An Ancient Greek Yearbook

You’re looking at an ancient Greek yearbook, which was rediscovered earlier this month after over 130 years in storage at a Scottish museum.

It lists the names of 31 graduates from the ephebate, a year of military and civic training undertaken around age 18 to prepare for life as adults. It ends with “of Caesar”, referring to emperor Claudius, the fourth ruler of the Roman Empire (41-54), indicating they graduated during his reign. (Greece had been under Roman rule for over a century, though its traditions—like the ephebate—remained largely unchanged.)

Among the names clearly visible on the marble are Atlas, Dionysos, Theogas, Elis, Zopyros Tryphon, Antypas, and Apollonios; many have never been seen before, and some are nicknames, such as Theogas for Theogenes and Dionysas for Dionysodoros. Using shortened names was unusual, and likely indicates that the graduates had a sense of camaraderie; the full class was probably about 100 men, and the use of nicknames—along with terms like “co-ephebes”, or “co-cadets”—indicates that this inscription was made by classmates who had become friends and wanted to remember each other.

According to Dr. Peter Liddel, professor of Greek history and epigraphy at the University of Manchester, who managed the discovery, this is also the earliest evidence of noncitizens taking part in the ephebate in this period—suggesting a greater level of social and cultural integration in the empire than previously thought.

“This is a really interesting inscription”, says Dr. Liddel, “partly because it’s new but also because it gives us new names and a bit of insight into the sort of access or accessibility of this institution which is often associated with elite citizens.”

It is unknown where the list was displayed, but it could have been somewhere public, such as a community space or gymnasium where the young men trained.

Dr. Liddel said: “It was made to create a sense of camaraderie and comradeship among this group of people who had been through a rigorous training program together and felt like they were part of a cohort.”

“It’s the ancient equivalent of a graduate school yearbook,” he reveals, “although this is one which is created by a number of individuals who wanted to feel like they had come together as friends.”

“It’s the ancient equivalent of a graduate school yearbook,” he reveals, “although this is one which is created by a number of individuals who wanted to feel like they had come together as friends.”

Another example of ancient peoples being more familiar and relatable than we would think!

Sources: Greek Reporter, NPR

The Hero of the Two Worlds

At last, we come to the namesake of Lafayette Square, the Marquis de Lafayette. His contributions to the American Revolution prompted widespread praise and admiration across both sides of the Atlantic, earning him a public square in front of the White House, honorary U.S. citizenship (shared by only seven others), and the moniker, “Hero of the Two Worlds”.

Born into a wealthy French family, Lafayette came from a long line of distinguished soldiers and military leaders; he followed in their footsteps and became an officer at age 13. Despite his noble birth, he truly believed in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, human rights, and civic virtue, and was inspired by the American Revolution—enough to purchase a ship and sail across the Atlantic to volunteer for the cause.

Lafayette’s energy and enthusiasm impressed those around him, as did his well-needed military experience; Benjamin Franklin vouched for him, while George Washington bonded with him almost immediately (and the feeling was mutual). The young Frenchman was made a major general at age 19 and made part of Washington’s staff; he followed the American commander everywhere, enduring the same hardships and many of the famous (and often arduous battles). Lafayette was wounded during the Battle of Brandywine—the second-longest one-day battle, at 11 hours—but managed to rally an organized retreat that saved numerous lives; Washington cited him for bravery and asked Congress to give him command of American troops. He went on to serve with distinction in several battles, even beating numerically superior forces.

Lafayette’s biggest contribution came in the middle of the war, when he sailed home to lobby for more French support; his efforts resulted in decisive aid to the revolution, from thousands of troops to most of our ammunition. He returned to America in 1780 and was given senior positions in the Continental Army. In 1781, he delayed British forces so American and French forces could position themselves for the decisive siege of Yorktown—the battle that ended the war.

Lafayette returned to France and sought to bring the same changes and freedoms he helped usher in America. After forming the National Constituent Assembly—roughly equivalent to the U.S. Continental Congress—he helped to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with the help of Thomas Jefferson. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, it is one of history’s oldest and still-current civil rights documents, establishing basic principles of democracy. Lafayette even advocated an end to slavery, something that was still beyond the pale to most fellow revolutionaries. He spent the rest of his life trying to chart a middle course between the radicals of both sides of the revolution.

