never was a horror experienced without an angel stepping in from the opposite direction to witness it with me.” ~ Rilke


The quotation reminds me of Hölderlin's “Where danger grows, that which saves us grows also.” In this case, it seems to me, creative work is the angel — and writers and poets have said that their work saved them from suicide. But it's perhaps best not to try to interpret Rilke's statement too closely. Let's rather enjoy the image of the Angel stepping forth "from the opposite side," and then perhaps walking with us.

Angel of the Sundial, Chartres


“However, narrating what you remember, telling it to someone, does something else. The more a person recalls a memory, the more they change it. Each time they put it into language, it shifts. The more you describe a memory, the more likely it is that you are making a story that fits your life, resolves the past, creates a fiction you can live with.
It’s what writers do. Once you open your mouth, you are moving away from the truth of things. 
According to neuroscience, the safest memories are locked in the brains of people who can’t remember. Their memories remain the closest replica of actual events. Underwater. Forever.” ~ Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water





~ “The most significant — and perhaps macabre — relic of Soviet Communism resides on Red Square in Moscow. Those hearty enough to enter will be gobsmacked to find a glass sarcophagus containing a superbly preserved body of the controversial leader Vladimir Lenin, comfortably resting in a blue woolen suit.

Lenin served stormy tenures as head of Soviet Russia from 1917 to 1922 and as head of the Soviet Union until his death, most likely from a massive stroke, in 1924. He was only a few months shy of his 54th birthday.

Nearly a century later, a team of anatomists, biochemists, and surgeons work around the clock to maintain what remains of Lenin’s body. Called the Mausoleum Group, they work at the Moscow Center for Scientific Research and Teaching Methods in Biochemical Technologies.

From the 1920s until 1991, preserving Lenin’s body was a scientific priority for the former Soviet Union. During this period, the Mausoleum Group consisted of more than 200 scientists and technicians. Since the fall of Communism in the 1990s, however, the funding and staffing has dropped considerably. To help make ends meet, the same group conducts other research and maintains the well-preserved bodies of Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il of North Korea.

On the day Lenin died, his successors began planning a state funeral and ceremonial burial. Lenin and his family were quite firm in their requests not to create a sense of hero worship around his memory. Indeed, his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya wrote in the Jan. 30, 1924 issue of the Pravda newspaper: “I have a big favor to ask of you; do not let your grief for Il’ich go into the external adoration of his personality. Do not erect monuments to him, build palaces in his name, organize magnificent ceremonies is his memory — to all this he, during his lifetime, paid so little attention. All this was a burden to him.”

Lenin’s body was placed on view for about a week. Because of the extremely cold temperatures in Moscow that year, the undertakers were amazed to note how little deterioration there was in his corpse. They went as far as to predict that decomposition would not become a problem until the warmer temperatures of spring. 

This “frozen state” gave the party leadership a much longer period to consider what to do with Lenin’s body. Many were opposed to doing anything more than a burial in Red Square. Other party members, however, pointed to the long lines of people who still wanted to bid farewell to their leader; more than 500,000 people had already queued up to pay their respects. After much discussion, the Party collectively decided that a tomb containing Lenin’s body should become a site of world pilgrimage for the working class.

In March of 1924, Vladimir Vorob’ev, a physician, and Boris Zbarskii, a biochemist, of the Moscow Medical Institute, were asked to apply their newly developed biochemical method of embalming on Lenin’s body. By July, they were able to report that the corpse could remain in good shape indefinitely, as long as it was re-embalmed and cared for at regular intervals. This discovery represented a smashing success for Soviet science.

Thus, the corpse of Lenin was transformed from the remains of a once-living person into a monument to the Russian Revolution and the Communist way of life. Even today, nearly 30 years after the demise of the U.S.S.R., Lenin’s Mausoleum—just beyond the foreboding walls of the Kremlin and heavily protected by a goose-stepping honor guard—remains one of Moscow’s most visited tourist sites. Last year, more than 2.5 million people entered the carefully monitored and environmentally controlled tomb.

All that is preserved of Lenin’s body, incidentally, is his skeleton, skin, muscle tissues, and outward “form.” His vital organs and his brain were all removed for study at autopsy, directly upon his death. 

