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Photo Gallery: The Hunt for Adolf Eichmann

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.

From Austria to Northern Germany

But there are still some witnesses left -- men like Globke aide Manfred Baden; Gabriel Bach, Eichmann's deputy prosecutor in Jerusalem; Friedrich Kroneck, who observed the trial in Jerusalem as a member of the Bonn delegation; and Georg Negwer, a former diplomat at the German Embassy in Buenos Aires.

As a result, the minutiae of the Eichmann case can now be reconstructed, including his escape with the help of a secret network of former SS members, his open appearances in Buenos Aires, and the German intelligence agencies' detailed knowledge of his whereabouts.

But it was the judiciary and politicians, not the German intelligence agencies -- the BND and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) -- that stood in the way of Eichmann's arrest. If the world needed yet another reason for an international criminal court, the Eichmann case would serve as a case in point. For years, authorities did not even bother to search for the man.

The US kept out of the Eichmann case, leaving it up to the Germans to pursue. The German courts took their time before issuing an arrest warrant, and then the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) refused to launch a search for Eichmann through Interpol.

When the Mossad eventually captured the former SS leader, the German government and the BND were particularly anxious to protect one man: Hans Globke, the colorful head of the Chancellery and Adenauer's closest advisor. As an official in the Interior Ministry during the Third Reich, Globke helped the persecuted and apparently softened a few anti-Jewish measures. But he also wrote a commentary on the Nuremberg racial laws and co-authored various legal regulations, such as an ordinance that required Jews with non-Jewish names to take on the additional first names of Israel or Sara.

Countless Rumors

Because of his past, Globke was the most controversial state secretary in postwar German history. For Adenauer's critics, he was proof positive that West Germany was being run by an old boys' club. Not surprisingly, Adenauer used every tool at his disposal to keep Globke's name out of the Eichmann trial. Now the details of this operation have also come to light, which SPIEGEL will reveal in the second part of the Eichmann series.

The hunt for Eichmann began in the early summer of 1945. The Allies knew little about the angular man with his prominent nose and thin lips. But soon they began receiving reports from survivors who had encountered Eichmann. Some knew him because the SS leader had headed the Nazi emigration offices in Vienna, Prague and Berlin before the beginning of World War II. At the time, Hitler was not out to murder Jews but wanted to force them to emigrate instead.

Others had encountered Eichmann in the concentration camps, which he visited several times. Or they had run into him in Hungary where, as the head of a SS special unit in 1944, he deported more than 400,000 people in only eight weeks. After lengthy negotiations with Jewish representatives in Budapest, Eichmann had allowed 1,684 Jews to emigrate to Switzerland in return for payment. Those involved in the negotiations, of course, also remembered Eichmann.

But the search was complicated by countless rumors. According to one, he was hiding out in the Alps, waiting for a war to break out between the Soviets and the West. In another case, his wife spread a rumor that he planned to move to Prague. Holocaust survivors also had their stories, including one in which Eichmann was under the protection of the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem.

Four Million in the Camps, Two Million Elsewhere

To make matters worse, there were two Eichmanns at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Adolf and Ingo. On several occasions in the 1950s, the Eichmann hunters got the two cases mixed up.

In reality, at the end of the war Eichmann was hiding with a few fellow SS members in the mountainous landscape of Austria's Altaussee lake, where his family lived. But his presence made the others nervous, prompting him to leave the group and head north. A US patrol arrested him near Ulm in southern Germany, and he was eventually interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Franconia region of northern Bavaria. He used a false name and said that he had served as an officer with the Waffen-SS.

His situation only became precarious when investigators working with the Nuremberg war crimes trials interrogated Wilhelm Höttl, a close friend of Eichmann. US investigators had learned that Höttl, in the POW camp, had talked about a 1944 meeting with Eichmann in Budapest. Together, the two men had downed a bottle of Hungarian schnapps. "Tell me Adolf, how many Jews were really murdered?" Höttl asked Eichmann, according to his testimony. Four million in the extermination camps and two million by other means, Eichmann replied. This response was later read out loud in court. It was the first reliable assessment of the scope of the Holocaust, and it made headlines in the New York Times.

