Saskia Sassen…Willem Sassen…Adolf Eichmann

by Corey Robin on December 7, 2014

Marc Parry has a poignant, almost haunting story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Saskia Sassen, the Columbia sociologist and urban theorist, whose father was Willem Sassen. If you’ve read Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem—or are a close reader of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem—you’ll know that Willem Sassen was a Dutch Nazi who joined up with the SS. More important, he was part of a circle of Nazis in postwar Argentina, where he led a series of interviews with Adolf Eichmann, in which Eichmann outs himself as a committed anti-Semite and firm believer in the Final Solution. The Sassen interviews have always been a part of the Eichmann/Arendt story, but they have become especially important in the last few years with the publication of Stangneth’s book.

I bought and read the book back in September, and it was then that I realized that Saskia, who I’ve met and been in touch with over the years, was the daughter of Willem. I had no idea about the connection. But then I looked up Willem Sassen’s Wikipedia page, and there it was, for anyone to see. I asked a bunch of fellow academics, all of them readers or colleagues of Saskia. None of them knew about the connection either.

At one level, this is much of a muchness. There’s an entire generation of children, now grandchildren and great grandchildren, of Nazis and their fellow travelers, and they’ve all had to come to terms with the actions of their parents and grandparents. Saskia’s career and contributions have nothing to do with her father. Nor should they. I can certainly identify with her desire to be known on her terms: she was but a child when her father was conspiring with Eichmann to rehabilitate the latter’s reputation and that of the Nazis more generally.

What’s interesting to me about the story—in addition to the sheer and sad drama of any of us having to confront who our parents are and what they may have done in the past—is, given Saskia’s stature, how few of us knew about this story. Particularly with its cognate connection to Arendt. As I’ve been writing over these past few months, the Arendt/Eichmann story is of perennial interest, and the Sassen chapter of that story has become increasingly important. What’s more, Saskia’s husband—Richard Sennett—was a student of Arendt’s. And Saskia was part of a circle around Susan Sontag, who was also connected to Arendt in the 1960s, and who shrewdly cornered Saskia one day in the 1980s and asked her, “So what is your story in Argentina?”

As Stagneth documents, in the 1950s, it was common knowledge among government sources and agents, from Germany to Israel, that Eichmann was hiding out in Argentina. Everyone knew it, yet no one really seemed to know it. There’s a similarly purloined letter quality to this story about Saskia Sassen. In addition to the Wikipedia page, Saskia has given some interviews about her father over the years. Yet few people, even her closest friends, knew about it. As Parry reports in one of the most moving parts of the article, the urban sociologist Susan Fainsten has known Saskia since they were colleagues at Queens College many years ago.

Fainstein considers Sassen a good friend. She even had Willem Sassen to dinner (a “charming elderly gentleman,” as she recalls). Yet Sassen didn’t tell her about his history. Only later, in part through reading about Eichmann Before Jerusalem, did Fainstein, who is Jewish, come to appreciate its significance. “I wish she had told me,” Fainstein says, “and given me the option of inviting him to dinner or not on that basis.”

To me, this is really a story about secrets that aren’t secrets, fugitive knowledge that’s hiding in plain sight.

Update (11 pm)

Just because, judging by some of the initial comments, I feel like we’re heading into a major clusterfuck of a comments thread, even by Crooked Timber standards, I want to make clear what I’m saying here and what I’m not saying, and why I posted this. As anyone who’s been reading my posts here these past few months knows, I’ve been fairly obsessed with the Stangneth book and the larger issues of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy. The Sassen file in that archive is hugely significant. So merely to find out about the filial tie between Saskia Sassen and Willem Sassen is of interest. But that’s not why I wrote this or what draws me to the story. What fascinates me—aside from the near universal quality of the story itself, insofar as it is about children confronting and coming to terms with the mystery and otherness of their parents, something that very few of us manage to do with any kind of grace or equanimity; again, a topic I’ve written about here before—is that this was a story that wasn’t hidden yet few people knew about. And it’s not an incidental story, insofar as the players are pretty big deals in their various worlds. Again: Arendt, Eichmann, Willem Sassen, Saskia Sassen. And the reason that that doubly fascinates me is precisely that it doesn’t seem as if Saskia actually kept it a secret. As I mention, and the article discusses, she gave interviews on the topic; it was on Wikipedia. That said, I don’t think she was obligated to tell people about this; I’m more struck by the fact that she did, yet so few people, even her close friends, knew. So for me this whole story is really about a puzzle: about how certain things can be in plain sight, yet not seen or known. The purloined letter, as I mentioned.



MPAVictoria 12.07.14 at 2:29 am

Unless we believe in hereditary guilt why should she have to tell anyone anything? She had every right to keep this to herself. I know I would have.


Matt 12.07.14 at 2:38 am

I guess I agree w/ MPAVictoria here. There’s a sort of voyeurism or something like that about this post that I find off-putting, and I don’t see what the point of it was other than to say, “You know Sassen’s dad was a Nazi, right? Weird, huh?” I certainly don’t think she had any obligation to say anything.