Armchair pathologists, by the way, are still arguing over whether Lenin died of a stroke or the neurological complications of tertiary syphilis—or both. During his final months, he demonstrated many symptoms of neuro-syphilis, including terrible headaches, seizures, nausea, insomnia and partial paralysis. Lenin may also have been briefly dosed with Salvarsan, the arsenical compound developed by Dr. Paul Ehrlich in 1909 to treat syphilis in the pre-antibiotic era. 

Unfortunately, we may never know the precise answer, unless the Moscow Institute of the Brain releases their precise post-mortem findings. Until then, the autopsy slices of Lenin’s brain remain locked away.

During the 1924 autopsy, the pathologists also removed all of Lenin’s arteries and veins. Thus, the preservation team could not infuse embalming fluids through those vessels—the most common way to deliver such chemicals through a body. Instead, they developed micro-injection techniques where individual hypodermic syringes filled with embalming agents were injected directly into the portion of the body that required preservation at any given time. They also invented a two-layered “rubber suit” to fit over the corpse in order to keep a thin layer of embalming agents circulating around his body at all times. The dark business suit Lenin currently “wears” was specifically tailored to fit over the rubber suit.

Every other year, the entire corpse is re-embalmed by submerging it in several different solutions: glycerol, formaldehyde, potassium acetate, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, acetic acid, and acetic sodium. Each submersion takes about six weeks.

Lenin’s body is constantly under surveillance for areas of deterioration and immediate repair. Painstaking attention is paid to the corpse’s external features. For example, Lenin now has artificial eyelashes because his were damaged in an early embalming process. His nose, face, eye sockets, and several other parts of his body have been “re-sculpted,” with a material made of paraffin, glycerin and carotene, to help keep his facial appearance close to its original, and far more lively, look. You don’t have to be an admirer of Lenin to appreciate the stunning visual impression achieved by his keepers.

Over the last century, the Lenin preservation laboratory has created a long list of biological preservation techniques. These scientists have also developed many measures that help living people, including new equipment designed to keep blood flowing through donor kidneys prior to their transplantation and even a noninvasive skin test to measure cholesterol.

All this is to say that while Lenin has been dead almost twice as long as he lived, a great deal of science, public history, political theater and fascination has been generated by what remains in Moscow today.” ~


It seems morally indecent to be spending money and effort on the upkeep of Lenin’s mummy. At the same time there’s no denying that it’s a great tourist attraction. It’s only human to want to see this ghoulish image. And it’s also only human to wonder if the decent thing would be to bury Lenin — after all, Stalin’s mummy was removed from the mausoleum and given a burial.

I can also understand how those who were taught to love Lenin as children might want to preserve the mausoleum. To be human is to be full of contradictions and emotional ambivalence. 

Did Lenin ever wish to be mummified? His last will states that he wished to be buried next to his mother.


~ “Bettina Stangneth's disturbing account of Adolf Eichmann's years in exile reveals the full extent of his cynicism, inhumanity and moral self-deception

Before the war, Adolf Eichmann, born in 1906, was the acknowledged "Jewish expert" of the SS, in charge of carrying out various schemes to remove the Jews from Germany, such as encouraging – or forcing – them to emigrate, or transporting them to Madagascar. When the Germans invaded first Poland in 1939, then the Soviet Union two years later, Eichmann organised the concentration of the millions of Jews who lived in eastern Europe into ghettos, and then ensured they were taken, along with Jews from every part of Europe under Nazi control or influence, to camps such as Auschwitz, to be murdered. After Germany's defeat, Eichmann went underground and then escaped to Argentina, where he joined a number of other senior Nazis in exile, living under an assumed name. During the 1950s, however, his whereabouts were discovered, and, in 1960, he was kidnapped by Mossad agents and smuggled out to Jerusalem, where he was put on trial for mass murder, found guilty, and, in 1962, hanged.

During his trial, as he sat in the bullet-proof glass box that served as the dock, Eichmann did not give the impression of being a monster, a sadist or a thug. He presented himself, on the contrary, as an ordinary, reasonable man. He was not personally, physically brutal or violent. When he had visited the scenes of extermination, he had clearly felt rather queasy. Yet here was a man who, notoriously, had said towards the end of the war that if Germany lost, he would "leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had 5 million enemies of the Reich on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction".