In 1824, President James Monroe invited the now-elderly Lafayette to the United States as the nation’s guest; he visited all 24 states at the time and was met with large crowds and applause everywhere he went. His integrity never wavered, and during France’s July Revolution of 1830, he declined an offer to become the French dictator.

The Hungarian Father of U.S. Cavalry

The first thing to greet me at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, D.C., is this very dramatic statue of a horseman waving an American flag.

As it turns out, this colonel Michael Kovats was a Hungarian nobleman who is considered one of the “Founding Fathers of U.S. cavalry”—and who gave his life for the cause of American independence.

Like many of the foreigners who fought in the American Revolution, Kovats was a highly experienced soldier motivated by both adventurism and a genuine belief in the universal cause of liberty. As soon as learned of the war, he ventured to meet the U.S. ambassador in France, Benjamin Franklin, and offered him his sword along with a letter written in Latin:

Most Illustrious Sir:

Golden freedom cannot be purchased with yellow gold.

I, who have the honor to present this letter to your Excellency, am also following the call of the Fathers of the Land, as the pioneers of freedom always did. I am a free man and a Hungarian. As to my military status I was trained in the Royal Prussian Army and raised from the lowest rank to the dignity of a Captain of the Hussars, not so much by luck and the mercy of chance than by most diligent self discipline and the virtue of my arms. The dangers and the bloodshed of a great many campaigns taught me how to mold a soldier, and, when made, how to arm him and let him defend the dearest of the lands with his best ability under any conditions and developments of the war.

I now am here of my own free will, having taken all the horrible hardships and bothers of this journey, and I am willing to sacrifice myself wholly and faithfully as it is expected of an honest soldier facing the hazards and great dangers of the war … I beg your Excellency, to grant me a passport and a letter of recommendation to the most benevolent Congress. I am expecting companions who have not yet reached here …

At last, awaiting your gracious answer, I have no wish greater than to leave forthwith, to be where I am needed most, to serve and die in everlasting obedience to Your Excellency and the Congress.

Most faithful unto death,

Bordeaux, January 13th, 1777. Michael Kovats de Fabricy

P.S.: As yet I am unable to write fluently in French or English and had only the choice of writing either in German or Latin; for this I apologize to your Excellency.

Talk about a class act! (And he sure as hell looked the part too).

Kovats’ commitment was a huge win for the colonists: The hussars he trained and commanded were some of the finest light calvary in Europe, if not the world; calvary were the elite units of the day, capable of great mobility, shock tactics, and even psychological warfare.

Along with Polish general Casimir Pulaski—who is likewise considered the father of the U.S. cavalry—Kovats reformed American horsemen along the lines of the elite hussars. The resulting “Pulaski’s Legion” was one of the few calvary units in the Continental Army.

Unfortunately, both the legion and its two founders would be short-lived: Like most wars at the time, diseases decimated the troops as much as actual warfare. Following a long march to the south, where the British were shifting their focus, the legion was weakened by smallpox; it arrived as the decisive British siege of Charleston, South Carolina was underway.

Given the desperation of the situation, the legion engaged the attackers in an effort to lift the worsening siege but were promptly cut down—this was the era when calvary were starting to become obsolete in face of ever-improving firearms. Kovats and Pulaski were killed leading the charge to inspire their men; one British major described the force as “the best calvary the rebels ever had”.

True to his word, the Hungarian nobleman—who did not have a dog in the fight—nonetheless remained faithful to the American cause until the very end, though he is little remembered today. (Pulaski, at the very least, was made an honorary U.S. citizen, one of only eight with such an honor).

Fittingly, the Citadel Military College in Charleston has part of its campus named after him.

The Spanish Noble Who Became an Honorary U.S. Citizen

Only eight people have ever been granted honorary U.S. citizenship, which is reserved only for those of exceptional merit; this statue in Washington, D.C. that I stumbled upon is dedicated to one of those privileged few: Bernardo de Galvez, a Spanish military leader and colonial governor who provided decisive aid to the American Revolution.

