Did Eichmann Think?
Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer is the new English translation of Bettina Stangneth’s exhaustive history of the life of Adolf Eichmann. Her book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to try to understand Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi lieutenant colonel who was responsible for the logistics of the Holocaust.
Stangneth has pieced together the scattered transcripts of the interviews Eichmann gave with the Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen in multiple archives, she has tracked down full essays and fragments of Eichmann’s own writing in mislabeled files that have never been considered before, and above all she has pieced together the written record of Eichmann’s life with a diligence and obsessiveness that is uncanny and likely never to be repeated. Stangneth knows more about Adolf Eichmann than any other person alive and probably more than any person in history, past or future.
Stangneth writes that her book has two aims. The first is “to present all the available material, as well as the challenges that come with it.” The second is to engage in a “dialogue with Hannah Arendt, and not simply because I first came to this topic many years ago through Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Stangneth traces her interest in Eichmann to Arendt’s book, a book that in Stangneth’s words “had the courage to form a clear judgment, even at the risk of knowing too little.” Her plunge into the depths of Eichmann’s soul is an effort to reckon with power and provocation of Arendt’s judgment.
Stangneth goes to great lengths to praise Arendt in interviews and in her writing, citing Arendt as an inspiration and model for fearless and critical thinking about difficult and horrible events. In the end, however, Stangneth concludes that as brilliant as Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial is, Arendt herself was mistaken in her characterization of Eichmann as banal: “one of the most significant insights to be gained from studying Adolf Eichmann is reflected in Arendt: even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.” In other words, Arendt expected Eichmann to be thoughtless; in concluding that he was banal, she was fooled by him.
One hardly recognizes Stangneth’s respectful and scholarly tone in the avalanche of reviews (already two in the New York Times) suggesting her book “shatters” Arendt’s argument. Not all reviewers are as bad as the Arendt critic Richard Wolin, who once again trots out the canard about Arendt of blaming the Jews for the Holocaust in the Jewish Review of Books. (NOTE: The original version of this essay suggested that a quotation Richard Wolin provides was not in Eichmann in Jerusalem and may have been made up. It turns out the quotations was from an interview Arendt gave later and is accurate. Professor Wolin did not make up the quotation, although it is used out of context. )
Stangneth herself is more circumspect. Her dual claims are: first, Arendt did not have enough information available to her; and, second, that partly as a result of her lack of information, Arendt was fooled by Eichmann. Stangneth’s argument—while free of the hyperbole that mars the work of Wolin, Mark Lilla, and Deborah Lipstadt—does support the dominant scholarly opinion amongst historians that can be summed up by Christopher Browning’s statement: “Arendt grasped an important concept but not the right example.”
Eichmann Before Jerusalem adds a mountain of evidence to show that Adolf Eichmann was not merely an obedient clerk, a mindless bureaucrat, or a banal desk murderer. After this book we can, one hopes, finally put this silly argument to rest. Of course Arendt’s critics have long insisted that this was Arendt’s argument and thus point to Stangneth’s book as evidence that Arendt was wrong. But this is simply sloppy reading. As I have argued in the New York Times, this is based on a fundamental Misreading of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt clearly rejects Eichmann’s portrayal of himself while on trial in Jerusalem as a mere cog in the Nazi machinery or as a humble bureaucrat simply following orders.
The common misperception that Arendt thought Eichmann was either merely a bureaucrat following orders or simply a cog mindlessly carrying out his duties emerges largely from a conflation of Arendt’s conclusions with those of Stanley Milgram. The Yale psychologist was inspired by the Eichmann trial to ask test subjects to assist researchers in training students by administering what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to students who answered incorrectly. The test subjects largely did as they were instructed. Milgram invoked Arendt when he concluded that his experiments showed most people would follow orders to do things they thought wrong.
After witnessing hundreds of ordinary people submit to authority in our own experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine…: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.
