Saskia Sassen…Willem Sassen…Adolf Eichmann

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 early comments over at Crooked Timber, I want to avert a major clusterfuck of a comments thread, 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 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.


  1. The Gospel of Barney December 6, 2014 at 8:49 pm | #

    The loss of history never ceases to astound me. I was a Social Science and Secondary Education major in college, my main focus American history. I literally get ill seeing the new history text books they put out!

  2. s. wallerstein December 7, 2014 at 7:58 am | #

    From what I can see, Saskia felt morally obliged to tell people about her father and her close friends felt equally obliged not to pry too much because the subject must be very uncomfortable for Saskia.

    The whole theme of confronting the fact that one’s parents are not saints nor even especially morally admirable human beings is complex. There’s the easy solution of adolescent rebellion against all that one’s parents stand for and then there’s the equally easy solution of making peace with “one’s roots”. Otherwise, there’s an incredibly difficult task of sorting out whatever virtues one’s non-saintly parents might have had and of examining how much, consciously or unconsciously, one is like one’s parents and whether it is possible to convert those often sinister similarities into virtues.

  3. odd ball December 7, 2014 at 9:07 am | #

    There is something disingenuous about all of this compassion for the daughter. Do you really believe that Saskia’s career and contributions have nothing to do with her father. Nor should they? Is that even possible?

    • Corey Robin December 7, 2014 at 10:09 am | #

      What evidence do you have that they do? In any event, I don’t see any reason why her work or name should be tainted by that association. I totally understand why she might fear that it would, and if I were in her situation I would fear that, but I don’t think we should give her or anyone similarly situated reason to fear that.

      • odd ball December 7, 2014 at 10:28 am | #

        I don’t need to provide evidence. It’s impossible that she is not shaped by her past, of which she has remained silent. Which is why I wonder who else gets so much compassion?

        • Corey Robin December 7, 2014 at 10:30 am | #

          “I don’t need to provide evidence.” And now I have all the evidence I need about you.

      • odd ball December 7, 2014 at 10:37 am | #

        No, but I knew you would say that as soon a I wrote my sentence about evidence. Is that past so easily abandoned by the children of nazis, by any child actually? Do I really need to provide evidence to prove that my question is legitimate?

      • Snarki, child of Loki December 7, 2014 at 7:27 pm | #

        odd ball: please provide your detailed geneology, back at least 3 generations, with all political opinions and involvements by your relatives, then we can assess how much weight to give to your opinions. Kthnxbai.

    • BD December 7, 2014 at 2:05 pm | #

      What a stupid thing to say. Show us where in, say, ‘The Global City’ we see a connection to her father. Sennett seems to be OK with the whole thing (very much so), so who are you to moralize?

  4. BillR December 7, 2014 at 10:07 am | #

    There’s lots of great movies that came in the 60s and 70s from those Europeans who were young (or born) in the 40s but who later confronted their parents’ generation about their role during the decades of the “brown plague”. Many of them were sexual outcasts as well such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Satan’s Brew) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo). Bernardo Bertolucci’s Conformist falls in the same category. They had first-hand understanding of what Fascism was and that knowledge is being lost as their generations ebb away.

    Entire generations were defined by their take on the Fascism vs. Democracy debate. There weren’t many in the parents’ generation on the Continent who came out of that era with their honor intact. One who did was Sandro Pertini who could actually claim to be a member of the resistance (whose numbers were mysteriously inflated after 1945) and the distinction he draws can be followed almost based on body language alone:

  5. Shraga Elam December 7, 2014 at 10:39 am | #

    Stangneth’s description is full of mistakes including issues concerning the Sassen’s interviews with Eichmann.
    If one reads the protocolls (not all of them are still open to the public) it becomes obvious that Eichmann’s intention was to whitewash himself. Sassen’s agenda was very different and therefore he kept giving Eichmann wine. It is safe to say that most of the time Eichmann was drunk and accordingly his statements should be assessed
    Sassen betrayed Eichmann and therefore also sold a short version of the interview to life magazine which was censored by the CIA.
    Stangneth claims that Eichmann was very intelligent, something that the interviews with Sassen, the interrogations and trial in Israel disprove.