So what kind of a man was Adolf Eichmann? How and why did he become a mass murderer? The first and still the most famous and influential attempt to answer these questions came from the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, who attended the trial as a correspondent for the New Yorker, subsequently publishing her articles in a revised book-length version as Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book stirred up a storm of criticism, particularly though not exclusively from Jewish intellectuals in the United States. There were many reasons for this. Reflecting what was known at the time, and in common with other early historians of the Nazis' genocide of the Jews, Arendt was highly critical both of the passivity of the great majority of European Jews in the face of persecution and extermination, and of the collaborationist administration of the Jewish Councils in the ghettos, whose tragic and impossible situation failed to arouse her sympathy.

The judgments she offers in Eichmann in Jerusalem are utterly independent and totally unsparing. Time and again she raises questions that provoke and disturb. The abduction of Eichmann from Argentina was illegal; the trial was a show-trial; Israel's marriage laws were similar to the racist Nuremberg laws of the Nazis; Eichmann's crimes were crimes against humanity, so international law should have dealt with the case. Arendt's independence of mind is one of the most impressive features of her reporting. She writes as a detached philosophical inquirer, not as the representative of any particular group or political tendency.

Eichmann in Jerusalem bore the subtitle "A Study in the Banality of Evil". What she meant by this was not that Eichmann was a mere bureaucrat, a conscienceless pen-pusher who was only obeying orders. On the contrary, she argued, he was an ideological antisemite, a man of overweening ambition who wanted not only power but also fame. He had a compulsion to "talk big", she observed, and indeed "bragging was the vice that was Eichmann's undoing". 

Not a particularly intelligent man, he assimilated the ideology and behavior of the evil system within which he sought to achieve distinction. He admired the Third Reich not least because it allowed men from a humble background like his own – or Hitler's, for that matter – to climb to the top. He was under no compulsion to act as he did: he could have opted out at any time; all his actions were voluntary. He deserved to die because he had failed, or refused, to exercise the kind of moral judgment Arendt herself showed in her book. His crimes were the crimes of a system, even a nation; as the psychologists who examined him in prison concluded, he was not a psychopath or a sociopath, though, as Arendt points out, he was most certainly, and frequently, a liar and a deceiver. This was the "banality of evil".

In Argentina, Arendt notes, Eichmann did not go underground but occupied himself with "talking endlessly with members of the large Nazi colony, to whom he readily admitted his identity". These conversations were recorded by a Dutch ex‑member of the SS, Willem Sassen, and edited extracts were published anonymously, though there could be little doubt about the identity of the principal participant. The existence of the original tapes and transcripts has long been known, but up to now their poor quality has defied systematic investigation. The German philosopher and historian Bettina Stangneth has now performed the invaluable service of deciphering them, putting them together with other, often little-known source material, and delivering a full analysis of Eichmann's ideas as he expounded them to his friends and former colleagues in exile.

In the conversations he had with Sassen and others, Eichmann was completely unrepentant about the extermination of the Jews, which he saw as historically necessary, a policy he was proud to have carried out in the interests of Germany. The cynicism, inhumanity, lack of pity and moral self‑deception of the conversations are breathtaking. This is a very disturbing book, and every now and then, as you read it, you have to pause in disbelief. Ten years and more after the war's end, Eichmann's lack of realism, typical for a political exile, even persuaded him that he could make a comeback, or that nazism could be rehabilitated, and he planned to launch a public defense of what he saw as its achievements.

In one of the conversations, Eichmann described himself as a "cautious bureaucrat" but also "a fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood". Stangneth dissents from Arendt's belief that Eichmann was unintelligent, and points out that he calculatedly presented himself only as the cautious bureaucrat during his trial, deliberately concealing his "fanatical" side. But his clumsy attempt to present himself as pursuing a Kantian "categorical imperative" does not show that he was in any way an intellectual; and his mendacious self-presentation as a mere pen-pusher did not convince anyone, least of all Arendt. What he lacked was moral intelligence, the ability to judge the system he worked for and whose ideology he assimilated so completely.

