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.

Personal Tragedies in Rodrigo Hasbún’s Los afectos

by Kathryn A. Kopple

In 2015, the Bolivian writer Rodrigo Hasbún published Los afectos (Affections), a slim volume loosely based on the Ertl family, a clan foisted on the reader with precious little introduction. “The day papa returned from Nanga Parbat (with some heart-rending images, of a beauty that wasn’t human), he told us while we ate dinner that mountain climbing had become too technical and what mattered was being lost, that he wouldn’t climb anymore.” His wife and daughters take in their papa’s words, careful not to interrupt, as he sermonizes about communing with nature. These speeches – the reader learns – go on uninterrupted for lengthy periods and, finally, culminate in a bruised vision of the world that, in a fine turn of phrase, can only be healed by seeking out those places “where God is untroubled by our ingratitude and sordidness”. A lofty sentiment and one that is in lockstep with the character’s historical counterpart: the Nazi cinematographer and alpinist Hans Ertl – the same man who, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, fully earned his reputation as Hitler’s photographer. Hasbún, however, is not deeply invested in this aspect of Ertl’s story; he is drawn to the private life of the family man. Untethered by all but the most tenuous historical references, Ertl and every character in the book become protagonists in a private tragedy.

Throughout this tragedy, the intimacy of perspectives creates the feel of memoir, albeit one that is subject to fragmentation. Although Hasbún is best known as an acclaimed author, his scholarly work focuses on the interconnectedness between diary, biography and literature. He takes issue with the idea that diaries must be read as at face value, as testimonials, when their very existence opposes worldly interests and demands. The diarist writes for a reader of one, presumably herself without, as Hasbún contends, “deference to the literary institution or publishing world”. Diaries may enter the public domain but their purpose is other. They are reclusive, hermetic. It is as if there is no activity more solitary – or personal – than that of the diarist. Nor is it coincidental that Los afectos is a book imbued with solitude. Hans Ertl’s treks up mountains and through Amazon forest are journeys into the heart of solitude. He is the man who “leaves”. His wife, Aurelia, languishes in the imposed solitude caused by her husband’s absence. Each of his three daughters is a solitary creature unable to sustain familial ties and relationships. Solitude of this sort is profoundly Heideggerian, that is, inescapable.

In fact, the entire novel reads like a Heideggerian fable. The characters are cast into a strange, new world to live out their finitude with precious few inner resources. Severed from their German homeland because of Hans’s Nazi past, their identities are stripped away; they must begin from scratch in Bolivia. In the high-altitude, low-oxygen city of La Paz, time is as precious as air. Hans wastes no time between expeditions. He returns from filming in Nanga Parbat already determined to set off again in search of Paititi, the lost Inca city of gold. His two eldest daughters, Monika and Heidi, are intensely aware that the clock is ticking and they are growing older by the second. The youngest daughter, Trixi, spends a melancholy Christmas alone with her mother, Aurelia, who tells the nearly thirteen-year-old that life is longer than people imagine, and that at times it feels “interminable”. Trixi sees her mother as terribly lonely. She fails to understand how she has too much time on her hands. In her abject pronouncements, Aurelia echoes Heidegger’s assertion that it is through boredom our awareness of time is heightened. Boredom leads to gloominess but forces us to reflect upon the groundlessness of our existence. Aurelia smokes, drinks, and reminisces but, most importantly, she philosophizes. Sadly, it’s all downhill for her from there.

In contrast with Aurelia’s lassitude, the eldest daughter, Monika, suffers fits of anxiety. Heidi, who fears and resents her sister, describes these episodes as grotesque. “It was ugly to see her writhing about, I won’t deny it. It was shocking, horrible even, to the point that, the last time, we had to tie her up.” The episode passes and Heidi suspects that Monika’s outbursts serve an ulterior purpose: they are a means of holding her distracted parents’ attention. Her resentment of her sister intensifies when she learns that their father is taking Monika with him on his next expedition. Heidi demands to go. Her father agrees in a way that unnerves the girl. “As if he had predicted all of it, including the questions I was asking, a strange smile appeared on his face. My chest froze and I looked at my sister and she at me and at that moment neither of us knew what to say.” A limit has been reached. Words fail. There is no turning back for Heidi. Now, like her father, she is the one who leaves. She also falls in love with Rudi, one of Hans’s assistants. Most significantly, she becomes lost, psychically speaking, unable to remember the day or the reason for the journey. This stripping away of perspective, time, and purpose brings her closer to what Heidegger calls authenticity.

