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The trial that captured the 'banality of evil'

David Wroe · 11 Apr 2011, 14:37

Published: 11 Apr 2011 14:37 GMT+02:00

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Legend has it that in 1958, when Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal closed his office in Linz, Austria, and moved to Vienna, he kept just one file: that of Adolf Eichmann.

Wiesenthal and many other investigators had worked hard through the late 1940s to track down the architect of the Holocaust, in which about 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime. But by the late 1950s, Eichmann loomed large as the major Nazi figure who had evaded capture.

“The outstanding person at large was Adolf Eichmann,” explained Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s Jerusalem office.

When Eichmann was finally captured in Argentina in 1960 and put on trial a year later in Israel, exactly 50 years ago on Tuesday, it was a watershed moment in the pursuit of Nazi war criminals and justice for Holocaust victims and survivors. It was, Zuroff told The Local, a shot in the arm for Nazi hunters like Wiesenthal, a milestone for Israel, and the first real chance for many survivors to tell their stories.

On Tuesday, the half-century anniversary of the start of Eichmann’s eight-month trial will be marked in Israel, Germany and the United States, the Israeli government has announced. The Nazi official responsible for masterminding the logistics of the “Final Solution,” as it was called, was eventually convicted and hung.

His capture was a story straight from the thriller novels. Throughout the 1950s, Wiesenthal gathered solid information that Eichmann was hiding in Buenos Aires, the Argentinian capital. He passed this on to the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, which sent a team to keep the Eichmann suspect under surveillance.

After several months, they concluded that the man now calling himself Ricardo Klement, a rabbit farmer and foreman at a Mercedes Benz plant, was indeed Eichmann.

Without the knowledge of the Argentinian authorities, Israeli agents snatched Eichmann off the street on May 11, 1960, bundled him into a car and drove him to a safe house. The agents then drugged Eichmann to make him appear drunk, dressed him in the uniform of a flight attendant for El Al airline and flew him to Israel. Their methods, when discovered, sparked a row with Argentina, which complained bitterly about the breach of sovereignty.

Eichmann went on trial in December 1961 in Israel. His efforts to persuade the judges that he was a humble bureaucrat failed, and he was convicted and hanged on May 31, 1962. His mild-mannered appearance prompted writer and political theorist Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase, "the banality of evil."

“He was the person responsible for all the logistics in the implementation of the Final Solution,” Zuroff said. “Contrary to the image he tried to project on the witness stand, he was a zealous advocate of the mass-murder of European Jews, not some dry, grey, idiotic, brainless civil servant who just carried out orders.”

It was, Israelis say today, a milestone for the Jewish people.

"It marked a turning point in which the State of Israel and the Jewish people began to mete out justice to their persecutors and said: Enough! No more," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the weekend.

Zuroff, the leading modern Nazi hunter and author of the new book "Operation Last Chance," which has just been translated into German, said the trial truly revitalized what had become a flagging effort by the early 1960s to catch Nazi suspects.

“The efforts to bring Nazis to justice had slowed down considerably and the whole effort was losing its momentum, and the Eichmann trial revitalized the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in the Federal Republic [of Germany]. That obviously was very important because the most important perpetrators were there or the Federal Republic was responsible for them.

“It had a tremendous impact on German society. It also had a tremendous impact for Israel. Until then, the survivors had had little opportunity to tell their story. The focus of the trial was the witness testimony. Also, it basically wasn’t only the individual criminal, Adolf Eichmann, on trial but the entire process.”

Wiesenthal’s own career as a Nazi hunter also got a major boost, he said.

“His career was revived in the wake of the Eichmann trial. It’s quite ironic. It was the Nazi he didn’t catch that really gave him the push that turned him into the world-famous figure.”

Story continues below…

It has since emerged that both the German intelligence agency, the BND, and also the American agency, the CIA, knew of Eichmann’s whereabouts as early as 1952. Only at the weekend it was reported that the SS officer who arrested Anne Frank, had gone on to work for the BND.

Last year, the New York Times revealed the existence of a 600-page report that said the CIA had created a “safe haven” for former Nazis who they used for post-war intelligence.

“There was a lot of dirty business going on, which of course comes as no comfort to Holocaust survivors or people who think Nazi war criminals deserve to end their lives in jail or at the end of a noose,” Zuroff said.

Today, the pursuit of Nazi war criminals is winding down as suspects and witnesses grow old and die. But there a strong final push is being made to bring suspects to justice. John Demjanjuk, a 90-year-old death camp guard accused of helping murder some 27,900 Jews, is being tried in Munich, while Hungarian former police captain Sandor Kepiro – whom Zuroff tracked down – is set to go on trial in Budapest on May 5.

“Obviously it’s getting harder and harder to prosecute Nazi war criminals, but precisely because we’re getting towards the end of this endeavour, in certain countries there is an energetic effort to try to maximize justice,” Zuroff said.

