The Capture and Trial of Adolph Eichmann
“Un momentito, Senor.”
Sixty years ago, three Spanish words uttered by an Israeli Mossad agent set the stage for Israel’s dramatic abduction of senior Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann from a street in Buenos Aires, and his trial in Israel for war crimes against the Jewish people.
Eichmann had wielded tremendous power during the Holocaust. As head of the Jewish Affairs section of the Nazi SS, he held operational responsibility for the extermination of European Jewry. Through crucial years of World War II, he had organized the ghettoizing, plunder and deportation of millions to the killing centers in Poland.
Following Germany’s defeat, Eichmann had escaped from an Allied prison camp and, aided by Catholic bishop Alois Hudal of Rome, had made his way down the “ratline” to Argentina, where he lived under an assumed name for 15 years. The pro-Nazi government of then President Juan Peron welcomed fugitive Nazis and shielded them from extradition.
The post-war West German government had created a special agency, the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, to apprehend prominent Nazis who, like Eichmann, had escaped judgment at the Nuremberg War Trials. One of the members of this Nazi-tracking group was a German-Jew Fritz Bauer, who had received a tip about Eichmann’s whereabouts and had passed it on to his superiors.
It didn’t take long for Bauer to realize that his superiors were making no serious effort to go after Eichmann, and he secretly alerted Israeli officials who initiated a plan for his capture. Because Argentina had a history of denying extradition requests, the decision was made by Israeli officials to kidnap Eichmann and smuggle him to Israel.
In May 1960, Argentina was celebrating the 150th anniversary of its revolution against Spain, and many tourists were arriving from abroad to attend the festivities. The Mossad used the opportunity to smuggle multiple agents into the country.
On the evening of May 11, Mossad operatives descended on Garibaldi Street in San Fernando and snatched Eichmann away as he was walking from the bus to his home. Unaware he’d been abducted, his worried family called local hospitals but were afraid to notify the police.
The ex-Nazi kingpin was kept at a safe house until plans for smuggling him to Israel were put into effect. On May 20, a drugged Eichmann was flown out of Argentina disguised as an Israeli airline worker who had suffered head trauma in an accident.
When news of his kidnapping hit the media, Israel received an international thrashing. Historian Refael Medoff in “Lessons From the Eichmann Trial” cites the rash of articles in leading news organs that vented pious indignation.
The New York Times rejected Israeli claims that Eichmann’s role in the Nazi genocide justified Israel’s violating Argentina’s sovereignty, protesting that “no immoral or illegal act justifies another.”
An editorial in the Times of London agreed that while the trial might be fair, it was tainted because it “springs from an admittedly illegal act–the abduction of Eichmann from Argentina.”
Some U.S. church publications took particularly harsh aim at Israel for its prosecution of Eichmann. An article in The Unitarian Register compared “the Jew-pursuing Nazi and the Nazi-pursuing Jew.”
And a Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, conjured up anti-Semitic tropes by linking Israelis at the Eichmann trial to “Shylock of old” (a fictional Jewish villain in a Shakespearean novel) demanding “their pound of flesh.”
In the face of this brouhaha, the Eichmann trial preceded, riveting world attention as it played out over nine months. In Israel, its impact was transformative. The trial pierced a macho culture in which Holocaust survivors had been discouraged from talking about what they had suffered, and were made to feel ashamed of being victims.
As a result, in the sixteen years that had passed since the war’s end, information about how and why six million Jews had been annihilated was shrouded in incomprehension.
A Human Face on The Horror
Now, for the first time, the unspeakable atrocities of the death camps, the systematic mass murders of entire populations, and the ferocious might of a regime that made physical resistance all but impossible, were driven home to the public.
Over a hundred survivors representing every corner of Nazi-occupied Europe were called to the witness stand. Their combined testimony put a human face on the Holocaust and spawned a new understanding of the magnitude of Jewish suffering and loss, and the depths of Nazi moral depravity.
“I felt I was beginning to comprehend the incomprehensible, however wide the gulf separating me from those who were there for even a single day,” Israeli Haim Gouri wrote. He described feeling humbled as he followed the proceedings: “We who were outside that circle of death have to ask forgiveness from the numberless dead whom we have judged in our hearts without asking ourselves what right we have.”
He Looked Like an Ordinary Person
Spectators who came to observe the trial expected to confront a monster—a wild-eyed Jew-hater in the mold of Hitler and his top henchmen. But what they saw and heard bore no resemblance to that image.
“People were amazed because he looked much more like a bureaucrat, like a pencil pusher, with thick black glasses, an ill-fitting suit, a man who laid out all his papers and his pens and kept polishing his glasses with a nervous tick,” noted historian Deborah Lipstadt, author of The Eichmann Trial and several books about Holocaust denial.
