The Holocaust in the Dock: West Germany's Efforts to Influence the Eichmann Trial

By Klaus Wiegrefe

Part 2: The Attempt to Deflect Holocaust Guilt

Photo Gallery: The Eichmann Threat Photos
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Five weeks later, the first members of what eventually became a 10-member Mossad team that was to kidnap Eichmann arrived in Buenos Aires. For days, the agents observed Eichmann, who was employed by Mercedes at the time, to study his habits.

On the evening of May 11, 1960, the team was ready to strike. As always, Eichmann got off the bus from work at 8:00 p.m. and then turned into the side street that led to his house. When he was only five meters (16 feet) away from a car in which four agents where waiting, the driver revved the engine. The noise was intended to drown out the sounds of a possible struggle -- and the precaution proved justified. Eichmann shouted and tried to hit and kick the Israelis before they managed to overpower him and pull him into their Buick. They quickly left the scene.

The prisoner was hidden for a few days in a converted bedroom in a mansion in Buenos Aires. Then he was instructed to put on a flight attendant's uniform for the Israeli airline El Al. The kidnappers drugged him and drove him to the airport, where a special El Al plane was waiting. It had brought an Israeli delegation to Buenos Aires to attend ceremonies marking the Argentinean national holiday. The agents pretended that Eichmann was an inebriated member of the crew and carried him on board.

The director of the Lufthansa office in Buenos Aires had noticed the scene from the airport terminal and thought it looked unusual. The aircraft was "surrounded by an unusually large crowd of people," he later recalled. Nevertheless, the Mossad team remained undisturbed. On May 22, Eichmann arrived in Tel Aviv and was taken to a secluded prison.

A Complete Surprise

The German prosecutor Bauer, who had tipped off the Israelis, was notified in advance of the success of the mission. For the Adenauer administration, though, the arrest came as a complete surprise. Officials in Bonn were extremely worried that Eichmann's testimony could incriminate West German politicians or government agencies.

On July 6, an aide to a "coordination meeting at the Federal Chancellery" noted that the federal government had to make it clear "that Eichmann had worked as a henchman of the Himmler SS machine and not as an agent of the then German Reich." This, the aide argued, would make it impossible to link West German officials with Nazi pasts "to Eichmann's misdeeds."

A Foreign Ministry official wanted to prevent "leading public figures in the Federal Republic" from being incriminated. He argued it had to be demonstrated that only a "small group of individuals" had implemented the Holocaust and that those who "were not directly involved could not have had any knowledge of it."

The funding for Eichmann's defense lawyer also appeared to present a problem. What would happen if the Communist bloc tried to fund the defense and thus exert influence? It seemed to make more sense for the West German Foreign Ministry to assume the costs, allowing it a say in the defense strategy.

To avoid alarming the parliament and the public, the ministry advised Eichmann's attorney to file a petition for the assumption of costs "as discreetly as possible." Hans Rechenberg (BND confidential informant 7396) was instructed to handle the funding in the interim. Rechenberg had experience with Nazis, after having served as the press assistant for Hitler's economics minister, Walther Funk.

Bonn's Eichmann Policy

Rechenberg was already negotiating with a Frankfurt bank to secure a loan of 100,000 deutschmarks for Eichmann's defense when SPIEGEL reported that the federal government intended to pay Eichmann's attorneys. Foreign Minister Brentano quickly canceled the project. In the end, Israel paid Eichmann's legal fees.

The German government's behavior in the Eichmann affair reveals a mentality which goes a long way toward explaining why Nazi war crimes were not pursued energetically in the early years of the Federal Republic. Damage control, particularly in the case of Eichmann, was seen as much more important. There were two departments at the Foreign Ministry devoted exclusively to handing the case. The "Committee of State Secretaries on the Protection of State Secrets," headed by Globke, even established an interdepartmental task force, which included representatives of the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Chancellery, the BND, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History.

The group was supposed to be kept secret. Its mission was to orchestrate Bonn's Eichmann policy and, most of all, to determine whether all Germans who were incriminated in the Eichmann trial had been prosecuted after 1945. The goal was to fend off "potential accusations" that Bonn had protected Nazi war criminals.

The group was headed by Foreign Ministry official Hans Gawlik, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and was a public prosecutor in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) during the war. He defended various senior SS members in the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

It was later revealed that after assuming office Gawlik, who was hard of hearing and seemed harmless, had warned German war criminals against traveling to countries where they had been sentenced in absentia and could now face arrest.

Assigning Blame to the Victims

Lorenz Bessel-Lorck represented the BfV on the task force. As a public prosecutor in the northern city of Flensburg prior to joining the BfV, Bessel-Lorck had helped a former euthanasia doctor continue practicing under a false name. This doctor had contributed to the murders of more than 100,000 sick and disabled Germans under the Nazis' euthanasia program.

The task force seriously considered assigning a share of the blame to the victims of Nazi crimes. A representative of the Justice Ministry was tasked with procuring documents indicating "that a large proportion of the guards concentration camps outside the German Reich consisted of Estonians, Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians and Jews" -- as if these people had volunteered to work in concentration camps and had not acted on German orders.

As historical advisor, Hans Buchheim of the Institute of Contemporary History wrote brief reports on issues such as: "How many Germans of non-Jewish heritage did the Nazi regime persecute?" According to Buchheim, they made up no more than 5 percent of concentration camp inmates during the war.

"Of course, as a statistic this doesn't make much of an impression," the historian wrote to Gawlik, and devised a perfidious argument to make the small figure seem more significant than it was. Buchheim claimed that only non-Jewish political prisoners had been "true opponents or at least critics of the regime," because they had offered their opposition voluntarily. Jewish concentration camp inmates, Buchheim argued, would have been killed anyway, "irrespective of their individual behavior." Therefore, according to Buchheim's absurd logic, a non-Jewish regime opponent was far more valuable than a Jewish one.

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