For Milgram, the truth of the banality of evil is that all of us have a bit of Eichmann in ourselves; put in a similar situation, most of us would act as he did. While we may want people to act differently, there is a deep-seated human tendency to obey those in authority. Normal people, Milgram concludes, will obey unjust and even fundamentally evil orders from a superior whom they trust.
But Arendt rightly insisted that Milgram never understood her. Against Milgram’s claim that obedience within bureaucratic systems carried diminished responsibility, Arendt argued, “obedience and support are the same.” Eichmann was not simply obeying orders; Arendt saw that he supported the regime and he did so willingly. It is because Eichmann was a willing participant in the Holocaust that Arendt argues he should be put to death for his inhuman crimes.
Stangneth knows enough not to conflate Arendt with Milgram; where Arendt goes wrong, in Stangneth’s telling, is in her argument that Eichmann was thoughtless. She writes: “And although Hannah Arendt may have been right to point out the ‘macabre humor’ with which horror sometimes tips over into comedy, in light of the Argentine documents, her characterization of Eichmann’s ‘inability to speak’ and ‘inability to think’ seems insupportable. Eichmann’s words in Argentina, like those of the other participants, weren’t thoughtless drivel but consistent speech based on a complete system of thought. They were, we might say, judgments of excess.”
Stangneth is right to say that Arendt argues Eichmann did not think, and this is the core of her claim that Eichmann—undoubtedly an evil man who in Arendt’s judgment deserves to be killed and wiped off the face of the earth—represents a new way in which evil can appear in the world, one that is more dangerous and more terrifying than traditional appearances of evil. While Stangneth agrees with Arendt about the importance of this new form of banal and thoughtless evil, she argues that the new evidence she has uncovered shows Eichmann himself to have been thoughtful rather than thoughtless.
Stangneth shows that Eichmann was, at least by the 1940s, an ideologically committed Nazi anti-Semite who energetically innovated in order to fulfill his role in the Final Solution. The most persuasive evidence for this claim is the long diatribe Eichmann unleashes in the last of the interviews with Sassen in Argentina, which took place in 1957. This is the only sustained quotation from the Sassen interviews Stangneth provides in her book, and it is the best evidence for the correct claim that Eichmann was an evil Nazi idealogue. The quote runs three pages, but in part it goes:
I tell you this as a conclusion to our matters—I, ‘the cautious bureaucrat,’ that was me, yes, indeed. But I would like to expand on the issue of the ‘cautious bureaucrat,’ somewhat to my own detriment. This cautious bureaucrat was attended by a … a fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright, and I say here, just as I have said to you before: your louse that you, Comrade Sassen, does not interest me. My louse under my collar interests me. I will squash it. This is the same when it comes to my people. And the cautious bureaucrat, which of course I was, that is what I had been, also guided and inspired me: what benefits my people is a sacred order and a sacred law for me. Yes indeed.
And now I want to tell you…. I have no regrets! I am certainly not going to bow down to that cross!… It would be too easy, and I could do it cheaply for the sake of current opinion… for me to deeply regret it, for me to pretend that a Saul has become a Paul.
I tell you Comrade Sassen, I cannot do that. That I cannot do, because I am not willing to do it, because I balk inwardly at saying that we did anything wrong. No. I have to tell you quite honestly that if of the 10.3 million Jews that Korherr identified, as we now know, we had killed 10.3 million, I would be satisfied, and would say, good, we have destroyed an enemy.