Authenticity, for Heidegger, refuses imitation, it can’t be contained in archetypes. Rather, it prefigures socialization as an ideal mode of being. Hans may be the paterfamilias of the Ertl clan but he is, above all things, a man who is true to himself. He becomes disillusioned with mountaineering because alpinists have become mere technicians. Averageness disgusts him. In contrast, he aspires to all things sublime. The rain forest is no less sublime than the glacier. Sublimity involves terror. It is awe-inspiring. Add to that a mythical Inca city of gold – buried in all that forest – and the quest promises certain glory. At one point, he heaps praise on Hiram Bingham, the man credited with discovering Machu Picchu, thus inserting himself in the tradition of great explorers. But then he has already proven his worth by filming the 1936 Olympics and being at Rommel’s side during the war. Hans also possesses a certain erotic magnetism. When Trixi asks her mother if she fell in love with him at first sight, she replies, “The second I saw him…. But I wasn’t the only one. I think everyone on the committee was a little in love with him.” And then, not least, his eye never fails him. Whatever he films turns to magic. Authenticity – the discovery of the ideal self – goes hand in hand with exceptionalism.

For Hans’s daughters, living with such a man is overwhelming. Their feelings for him cause rifts and divisions – an utter lack of peace reigns over the family. It’s apparent that Hans loves Monika the most, ostensibly because she tests him. Of all the ironies to be found in the novel, the fact that Monika will go on to become a left-wing revolutionary is the most poetic. (But then, Heidegger too was a revolutionary. He found academic philosophy guilty of all manner of sins, not the least of them complacency. There is an air of nihilistic joy that runs throughout his writing, a sense that once the old norms have been destroyed, philosophy will arise like a phoenix from the ashes. And no doubt, Heidegger thought of himself as that phoenix. It’s also true that he was a committed Nazi and antisemite.) In Los afectos, it is Monika who forces the issue of Hans’s Nazism. She accuses him of being a “lackey of the powerful, a disgusting fascist”. Her words open a great wound in him. After her assassination by the Bolivian military, the elderly Hans has a grave dug for her, literally forcing him once and for all to stare into the abyss.

When Los afectos first came out, it was marketed as a historical novel. From the disclaimer on the first page of the book to his assertions in numerous interviews, Hasbún is adamant that the book is historical only in the broadest sense of the term: as story. The story involves multiple points of view, lack of chronological cohesion, and a directness of expression that breaks down aesthetic distance. Instead of history, we are presented with instances that turn inward, personal, and reflective. Out of this assemblage of disparate voices, the question that arises is why history at all? Especially since Hasbún claims to use as little biographical detail as possible. The author seems to be pulled in by the unwritten aspects of the story – in what the historical record either suppressed or omitted. Nazism recedes into the background, almost imperceptible, as if opening a window to let in some fresh air.

In the essay “Fascinating Fascism”, Susan Sontag remarks that it may “seem ungrateful or rancorous to refuse to cut loose” the work of Nazi propagandists from their past. She takes issue with the rehabilitation of Leni Riefenstahl despite the cinematographer’s ongoing commitment to fascism. The same could be said of Hans Ertl. He never became disillusioned with Nazi Germany: it was post-war, democratic Germany that failed him. Moreover, during his self-imposed exile in Bolivia, he sought out the friendship of the notorious Klaus Barbie. Barbie is thought to have been involved in Monika’s assassination by Bolivian security forces in 1973. Given his friendship with Barbie – and, as mentioned in the novel, Ertl’s relationships with high-ranking members of the Bolivia military – he may have had more to do with his daughter’s death than the novel suggests. Whatever role he played (active or passive), Ertl never repudiated Nazism or his fascist associations. He would go on to write two memoirs, both of which are imbued with sentimental accounts of mountaineering and exploration. Both memoirs pay homage to the Germany of his youth.