When Eichmann learned that the Americans were looking for him in the POW camps, he turned to the highest-ranking former SS member in the camp, identified himself and asked for his help, as described by Eichmann biographer David Cesarani. On Feb. 5, 1946, Eichmann escaped from American captivity and promptly obtained papers that identified him as one Otto Henninger. According to BND documents, Eichmann's false papers were obtained through a network of southern German and Austrian Nazis that included Josef Urban, a former expert on Hungary at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt who probably knew Eichmann from Budapest.

Hoping to Disappear

After Hitler's downfall, Urban joined the United States Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and later worked for the Gehlen Organization, the postwar German intelligence agency that preceded the BND. The affable native of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia boasted of having helped Eichmann escape -- a perfectly plausible claim given Urban's reputation as an expert in supplying false documents to Nazis hoping to disappear.

Like Eichmann, many war criminals went into hiding. They blended in with the large numbers of Germans on the move through a devastated country; the expellees from Eastern Europe, decommissioned soldiers and people who had lost their homes in Allied bombing campaigns. The murderers could also depend on the discretion of their former comrades, and on the support of relatives and friends, who provided them with places to stay or transportation, no questions asked.

The sister of an SS leader who knew Eichmann from the POW camp took him to northern Germany. Another former SS member, also an acquaintance from the camp, had told Eichmann to contact his brother, a forester in the town of Altensalzkoth near Celle.

In the spring of 1946, Eichmann's escape came to a temporary end in the Lüneburg Heath. He found a job as a forestry worker and then built a small chicken farming business.

Over the Mountains to Argentina

The village residents later claimed that they had not known who the taciturn, reserved man was. Unlike them, he was not a drinker. But even if they had known, it probably would have made little difference; radical right-wing and right-leaning parties captured about half of all votes in the Altensalzkoth area in local elections. Like most Germans at the time, they had little interest in Hitler's crimes and their victims.

It was eventually forgotten that Eichmann's name had been mentioned in the Nuremberg trials. He was mentioned only six times in the pages of SPIEGEL prior to his abduction from Argentina in 1960.

The Americans, however, kept an eye on his family in Altaussee and his parents in the Austrian city of Linz, where they conducted house searches and recruited informants. In 1949, when it was rumored that Eichmann was coming to Altaussee, the Israeli consul in Vienna paid an Austrian police officer 50,000 Austrian schillings to begin a search and offered a million schillings for his arrest. A few police officers and Israeli agents took up positions in snowy Altaussee. But Eichmann never turned up.

Instead, he remained undiscovered in Altensalzkoth under his new name, Henninger.

The pressure to find the Nazi war criminal eventually subsided when the anti-Hitler coalition of the British, Americans and Soviets fell apart and the Cold War began dominating geopolitics. "The prosecution of war criminals is no longer considered of primary interest to US authorities," the CIC wrote in a memo on Eichmann in the early 1950s.

Suspicious of the Lull

Even the Israelis were no longer that interested in the case. The small country needed its people for development at home and withdrew many agents from Austria. One of the US interrogators from the Nuremberg trials reported to the FBI that he had spoken about Eichmann with "various Americans, Russians and Israelis" in Vienna, but that "no one was interested in locating Eichmann."

Eichmann, for his part, was suspicious of the lull and went to Argentina in 1950, partly because he wanted to be reunited with his wife Vera and their three sons, who were still living in Altaussee and who he expected to join him in Argentina.

The fact that an almost penniless Nazi criminal with false papers could travel halfway around the world undetected would later give rise to colorful conspiracy theories about a secret "Organization for Former SS Members " (or ODESSA). British novelist Frederick Forsyth wrote a global bestseller about the supposedly omnipotent ODESSA and its plans to build a fourth Reich.

But most of the former SS members had few political ambitions. They helped each other out of necessity, but that was the extent of their cooperation. Some even charged for their services. Eichmann later complained that he had had to "pay dearly." In SS circles, the escape route through the ports of Hamburg, Bremen or Scandinavian cities was now considered too risky. The easiest way to get out of Europe was through Italy.