In large parts these quotations were published in Life Magazine in 1960 and were thus known to Arendt. But Stangneth supplements them with other unknown quotations and offers essential context from Eichmann’s previously unknown 1956 autobiography The Others Spoke, Now I Want to Speak! As Stangneth writes, Eichmann speaks “with the self-assurance of a demagogue.” He will not apologize for working assiduously to eliminate the Jews from Europe—on the contrary, he berates himself for having been inadequate to the task: “I too am partly to blame for the fact that the real, complete elimination, perhaps foreseen by some authority, or the conception that I had in mind, could not be carried out.” Stangneth argues that, “For Eichmann, the idea that the war had been a total, global one, in which the goal was to eliminate the enemy, was a simple statement of fact. His radical biologism led to the belief that a ‘final victory’ was imperative: the unavoidable war between the races would leave only one remaining.” She shows that Eichmann combined a super-nationalistic allegiance to Germany with a historical and biological determinism that saw the world as a “war between the races” in which only one could emerge victorious. He internalized the Nazi ideology that life was a struggle for survival amongst the races, that “the struggle among the races was in essence a struggle for resources,” and that the only thing “that mattered was one’s own people. ‘What is right, is what aids the people.’” Eichmann became, as a result, much more than the cautious bureaucrat that he always had been. He became a “warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood.” In Stangneth’s telling, Eichmann thought quite hard, and his thinking was at the root of his evil deeds.
As good as Stangneth’s nuanced and exhaustive picture of Adolf Eichmann is, she makes no effort in her book to understand what Arendt meant by thinking, including the thoughtlessness that is at the root of the “banality of evil”—a term that Arendt used only once on the final page of her book and that, admittedly, is difficult to parse. Stangneth mentions Arendt on fewer than 10 pages in her book and never engages Arendt’s argument. Stangneth’s argument against Arendt proceeds on the assumption that Arendt’s thesis is simple, known, and clear. But this is hardly the case, and the reduction of Arendt’s complicated and subtle account of the banality of evil to a well-worn cliché is a grave disservice.
It is important to recognize that much of what Stangneth writes accords with Arendt’s own account of Eichmann, so much so that Stangneth lauds Arendt for seeing with an insight what others had not. It is worth rehearsing the similarities in their accounts before considering the differences.
First, both Stangneth and Arendt insist that Eichmann is evil. This simple fact is too often forgotten. Arendt not only defends the Israeli Court’s decision to hang Eichmann, she also writes in her imagined judgment of Eichmann that he was so evil, “no one, that is no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with [him].”
Second, Stangneth illuminates Arendt’s account of Eichmann’s enormous pride, that “bragging had always been one of [Eichmann’] cardinal vices.” Stangneth’s account of Eichmann’s early Nazi career argues that he “claimed a place in world history for himself” and that he cultivated the image of a “young god…. His pride is obvious.” Eichmann imagined himself the “Czar of the Jews” and the “Jewish Pope,” and he called himself a “bloodhound.” Both Arendt and Stangneth emphasize Eichmann’s fantasy of his own importance.
Third, both Arendt and Stangneth insist that Eichmann is an inveterate liar. To take but one example that is frequently misrepresented, Arendt disbelieves Eichmann’s claims that he had not been an anti-Semite and that he had begun his career by seeking to help the Jews. She never says he wasn’t an anti-Semite (although such words are put in her mouth in the recent movie “Hannah Arendt.”) At the same time, it is true that Arendt does not emphasize Eichmann’s anti-Semitism to the extent Stangneth does and that Arendt does not have as much evidence of his anti-Semitism. One virtue of Stangneth’s account is that she supplies important details that help understand Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, which, as was typical of many Nazis, was based neither on religious hatred nor a conspiratorial belief in Jewish world domination. Stangneth shows that Eichmann denied the “blood libel” (the false accusation that Jews had killed Christian children and used their blood in rituals) and rejected as a forgery the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the notorious anti-Semitic tract (and a czarist forgery). Rather, Eichmann justified genocide and the extermination of the Jews by appealing to the “fatherland morality that beat within him.” He spoke of the “necessity of a total war” and relied on his oath to Hitler and the Nazi flag, a bond he calls “the highest duty.” Eichmann was an anti-Semite because he was a committed Nazi and Nazism was incomprehensible without anti-Semitism.
