Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Sessen Interviews by Bettina Stangneth

Only in the spring of 1957 did the Durer circle decide to record their conversations about the National Socialists extermination of the Jews. . . Together with the transcripts and Eichmann’s corrections, the recordings, which only emerged in the late 1990s, present an a very precise picture of Sessen’s working methods. The tapes were typed up relatively quickly by various helpers, then recorded over. New tapes were expensive, both in Buenos Aires and elsewhere, and they weren’t easy to get a hold of. Today we have around one thousand pages of transcripts (including the pages of corrections) and twenty-nine hours of recordings, including doubles of tapes that were copied later. Not only do they prove that the transcripts are an authentic source (impossible to verify at the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem and thus not admitted into evidence); they are also a window into the year 1957 – and the front room of the Sassen house.

A group of middle-aged men met in the neat living room of a house in Florida, a popular district of Buenos Aires. Their surroundings suited the aspirations of their project: the room was also a kind of study, full of books, records, art, pictures, and European furniture – with an atmosphere that made the conversations seem meaningful. Sassen’s was a convivial  house, full of “Dutch comforts”. He liked to live at the very limits of what he could afford: apart from National Socialism, he valued beautiful objects, education and expensive whiskey. Games of “guess the composer” and discussions of books were part of the family’s dinner table conversation, even when the children were small. Sassen’s living conditions were by no means luxurious, but they were still very different from what Eichmann was used to. He spent his weeks “on the ranch”, providing care for the Angora rabbits, and he didn’t inhabit rooms like Sassen’s at home either. But this wasn’t the only reason his weekends with Sassen were like taking a trip to another world.

The meetings themselves were what really mattered: being reunited with former fellow travelers, having access to literature, and taking part in discussions that gave his life another dimension once again. The Sassen circle’s politics had some obvious far-right features, and Eichmann was made to feel that his knowledge and his judgments were an indispensable part of a new movement. It wasn’t mere flattery: they really needed this one surviving insider. When it came to the question of victim numbers, so hotly debated in far-right circles, Eichmann was generally regarded as the only person with an overview of all the mass shootings, death-by-labor operations, starvation, and gassing – a reputation he had cultivated himself. In Argentina this image had always been his entry ticket to postwar Nazi circles.

Four years later, when he was on trial in Israel, Eichmann managed to draw a veil over the true scale of the Sassen conversations. His defense strategy essentially rested on his no longer being a National Socialist and having spent the last fifteen years as a blameless, unremarkable, and above all apolitical citizens. He had left all his old resentments – in particular, his anti-Semitism – behind long ago. (In the Nazi regime itself he had only been ‘a retiring, pencil-pushing desk jockey helpless caught up in a political machine over which he had no control’). If the backgrounds of the Sassen conversations were to come to light, there was no way he could maintain this lie, so Eichmann told his lawyer a story abut Sassen being a headline hungry journalist who had met the harmless Argentine citizen Klement by chance in a café. Sassen then paid him regular visits at home with a tape recorder, convincing him these discussions would help him write his biography. And yes, with the aid of a lot of alcohol, Sassen occasionally tempted Eichmann to lapse into old habits, and then had distorted everything afterwards, the way journalist do. According to Eichmann, not a word of the resulting material corresponded to what he had really said. This version of events was in perfect accord with the game of hide-and-seek being played by the other witnesses, none of whom wanted to admit sitting around a table with Eichmann. Sassen, in particular, made an effort to conceal his National Socialist convictions behind the façade of the professional journalist.

The atmosphere and the course of the discussion on the Sassen tapes are most reminiscent of a subject conference: a changing cast of participants spent hours at a time discussing historical theories, interpreting documents together, and arguing – occasionally fiercely – over the evaluation from the perspective of their own individual experiences. They read and discussed every book on the subject they could get hold of. Sassen often set assignments between meetings and urged the participants to devote proper attention to them. The men made notes, read out their commentaries on the books, formulated new questions, and even gave lectures.

