by Bruce L. Brager
"Earth conceal not the blood shed on thee"
Inscription on Memorial stone
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
Adolf Eichmann was tried in Israel in 1961 for crimes committed during World
War Two. Eichmann, former Obersturmbannfuhrer (lieutenant colonel) in the Nazi
German Schutzstaffen (better known as the SS) was accused of playing a major
role in the Holocaust, the systematic murder of 6,000,000 European Jews. The
Holocaust was the Third Reich's "final solution" to first rid Europe and then
rid the world of what it considered the "problem" of the Jewish people.
Adolf Eichmann did not create the "final solution," (though he did coin the
term) but he was the senior Nazi official concerned solely with the confinement
and elimination of the Jews. Eichmann initially coordinated the deportation of
Jews from Germany and its occupied territories. Then, when Nazi Germany
switched to genocide Eichmann organized the transportation of Jews to
confinement in Eastern Europe, and eventually to death camps.
After joining the SS (the German paramilitary police and security organization)
in 1934, Eichmann rose quickly in responsibility. He made himself an "expert"
on Jewish matters, including studying Hebrew (and making a brief visit to
Palestine on the way to Egypt in 1937). After the March 1938 union of Germany
and Austria, Eichmann, an Austrian, was put in charge of the SS unit handling
forced Jewish emigration from Austria. Eichmann's office was highly efficient
both in looting Jewish possessions and throwing the Jews out of the country.
In January, 1939, inspired by Eichmann's success, the Nazi' established a
similar office for all German-occupied lands. Eichmann was the logical choice
to head this office, a position he held until the end of World War II. The
office was reorganized after World War II broke out in September 1939.
Over the next two years, its work evolved from expelling Jews from Germany to
transporting Jews to death camps in Poland. Eichmann had the resources of the
German state to call on for his murderous activities. Based in Berlin, though
traveling extensively, Eichmann evolved with the unit, showing his ability and
enthusiasm in handling any job he was assigned. He used his often intimidating
temperament, and the power of his office, to coordinate the work of mass
murder. He ensured trains were available to take Jews to the East, even if this
took needed transportation away from the German war effort. He ensured that
Jews reported to transportation centers, persuading or browbeating Jewish
leaders to cooperate. He even helped plan phases of the actual murder, choosing
the method of killing and helping design the layout of Auschwitz, the largest
The Israeli Government and Capturing Eichmann
Capturing Nazi war criminals was a major concern of Jewish organizations, and
survivors, after World War Two ended. After its creation in 1948, Israel was
determined to hunt down Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice. As part
of these efforts, Eichmann was tracked down in Argentina.
In a democracy like Israel, individuals, however horrible the crimes of which
they are accused are entitled to a fair trial. However, the Israeli government
would not have undertaken the long, hard process of bringing Eichmann to
justice from Argentina unless they were firmly convinced, almost beyond a
reasonable doubt, that he was guilty of a major role in administering the
Holocaust. The prosecution would still have to prove Eichmann's guilt, the
trial would still be fair, but the Israeli government always assumed the
results would be a verdict of guilty.
The Eichmann Trial as Education
Had the Israelis merely wanted to punish Eichmann, however, killing him in
Argentina would have been far easier than capturing him, hiding him for over a
week, and then smuggling him back to Israel. The Israeli government had motives
other than mere revenge.
For the government, for Holocaust survivors, and for Israelis who remembered
the genocide, preserving the memory of the atrocities was of equal of greater
importance. Israeli young people had little knowledge of the Holocaust, and
many older Israelis wanted to forget the horrors of the past. But those
Israelis who wanted to bring Nazi criminals to justice sought to ensure that
the Holocaust would not be buried in history. They saw the Eichmann trial as a
way to educate the Israelis and the world about the evils of totalitarian
government run amok. "This trial is not necessary for this defendant," a member
of the Israeli Knesset said before that body. "This trial is necessary because
we need to remind the world of what happened during World War II, something
many would like to consign to oblivion."
Even though more documentary evidence was collected than needed to convict
Eichmann, Chief Prosecutor Gideon Hausner wanted to add emotion to dry
statistics when presenting his case. Hausner included the testimony of many
witnesses. At least twenty five of the witnesses spoke of the fate of children
during the mass killings. Twenty years after the trial, Hausner said in an
interview that "I wanted testimony about the fate of young men and women, so
that our own young people would hear what happened." Hausner thought it
would be easier for young people to identify with victims their own age. He
felt that Israeli youth had failed to identify with what many of their parents
and relatives experienced. Holocaust survivors in Israel had rarely spoken of
their experiences. They assumed that young people brought up in a vigorous new
nation would not understand, would ask only "why did you not resist?"