A career soldier since age 16, Gálvez was a veteran of several wars across Europe, the Americas, and North Africa. While governor of Spanish Louisiana—a vast territory spanning much of the Midwest—he supported the Patriots and their French allies by facilitating crucial supply lines and interfering with British operations in the Gulf Coast. Gálvez achieved half-a-dozen victories on the battlefield, most notably retaking West Florida from the British. His efforts eliminated the British naval presence in the Gulf and prevented American rebels in the south from being encircled; subsequently, Galvez had a hand in drafting the Treaty of Paris that ended the war and granted American independence.

Gálvez’s actions aided the American war effort and made him a hero to both Spain and the newly independent United States. Congress immediately planned to hang his portrait in the Capitol, albeit only doing so in 2014; that year, he was conferred honorary citizenship for being a “hero of the Revolutionary War who risked his life for the freedom of the United States people and provided supplies, intelligence, and strong military support to the war effort.”

While largely forgotten in the United States, Gálvez remains in high esteem among many Americans, particularly in southern and western states; several places bear his name, including Galveston, Texas and Galvez, Louisiana, and Galvez Day is a holiday in parts of Pensacola (formerly West Florida).

The (French) Hero of Yorktown

A (poor) selfie with my bro, Rochambeau (sorry).

It might seem odd that the capital of the world’s first modern republic would have a prominent statue to a French nobleman facing the White House. But we probably owe the very existence of the United States to Frenchmen like Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau.

In fact, the statue is located on Lafayette Square, named after another French hero of the American Revolution (whom I’ll get to later)!

To understand Rochambeau’s significance, you need only go down the street to the U.S. Capitol. Among the four paintings prominently displayed in the Rotunda is the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (known as the “Painter of the Revolution” for his many iconic depictions of the war and period; you’ll recognize many of them if you look him up).

The painting shows the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, which marks the decisive end of the American Revolution. Flanked on one side of the defeated general are Americans carrying the Stars and Stripes, while the other side depicts French soldiers beneath the banner of France’s monarchy. These troops were commanded by Washington and Rochambeau, respectively, and are portrayed with equal prominence and dignity.

Trumbull’s decision to depict French and U.S. forces as equal combatants reflected widespread acknowledgement that the U.S. owed its independence to the Kingdom of France. (Ironically, the world’s first modern republic owes its existence to one of history’s oldest and most absolute monarchies—more so than that of Great Britain!)

Having cut his teeth in several battles in Europe, Rochambeau was selected to lead the French Expeditionary Forces sent to aid the Americans in the revolution—the only time an allied military force served on U.S. soil for an extended period of time. Almost as many French troops took part in the final battle as Americans, and one of the two military columns that secured victory was entirely French.

Meanwhile, the French Navy had kept British ships from coming to Cornwallis’ aid, prompting him to surrender—and the British to sue for peace.

Little wonder why you see so many French names in D.C. (more on that later).

Happy Anniversary to History’s Second Constitution

On this day in 1791, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe—adopted the first written national constitution in Europe, and only the second in the world, after the U.S. Constitution just two years earlier.

Like its counterpart across the Atlantic, Poland’s constitution—titled the Governance Act and known simply as the Constitution of 9 May 1791—was influenced by the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement that, among other things, pioneered concepts like civil liberty, individual rights, religious and political tolerance, and so on.

The first page of the original 1791 constitution.

Remarkably, despite the vast geographic distance between the two countries, Poland’s constitutional structure was markedly similar to that of America: There were three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—with checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, and a cabinet of ministers. The constitution declared that “all power in civil society [should be] derived from the will of the people” and defined the role of government as ensuring “the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order shall always remain in equilibrium. While Roman Catholicism was recognized as the “dominant faith”, freedom of religion was guaranteed—a remarkable proposition in a continent where people regularly killed each other for being the wrong Christian or simply holding the wrong doctrine.