Tony Lynch 12.07.14 at 2:40 am

Indeed, why consider the matter at all? Why not put someone togther with someone when one of those so placed by you may well have found, had they known, that they were socialising with someone they they never wanted to have broken bread with – but now must think of themselves as someone who did? That would be hypersentivie and a reliance on hereditary guilt.



MPAVictoria 12.07.14 at 3:01 am

“Why not put someone togther with someone when one of those so placed by you may well have found, had they known, that they were socialising with someone they they never wanted to have broken bread with – but now must think of themselves as someone who did? That would be hypersentivie and a reliance on hereditary guilt.”

Once more please. More simply put for those of us without doctorates?


Kevin 12.07.14 at 3:34 am

Before dismissing the post as mere voyeurism, or as concerned with the matter of hereditary guilt, it’s worth reading the Chronicle piece linked to in the post. I can’t say it will entirely clear up the question of what Corey’s point was in writing the post, but it will surely help others to understand better why he emphasizes the poignancy of the story.


RoyL 12.07.14 at 3:46 am

I believe in hereditary guilt for no other reason that the Confucian idea that filial piety is natural.

If your beloved grandfather is a Nazi, repudiating him is an unnatural act. Asis any repudiation of a grandfather. You have to always be suspicious. As a descendent of poor Catholic whites in the deep South, the prominence of Daughters of the Confederacy among white Southern Liberals in leadership positions has always been
Troubling to me. You grrat grandfathet was a boss and now you are, but us O’Malleys and LeDoux’s are always followers.

When I was a kid my mother a genuine Red, granddaughter of an Arkansas machinist and a washerwoman saw Aelita, Queen of Mars with me. At the moment of revolution, Aelita attempts to hijack it, and a Therdites, a true tribune of the people, shouts what sort of princess claims to be a revolutionary. The mass destroys Aelita and a real, genuine, Revolution occurs.

Draw what conclusions you might from this, but if the old masters’ children remain in charge, what was the point of suffering the revolution?


Corey Robin 12.07.14 at 4:07 am

Hereditary guilt? An obligation to say something? Are you people fucking insane? You think that’s what I’m saying here? As I note, she actually gave interviews on the topic. It was there on Wikipedia. Yet people didn’t know. Not because she kept it a secret — again, she gave interviews on the topic — but because…I don’t know. That’s the puzzle to me. That’s what I was interested in in the post. As the last fucking line of the post makes clear: “To me, this is really a story about secrets that aren’t secrets, fugitive knowledge that’s hiding in plain sight.”


MPAVictoria 12.07.14 at 4:13 am

“I don’t know”

You really don’t know? I think it would be hard to work “so my dad was a Nazi” into a conversation. Sometimes it is easier to tell that kind of thing to strangers, even reporters, then to friends…


Anderson 12.07.14 at 4:18 am

“I wish she had told me,” Fainstein says, “and given me the option of inviting him to dinner or not on that basis.”

Christ, what an asshole. I fail to see how anyone has the duty to warn people against her own father’s political past. Republicans pose more of a threat to humanity nowadays than ex-Nazis do; must they be disclosed in advance?


Corey Robin 12.07.14 at 4:25 am

MPAVictoria: You keep wanting to make this an issue about what Sassen told people; I make it very clear that I don’t see it that way. (See also my update.) So you’re doing battle, as is so often the case, with yourself and your own notions. I’ll leave you to carry on.


MPAVictoria 12.07.14 at 4:33 am

“MPAVictoria: You keep wanting to make this an issue about what Sassen told people; I make it very clear that I don’t see it that way. (See also my update.) So you’re doing battle, as is so often the case, with yourself and your own notions. I’ll leave you to carry on.”

Wow Corey. My apologies if I have offended you in some way. I was responding to what I thought you wrote. I am sorry if I misinterpreted what you are trying to say.


Corey Robin 12.07.14 at 4:39 am

I’m sorry, MPA, I was probably just overreacting to the tenor of the initial comments accusing me of voyeurism and believing in hereditary guilt and more. I tried to clarify what I was doing in my update. I hope that did the trick.


MPAVictoria 12.07.14 at 4:55 am

Ah. Yes I am sorry for not being more clear. I was most certainly not trying to accuse you of believing in hereditary guilt. I was more speaking to the world in general if you know what I mean. Anyway sorry for throwing the thread off the topic you wanted to explore.


bob mcmanus 12.07.14 at 10:34 am

1) First this feels like the shock of coincidence. If you had found this out five years ago, there might not be a blog post. Someone I lived with for three years as a teenager now lives 5 miles away, both of us a thousand miles from the original location, with no related reason except DFW was a marginally popular destination.

2) There is also the “wow the quiet person across the street ‘used to be’ (HoF 1st baseman, Medal of Honor recipient, best selling genre author). We interact with people according to roles, and put each other into boxes, don’t ask all the questions? Why would we?

3) Do we like to think that we are good judges of character or can detect a person’s history on their face? That some kinds of extreme history shows more strongly? “Wow, there is a tattoo on her forearm” became more surprising as decades went on. The follow-ons from the Donner party survivors are famous, but I am not sure they are surprising (and not sure if PTSD is simply not discernible at this distance.)

