Perspectives on Eichmann: Explaining Perpetrator Behaviour, by Andrew Elsby

Review by Arjay Frank

Otto Adolf Eichmann (1906–62) has been the subject of a surprising number of studies, given that he was merely a middle-ranking officer in the Schutzstaffel (SS) – a lieutenant-colonel, in fact – and, as such, was responsible for carrying out the orders of others, and would have played no part whatever in the formulation of Nazi Party, or even SS, policy. His notoriety owes as much to the publication of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) and to the highly dramatic circumstances surrounding his capture in Argentina by Israeli agents, his subsequent trial in Jerusalem on fifteen criminal charges, his conviction on all charges, and his execution by hanging in 1962, as it does to his actual involvement in the Holocaust.

Arendt’s influential book, in which she coined the phrase “the banality of evil”, was granted instant classic status, which has, to some extent, shielded her views from reasonable criticism or challenge. She attributed Eichmann’s actions in the Holocaust, especially his arranging for the transportation of Jews to the east despite knowing that what awaited them was extermination, to an alleged incapacity for moral reasoning, theorizing that Eichmann was, in all other respects, entirely normal. Arendt was primarily a political philosopher, and she explained Eichmann’s actions and personality in terms which would naturally have occurred to her, as a practitioner of philosophy. It is worth adding that, as a Holocaust survivor [1] herself, she has been virtually canonized by the liberal Western intelligentsia, and that, too, has helped to insulate her views against robust critical interrogation.

Arendt’s view is a theory, but it does not appear to be based on evidence. The German philosopher, Bettina Stangneth, and the British historian, David Cesarani, put forward a different explanation of Eichmann’s perpetrator behaviour – namely, that he was an eliminationist antisemite, whose actions were driven by a fanatical hatred of Jews. This theory at least posits a motive for Eichmann’s actions, which Arendt’s does not.

Dr Elsby argues against these explanations and further argues that Eichmann was entirely normal, not in the cognitive sense of having limited moral awareness and failing to appreciate the consequences of his actions, but in the sense that he was motivated chiefly – in fact, almost exclusively – by a desire to optimize his own outcomes in material, social, and psychological terms, regardless of the cost to others to whom he was indifferent. This new argument is supported by reference to

(1) the social psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram on obedience to immoral authority and Philip Zimbardo on the influence of role on behaviour;

(2) Christopher Browning’s research on the perpetrator behaviour of a German police reserve battalion in Poland; and

(3) research on Einsatzgruppen commanders.

Eichmann’s background was solidly middle-class (his father was a bookkeeper), but he seems to have been a poor student, both at school and at the vocational college he subsequently attended but left without attaining a degree. His academic performance suggests that he would be considered, by most middle-class families, an underachiever: a person of mediocre intelligence and accomplishments. His early employment history – he worked in a variety of clerical and sales jobs – confirms the evidence of his academic record. There seems to have been nothing in any way remarkable about Eichmann.

At some point in the late 1920s, Eichmann started to read Nazi newspapers and to be influenced by the views published in them. In April 1932, acting on the advice of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, a family friend (and later Eichmann’s boss in the SS), he joined, first, the Nazi Party, and then, a few months later, the SS. Quite fortuitously, Eichmann found himself in an environment in which a person such as himself – someone, hitherto viewed as a nonentity, who was eager, malleable, prone to hero worship, obedient to orders, and averse from responsibility – could flourish and obtain coveted rewards in the form of promotions, status, power, a sense of identity and self-worth, relative wealth, peer recognition, and the approval of his superiors.

Dr Elsby presents a compelling argument for his thesis and for his rejection of the views of Arendt, Stangneth, and Cesarani. His conclusion, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety, is as follows—