However Hasbún adjusts the lens – the ever-shifting angles – it’s scarcely possible to insulate Los afectos – or any work of art – from its source material. The connection between old-world fascism and new-world exile is not severed but revised. Nazism may find itself reduced to mere figments, but even these have the power to mesmerize. The Argentine writer Manuel Puig, in his masterpiece El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman), explores the Nazi aesthetic, and how it catches us in a web of repulsion and attraction. The goddesses of Nazi cinema are no less beautiful because they are instruments of a brutal regime. They fascinate regardless. They provide an ideal of physical beauty and an antidote to the ugliness of existence. Fascism is predicated on a host of aesthetic values, among them the dictum that, without beauty, life is simply not worth living. Los afectos offers us a taste of such a life in the Ertl family saga. They are doomed and therefore beautiful. To paraphrase Heidegger, beauty is only as true as it is tragic.


All translations from the novel are mine unless otherwise cited. Regarding Hasbún’s critical investigations, please see Enea Zaramella, “Interview with Rodrigo Hasbún” in The White Review,, accessed 22 August 2021. A thorough discussion of the fascist aesthetic of Hans Ertl’s memoirs can be found in Caroline Schaumann’s “Memories of Cold in the Heat of the Tropics: Hans Ertl’s ‘Meine Wilden Dreißiger Jahre’” in Colloquia Germanica, vol. 43, no. 1/2, 2010, pp. 97–112, JSTOR,, accessed 22 August 2021. Susan Sontag’s essay “Fascinating Fascism” may be found at UC Santa Barbara, , accessed 22 August 2021. Los afectos has been translated into English under the title Affections by Sophie Hughes.

Kathryn A. Kopple holds a doctorate in Latin American literature (NYU). Her focus is the surrealist poetry of the Rio de la Plata. She has also published original poetry and prose in multiple venues, including The Threepenny Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. She has published two novels – Little Velásquez and The Leaving Year – set in Spain. Kathryn also hosts the literary blog The Leaving Year.

What the Left Sometimes Forgets about Israel

The longing for a homeland is legitimate and the result of two millennia of European persecution


By Phil Hall

When my mother was four, it was 1940. She was in Paris with her own mother, a German. Before my grandfather, an Austrian Jew, swept her off her feet, Granny Lisa lived in Frankfurt and she was thinking of going into acting. She was the twin of a well-known German character actor, Heini Gobel, my great uncle.

My mother, Eve Steinhardt, became alert to danger and aware of her surroundings in Paris at age four after the war started. She was told to pretend that her Jewish father was a French philanderer who had cruelly left them. Once, she turned around to her mother, who spoke French with a thick German accent and said:

‘Mutti, from now on, let me do the talking in shops.’

65 years later my mother sat by the fire in the Lowveld in Mpumalanga and she turned to me and said: ‘Sometimes it is healthy to hate.’ My mother lost her aunt, who was living with her in Paris to Auschwitz, via Drancy. She lost her grandparents in the Prague Ghetto, Theresienstadt and Treblinka.

understand why Jews might want a homeland. It was because Europeans like you persecuted them.

‘I hate the people who killed my grandmother. I hate the people who jailed me in Apartheid South Africa. It is healthy to hate.’

My father spent many years as the editor of Middle East magazines. He was a progressive par excellence. Dad, Tony Hall, had a soft spot for Palestine. He was at the Camp David talks with Menachem Begin – whom he reviled – and Anwar Sadat.

But the longing for homeland was a response to European antisemitism.

But my Mom thought about the death of her family and she understood the dream of a homeland, though it was so distorted later on by the Zionists. We were sitting around the fire and my father said.

You have a good voice. Sing us something.‘ I thought. Then I started to sing the famous song. My mother joined in.

‘Far and wide as the eye can wander
Heath and bog are everywhere
Not a bird sings out to cheer us
Oaks are standing gaunt and bare

We are the Peat Bog Soldiers
Marching with our spades
To the moor

Up and down the guards are pacing
No one, no one can get through
Flight would mean a sure death facing
Guns and barbed wire greet our view

We are the Peat Bog Soldiers
Marching with our spades
To the moor

But for us there is no complaining
Winter will in time be past.
One day we will cry rejoicing
“Homeland dear, you’re mine at last’

Then will the peatbog soldiers
March no more with their spades
To the moor.’