The people of Poland-Lithuania were defined not as “subjects” of a king, but “citizens” with popular sovereignty—which included townspeople and peasants, who in most of Europe had no such recognition. The right to acquire property, hold public office, and join the nobility—whose powers and immunities were restricted—was extended to millions more people, including Jews (who almost everywhere else were denied anything akin to legal recognition, let alone political rights).

The new constitution even introduced a version habeas corpus—the core legal right that prevents abuse of power—known as Neminem captivabimus, summarized as “We shall not arrest anyone without a court verdict”.

The Constitution of 9 May 1791, an idealized portrayal of the constitution’s adoption, by Polish artist Jan Matejko. It was painted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its adoption.

To be clear, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 had its limits, and its radicalism should not be overstated. The monarchy was still retained, with the king serving as head of the executive branch. Religious minorities such as Jews, as well the peasants who made up the vast majority of the population, still had few powers. While constrained, the nobility was not abolished as in the U.S. and later France, and in fact still retained many privileges.

But even in these areas, the Commonwealth went farther than almost any other country in the world at the time. The monarchy was not absolute: The king’s powers were constrained by the constitution and essentially shared with a council of ministers, who could overrule his decrees, forcing him to go to parliament. While peasants and Jews had few rights, they now had official protection from abuse—a step closer to recognizing their political rights, well beyond what was normal at the time. Eligible middle-class people could even join the ranks of nobility, a seemingly paradoxical form of progress that, again, was unusual for the time; nobles certainly couldn’t ride roughshod over commonfolk as they did elsewhere in Europe (which isn’t to say there weren’t abuses—this is still feudal Europe after all).

In any event, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 was a relatively bold and momentous step in the right direction, as evidenced by its rarity at the time—and sadly, by its short existence. In fewer than two years, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would be extinguished by the absolute monarchies of neighboring Prussia and Russia, which felt threatened by the constitution and the dangerous “revolutionary” ideas it introduced and could spread. Poland would cease to exist for well over another century, with its experiment never being fully tested—but also never dying off entirely, as the then-ongoing French Revolution and subsequent political reverberations would prove.

The Mexican-American War

This week in 1846 saw the outbreak of one of the most obscure, consequential, and unjust wars in U.S. history: The Mexican American War, which in two years resulted in the U.S. becoming a continental power, at the expense of its weaker southern neighbor—something even American heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant regarded as a grave injustice.

The war began under the equally obscure but history-making presidency of James K. Polk, a one-term president with the rare distinction of having fulfilled all his campaign promises—one of which was expanding U.S. territory to the Pacific.

The problem was that Mexican (and to a lesser extent British) territory was in the way. Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which more than doubled the size of the fledging republic, there were several overtures to purchase what was then Spanish territory; in 1825, Andrew Jackson made a sustained effort to buy the northern lands of what was now newly independent Mexico, to no avail.

Meanwhile, Mexico was well aware of its precarious position: Not only was it wracked by political instability and social strife, but it lacked full authority over the rugged, sparsely inhabited lands of the now-American Southwest—especially against the various fiercely independent native tribes that were effectively sovereign. So, in the 1820s, the Mexican government invited Americans to settle and “civilize’ the vast, largely empty plains of present-day Texas; among them were men like Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas“, who brought hundreds of “Anglo” families with him.

The rapid influx of Americans led to them outnumbering Mexicans in their own distant territory, which was already thousands of miles from Mexico’s political base in Mexico City. Aside from cultural and linguistic barriers, a major sticking point—surprise—was slavery: Mexico’s constitution had outlawed the practice decades before the U.S., but the vast majority of American settlers were slaveowners.

In a macabre foreshadowing of what was to come, disputes over slavery—along with the Mexican government’s effort to impose property taxes on the fiercely independent American immigrants—led Mexico to close the border with the U.S.—only for American slave owners to continue illegally crossing into Mexico (no need to harp on the irony here).

Escalating matters further, Mexico’s strongman president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, sought to roll back the country’s federal system in favor of centralized power; this upset the quasi-independent “Texans”, and when Santa Anna led an army to reign them in, the Texas Revolution broke out, and the Texans, with U.S. support, achieved de facto independence in 1836.