Tracking and Capturing Adolf Eichmann
Adolf Eichmann sought power and influence but not wide publicity. He vanished
from view when World War II ended in 1945 and Nazi atrocities were fully
revealed. The Allies had a difficult time finding the details of Eichmann's
role in World War II because he was such a shadowy figure. Eichmann's
relatively low rank hid the nature and importance of his work. It helped to
conceal his job from his victims and from the world at large. Those who
searched soon learned that he was the senior Nazi official devoting almost all
of his time first to exiling and then to killing the Jews.
Eichmann possessed an arrogance and bravado that remained to the end of the
war. He told subordinates that "he would leap laughing into his grave because
the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him
a source of extraordinary satisfaction." Eichmann was being too modest. He
underestimated the number of Jewish dead by one million victims.
While deciding what to do after Germany's defeat and the Allies arrived,
Eichmann and his subordinates first planned to escape to the Austrian Alps to
fight as guerrillas. This collection of desk officers, who spent the war
organizing mass murder but not actually doing any killing, would have made poor
soldiers. Eichmann and his men were probably relieved, just before the war
ended, when a message arrived from Eichmann's superior Ernst Kaltenbrunner,
head of the RSHA (Reich Security Head Office, part of the SS). Kaltenbrunner
ordered resistance to stop.
Eichmann and one of his aides headed out on their own to try and escape Allied
forces. They disguised themselves as Luftwaffe enlisted men. Soon captured by
American forces, they escaped, but were later recaptured. Eichmann had no
problems in the American prisoner of war camp, since the Americans did not know
his real identity. However, on January 3, 1946, Eichmann's name was mentioned
at the Nuremburg war crimes trials as the man who ran the "final solution," the
Nazi term for the Holocaust. Eichmann learned he had been mentioned at
Nuremberg, and knew the Allies would eventually learn who he was. Two days
later he escaped, due to lax security, and headed to a hideout not far from the
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. For the next four year Eichmann stayed in
Germany, though he was not in contact with his family. His name was mentioned
again and again at war crimes trials, but authorities could not locate him. By
1950 Eichmann saw it was time to leave Germany. He made his way to Argentina.
His family joined him there two years later.
By 1956, Eichmann believed that people had lost interest in bringing him to
justice. In many ways Eichmann was correct in feeling safe. Nazi hunting was
less of a concern to Western governments at the height of the Cold War. Some
Jewish survivors, most notably Simon Weisenthal and his staff, kept up the
hunt. However, most Jewish concern was directed to a more immediate problem --
the survival of the new state of Israel. Then, in 1957, the phone rang in the
office of Isser Harel, chief of the Mossad, the soon to become legendary
Israeli secret service.
A senior official at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was on the phone.
Harel was struck by the excitement in the voice of the normally restrained
official. The two men arranged to meet in a cafe in a suburb of Tel Aviv. The
official had startling news for Harel. Adolf Eichmann may have been located.
Information passed on by Dr. Fritz Bauer, the public prosecutor of the West
German state of Hesse, indicated that Eichmann, then missing for twelve years,
was living in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Some instinct told Harel
that this report, unlike so many false reports in the past, was worth checking
The Mossad sent an agent to Germany to talk with Dr. Bauer, a German Jew. Bauer
had spent part of the Nazi era in exile, part in prison in Germany. Bauer
explained that he was relaying the report of an informant who lived in
Argentina. Bauer claimed that he was giving the information to the Israelis
because he was afraid that someone in his own government might warn Eichmann.
Bauer kept the original informant's name secret, to protect the man from
possible harm from any of Eichmann's supporters or associates.
At the end of the conversation, the Mossad agent asked Bauer who else knew
about their meeting. "Bauer replied that he had told only one man about his
appeal to the Israelis, a man of standing and of high integrity." Harel
later learned that this person was Georg-August Zinn, the prime minister of
Hesse, a position roughly equivalent to governor of an American state. Zinn had
approved the initial contact with the Israelis, and was kept informed of
progress in the operation.
The Mossad Begins to Look for Eichmann
Field work to locate Eichmann began with the seemingly simple measure of
sending an agent to Buenos Aires to investigate the address Bauer supplied. The
agent was asked to find out if Eichmann was living at the address, a house in a
suburb just north of Buenos Aires. The agent had to be very secretive, as any
carelessness on his part might alert Eichmann and cause him to flee.
The agent soon discovered the house, on an unpaved street, in a poor
neighborhood. When he saw the house, the Mossad investigator questioned the
lead because the area did not seem affluent enough for a fugitive senior Nazi.