My mother, who, on the whole agreed with my father, laughed with bitterness. ‘A good choice.’ She said. But my father was upset.

‘You will make me cry.’

He meant to say that my priorities were wrong and that it was the Palestinians we should be empathising with these days and feeling great solidarity for, and not the Jews, at least, not the Zionists.

And so, in this way we come to the point. The terrible persecution of the Jews in Europe, one of whom was my own mother as a child, lead to an unquenchable and understandable desire for ‘heimat‘, for home; a place where no oppression would exist.

This oppression is not lost in history. It is as close to me as my own mother. It is hanging right above the head of all Europeans like a giant super-moon. Impossible to ignore.

Ironically, perhaps the oppressed Palestinians in exile and the oppressed people of Palestine are in the best position now to understand this longing.

The terrible persecution of the Jews in Europe led to the unquenchable and understandable desire for ‘heimat‘, for home.

But the longing for homeland was a response to European antisemitism. To an antisemitism so fierce – and so widespread – that it led to the death camps. The death camps are something Palestinians have not experienced, for all the awful persecution they have suffered.

Let me express my disdain for anyone who thinks that the persecution of the Palestinians is in any way equivalent to the persecution of Jews during WW2. It is not. The Palestinians are terribly oppressed, but Israel is not systematically exterminating them. The comparison, however, is rightly made and the sickening irony of a former oppressed people who become the oppressor is always there.

understand why Jews might want a homeland. It was because Europeans like you persecuted them

It is true that Israel is an Apartheid colonial state, but it is also true that in Christian Europe the Jews underwent suffering almost beyond all comprehension and that their fate, like the fate of the enslaved Africans of 100 years before, is the measure of the evil that humans can inflict on other humans.

Europeans are hardly in a position to attack Jews again for who they are. And those British people who talk about the Rothschilds and global Jewish conspiracies are doing what their notorious fascist forebears did before and during WW2. In doing so they bracket themselves in with the Nazis. They may call themselves socialists, but they are not. They are National Socialists, scape-goaters.

We can support the Palestinian cause, we can be against the Apartheid, right-wing elements of Zionism, we can support Palestinian rights with all our hearts, but, at the same time, for God’s sake, understand why Jews might want a homeland. It was because Europeans like you persecuted them.

It was and is the vile antisemitism of Europeans that caused many Jews to want a homeland. This desire is perfectly understandable, even if, and I must emphasise this point, in the case of Palestine, it is not justifiable.

ADN-ZB II. Taken Juni 1942. Two Jewish women in Paris just before the round up of Jews in 1942

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa, where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.




Fascism and Conspiracy

Credit Picture Alliance

Modern conspiracy theory and the appeal of fascism and racism for the working class

By Bryan Greetham

In my first contribution to this discussion about fascism I examined the claim that fascism was a last ditch response to failing capitalism. Unlike that issue, there seems to be very little evidence to suggest that there is clear economic motivation to explain why the working class support fascism and embrace racist beliefs. So I have never had a convincing explanation for why my uncle, a lifelong member of the Labour Party and a prominent member of his local branch, should also be a lifelong racist.

the willingness of ordinary people to embrace the most extraordinary conspiracy theories to explain why it is that, despite all their efforts and sacrifices, they have to suffer the most extreme economic and social inequality

And I don’t mean he was just anti-semitic, for which there was some reason, although implausible, in that he and his elder brother, my father, would have to trudge way across Gateshead every week to pay the weekly rent to a wealthy Jewish family that owned their home. I say this is not a plausible reason, because no form of racism has a plausible reason and, on a personal note, my father never had a racist thought in his head.

Up until a couple of years ago, I would have said that not only is there no plausible economic motivation for the working class to embrace fascism and racist beliefs, but there is no compelling psychological evidence either.

But the willingness of ordinary people to embrace the most extraordinary conspiracy theories to explain why it is that, despite all their efforts and sacrifices, they have to suffer the most extreme economic and social inequality, which over the last 40 years has come to match levels last recorded at the end of the Victorian era, may be good reason to think again.

So popular was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that it was once second only to the Bible in its circulation.