The true disagreement between Arendt and Stangneth is Arendt’s claim that “the trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Arendt reported on the disturbing fact that struck her—and many others, including the Israeli judges—that Eichmann was decidedly average. The evil of Eichmann’s deeds was indisputable, and Arendt is fully convinced he should be hanged for his crimes. Yet notwithstanding what he had done, Eichmann’s motivations seemed to her to be grounded in typical bourgeois drives. He was ambitious. He sought the recognition that came from success and the affirmation that flowed from belonging to a movement. He was, she concluded, not a monster, not stupid, but thoughtless. And it was this “absence of thinking—which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think”—that Arendt came to see as the dangerous wellspring of evil in modern times.
In some ways, Arendt overstates her case. Eichmann did not act simply from the bourgeois drive of safety and success. He was not a mere vacuum salesman who accidentally became a Nazi. Arendt sees in Eichmann the “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family.” She presents Eichmann as someone “from a humdrum life without significance and consequence” who joins the Nazi Party and found meaning and importance as part of a Movement. She insists, probably rightly, that “he did not enter the Party out of conviction,” and, probably wrongly, that he was likely not “ever convinced by it.”
Stangneth argues, with good reason, that Eichmann was indeed a convinced Nazi. He believed that history was a contest of the races, that Jews had been successful for centuries because of their skill, and that for Aryans to survive and be victorious, the Jews had to be eliminated. “Eichmann completely rejected traditional ideas of morality, in favor of the no-holds-barred struggle for survival that nature demanded. He identified entirely with a way of thinking that said any form of contemplation without clear reference to blood and soil was outdated and, most of all, dangerous.” This was less hatred of Jews than an ideological conviction in the racial ideology of a warrior race, but it was nevertheless a firmly held conviction. And Eichmann believed that it justified his participation first in the emigration of Jews, then in their forced expulsion, and finally in their extermination. Over and over he expressed his courageous willingness to die for his beliefs. He saw himself as a warrior, someone who was willing to sacrifice his human feelings for the greater importance of victory of the German Reich. He acted out of a strong and unwavering commitment to Nazis and a belief in victory.
What is missing in Stangneth’s account is any real attempt to understand what Arendt means when she writes that Eichmann was thoughtless. To understand Arendt, we must first admit that she was aware of much of the most damning evidence Stangneth has “uncovered.” Stangneth admits this in passing but suggests that Arendt didn’t take such evidence seriously. The facts, however, are otherwise, as Arendt clearly relies on the excerpts from the Sassen reports she had read, including the most damning passages that Stangneth reproduces in her book and that I quoted above. Arendt’s argument about Eichmann’s thoughtlessness must make sense of the fact that she was aware of his deeply held convictions.
When Arendt calls Eichmann thoughtless and banal, she means that the decisive “flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view.” Eichmann was not stupid. He in fact was quite skilled at working within the Nazi administrative hierarchy to enlist resources, develop creative solutions, and convince superiors to aid him in his assigned tasks. His banality was not stupidity. But it does have an element of what Arendt calls “Dumbness.” Here is how she explains Eichmann’s banality and thoughtlessness to the journalist Joachim Fest:
During the war Ernst Jünger comes across some German peasants and the peasant had just seen Russian prisoners coming out of the camps, of course completely starved, and the peasant says to Jünger: “Ja, one can see clearly that these are sub-humans—like cattle: They eat the pigs’ food.” You see, this story has an outrageous dumbness. The man does not see that that is what people do who have been starved, isn’t that true, and everyone does it. This dumbness has something really revolting. Eichmann was very intelligent, but he had this dumbness. And that is what I actually meant by banality. There is no depth — this is not demonic! This is simply an unwillingness to even imagine what is actually up with another—is not it?
Eichmann’s failure to think was a failure of imagination, a failure to see humanity in others, and a failure to see outside his own blinkered worldview. His thoughtlessness made Eichmann blind to the basic human fact of plurality. That is why Arendt’s final judgment of Eichmann is that he must be hanged and expelled from the earth.