Rumors had been circulating for years that when the leaders of the Third Reich,
including Eichmann, saw the war was lost they hid valuables and large sums of
money around the world. This treasure was supposedly being used to support them
in exile. Even professional intelligence agents tended to share the public view
that senior Nazis would not be living in poor neighborhoods. Initial checks
found no evidence to contradict this view. The agent concluded that Eichmann
was not living at the house. Additional inquiries among the German community in
Argentina yielded no further clues as to Eichmann's location.
Harel, however, was not sure the initial lead was false. He wanted to have
someone from the Mossad talk directly to Bauer's source. A Mossad
representative met with Bauer on January 21, 1958. At this meeting, Bauer was
convinced of the Mossad's need to meet the source personally as the best way to
evaluate the source's honesty and accuracy. Bauer revealed the name. He also
wrote a letter of introduction for the Mossad to use in contacting the source.
The Blind Man's Daughter
Harel decided to send another agent to Argentina. An Israeli police detective
was going to Argentina on police business. He agreed to undertake the
additional mission of contacting Bauer's source. The detective arrived in
Buenos Aires in late January 1958, with only winter clothing. No one had warned
him, and he had not realized, that January occurs in mid-summer.
The police detective was told that Bauer's informant lived in a small town
several hundred miles from Buenos Aires. The detective realized a stranger
might attract attention, so he sent the informant a telegram asking him to come
to the capital. The informant refused, saying that since he did not know the
detective, the detective would have to come to him. The detective agreed, and
headed out of the capital.
On meeting the informant and presenting Bauer's letter, the detective learned
some facts about the informant and his family. The man was a blind German Jew,
who was sympathetic to Israel. As a young man during World War Two he had been
confined in a German concentration camp. His parents had been among Eichmann's
victims. Surviving the war, the man moved to Argentina. His wife was not
Jewish, and his daughter, though half-Jewish, was the type of blonde the Nazis
considered the "ideal" physical type.
His daughter had dated a young man calling himself Nicholas Eichmann. Nicholas
had talked openly with the family, whose surname did not sound Jewish. He
expressed such views as thinking that the Germans should have finished the job
of killing all European Jewry during in World War II. Nicholas also explained
that he lacked a regional German accent because his father served in different
locations during the war. One day the blind man's wife or daughter, he did not
recall which, read a story about a war crimes trial in Germany mentioning a man
named Adolf Eichmann. The informant thought that "Nicholas Eichmann, who's so
sorry that the Nazis didn't manage to wipe out all the Jews, must be the son of
The informant checked further. He and his daughter made two trips into Buenos
Aires, trying to find where the Eichmanns lived and to meet the head of the
family. The informant went on to say that, "It was then that we recalled an
episode to which we had not attributed any importance at the beginning: my
daughter and Nicolas had been writing to each other since we moved here, but he
never told her where he lived; he asked her to send her letters to the address
of a mutual friend."
The daughter added further details,
"When we sent to Buenos Aires I asked a friend to help me find his house. I
knocked at the door and it was opened by a women. I asked her in German if this
was the house of the Eichmann family. Her reply did not come immediately, and
during the pause a middle-aged man wearing glasses came and stood beside her. I
asked him if Nick was home. He said no, Nick was working overtime. I asked if
he was Mr. Eichmann. . . He said he was but only after some hesitation."
The detective never found out why the man would have willingly confirmed he was
Mr. Eichmann, since he was using another name. And, it was never mentioned
whether the blind man's daughter ever saw Nicholas Eichmann again.
Bauer's Second Lead to Eichmann
Dr. Bauer visited Israel in 1959 and met Isser Harel. At this meeting, Bauer
passed on new information, from a different informant, which again supported
the notion of Eichmann being in Argentina. According to this source, Eichmann
appeared to be using the name Ricardo Klement. With this lead, Harel tried to
get Bauer to divulge more information about his source. As Harel later
recalled, this question was not very fruitful.
"It was absolutely impossible to make Bauer reveal any details whatsoever about
the new source. But I realized immediately that this was the turning point and
we were now steering toward the open road. Only one question bothered me, and I
asked for clarification: How can I be sure there is no connection, either
direct or indirect, between the new source and [the first informant]? Bauer's
reply was unequivocal: There is not, and there never could be, any connection
between the two."
The Mossad's Plan
The Mossad obtained photos of Ricardo Klement, and determined that he was the
right size and age as Eichmann. His appearance reflected the physical changes
likely to have occurred in Eichmann in the 15 years since World War II ended,
and efforts to change his appearance, including growing a mustache. When
Klement was brought to Israel, the Mossad planned to have several Israelis who
had met Eichmann view him to confirm his identity. The Mossad strongly believed
that Klement was Eichmann. However, they knew, in the words of one agent
involved in the capture, that "We can't be one hundred percent sure until we've
Harel felt he had enough evidence to authorize the capture of Ricardo Klement,
but he wanted to make sure the Israelis had legal justification to remove
Klement from foreign soil and try him in Israel. Israeli judicial experts
confirmed that trying the suspect in Israel would be legal. The Israelis always
understood that taking Eichmamn from Argentina would violate that nation's
sovereignty. With Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's approval, the plan
went into action.