Their willingness to believe the conspiracy theory that the EU is just a front disguising the real intentions of the Germans to dominate and reassert their hegemony of Europe rivals The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in attracting the support of working class people, who voted to leave the EU in large numbers as their forefathers flocked to support Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. So popular was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that it was once second only to the Bible in its circulation.

the political problem comes first and the conspiracy theory is created to promote and protect the interests of a particular class or group by attracting the support of the working class, who might have little economic reason to embrace it.

Of course, this is not the only conspiracy that has been embraced with such fervour. Many also believe that Covid 19 is a pandemic conspiracy deliberately promoted by China, along with G5, climate change and no doubt many more. Like all forms of nationalism, the political problem comes first and the conspiracy theory is created to promote and protect the interests of a particular class or group by attracting the support of the working class, who might have little economic reason to embrace it.

Kenneth Minogue describes the claims of nationalists as mere ‘rhetoric‘: ‘a form of self-expression by which a certain kind of political excitement can be communicated from an elite to the masses. These ideas are chameleons that take on the colour of the locality around them.’ Ernest Gellner argues similarly that:

Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.

They could both have been talking about the modern conspiracy theory and the appeal of fascism and racism for the working class. They have been invented to generate a certain type of political excitement and mobilise working class support.

Bryan Greetham was born in Faversham, Kent, in England. He was educated at the University of Kent, where he gained a BA Hons in History, and at the University of Sussex, where he completed his MA in Intellectual History. He was awarded his PhD at the University of Newcastle in Australia for his work in moral thinking.

Bryan is the author of How to Write Better Essays, How to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation, both on writing and thinking skills, Philosophy, an introduction to philosophy for undergraduates, Thinking Skills for Professionals and his latest book, Smart Thinking, all published by Palgrave, Macmillan.

Currently Bryan is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham. Much of his work has been in moral thinking, applied and professional ethics and in complex adaptive systems. His current research involves what we can learn about moral thinking from the perpetrators, victims, rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust.

Fascism offered a return to pre-industrial society

National Socialism offered the lower middle class a way of side-stepping the choice between liberalism or socialism. It offered a return to traditional German values.

The Philospher Hiedegger, a supporter of fascism, in nature dressed in authentic German peasant costume

By Bryan Greetham

I wanted to take up the claim that fascism was a last ditch response to a failing capitalism, an attempt to rescue it.

One powerful incentive to embrace a radical right party, like the National Socialists, was self-interest. The radical right appealed to all those social groups (teachers, civil servants, army officers, small businessmen, shopkeepers, artisans, agricultural workers, etc.,) whose economic status and privileges were threatened by the two historical forces unleashed by the industrial revolution.

At the end of the First World War, the heirs of the modern world appeared to be liberalism and socialism. One or the other would dominate modern politics, thereby threatening the social and economic position of these lower middle class groups. In such a society, as one writer put it, these groups felt psychologically homeless: they were strangers in their own country. Their traditional values seemed to be under threat.

At the end of the First World War, the heirs of the modern world appeared to be liberalism and socialism. One or the other would dominate modern politics

On the one hand there were the free market principles of liberalism that were promoting the development of ever larger international companies that were taking the markets of small businessmen, shopkeepers, farmers, etc., by undercutting them. They stood for international values, rather than traditional Germanic values represented in the countryside by traditional artisans, farmers and agricultural labourers. This was a conflict between the urbane cosmopolitan values of the liberal classes in cities with their international connections and interests and the traditional values of the countryside.

Fascism appealed to traditional German values

On the other hand the industrial revolution had also brought to the surface the immense power of an organised working class with trade unions forcing up wages at the cost of small businessmen, and socialist governments increasing taxation on the lower middle class to fund the new social welfare programmes.

Professional groups, like civil servants and teachers who both were prominent among the membership lists of the National Socialists, saw their privileged middle class status under threat. They were faced with a bleak choice: either become members of one of the large trade unions and safeguard their income differentials with other groups of workers, or keep their middle class status by refusing to join a union and see the income gap between themselves and blue collar workers narrow and disappear.

At the same time that National Socialist politicians were talking about Jewish Bolshevik plotters they were also confusingly referring to International Jewish capitalism.