  6. gstally December 8, 2014 at 6:39 am | #

    I wish to be clear as well. There is no conspiracy, only a road paved with… well you know. The whole international legal development of genocide has itself directly led to genocide. How many millions have died of starvation and disease in a deliberate genocide resulting from economic sanctions put in place in the name of preventing genocide? In a sense all such use of Lemkin’s work is a misuse of that work. Nevertheless, his efforts to create international sanctions against genocide was misappropriated by politicians to further their own interests. Lemkin is as little to blame for the Iraq war as Rousseau is responsible for Jacobinism. This means, however, he is as much responsible for the Iraq war as Rousseau was for Jacobinism.

    I am tiptoeing through the sources you’ve listed as well as some of my own but everything seems to point to this being a show trial. Anyone who thinks that Eichmann had any hope of leaving the Levant alive the moment he was kidnapped from Argentina is just fooling themselves. The Nazis really did hold evil , and I’m not talking about Rome or Caligula or even just about their carrying out the Holocaust, though those things were awful.

    • gstally December 8, 2014 at 7:06 am | #

      *hold to evil and perverse principals

  7. Seyla Benhabib December 9, 2014 at 10:46 am | #

    Saskia Sassen had already given an interview to a German publication ( on June 16th 2011) three years ago on this issue upon the occasion of the airing of a film called “Eichmanns Ende” on German TV for which she was interviewed. I found that newspaper interview much more revealing and important for understanding her life and work.

    She said in that interview that the conflict with her Father and her sense that there was something deeply wrong about his politics, formed early in her and that at the age of 16 or she sailed off from Argentina to Hamburg and then the Netherlands. It is not clear from the article whether Sassen ever returned home after that, but it is said that she went on to Paris, became a factory worker and joined the Student Movement. She arrived in NY, it seems, when she was 18 – that would be in 1965. Her radical sociology was formed in those days and clearly in direct opposition to her Father.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education article is more defensive and protective of her Father, whereas the German interview was more militant and truthful, with Saskia admitting that she took flight in her own world of fantasies and ideas often in order to protect herself from his past. She also talks about the conflict between her parents and that her Mother never accepted her Father’s politics.

    I think that the German journalist was more familiar with the radicalization of the children of old Nazis- which, by the way, is story of the 1968 in Germany and much of left oppositional theory and politics!

    I have great respect for Saskia Sassen and her work but I feel that The Chronicle of Higher Education piece did not do her break with her Father and her revolt against him justice. It reads a bit like a sop!

  8. Milton Mankoff December 10, 2014 at 2:47 pm | #

    I was a colleague of Saskia’s in the sociology department at Queens College in the 70s. I was curious about how she, being of Dutch heritage, ended up moving to Argentina and asked her at one point…with absolutely no thought about Nazis fleeing after the war. She simply said that her family left Holland after the war for political reasons, without any explanation. Putting two and two together it was clear that only certain political orientations might get one in trouble in Holland after the war, but I asked no further questions. Nor did she elaborate. It was only years later when I saw an article in the NY Times about the extradition to Italy of an old Nazi from Buenos Aires, a war criminal who had been a German officer in charge of a famous massacre of civilians in a cave, that I saw the name Willem Sassen. He was described as a having run a collaborationist radio station in Holland and was a friend of the extradited war criminal. He felt it was ancient history and the octogenarian should be left in peace. I can certainly understand that Saskia would not want to reveal more about her father than her cryptic explanation for growing up in Argentina. We have no control over who our parents are and no responsibility to reveal this information. It can’t possibly do any good, because, as I’m sure she understood, even rational people who should know better have difficulty viewing someone with such ancestry in the same way they view anyone else. Saskia’s own life and work are all that should matter.

  9. chicagoteamster December 12, 2014 at 3:21 pm | #

    “My father was more a journalist—a journalist wants to discover stuff—than he was pro-Nazi, actually.” That’s just strange and sad. Willem Sassen was more a father than he was a Nazi to Professor Sassen, but, nonetheless, he was a Nazi.

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