Lipstadt said people asked themselves, could this really be the person responsible for the destruction of millions?
The man in the bulletproof glass booth looked and sounded like an ordinary person. He presented himself as a self-effacing servant of the German state, dutifully following orders from a higher command, no more than a cog in the wheel of a vast machine that he did not control.
He maintained that he was not at first aware of where the deported multitudes were being sent, and that he had no personal animosity to the Jewish people. He testified that he had come to realize that the Holocaust was “one of the greatest crimes in history.”
Lipstadt noted that Eichmann’s stuck to his defense in the face of weighty evidence that he had carried out his work of mass murder with a fanatic zeal that persisted even when the war was lost and he was ordered by Himmler to halt the deportations. Undeterred, Eichmann used his authority to ensure that the trains continued shipping Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz.
Lipstadt, who was given access by the Israeli government to a memoir Eichmann had written while in Israeli prison awaiting trial, said the document was rife with anti-Semitism and Nazi ideology that fully supported Hitler’s goals.
Yet some were taken in by his court performance, and in contemporary films and documentaries, the image of Eichmann as a petty bureaucrat who personified the “banality of evil,” continues to hold sway.
“Banality of evil” was a phrase coined by author Hannah Arendt who observed a small portion of the trial and was duped by Eichmann’s performance, writing that he was merely a robotic functionary, passively heeding the commands of his superiors.
By buying into Eichmann’s “cog-in-the wheel” presentation, Arendt equated the evil he committed with the evil of which all human beings are potentially capable under severe duress.
Limited by her absence from key moments in the trial and hampered by her contempt for her own Jewish roots, Arendt tried to “universalize” Eichmann, refusing to see his personal, focused war against the Jews.
Eichmann was in no way a “banal” bureaucrat, the evidence shows. He just reinvented himself as one while on trial for his life.
Exposed by wartime documents bearing his own signature, Eichmann stood revealed as a vicious Jew-hater and Jew-hunter who, when it came to his chosen work of murdering Jews, would make no compromises and no exceptions.
The Wannsee Conference
Eichmann’s evolution as a pivotal player in the genocide against European Jews was launched even before the infamous January 1942 Wannsee Conference, a top-secret meeting of 15 high-ranking Nazi leaders on the outskirts of Berlin.
Eichmann, working under SS and Gestapo chief Reinhard Heydrich, who took his orders directly from Hitler and Himmler, convened the conference and recorded the minutes.
The conference’s goal was to enlist all major government agencies in the implementation of the Endoslung, the “Final solution of the Jewish Question.” This was the code name for the Nazi program of annihilating European Jews that had been formalized into Reich policy six months earlier. At the time of the Wannsee Conference, it was already well under way.
In autumn 1941, as German armies advanced into Soviet territory, tens of thousands of Jews were massacred at sites such as Babi Yar (outside Kiev), Rumbula Forest (outside Riga), and Ponary (outside Vilna).
In December 1941, experiments with exhaust-fume poisoning started in mobile trucks in Chelmno in occupied Poland; the first annihilation camp opened there the same month.
In Nazi-occupied lands, hundreds of thousands of Jews had been systematically killed by Einsatzgruppen, or forced from their homes and deported to concentration camps in Mauthausen, Austria, and to Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland.
But the process of genocide through mass shootings was moving too slowly for Hitler, and consumed too much manpower. He and his top aides sought ways to accelerate the process. Heydrich conceived of the Wannsee Conference to enlist all major government agencies in implementing “evacuation” of all European Jews to killing centers in the East.
All of Germany’s security and secret police forces at this point had been consolidated into the Reich Security Central Office under Reinhard Heydrich. Eichmann was assigned to its section on Jewish affairs and it was in this role that he convened the Wannsee Conference.
The protocol of the Wannsee Conference, penned in Eichmann’s handwriting and found by Allied forces after the war, was used as evidence in the Nuremberg war crimes trials. It contained a typewritten list of all Jewish populations in Europe—including in lands not yet under Nazi occupation such as England, Ireland, Italy and Spain—that would be annihilated in multiple extermination camps soon to be constructed.
Eichmann calculated the murder of 11 million people, noting which regions were already Judenfrei.
‘Lying Millions of People to Their Death’
Heeding instructions from Heydrich, Eichmann wrote up and distributed the top-secret Wannsee protocol to participating members of the conference, clarifying the measures needed to bring about the Vernichtung (annihilation) of Europe’s Jews, although the protocol carefully avoided such direct language.
Instead, it used phrases such as “evacuation or resettlement to the east;” “death by natural reduction;” and “special treatment” (gassing and other means of execution) to euphemize the destruction of millions of lives. The conference’s participants were urged to use the powers of their various agencies to achieve the “final solution.”
