The Long Road to Eichmann's Arrest: A Nazi War Criminal's Life in Argentina
Before his arrest by Israel's Mossad intelligence service, Adolf Eichmann boasted openly to other foreigners in Argentina of the war crimes he had committed. He confided in one journalist that his only mistake was not having murdered all the Jews. "We didn't do our work correctly," he said.
Fifty years ago, one of the most spectacular trials of the 20th century began in Jerusalem: The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann. The proceedings against the former SS Obersturmbahnführer, who organized the deportations of millions of Jews to Nazi extermination camps, brought the Holocaust to the center of global attention. The German government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, however, reacted with panic. On the basis of secret documents, a SPIEGEL series tells the story of how Eichmann could remain at large for years after the war and how Adenauer's government sought to influence the Eichmann trial. This is the second installment; the first can be read here.
Experts like Holger Meding assume that several thousand Croats, Hungarians and Belgians with Nazi pasts fled to Argentina, as well as up to 800 higher-ranking Nazi officials and a few dozen German mass murderers.
Eichmann brought his wife and sons to Argentina in 1952. According to records from the German Embassy in Buenos Aires, his employer Fuldner later claimed that it soon became common knowledge among the roughly 300 CAPRI employees "that Klement's real name was Eichmann."
But to his children, who no longer remembered him, he was Uncle Riccardo. Only after some time did they learn from the parents who the stern man was who had instructed them to say nothing about the family to friends and acquaintances.
When he lost his job in 1953, the family moved to the Argentine capital. Eichmann tried his hand as the owner of a laundry business, opened a fabric shop, sold sanitation facilities, raised rabbits and eventually landed a job as a welder and mechanic at a Mercedes-Benz plant. Meanwhile, he kept up his ties to the Nazi scene.
A Cafe Visit with Josef Mengele
He met Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele at Café ABC, and he attended a raucous farewell party for the fervent anti-Semite and Nazi propagandist Johannn von Leers, who was moving to Egypt. Eichmann also presumably attended a ceremony Nazi immigrants had organized for Argentine strongman Juan Perón.
And he drank, which loosened his tongue.
Some Nazis believed that the Holocaust was a propaganda lie spread by the Allies and hoped that Eichmann would reinforce this conviction. As a result, there was great interest in the Holocaust organizer, and Eichmann gradually threw all caution to the wind.
He was only 50, a humorless pedant with a high forehead and thick glasses, who read books about the Third Reich and taught his sons that a sense of duty and obeying orders were the most important virtues.
Unlike many of his former SS comrades, Eichmann had difficulty supporting his family. He felt betrayed by fellow Nazis who had testified in Nuremberg, as his biographer Cesarani writes. Resentful and disappointed, he now met regularly with two journalists: Willem Sassen, a native of the Netherlands, and the German-born Argentine Eberhard Fritsch.
During the war Sassen, who had originally volunteered to serve in the Waffen-SS, met Henri Nannen, who would later become the publisher of the German magazine Stern. After 1945, Sassen fled across the Atlantic to escape prosecution and began reporting for Stern and other publications. The contact with Eichmann was established by a former SS officer and advisor to the German Krupp company.
Eberhard Fritsch, the third man in the group, had piercing eyes, a dueling scar on his cheek and a moustache. In Buenos Aires, he published Der Weg (The Way), a monthly magazine that advocated giving national socialism a second chance in Germany.
Not A Single Word of Regret
The three men met on Sundays at Sassen's village in Florida, a Buenos Aires suburb. With a tape recorder running, Eichmann talked about his crimes and boasted about his importance. "I was no ordinary recipient of orders," he said. "If I had been one, I would have been a fool. Instead, I was part of the thought process. I was an idealist."
There is not a single word of regret on the tapes, which are now in the German Federal Archives in Koblenz. In fact, Eichmann's only regret, he said, was having made the mistake of not having murdered all the Jews. "We didn't do our work correctly," he said. "There was more that could have been done."
The meetings in Sassen's house did not remain a secret. Other former SS members, including one of Himmler's adjutants, soon joined the group. On occasion, people who had not been involved in the Holocaust listened to Eichmann's horrific accounts. In the end, it may have been hundreds who knew the true identity of this man Klement from Buenos Aires. Not surprisingly, the information from Argentina eventually reached Germany.
According to its own account, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, maintained "several well-positioned connections" in the region. The Krupp advisor who had brought together Eichmann and Sassen worked for the Gehlen Organization and, later, the BND. The agency also gathered information about Fritsch and Sassen. And officials at BND headquarters in Pullach, near Munich, had connections to the German-Austrian SS milieu that had produced many BND employees and had its own ties to South America.
On June 24, 1952, a message was received in Pullach from a Source 35a. According to the message, Eichmann was "living in Argentina under the alias Clemens (Klemens)," and the "editor in chief of the German newspaper in Argentina Der Weg" (Fritsch) knew his address.
A year later, the Gehlen Organization received another piece of information. Eichmann was working on the construction site for a power plant outside Buenos Aires. A former agent with the organization had notified Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who in turn notified the BND, the Israelis and, through the World Jewish Congress, the CIA.
A few years later, the CIA and the BND notified each other that Eichmann had apparently been living in Argentina until recently.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which had an interest in the group associated with Fritsh because his radical right-wing newspaper was being sold in Germany, had similarly precise information. The federal agency, based in Cologne, was familiar with Eichmann's alias (albeit spelled incorrectly), his escape route from Germany and his connections to Fritsch and other Nazis.
Did German Intelligence Agencies Fail in Search for Eichmann?
The right-wing extremists even joked publicly about Eichmann's whereabouts. In 1959, when Eichmann was rumored to be in Kuwait, the neo-Nazi publication Reichsruf published an article titled "Where on Earth is Eichmann?" and promptly supplied the answer: in Argentina. The article went on to state that he had emigrated to the South American country via Italy and with the help of the Catholic Church. Even the serious reference publication Munzinger reported at the time that Eichmann was living in South America.
Did the West German intelligence agencies fail in their search for Eichmann? Or could it be that they simply didn't want to find him? The truth is more complicated. The Gehlen Organization and, later, the BND did not consider it part of their mission to help track down Nazi criminals. More importantly, there was not even a warrant for Eichmann's arrest until November 1956.
Like so many Nazi perpetrators, Eichmann benefited from the fact that West German public prosecutors only investigated a case if a complaint had been filed, as Andreas Eichmüller of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich learned. But even then the prosecutors' enthusiasm was limited.
Germany, it turned out, was still a perpetrator's paradise.
- Part 1: A Nazi War Criminal's Life in Argentina
- Part 2: Diplomats Were Relatively Familiar with Eichmann's Milieu
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