Adolph Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem.

When Leonard Cohen wrote about Eichmann

I have not yet seen "Operation Finale," the new movie about the capture of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution.

But, I can assure you: when I see it, I will be carrying something in my mind and in my soul.

It comes from an unlikely source -- the late singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen.

Before Cohen created a second career as a popular artist, he had established himself as a poet and novelist -- in fact, one of Canada's major literary figures.

The first book of poetry I ever bought was Leonard Cohen: Selected Poems, 1956-1968 -- purchased exactly fifty years ago for $1.95.

In that book, I encountered a poem that has stayed with me for the past half-century.

"All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann"

EYES:……………………………………Medium
HAIR:……………………………………Medium
WEIGHT:………………………………Medium
HEIGHT:………………………………Medium
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES…None
NUMBER OF FINGERS:………..Ten
NUMBER OF TOES………………Ten
INTELLIGENCE…………………….Medium

What did you expect?

Talons?

Oversize incisors?

Green saliva?

Madness?

What was Cohen saying about Eichmann?

In one sense, he was re-stating Hannah Arendt's famous assessment of this war criminal, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. 

During his imprisonment before his trial, the Israeli government sent six psychologists to examine Eichmann.

Their conclusion?

He was utterly normal. No trace of mental illness. No personality disorder. In fact, one doctor remarked that Eichmann was actually more "normal" in his habits and speech than the average person.

Arendt said that Eichmann was a nothing, a nebbish, a mediocre bureaucrat -- thus, the subtitle of her iconic work -- "the banality of evil." (For a fuller assessment, both of Eichmann and of Hannah Arendt's response, read Deborah Lipstadt's The Eichmann Trial -- especially to learn about some rather quirky Jewish responses to the trial).

Leonard Cohen was urging us to see Eichmann -- not as good, but as not monstrous. Eichmann, despite his evil, was not a visible ghoul, not something that was dredged up out of a horror film. That was what made Eichmann so frightening, and so dangerous -- how utterly normal he was.

I find myself agreeing with the Christian thinker, Reinhold Niebuhr. In the 1950s, Niebuhr wrote that modern culture has been completely oblivious to the abiding mystery of evil in human life. The Hebrew Bible soberly understands that mystery. Its view of human life is far from optimistic. It is in many cases profoundly pessimistic -- or we might say realistic. “The wickedness of man is great on the earth.” “Sin crouches at the door.” “Woe to those who call good evil and evil good.” These are the truths that the Torah teaches, that the prophets restate, that the Psalmist echoes.

The reality of evil is omnipresent. The challenge is that it often dresses itself up as normality, and as normal people.

Back to Eichmann. What, according to Arendt, would be the enduring lessons of Adolph Eichmann?

  • Eichmann was not very intelligent.
  • He used "stock phrases and self-invented clichés." He spoke"officialese."
  • Eichmann was a "joiner" his entire life. He constantly joined organizations in order to define himself, and had difficulties thinking for himself without doing so.

I am not going to attempt to add on to the voluminous literature on totalitarian personalities, or why people find certain ideologies attractive. (At least, not before the High Holy Days. I have other things to do).

Neither am I going to glibly say that there are other Eichmanns waiting in the wings -- despite the violent fantasies of many people in this country.

I am merely saying that we need to see the potential for evil as always being in our midst, and that the inability to be self-reflective and self-defining outside the ideology of a group, can be toxic and lethal.

Just sayin.'