Adolf Eichmann was one of the key architects of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” of the Jews in Europe. His arrest/kidnapping by the Mossad in Argentina and subsequent trial in Israel brought to the public’s awareness the horrors of the Holocaust. And the widespread use of television transmitted them straight to the public’s living room.
His defense that he was just a small cog in the machine of the Nazi party didn’t resonate with the jurors. Eichmann was convicted of crimes against humanity; crimes against the Jewish, Polish, Slovene and Gypsy people; and of being a member of three criminal organizations.
He was hanged in an Israeli prison on May 30, 1962.
Eichmann’s Beginnings And Rise
Eichmann was a member of the Nazi Party, the SS and the SD during Hitler’s reign in the 1930s and 1940s. He rose in the ranks to become an SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) and one of Holocaust’s major organizers.
He personally oversaw the forced emigration of Austrian Jews after Hitler came to power. His system of forced emigration was adopted by the Nazi hierarchy and was used as a template for other countries. Once Germany overtook Czechoslovakia, Eichmann oversaw the forced deportation of Jews in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He also created a Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Prague following the pattern of his Viennese model.
Once World War II began, Eichmann continued with the forced emigration of Jews from Germany and other occupied territories. He was then part of the forced movement of Jews to the death camps. He was responsible for transporting 1.5 million Jews to the death camps located in Poland and later parts of the occupied Soviet Union.
By the autumn of 1941, Eichmann had been promoted to SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) and was the chief of the Reich Security Office (RSHA) that took part in planning the annihilation of the European Jews. Since Eichmann was to be in charge of transporting Jews from all over Europe to the death camps, RSHA chief Reinhard Heydrich asked Eichmann to prepare a presentation for the Wannsee Conference.
At the conference, RSHA officials advised the government and Nazi Party agencies on the implementation of the “Final Solution” to what the Nazis called the “Jewish Question.” Eichmann also relayed these plans to his network of officials who would help him carry out the deportation efforts in German-occupied areas and in Germany’s Axis allies.
Eichmann and the men under him organized the deportation of Jews from Slovakia, the Netherlands, France and Belgium. In 1943 and 1944 they deported the Jews of Greece, northern Italy and Hungary. It was in Hungary where Eichmann involved himself directly in the deportation of Jews. From the time Germany occupied Hungary in late April 1944, for six weeks until early July, Eichmann and his aides deported some 440,000 Hungarian Jews. Of these 75-90 percent were murdered in the gas chambers immediately after arriving in the death camps.
After the war, Eichmann was initially captured by American forces. But because he had forged identity papers in the name of “Otto Eckmann,” he was treated as an ordinary prisoner of war. When he learned that the Americans had discovered his true identity, he escaped from a work detail and with the help of the Catholic church and others fled to Argentina where he lived until 1960.
Capture By Mossad and Trial
There in Buenos Aires, Eichmann lived under the name of Ricardo Klement and worked in a BMW factory. His identity was discovered by the Israeli Mossad and the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. The Israelis dispatched intelligence-gathering teams from the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence services. These confirmed not only Eichmann’s identity but also his location.
Knowing that the government of Argentina would not honor an extradition request, the Israelis decided to act on their own. A harrowing operation, under the command of Isser Harel, was conducted.
The Mossad knew Eichmann’s routine and planned on abducting him when he passed an open field near his home after getting off a bus. As he approached the field, a Mossad agent spoke to him in Spanish but Eichmann sensed danger. Quickly two other Mossad agents jumped him, and the three managed to subdue and whisk him to a Mossad safe house. Then he was flown from Buenos Aires to Jerusalem via Dakar, Senegal.
Harel’s tale was eventually written into a fine book, “The House on Garibaldi Street” which offers a tremendous look at the entire operation.
Eichmann’s trial began in Jerusalem District Court on April 11, 1961. Because his proceedings were the first to be televised, they not only aroused huge international interest, but also widely broadcasted the full story of the Nazi-induced Holocaust horror.
While the Nuremberg war crimes trials used the Nazi’s meticulous record-keeping as evidence, this trial, while still extensively using records, had something Nuremberg did not really have: actual witnesses.
The legal basis for the charges against Eichmann was the 1950 Nazi and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law, under which he was indicted on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, and membership in a criminal organization.
Eichmann, like other Nazis, was meticulous in his planning. His staff had every detail planned right down to how the property of the Jews sent to the death camps would be divided — his office would retain the lion’s share of course.
Eichmann, testifying from behind a glass booth in order to protect him from possible assassination, asserted that he had not dictated policy, but only carried it out — that he was “merely a little cog in the machinery” of destruction. In his last day of testimony, he admitted that while he was guilty of arranging the transport of millions of Jews to their deaths, he did not feel guilty of the consequences.
His own words were the most-damning toward his case, when the prosecution brought forth a statement he had made in 1945 saying that the Nazis had been responsible for over five million dead Jews, (which was later amended to six million).
“I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
Eichmann’s defense was dismissed. He was found responsible for the deplorable conditions on board the deportation trains on which the Jews were transported to the death camps. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against not only the Jews but against the Poles, Slovenes and Gypsies too. He was found guilty of membership in three organizations that had been deemed criminal at the Nuremberg trials: the Gestapo, the SD, and the SS. He was convicted on December 12, 1961.
While considering his sentence, the judges concluded that Eichmann hadn’t only followed orders, but believed in the Nazi cause wholeheartedly and had been a key perpetrator of the genocide of the Jewish people. Three days later on December 15, his sentence was pronounced to be death by hanging.
After his appeal for clemency was denied on May 31, 1962, he was hanged on June 1, 1962. His final words were about his family and the countries that he lived in.
“Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the three countries with which I have been most connected and which I will not forget. I greet my wife, my family and my friends. I am ready. We’ll meet again soon, as is the fate of all men. I die believing in God.”
After his death, his body was immediately cremated and his ashes scattered in the Mediterranean outside Israel’s territorial waters.
His execution remains the only time Israel has ever enacted a death sentence.