A team of Israeli agents was sent to Argentina. Harel would not be present for
the actual capture, but he was in Argentina personally supervising the mission.
The Israeli agents began to study Klement's habits, to make specific plans for
his capture and transportation to Israel. They selected "safe houses,"
alternative places to hold the suspect until he could be moved from Argentina.
The agents had to be careful when renting these houses, so that landlords would
not become suspicious. They needed to minimize the number of people seen coming
and going from these houses, to avoid having to explain things to neighbors.
The Israelis even had a doctor with them, to take care of Klement and to sedate
him for the trip to the airport.
The Mossad also planned what to do in case the Argentine police discovered the
kidnapping. Harel ordered one of his men to handcuff himself to Eichmann and
throw away the key if the police became involved. One or two other men would
stay in the area to report on what happened. The designated agent was ordered,
over his protests, to tell the police he was part of a volunteer effort led by
Isser Harel to capture Adolf Eichmann and turn him over to Argentine
Harel and his men even helped plan a special El Al airlines flight from Israel
to Buenos Aires, and back. The flight would bring an Israeli delegation to help
Argentina celebrate the May 1960 150th anniversary of Argentine independence.
The plane would carry Eichmann back to Israel.
The Klement family was living in another working class Buenos Aires suburb,
than the one first investigated. Klement held a job in Buenos Aires, taking a
train and a bus home every evening. He usually arrived about 7:00 pm, walking
the final few hundred yards to his house. The house was somewhat isolated, near
a railroad embankment. There were, however, neighbors. Fortunately May is late
fall below the Equator. Klement would be walking home in the dark.
The evening of May 11, 1960, the capture car was sitting some distance from
Klement's house, facing west, the opposite direction from where the suspect
would approach. A second car faced south, under a nearby railroad bridge. Its
lights would be in Klement's eyes as he walked from the bus stop. He would not
see the second car until it was too late.
Klement, normally a man of regular habits, was late getting off the bus the
evening of May 11. This caused the agents some concern. One of the agents got
out of the second car to scout the street when he saw a man walking in the
darkness. The agent had to run back to the second car to get his comrades to
turn on the lights. The agents in the first car had also seen the target. They
noticed the suspect had a hand in his pocket, and they assumed he might be
carrying a gun. The agent designated to perform the capture walked towards
"Un momentito, senor," the agent called. Klement froze, taking a step
backwards. When the agent reached for him, they both ended up falling into the
mud. The suspect briefly screamed, until he was silenced. A second agent helped
get him into the car which quickly drove off. He was gagged, tied up, and
blindfolded in the car. Klement was told, by an agent who "spoke one sentence
to him in German, using terms which were undoubtedly familiar to the captive:
'If you don't keep still, you'll be shot.'"
On arrival at the designed safe house where he would be held, the suspect was
examined, questioned, and found to meet the description the Israelis had of
Eichmann. Though he first gave his name as Ricardo Klement, the man knew almost
automatically Eichmann's Nazi party membership number. When intentionally
misread Eichmann's SS identification number, the suspect corrected the number.
Finally, in response to yet another question about his name, he admitted, "I am
Adolf Eichmann." A few days later, Eichmann signed a statement that he was
voluntarily agreeing to stand trial in Israel. By May 23, 1960, Eichmann was
safely in Israel and convincingly identified by witnesses who had known
Eichmann. On that date, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made a
startling announcement to the Knesset, the Israel parliament. “I have to
announce in the Knesset that a short time ago one of the greatest of Nazi
criminals was found by the Israeli Security Services: Adolf Eichmann. . . Adolf
Eichmann is already under arrest in Israel, and he will shortly be brought to
trial in Israel."
Israel has always been a law-abiding democracy. Under its judicial system,
Eichmann was afforded the rights of any accused criminal. He would be tried in
a court of law with legal representation. The Israeli prosecutors would have to
prove Eichmann’s guilt, his willing complicity in the murder of six million
Jews. With the eyes of the world upon them, the prosecutors would have to
prepare their case well.
Trying Adolf Eichmann
The Israeli government now had to prepare for Eichmann's trial. Israeli
authorities had determined that Israeli law allowed Eichmann to be tried in
Israel. International law and practice also allowed Israel to try Eichmann. In
the words of a United Nations document,
"According to generally recognized doctrine. . . the right to punish war crimes
is not confined to the State whose nationals have suffered or on whose
territory the offence took place, but is possessed by any independent State
whatsoever, just as is the right to punish the offence of piracy. This
doctrine. . . has received the support of the United Nations War Crimes
Commission and is generally accepted as sound."