Stangneth's absorbing account of his years in exile, which is translated by Ruth Martin, adds considerably to our knowledge of Eichmann, but it is not a "total reassessment of the man", as the publishers claim, nor is it true to claim that the book "permanently undermines Hannah Arendt's notion of the 'banality of evil'". Half a century after it was written, Arendt's book, despite the fact that it has been overtaken in many of its details by research, remains a classic that everyone interested in the crimes of nazism has to confront.

Eichman in 1942

~ “The title [Eichmann before Jerusalem] of course refers to Hannah Arendt’s omnipresent and over-praised account of Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. I would say that Stangneth’s book not merely surpasses but actually buries Arendt’s account. Not least in showing how Arendt was fooled by Eichmann’s role-play in the dock in Jerusalem. For whereas Arendt famously portrayed the man in the glass booth as a type of bureaucrat, Stangneth shows not only that Eichmann was not the man Arendt took him to be, but that she fell for a very carefully curated and prepared performance. Putting together a whole library of scattered documents from Eichmann’s exile in Argentina in the 1950s, Stangneth puts the actual, unrepentant Eichmann back center stage.

There are a number of startling discoveries in the book, not least among them being the extent to which Eichmann had kept up with the books and scholarship on the Holocaust as they came out so that by the time he was awaiting trial in Jerusalem he was fully on top of all primary and secondary material put to him. There is also the extent to which Stangneth is able to show (through accounts from various members of the South America Nazi circles) how well known the true identity of ‘Ricardo Klement’ actually was within the German expat community in those years.

But Stangneth’s principal scholarly triumph has been her ability to piece together and make sense of the extant transcripts and recordings known as the Sassen conversations.  Together with Eichmann’s contemporary attempts at memoir-writing they bring a wholly new interpretation on his years in Argentina.

By this point Eichmann was also thinking of breaking his cover in some way.  In 1956 he once again attempted to write a book, this time provisionally titled Die anderen sprachen, jetzt will ich sprechen [The Others Spoke, Now I Want to Speak!].  But the conversations with the Sassen circle – which came from the same instinct of his to break his silence – turned out to constitute an attempt to square an impossible circle. For Eichmann saw the Sassen circle’s efforts to minimize the Holocaust as something like a spitting on his life’s work. Eichmann knew that the six million figure was accurate, and seems to have only gradually realized that his audience were hoping for something quite different from him.

In The Others Spoke, Now I Want to Speak! (the reference is to his former colleagues who Eichmann believed had defamed him at Nuremberg) he had the opportunity to write about the recent Suez Crisis. Here is one passage Stangneth quotes which was new to me at least: ‘And while we are considering all this – we, who are still searching for clarity on whether (and if yes, how far) we assisted in what were in fact damnable events during the war – current events knock us down and take our breath away.  For Israeli bayonets are now overrunning the Egyptian people, who have been startled from their peaceful sleep.  Israeli tanks and armored cars are tearing through Sinai, firing and burning, and Israeli air squadrons are bombing peaceful Egyptian villages and towns.  For the second time since 1945, they are invading… Who are the aggressors here?  Who are the war criminals?  The victims are Egyptians, Arabs, Mohammedans. Amon and Allah, I fear that, following what was exercised on the Germans in 1945, Your Egyptian people will have to do penance, to all the people of Israel, to the main aggressor and perpetrator against humanity in the Middle East, to those responsible for the murdered Muslims, as I said, Your Egyptian people will have to do penance for having the temerity to want to live on their ancestral soil… We all know the reasons why, beginning in the Middle Ages and from then on in an unbroken sequence, a lasting discord arose between the Jews and their host nation, Germany.’