Eichmann told his hosts in Altensalzkoth that he was emigrating to Scandinavia. Instead, Alois Schintlholzer, a former SS major from the Austrian city of Innsbruck, drove him "in his car from Celle to the Austrian border," according to BND documents. Schintlholzer knew a Nazi sympathizer and BND agent who went by the code name V-54 026. She told the BND that Schintlholzer was part of a group of former SS and SD (the SS intelligence agency) leaders from Innsbruck who had "smuggled Eichmann to Argentina."

Familiar with the Route

There are many indications that this group was a network of former Nazis, known to experts, from the western Austrian region of Tyrol. Together with Schintlholzer, they had already begun harassing Innsbruck Jews before the war and many of them became murderers during the Holocaust. Several had since fled to Argentina -- they were familiar with the route.

Eichmann later said that the organization of his escape had gone "like clockwork." First he had to wait in a small hotel at the border before a trafficker came to take to him to Austria. From the border town of Kufstein, he took a taxi to Innsbruck, where he had two contact addresses.

His next stop was the Vinaders Inn, which belonged to one of the SS members of the Innsbruck group, in Gries, an Austrian town on the Italian border near the Brenner Pass. From there, Eichmann walked along a narrow path through Alpine meadows to the Italian side of the border.

The town pastor in the nearby Italian town of Vipiteno, a Nazi sympathizer, hid the Holocaust organizer in a monastery. Because of the Lateran Treaties between the Vatican and the Italian republic, raids in monasteries were extremely rare.

Many priests helped him "without asking questions," Eichmann reported while in prison in 1960. "In their eyes, I was merely one of many who needed their help."

Plenty of Helpers

At the time, hundreds of thousands were using the Alpine route to leave Europe. They included people from the Baltic republics, Czechs and Ukrainians who had escaped from Stalin's empire, ethnic Germans from Romania and Poland, Holocaust survivors on their way to Palestine -- and Nazi war criminals and foreign collaborators with the Nazis.

According to a recent account of their exodus by the historian Gerald Steinacher ("Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice"; Oxford University Press; English translation to be published in June), the Red Cross, the Argentinean authorities and Catholic priests worked "hand-in-hand."

Refugees like Eichmann initially needed passports from the International Red Cross, which were being issued to stateless individuals. German-speaking natives of the South Tyrol region of Austria and Italy were generally considered stateless, and because government offices in South Tyrol had largely retained their pre-1945 staff, escaping Nazis quickly found the helpers they needed.

One of the towns that proved particularly helpful to Nazis was Termeno sulla Strada del Vino. In addition to Eichmann, Josef Mengele, the notorious SS doctor at Auschwitz and other Nazi murderers later presented documents that had originated in Termeno in 1948. It is no longer possible to determine who submitted the applications, because all records from 1948 are missing from the town's archives.

Eichmann was now using the name Riccardo Klement and was supposedly from Bolzano in northern Italy.

A Visa for Argentina

Now he had to find a priest who would vouch for him at the Red Cross. This too proved to be unproblematic. The Vatican had installed an aid commission to address the dire refugee situation in Italy. Bishop Alois Hudal, a known Nazi sympathizer, attended to the needs of refugees from Austria.

The only potential obstacle for Eichmann, who was born a Protestant and later became an atheist, was that Hudal preferred to support Catholics. So Eichmann promptly declared himself a Catholic, and a priest working with the aid commission quickly approved his passport application. He picked up the valuable document in Genoa on June 1, 1950.

All that he needed now was a visa for Argentina. Fortunately for Eichmann, then Argentine President Juan Perón, an admirer of Hitler and the Wehrmacht, wanted to modernize his country's economy and military with German help. Perón was looking for specialists. It is still disputed whether he deliberately brought in Nazi war criminals or merely tolerated their immigration.

Horst Carlos Fuldner, a colorful businessman, secured the necessary documents. Fuldner, who had grown up in Buenos Aires and the central German city of Kassel, had had a somewhat checkered career as a member of the staff of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, and after the fall of the Third Reich he returned to his native Argentina. A former SS captain, he arranged for the office of the Argentine immigration authority at the consulate in Genoa to issue Eichmann a visa. In the summer of the 1950, the Nazi war criminal sailed for Argentina on board the steamer Giovanna C.

But what did Germany know and when did it know it? Why wasn't Eichmann arrested before 1960? Read Part II  of the story of Eichmann's capture and trial.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan