The revelation has been described as a sensation, and it sheds light on West Germany's reluctance to confront its past in the decades following the Holocaust.
A secret service document obtained by the German mass-circulation daily Bild from the archives of the BND, the country's foreign intelligence service, shows that the BND knew the location of the Adolf Eichmann, the biggest Nazi criminal still at large at the time, as early as 1952 -- a full eight years before he was caught in Buenos Aires by Israeli agents. He was put on trial in Israel, found guilty of crimes against humanity, and hanged in 1962.
The typewritten file card states that Eichmann was living in Argentina under the alias Clemens. "The address of E. is known to the editor-in-chief of the German newspaper in Argentina 'Der Weg'," the card says.
In fact, Eichmann lived in Argentina under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement. Bild took legal action to force the BND to release some classified documents relating to Eichmann, and found the file card among them.
Until now, the earliest date that Western intelligence agencies are known to have been aware of Eichmann's location was 1956, said German historian Bettina Stangneth, who described the finding as a "sensation."
It is not known whether the BND acted on the information it had in 1952. But assuming the service wasn't incompetent and didn't botch the search for Eichmann, the most likely explanation for the failure to arrest him was a lack of political will in West Germany to put him on trial, she said.
"Who would have been interested in having an Eichmann trial when even the chancellor declared in early 1953 that all the talk of Nazis should stop?" Stangneth told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
West Germany's police force, justice system, intelligence service and civil administration were filled with former Nazis after the war.
Trial Would Have Embarrassed Postwar Germany
"The will to put Eichmann on trial in Germany was lacking among those people who could have made it happen," said Stangneth. "One would have needed a new system and probably new people to conduct an Eichmann trial in Germany," said Stangneth.
"Imagine if he had been in the dock in Germany in 1953. How many people would he have recognized and pointed out? There were very many people in Germany who weren't particularly keen on seeing him again."
As coordinator of the system that killed 6 million Jews, Eichmann had sat in on interministerial meetings to discuss the workings of the genocide, and would have known many officials who subsequently got jobs in the West German administration, said Stangneth.
"Eichmann also knew the full extent of the involvement of German companies in the concentration camps and in the ghettos," said Stangneth. Companies paid government departments for allocations of forced labor. "No one knew the extent of his insights and how good his memory would still be."
Eichmann had coordinated the deportation of Jews from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe to the concentration camps. He escaped from an Allied internment camp after the war and lived undercover in Germany until his escape to Argentina in 1950.
'BND Riddled With Ex-Nazis'
Uki Goni, an Argentine journalist who has researched the Nazi community in Argentina after the war, said he was not surprised the BND knew Eichmann's location as early as 1952.
"All my research showed that the German Embassy in Buenos Aires knew very well who the Nazis were and where they lived. The German community in that city was small enough and tight-knit enough that it would have been impossible for any BND agent or diplomat not to not to be aware of who these people were."
"The BND was riddled with former SS officers and Nazi officers. Many of the BND agents who were supposed to keep an eye on the Nazis abroad had been Nazis themselves."
Post-War History Still Under Wraps
The BND has tried to keep thousands of its documents relating to Eichmann classified but suffered a setback last year when the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig ruled that the agency's blanket ban on releasing any of the files on Eichmann was unlawful.
However, it remains difficult to access the files, and researchers need a good lawyer and financial resources to obtain permission to view documents. Bild, Germany's best-selling newspaper, had both, unlike many historians. Applications to view BND files on Eichmann are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. By contrast, the CIA declassified many of its documents on Eichmann in 2005 and posted them on the Internet.
"We need to explore this chapter and it's a disgrace that we're not capable of doing that in 2011. The German republic is protecting its own legend, the legend that everything started anew with the end of the war," said Stangneth, the historian, who is about to publish a book on Eichmann.
"Eichmann isn't just part of Nazi history, he's part of West German history too."
She said it was up to the German government to order authorities to release sensitive files from that period. "I think Germans lack curiosity about their own history. There are many in Germany who still try to dismiss new revelations about that period," she said, noting that the international press had shown much more interest in the Eichmann document find than domestic German media.
Goni said Germany was embarrassing itself by keeping Eichmann files under wraps half a century after his arrest.
"I suspect that the real reason the BND is sitting so tight on this Eichmann files is because they're afraid that if they do open it they will provoke an avalanche of requests for files regarding the hundreds of other Nazis who were hiding in Argentina," said Goni.