A Triumph of Justice On the Trail of Holocaust Organizer Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann was the chief organizer behind the Nazi mass murder of Europe's Jews. Following the end of the war, he found refuge in a village in northern Germany before ultimately escaping to Argentina. Documents unknown until now show that he could have been captured earlier than he was -- if West Germany had been interested.


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 first of the two-part initial instalment in the series. The second can be read here.

The oppressive early summer heat weighed down on Jerusalem on May 23, 1960. In the Knesset, Israel's parliament, several members were dozing in their seats. But then, at 4 p.m., David Ben-Gurion stepped to the podium to make a statement. It consisted of exactly 62 words -- and it contained a sensation. Israel's security forces, the prime minister announced, had tracked down Adolf Eichmann, "one of the greatest of Nazi war criminals." He was in Israel, Ben-Gurion said, where he would now stand trial.

For a short moment, there was silence, but then the delegates broke out into cheers.

Eichmann, of all people, the chief organizer of the Holocaust. The man whom the commandant of one extermination camp had described as being "obsessed" with murdering Jews.

"Well, my dear old friend Storfer, what rotten luck," Eichmann once said mockingly to an Auschwitz inmate he had known before the war. "Look, I really cannot help you."

Eichmann, an Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) in the SS, had been the head of the "Jewish Section" at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office), the SS organization charged with fighting "enemies of the Reich," a position in which he was responsible for the deportation of Jews from Western Europe, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece to the extermination camps. He was the prototypical behind-the-scenes mastermind, an unscrupulous bureaucrat who never killed anyone with his own hands.

Postcards from the Death Camps

Beginning in 1941, men like Eichmann ensured that the Holocaust, as an act of industrialized mass murder, could acquire a position of grisly historic exclusivity. He and his staff developed the method by which the authorities and the police robbed the victims before deportation. Eichmann determined who was to board the trains to Auschwitz and Treblinka immediately and who would be deported later. He ensured that his men coordinated the transports. Figures showing the current status of the genocide were displayed in the offices of his section on Kurfürstenstrasse in Berlin.

The cunning bureaucrat was at odds with the foreign ministry and church representatives over his efforts to kill Jews from neutral countries as well as converted Jews. He stationed "Jew consultants" all over Europe, whose job was to intervene with German officials and those of other countries whenever the murderous transports were not moving quickly enough.

Eichmann forced inmates in the death camps to send postcards to friends and relatives, using text that he had penned: that they were in a beautiful place, went on excursions and were not required to work hard -- and that everyone else should hurry to the camps because most of the accommodations had already been taken.

But now, in the early summer of 1960, this man was sitting in a police building in northern Israel, at "Camp Iyar."

Was it a triumph of justice?

While people embraced each other on the streets of Tel Aviv, Bonn reacted with "great concern," as then Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), later reported with atypical understatement. In fact, the government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was, in the assessment of the CIA, following the case "with growing apprehension, sometimes bordering on hysteria."

'Risks of Adverse Effects'

What if Eichmann decided to talk? What would the former SS leader reveal about his accomplices and confidants? What would he say about the Nazi past of some of the leaders of the young republic? How would the trial affect the reputation of West Germans around the world?

The proceedings against Eichmann contained "so many risks of adverse effects, both domestically and abroad, that we cannot fully assess all of the difficulties that could be coming our way," a senior official with the Office of the Federal President noted. An anxious state secretary at the Foreign Ministry wrote that it was "quite possible that incriminating material against employees of the federal and state governments will come to light."

Ultimately, the case of "The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann" would revolve around the Holocaust in general, with the entire world looking on. Evening after evening, courtroom footage flickered across television screens from San Francisco to Berlin, while hundreds of journalists were in Israel reporting on the trial. According to surveys, some 85 percent of people in Germany followed the trial on TV.

The case was attention-grabbing in every respect. The defendant was being tried as the chief organizer of probably the biggest crime against humanity ever perpetrated, and the case was made even more sensational by the fact that agents with the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, had abducted Eichmann in Argentina. He had moved to the South American country in 1950 after spending years hiding in Europe. But who had helped him flee?

'Completely at Ease'

One concern harbored by Bonn officials did not come to pass, however. Eichmann did not reveal any embarrassing information about previously unknown perpetrators and accessories. In a July 24, 1961 report to the Chancellery from Jerusalem, an agent with Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), wrote: "You can be completely at ease."

Nevertheless, rumors persist to this day that Adenauer tried to protect senior German officials with a Nazi past. Was this true and, if it was, what role was played by the BND?

The search for answers is complicated, because the people involved were naturally discreet. In one letter to the Chancellery, a BND agent expressly instructs the reader: "Burn these lines once you have read them." But the document, and others like it, was in fact not burned.

SPIEGEL has now gained access to thousands of pages of formerly confidential, secret and top-secret documents from the political archives of the German Foreign Ministry, the State Archive in Berlin, the Federal Archive in the western city of Koblenz, the estates of Adenauer and his chief of the Chancellery, Hans Globke, at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Chancellor Adenauer House Foundation, the US National Archives in Washington, DC, and the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem.

The papers include the minutes of German-Israeli negotiations, records of the German Embassy in Buenos Aires and documents of the secret Eichmann task force in Bonn, whose members came from the key ministries and intelligence agencies. They also include thousands of pages of BND records, which the agency may be required to disclose if lawsuits filed by journalist Gaby Weber and Berlin attorney Reiner Geulen are successful.


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BTraven 04/01/2011
I have always wondered when it was mentioned again that his family had been quite poor in Argentina why he did not take any bribes in order to prepare his family for the time after the war. Nazi leaders were very corrupt, one SS concentration camp commander was even sentenced to death among other things because of embezzling property which was "confiscated" from prisoners by the SS. I think only a few high ranking officers were detected therefore the chances getting through were quite good. Since he had never regretted his crimes I believe that he was quite happy about being caught by the Mossad because he knew an arrest and a trial would make sure that history would evaluate his contribution to the Holocaust adequately. Perhaps he was feeding up playing always the second fiddle.
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