A vast logistical network was developed and maintained, in large measure under Eichmann’s direction, to ensure that the flow of Jews from western, southern and northern Europe to killing centers in the East would continue throughout the war.
Through his representatives Alois Brunner, Theodor Dannecker, Rolf Guenther, and Dieter Wisliceny and other subordinates, Eichmann made deportation plans down to the last detail.
Working with other German agencies, he determined how the property of deported Jews would be seized and made certain that his office would benefit from the confiscated assets.
By hiding from the victims the plan for their impending mass murder, the Nazis manipulated millions into complying with deportation orders in the desperate hope of surviving.
Eichmann “lied millions of people to their death,” notes German historian Bettina Stangneth in a new book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer.
His trial in Jerusalem saw the arch murderer fall back on the favored Nazi tactic of using lies and deceit to manipulate results. It had worked so well with countless Jewish victims who were too sane and civilized to suspect the monstrous truth.
At his trial, Eichmann spun his web of lies in an all-out gamble to avoid the gallows. Pretending to be a simple-minded, low-level bureaucrat whose sole job was managing train schedules, he put on the performance of his life.
He was taken aback when the judges saw through his façade, found him guilty on all counts and sentenced him to death.
“I didn’t expect them to not believe me at all,” he muttered to his lawyer,” Robert Servatious.
Hitler’s eager executioner died on the gallows on June 1, 1962. His body was cremated and its ashes dumped into the Mediterranean.
Begrudging the Life of Every Jew
Prof. Gavriel Bach who served as deputy prosecutor in the Eichmann trial recalled in a 2011 interview that “the hard evidence against him was overwhelming. Aside from eyewitness testimony, there were hundreds of documents turned over to us by West Germany with Eichmann’s own signature, describing exactly what happened in particular incidents.”
“We had proof that Eichmann even circumvented Hitler’s orders when those orders might lead to saving a few thousand Jews,” Bach said.
He described how Hitler made a deal with the Hungarian government in 1944 to release 8,700 Hungarian Jewish families from the country, in exchange for the government’s pledge to remain loyal to the Axis.
“Eichmann usually sat in Berlin and pulled the strings, sending assistants throughout Europe, except with Hungary,” Bach said. “Eichmann was upset about Hitler cutting this deal. Upset that all those Hungarian Jews ‘would get out [alive] and might even come to Palestine some day and threaten the security of Europe.”
Bach presented the letters at the trial showing that after being informed about the deal, “Eichmann gave an order to speed up deportations so that by the time the visas were ready for these 8,700 families, there would no longer be 8,700 families left.”
The image he sought to build of himself as a simple-minded government servant loyally heeding orders crumbled in the face of the evidence, the former prosecutor said.
Eyewitness to the Gas Chamber
Holocaust survivor testimony at the trial did not always directly implicate Eichmann, noted Prof. Bach. But it authenticated specific stages of the final solution that Eichmann’s organizational expertise kept running like clockwork.
He cited the rare eyewitness testimony of a man in his late twenties who as a young boy had been thrust inside a gas chamber to die. His testimony, the prosecutor said, “remains ingrained in my mind forever.”
The man described being led with a group of 250 children into the gas chamber where it was completely dark and the doors were immediately locked on them. According to his testimony, “the children began to sing to give themselves courage. When nothing happened, we started to scream and cry.”
Suddenly, the door opened and an SS guard pulled some children out of the chamber,” the man recounted to the court. He himself was one of those removed. They soon understood why. A train had arrived with potatoes and there were not enough men to unload them. An SS guard had suggested taking some of the doomed children out of the gas chamber to help unload the train, and kill them afterward.
“So they took thirty children out and they unloaded the potatoes while the other children were gassed to death,” the survivor continued. “All of the thirty children were supposed to be shot after the potatoes were unloaded because they had seen what happened to the group left in the gas chamber. No one was ever supposed to see that.”
Twenty-nine of them were killed, but one boy had supposedly done some “damage” to the truck.
As Prof. Bach related the horrifying story told to the court so many years ago, his voice grew ragged. “The SS commander ordered his subordinate to take the boy who did the damage and give him a whipping before he was killed. He was taken to a higher floor by an SS man to be whipped. But incredibly, the SS man decided not to carry out the commander’s order.”
“He took a liking to me for some reason,” the witness told the court. ‘He kept me alive.”
“And that is how the court had the benefit of rare eyewitness testimony,” Bach mused, “from a prisoner who had actually been inside the gas chamber and lived to describe it.”
Exposed by The Argentina Papers
A new book by German historian Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem, based on the author’s examination of the Argentina Papers, reveals Eichmann as “an ideological warrior unrepentant about the past and eager to continue the racial war against the Jews.”
The Argentina Papers were composed by a group of Nazis based in Argentina after the war who sought a resurgence of National Socialism. Eichmann was a part of this group, consulted because of his firsthand knowledge of the “Jewish question.”