However, Israel still had to gauge the attitudes of the world regarding the
means of Eichmann's capture. Would other nations object to the Israeli methods?
Israel paid particular attention to the attitudes of the three countries --
Argentina, West Germany and East Germany -- which may have had a case for
demanding that the Eichmann trial be conducted in their courts.
At least one Argentine newspaper seemed to support the Israelis:
"How can we not admire a group of brave men who have during the years
endangered their lives in searching throughout the world for these criminals
and yet had the honesty to deliver him up for trial by judicial tribunals
instead of being impelled by an impulse of revenge and finishing him off on the
Argentina did not request Eichmann's extradition, but filed a complaint with
the United Nations Security Council. Israel admitted the violation, and
apologized to Argentina. With Argentina satisfied, the Security Council took no
action. The method of Eichmann's capture soon faded as a topic of discussion.
Most people seemed to find it unnecessary to examine the legal case for Israeli
jurisdiction, and accepted the view expressed in an American newspaper
editorial that a "Sense of proportion counsels that the human aspect of the
Eichmann case takes precedence over protocol."
Germany was still divided into two countries when Eichmann was captured.
Neither Germany, however, requested Eichmann's extradition. East Germany made
no public comment on the case. West Germany was supportive, and responded
favorably to Israel's requests for assistance -- primarily to validate
documents and to locate witnesses. The West German press supported this
position. A major German newspaper summarized the views of the West German
media in writing that,
"Adolf Eichmann has found his hunters and, above all, his judges. . . it is not
for us to question the Israel authorities, who were able to put their hands on
Eichmann, as to the methods of the arrest. We have no right to cite legalistic
aspects of the question. In the last analysis, this would only serve to quieten
[sic] our conscience. One who has brutally placed himself above the law and
unscrupulously transgressed every cannon of nature has, it seems to us,
foregone any right to any kind of solidarity. We in this country, who were
unable to bring Eichmann to trial in our courts, should now have confidence in
Israel jurisdiction: justice, not vengeance, will rule the day."
Most of the world seemed to support Israel's actions, and agreed that Israel
was legally allowed to try Eichmann. Under international legal principles and
statutes, states have a legal right and responsibility to punish war crimes and
crimes against humanity. No other state with a possible claim on Eichmann chose
to exercise this claim.
Eichmann would receive an appropriate trial. However, would Eichmann receive a
fair trial? Gideon Hausner, the newly appointed Israeli Attorney-General (the
chief prosecuting attorney for the government of Israel, not the equivalent to
the United States Federal Attorney-General) and Eichmann's prosecutor, stated
". . . we faced a formidable task; we were bound to present an overwhelming
legal argument to sweep away all juridical doubts, and we had to offer an
immaculate factual case to establish beyond a shadow of doubt the truth of our
allegations. Only after clearing the ground of all skeptical objections and
lingering doubts could we aspire to establish the complete structure of our
Concerns about fairness ended when people saw how the defendant was treated.
Eichmann had the right to legal counsel of his own choosing -- he selected Dr.
Robert Servatius, a German lawyer with experience defending accused war
criminals. Israel not only paid for part of the defense, but the Israeli
Knesset (parliament) passed a special law enabling Dr. Servatius, a
non-Israeli, to appear before an Israel court. German newspapers praised
Eichmann's treatment: " . . . since his capture, Eichmann has been subjected to
orderly proceedings and all the legal means have been made available to him for
an adequate defense."
The Focus of the Eichmann Trial
Establishing Eichmann's guilt was only one goal of the trial, perhaps not even
the primary goal. During the trial, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion would write
that "It is not the punishment that is the main thing here but the fact that
the trial is taking place, and is taking place in Jerusalem." Ben-Gurion
saw two goals for the trial, outside of its customary judicial purposes. One
goal was to remind the world of the Holocaust and what Ben-Gurion considered
the world's obligations to support the only Jewish state on Earth. The second
was to impress the lessons of the Holocaust on the Israelis, especially on the
younger generation. Thus, the three judge panel that would, according to
Israeli law, decide Eichmann's guilt or innocence, was only one of several
audiences for the prosection's case.
There was a clear need, in 1960 and 1961, to educate many Israelis about the
Holocaust, especially the younger Israelis born in Israel. They had grown up in
a vibrant, developing country. Life was not easy, however. Israel was
surrounded by enemies intent on its destruction. The country's survival was
There was one key difference, however, between the crises faced by the Jews in
Israel and those faced by the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Israelis always
felt that they could defend themselves, that they could strike back at their
enemies. They had a difficult time understanding how the European Jews could
have accepted their treatment without resisting. These feelings caused
resentment, and the Holocaust became a troubling subject to discuss.