Mexico never recognized this claim—though the U.S. and other foreign powers did—and the border of this new “Republic of Texas” were subsequently unclear and disputed. So, when America made the controversial move of annexing Texas as a state in 1845—hotly debated in Congress and by the public—this brought the dispute to what was now our border.

After yet another failed attempt to buy Mexican territory and finding significant opposition to starting a war with its only independent neighbor, Polk essentially egged on Mexico to start hostilities first—by sending a military expedition deep into Mexican territory. Even Grant, who served in the war despite his opposition to it, claims in his Personal Memoirs (1885) that the main goal was to provoke the outbreak of war without attacking first, thereby hindering domestic opposition to the war.

“The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory farthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were, but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it. … Mexico showing no willingness to come to the Nueces to drive the invaders from her soil, it became necessary for the “invaders” to approach to within a convenient distance to be struck. Accordingly, preparations were begun for moving the army to the Rio Grande, to a point near Matamoras. It was desirable to occupy a position near the largest centre of population possible to reach, without absolutely invading territory to which we set up no claim whatever.”

After Mexican forces engaged what it saw as American invaders, killing or capturing dozens, Polk made his case for war. Many pro-slavery Democrats supported a declaration of war, while many northern “Whigs” remained staunchly opposed—including a freshman Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, who challenged Polk’s assertion that American blood had been shed on American soil as “a bold falsification of history.” Within hours, Congress voted to formally declare war against Mexico—one of the few times in history that the U.S. as officially been at war with another country.

Notwithstanding some success on the battlefield, Mexico simply lacked the resources, military experience, and political unity to defend itself against superior American forces. Once its capital was occupied—along with most other major cities—it was clear that the U.S. was victorious and could dictate terms—which unsurprisingly included annexing the northern territories the U.S. had long sought.

U.S. forces occupying Mexico City

(There was actually an “All of Mexico Movement” that sought to take the entirety of Mexico, but it fell apart due in large part to concerns about incorporating millions of inferior Indian and mixed races that comprised the majority of the country’s population.)

In the peace treaty that followed, Mexico ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

In return, Mexico received $15 million—$470 million today—which was less than half the amount the U.S. offered before the war; the U.S. further agreed to assume $3.25 million in debts that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens ($102 million today).

Aside from its obvious enrichment of the U.S., the war had a huge impact on American domestic politics: A bloody expansion led to a bitter and polarizing debate about whether America was fulfilling its “Manifest Destiny” as an enlightened republic or was instead no different than the imperialist Europeans it claimed to have broken from. Once again, Grant captured the mood in his memoirs:

“For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

The already-violent debate over slavery came to a head as both sides debated which of these vast territories should be “free” or “slave”; it was a cruel irony considering that the war had begun partly because illegal American immigrants insisted on having slaves in an “uncivilized” nation that had long since banned the despicable practice.

In some sense, America’s actions came to haunt it barely a generation later when these disputes over the fate of former Mexican territory furthered the boiling point to the American Civil War—which was led and fought by many veterans of the Mexican American War with tactics and strategies learned from that conflict.

Grant also expressed the view that the war against Mexico had brought punishment on the United States in the form of the American Civil War. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times”.

An illustrative example of the war is in the Great Seal of the State of New Mexico, which was the center of population in northern Mexico. The peace treaty made assurances that the Mexican population would become U.S. citizens and treated accordingly. To drive home the point, the state’s seal shows the Mexican eagle — with serpent and cactus, as in the coat of arms of Mexico —literally under the wing of an American eagle, which reinforces the state’s historic, centuries-long roots in Spanish, Mexican, and indigenous civilization. 

The Ides of March Coin

The Ides of March coin, also known as the Denarius of Brutus or EID MAR, is a rare coin issued by the Roman Republic from 43 to 42 BC to celebrate the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC.

One side features Marcus Junius Brutus, once a close friend of Cesar who, after becoming disillusioned with his autocratic behavior and polices, helped lead his assassination.