There then follows an extraordinary and important passage.  For Eichmann goes on to say that if he himself were ever found guilty of any crime it would only be ‘for political reasons’. He tries to argue that a guilty verdict against him would be ‘an impossibility in international law’ but goes on to say that he could never obtain justice ‘in the so-called Western culture.’  The reason for this is obvious enough: because in the Christian Bible ‘to which a large part of Western thought clings, it is expressly established that everything sacred came from the Jews.’ Western culture has, for Eichmann, been irrevocably Judaized. And so Eichmann looks to a different group, to the ‘large circle of friends, many millions of people’ to whom this manuscript is aimed:

‘But you, you 360 million Mohammedans, to whom I have had a strong inner connection since the days of my association with your Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, you, who have a greater truth in the surahs of your Koran, I call upon you to pass judgment on me. You children of Allah have known the Jews longer and better than the West has.  Your noble Muftis and scholars of law may sit in judgement upon me and, at least in a symbolic way, give me your verdict.’ [pp 227-8]

Elsewhere Stangneth shows how open Eichmann must have been in his admiration for Israel’s neighbors. After Eichmann’s abduction his family apparently became concerned about his second son. According to a police report, ‘As Horst was easily excitable the Eichmann family was afraid that when he heard about his father’s fate, he might volunteer to fight for the Arab countries in campaigns against Israel.’  As Stangneth adds, ‘Eichmann had obviously told his children where his new troops were to be found.’ [229]

Of course for years after the war there were rumors that Eichmann had fled to an Arab country. He might have had a better time there. Other Nazis certainly did, including Alois Brunner – Eichmann’s ‘best man’ – who settled in Damascus after the war and who is now believed to have died in Syria as recently as 2010. Eichmann’s Argentina years were certainly filled with frustration and rage. What is most interesting is how mentally caught he remained even before he was captured, principally by the impossible conundrum of how to persuade the world to accept what he had done and simultaneously boast about his role in the worst genocide in history.

There is much more to say about this book. But I do urge people to read it. Not least for the way in which Stangneth sums up the problem with the only strain of Nazi history which really remains strong to this day.‘Eichmann refused to do penance and longed for applause. But first and foremost, of course, he hoped his “Arab friends” would continue his battle against the Jews who were always the “principal war criminals” and “principal aggressors.” He hadn’t managed to complete his task of “total annihilation,” but the Muslims could still complete it for him.’


Thinking of Eichmann, Jack London, and those neo-nazis visiting concentration camps, it is particularly horrifying, and baffling, that they feel no shame for their inhumane and racist attitudes and actions, but actually are proud of them. The Nazis knew how the world would judge their massive genocide, thus their efforts to conceal the evidence in the last days of the war, when their defeat was imminent. But this was not out of shame, and certainly not in repentance — simply an effort to avoid punishment from the victors.

Much of the horror of the Holocaust comes not only from the enormity of the slaughter,  but from the Nazi obsession with and attendance to the smallest and most intimate details…reducing the complex reality of human beings to numbers and disassembled fragments: bodies counted,  listed only as numbers, as separated fragments, sorted by teeth, shoes, wedding rings, all noted and accounted for in careful ledgers. They also mechanized murder, so that it became not an individual act of passion but a large scale program of cold efficiency..automatic, unthinking, impersonal. So the SS officer cannot become human until he removes his uniform, and victims and observers are baffled by a genocide designed like an experiment in engineering.

The particular horror is in the details. The gold teeth had to be knocked out, one by one. The bodies had to be herded, stacked, incinerated...each step in this process intensely physical. Yes, much of this hands on dirty work was done by the capos, prisoners themselves, but all of it was
there to be seen, felt, smelled, tasted...impossible for the engineers to avoid. Imagine breathing the air in the death camps, heavy with ash, greasy and putrid with the smell of burning flesh, and constant. The engines of death were never still.

This is the essence of horror and the grotesque. A machine grinding flesh, never clean, insatiable, and pretending to some great noble "purification" of the world. Banal in the way a bean counter is, or an accountant's ledger, but here the beans, the numbers, bleed and suffer and stink,  creating a world so foul and degraded it becomes incomprehensible. And all the while its engineers and designers wear their impeccable uniforms and listen to classical music. The tension, or may be the refusal to admit to it, the contradiction, is the source of a monstrous deformity, a sense of abruption between thought and action, idea or theory and the reality it spawns. But the truth is that these ideas of racism and nationalism always and inevitably lead to the most evil and hideous results.

This is the nightmare of history we may now be on the edge of repeating.