The Holocaust was almost ignored in Israel. Teachers did not know how to teach
it in school. Many of these teachers, in fact, were Holocaust survivors, and
the memory was too painful. Survivors did not want to talk about what they had
gone through, not being ready to relive the horror. Guilt feelings over
surviving, when so many others had died, plagued survivors. The young, in
particular, were not willing to listen. They could not understand a world so
foreign to their own. The contemptuous nickname "pieces of soap" was applied to
survivors, the term stemming from reports that Nazis had made soap from the
bodies of Holocaust victims. The question in the minds of the Sabras (native
born Israelies) remained "Why did they not resist?" This attitude towards the
Holocaust was still prevalent in Israel when Isser Harel and his Mossad agents
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was determined to educate Israel and the world
about the Holocaust. The one exception to Israeli democratic procedures noted
in reports of the trial was that from time to time Ben-Gurion issued
instructions to Gideon Hausner to stress educational aspects. Prosecutors are
supposed to be independent of political considerations. Hausner, however,
shared the Prime Minister's desire to inform and educate as well as determine
Eichmann's judicial guilt. They both wanted the trial to be more than just a
dry presentation of documents. The way to achieve this, the way to put flesh
and soul to the dry statistics, was through the testimony of witnesses.
The Nazis had been careful to document all their activities, including the
murder of the Jews. Many of these documents survived despite belated German
attempts to destroy the records as the war came to a close. The Israelis
accumulated a vast amount of those documents, from their own government and
private archives and from investigations in Europe and the rest of the world.
Near the end of the investigation, Hausner asked Dr. Robert M. W. Kempner, the
assistant United States Chief Counsel at the 1945 Nuremberg war crimes trials,
and an expert on Nazi documentation, to take a look at what the Israelis had.
Kempner replied that Israel's material "surpassed by far that which was known
to the prosecution authorities at Nuremberg." These documents alone could
have convicted Eichmann. As Hausner put it, "a fraction of [the documents]
would have sufficed to get Eichmann sentenced ten times over."
However, Hausner and Ben-Gurion wanted the world to hear the testimonies of
those who had survived the horror in which Eichmann played such a pivotal role.
Hausner asserted that, "We needed more than a conviction; we needed a living
record of a gigantic human and national disaster, though it could never been
more than a feeble record of the real events. . . I decided that the case would
rest on two main pillars instead of one: both documents and oral evidence."
Each witness would be asked to tell his or her own small portion of the
Holocaust story. Together they would present a human picture of the Holocaust
to accompany the overwhelming documentary evidence.
Many of the witnesses, however, were reluctant to talk in open court. Some
wanted to forget. Others were afraid they would not be believed. Some had
actually been disbelieved when they emerged from hiding after the war. Yet
Hausner successfully appealed to their sense of duty, and to their deep-seated
desire to tell their story to the world. Hausner eventually called 112
witnesses, mostly Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
Hausner Decides on the Charges
Gideon Hausner, as chief prosecutor, had the responsibility of deciding how
Eichmann would be charged. He had to decide whether the charge sheet would
limited, specifying particular acts about which Israeli evidence was stronger.
This would have simplified the legal arguments. "But then," Hausner later
wrote," I would have had to limit my evidence to [the specified] incidents
alone and thus miss the point of the trial: the covering of the whole Jewish
The alternative was to go with broader charges "imputing to Eichmann
responsibility for all his widely ranging criminal activities and using
particular instances as proof of his exception malice. . . ." This had
problems, as it would require broad, comprehensive proof to substantiate
prosecution claims. It ran the danger that, during the trial, some of Hausner's
evidence would seem irrelevant to Eichmann's guilt or innocence. It also ran
the political danger that if Eichmann were acquitted on some of the major
charges, even if it did not affect the final result, the public image would be
that his guilt and responsibility was overstated.
Hausner selected the broader approach, charging Eichmann with guilt for the
Holocaust in all the occupied territories. Hausner cited two legal reasons, in
addition to wanting the clear opportunity to cover the entire Jewish disaster.
Eichmann was head of the RSHA (German security service within the SS) charged
with carrying out the Final Solution. If Eichmann's position was as central as
the prosecution charged, than he shared responsibility for all of the
Holocaust. This is a common principle of law, including in the American legal
system, that every active participant in a crime is responsible for the results
of the crime. The driver of the getaway car is as responsible for the shooting
death of the bank teller as the man or woman who actually pulled the trigger.
The general approach to charging Eichmann was selected. The specific charges
would be drafted, and read at the start of the trial.
