After joining the SS in 1934, Adolf Eichmann rose quickly in responsibility. He made himself an expert on Jewish matters, including studying Hebrew and spending some time in Israel. After the March 1938 union of Germany and Austria, this German-born and Austrian-raised officer was put in charge of the SS unit that handled forced Jewish emigration from Austria.
In January 1939, the Nazis established a similar office for all German-occupied lands. The office was reorganised after WW2 broke out in September 1939 and Eichmann was the logical choice to head up the new team. Over the next few years, its work evolved from expelling Jews from Germany to transporting Jews to extermination camps in Poland.
Adolf Eichmann did not create the Final Solution, but he was the senior Nazi official concerned solely with the imprisonment of all Jewish people in Nazi Europe. He coordinated the deportation of Jews from Germany and its occupied territories. And when Nazi plans moved into genocide, Eichmann organised the transportation of Jews to extermination camps.
After the war, Eichmann and his men disguised themselves as ordinary German soldiers, to escape the Allied forces. Clearly Eichmann's relatively low rank hid the nature and importance of his work, so when he was captured by Allied soldiers, he easily escaped. How extraordinary! In January 1946, Eichmann was even discussed at the Nuremburg war crimes trials as the man who ran the Nazis' murderous scheme.
Eichmann understood that he had to get out of Dodge, and quickly. For the next four years Eichmann stayed somewhere in Germany, always out of the reach of the authorities. Then, somehow, he travelled safely to Argentina. History Today showed that he must have felt very safe in Buenos Aires because he bought a house, held down a job and lived a normal family life as Ricardo Klement. And as the 1950s rolled on, he was correct. Nazi hunting was of no interest to Western governments who now saw Russia as the enemy, not Nazi Germany.
Eichmann inside his trial booth, Jerusalem
The Israelis knew that taking Eichmann from Argentina might been seen as violating Argentina's sovereignty. West Germany and East Germany may have also had a case for demanding that the Eichmann trial be conducted in their courts. But after substantional advice on international law, his captors transported Eichmann to Israel in 1960 and tried him for war crimes in 1961.
In all democracies, however heinous the crimes of which they are charged, the accused are entitled to a proper trial. Thus the trial had to be fair and open, and the prosecution still had to prove Eichmann's guilt. Eichmann had the right to a barrister of his choice; he chose a German lawyer, Dr Robert Servatius, with experience defending accused war criminals. The State of Israel paid for part of the defence and the Knesset passed legislation enabling the German barrister to appear before an Israel court. Although the case was conducted in Hebrew, Eichmann gave all his evidence in German and had running translations of the witnesses’ evidence into German.
In any case, the Jewish state’s primary motive in conducting an open trial before the world’s scrutiny was never revenge. In 1960-1, memories of the Holocaust were still very fresh. Most Ashkenazi citizens in the country had lost their parents and siblings during the war and wanted to document the details of the atrocities, while there were still thousands of witnesses alive. Israelis saw the Eichmann trial as a way to educate the new generation of Israelis and the world about a vicious, anti-Semitic and totalitarian government.
Bruce Brager noted that far more documentary evidence was collected than needed to convict Eichmann, but Chief Prosecutor Gideon Hausner wanted to add human meaning to dry statistics when presenting his case. The way to make the history meaningful to every individual was through
the personal testimony of eye witnesses.
The Israelis collected a huge amount of evidence from the Germans’ own official archives and from post-war investigations in Europe. In fact the German records collected in Jerusalem for the Eichmann trial greatly outweighed that which had been available to the prosecution authorities at Nuremberg.
Eichmann’s defence was that he had been given a task to perform, because of the success he had found in earlier assignments, particularly the deportation of Jews from Austria. Ultimately Eichmann saw himself as just an ordinary bureaucrat, merely following orders from above. He was quiet and self-controlled throughout his trial in the bullet-proof glass booth.
After an excruciatingly long and detailed trial, Dr Servatius denied the validity of the Nazis and Nazi Collaboration Punishment Law, arguing that the destruction of the Jewish people had not depended on Eichmann. Nonetheless the prisoner was found guilty; later he was sentenced to death and, after an appeal, hanged.
I am very sorry that Israel, a nation with no capital punishment whatsoever, before or since Eichmann, executed a human being (even a Nazi leader). But my parents, aunts and uncles were in Australia during the war. Perhaps I would have felt differently had they been fodder to Eichmann’s extermination machinery.