David Wroe (david.wroe@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

16:18 April 11, 2011 by Altdude
I was 13 when this miserable little man Eichmann was kidnapped, tried and hung and I followed the story closely, even then aware of the irony that if humankind did not tolerate death at the hands of the executioner state there could not have been a Holocaust. My lifelong opposition to capital punishment is thus grounded. Once we delegate to government the power naturally held only by God or nature, there will always exist the "banality of evil."
17:23 April 11, 2011 by derExDeutsche
Let it go, Israel and Germany. If you were to convict everyone who had a hand in the 3rd Reich, you might as well throw a whole Generation in jail. Its time to move on, and regard it as history. there is no justice or accountability to be found for an era clouded in a collective insanity.

Anyway, these people are very very old ! Where are you going to put them? in a Home?
19:29 April 11, 2011 by couchtripper
Currently there is a law going through the Knesset to make remembrance of the Nakba a criminal offence. Apparently the concept of hypocrisy doesn't occur to the 'chosen ones'...
19:30 April 11, 2011 by Dizz
@ Altdude - That was very well put. I agree completely.
20:19 April 11, 2011 by usually_clueless
This is old news plus if the Germans actually did their job Eichmann would have never even made it out of Germany after the war. The fact is the Germans are one of the biggest hypocrites in the world: They plunge the world into war twice in one century, then claim to have seen the "light" all the while letting the engineers of mass murder simply go on with their lives after the war all the while the German government KNOWING who these people are and where they are...in some cases (as with Eichmann) even unofficially protecting him.

Sure, walk down to the Rathaus and it's some ex-Stasi agent pushing your paperwork; get stopped by the Polizei for absolutely no reason and you're dealing with Nazis in new uniforms. What a joke.

And then let's prosecute some poor old Russian concentrate gurard over 60 years after the fact, while letting the actual officers and administators of this very same camp go back in the 50's and 60's and 70's...what legal grounds does the Germans give for procecuting this man now? Right, he "enabled" death.

Under that sham then let's put every German over 75 in jail right now: after all they enabled Hitler's killing machine by running the trains (which took all those people to the slaughter house), they made the tanks and bullets, they fixed the factories that were bombed that helped make the war last years...

They're all guilty. I say let go and have true Democracy in Germany. No more banning groups, having certain words spoken be a criminal offense, etc. What a joke.
21:26 April 11, 2011 by bramblebush
He seems nice...
21:44 April 11, 2011 by Loth
What is more interesting are those who created National Socialism, they were much like those who started communism. Also those rich people who financed it all. Nothing much is ever said about their part.
23:18 April 11, 2011 by Curmudgeon
Hannah Arendt, a Prussian born Zionist, was pilloried by the Jewish Lobby for writing her 1963 book "Eichmann in Jerusalem". In it, she claims the portrayal of Eichmann was dishonest, and that he was helpful to the Zionist cause. She claimed that Eichmann expelled nuns from a convent in order to provide an agricultural training place for those to be sent to Palestine.

Lenni Brenner, a Zionist historian, claimed in his book "51 Documents: Zionists Collaboration With the Nazis" that Eichmann was a Zionist who supported the creation of a ¦#39;Jewish Homeland¦#39; in Palestine
23:48 April 11, 2011 by fatherknowsbest

The point is that a caring God does not so leaving it to God to punish mass killers means that they go unpunished. That may be fine with you but its not fine with some of us that believe that people are responsible for the way they behave.
04:37 April 12, 2011 by idavid
The assertion that Efraim Zuroff is the "leading modern Nazi hunter" is utter RUBBISH. Zuroff is a complete amateur when it comes to investigative work. I used to work for the U.S. Government's Office of Special Investigations. Not once -- not once! -- did Zuroff provide us with useful information. In some cases, he identified people we'd known about for years. In others, he urged us to investigate cases that were completely meritless. Zuroff has kept the issue in the press, but that's all you can say for him -- as an investigator or "hunter" he's been useless.
07:45 April 16, 2011 by dr.makni49
Sequence of blunders being repeated. If it does not stop, many would question the partisan nature of trials sooner or later because there has to be transparency on the issues and should not appear as victimization.

If that be the just, why not dig out war criminals from the countries who massacred millions after Germany surrendered. Why not hunt down those who massacred minorities as well as own people where numbers exceed war losses three times more.

Keep hanging the old skeletons and you are laying a strong foundation for next genocide that is lingering on since 18th Century. Pick up Jews, Muslims or Christians, each did its best to create example out of other, opportunity permitting. These Stalin-style show trials and persecutions must end. It is high time.
16:55 April 20, 2011 by whpmgr
Dr.makni49- Interesting opinions. Worthy of response, but, alas, my depth is conjecture and not based on fact.

To others: really, in the bible, there were judges, who were held accountable by god for listening to the facts and judge fairly. If they made errors due to their own agendas, they were held accountable in the after life. You still need to find the most honest people you can, purest possible to be judges. They sometimes have to pass judgement. If they make a mistake, but based on what is presented and not on their own prejudices and agendas, then you must forgive them. Without these people, society will be lost. Someone must judge, and then be judged.
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