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Adolf Eichmann on trial in 1961

Hunting Eichmann - Capturing the Notorious Nazi Fugitive

Adolf Eichmann on trial in 1961 | Image: Public Domain

By the summer of 1945, the war in Europe was over; Berlin had fallen and Hitler had committed suicide. Many of his high command would do the same including Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and SS Commander Heinrich Himmler. Those that were captured like Hermann Göring, the Commander of the Luftwaffe, faced trial for war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials.

During the trials, the world heard the testimony of Rudolf Höss, the Commander of Auschwitz. Höss perfected techniques in mass murder that made Auschwitz the most efficient and deadly weapon of The Final Solution, the Nazi plan for the genocide of Jews during the war. According to Höss though, he took his orders from Adolf Eichmann, a man that Höss testified had come ‘repeatedly to Auschwitz and was intimately acquainted with the proceedings.’

Eichmann had played a pivotal role in the Holocaust. He was charged with the logistical implementation of the mass deportation of Jews to extermination camps during the war, a task that he said provided him with ‘extraordinary satisfaction’. He once declared that he would ‘leap’ into his grave laughing knowing that he had the lives of millions of Jews on his conscious.

Under Perón, Argentina had become a safe haven for Nazi war criminals.

Although the notoriety of Adolf Eichmann had been elevated after the trials, his exact location was still a mystery. After the war, Eichmann had been captured by U.S. forces and kept in various detention camps in Germany. Using false papers, Eichmann managed to keep his true identity secret from his captors before eventually escaping and fleeing to northern Germany, where he would remain until 1950.

Höss’ testimony had enlarged the size of the target on Eichmann’s back and so Eichmann sought to relocate to South America. The country of choice was Argentina. It was already home to hundreds of thousands of German immigrants and its President, Juan Perón, was a Nazi sympathiser. Under Perón, Argentina had become a safe haven for Nazi war criminals. For a number of years after the war, Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor known as the ‘Angel of Death’, called the country his home. Argentina also actively helped to set up the ‘ratlines’; a system of escape routes for Nazis and fascists fleeing Europe.

Following one such ratline, Eichmann found his way to Buenos Aires in the summer of 1950. His falsified papers stated that his name was now Ricardo Klement. Initially, he resided in a province in the northwest part of the country before relocating back to Buenos Aires upon the arrival of his wife and four children in 1952. He would gain long-term employment at a Mercedes-Benz automotive plant and eventually climbed the ranks to administrative clerk.

Although he kept a low profile, the first reporting of his newfound whereabouts came in 1953. Austrian Holocaust survivor turned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal learned from a letter that Eichmann had been seen in Buenos Aires. Wiesenthal already suspected Eichmann was alive and well after Eichmann’s wife unsuccessfully attempted to have him officially declared dead in the late 40s so as to stop any hunt for him before it had even begun.

Without the finances or the resources to act on the Argentina tip, Wiesenthal passed the information to the Israeli consulate in Vienna in 1954, although the Israeli’s did nothing with it.

In 2006, declassified CIA documents showed that the U.S. and West Germans were also aware of Eichmann’s movements at this time. After the war, the Americans had actively employed former Nazi’s to work on their behalf, one such man was Hans Globke. He would play a key role in the new West German government although he himself had co-authored the Nazi anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. It was therefore not in the interests of America or West Germany to go after Eichmann in case he revealed this information.

So, along with fellow Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Tuviah Friedman, Wiesenthal kept the hunt alive for Eichmann during the early 50s. The true identity of Ricardo Klement would remain a secret until a blind half-Jewish German and his daughter uncovered what they believed to be the truth.

Lothar Hermann had immigrated to Argentina to escape the persecution he faced at the hands of the Nazis, having already lost his sight due to one particularly bad beating. In 1956, Hermann’s daughter Sylvia began dating a man called Klaus Eichmann. When the Eichmann family arrived in Argentina four years prior they had strangely done so without changing their names, a mistake that would ultimately lead to the downfall of Adolf himself.