I am reminded of the whited sepulcher of the slave-holding south — all those fancy mansions and southern belles, the ideas of honor among gentlemen, living off the backs, the sweat, blood and pain, of human beings treated as chattel. The ugliness, the rotten stink of racist oppression, enslavement, genocide, cannot be hidden or denied. Like the ashes from the crematoriums, they persist, witness to the depravities of their creators. No matter how they protest pride and righteousness, they are known by their acts, by the nightmare landscape of the worlds they create, with airs too rank and poisonous for breath.

I don't know if I've said anything different here. The questions raised seem particularly urgent in these times, and particularly threatening. I can't help trying to understand even what I fear it may be impossible to stop. Is it this bad?? Yes. I think it is.


Yes, it is. One of the parallels with the thirties is a huge amount of debate on the “failure of democracy.” It’s not unusual to come across articles declaring that democracy can’t work in an ignorant, politically disengaged society, and pointing out the startling global rise in right-wing movements that favor dictatorships — as long as the dictator is "one of us.

Now as before, the right wing extremists want simple answers and they want scapegoats — this time immigrants. Jews are still vilified and attacked, their cemeteries defaced with swastikas, but my feeling is that the primary scapegoating has shifted toward immigrants. Women’s rights are also under attack. Any otherness must be destroyed. What is unnerving is that we have seen this before. This is history’s recurrent nightmare.

The nationalist Christian Right has a perfect model in their totalitarian religion. After all, god is the most absolute dictator, the King of Kings. His inscrutable Divine Plan trumps all — suffering may not be questioned, since it’s obviously part of the Plan. Any human concentration camps are justified and outdone by the eternal tortures in hell. And the all-powerful, all-seeing Dictator of Dictators is worshiped for eternity in a way that makes Orwell’s imaginings of Big Brother pretty feeble.

And yes, war is good. War is inevitable. God is of course on our side. Armageddon.

We are used to thinking of the Religious Right as the lunatic fringe, but that’s only the concentrated form of the totalitarian ideal that casts a very big shadow, mocking democracy and human rights. What’s mere Constitution next to the “Holy Scripture” — of any religion, we might add.

To be sure, it’s always possible to point to Christ’s pacifism, his compassion for the poor, the radical idea of forgiveness rather than revenge, and so on. But that part of Christianity is not popular now. There was an era when dictators were falling. Now they are on the rise all over the globe. Yes, it is frightening. History teaches us that terrible ideas can lead to terrible actions. Vicious ideologies need to be constantly resisted. Democratic debate must not be extinguished. 

A terrifying new era started on 9/11. There is no point denying that on that date, evil triumphed. In response, America did, alas, open the gates of hell in the Middle East. It definitely didn’t make the world safe for democracy. 
Will it be the “gentleman” of my opening poem, or the unrepentant, vicious Nazi trying to kill the “other” until the very end? Maybe the ultimate insanity of hate will be its undoing. Maybe. How fragile civilization is.



~ “The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal, perhaps best known for Pascal’s Wager, set out the most effective way to get someone to change their mind, centuries before experimental psychologists began to formally study persuasion:

~ When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true. ~

Pascal added:

~ People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others. ~

Put simply, Pascal suggests that before disagreeing with someone, first point out the ways in which they’re right. And to effectively persuade someone to change their mind, lead them to discover a counter-point of their own accord. Arthur Markman, psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, says both these points hold true.

“One of the first things you have to do to give someone permission to change their mind is to lower their defenses and prevent them from digging their heels in to the position they already staked out,” he says. “If I immediately start to tell you all the ways in which you’re wrong, there’s no incentive for you to co-operate. But if I start by saying, ‘Ah yeah, you made a couple of really good points here, I think these are important issues,’ now you’re giving the other party a reason to want to co-operate as part of the exchange. And that gives you a chance to give voice your own concerns about their position in a way that allows co-operation.”

Markman also supports Pascal’s second persuasive suggestion. “If I have an idea myself, I feel I can claim ownership over that idea, as opposed to having to take your idea, which means I have to explicitly say, ‘I’m going to defer to you as the authority on this.’ Not everybody wants to do that,” he adds.” ~


This reminds me of Ben Franklin’s suggestion that to get someone to like you, request a favor from them. If they do anything for you, if they “invest” in you, they’ll persuade themselves that they like you and you are worth the trouble. The more they “invest,” the more favorably they will view you. Otherwise there’d be cognitive dissonance.