The problem they faced, of course, was that economic problems, like mass unemployment and inflation, could only be solved by resorting to concrete economic and social policies and these were inevitably liberal or socialist. To choose one of these policies was to give power and influence to the very influences that were changing German society in ways that were undermining their privileges.

National Socialism offered them a way of side-stepping this invidious choice – the Third Way: an alternative that promised to reverse these historical forces of liberalism and socialism and return to a pre-industrial society. Its answer was to sidestep the economic problems by arguing that they were not economic at all, but racial. By associating liberalism and socialism with Jews and a Jewish conspiracy they were able to activate latent anti-Semitism and nationalism and save these conservative groups from the threats they were facing.

At the same time that National Socialist politicians were talking about Jewish Bolshevik plotters they were also confusingly referring to International Jewish capitalism. Cities and their urbane culture were associated with Jews, who were said to have no roots in German culture. Here was soulless capitalism compared to the countryside, where traditional Germanic values were still respected. 

Animation with a social conscience

Halas and Batchelor, Animal Farm

Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films 1940 – 1995

By Vivien Halas

This year marks the 80th year since my parents, John Halas and Joy Batchelor founded Halas & Batchelor Cartoons, in its day a household name responsible for over 2000 animated films. 

Their best-known film Animal Farm (1954) was the first animated feature to be made in the UK. It has become increasingly relevant, as George Orwell’s fable of power, revolution and corruption continues to have fresh resonance today, 70 years after the writer’s death. Students are still amazed by wonderfully fluid 2D animation made long before the introduction computers or digitization to the medium.

All animals are equal, from Halas and Batchelor, Animal Farm

The studio’s output covered a huge number of genres from propaganda and information films during World War 2 including Dustbin Parade (1941) and the Charley Series that introduced the idea of social welfare (1946/7), to entertainment films such as The History of the Cinema (1957), Tales from Hoffnung (1964) and the FooFoo series (1960). They also made films for children such as Hamilton the Musical Elephant (1961), the Snip and Snap series (1964) and experimental films such as the Owl and the Pussycat (1952) and the Figurehead (1953), including early computer animation like Dilemma (1979), educational films such as the Evolution of Life (1964) and What is a Computer? (1967). 

With the money made from these they were able to make personal films that expressed their own beliefs such as Magic Canvas (1948), The Question (1967), and Automania 2000 (1963), which was the first animated film be nominated for an Oscar and remarkable for its script by my mother, foreseeing the terrible effects of consumerism.

See the source image
“Automania 2000”

My father was born Halász János (later anglicised to John Halas) in Budapest’s Petersezbet district on 16 April 1912 (died in London on 21 January 1995). He was the seventh son of a Jewish couple, Gyözö Halász, a journalist and Bertha Singer, who had been a dancer in Vienna when young. Their comfortable life before my father was born ended with the increasing intolerance of Jews, when the family was forced out of the centre of Budapest to a shared house in an outer suburb where my father remembered sleeping under the table. The family was so poor that my father was sent to stay with an aunt in Zurich to be better fed. He remembered the Red Cross giving him food on the train and how his greed made him sick. It was the first of many journeys John made during his formative years that fuelled his appetite for escaping his background.

Although clever at school, John spent his time truanting, playing football with a gypsy friend, hiding under cinema seats to see films for free and running errands for his father. He made money from painting film poster hoardings and eventually got a job at Hunnia Film, putting subtitles onto silent movies. It was here that he met George Pal, the renowned puppet-film maker, and together they taught themselves to animate by embellishing the titles with moving figures. 

Having no money, John blagged his way into art school. He persuaded the painter and graphic designer Sandor Bortnyik to hire him as an assistant at the renowned Muhely Atelier that taught Bauhaus principles. This brought John into contact with thevartists Victor Vasarely and Moholy Nagy. He was able to help them with their kinetic experiments while they imbued him with the Bauhaus ethos. He said ‘I learnt construction from them and how to look behind the surface to solve a problem’. It was here that he met his future partners Gyula Macskassy and Felix Kassowitz. They started their first studio in 1932, making ads and short films. When in 1936 a client asked them to set up a studio in London to make an entertainment series, John jumped at the chance and set off, undaunted by his lack of language. He was a natural communicator.