4) A lot of us invested in history probably generally overrate how much it manifests in the present, and underestimate how much imagination and contingency can overcome it.

4) Sennett was very high on my reading queue, Sassen just a little lower. Somehow it is my feeling that if I had known these people I would be less likely to read them, or would read them in a different way.


bob mcmanus 12.07.14 at 10:54 am

Also just reading Appadurai and Tambiah on ethnic violence, primordialism, imagined communities, and how relatively irrelevant deeper history is. We like to think our affects are deeply rooted. We are probably wrong.

And Pretty Village, Pretty Flame about a Croat and Serb who grew up together, is a very good movie.


kidneystones 12.07.14 at 11:19 am

Iris Chang provides similar “I do not believe in hereditary guilt” disclaimers at the beginning of her study of Japanese atrocities in China. Unfortunately, the subsequent text belied her claims. See here:

I frankly see nothing but voyeurism in this post. Discussing Eichman and his crowd is worth discussing. The relationship between the current leader of the FN and the movement’s founder is certainly also worth discussing. Indeed, I’d argue that knowing more about that father-daughter relationship is both pressing and relevant, especially to anyone claiming to be interested in fascism. However, had Marie Le Pen decided to not to join the FN, or become its leader, I can see no useful reason why anyone would pore through her private/public life, or ever link her career to that of her father.

Ms. Sassen has evidently built a solid life of her own, and a career that has nothing to do with the race views/activities of her father, or of her father’s friends. The sins of the father is a concept that remains part of our shared cultural heritage, like it or not, and I very strongly doubt that Ms. Sassen ever relishes seeing her name linked with that of Eichman, irrespective of the disclaimers/circumstances. This post and Corey’s update confirms that being linked to Eichman is precisely the particular price Ms. Sassen is going to have to keep on paying, just for being someone’s daughter.

Anyone want to be linked to a war criminal/mass murderer? My question is purely academic.


bob mcmanus 12.07.14 at 12:15 pm

“Most of all, I’ve had to rethink the Americanness of the research I’ve done.”

Sennett, Culture of the New Capitalism, intro

To my point 4 above, I opened the Sennett because of this blog post instead of say Ulf Hannerz. Will it be Sassen or the Schmid Sahr Urry?

I’m pretty glad I don’t know these people, or have competing social commitments that influence what I read. Life is short.


Aimai 12.07.14 at 2:14 pm

Uh…if one of my guests brought their father-the-nazi to my house you’d better believe I’d want to know. Ditto for “my father the KKK grand wizard.” I don’t believe in blood guilt but I for damned sure believe in guilt-guilt for actual actions. So: no, I wouldn’t consider inviting a “kindly elderly gentleman” who was a former serial killer or nazi or white supremacist just the price I pay for being friends with someone.


QS 12.07.14 at 2:34 pm

This post also made me uneasy. Corey, if you’re getting it from this many different people, you might want to rethink your motivation. And your update doesn’t really make it better: you say that your interest is merely in the fact that you didn’t know. Well, there’s a heck of a lot that you don’t know, and not every illuminated bit of that pile of ignorance will inspire you to write a post here.


Ze Kraggash 12.07.14 at 3:04 pm

It’s still a small world, innit.


Corey Robin 12.07.14 at 3:06 pm

QS: “Corey, if you’re getting it from this many different people, you might want to rethink your motivation.”

If you knew how many things I write elicited that very response — both opposition from many different quarters, and then the Babbitt-like “if so many people disagree with you, there’s got to be something wrong with your position or reason for writing” — I’d never write anything. So, yeah, not really impressed. And doubly not impressed, in your particular situation, by your gloss on my update: “you say that your interest is merely in the fact that you didn’t know.” That’s very clearly not what my update says.


gianni 12.07.14 at 3:21 pm

Has anyone here had the chance to read Expulsions yet? It looks good, but the ‘to read’ list is always longer than the ‘time to read list’ etc etc you know how it goes.

Every once and a while you encounter/hear of a Rothschild here in the states, and I always wonder if they are a descendant of ‘those’ Rothschilds.

Growing up, one of my closest friends was part German, and his last name was actually Eichman (only one ‘n’, if it matters). About once or twice a year I would witness/hear about some confrontation he had about his name. His family – on that side at least – had been here since before WWI, dealt with all the anti-German sentiments that came through the early 20th c., and even had members fighting for the allies in WWII. Naturally, he/his family was proud of all of this , and combined with the fact that he has been dealing with these sorts of confrontations from a very early age (much earlier than one could be expected to fully understand the issues involved), he can be quite testy about the whole issue.

I have heard people – both other mutual friends as well as acquaintances who really have no business sticking their noses in – say that he should just change his name and be done with it all. I can’t pinpoint why I feel this way, but that doesn’t strike me as the right course of action. Sort of a concession to a notion of shared guilt that I/he does not accept, as well as saying something similar about redemption itself.