Such a failure to think from the perspective of others, such dumbness, is what allowed Eichmann to confide in and seek understanding from his Israeli interrogator, Avner Less. It is also what allowed Eichmann to justify the extermination camps to himself with the cliché that it was war between the races and the self-serving justification that the Jews would have done the same thing to Nazis. It was his incapacity to see from the perspective of others the insanity of his ideological convictions that Arendt called his inability to think. It is this thoughtlessness, Arendt argues, that allowed Eichmann and people like him to carry out one of the greatest crimes in history.
The greatest example Arendt offers of Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of another was his account of his work in Vienna, where in his words, “[h]e and his men and the Jews were all ‘pulling together,’ and whenever there were any difficulties the Jewish functionaries would come running to get him to ‘unburden their hearts,’ to tell him ‘all their grief and sorrow,’ and to ask for his help.” From Eichmann’s monomaniacal point of view, he was there to help them because the Nazis had decided to make the German Reich judenrein. It was a great piece of good luck, Arendt notes ironically, that the Jews wanted to leave as well. And Eichmann’s job was to help them, even as he stripped them of property and dignity. Eichmann was thrilled that he “could ‘do justice to both parties.’” Arendt was shocked that at “the trial, he never gave an inch when it came to this part of the story.” It is this “empty talk” and his reliance on clichés that allows him to live in his hermetically sealed fantasy world that Arendt finds both shocking and also thoughtless. “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected to his inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann’s inability to think from any but his own perspective had created a fantasy world around himself, one in which Nazis and Zionists were on the same team.
If one takes Stangneth’s challenge to Arendt seriously, as one should, the real difficulty is reconciling Arendt’s view that Eichmann was at once a committed ideologue and that he was thoughtless. Ideologues are hardly thoughtless, which is Stangneth’s point. The ideologue is convinced that one idea can explain the march of world history. Economic ideologues like Marxists believe that capital and class govern the path of history. Racial ideologues like Hitler are convinced that the eternal battle of the races is the key to history. For all ideologues, it is commitment to an idea, a dream, or a vision of a pure utopia that drives them forward to ever more extreme efforts to actualize that utopia. Driven by an idea, such people are truly fanatical, capable of the most extreme and horrible means in the pursuit of an ideologically justified end.
So how does Arendt maintain that Eichmann was at once an ideologue and thoughtless? A clue can be found in “Ideology and Terror,” the concluding chapter that Arendt added to the second and all subsequent editions of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. “Ideologies—isms,” she writes, “can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise…. An ideology is quite literally what its name indicates: it is the logic of an idea.” Ideologies are modern, she argues, because they pretend to scientific certainty and are inevitably pseudo-scientific, treating complex and messy realities as conforming to the logic of a single idea.
At the core of Arendt’s understanding of ideology is her claim that ideologies elevate logical consistency over all else, even over the content of the idea underlying said ideology. Hitler and his followers prided themselves on their ‘ice cold reasoning’ just as Marx boasted of the mercilessness of his dialectics. The ideologue, Arendt argues, “drive[s] ideological implications into extremes of logical consistency which, to the onlooker, looked preposterously ‘primitive’ and absurd: a ‘dying class’ consisted of people condemned to death; races that were ‘unfit to live’ were to be exterminated.”
The force of Arendt’s argument is that the essence of the ideological totalitarian subject is that he latches on to the “stringent logicality” of the movement, the need to follow the logic of the movement to its starkest and darkest conclusions. In this sense, Arendt sees Eichmann as an ideologue.
What matters to such ideologues is not specifically the idea for which they fight, but the fight itself. “What distinguished these new totalitarian ideologists from their predecessors was that it was no longer primarily the ‘idea’ of the ideology—the struggle of classes and the exploitation of the workers or the struggle of races and the care for Germanic peoples—which appealed to them, but the logical process which could be developed from it.” In other words, for many of the most committed ideologues, their commitments are less to a specific idea than to the need to belong to and find their meaning within a movement.