Once in London my father put an ad in a newspaper calling for animators. This was how he met my mother, Joy Batchelor. A happy accident, strangely brought about by the forces of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. His drive and my mother’s talent for drawing, animating and writing ensured their success in difficult times and underpinned their belief that animation was the most complete art form that could make the world a better place. 

Joy was born in Watford, England, 12 May 1914 (died in London 14 May 1991). Her father Edward Joseph Batchelor worked in London as a lithographic draughtsman. Her mother Ethel gave up running a prestigious golf club to marry Edward, and Joy was born exactly nine months after the wedding. 

Joy took interest in drawing from an early age, encouraged by her father who brought home long paper off-cuts for her to draw on. Always top of her class in everything Joy won a scholarship to grammar school, and later to the Watford School of Art. Though she was subsequently offered a scholarship to the Slade, she could not afford to go, so instead she looked for work.

The best she could find was painting trinkets in an assembly line. The job ended quickly as she criticised the working conditions and was fired. In 1934, she went to work for Dennis Connelly’s animation studio in London. She had had no training in animation but learned on the job and was soon promoted to key animator and trained the other animators. By the time she saw John Halas’s ad for an experienced animator, she was ready. 

John and Joy started working together on a film titled Music Man, very loosely based on the life of Liszt. John took the production and Joy back to Budapest as he already had a studio there. Joy remembered that time with nostalgia as she was made a great fuss of by all the partners. By then she and John were in love. The idyll was soon ended as Hitler entered Vienna and their funding was abruptly cut off. In fear for their safety John and Joy borrowed money to flee on one of the last trains out of Budapest, in June 1938. 

John and Joy in Budapest

Once back in London they took any graphic design work they could find. John’s English was almost non-existent, so it was Joy who looked for employment. She found illustration work for newspapers, Harpers magazine and cookery books. John, who was an expert with the airbrush, was lucky as Moholy Nagy (who was briefly art director for Simpsons on the Strand) gave him a few ads to design.

Eventually they found work at the J Walter Thompson agency in Bush House. Although there was a shortage of paper there was still a film unit and at last they were back in business making animated ads, for Lux soap and Brook Bond Tea. As the war started in earnest, the agency was taken over by the Government and the couple found themselves making information and propaganda films for the war effort, for which my father was given special dispensation to stay in England. However, to be paid they were obliged to set up a company, and to save John from internment they got married. Both events took place in May 1940.

This backfired slightly as by marrying my father Joy found herself stripped of her British citizenship and suddenly considered Hungarian; an enemy alien in her own country! 

She said, “I ended up being Hungarian on paper. There were some inconveniences, like observing an 8 pm curfew, or not being allowed to own a bicycle, but John and I survived this period quite well’. They did indeed as during the war they made over 70 films, two of which were feature length training films. In this way they honed their skills and developed a sophisticated style. My mother in particular had the knack of turning dry subjects into engaging films. 

After the war they continued making information films for the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Europe. One of them, The Shoemaker and the Hatter (1949), explaining how lowering trade tariffs and working together would encourage prosperity, was responsible for the studio being asked to make Animal Farm in 1951.


From that time they expanded the company and continued until the early eighties, becoming the most influential animation studio in Western Europe, responsible for employing and training many new generations of animators. Without them British animation would not have flourished as it did and still continues today.

Their story and that of the studio was recently seen in a new documentary made by Richard Shaw at Unity House, broadcast on Sky Arts this spring. Also visit our website where you can watch clips of the films, buy DVDs, the book ‘Halas & Batchelor, an animated history’ and ‘A Moving Image’ that traces the life and work of my mother.

First published in The Jewish Review

Vivien Halas, March 2020

For more information please go to:

The Animated World of Halas and Batchelor –

Vivien Halas

Vivien Halas

​She is co-author of Halas & Batchelor, an animated history 2006 and A Moving Image, Joy Batchelor 1914-91, Artist, Writer and Animator 2014. With the help of Martin Pickles, Vivien has directed and produced two documentaries on her parents, Remembering John Halas 2012 and Ode to Joy 2014. She has contributed to numerous animation and design publications worldwide and served on many juries at international animation film festivals. In her spare time she is a printmaker.


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