Naturally, one wonders ‘but what if his name was Hitler?’ (I know, not German, but work with me here). Yes, that would be quite the drag, but I don’t know if it really changes things much.


Frederick Guy 12.07.14 at 3:27 pm

She didn’t keep it secret and yet we didn’t know… because nobody cared. Why should we?


gianni 12.07.14 at 3:30 pm

And yes, I understand that the situation with my friend is not homologous to that with Sassen in the OP, but I am trying to get some actual discussion going here.

CR’s statement amounting to ‘if I only chose to write things people didn’t take issue with I’d never write anything at all’ seems exactly right, and all the hostility on this thread is really puzzling to me.


Fuzzy Dunlop 12.07.14 at 3:37 pm

It seems kind of straightforward to me: the fact that this info was out in the open & few people know it is a sign that people are by and large decent enough not to want to spread hurtful gossip. I’d have to have an interest in the details of Eichmann’s life story and know who Saskia Sassen is for this to be legitimately interesting and not prurient gossip. (Maybe we could say that there is herd immunity to gossip among the population of folks educated enough to know who Saskia Sassen is.)


Rich Puchalsky 12.07.14 at 3:50 pm

gianni: “CR’s statement amounting to ‘if I only chose to write things people didn’t take issue with I’d never write anything at all’ seems exactly right, and all the hostility on this thread is really puzzling to me.”

It’s about Nazis, so it’s sort of pre-Godwinned. Hostility isn’t surprising.

How you deal with hostility is another matter. I recommend the recent Wonder Woman thread as an example of exactly what not to do. Note: CR hasn’t done the faux-civility bit (he feels free to write “Are you people fucking insane?” without chiding them for impoliteness as such), deleted comments that present his interpretation in a bad light, failed to update his original post explaining what he meant when that seemed to be misinterpreted, or mobilized some of his commenters to defend his feelings against the hostility of other commenters who didn’t like his post.

I think that the topic of how children deal with the history of their parents is fascinating. I was lucky enough, when I had to deal with some of my friends working for the military-industrial complex (I was a physicist at the time: one of them worked on nuclear weapons) to be able to think about my father’s experience refusing to work on napalm for the Vietnam War.


bob mcmanus 12.07.14 at 4:00 pm

I read the Chronicle article and now I am starting to get a little irritated.

In the comments there, uhh, long but “disqus_6Hfn…etc” is helpful

“What everyone is still interested in is Arendt and whether she got Eichmann right. She did, but Parry wants to join the growing consensus that has formed around the view that she didn’t

Saskia Sassen has become the latest pawn in this misbegotten and intellectually malignant game of trying to discredit one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers by means of willfully misreading her.”

Part of the question here is you know, trying to be snarky, who and what Adolf Eichmann really truly was. I feel like quoting full pages of Goffman.

The self. . . can be seen as something that resides in the arrangements prevail-
ing in a social system for its members. The self in this sense is not a property of
the person to whom it is attributed, but dwells rather in the pattern of social con-
trol that is exerted in connection with the person by himself and those around
him. This special kind of institutional arrangement does not so much support
the self as constitute it. (Goffman 1961a: 168)

“The pursuit of a sociological decimation of conventional West-
ern liberal notions of the individual is an analytic impulse animating much of
Goffman’s sociology” (Smith 1999: 10).

Goffman is so old news, so 60s, so beat.

I avoided this above many will become terribly offended and because people are seemingly become more invested in identity and history than ever. There ain’t no identity. There ain’t no self. History is bunk.

The Willem Sassen who came to dinner is not the Sassen who wrote Nazi propaganda. Saskia Sassen is many different people.


QS 12.07.14 at 4:16 pm

Sorry, you’re right, your update states 1) it’s interesting because you didn’t know, 2) it’s interesting because many people didn’t know despite it being publicly available. Still am not sure why this is interesting.


bob mcmanus 12.07.14 at 4:16 pm

The above at 4:00 may be mostly wrong, even I have a hard time denying that Saskia Sassen carried something continuous with her from place to place that made her good and great. It’s all very complicated.

But social constructivism/interactionism is probably closer to the truth than individualism, and likely much more useful. We are better off changing conditions that foster racism/fascism/capitalism than hunting out actual and potential bad people.


Stephen 12.07.14 at 4:26 pm

AS for the way that certain things can be in plain sight, yet not seen or known: is the career of Paul de Man – anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, swindler, bigamist, charlatan, and distinguished Yale professor – at all relevant?


T 12.07.14 at 4:43 pm

@18 & Corey

Seems like you’re stating the obvious but maybe it’s just you and me. That her father was a Nazi who was in Eichmann’s inner circle. Not her choice. That she brought him to her Jewish friend’s dinner table without asking. Her choice. It’s not her call to let bygones be bygones. She has no obligation to publicize her past, but since her host may well find out the open secret, is it good form to bring along the propagandist for the murderers of your friend’s grandparents, aunts and uncles? I know, I know. He really hated Hitler. (A rare case when Godwin’s law does not apply.)