When Arendt writes provocatively—and I think in a way that is overstated—that Eichmann had no motives, she does not mean that he lacked conviction. She means that his convictions were less attached to an idea than to the movement. “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” It is possible, Arendt argues, to be a fully convinced adherent of an ideological movement while also being thoughtless.
It is true, then, as many have charged, that Arendt fitted Eichmann into her own theory of totalitarian action. But Arendt’s theory is not that he is a bureaucrat or a cog but that Eichmann was an ideologue in the totalitarian sense, someone who was ideologically committed less to a particular idea (the destruction of the Jews) than to the belonging to a movement that required the destruction of the Jews as its logical conclusion. What made such an ideological position so terrifying is that it allowed people who were otherwise normal to overcome their moral inhibitions by internalizing a rigidly logical belief system.
The insight of Eichmann in Jerusalem is not that Eichmann was a basically good guy who got caught up following orders within a horrible system; rather, Arendt argues that Eichmann was a thoughtless, superficial, and banal individual. He was not stupid or dim- witted. When Arendt says he was thoughtless, she means that Eichmann could not and did not think from the perspectives of others. Locked in the logical coherence of his own simplified view of the world, Eichmann held fast to the truths that gave meaning to his fantastic version of the world. In short, Eichmann was a dedicated Nazi. He sought and worked for a Nazi victory and was willing to do anything and everything within his power to contribute to the cause. He did not think hard or at all about that cause; Arendt wonders if he really understood it. But Arendt understands that Eichmann’s thoughtlessness names his willingness to do anything for a cause.
What drove Eichmann to become a dedicated mass murderer was less hatred than a deep need to serve the Nazi movement that gave his life weight and importance. Eichmann was a “joiner.” In his own words, Eichmann feared “to live a leaderless and difficult individual life,” in which “I would receive no directives from anybody.” Arendt insists that Eichmann’s professed fidelity to the Nazi cause “did not mean merely to stress the extent to which he was under orders, and ready to obey them; he meant to show what an ‘idealist’ he had always been.” An “idealist,” as she uses the word, is an ideologue, someone who will sacrifice his own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the “idea” of the movement that gives life meaning.
What Arendt saw when she looked at Eichmann was that genocidal evil—perhaps the greatest evil in world history—is for the most part not carried out by fanatical monsters who seethe with hate. There were of course people possessed of a monstrous and unyielding hatred of Jews as well as of Poles, Ukrainians, Roma, and homosexuals. Hitler too was not simply thoughtless in his obsessive drive to exterminate Jews. But Arendt argues that modern systems of administratively organized murder and criminality depend upon the collaboration and work of many people who are normal. But these collaborators are not simply bureaucrats, and they do not simply take orders. They are thoughtless ideological warriors who believe less in their ideology than in their need to believe in some ideology.
Whether Eichmann was, in the end, a rabid and fanatical anti-Semite committed to the idea of the destruction of the Jews—as Stangneth suggests but does not prove—or whether he was a lonely soul who found meaning in the Nazi movement and ideologically bound himself to the stone cold logic of its demands—as Arendt hypothesized—is a question that cannot be answered. The human soul is not an open book.
Stangneth has given us a gift of a brilliantly researched book that makes Eichmann come alive in all his horror. But despite her own careful claims and the hyperbolic yelps of others, she has not shattered Arendt’s argument. And that is a good thing. For whatever the truth about Eichmann, Arendt’s argument deserves to be heard and considered.
The hard truth of Eichmann in Jerusalem—one evaded by both its critics and its friends—is that modern evil has its source in the embrace of movements and causes, precisely the kind of commitments embraced by activists on both the left and the right. To embrace a movement is not simply to seek change; it is, too frequently, to find one’s own sense of meaning and purpose in the movement and, therefore, to prefer the coherence and victory of the movement to both factual and moral obstacles. Modern evil does not simply have its source in obedience to bureaucratic authority. Evil today originates in the seduction of ideological conviction.
In other words, evil originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.
– Roger BerkowitzPosted on 7 September 2014 | 8:47 am
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