Although the relationship between Sylvia and Klaus didn’t last long, during their time together Klaus had made his opinion of the Jews quite clear, whilst also mentioning the great deeds his father had done as a Nazi officer. The Hermann’s soon moved away from Buenos Aires but the name Eichmann stuck with them.

Then one day in 1957, Sylvia was reading the newspaper to her father and stumbled upon an article about West German prosecutor Dr Fritz Bauer, who was going after war criminals in Germany. The article went on to mention Adolf Eichmann’s name stating that he was still at large. The Hermann’s put two and two together and wrote to Bauer declaring that they believed they knew where Eichmann was.

The role of the Hermann’s didn’t end there. Bauer replied and asked them to begin an amateur investigation and uncover Eichmann’s address. They boarded a train to Buenos Aires and began asking around. Not before long Sylvia found herself at the doorstep of one of the most notorious war criminals of WWII. She knocked on the door and Eichmann answered. After introducing herself she was invited in. Eichmann stated that he was Klaus’ uncle, although that lie came undone when Klaus returned home and called Eichmann ‘father’.

The operative could not believe that the powerful operational manager of the Holocaust resided in such a ‘wretched little house’

The Hermann’s were totally convinced they had found Adolf Eichmann and declared their findings with great conviction in their next letter to Bauer. Afraid that Eichmann might be tipped off if he revealed the information in Germany, Bauer passed it on to Israeli authorities instead. At that time the fledgeling State of Israel was not actively Nazi-hunting but was rather pre-occupied with its establishment and fending off threats from Arab countries. However, Isser Harel, the Director of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, agreed to send an operative to Buenos Aires to investigate the information the Hermann’s had gathered.

After seeing the small house that the Eichmann’s supposedly lived in, the operative could not believe that the powerful operational manager of the Holocaust resided in such a ‘wretched little house’. Harel concluded the same and the case was effectively closed.

Bauer, whom himself spent time in a Nazi concentration camp, insisted that Harel send someone to meet the Hermann’s and interview them. Harel agreed and sent an officer to speak with Lothar and Sylvia. Although the officer would believe what they were saying, the investigation was left with the Hermann’s to take further. They had to gather the evidence themselves.

Although Lothar was able to identify that the house Eichmann lived in was registered to a man named Ricardo Klement, Harel closed the case again after the Hermann’s failed to provide indisputable proof that Klement was indeed Eichmann.

In the end, Bauer approached the Israeli's with information that would corroborate what the Herman's were saying. To this day no one knows where Bauer got that information from, but it was enough to convince the Israeli's to put resources into proving the Hermann's theory about Ricardo Klement.

In early 1960, Harel sent chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni to Buenos Aires to get proof of Eichmann’s existence there. At the time Aharoni was working for Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, although he would later switch to Mossad. Therefore, the Eichmann operation became a collaboration between the two Israeli intelligence agencies.

It had taken the Hermann’s more than two years to convince the Israeli’s to believe their story, so when Aharoni arrived in Argentina it was no surprise that he discovered Eichmann’s residence deserted. Eichmann had moved just days before. Had the window of opportunity gone?

Fortunately, after weeks of investigating, Aharoni was able to track down one of Eichmann’s sons who still worked in the area. After tailing him back to his new home on Garibaldi Street, in San Fernando, Buenos Aires, Aharoni was able to set eyes on Eichmann for the first time. Using a camera hidden in a briefcase he snapped black and white photographs of the balding 54-year-old.

Although Mossad had a wartime photograph of Eichmann from the early 1940s, they had no real idea what he looked like in 1960. Aharoni soon returned to Tel Aviv and Israeli identification experts went to work on the photos he had captured. Although not 100% sure, the experts concluded that the man in the photographs was most likely Eichmann. It was enough to convince Harel.

Since Argentina had a history of declining extradition requests for Nazi war criminals, the decision was made to capture Eichmann covertly and bring him back to Israel for trial. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, approved the order and greenlit the operation.

Mossad was still in its infancy as an intelligence service so this operation was by no means an easy feat. They put their best men on the job, including Harel himself who flew out to Buenos Aires to oversee the capture. The eight-man task force arrived in Argentina in April 1960, led by Mossad operative Rafi Eitan.