Open secrets most often occur when the context of the “secret” differs from the context of the relationship. Less notorious instances occur regularly — the IT guy who was in a well known rock band, the plumber who was a professional athlete. The actor Woody Harrelson’s father was a hit man. And many immigrants have open secrets. There are sons and daughters and nephews and nieces of military dictators, mob leaders, and former aristocrats all over the place. Maybe not with the cachet of Eichmann.


LFC 12.07.14 at 4:46 pm

I read Corey’s post and, like gianni (above), I don’t really understand the hostility to it. At the same time, I’m not sure the hidden-in-plain-sight puzzle is as puzzling as Corey suggests: S. Sassen didn’t keep it a secret, but neither, it appears from the OP, did she go out of her way to tell her friends and colleagues about it, which is prob. understandable.

I was interested in the paragraph of the OP where Corey says he looked up Willem Sassen’s Wikipedia page, where the connection is made clear, yet despite this few of S. Sassen’s colleagues etc. knew. This may say something, albeit of course entirely anecdotally, about the reach of Wikipedia: how many of the entries are actually widely read? I suspect many Wikipedia entries are not widely read, partly perhaps b.c many entries (not all, but many) are, afaict, badly written. The average level of the prose style in the English-language Wikipedia seems quite atrocious, and some entries are also badly organized. I’ve occasionally tried to improve an entry or two in this respect, but it sort of feels like trying to climb Mt. Everest. I suppose the all-volunteer aspect of the thing accounts for some of this. To be clear: I think Wiki provides a v. useful service. Just a shame it isn’t, on the whole, better written.


J Thomas 12.07.14 at 5:00 pm

Is this really just one of those “six degrees of separation” things?

People are surprised when occasionally there are only two degrees of separation?

Is part of it an emotional reaction to the idea that in recent years, or even today, you might possibly find yourself sitting at a table with an elderly ex-nazi and not know it?

Well, but there’s lots of that sort of thing. The smashed fragments of past structures are all around us. WWI battleships got broken up for scrap, eventually a lot of the steel was recycled. Recycled steel gets mixed into lots of steel. Your washing machine might have bits of a WWI or even WWII battleship in it, or your lawnmower. Much less likely if it was imported from China, of course.

Things built of concrete include “aggregate”, which is partly chunks of concrete from older concrete structures that were destroyed. Roads and government buildings etc contain little chunks of the past.

It’s like that all over. We build the future out of the shattered pieces of the past, because that’s what we have to build with.


Tyrone Slothrop 12.07.14 at 5:19 pm

So, is Professor Robin the contributor most prone to inspiring thread-elbows from the cantankerous CT commentariat? He gets my vote…


marcel proust 12.07.14 at 5:44 pm

So, is Professor Robin the contributor most prone to inspiring thread-elbows from the cantankerous CT commentariat? He gets my vote….

I’m not sure what the point of this is, perhaps just private amusement (I occasionally post comments like this). Anyway, about 5 years ago, D^squared won the award (quite properly IMHO) for a post that bankers not only did not deserve to be drawn and quartered, or hung, or shot, or even tarred and feathered, but that they and their practices were not really to blame for the Crisis. He also happens to be one of my 2 favorite bloggers (Belle is the other: sorry CR, sorry JQ) on this site. So, the award passes around the group over time. CR is just younger and fresher (here, anyway) than most of the others, so is currently enjoying his 15 minutes.


Harold 12.07.14 at 6:08 pm

Well, I met the brother of Ribbentrop (an anti-Nazi exile who wrote books about Stephan George) and someone whose daughter married the grandson of Tojo. In both cases it was disclosed through third parties — open secrets if you will. There are more things in heaven and earth .. if you live long enough.


Mike Schilling 12.07.14 at 6:13 pm

Yet people didn’t know. Not because she kept it a secret — again, she gave interviews on the topic — but because…I don’t know

Because they felt no need to intrude on her own private family business, titillating thought it might be?


Greg 12.07.14 at 6:24 pm

Corey seems to be right in the sweet spot at the moment for this story of Saskia Sassen’s family history to really resonate – I’m sure for many others who know / know of Sassen that’s not nearly so true.

Sassen’s story only makes dramatic, narrative sense – it’s only really a story – once you bring Arendt into it via Eichmann, and then back into it again via Sassen’s husband and Susan Sontag. These are two-degree-of-separation jumps that most people simply won’t make, but that leap out to Corey. Hence the reason why the story is invisible in plain sight – it takes a reader to make a story. Otherwise, it’s just “Sassen’s father was a Nazi,” which is, as Corey says, “much of a muchness”.


Watson Ladd 12.07.14 at 6:57 pm

You might want to look into the current prime minister of India, or various government officials in Afghanistan, to see just how seriously genocide and other crimes against humanity are taken. (Or Pakistan, or Indonesia, or see what happened to the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide) My hope that the war plans for North Korea involve hanging as many of those involved in crimes against humanity as possible is likely to be shaken: what’s killing a few civilians when there is geopolitics to be done?