Conclusions from the Investigation
Eichmann had been given a task to perform. He was given this task because of
the initiative and creativity he had shown in earlier assignments, particularly
the deportation of Jews from Austria. Eichmann tried to present himself as just
an ordinary bureaucrat. Admittedly he was doing extraordinary work, but he
claimed to be so locked into an inflexible structure that he could do nothing
either to change the murderous work or his role in the work. In reality, the
prosecution already knew that Eichmann was anything but a rubber stamp
bureaucrat. Hausner's team knew that Eichmann was inflexible only as to his
goal, killing as many Jews as possible. They knew that he did what was
necessary to reach his goal. The prosecutors knew that Eichmann showed
characteristic initiative and creativity in pursuit of cold blooded murder. The
prosecution now had to prove this in court.
The Trial Opens
Adolf Eichmann walked to his bullet-proof glass cubicle a little before 9AM,
April 11, 1961, eleven months, to the day, after his capture in Argentina. "The
man in the glass booth," he would come to be known. "As [Eichmann] silently
entered the packed courtroom there was an audible gasp," chief prosecutor
Gideon Hausner later noted. Eichmann had been seen by only a few people since
his arrival in Israel. Even Hausner had not seen Eichmann before trial began.
In his book on the trial, Hausner wrote that "externally there was little to
indicate his nature." Eichmann's eyes would flash intently, almost angrily,
at times, especially when later in the trial his testimony was contradicted
during cross examination, but otherwise he appeared gray and colorless.
The bullet-proof glass behind which Eichmann sat protected him from potential
dangers, however unlikely, from anyone in the audience. Eichmann had been kept
in secure facilities during interrogation and while awaiting trial. He was
guarded to prevent rescue, and to ensure his safety from misguided vengeance,
or from Nazis who might be seeking to silence him. A guard had been in his cell
at all times, to prevent suicide. Several letters had arrived, directly or
indirectly urging this action. Authorities even confiscated one that contained
half a razor blade under the stamps. Eichmann may have been in no danger, but
the Israelis were not going to take chances.
Jerusalem's nearly completed cultural center was borrowed for the trial. High
metal fences surrounded the building during its use as a court. It was heavily
guarded, with all visitors being frisked and their bags searched.
During the trial, a courtroom was located in a temporarily converted
auditorium. There were also judges' chambers, offices for the defense and
prosecution staffs, court archives and a secure holding area to keep Eichmann
when the court was not in session. A large hall beneath the courtroom, which
later became a municipal library, was set aside for the press.
At one end of the courtroom the highest tier of a raised platform was reserved
for the three judges, who sat behind a table with wood panels in front. Court
stenographers, keeping the official records of the trial, sat at the sides of
the judges' area. Translators sat in front and on a lower level. The official
court language was Hebrew, Israel's national language. Many witnesses,
including Eichmann himself, spoke in German. All proceedings were available in
both these languages, as well English, French, and Yiddish (a German dialect
spoken by Jews from Eastern Europe). Despite the best intentions of the
Israelis, however, the translations varied in quality. At times the judges, who
spoke German as well as Hebrew, had to step in and directly supervise the
translation to and from German.
Eichmann's glass cubicle was in front and to the left, the witness box in front
and to the right. They faced each other. Literally as well as symbolically the
accused could confront his accusers, and they could confront him. Defense and
prosecution tables faced the judges.
Every person in the courtroom, including Adolf Eichmann, rose to their feet as
the three judges entered and took their seats. The judges were dressed in black
robes. On the wall behind the judges was the seal of the State of Israel, the
seven-branched candelabra called a menorah, a Jewish symbol since ancient
times. Eichmann, on trial for his role in a dead regime which had tried to
destroy the Jewish people, was standing to honor the representatives of a
democratic Jewish state.
The Israeli judicial system evolved from the English system that was in place
in 1948 when Israel became independent. English legal precedents are often
cited in Israeli courts, as are decisions from the similar American system.
These give a relatively young country a broader range of legal precedent. The
resulting system contains many elements familiar to Americans, including the
need for the prosecutor to prove a case. The system is, however, Israeli, not
English or American.
Juries are not used in Israeli trials. Cases are heard by a single judge or, in
major cases before a district court (including cases that can result in long
term imprisonment or the death penalty) a panel of three judges. When a panel
of judges is used, decision is by majority vote.
The few trials in Israel that might result in the death penalty -- only acts of
genocide and some war crimes -- must be presided over by a member of the
Supreme Court. Justice Moshe Landau, German born, would preside over the
Eichmann trial. Benjamin Halevy, President of the Jerusalem District Court, and
Yitzhak Raveh, a member of the Tel Aviv District Court, were the other two
judges. Both were also born and educated in Germany. They all had come to
Palestine at the very beginning of the Nazi era, so none had directly
experienced the Holocaust.
