On 31 May 1962, a man who seemed from the outside quite an ordinary person, even banal, was hanged in Ramla prison in Israel. It was, and still is, the only time the Israel state has executed a person. Tall, slim, bespectacled and with a receding hairline, his external persona was indeed very mundane but this was no ordinary person. The man in question was 56-year-old Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the logistical management of the mass deportations of Jews to the Nazi death camps.
Born 19 March 1906 in the town of Solingen in western Germany, Eichmann was brought up in a middle class Lutheran environment. (Eichmann kept his faith right up to the late 1930s, long after it was fashionable for Nazis to denounce religion).
Following his mother’s death in 1914, Adolf Eichmann’s father, an accountant, took his two sons to live in Linz, Austria, the town that Adolf Hitler always considered his home. Eichmann’s early life was certainly ordinary, dropping out of his studies to become a mechanical engineer and drifting from one job to another before finding more permanent employment as a travelling salesman for an Austrian oil company.
The Jewish Expert
Eichmann joined the Austrian Nazi Party in April 1932 having been approached by a friend of his father’s, an SS man, who said to the younger Eichmann, ‘You belong to us’. Within seven months he had become attached to the SS itself, Hitler’s paramilitary corps, headed by Heinrich Himmler. In 1934, as an SS corporal, he worked at the newly-opened Dachau concentration camp.
Working his way up the SS ladder, Adolf Eichmann studied Jewish history and culture to better understand them and the threat they posed, becoming known for his expertise on Jewish affairs. In spring 1938, following Hitler’s annexation of Austria, he was sent to Vienna and set the task of facilitating the emigration of Jews from the Austrian capital, a task that needed his methodical organisational skills. During a ten-month period in 1938-39, having established the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, his office ‘helped’ over 100,000 Jews emigrate. Such was his success in Vienna, the following year Eichmann was dispatched to Prague to replicate the fine job he had executed in the Austrian capital. But by now it less a case of emigration and more a case of deportation.
In 1939, Himmler invited Adolf Eichmann into the Reich Security Central Office, based in Berlin, and from 1941 to the end of the war, Eichmann headed the Department of Jewish Affairs within the Gestapo.
In 1940, Eichmann looked into the feasibility of deporting four million French and German Jews to Madagascar, a plan that failed to take off. On 20 January 1942, Eichmann attended the one-day Wannsee Conference, on the outskirts of Berlin, where high-ranking Nazis, chaired by the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, discussed in detail the implementation of what was to become known as the ‘Final Solution’, the mass extermination of Jews both within and outside occupied Germany. Eichmann, a mere lieutenant colonel, was the lowest-ranking officer present, his duties at the conference relatively mundane. But Adolf Eichmann’s remit, post-Wannsee, was to organise the logistics and transportation of millions of Jews to the death camps of Auschwitz and others in eastern Germany and Poland. A daunting task, Eichmann was efficient and enthusiastic, charming and berating; earning the sobriquet, the ‘specialist’, such were the vast numbers he moved.
Under Adolf Eichmann’s supervision, an estimated 1.5 million Jews were deported, affecting Jews in France, Belgium, Greece, Hungary and, once Italy had swapped sides, from northern Italy. In Hungary alone, in just an eight week period in mid-1944, he organised the transportation of almost 440,000 Jews to the death camps. He once confessed to saying, ‘I will leap into my grave laughing with the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have died like animals’.
Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Eichmann was arrested by US troops but within a few months managed to escape to a small village in northern Germany. There, living under the name Otto Eckmann, he stayed for four years, working as a lumberjack, before fleeing to Italy. From Europe, he fled to Argentina, aided by the Catholic Church and possibly various pro-Nazi groups, such as the notorious ODESSA organization, an organisation set up specifically to aid the escape of former SS officers. In Argentina, Eichmann took the name Riccardo Klement and again worked in various blue-collared jobs, including a stint with a water company and even as a rabbit farmer. In 1952, Eichmann’s family joined him in Argentina.
Eichmann was finally arrested by the Israeli secret service, Mossad, near Buenos Aires on 11 May 1960. On the 20th, in direct violation of Argentine law, Mossad agents smuggled their man out of the country and back to Israel. Eichmann, in describing his abduction, stated he was ‘assaulted in Buenos Aires, tied to a bed for a week and then drugged by injections in my arms… from there I was flown out of Argentina.’
Dismissing calls that he should be tried in Germany by an international court, and that Israel should stand as only the ‘accuser, and not of judge’, Eichmann was tried in front of three Jewish judges in a Jewish state, leading to accusations that the process was little better than a kangaroo court.
In a trial that lasted from April to December 1961, Adolf Eichmann maintained he was not an anti-Semite and indeed was fond of Jewish literature. Throughout the trial, in which Eichmann was shielded behind bullet-proof glass, he claimed he was only obeying orders and was responsible merely for the transporting of Jews but had no hand in their liquidation. A prosecutor asked, ‘Were you an Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) or an office girl?’ On witnessing a gassing of Jews in a van, Eichmann said, ‘I was horrified. My nerves aren’t strong enough. I can’t listen to such things without their affecting me. I didn’t look inside; I couldn’t. Couldn’t! What I saw and heard was enough. The screaming and… I was much too shaken.’
Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people and sentenced to hang. On hearing the verdict, Eichmann made his plea, stating, ‘I did try to leave my position, to leave for the front, for honest battle. But I was held fast in those dark duties. Once again I would stress that I am guilty of having been obedient, having subordinated myself to my official duties and the obligations of war service and my oath of allegiance and my oath of office.’
‘Banality of Evil’
Appeals for clemency failed, including one from Eichmann’s wife who wrote to the Israeli president, Izhak Ben-Zvi, ‘As the wife and mother of four children, I beg your Excellency for the life of my husband’. Eichmann reportedly said he would rather ‘face capital punishment in Israel than serve a life term.’ A Canadian missionary was assigned to the condemned Nazi, his task to convert Eichmann to Christ before his execution. He failed. Eichmann, said the missionary, was ‘unrepentant’.
Nearing midnight, on 31 May 1962, Eichmann was hanged in Ramla prison. He was cremated and his remains scattered at sea, away from the waters of Israel, in neutral waters.
Eichmann’s trial formed the basis of a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil, written by a German-born American writer, Hannah Arendt, in which she rejected the idea of all Nazi leaders as being psychopathically evil and that Adolf Eichmann was himself an ordinary, ‘banal’ man swept along by ambition and the twisted objectives of his masters.