Harold 12.07.14 at 7:13 pm

“Saskia Sassen proclaimed herself a Communist at age 12. “We [i.e., “my father and I”] were like two little titans having a lot of political debates,” she says. “When it came to politics, we disagreed completely. And he was part of my political education, clearly.” – See more at:

Sounds like the Mitford family. There are wheels within wheels.


Stephen 12.07.14 at 7:35 pm

Bob McManus@29: you write of “changing conditions that foster racism/fascism/capitalism”. Are you implying that these are all pretty much the same thing? And by “fascism” do you mean some form of radical, militarist authoritarian ethnic nationalism: or merely those who disagree with you?


Harold 12.07.14 at 7:44 pm

I will retry my previous comment sans link, which apparently put it into moderation:
From the Chronicle article linked above. Quote:
“Saskia Sassen proclaimed herself a Communist at age 12. ‘We [i.e., “my father and myself”] were like two little titans having a lot of political debates,’ she says. ‘When it came to politics, we disagreed completely. And he was part of my political education, clearly.’ ”

There are wheels within wheels. Sounds like the Mitford family.


absurdbeats 12.07.14 at 8:28 pm

A minor iteration on connections between Eichmann in Jerusalem and Nazi fathers—well, collaborator-father, in this case: Harry Mulisch, whose father worked for the Germans in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The father used his Nazi connections to spring his Jewish ex-wife from a concentration camp and to prevent the deportation of the son.*

Arendt made use of Mulisch’s own writings on the trial, and mentions him numerous times in Eichmann, most notably when she recounts Mulisch’s reflections on

the testimony given by Professor Salo W. Baron about the cultural and spiritual achievements of the Jewish people, the following questions suddenly occurred to him: “Would the death of the Jews have been less of an evil if they were a people without a culture, as the Gypsies who were also exterminated? Is Eichmann on trial as a destroyer of human beings or as an annihilator of culture? Is a murderer of human beings more guilty when a culture is also destroyed in the process?” And when he put these questions to the Attorney General, it turned out—“He [Hausner] thinks yes, I think no.”

*Mulisch offers a sinister version of the Nazi-father/Jewish-mother relationship in the astonishing The Discovery of Heaven, in which the father is responsible for the mother’s deportation.

What this all means, I have no idea, other than that Clio is a strange bird.


J Thomas 12.07.14 at 8:53 pm

#39 Watson Ladd

My hope that the war plans for North Korea involve hanging as many of those involved in crimes against humanity as possible….

You lost me here. I can’t imagine that North Korea’s war plans would actually result in conquering much of anybody, much less many former criminals against humanity. Why would you have hopes that they would find such people and hang them?


Harold 12.07.14 at 9:05 pm

Lots of strange, convoluted Clio facts here. According to wikipedia, after 1960 Willem Sassen, along with a lot of other prominent South American ex-Nazis, worked for the Bundesnachrichtendienst (West German Secret Service), headed by Reinhard Gehlen, Does this mean he got a salary, I wonder? And were they still taking orders and money from the CIA when Sassen later also worked as a publicity man for Pinochet ? It’s a lot to absorb, let alone process. It reminds me of the convoluted history of the French Wars of Religion, where everyone was married to and/or the cousin of everyone else.


Watson Ladd 12.07.14 at 9:08 pm

J Thomas: I meant the plans for dealing with North Korea that other people have. I imagine the word “with” has caused no end of confusion in alliances for similar reasons.


Harold 12.07.14 at 9:23 pm

Wikipedia says that Saskia Sassen was born in 1949, but apparently she and her mother arrived in Argentina from the Hague as Jewish refugees under the names Maria and Saskia Van der Voort Haremaker in 1948 when Saskia was one year old, which would mean she had to have been born in 1947. Heremaker was Willem Sassen’s alias and appears to have been the name under which Saskia attended Notre Dame. It does begin to look like the Paul de Man case, if only in this respect, since de Man also got his wife and sons shipped to Argentina from Flanders (in a similar manner, possibly? Was the Catholic Church involved?).


Harold 12.07.14 at 9:27 pm

Unless their daughter died and they had a second daughter, of course.


Dean C. Rowan 12.07.14 at 9:28 pm

Stephen @30 asks whether the de Man story is relevant. That’s what first came to mind as I read Corey’s post. That de Man’s uncle was Hendrik de Man is an important datum in nephew Paul’s biography, pertaining to developments both pre- and post-“Affair” (the revelation of the wartime journalism). It’s fairly clear Paul de Man actively sought to protect certain related secrets about his own career as a fledgling literary scholar. But since the real scandal (as opposed to the silly name-calling leveled against those icky deconstructor types who postmoderned us into meaningless oblivion) arose after his death, we can’t depose the most important party. We have the recent biography. I gather from reviews that it compiles a lot of telling data, but perhaps doesn’t take the greatest care connecting dots. But apropos of Corey’s post and its obvious point, which has nothing to do with “hereditary guilt,” a weird species of guilt by association (also the plight of some literary theorists), these are fascinating biographical connections. Being family relationships, they don’t simply bestow guilt, but they do give us cause to wonder what kind of significance they held for those whose lives were defined in part by them.