Among the papers is the so-called Sassen Interview, the minutes of meetings conducted by this group of Nazis and their sympathizers recorded by former SS journalist Willem Sassen. Eichmann planned to publish his own book along with Sassen’s writes Stangneth.
“Throughout his Argentine exile, Eichmann remained a passionate and open Nazi. He proudly signed photos with the flourish, ‘Adolf Eichmann SS Obersturmbannfuhrer (retired),’ and even boasted among his friends that the deportation of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews was his masterpiece,” asserts the historian.
“Here was a man who said towards the end of the war that if Germany lost, he would ‘leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had 5 million enemies of the Reich on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.’”
“In Argentina, Eichmann the fanatical National Socialist was still on active duty,” she adds. “He wanted to be visible in Argentina and he wanted to be viewed as he once had been: as the symbol of a new age.”
In an interview with Canadian Jewish News, Stangneth said she listened to taped recordings of talks Eichmann had with Sassen and other Nazis. In one conversation, Eichmann can be heard saying that his only regret about his actions during the war was not killing more Jews.
“If we had killed 10.3 million, I would be satisfied, and would say, ‘Good, we have destroyed an enemy.’ We would have fulfilled our duty to our blood and our people… If only we had exterminated the most cunning intellect of all the human intellects alive today.”
We Were Not Impressed by The Lies
“In that courtroom in Jerusalem, there could be no doubt as to Eichmann’s guilt, nor the immensity of his guilt,” observed journalist Martha Gellhorn, covering the 1961 Eichmann trial for Atlantic Monthly.
“He was not unnerved by the testimony of witnesses, of survivors who dealt with him in his years of power, or saw him on his concentration camp visits. Nor by the avalanche of documents showing that he commanded the fate of the Jews as no general was able to command a whole theater of war.
“He wriggled, he talked a great deal; he returned again and again to the same lies. He was only a ‘minor bureaucrat.’
“We were not impressed by the lies.”
Gellhorn dismissed Eichmann’s assertions that he was little more than a railway clerk, ensuring the (death) trains ran on time. The Atlantic Monthly article references the many instances disclosed during the trial when foreign governments, allies of Germany, tried to negotiate the rescue of individual Jews, only to meet with Eichmann’s rigid refusals.
“Again and again, Eichmann replied icily that these Jews could not be found; his local representatives were instructed to discourage “on principle” such time-wasting demands for mercy,” the author recounted.
“If the named Jew or Jews were not already dead, Eichmann ordered immediate deportation to the gas chambers, thus closing the file against future intrusion on his work.”
Gellhorn cited an instance when the Vichy collaborationist “government of Pierre Laval tried to save one Jew—a man whose gallantry in the French Army could not be forgotten. Eichmann answered officially that the whereabouts of this hero was unknown, but arranged for his instant, secret removal to Auschwitz and Zyklon B.”
A third example cited at the trial of when a foreign government tried to rescue Jews but was thwarted by Eichmann was when Admiral Horthy, the fascist dictator of Hungary, directed his police to stop a death train of 1200 Jews and return the Jews to their camp near Budapest.
That night Eichmann sent buses to collect these reprieved people and drive them to rejoin the death train far from the capital. In a dispute with the Hungarian head of state, the “low-ranking” Eichmann prevailed.
“These are the duties, the authority of a ‘minor bureaucrat’?” the writer asks incredulously.
I Don’t Care What Your Rank Is
Professor Gavriel Bach cited another case showing Eichmann’s arrogant assertion of authority regarding requests to spare a Jewish life—even when the act of mercy would benefit of the Third Reich.
The case concerned a Jewish professor living in Paris who owned patents for radar technology, a subject the German army sought to know more about. A high-ranking German general asked Eichmann whether the professor and his wife could be spared due to their usefulness.
Describing the exchange based on letters in the court’s possession, Bach says the general introduced himself as “the general of a large portion of the Wermacht,” going on to explain why he wanted the Jewish professor spared.
Eichmann responded, “I am a commander in the SS and I don’t care what your rank is. The German army already took the patents. Not even a one-day extension can be granted.”
As in innumerable other cases, Eichmann’s pompous authority prevailed, said Bach. The Jewish professor and his wife were sent to their deaths.
In a poignant sequel to the story, Bach recalled that during the Eichmann trial, an American woman approached him, introducing herself as the daughter of the Jewish professor from Paris “with the radar patent.” She said her parents had hid her in the home of non-Jewish neighbors to save her life. The little girl survived the war and eventually came to the United States.
“I read about the case with my parents’ names,” the young woman continued. “I knew they died…but I was too young to remember them…and I don’t even have a picture. Please, can you help me find out more about them?