The Holocaust in the Dock: West Germany's Efforts to Influence the Eichmann Trial
The 1961 trial in Israel of Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann was a global sensation. But it made West Germany nervous. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was afraid the trial could expose the Nazi pasts of government officials in Bonn. And his government did everything it could to influence the proceedings.
A tip from Frankfurt put the Mossad on Adolf Eichmann's trail. In 1960, the Israeli intelligence service abducted the chief organizer of the Holocaust in Argentina and took him to Israel. The arrest took German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer by surprise. Would Eichmann incriminate cabinet ministers and officials in Bonn? The BND, Germany's foreign intelligence service, was instructed to find out how much the prisoner knew about "public figures in the Federal Republic of Germany." And Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss threatened the Israelis that if they did not protect Bonn in the Eichmann trial, important arms deals would fall apart. This is the third installment of a three part series. The first part can be read here and the second here.
The trial against Adolf Eichmann before the Jerusalem District Court was a global event. A camera team from the United States filmed the proceedings in the courtroom, a converted theater. Hundreds of journalists sitting in the rows of seats on the courtroom floor and in the galleries, or following the trial on screens in the press room, watched the testimony of witnesses as they described the firing squads and the gas chambers.
Eichmann, the former SS Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) and chief organizer of the Holocaust, sat in a bulletproof glass cell at the front of the room, on the left-hand side.
Rolf Vogel, a heavyset German with a round face, sat with the reporters. He was accredited as an employee of the Cologne-based Deutsche Zeitung, a business paper that was later acquired by Handelsblatt. In fact, Vogel was an agent with Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND) -- and he had been sent by the Chancellery in Bonn to monitor the trial. Germany's political leaders couldn't have picked a more loyal agent.
The Nazis had classified Vogel, the son of a Catholic, as a "half-Jew." His mother was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, while he was ejected from the German military, the Wehrmacht. The Berlin native attributed the fact that he had survived what he called the "horrible time" to then Chancellery Chief of Staff Hans Globke, the most important and most controversial member of the Adenauer administration.
As a senior official at the Interior Ministry of the German Reich, Globke, a devout Catholic, had written a legal annotation on the perfidious Nuremberg Race Laws, in which he had not expressed any objection to the discrimination against Jews. But Globke's annotation was helpful to so-called mongrels like Vogel, because it placed them in a better position than radical Nazis had originally intended, and the BND agent was grateful to Globke for the rest of his life.
To the Eichmann Trial for the Chancellor
A reserve officer in the postwar German military, the Bundeswehr, Vogel had already handled a number of delicate missions for Globke. He arranged the first arms deal with Israel, for example, and procured Uzi submachine guns for the Bundeswehr.
Now his mission was to influence the Eichmann trial, for which he was paid a flat rate of 2,000 deutschmarks per month plus a per diem, expenses and first-class plane tickets, to be paid from the budget of the Federal Government Press Office. It was Chancellor Adenauer himself who had sent Vogel to Israel, telling him: "You have to go to the Eichmann trial for me."
Vogel was happy to oblige. He fed the Israeli prosecutors exonerative material on Globke and did everything he could to ensure that the prosecution remained limited to Eichmann. He wanted to ensure that the Israelis did not emphasize, before the world public, the roles played by many other Germans. Together with a journalist for the tabloid newspaper Bild, Vogel even stole documents from an East German attorney in Jerusalem who was trying to capitalize on the Eichmann trial's propaganda value for East Germany. Vogel feared that the documents could incriminate West German politicians or officials.
The BND agent was a "jack of all trades" says Manfred Baden, 88, Globke's personal aide at Palais Schaumburg in Bonn, the headquarters of the Chancellery at the time. Baden analyzed the BND reports that were sent to his boss, including those coming from Vogel in Jerusalem.
The Vogel mission was part of one of the most sensitive diplomatic and intelligence operations in the history of West Germany. From the government's standpoint, there was nothing less at stake than the standing of Germans throughout the world and, along with it, possibly even the survival of the country.
'Soften the Impact of the Trial'
Israel issued an arrest warrant for Eichmann in May 1960, the trial began in April 1961, the Jerusalem court announced its guilty verdict in December 1961, and in May 1962 the Israeli Supreme Court approved the death sentence. In those 24 months, the Berlin Wall was built, CIA troops landed in Cuba and attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro, and the Soviets were on the verge of stationing nuclear warheads on the Caribbean island.
The public had every reason to fear that the Cold War could become hot at any time. But which allies would still be willing to defend (West) Berlin, Bonn wondered, if the Eichmann trial created the impression that West Germany was a refuge for incorrigible former Nazis? This was particularly worrisome in light of the East German propaganda experts' efforts to turn public opinion against Globke, using in turn valid concerns and false accusations.
Today the number of German and Austrian perpetrators involved in the Holocaust is estimated at more than 200,000. Only a tiny number had already faced justice at the time. Fears in Bonn that the Eichmann trial could unleash an avalanche of accusations seemed more than justified.
When a US general with CIA connections offered to help the chancellor "soften the impact of the trial," Adenauer said, according to BND records, that he was "very much interested."
The Foreign Ministry also feared the consequences of the case. The Eichmann trial would "give a boost to all those forces abroad that view Germany and the Federal Republic with suspicion and resentment," noted Foreign Minister Heinrich von Brentano. Brentano, like Adenauer, had steered clear of the Nazis during the Third Reich. But now he wrote to the chancellor: "In light of this horrid trial, we will be forced to clearly distance ourselves from these crimes." The emphasis was on the words "forced to." Investigating the Holocaust and confronting the Nazi past were clearly at the bottom of the Adenauer administration's priority list.
Under a False Name
Nevertheless, the key tip that led to Eichmann's arrest in Argentina had come from Germany itself -- from the western state of Hesse.
By chance, the daughter of a Jew who had fled to Argentina from the Third Reich had become friends with one of Eichmann's sons. In 1957, the emigrant wrote to the Hesse state attorney general in Frankfurt am Main, Fritz Bauer, to report that the Nazi war criminal was living in Buenos Aires under a false name.
Bauer, a Jewish social democrat, had once fled from the Nazis himself. He wanted to have Eichmann extradited, but because he didn't trust the German authorities, he inquired at the US consulate in Frankfurt to determine whether the Americans would help bring about the extradition of a "proven Nazi war criminal" from another country. But the US official he contacted did not understand who Bauer was referring to in his cryptic inquiry -- and did nothing.
An Israeli diplomat was more interested and notified the Mossad. But the Israeli secret service agency had its doubts about Bauer's information. A Mossad agent drove past Eichmann's house in Buenos Aires, but he couldn't imagine that the organizer of the Holocaust could possibly be living in such humble circumstances. A second Mossad agent came to a similar conclusion.
Upon Bauer's insistence, the Mossad finally sent a third man to Argentina who was considered a particularly capable investigator. But the Eichmanns had moved a few weeks earlier. Eichmann himself had laid the bricks for the new house, a drab building just off a main arterial. And ultimately, craftsmen were able to give the Israelis important clues about Eichmann's new address. On March 19, the Israeli agent observed the former SS Obersturmbannführer hanging up laundry in front of the house.
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