I’ve read a bit of Sassen, a bit more of Sennett. Didn’t know until now that they were a married couple!


cwalken 12.08.14 at 1:00 am

I’m with Corey here. This story has a haunting quality and sticks with you for reasons that are hard to discern. Though the two degrees of separation is probably one of them, as well as the joys of academia navel gazing.


J Thomas 12.08.14 at 1:13 am

#46 Watson Ladd

I meant the plans for dealing with North Korea that other people have. I imagine the word “with” has caused no end of confusion in alliances for similar reasons.

?? Who is planning to invade North Korea? The USA? I hope not, surely we learned something from Iraq and Afghanistan. Or for that matter from the Korean war. How close to the Yalu river will we plan to get this time?

China? I could sort of imagine hoping China invaded North Korea, but then South Korea would have them at the border, with China occupying half of Korea. I have a sense that a surviving North Korea might be better than that. Maybe not, but it’s close.

Somebody else? Who? Surely not Japan.

You have an unusual point of view which to me makes you kind of interesting. I’d kind of like to go slow on hanging people guilty of crimes against humanity until more of our own humanity-criminals have died off. We really have an obligation to shoot our own dog first, and we’re plainly not going to. So let’s go easy on the hypocrisy for awhile. Ex-superpowers usually have a very hard time of it even without excess stupidity.


Watson Ladd 12.08.14 at 2:20 am

The US obviously has contingency plans if North Korea attacks or falls apart. But naturally they serve the interest of the US: one can only see the shameful way we cosied up to Pakistan after 1971, former warlords in Afghanistan, etc. etc. We even permit Assad to remain in power. Why did the Nazis go to South America? We paid for their tickets, because we thought they might be useful, and why care about what they destroyed in comparison?

Only socialist revolution can satisfy the demands of justice. But that’s much, much further away today than ever.


Main Street Muse 12.08.14 at 2:24 am

From the Chronicle story: “From an early age, she was also very interested in leaving home. In 1970 she set out for the University of Notre Dame, where, despite being an illegal immigrant with no college degree, she intended to pursue graduate work. She earned a Ph.D. in economics and sociology and, over time, a reputation for producing audacious scholarship.”

I can see why Corey is surprised to learn that a woman he’s known within a particular context is the child of a Nazi. And though she never sought to hide her father’s identity, she was not particularly open about it either (as the Fainstein story shows.) Her life seems a remarkable departure from the politics of her family.

From the Chronicle story: “”I tried not to have too many very personal friends,” she says. “Because I knew that then I would have to get into histories that I didn’t want to talk about.”

However we seek to remove ourselves from the baggage of our parents, it seems to burden us for a lifetime.


mud man 12.08.14 at 2:30 am

She didn’t keep it secret and yet we didn’t know… because nobody cared. Why should we?

Because it violates the semi-strong form of the Efficient Markets hypothesis


Rakesh 12.08.14 at 3:37 am

agnotology–is that what this post about in general? Not convinced that this is best case to discuss it, though.


grackle 12.08.14 at 3:52 am

“To me, this is really a story about secrets that aren’t secrets, fugitive knowledge that’s hiding in plain sight.”

Which is what makes your interest so unseemly, tawdry in fact.


MPAVictoria 12.08.14 at 4:29 am

Just want to be clear that I wasn’t trying to “give it” to anyone. I honestly thought I was engaging with what had been posted. Anyway I have apologized to Corey so I am going to leave it there.


Anderson 12.08.14 at 4:44 am

30: calling de Man an anti-Semite indicates a lack of knowledge about de Man. The guy was an opportunistic piece of work, but he also sheltered Jewish friends during the war.


Tony Lynch 12.08.14 at 4:50 am

Anyway, for Fainstein’s reaction the thing to understand is what Bernard Williams called “agent regret”. I think Shame and Necessity is the book to look at for those who might be interested.


BigHank53 12.08.14 at 4:50 am

Eh, I’m not really seeing the same astonishing gap between reality and a perceived public persona that you are, Corey. This strikes me a as a matter of etiquette more than anything else. How best to broach the subject of an immediate family member convicted of murder, one’s own personal mental illness, one’s medical history, etc? It’s at best slightly bizarre to jump up and shout “My dad’s a Nazi!” and if you raise the topic it’s not hard for people to think you’re proud of it. If anyone asks, you tell them the truth. This seems to be the path that Sassen has chosen. She’s not obligated to don her father’s scarlet letter.


lamadredeltopo 12.08.14 at 1:50 pm

Talking about Korea…
The current president is the daughter of a Manchukuo officer (and USA-backed dictator for 30 years, but hey whats ). It is really funny to see her doing the ritual complaints against Japanese aggresion…


Stephen 12.08.14 at 5:17 pm

Anderson@57: my knowledge of de Man extends to his writing in the early 1940s, claiming that Jewish influences had tried to invade European literature, which had proved its vitality by resisting them; that there had been no Jewish writers of any importance; and that if all Jews were deported from Europe, European literature would lose only mediocrities.

From anyone else, I’d call that antisemitism.