The other side depicts a pileus cap between two daggers. The pileus cap was a Roman symbol of freedom and was often worn by recently freed slaves (it is still used in the coat of arms of several republics and in revolutionary art and propaganda); the daggers, of course, represent the assassins’ weapons. At the bottom is EID MAR, short for Eidibus Martiis – “on the Ides of March” – the date Cesar was assassinated.

The coins were minted under the auspices of Brutus during the “Liberator’s Civil War” that followed Cesar’s death; they were likely intended as a form of propaganda, or to lend official legitimacy to the assassination, which was not supported by the majority of Romans, as the assassins had hoped.

Given its brief and minimal use, the coin is considered one of the rarest in the world.

Fun fact: The Ides of March coin is a type of “denarius”, a nickel-sized silver coin that was standard Roman currency for about four centuries. It is the root for the word “money” in several Mediterranean countries, including Spain (dinero), Italy (denaro), Slovenia, (denar) and Portugal (dinheiro), and also survives in the Arabic word “dinar”, the name for the official currencies of several Arab countries, including Algeria, Tunisia, and Syria (all Mediterranean) and farther off places like Kuwait and Iraq.

The Canadian Doctor Who Discovered Insulin and Gave it to the World for Free

On this day in 1922, a dying 14-year-old named Leonard Thompson received the first purified dose of insulin for his diabetes at Toronto General Hospital in Canada.

Barely six months before Thompson received his life-saving dose, a team of researchers led by his doctor, Frederick Banting of the University of Toronto, discovered that a hormone known as insulin regulates blood sugar, successfully isolating it to treat humans. (As is common with such groundbreaking work, Banting’s colleagues came from various countries and were building on the research of German and Romanian scientists.)

Though widely seen as a modern disease (and it is indeed more common) diabetes is one of the oldest known scourges of humanity; it is described in Egyptian and Indian medical records well over 2,000 years ago. In the 19th century, a 10-year-old child with Type 1 diabetes would typically live for just another year; now, thanks to discoveries like insulin, people with Type 1 diabetes can expect to live almost 70 years.

Until Banting’s achievement, the recommended treatment for Type 1 diabetes was a near-starvation diet, in order to keep sugar from accumulating in the blood. Thompson was just 65 pounds, and probably days from death, before Banting injected him with insulin; another round of shots successfully stabilized his blood sugar levels—and spared him and countless others from enduring such a long, painful, and dangerous treatment.

Banting rightfully won the Nobel Prize in Medicine the following year, along with Scottish team member John James Rickard Macleod. (At age 32, Banting remains the youngest Nobel laureate in the field). Believing that his colleague Charles Herbert Best also deserved recognition as a co-discoverer, the humble Canadian doctor shared his prize money with him.

But more telling of Banting’s character and contributions to humanity was what he did with this groundbreaking—and potentially lucrative—accomplishment: He refused to patent it and make a profit even after being offered $1 million and royalties for the formula. Banting believed that the Hippocratic Oath prohibited him from profiting off such lifesaving treatment, stating that “insulin belongs to the world, not to me”. His co-laureate Macleod likewise turned down the opportunity.

Thus, it was Banting’s teammates Best and James Collip, a Canadian biochemist, who were officially named as inventors in the patent application—but they immediately transferred all rights to their insulin formula to the University of Toronto for just one dollar. All these men believed that insulin should be made as widely available as possible, without any barriers such as cost—something quaint by today’s standards, where the costs of the four leading types of insulin in the U.S. have more than tripled over the past decade, to roughly $250 a vial (some patients need two to four vials a month).

No doubt, Banting and his colleagues would be spinning in their graves.

The Eichman Trial and the Banality of Evil

On this day in 1961, former Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann—one of the key perpetrators of the Holocaust—was sentenced to death by an Israeli court after being found guilty on fifteen criminal charges, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. His widely publicized trial helped popularize the infamous defense of many evil men: That was just another cog in a bigger killing machine who had no choice but to follow orders.

While undoubtedly one of the most sinister figures in history, yet like many Nazi leaders, Eichmann had a relatively uninteresting life—he was college dropout-turned traveling oil salesman before joining the Nazi Party in 1932. He rose through the ranks to eventually become head of the “Jewish Department”, which was initially tasked with intimidating Jews, through violence and economic pressure, into leaving Germany, and increasingly all of Europe.

