The Lessons of Avner Less: What Democracy Actually Protects Us From

by | Nov 2, 2023 | Opinions & Commentary

Avner Less at Adolf Eichmann’s extension of arrest hearing. Image: Wiki Commons

The Lessons of Avner Less: What Democracy Actually Protects Us From

by | Nov 2, 2023 | Opinions & Commentary

Avner Less at Adolf Eichmann’s extension of arrest hearing. Image: Wiki Commons

Everyone should know who Avner Less was. Everyone should know who Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich were. When their crimes were discovered the world promised it would never forget, but it has.

Republished with permission from Steve Schmidt

[Originally published 30 July, 2022, this piece makes reference to various candidates in the 2022 mid-terms, some who won and some who did not. However, the lesson of Avner Less in his long confrontation with the pure evil of Adolf Eichman is critically important to understand as we hurtle toward 2024.]

Avner Less was a Jew. A German Jew. His family was murdered in the extermination camps. His destiny required his survival. He became a policeman and rose through the ranks. He was an Israeli.

Avner Less, the Israeli police captain who interrogated Adolf Eichmann. Image: Tony Bock, Toronto Star Photograph Archives

Eichman was the organizer of the Wansee Conference, chaired by Reinhardt Heydrich in January 1942. It was the meeting during which the industrial scale murder of Europe’s Jews was planned. They spoke in euphemisms. They talked about shipments “east.” They talked about “special treatment.” They talked about settling the Jewish question and called it the “final solution.” The meeting was filled with lawyers. Everything was legal. The Nazis were obsessed with legality. Everything was buttoned up, especially the meticulous record keeping. The surviving set of minutes is the record of the greatest crime in the history of humanity—planned in a leafy Berlin suburb over a sumptuous lunch in just 90 minutes. That is all the time it took.

Less was the only man who spoke to Eichmann. The Israeli Chief Inspector and the SS Obersturmbannfuhrer talked face to face for 275 hours. The interrogation is a masterpiece. Studying it could be the work of a lifetime.

Less talked about the interrogations 20 years later when he was asked a question about them. He was asked if the experience had changed his perspective on anything.

It is an interesting question to ask the man who sat across the table from the principal organizer of the Holocaust for the equivalent of 11.5 days. He did not answer the question by talking about revenge or the satisfaction of seeing the Nazi criminal swinging from the end of an Israeli rope. In fact, he didn’t attend the event. He talked about democracy instead.

Less observed that there are Adolph Eichmann’s everywhere. They are all around us, he said. He said they are “latent in a democracy,” but that in a “dictatorship of the left or right, they become deadly in an instant.”

It is an astonishing statement. Democracy.

It is democracy that is the protection against mass murder and the depravity of the most savage animal on the planet: the human being. Democracies, in all of their forms, are the only system of government and societal organization that places the dignity of the human being above the jackboot of the state.

American democracy remains a fragile experiment that has entered a period of contestation, which followed the greatest triumph of the American civil rights movement and the election of a two-term black President of the United States. It is important to remember the American flag when thinking about America’s progress towards being a full democracy in which all people are equal under the law.

It wasn’t until there were 50 stars on the flag that Jim Crow was ended. The last two stars were added in 1959—really not that long ago. John Lewis belongs to the ages now and has taken his place with the other founders of the American Republic. Then, he was just a gutsy young man who had not yet taken the first unarmed step towards state violence and hatred. He would be beaten and bludgeoned by people who stood for the proposition that he was “less than.” He was below the people who were attacking unarmed people because of the color of his skin.

This is the meaning of the Confederate flag. It is a symbol of subjugation and oppression, a marker of racial primacy. It is the literal battle flag of a slave autocracy that waged war against the United States and killed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers. Today, it replaces the banned swastika as an able substitute for Nazi marches and extremist parades. It is no accident that the flag has found a home around Donald Trump and his cause. It is no accident that 158 years after General Grant accepted the unconditional surrender of the cruel slave master and traitor Robert E. Lee that the first breaching of the US Capitol by the Confederate flag was made by a Trump foot soldier in the “red hat” brigade of pissed off Americans who want power and think violence is acceptable.

What is it that we are all witnessing in this extreme and radical moment? It seems important to occasionally step back from the swirl of vituperation and “breaking news” chyrons to assess what is really happening. What is the fight over? Who believes what exactly?

Before continuing, transparency requires that my orientation be disclosed. Exhaustion is my overwhelming emotion when it comes to the current state of American politics, and particularly the Kabuki theater around pretending any of this is normal, or within the boundaries of the past 122 years of American history.

Between 2015 and today, Donald Trump has become the singular leader of an autocratic movement that is the greatest threat to the endurance of the American Republic since secession and the Confederacy. During this time, Donald Trump was narrowly elected President of the United States, was twice impeached and incited and led an insurrection. He installed a cult of personality over the hollow leadership of the RNC and state parties that demanded obedience in return for favor and advancement.