But getting back to Pascal’s approach, it’s interesting how we tend to launch an immediate counter-attack, worsening our chances of persuading the opponent. Pascal makes a very good case for his approach.


“Our main myth is apocalyptic . . . and our children today live among and act out images of catastrophe. Suicide among children shows a startling rise. . . . The only hope, according to the authorized version of the catastrophe, is in a divine redemption. In face of that cosmic science fiction of Armageddon, psychology’s scientific fiction narrows the cause of devastated children to dysfunctional families.” ~ James Hillman, “The Soul’s Code” (1997)

Hillman claims that the general culture affects children more than family — that parents kid themselves about how much impact they have on a child. First of all, a child’s life will unfold according to the “soul’s DNA,” Hillman claims — his famous “acorn theory” of vocation. The second most important factor is the larger society and the historical era, the time and place where they were born.

This reminds me of having grown up with eye-witness stories of WWII. All children and a lot of adults believed that WWIII was inevitable and would be worse by far, likely the end of civilization. Post-nuclear dystopia novels and movies were more a sub-category of realism rather than fantasy. It was not a religious Apocalypse that we feared, but we were aware of those predictions too. There weren’t that many Jehovah’s Witnesses in Warsaw, but a congregation existed — though frankly one didn’t have to be a Jehovah’s Witness to experience that apocalyptic feeling at least once a month or so. In view of the A-bomb, the Horsemen seemed rather superfluous.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the smashing of giant statues was almost comic relief. Oh, so there won’t be a nuclear war between Russia and the US? True, an insane North Korean leader could still press the button, but that was seen as survivable (if still extremely damaging).

Today’s children grow up without that horrific mushroom-shaped shadow over them, but with the constant news of shootings — and images of war, mass shootings including school shootings, and suicide bombings (or just bombings — e.g. the Boston marathon) — and, in the post 9/11 world, terrorist threat in general. There is also the awareness of environmental destruction and of how life on earth could end due to the run-away greenhouse effect. I wonder how this affects the children.


Smile. Plenty of research, including one study from 1989 and another published in the journal Psychological Science last year proves that a smile – even a faky, contrived one – can actually induce happiness and reduce stress. So, even if you have to talk yourself into it, give yourself a grin or simply repeat the long “e” sound, as psychologist Robert Zajonc had participants do in that early study, to stretch out a smile, and you’ll feel better.

Give yourself a hug. Kristen Neff, renowned for her research into self-compassion suggests a hug as a way of coping with the stress of making a mistake. When we wrap our arms around, our arms or shoulders, our bodies release oxytocin which is causes us to feel more nurturing and less reactive.

Tilt your chin up. Look at the sky. Just look up. Lifting your chin up and letting your shoulders sit back improves mood and confidence in potentially difficult situations, according to Paula Niedenthal, a psychology professor, who has studied the link between posture and emotion. No surprise then, that people who keep their chins down and shoulders slumped generally don’t feel as positive.

Dance. Seriously. Just do it. Rock out by yourself in the living room, before the kids get home, or gently sway with your husband long after they are in bed. Scores of studies show that various dance forms decrease stress, improve focus and concentration, and yep, you guessed it, boost your mood.

So, next time you’re feeling blue, stressed, anxious, angry, or inadequate, shift your body, go for a walk, concoct a face-stretching smile, or change your posture and your mood may just follow will follow along." ~

(alas, the link has become lost)


To these tips, I'd add a walk somewhere where there are trees. Clouds also do it for me. And, oddly enough, the fake smile.



I cannot pretend I am without fear.
But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.

I have loved and been loved; I have been given much
and I have given something in return;
I have read and traveled and thought and written.
Above all, I have been a sentient being,
a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet,
and that in itself has been an enormous privilege
and an adventure.”

~ Oliver Sacks, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer

ending on beauty:

Snow falls
the way we walk.
Without a word.

~ John Guzlowski

Print by Hasui Kawase