“Arendt seems not to have understood that most people do not conceive of issues in a reflective way to assess the moral choices inherent in them because there is no incentive for them to do so. Nor does she seem to have any appreciation of the decisive role of motivation and of pursuit of personal interest at the expense of others in normal human behaviour, of the fact that pursuit of personal interest is often unreflective, of the reality that perception is itself a motivated activity and that people do not attend to what they do not want to experience, and that following changes to behaviour to optimise outcomes attitudes may change to remain consonant with new behaviour if there is dissonance, that is, to optimise psychological outcomes. In such a context of research on human motivation evidence of eliminationist antisemitism in Eichmann’s utterances and actions after a certain date seems to reflect his having assimilated the SS vocabulary of genocide to maintain the good regard of his peers and bosses in the SS and to retain his elite SS identity and rank as well as involvement in the major task assigned to the senior echelons of the SS, not least as before it became the elimination of the Jews Eichmann had pursued Jewish emigration with similar fervour. Arendt’s intellectual conceit did in fact extend beyond Eichmann to disparagement and dismissal of psychiatry and psychology as means of understanding human behaviour, an extraordinary arrogance that resulted in her lack of appreciation of the primary role of human motivation in human attitudes, cognition and behaviour, including Eichmann’s. For Eichmann had a capacity for consideration of matters that concerned his own welfare, as in his presentation of self before different audiences, which indicates concern for consequences for himself. Eichmann participated in the Holocaust because involvement optimised material, social and psychological outcomes for him, not because he could not reason through the consequences.

“Eichmann’s banality was then one not of lack of moral reasoning or understanding of the consequences of his actions but of pursuit of personal interest regardless of cost to other people. It was not the case that had Eichmann engaged in moral reasoning or had greater understanding of the consequences of his actions he would not have done what he did as part of the process of extermination of the Jews of Europe, for his own psychological, social and material interests would have remained the decisive influence on his behaviour. Eichmann’s lack of moral reasoning did in fact reflect his optimisation of outcomes and indifference to the adverse consequences for others, and, as has been seen, Eichmann was aware of the consequences for the Jews of his arranging for them to be transported to what he knew were extermination centres. And, given the primacy of self-interest as a motive in human behaviour, had Arendt been in Eichmann’s position she could have done just what he did, despite the moral reasoning from which she judges Eichmann.

“Cesarani’s assessment of Eichmann seems more compelling, in that he acknowledges the lack of evidence of anything more than cultural antisemitism in Eichmann’s background and the evidence of pursuit of personal interest and careerism in Eichmann in a meticulous consideration of Eichmann’s background and career as an SS officer, though he does not seem to conclude that it was just such optimisation of outcomes that explains Eichmann’s having assimilated an eliminationist antisemitism rhetoric when extermination of the Jews of the occupied territories became Nazi policy and an SS objective. For Eichmann never had an ideological conviction that the Jews should be exterminated but rather an identity as an SS officer of some seniority of rank that he identified with and sought to retain by his perpetrator behaviour, an instrumental orientation to his role as an SS officer for the privileges and status it conferred upon him.

“Eichmann’s perpetrator behaviour is then not explained by reference to a lack of capacity for moral reasoning (Arendt’s explanation), by obedience to orders despite moral anguish and out of powerlessness (Eichmann’s explanation in his memoir and the nature of the defence at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem) or by eliminationist antisemitism (Stangneth’s and Cesarani’s attribution). On the contrary, Eichmann transported Jews to extermination centres to optimise his material, social and psychological outcomes regardless of the cost to the Jews he transported, to whom he seems to have been entirely indifferent.

“Eichmann does seem to have been normal in terms of motivation, for most people pursue personal optimisation of outcome at the expense of others, and many are opportunists like Eichmann. What was different in the Eichmann case was context and outcome, not process and motive. It is possible that Eichmann had a greater desire than most people for belonging, elite identity, approval, involvement and power, though many maximisers have similar drives.”

To this I would add only that Arendt seems not have noticed that, although few people possess what she, as a trained philosopher, would have recognized as a capacity for moral reasoning, most of them manage to lead normal – that is, not morally reprehensible – lives. Not only is there no incentive for people to assess moral choices rationally: it is also the case that most people are not equipped, either by nature or by education, to engage in such complex and sophisticated thinking. Furthermore, most of the time, there is no need for anyone to do so. The majority of people act, quite unreflectively, in accordance with the prevailing standards of the family, group, or society to which they belong and with which they identify. In ordinary circumstances, that is enough to maintain a certain level, if not of goodness, at least of conduct that is not heinous or obviously culpable. [2]

Stangneth and Cesarani come closer to the truth, but their attribution of Eichmann’s perpetrator behaviour to eliminationist antisemitism does not explain why Eichmann had pursued the earlier SS policy of Jewish emigration with exactly the same zeal that he later brought to the altered SS policy of extermination of the Jews from occupied Europe. And Eichmann’s own explanation for his conduct – that he followed orders as a matter of conventional military discipline despite personally experiencing “moral anguish” – is so obviously self-serving that, in the absence of any independent corroboration, it cannot be considered credible.