But you may be right. Quite possibly, he wasn’t really an antisemite; he just hoped that by publishing antisemitic statements in which he did not actually believe, he would be able to advance his career in Nazi-dominated Europe.

Which would not make me think better of him.


Anderson 12.08.14 at 7:28 pm

62: the “writings” you refer to are, IIRC, a single column, where he did indeed write more or less what you have written, while including among the great European authors one Kafka. Which indicates that he was complying with the Nazi party line while cocking a snook at them. (In other contemporaneous articles he wrote approvingly of other Jewish writes, such as Proust.)

Now, does that make the essay okay? No, it does not. However heady the experience for a 24-year-old to be editing the book section of Belgium’s main newspaper, such cleverness was too clever by half. But if “anti-Semitic” means that one hates Jews, then de Man’s career tells us that he was not anti-Semitic … whatever other problems he evidently suffered from. (Louis Menand’s evenhanded review of the Barish bio is available online & worth a look.)


Zamfir 12.08.14 at 8:15 pm

I can’t tell for sure, but I get the impression that Willem Sassen was not a mass murderer, or a war criminal. He was with the Waffen-SS, fighting as a regular soldier in Russia and later working as a journalist. The crime he fled from was collaboration, because he was Dutch.

If he had been German, he could have stayed in Germany without much consequences. He would presumably have become a regular used-to-be-serious-Nazi, and his children would have been like millions of Germans of his generation. It’s a fluke of history that he ended up in Argentina, with the war criminals who feared post-war Germany.

I don’t know if this is relevant, but I can imagine that it would matter for a child.


GSTalbert 12.08.14 at 11:10 pm

“So for me this whole story is really about a puzzle: about how certain things can be in plain sight, yet not seen or known. The purloined letter, as I mentioned.”

Dr. Robin. People only accidentally see things other than what they are looking for, that is what they want to see.
From Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”

In a psychological experiment that deserves to be far better known outside the trade, Bruner and Postman asked experimental subjects to identify on short and controlled exposure a series of playing cards. Many of the cards were normal, but some were made anomalous, e.g., a red six of spades and a black four of hearts. Each experimental run was constituted by the display of a single card to a single subject in a series of gradually increased exposures. After each exposure the subject was asked what he had seen, and the run was terminated by two successive correct identifications.

Even on the shortest exposures many subjects identified most of the cards, and after a small increase all the subjects identified them all. For the normal cards these identifications were usually correct, but the anomalous cards were almost always identified, without apparent hesitation or puzzlement, as normal. The black four of hearts might, for example, be identified as the four of either spades or hearts. Without any awareness of trouble, it was immediately fitted to one of the conceptual categories pre- pared by prior experience. One would not even like to say that the subjects had seen something different from what they identified. With a further increase of exposure to the anomalous cards, subjects did begin to hesitate and to display awareness of anomaly. Exposed, for example, to the red six of spades, some would say: That’s the six of spades, but there’s something wrong with it-the black has a red border. Further increase of exposure resulted in still more hesitation and confusion until finally, and sometimes quite suddenly, most subjects would produce the correct identification without hesitation. Moreover, after doing this with two or three of the anomalous cards, they would have little further difficulty with the others. A few subjects, however, were never able to make the requisite adjustment of their categories. Even at forty times the average exposure required to recognize normal cards for what they were, more than 10 per cent of the anomalous cards were not correctly identified. And the subjects who then failed often experienced acute personal distress. One of them exclaimed: I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what color it is now or whether it’s a spade or a heart. not even sure now what a spade looks like. My God!”

Oh yeah, I am the world’s worst at this, I really am, and I have had to develop my own ways of copping with it.


shah8 12.09.14 at 2:34 am

If you have enough social power, the media muffles the sins of you and yours, until they don’t, like Cosby (whether that was something that went genuinely viral or was actively propagated).


shah8 12.09.14 at 3:01 am

Hmm…to be more direct, I mean that open secrets are open secrets so long as you’re A-OK within the societal fabric. If things are NOT OK, just because you had nothing to do with the character who commited the crime(s), or that you’re a better person now, having renounced the previous criminal self, that doesn’t protect you from society’s censure. Sassen always had the social privilege of discreet disclosure, and she always worked in a world where doors remained open to her, and not shut, and hidden besides.


Keith 12.09.14 at 6:46 am

I suppose most people are reluctant to ask ” so what do you think about your dad being a murdering Natzi then my dear?” It would be impolite. Duncan smiths descendants will probably not be asked about food banks and deliberate starvation as government policy.

The weather is a safer topic. So long as you avoid questions such as Government flood prevention policy or insurance.


GSTalbert 12.09.14 at 7:18 am

“Hereditary guilt? An obligation to say something? Are you people fucking insane?”

I also what to say that I agree, even if — as one post above mentioned — there were even worse posts, there is absolutely nothing in that post or the body of work of Dr. Robin that even remotely legitimizes any of those questions but the third.


Steve Sailer 12.09.14 at 10:20 am

I think Professor Robin’s point is that we don’t hear enough in the media about Nazis.

Comments on this entry are closed.