Bruder Eichmann

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Play by Heinar Kipphardt, 1983

During Adolf Eichmann's imprisonment a young police officer who had been charged to look after his emotional well-being lent Eichmann a copy of Lolita, which had been translated into German a few years before. Greatly offended, Eichmann handed the book back to his young warden two days later: "Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch!" (This is a thoroughly unpleasant book!). Hannah Arendt, who cites the episode, quotes it to support the notion expressed by the prison psychiatrists that Eichmann's inability to talk in anything but bureaucratic clichés showed him to be a perfectly normal specimen and that his utter dependence on officialese should be interpreted as a "positive" side of his character. Of course, it also demonstrates what has itself become a commonplace: that mass murderers can be very prudish family men.

It is a pity that Heinar Kipphardt omits this anecdote from his last docudrama, Bruder Eichmann ("Brother Eichmann"). But Eichmann's vis-á-vis, the pretrial interrogator Avner Less, would have acted totally out of character—and the thrust of the whole play would have been blunted—had he allowed himself to get personal with his cliché expert. We have Less's word that Eichmann's presence filled him with loathing during his 260 hours in the man's company, but Less's revulsion is wholly irrelevant to the drama. Kipphardt's Less neither loathes nor likes the man in the glass booth. Before his trial got under way, Eichmann had expressed the desire to tell his story; Less listened and asked questions. The entire action, as somebody once groused, revolves around two chain-smokers facing each other across a wooden table and talking into a tape recorder. At one point Less breaks through the sound barrier and mentions parenthetically that his family had been gassed; Eichmann professes to be honestly horrified. Beyond this Less treats the entire proceedings as strictly professional, at most offering his client a smoke once he observes that cigarettes sharpen his powers of concentration and boost his already highly developed volubility.

But after weeks of this, Kipphardt's Less finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his distance. He flatters Eichmann by telling him that among the guards Eichmann's fortress has come to be known as "Eichmannigrad" (Eichmann: "Eichmannigrad, Donnerwetter!"); Less begins to scream at him, "Cain! Cain! Cain! Monster! Jew Killer!"; in a brief scene cast in the form of a soliloquy, Less concludes that "the monster, it seems, is the ordinary functional man, who oils every machine and is out to improve himself," and that if Eichmann is the model bureaucrat so is he. In what is perhaps the most quoted line in the play, he bursts out, "In these months we are getting horrifyingly close." This, not only for Less but also for most intelligent readers, is the point at which the drama (however docu) parts radically from the biographical actuality—and from narrative logic. Less himself found Kipphardt's thesis so offensive that he entered a sharply worded objection entitled "So war es nicht!" ("That's Not How It Was!"), and after the first performances he was fitted out with a different name. Less would have taken special exception to a production in Weimar, in which each of nine actors who portrayed Eichmann in nine different scenes assumed the role of Less in the scene that followed, as if Less and Eichmann were interchangeable items of mortality. I add that the two solitary chain-smokers remain at it only in the first part of the play. In the second part the cell fills up with a (fictitious) woman psychiatrist (who, however, has already sounded out Eichmann in the first part), the prison commander Ofer, and a Canadian clergyman and his wife. These people serve to convey something of Eichmann's emotional and religious vita, even, or especially, when he lies, and he lies almost uninterruptedly.

By the time Kipphardt's play appeared, Eichmann, thanks largely to his seedy looks in court, had long ceased to be demonized. Simon Wiesenthal thought that "he looked like a bookkeeper who is afraid to ask for a raise," and Robert Servatius, Eichmann's lawyer, used still more derogatory language. Kipphardt goes a step further: given certain conditions, we all have it in us to assume "the Eichmann position," the position, that is, of functional man, a frighteningly average specimen whom time and routine have taught to surrender his conscience to the head boss and to do simply what he is told. (This, of course, was Eichmann's own plaidoyer, and in his preface to transcripts of the interrogation Less convicts himself out of his own mouth—and assumes the Eichmann position—by admitting that he took on his distasteful job only "because somebody had to do it.") To make his point, Kipphardt peppers the play with what have been its most embattled parts, "analogical scenes" in which the Eichmann position and its consequences keep surfacing elsewhere in the recent past. These include film sequences of atomic explosions followed by the testimony of a Nagasaki survivor, a toddler reciting an anti-Semitic parody of Goethe's "Wanderers Nachtlied" from the pages of Julius Streicher's Der Stürmer, Ariel Sharon reporting on the prospect of a military solution to the PLO, plus the testimony by a Palestinian woman, a survivor of Sabra and Shatila. The analogies do not bear much scrutiny, if only because both functionary and situation differ, sometimes radically, from Eichmann and his hobbyhorse. As all of these atrocities were hatched by the Western powers, it is no wonder that Bruder Eichmann fared singularly well in East Germany.

Most objectionable is the comment by the attending clergyman in his curtain speech that the ovenlike structure in which Eichmann's corpse has been placed and the rails leading to it remind him of nothing so much as the photos of crematoria in the death camps. The final lines of the play—"Standing at the railing, we watched as Ofer solemnly opened the container and from the stern of the boat slowly poured the ashes into the swirling waters"—suggest that Eichmann literally embodied the Holocaust, the sacrificial burnt offering that purifies. Kipphardt's play is powerful enough to sustain these macabre identifications, but perhaps the ultimate answer to the heresy that we are all Eichmanns-in-posse ("evil lurks in the heart of man") has been most succinctly expressed by Primo Levi : "I do not know, and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer."

—Edgar Rosenberg