The stamina of those present sometimes wavered, but the debate was mostly concentrated. The participants made material available to one another for the meetings: Sassen lent Eichmann books and distributed copies of important documents; Eichmann brought newspapers he had received from Europe, Sassen once translated an American magazine for the group. People reported things they had read in the Argentine press and discussed current events in world politics, as well as the increasing judicial effort in West Germany to come to terms with the Nazi past. A few of these discussions lasted well over four hours and certainly do not give the impression of being a relaxed, enjoyable way to spend one’s leisure time. The seriousness with which even the most absurd theories were constructed can be seen on every page. . .

The transcripts do not identify individual speakers but the tapes  allow us to identify many of them and also rule out a few people as possible listeners. Everything speaks against the concentration ‘doctor’; Josef Mengele having been present. Eichmann and Sassen knew Mengele personal, and Eichmann would have insisted on drawing him into the conversation, as he did with other participants. When the discussion turns to Hottl, he addresses “Dr. Langer”, as ‘he knows Hottl professionally.” He would have handed responsibility to Mengele on certain topics, given his knowledge of Auschwitz and Nazi ‘medicine”. Several times he expresses his regret at having nobody to back him up: “It is a shame I don’t have any comrades from this time whom I worked with, as I have come to realize, having abstained from all these thoughts for many years, that there is much that I have forgotten.” Sassen also gives a lengthy reading from a text about Mengele. Josef Mengele, as his diaries show, was mistrustful and exceedingly cautious. For this reason alone he would never have involved himself in an undertaking as open as the Sessen discussions. However, Sessen must have spoken to Mengele about Auschwitz at some other point: he was still justifying Mengele’s “experiments” on people in the camp, talking about how ‘cul;tured’ he was, in an interview for Argentine television in 1991. Mengele, he said, had always sought to discover “the essence, the philosophy” of human existence, by examining people “under exceptional circumstances. Sassen saw sadistic torment without sense or reason as “a demonstration of humanity”.  .  .

What makes the Sassen documents such a powerful source in the first instance is the men’s language, which the text ad the recordings bring to us in an unmediated form. Anyone who has heard Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation by Avner W. Less, or listened to the trial recordings, will be familiar with his idiosyncratic speech, by turns whining, cold and occasionally petulant. His endless sentences are full of twists, turns, and circular thinking as he exhausts listeners with descriptions of opaque hierarchies and responsibilities, and with excuses about a sense of duty and being under order. The experience of listening to Eichmann-in-Argentina, in a circle of sympathizers, is clearly different (and still more intolerable) .  .  .

The language becomes entirely perverted where Eichmann turns metaphors on their heads, talking about expulsion and murder using gentle images of life. An institution for forced immigration was his “first child”, where he was able to “be creative in my work.” All individual acts of robbery and expulsion that took place in Austria were committed to “provide the country with injections of Jewish solutions.” Even deportations and exterminations were “born.” This was why he felt so superfluous in Budapest, when he was forced to stop deporting people to Auschwitz: “As far as I know, I couldn’t have done anything fruitful anymore.” When the fruits of your labor lie in the rising columns of murder charts, you need a rather different understanding of growth and life. In Eichmann’s language, he didn’t send people to death camps; the camps were “fed with material.”

Neither Eichmann nor his interlocutors had a problem calling things by their names” Jews were “gassed”; “idiots sent to the slaughter”; those who were deported were “killed non-stop in the concentration camps like on a conveyer belt.” A Himmler had hoped, people seemed to feel more strongly when they didn’t beat around the bush although tastelessness was individual; all the participants had their own particular preferences: Sassen favors sexual innuendos about the “technical implementation of the reproductive urge” and “men’s desires,” when faced with the atrocities in the camps. Anyone who seems suspect is a “jackass” or a “chump.” Alvensleben likes to bluster about “the way crowds of Jews can be incredibly rowdy and a “responsibility” (to kill Jews) that “is in the blood.” D, Langer, meanwhile, enjoys giving detailed accounts of the torture methods used in Mauthausen.