After drafting plans to deport Jews to distant “reservations” such as Madagascar, Eichmann was informed of a “Final Solution to the Jewish question”: rather than expulsion and resettlement, Jews were to be exterminated. This was decided at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, a meeting of leading Nazi figures chaired by Eichmann’s superior, Reinhard Heydrich—widely considered to be the darkest figure of the regime and the principal architect of the Holocaust.

Eichmann on trial in 1961 (National Photo Collection of Israel)

Eichmann was thereafter charged with facilitating and managing the large-scale logistics of the Holocaust: the mass deportation of millions of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II. In essence, he was a faceless administrator of death, tallying the number of Jews in a given area, organizing the seizure and accounting of their solen property, and ensuring the trains ran on time to take them to certain death. He held regular meetings with staff and conducted inspections and tours of ghettos and camps across Europe, like some regional manager making sure all the stores under his care are running smoothly.

In this sense, Eichman revealed the morbidly dispassionate and bureaucratic nature of the Holocaust; he was never a leader or even a policymaker, but like hundreds of thousands involved in the Holocaust, was simply doing his job: Keeping the Nazi killing machine well-oiled and efficient.

After the war, Eichmann managed to avoid Allied forces under several aliases and connections, before finally settling in Argentina to live the quiet life he had denied of so many others. He was captured there by Mossad in 1960—a whole other saga worthy of its own post—and put in trial in Israel.

The trial revealed how normal men could commit and rationalize seemingly abnormal things (like the slaughter of an incalculable number of people). Eichmann defended his actions by simply asserting that he was “just following orders” (coined as the “Nuremberg Defense” for how often it was invoked by his associates after the war.). He insisted he had no authority in the Nazi regime, and that he was bound by his oath to Hitler; the decision to murder millions was made by the likes of Hitler and Heydrich, and he felt completely absolved of guilt. Reflecting on the Wannsee Conference that had implemented the Holocaust, Eichmann expressed relief and satisfaction that a clear decision had been made by the higherups, since it meant the killing were out of his hands.

Even before trial, investigators had concluded that Eichmann seemed genuinely incapable of grasping the enormity of his crimes, never once showing remorse. During trial, he admitted to not liking Jews and even seeing them as enemies, but claimed he did not think they needed to be killed. In one of his last statements in court, he admitted being guilty only for arranging the transports—not for the consequences.

(Eichmann would admit in trial that in 1945, he stated “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction”; however, he wrote this off as simply reflecting his “opinion” at the time.)

In 2016, Eichmann’s written plea for pardon was published, revealing that this steadfast lack of conscience was evidently (and disturbingly) sincere: “There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders. I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty”.

Eichmann was executed by hanging on June 1, 1962. His last words were reportedly, “Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the three countries with which I have been most connected and which I will not forget. I greet my wife, my family and my friends. I am ready. We’ll meet again soon, as is the fate of all men. I die believing in God”; it is claimed he later mumbled “I hope that all of you will follow me”.

Eichmann’s trial had a lasting impact on our reflection and understanding of the Holocaust and of human evil as a whole. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial and later wrote a book about it, Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she described him as the embodiment of the “banality of evil”: an otherwise average and mundane person, rather than a fanatic or sociopath, who rationalized his evil actions rather than own them; who was motivated by advancing his career rather than ideological commitment; and who was simply complacent with what was going on around him.  

Jewish Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who helped captured Eichmann, reflected on the trial:

The world now understands the concept of “desk murderer“. We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty.

The term “little Eichmanns” has since been used to describe people whose actions, on an individual scale, seem relatively harmless even to themselves, but who collectively create destructive and immoral systems in which they are actually complicit—but too far removed to notice, let alone feel responsible.

The Eichmann trial is a disturbing reminder that much of human evil, including the worst atrocities imaginable, are perpetrated or facilitated not by psychopaths or fanatics, but by normal and sometimes even otherwise decent people. It is a cautionary tale for all times, places, and people.