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"


What did you expect?


Oversize incisors?

Green saliva?


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.'





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

    Abnormal scares the hell into people.
    Normal don’t scare the hell out of anybody.

  2. Back in the eighties I read M. Scott Peck’s book “People of the Lie” about evil people. It was very useful in helping me deal with a boss who truly was evil. One of the things I remember about that book was Peck’s statement that evil is very common and often quite banal. He mentioned one of his clients (he was a shrink by trade) whom he described as causing eddies of unrest wherever she went. Peck said that had she the power of Adolf Hitler she might have been able to cause great destruction in the lives of others. As it was, her sphere of influence was very small and so her ability to wreak havoc in other people’s lives was rather limited. Recently I had to work with such a person who was mercifully fired for her shenanigans, but I couldn’t help but think back on Peck’s statement that evil is everywhere – sometimes even within ourselves. As Professor Dumbledore said to Harry Potter, “It is our choices that show who we truly are far more than our abilities.” That applies to our choices to do either good or evil.

  3. To many people, God is a violent fantasy seeking a far off country, ever since the days of Abraham. “He used stock phrases and self invented cliches. He spoke officialese.”

  4. I also read Peck’s books, there are several, and they are all well worth reading. Another book is “True Believers, the nature of mass movements” by Eric Hoffer, a long shoreman at the port of LA (if I remember correctly). He also can help people understand the extremist that searches for a group to belong to to help him/her define his/her identity. We see this today with young people running off to join ISIS and street gangs.

    People need to understand the Psychology and Sociology IF we ever want to move past this “us versus them” (all of those that aren’t like us) culture that has torn and continues to tear our world apart.

  5. “…the inability to be self-reflective and self-defining outside the ideology of a group, can be toxic and lethal.”

    Very powerful statement. I immediately think of the training/formation Catholic priests receive. Here are a few quotes from a piece written by Gregory McAllister, who entered the seminary when he was 14 or 16. He left before ordination, finding it was not the life for him. But his memory of how that process of formation affected him is informative. He wonders how/if that process was part of the dynamic that “formed” so many sex abusing priests.
    “From the moment we walked in, every minute of the day was spelled out for us by a document called The Rule. There were specified times to study, to eat, to pray, to exercise, to talk, and to sleep. In between, there were long periods of silence.”

    “In many ways, it was a sensory deprivation program.” No “radio, watch TV, or read magazines and newspapers….only allowed to read books that had been approved by the faculty. All our mail was censored…” “Any contact with the opposite sex was strictly forbidden and even close (particular) friendships with other seminarians were discouraged.”

    ” slavish adherence to The Rule. ‘A superior may err in commanding, but you can never err in obeying’.”

    I suspect that the entire Catholic church hierarchy, from priest to pope, has a very hard time with being “self-reflective and self-defining outside the ideology of a group.” These are things we learn in those teen and early twenties years – when we have separated from parental control and are finding those experiences and values in our interaction with the world, in forming friendships, prioritizing what we spend our time on, organizing our lives, exploring new ideas, places, people. Are these some of the experiences missed by those who went into seminary when too many were formed into a propensity to sex abuse or a blindness to its existence around them.

    Is that inability to be “self-reflective and self-defining outside the ideology of a group” a definition of clericalism.

  6. “I suspect that the entire Catholic church hierarchy, from priest to pope, has a very hard time with being ‘self-reflective and self-defining outside the ideology of a group.’”

    The alternative, of course, was to form them as you were formed, no idea too zany to entertain, no thought too outrageous to share with the group.

    Sounds like they picked the better course.

  7. Human can soar to be angel or descend to be the devil ! Just look within our backyard.

  8. The ability to be self-reflective and self-defining was and is (I think) considered to be self-centered and a sin by many western oriented religious folk. It leads people to question authority and what those in authority teach! And Catholicism was all about controlling the people and consolidating power over the people in the hands of a select few thoroughly indoctrinated people.

    Many religions, especially eastern traditions embraced the ideas of self-reflection and self-defining as ways to spiritually advance in understanding of self and world. We see this with their emphasis on meditation, though Hindus and Buddhists have slightly different ways of meditating.

    This is all different from the mystics that have appeared in all world religions.

    Self-reflection leads to growth and development and progress of the person. Denying it or trying to stifle it leads to stagnation and inhibits the growth and development of the person.

  9. I think there is a balance we have to reach between 1) self-reflection and self-definition and 2) how we fit into the various communities in which we live, work, play, educate, worship. What we go through in our teens and early twenties is immensely important in the experiences we gain in discovering how that process works, what we really want/need/value. And our parents are immensely important in helping open doors bit by bit so we can learn eventually to walk, live, work, contribute to the world as adults. We learn to operate in various different communities.

    I think the formation of priests is a huge part of the problem of the sex abuse scandal around the world. They are treated as children who can’t make choices. Even as adults, they are supposed to first obey, and then think. All the way up the clerical chain of command, obedience is required. And, they are so tightly bound into the all male clerical culture that they don’t understand and know how to operate in the other communities of which they are a part – especially what they owe the civil world in which they operate.

    Isn’t it amazing how most anything by Leonard Cohen opens up the mind to wander and to wonder?

  10. Well said. I as you can guess like to think and to wonder. I feel sorry for those who are afraid to.

    I think growth, which includes learning/education is a life long adventure. I will never reach a point where I can say I know it all! Though one of my favorite T-shirts says “I do know it all, just at my age I can’t remember it all at once.”!

  11. No, Catholicism “(is and) was (NOT) all about controlling the people and consolidating power over the people in the hands of a select few thoroughly indoctrinated people.”

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