In trying to demythologize a catastrophic historical event such as the Holocaust, the issues of culpability and conscience often arise. Due to the incredible size and power of the Nazi regime, thousands share in the blame for the virtual extermination of European Jewry, however certain high-ranking individuals played very direct roles in carrying out Hitler’s “final solution”. Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangl were two men who shared that same fate, though several important distinctions can be made between them. Such distinctions become blatantly obvious in the books Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt and Into That Darkness, written by Gitta Sereny. The different approaches taken by Arendt and Sereny, in combination with the many diversities in character between Eichmann and Stangl, allows for two highly unique examinations of conscience in Nazi Germany.
In Arendt’s “Report on the Banality of Evil”, she illustrates the frightening reality that it is possible, perhaps even human nature, for ordinary people to perform extraordinary acts of violence and cruelty given the right social or political circumstances. It is easy to be convinced that all members of the Nazi party were psychotic or extreme anti-Semites rather than normal, average people, often with families and friends. As a result of this apparent contradiction, the presence or lack of a conscience becomes an interesting and easily debatable topic. Hannah Arendt, through her use of black humor and bitter irony, portrays Adolf Eichmann not as a Nazi mastermind, but instead as a mentally dim and mediocre beurocrat. His main focus within the Nazi regime was ascending in rank and gaining power in an attempt to be a member of “good society”. It becomes apparent early in Arendt’s work that she dislikes Eichmann a great deal as a person, and thinks even less of his mental capacity. In terms of conscience, it almost seems as though his ignorance overtakes his ability to feel guilt. A major success of the Third Reich was to create a feeling of normalcy within German society while simultaneously murdering millions of people. Because life continued for so long in a state of relative calmness, it aided people in easing any feelings of guilt. As Arendt states specifically about Eichmann, “His conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which ‘good society’ everywhere reacted as he did. He did not need to ‘close his ears to the voice of conscience,’ ... because conscience spoke with the voice of respectable society around him” (Arendt 126). After the fall of the Third Reich, many Nazi’s attempted to defend their actions by claiming an “inner emigration”, meaning that while their physical beings were following orders and committing genocide, their “true hearts and souls” were not present and therefore not guilty. Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann is his lack of excuses such as “internal emigration”. Eichmann felt it better to be considered a true and loyal Nazi until the end than to attempt to explain his participation in the Holocaust and genuinely believed that he had done nothing wrong. It is this total self-deception that allows Eichmann to assert, almost comically, that he actually helped several Jews.
An ideal example presents itself in the story told by Eichmann about the “unlucky Kommerzialmrat Storfer of Vienna”, in which he explains how he made a trip to Auschwitz to try to help this representative of the Jewish community. Since “...neither Dr. Ebner nor I nor anybody else could do anything about it...” Eichmann managed to reduce the amount of labor that Storfer had to do. Eichmann stated, “It was of great inner joy to me that I could at least see the man with whom I had worked for so many long years, and that we could speak with each other” (Arendt 51). Needless to say, Eichmann mentions nothing of the fact that Storfer was shot dead just six weeks later. Hannah Arendt states it beautifully in asking, “Is this a textbook case of bad faith, of lying self-deception combined with outrageous stupidity? Or is it simply the case of the eternally unrepentant criminal who cannot afford to face reality because his crime has become part and parcel of it? (Arendt 52).
Gitta Sereny’s portrayal of Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka, is a stark contrast to Arendt’s work. While Arendt is harsh and critical (though always historically accurate) in her depiction of Eichmann, it becomes immediately apparent in Into That Darkness that Sereny actually likes Stangl as a person, despite her condemnation for his actions – and inactions. Also, while Eichmann in Jerusalem is based on Eichmann’s trial testimony in Jerusalem, Sereny interviewed Stangl herself and made a point to speak with his wife, friends, and former military associates, allowing her to paint a much more intimate portrait of the man and his motivations. Not unimportant, however, is the fact that despite the vast difference in the way in which these two men are written, they were also two very different people.
Stangl, unlike Eichmann, admits to feeling guilt within the first two interviews, stating “I should have killed myself in 1938 ... That’s when it started for me. I must acknowledge my guilt” (Sereny 39). It is notably ironic, however, that, as Sereny puts it “This, on the second day of our talks, was the only time Stangl acknowledged guilt in a direct way until almost the end” (Sereny 39). Through the course of his interviews, Stangl explains his swift rise in rank and his central role in the extermination of almost one million people with a self-preservationist mentality. According to him, he never really agreed with what the Nazi’s were doing and simply followed orders to protect himself and his family. Stangl’s relationship with his wife was always of great importance to him, and his reluctance to tell her the details of his job suggests his genuine embarrassment and moral conflicts. Despite her soft and personal presentation of Stangl and how significantly it differs from Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann, Sereny’s work is not without criticism and judgment. She quietly subverts Stangl’s attempts to absolve himself of responsibility by asking very direct and simple questions. On almost every occasion, Stangl is left with no other recourse but to change the subject or feign outright ignorance of his culpability. For instance after recounting some of the inhumanities of Treblinka, Sereny asks him, “Could you have changed that? In your position, could you not have stopped the nakedness, the whips, the horror of the cattle pens? (Sereny 202) Sereny damages Stangl’s character subtly, and though the story is told from Stangl’s point of view, it is ultimately framed within Sereny’s opinion.
Ultimately, the main difference between Franz Stangl and Adolf Eichmann is the way in which each man suppressed his conscience and justified his actions.
After all, given the social and political setting of Nazi Germany, it was easier for two normal men to “simply follow orders”, despite the fact that those orders led directly to the murder of millions of innocent people. While Eichmann, largely due to his stupidity, was able to completely ignore his conscience, however, Stangl seems to have struggled with certain decisions. Through his talks with Sereny, Stangl was able to progress from feeling obligatory guilt, to actually reaching and confronting the inner most part of his soul, and admitting responsibility for his horrific actions. After this catharsis, Stangl was able to pass away with a certain level of peace. Probably every member of the Nazi party would have a different justification for his or her actions during that incomprehensible period in history, but Stangl and Eichmann, with their many differences and the occasional commonality, proved to be two very telling characters in a sea of banality. Both Gitta Sereny and Hannah Arendt, in their own unique way, examine the role of conscience in Nazi Germany, and both women present an enlightening account of two very mysterious men.