After a trial of about a year, Eichmann was convicted on all but a few minor
charges. He was sentenced to death and, after an appeal, hanged.
As to the longer term results of the trial, the trial may not have expelled the
ghost of Hitler and his accomplices. The more recent genocidal campaigns in
places such as Bosnia, Cambodia, and Darfur make this terribly clear. However,
the trial at least it made the world more aware of these ghosts. Whether
Eichmann was a monster, an obsessed bureaucrat, or both, the trial provided a
vivid record of how men who put their conscience aside can do as much damage as
outright evil men.
The trial exposed the world to the horrors of the Holocaust. Hausner's
education strategy worked. His was not a perfect case, sometimes leaning too
far towards education and away from establishing guilt, but most observers felt
Hausner had connected Eichmann to the Holocaust sufficiently to warrant the
guilty verdict and the death sentence.
The Eichmann trial brought the Holocaust to the forefront in Israel. Hausner
began receiving letters even before the trial ended. "A girl [living in Israel]
wrote saying she had no uncles and aunts to visit on Saturdays and holidays,
like the other children, but had never understood before why they were all
dead." Many other letters followed, from Israel and from other countries.
This portion of the past would never be buried as it has been in the early
years of the state. As Israeli historian Tom Segev later wrote, in his study of
Israel and the Holocaust,
"Never had Israel lived the horror of the Holocaust as it did in these months.
. . The Eichmann trial marked the beginnings of a dramatic shift in the way
Israelis related to the Holocaust. The terrifying stories that broke forth from
the depths of silence brought about a process of identification with the
suffering of the victims and the survivors."
Finally, the Eichmann trial was about the ultimate defeat of ultimate evil,
Nazi Germany. It is about the triumph of the chief victims of Nazi Germany, the
Jews, over the Nazis. In his memoir of the trial, written several years later,
Gideon Hausner summarized its significance.
"Now it was the Jews themselves who could decide what was best for their
position. They could do so because they had their own machinery of justice,
their own prosecutors and their own policemen. The trial was thus, in itself,
an overwhelming manifestation of the revolution in the position of the Jewish
people that has taken place in this generation."
Adapted and updated from
Bruce L. Brager
The Trial of Adolf Eichmann: The Holocaust on Trial
San Diego: Lucent Books, 1999
Show Footnotes and
. Quoted cover of The Relief of Belsen, April 1945, Eyewitness Accounts,
London: Imperial War Museum, 1991.
. Knesset Proceedings, XXIX: 2106, 8 August 1960, quoted Tom Segev, The
Seventh Million: The Israeli's and the Holocaust, New York: Hill and
Wang, 1993, page 333.
. Gabriel Strassman, "What did the Eichmann trial give us?," Maariv,
December 11, 1981, page 27.
. William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1960, page 978.
. Isser Harel, The House on Garibaldi Street, revised and updated
edition, edited and with an introduction by Shlomo J. Shpiro, London: Frank
Cass, 1997, page 8.
. Harel, 1975, The House on Garibaldi Street, page 19.
. Harel, 1975, The House on Garibaldi Street, page 19-20.
. Harel, 1975, The House on Garibaldi Street, page 20.
. Harel, 1975, The House on Garibaldi Street, page 35.
. Peter Z. Malkin and Harry Stein, Eichmann in My Hands, New York:
Warner Books, 1990, page 108.
. Harel, 1975, The House on Garibaldi Street, page 167.
. Malkin and Stein, Eichmann in My Hands, page 190.
. Quoted Segev, The Seventh Million: page 326.
. United Nations War Crimes Commission, Law Reports of Trials of War
Criminals, Volume XV: Digest of Laws and Cases, United Nations: London,
1949) page 26.
. El Mundo (Buenos Aires) June 17, 1960. quoted "Eichmann in the
. Boston Record American, June 23, 1960, quoted "The Eichmann Case
in the American Press," Institute of Human Relations Press, the American Jewish
Committee, undated, circa 1962, page 11.
. Frankfurter Allgemeine, May 25, 1960, quoted "Eichmann in the
. Gideon Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem, New York: Harper and Row,
1966, page 289.
. Frankfurter Allgemein Zeitung, February 28, 1961, reprinted
"Eichmann in the World Press."
. Ben Gurion to Yitzhak Y. Cohen, April 10, 1961, quoted Tom Segev, The
Seventh Million, page 327.
. Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem, page 287.
. Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem, page 287.
. Gideon Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem, page 291.
. Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem , page 298.
. Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem , page 298.
. Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem , page 309.
. Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem , page 309.
. Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem , page 433.
. Segev, The Seventh Million , page 361.
. Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem , page 453.
Copyright © 2007 Bruce L. Brager
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 01/26/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.