Trump’s overt embrace of revenge as a political philosophy saw the wholesale capitulation of every principle, position and value by the political party that embraced him. The Republican Party, founded in 1854 to stand against the evils of human slavery, succumbed to a Queens hustler running on a platform of narcissism, malice and animus. It has been reduced to an organized conspiracy for the purposes of advancing the self-interests of its donors to maintain the power of the politicians who stand for nothing but themselves. None of them saw Trump coming, but he saw every last one of them from miles and miles away. He remains the GOP front runner.

There is physics involved around shrinking political parties, which the Republican Party is. First, it is important to recognize that a shrinking party can still win, and under the rules of the American system, hold power consistently. Second, a shrinking political party becomes more extreme. It works precisely like the collapse of a star. As it gets smaller, it gets denser and hotter. That is the environment in which Trump will run.

The crazy core of the party controls all of the levers of power. They want Trump because they are MAGA. Before DeSantis can dethrone Trump, he has to knock him out. When exactly will the main event occur? On what great matter of principle will DeSantis rise and confront his Orangeness? There are none. It is a fiction invented to drive clicks and illusory conflict that enriches the DC political media. Trump will have tepid opposition because—with the exception of Liz Cheney—every conceivable GOP candidate registers as lethal on the Geiger counter of grift, fraud and cowardice. Someday one of them might be Trump’s successor, but none of them currently has standing to be his replacement. What follows Trump will not be a hollow and toned-down imitation; it will be an amplification. What comes next will be darker, more dangerous and tougher than Trump.

Yet, even that misses the main point, which is the most depressing aspect of the entire era. Why can’t anyone in American politics defend the glory of American democracy? How is it possible that Democrats are almost certain to lose a House Majority to an autocratic cause that supports an agenda that is shocking in its extremism?

Punishment is the organizing principle around MAGA. Candidates like JD Vance and his fascist soulmate and fellow Peter Thiel, Blake Masters, are running for high office to hurt people, and specifically women, people of color, minorities, immigrants and political opponents. They plan to go to Washington, DC, and link up with their brethren who are equally committed to the punishment doctrine. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Rand Paul, Marsha Blackburn, Marjorie Taylor Green, Elise Stefanik, to name a few, are bound together by their cynicism and malice. They are a political gang that is assertive, aggressive and hellbent on securing power for the purposes of fighting and destroying, not building a more just society.

Each of these people would have been a perfect fit for the once common descriptor “little Eichmann.” It referred less to hatred than the infinite capacity for humanity to fall towards what Hannah Arendt so perfectly described as the “banality of evil.”

There are two political parties that have endured as central pillars of the world’s oldest Republic. Each of them has played a vital role in the advancement of human dignity and freedom. One of them has abandoned democracy and liberty. One of them has turned against free elections. One of them has turned against equality for all people under the law. One of them has declared a right to rule over the majority. One of them has embraced violence. One of them has embraced thuggery. One of them has made Donald Trump their leader. One of them has become a threat to the Constitution and the endurance of the American experiment.

The Republican Party is controlled by thousands, not millions. Those thousands have succumbed to the temptations of power in a way that no previous collection of American political activists ever has. Their partisanship gave way to a fervor that, combined with algorithms, FOX News and demagogues galore, gave birth to a toxic cloud of animus that has led to their making war on the country that gave them a birth right of freedom. They are committed to rewriting the definition of freedom to make it narrower and smaller again. They have put America on a collision course for disaster and political violence.

Control and subjugation are the meaning of policies that demand pregnant 10-year-olds carry their child rapist’s baby to term, while male politicians decide what birth control women can have. They intend to use technology to track, monitor and control women. Many of them are prepared to accept the use of violence to achieve political aims and believe in the establishment of a national morality written by fanatics and charlatans like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. They want to build a thieving theocracy that is beyond the control of the people. The people in this dystopian philosophy are simply pawns of the state.

When democracy collapses, violence follows because people kill other people for political power. It took thousands of years for humanity to evolve to a point where the rule of law took the place of state savagery. The American experiment is one of the most noble undertakings in all of human history, and it stands at the edge of an abyss because of Donald Trump, his family and a couple of thousand opportunistic cowards.

There is nothing that is carved in stone ahead—for good or bad. The American people will have a decision to make. Reconciliation and renewal seem a better path than tyranny and violence.

Before he died, Avner Less reconciled himself to his place of birth. He reconciled with the German people and became one of them again. When he died, Avner Less held two passports. He was a German-Israeli Jew, who interrogated Adolph Eichmann face to face for 275 hours. The lesson he learned from the experience is one the American people have no right to forget. Our children deserve to live in an America that is freer and more prosperous than what came before. They deserve that no matter how despicable and cowardly the couple of thousand people are who have an iron grip on the Republican Party. They must be defeated. They may label themselves as members of a great institution that once stood for democracy, but that is long gone. Avner Less would know exactly what he was looking at.

Steve Schmidt

Steve Schmidt

Steve Schmidt is a political analyst for MSNBC and NBC News. He served as a political strategist for George W. Bush and the John McCain presidential campaign. Schmidt is a founder of The Lincoln Project, a group founded to campaign against former President Trump. It became the most financially successful Super-PAC in American history, raising almost $100 million to campaign against Trump's failed 2020 re-election bid. He left the group in 2021.

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