But let no one say that these men didn’t also have delicate feelings. Eichmann, as he tells his comrades here, feels “genuinely heartsore for the Reich” “I trembled for the Reich,” he says, from which  one could see “how fully I was committed to this struggle, with my whole being.” He was shocked to hear about the extermination plans for the first time and comforted himself using Himmler’s words: “The word is easy to say, but it is monstrously difficult.” “The whole business of the Final Solution” was a “killer of a job” – words Eichmann spoke without any sense of irony. Only Himmler’s calls not to murder with unnecessary cruelty” were “music to my ears.”

Eichmann still had plenty to be proud of in Argentina in 1957. Deaths had been necessary: “The only good enemy of the Reich is a dead one. In particular I have to add, when I received an order, I always carried out this order with the executioner, and I am proud of this to this day. If I had not done this, they would have not gone to the butcher.” Hungary, and the mass deportation of more than four hundred thousand people in a few weeks, had been his masterwork: “It was actually an achievement that was never matched before or since.” If only there had not been all those problems before that point. The thing that pained Eichmann the most was when the trains weren’t full. It was “a very poor business in Belgium.” And it was even worse in Denmark, when he wasn’t allowed to transport people to their deaths as he wished. “I had to recall my transports, for me it was a deadly disgrace.”

Of course, notoriously, Eichmann’s direct experiences of murder were disturbing to him. And in this respect – having to witness such unpleasantness which both Langer and Eichmann gave the impression that they had looked upon powerlessly – as things were enacted that they had helped bring about- they both regarded themselves as victims. This same self-centered attitude can be found in the accounts of many other perpetrators, all the way up to Himmler, whose Posen speech was full of sympathetic words for the poor, suffering murderers.

The reversal of perpetrator and victim is a psychodynamic shift that does more than just ease the perpetrator’s burdensome memory of what he has done: it is more than an act of retrospective repression. It is the suppression of the very consciousness that allowed these perpetrators to commit their deeds in the first placed. Eichmann was clearly aware of the need to shield himself as much as possible. “But there is a good one thing nature.” He explains. I can switch off and forget very quickly, without trying to.” He had some effective methods for helping this process along, the primary strategy being the consumption of alcohol. His knowledge of the mechanisms of repression, however, like his self-awareness, went far beyond the use of this simple drug. The conscious mind can be deliberately distracted, and not only by escaping into nature, as he described in “The Others Spoke” (he found sunsets particularly consoling). “I still have a very devout saying from my youth,” Eichmann explained to the Sassen circle, “ and I always do it when I find something horribly unpleasant and I can’t stop thinking about it. And in order to forcibly distract myself, do you know what I say? You’ll laugh! I believe in God the father, and the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, died under Pontius Pilate, suffered and so on and so on, was raised from the dead, and so on.”

Father Anton Weber, one of the people who helped Nazi fugitives obtain new identities in Rome, said there was a trick he used to check that they had really found their way back to the Faith. “I made them say the Our Father. Then it quickly emerged who was genuine and who wasn’t.” Eichmann would certainly have impressed him with the pace of his creed, managing it in five seconds: “I somehow realized early on, as a child – still a devout believer at the time, of course – that once I’d said that, I didn’t think about anything else.”

Cynical, pitiless, misanthropic, morally corrupt, with no understanding of tact or limits – these are all inadequate description for the words Eichmann, Sassen and their group came out with in 1957. There is nothing here to remind us of the future prisoner in Jerusalem. Eichmann’s words in Argentina weren’t thoughtless drivel but consistent speech based on a complete system of thought. They were, we might say, judgments in excess. It isn’t the foundations of the argument that are missing, but the group’s willingness to criticize the structures of totalitarian thought and to change their dogmatic approach. These men valued consistency for the violence that it allowed them to wield over themselves and others. It became an end in itself. Twelve years after the war, they still hadn’t obtained any degree of distance from it: Fritsch, Sassen, and Eichmann were still ideological warriors, in the midst of battle, who had lost all weapons but language and magniloquence.

