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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Adolf Eichmann Sentenced, December 15, 1961 - Part Two

On this day in 1961, Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death by an Israeli court. Eichmann was one of the men who had a hand in formulating the policy that became the Holocaust. The method of his capture and the death sentence imposed on him continue to stir debate nearly 45 years after his death.

Eichmann was born in March, 1906 in Solingen, Germany. His involvement with the Shutzstaffel, or SS, began while he was living in Austria in 1932. When Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party came to power the next year, he moved back to his homeland and applied for a position in an active duty SS regiment. His request was granted and he was assigned as part of the administrative staff at Dachau, the first forced labor camp that was organized as a concentration-style facility. It would serve as the model for all future concentration camps. It was during his time there that Eichmann decided to make a career of the SS.

Eichmann's organizational and administrative skills brought him to the attention of his superiors, even though he was still held a fairly low rank. In 1937, as part of a two-man team, he was sent to the British Mandate of Palestine, the area that today comprises Israel, Jordan and the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Their mission was to explore the possibility of moving the Jews of Germany and Austria to Palestine. The British, however, would only grant them a transit visa, so they went on to Cairo and met with a group of Zionists. In the end, Eichmann recommended against a forced emigration to Palestine, a conclusion that was an important step in the eventual Nazi decision to abandon emigration and enforce the "final solution."

After Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, Eichmann was sent there to organize the local SS forces. He was soon made a 1st Lieutenant and was tasked with forming the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, a group in charge of expelling Jews from Austria. It was at this point that Eichmann first began studying Judaism.

When the Second World War began in September, 1939, Eichmann was promoted to the rank of Captain. He continued to work on plans to deport Jews from Germany, Austria and the occupied areas of Europe. During this work on the project he was quickly promoted to Major, then Lieutenant Colonel. Despite more than a year of work, his plans for mass deportations never moved pass the discussion stage.

In January, 1942, Eichmann was sent to the Wannsee Conference near Berlin, where he acted as recording secretary. The Conference brought together those civilian Nazis and SS officers whose job it would soon become to facilitate the extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe. This genocide was presented as a top priority to those present. While death squads had been roaming Poland and the Ukraine with orders to round up Jews and kill them, nothing had been organized on a nationwide scale. The extermination of an entire race would take a tremendous allocation of resources, all while Germany strained to fight a two-front war. Such was the depth of the Nazi's hate.

Eichmann left the conference with orders to take charge of the trains necessary to carry Jews to the concentration camps. He was efficient at this work, so much so that when Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, he was sent to organize the round-up and deportation of that nation's Jewish population. In early 1945, Henrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS, ordered the genocide to cease and all evidence of the crime destroyed. Eichmann ignored the order and continued to do his ghastly work in Hungary. By the end of the war, 400,000 Hungarian Jews had died in the camps.

Eichmann was captured by the US Army in 1945, but he used a false name and convinced his captors that he was as person of little value. He escaped his captivity in 1946, hid in Germany for several years and then traveled to Italy in 1950. There, he obtained a humanitarian passport and a visa from Argentina. He soon left Europe forever. His past went with him.


After escaping from US custody in Germany, Adolf Eichmann made his way to Argentina. A decade went by, during which time he worked several different jobs in the Buenos Aires area using a series of assumed names. Meanwhile, Nazi hunters and the Israeli intelligence agency (the Mossad) searched the world over for Eichmann and other escaped war criminals. Simon Wiesenthal, the most famous Nazi hunter of them all, received a letter from a close friend who lived in Buenos Aires. The friend said that he had seen a local water company employee who was, he was certain, Adolf Eichmann. Whether this piece of information helped in his capture has been the source of some speculation. However, a chance relationship would ultimately reveal Eichmann's whereabouts beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Lothar Hermann, a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp, had moved to Argentina after the war with his family. His daughter Sylvia became involved with a young man named Klaus who, as fate would have it, was Eichmann's eldest son. Klaus was proud of his father's past and did little to hide his true identity. Sylvia told her father about Klaus's boasts, at which point he sent his daughter back to Klaus's house on a fact-finding mission. She eventually met the senior Eichmann, which told Lothar Hermann everything he needed to know. He contacted the Chief Prosecutor for the West German state of Hesse and Israeli officials. The Israelis wasted no time in formulating a plan to bring Eichmann to justice.

A team of Mossad agents captured the former Nazi on May 11, 1960. He was kept at a safe house for the next 11 days, after which time he was spirited out of the country and flown to Israel. The Israeli government initially denied that it had any involvement in the capture and stated that a group of civilians had acted on their own.

Eichmann's trial began in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961. He was charged with 15 crimes, including crimes against humanity. A three-judge panel presided over the trial with the Israeli Attorney General acting as the lead prosecutor. Eichmann's main defense was that he was only following orders, the same claim made by Nazi war criminals during the Nuremburg Trials 15 years earlier. 100 eyewitnesses to his crimes took the stand for the prosecution, 90 of whom were concentration camp survivors. The testimony took 14 weeks.

On December 15, 1961, Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death. He appealed his verdict using the argument that his capture was illegal under international law and that Israeli criminal statutes had no jurisdiction in his case. His appeal was rejected as was his petition for mercy to the President of Israel. The President responded to his petition by quoting the book of Samuel: "As your sword bereaved women, so will your mother be bereaved among women."

Eichmann was hanged on June 1, 1962. To this day, this remains the only civilian execution ever conducted in Israel. His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea so that no single nation would serve as his resting place.

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