In 1963 the political theorist Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil. A Jew who had fled Germany in the 1930s, Arendt had been at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the so-called "Manager of the Holocaust", and believed his claim to be an overworked bureaucrat who was simply "doing his job". He "not only obeyed orders", she wrote, "he also obeyed the law".
rendt concluded that Eichmann, the head of the SS's department for Jewish Affairs who personally oversaw the deportation and extermination of 400,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944, was neither a psychopathic "monster" nor a virulent anti-Semite. Instead, his appalling acts were driven more by stupidity and a desire for professional advancement than by ideology. Thus was coined the term "the banality of evil", implying that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us.
Arendt's theory has been challenged before. But only now, with the publication (originally in German) of this book by the award-winning political philosopher Bettina Stangneth, can we see how completely Arendt (and later historians) were hoodwinked by Eichmann.
Stangneth uses newly discovered documents, including Eichmann's own notes and the transcripts of conversations he had with comrades in Argentina in the 1950s, to reconstruct the post-war lives of Nazis in exile. Stangneth's new portrait of Eichmann is very different from Arendt's. Instead of the reclusive, taciturn and boring war criminal on the run, she reveals a skilled social manipulator with a pronounced ability to reinvent himself, an ideological warrior unrepentant about the past and eager to continue the racial war against the Jews.
Stangneth charts in detail Eichmann's movements from his escape from Germany in 1948 to his capture by Mossad agents in 1960. We discover just how organised the Nazi escape route to South America was, complete with Vatican officials helping to provide false identity documents, and how openly and brazenly former National Socialists lived in Argentina and elsewhere after the war. Protected by the regime of Juan Perón, they ran businesses, advised on security matters and plotted a political comeback in Germany. In Eichmann's case, he even arranged for his wife and sons to be brought over from Germany to join him.
What ultimately did for Eichmann - as opposed to his former partner in crime Dr Josef Mengele, Auschwitz's "Angel of Death", who had also fled to Argentina - was his egotistical need for his "achievements" to be recognised.
He never denied his true identity, allowed his sons to apply for German passports in the name of Eichmann and discussed openly with fellow Nazis his true feelings about the Holocaust. He even allowed a former Dutch SS journalist, Willem Sassen, to record some conversations for a potential book. It was during the "Sassen interviews" that Eichmann came clean.
His only regret, he told Sassen, was not killing more Jews. "If we had killed 10.3 million [instead of six], I would be satisfied, and would say, 'good, we have destroyed an enemy…' We would have fulfilled our duty to our blood and our people… if we had exterminated the most cunning intellect of all the human intellects alive today."
Part of the reason Sassen and his colleagues had begun the discussion was to get Eichmann to deny that genocide had ever been intended. Only then could they distance National Socialism from "the one thing of which we are always accused" - the Holocaust. But Eichmann refused. He was proud to have taken part in the extermination of the Jews, and his only criticism of this lunatic National Socialist project was that "we could and should have done more".
If Eichmann's feelings are hard to stomach, so too are Stangneth's revelations that the German Foreign Office and intelligence services had enough information on Eichmann's whereabouts to have pursued his arrest and trial in Germany long before the Israelis did. As various official papers are yet to be released, she can only speculate on their motive. But the most likely one is that many former Nazis who had never been brought to book and who still had jobs in German public service, feared being exposed by Eichmann.
For example, the "inability" of the German Embassy in Buenos Aires to find Eichmann in 1958 "looked embarrassingly like aiding and abetting a wanted criminal".
Fortunately, Eichmann's misdeeds, and the Israeli secret service, eventually caught up with him. Taken to Israel, he was tried and found guilty of crimes against humanity and hanged on May 31, 1962. For many decades since, his cunning depiction of himself as a "small cog in Adolf Hitler's extermination machine" has blinded many people to his central role in the Holocaust and the nature of the key participants.
But no longer. Thanks to this brilliant book, exhaustively researched and convincingly argued, the veil has at last been lifted.
"Like a mirror," writes Stangneth, "he reflected people's fears and expectations, whether they were fearing for their own lives or hoping he would confirm a theory of evil. Behind all the mirror images lay Eichmann's will to power and desire to control."
100 Days to Victory: How the Great War Was Fought and Won 1914-1918 by Saul David published by Hodder is now available in paperback
Eichmann Before Jerusalem: the Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, Bettina Stangneth, Bodley Head, 608pp, £25
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350