Eichmann:  “. . .I, the ‘cautious bureaucrat,’ that was me, yes indeed. But I would like to expand on the issue of cautious bureaucrat’, somewhat to my own detriment. This cautious bureaucrat was attended by a . . .a fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which was my birthright, and I say here, just as I have said to you before: your louse that nips you, Comrade Sassen, does not interest me. My louse under my collar interests me. I will squash it. This is the same when it comes to my people. And the cautious bureaucrat, which of course I was, that is what I ha been, also guided and inspired me: what benefits my people is a sacred order and a sacred law for me. Yes indeed.

And now I want to tell you, as a conclusion to all these records for we will soon be finished, I must first tell you: I have no regrets! I am certainly not going to bow down to that cross! The four months during which we have gone over the matter here, during the four months in which you have taken pains to refresh my memory, a great deal of it has been refreshed, it would be too easy, and I could do it cheaply for the sake of current opinion .  .  . for me to deeply regret it, for me to pretend that a Saul has become a Paul.

I tell you , Comrade Sassen, I cannot do that. That I cannot do, because I am not willing to do it, because I balk inwardly at saying we did anything wrong . No, I have to tell you quite honestly, that if of the 10.3 million Jews identified, as we now know, we had killed 10.3 million, I would be satisfied, and would say, good, we have destroyed the enemy. Now through the vagaries of fortune, most of these 10.3 million Jews remain alive, so I say to myself: fate wished it so. I have to subordinate myself to fate and destiny. I am just a little man and don’t have to fight against this, and couldn’t and don’t want to.

We would have fulfilled our destiny to our blood and our people and to the freedom of peoples, if we had exterminated the most cunning intellect of all the human intellects alive today. For that is what I said to Streicher, what I have always preached: we are fighting an enemy who, through many, many thousands of years of schooling, is intellectually superior to us. Was it yesterday or the day before, or a year ago, I don’t know, I heard or read: even before the Romans had their state, before Rome had ever been founded, the Jews there were able to write. This is an understatement. They should have said, aeons before the Romans erected their state, aeons before the very founding of Rome itself, they were able to write. Look at the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Look at a race that today has recourse to, may I say, six thousand years of written history, a race that has been making laws for let us say five or six thousand years – and am I not wrong, I believe when I estimate a seventh millennium. The fact that the Christian church today makes use of this law making is very depressing  for me. But it tells me that this must be a race of the first order of magnitude, since lawmakers have always been great. And because of these realizations I fought against this enemy.

And you must understand that this is my motivation when I say, if 10.3 million of these enemies had been killed, then we would have fulfilled our duty. (Pause for effect) And because this did not happen, I will say to you that those who have not yet been born will have to undergo that suffering and adversity. Perhaps they will curse us. (Pause for effect) Alone, we few people cannot fight the Zeitgeist. We have done what we could.

Of course, I must ay to you, human emotion also played a role here . I too am not free of this, I too was defeated by the same weakness. I know this! I too am partly to blame for the fact that the real, complete elimination, perhaps foreseen by some authority, or the conception that I had in my mind, could not be carried out. I gave you a small example of this. I was an inadequate intellect and was placed in an office where in truth I could have done more and should have done more.

What I told you must serve as an apology: one, that I lacked a profound intellect. Second, that I lacked the necessary physical toughness. And third, that even against my will there were legions of people who fought this will, so that while I myself already felt handicapped, I was then also curtailed in carrying out the other things that would have helped me to a breakthrough, because for many years I was bogged down in a struggle against the so-called Interventionists (who wanted to make exceptions for their friends). I want to close by telling you this.

Whether you will put this in an book, I do not know, perhaps it is not a good idea at all. And perhaps it should not go in. This is just by way of a conclusion, to what I have taken on in all these months of refreshing my memory, and which I also feel compelled to tell you.  .  . It is hard what I have told you, I know, and I will be condemned for being so hard in my phrasing, but I cannot tell you anything else, for it is the truth! Why should I deny it?"

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