Eichmann’s mediocrity prior to his SS career, and the fact that he must have disappointed his father’s hopes and expectations, make it more likely that he would have been susceptible to the advantages offered to him by the SS: opportunities to gain rank, status, the approval of leaders (or father figures), and an elite identity; to wear an impressive uniform indicative of an elite status; to exercise power and control over others; to inspire fear and elicit prompt obedience in subordinates; to give orders; to terrorize Jews (and, presumably, other victims of the SS) – and all this without having to accept any responsibility, and while being able to claim that he had always acted in conformity to a recognized military code and under the orders of his superiors. For a man like Adolf Eichmann – ein Mann ohne Eigenschaften [3] (a “man without qualities”) and a moral vacuum into which almost anything might have been poured – the SS role was perfect. It fulfilled all his desires and ambitions at once. As Dr Elsby points out, in other circumstances, Eichmann might have attained a middle-ranking, managerial post in the civil service or a corporate body, and retired on a modest but sufficient pension after a moderately successful and, on the whole, blameless career.

Unlike Arendt, Stangneth, and Cesarani, Dr Elsby argues not that Eichmann was normal except for an incapacity for moral reasoning, or that he was normal except for a fanatical hatred of Jews, but that he was normal in all respects. It is a chilling conclusion, but his argument is cogently made, and well supported by scientific evidence. His essay stands as a notable and original addition to the literature on Eichmann, the Holocaust, and the social sciences, particularly psychology.


Some people will recoil in instinctive revulsion from the view that “most people pursue personal optimization of outcome at the expense of others”. In fact, however, there are at least two reasons why that conclusion should not seem especially startling, namely—

(1) The whole capitalist economic system of production and exchange is predicated on the highly questionable, but seldom seriously questioned, assumption that competition, which by definition requires people to “pursue personal optimization of outcome at the expense of others”, is fundamentally beneficial and conduces to the common good.

(2) That “most people pursue personal optimization of outcome at the expense of others” is as good a definition as any of Original Sin: the sin of preferring one’s own will to the will of God. In less theological language, this is known as selfishness. This is an orthodox Christian doctrine, taught by the Church from the time of the apostles.

Dr Elsby set out to write an essay that would bring the insights of modern psychology to the study of perpetrator behaviour as exemplified by Eichmann and his role in the Holocaust. In doing so, he has raised broader questions for ethicists, moral philosophers, and theologians. To date, the question of human motivation – the reasons why we do what we do, which are often not the same as the reasons we give in public, or even the reasons we admit in private – has been insufficiently considered outside the social sciences. It is time that the insights offered by psychology and other social sciences were properly integrated into philosophical anthropology, if only to prevent philosophers from continuing to embarrass themselves by inadvertently exposing their ignorance of the currently available scientific knowledge.


[1] Strictly speaking, it would be more accurate to say that Arendt escaped the Holocaust than that she survived it. Though twice detained and once briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo, she eventually made her way to the USA in 1941. While she undoubtedly endured frightening and extremely unpleasant experiences, she was never incarcerated in any of the concentration camps or extermination centres for which the Nazis were notorious.

[2] And, of course, a small minority of people rise far above the normal level and can only be considered saints. It is worth noting that many canonized saints were not intellectuals and possessed moral knowledge rather than Arendt’s vaunted “capacity for moral reasoning”.

[3] Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) is the title of a 1930 novel by the Austrian novelist, Robert Musil. Though it comprises three volumes and runs to approximately 1,700 pages, it was never completed, and most of the published editions incorporate at least some of Musil’s rough notes and preparatory sketches for the final chapters of his work. It is often considered to be a modern classic.

Arjay Frank is a London opera-goer with specialist interests in modern history and nineteenth- and twentieth-century orchestral and operatic music. Perspectives on Eichmann is available across most ebook platforms.

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