The Devil And His Details – Eichmann In Lvov

Official statistics state that the Lviv Railway Station handles 1.6 million passengers a year. Using this number as a benchmark it is possible to make a very rough guess at the number of people who have used the station during its long and eventful life.  Over its one hundred and seven year history, the station has witnessed the comings and goings of more than 50 million visitors, citizens, passers through, passers-by and every other type of traveler imaginable. From Emperors to Kaisers to killers, the famous and infamous, a withering array of humanity has passed through or by the station. One of these included a man who was neither using the station as a point of arrival or departure. This man was one of the most infamous war criminals of the 20th century, his name forever synonymous with the phrase “banality of evil.” The phrase was famously used by the philosopher Hannah Arendt to describe Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Adolf Eichmann in 1942

Adolf Eichmann in 1942 – the year he traveled from Minsk to Lvov

The Road To Lvov
What Arendt was saying when she used the term banal to define Eichmann was that he was an average, ordinary person rather than a psychopath or madman. His actions were the product of career ambition and stupidity. Part of his stupidity was on display at the trial as he relied on clichéd defenses to explain away his behavior. He was the living embodiment of the “just following orders” line of defense. He followed orders to the point of aiding and abetting in the murder of millions. The fact that Eichmann was so utterly ordinary made him seen even more chilling. The Eichmann trial in Jerusalem was a fascinating study in human psychology.  It was during this trial that Eichmann also revealed what would seem to be a rather banal detail from his experiences during the war, a sighting he made of the train station at Lvov (during the trial Eichmann referred to Lviv by its Soviet/Russian name). This cold blooded, seemingly emotionless bureaucratic killer mentioned the train station in his testimony. It was the bizarre context in which he mentioned this at the trial which was not banal, but revealing.

Eichmann’s road to Lvov first ran through Minsk where he witnessed the shooting of Jews by Nazi murder squads. He recounted this at the trial. When I got there I only managed to see how young marksmen, I think there were these marksmen with the death-heads on their coat collars…they were shooting into the pit, which was quite a large size, let us say four or five times this room, perhaps even six or seven times. I have…I have…all my recollections of this instance are unreliable for I only saw this thing without any thoughts, without forming any thoughts about it whatsoever. I simply saw – and nothing more than that: they fired into the pit, and I can still see a woman…with her arms behind her…and then her knees buckled and I made off.”

Jews being murdered by Nazi killing unit in Ukraine

Jews being murdered by Nazi killing unit in Ukraine

Transit Points – A Stationary Moment
According to Eichmann, this unsettled him to the point that he drove all the way to Lvov with his mind clouded by the horrors he had just seen. The reader of these transcripts gets the idea that Eichmann was in a state of shock. Conversely, one cannot help but remember that it obviously did not rattle him enough to reconsider his role in the growing atrocities. Eichmann had been and would continue to be a point man for the Nazi regime. He was an integral part of the movement from coerced emigration to deportation to extermination of the Jews. He could have stopped at any time, but did not. Eichmann was not just a fellow traveller in this murderous regime, he was also an instigator. He could have driven back to Germany and resigned, but instead he drove on to Lvov. His destination was not really Lvov, but somewhere much more hideous. It was just a pass through point, albeit a memorable one.

“I got in and started driving (at Minsk) – I drove to Lvov. I had no orders to go to Lvov…even this I remember now but apparently the road passed through Lvov. Somehow I came to Lvov and saw the first encouraging picture, after the awful things I had seen there: This was the railway station building, which had been erected to mark the Sixtieth Anniversary of the reign of the Emperor Franz Josef. And seeing that I personally was overwhelmed with joy regarding this period of Franz Josef, possibly because I had heard an abundance of wonderful things in my parents’ home about this period, or about events that occurred during this period. My relatives on the side of my step-mother were, at this time, as you would say, of a high social standing…It was painted yellow.

This chased away for the first time – I still remember this today otherwise I wouldn’t have realized this, that this sixtieth jubilee…that the figures of this Jubilee were engraved on the wall of this station building – those terrible thoughts which had not yet departed from me since Minsk.”

The Lviv Railway Station during the Soviet years

The Lviv Railway Station during the Soviet years

Between Civilization & Depravity
These were Eichmann’s memories of his arrival in Lvov. What he talked about before and after this bit of testimony was nothing less than horrific. The juxtaposition of the beautiful, art nouveau railway station between his description of the ghastly acts he witnessed and commiserated in makes the whole incident seem rather unreal. Eichmann recognized the beauty and elegance of the station. He felt the power of its grandeur, but never considered making a comparison between the empire that had built it and his own depraved Third Reich. Perhaps he lacked the capacity to understand the difference between civilization and depravity. How could Eichmann not distinguish between Nazi occupied Galicia and the Kingdom of Galicia ruled over by Emperor Franz Joseph for sixty-eight years largely peaceful years. Austria-Hungary was an empire that offered unprecedented freedom to the Jews of Galicia. It co-opted their abilities and skills to the Empire’s advantage. The Jews had not brought the empire down they had lifted it up economically, culturally and militarily. Too many Jews in Austrian Galicia had been unable to escape poverty, but they never came close to being herded into extermination camps either.

Eichmann’s reference to the railway station as “that first encouraging picture” was a tragic irony lost on him. It had been the design of an ethnic Pole, its platforms constructed by Czech masters. They were members of Slavic races which had been attacked by the Nazi regime without remorse. The designers of the station were representative of the brilliance and refinement these people could attain. They had created an architectural wonder. Meanwhile the Third Reich was creating devastation and destruction. The difference between the depravity of the Nazis and the civilization created by the Habsburgs – even if it had been fatally flawed – stared Eichmann right in the face, but he failed to comprehend this vast difference.

Railway line into Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Railway line into Auschwitz Concentration Camp (Credit: Bundesarchiv, B 285 Bild-04413 / Stanislaw Mucha)

The Ultimate Destination
The moment that Eichmann experienced obviously made an impression upon him, though it did not have any effect on his behaviour. Eichmann’s initial impression of Lvov was a momentary escape from the horrors that he was helping perpetrate. He went on to visit with a German commander in Lvov. He recalled I paid a visit there to the commander since I was passing the place, and said to him: “Yes,” I said to him “this is terrible, what is going on there,” I said to him, “these young men are being brought up as sadists.” This is exactly what I said…he said to me: “Exactly so, this is also happening with us here, they shoot here, too. Do you want to see it once? Do you want to see it once?” I said: “No, I don’t want to see anything. He said “Anyhow we are going to pass by.”

Then I saw something else which was terrible: there was a pit, perhaps it was already closed. There welled up like a geyser blood…how should I say this…a jet of blood. I have never seen anything like it. As far as I was concerned this assignment was enough and I drove to Berlin and related this to Gruppenfuehrer Mueller.”

It is telling that despite what Eichmann says he witnessed and felt, he never stopped anyone, most of all himself from carrying out the Final Solution. His actions would lead to the deaths of millions. After leaving Lvov and those fleeting memories of Austria-Hungary behind, Eichmann would travel back to Berlin. His next trip abroad was not long in coming, it was to Auschwitz.


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