After carefully watching Eichmann for a number of days they began to learn his routine. The plan was to snatch him as he walked home from work, keep him at a designated safe house before flying him back to Israel. In those days flights didn’t happen all that often and so the team would have to hold Eichmann at the safe house for a number of days. They then planned to board him onto an El Al aircraft in Buenos Aires. The aircraft would be there after bringing Israeli delegates over for the 150th-anniversary celebrations of Argentina’s independence from Spain.

'I, Adolf Eichmann, declare of my own free will that, since my true identity has been discovered, I realise that it is futile for me to go on evading justice...'

On 11 May, moments before Eichmann was due off his bus from work, the team parked their car by the side of the road opposite a field and popped open their bonnet, to make it look as if they were having car trouble. Eichmann’s regular bus pulled up to the stop but he did not get out. A tense half hour passed as the men debated whether to call the operation off.

Eventually, Eichmann stepped off another bus and began his walk home. Mossad agent Peter Malkin asked Eichmann a question in Spanish as he walked past their car; Eichmann seemed to suspect something was off. What came next was hardly part of the plan as a number of agents soon found themselves rolling around on the ground trying to subdue Eichmann. The Nazi screamed and howled but was eventually dragged into the car.

The man insisted he was Ricardo Klement but just ten minutes into the drive Eichmann mumbled the words, ‘I am resigned to my fate.’ The agents knew they had their man.

When Klaus realised that his father was missing he enlisted the help of local Nazi sympathisers to aid him in his search. For the next ten days, Eichmann was kept in a safe house. During that time he admitted to being the man they were looking for and agreed to sign a statement declaring, ‘I, Adolf Eichmann, declare of my own free will that, since my true identity has been discovered, I realise that it is futile for me to go on evading justice. I state that I am prepared to travel to Israel to stand trial.’

As midnight approached on 20 May, a sedated Eichmann was smuggled aboard the El Al flight dressed as a flight attendant. The agents joked with airport security that he’d just had too much to drink. They seemed to be home and dry but just before take-off, the airport tower radioed to say they’d found an irregularity with the flight plan. Was this a ruse, had the operation been uncovered?

The senior flight navigator, a man named Shaul Shaul agreed to step off the plan and speak with the tower. He was told on the way out by the agents that if he didn’t return in ten minutes they were going to take-off without him. Expecting to be ambushed as he entered the tower, Shaul was relieved to hear that a signature was missing from the flight plan.

With the administrative error now sorted, the plane took to the skies and headed for Israel via a stop off in Dakar. Half an hour later, Klaus Eichmann learnt from someone in his search party that an Israeli passenger plane had just departed from Buenos Aires airport. Adamant that his father was on board he alerted a contact in the Brazilian secret service and asked him to intercept the plane when it landed. The ambitious nonstop flight to Dakar was implemented to avoid such an ambush.

Two days later on 22 May 1960, Eichmann arrived in Israel. Ben-Gurion announced the news that afternoon, at which point a furious Argentina declared to the world that their sovereignty had been violated. A few weeks later Israel and Argentina would come to an agreement to end the dispute and after nearly a year in a fortified prison, one of the most important trials of the 20th century began.

The world watched as the horrors of the Holocaust were thrust into the public consciousness. The trial would prove to be a watershed moment in our understanding of those horrific events, for it was the first time that many were exposed to the shocking testimonies of Holocaust survivors.

Political theorist Hannah Arendt would later famously coin the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe Eichmann. Many were struck by how ‘normal’ he seemed yet this average man carried out some of history’s most monstrous acts. Could he really have been just an unthinking bureaucrat carrying out the orders of his superiors? Others have vehemently debated this claim, arguing he was a devout Nazi ideologist who believed in what he was doing.

Eichmann never admitted his guilt, in his eyes his conscious was clear, those above him were to blame. He even went so far as to say that he tried to help the Jewish people.

He was sentenced to death by hanging. The noose claimed his final breath on 1 June 1962 at the age of 56.