Eichmann’s Life - Background Information

Adolf Eichmann was born in Solingen, Germany on March 19th, 1906. When he was young he moved with his family to Austria. He began learning mechanical engineering, but never finished his studies.

Eichmann’s actions during World War II

In 1932 Eichmann joined the Nazi party. Anti-Semitism was not his original motivation to become a member. He joined the Nazis because after World War I he felt Germany needed stability and he thought that the Nazis would strengthen the country. The Nazis’ party position stated that they would restore Germany’s pride after it was lost in World War I. Eichmann was also motivated to enlist in the Nazi party because he wanted to be like the other young men around him who were joining.

As he advanced in his career, Eichmann was put in charge of studying the Jews and their behavior. He visited Palestine in 1937 and he even tried to learn Hebrew. While he was studying the Jews, his opinion of the ancient people hardened and he became more and more anti-Semitic. He wrote that “the most dangerous enemy” of the Third Reich was the Jews. (Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company), page 33) At first, Eichmann thought the best approach to get rid of the Jews was to deport them from Germany. Once Germany occupied Austria, Eichmann was also put in charge of the Austrian Jews. After he was assigned this job, his anti-Semitism strengthened. The feeling of power over the Jews can be seen in a letter he wrote to a friend that said, “They are in my hands; they dare not take one step without me.” (Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company), page 33)  At that point he started viewing Jews not as people, but instead as livestock that needed to be transported from one place to the next. After he finished deporting the Jews in Vienna he was sent to Czechoslovakia where he set up a similar system to rid the country of its Jews.

In 1939 when Germany captured Poland and many more Jews came under Eichmann’s control, his career prospects improved. He was assigned to organize and run the Central Office for Jewish Emigration. The office was very successful and created a template called the “Vienna Model” which was the system the Nazis used to transport Jews. Once he uprooted many communities, he needed to find a place to send them. He had an idea to send them to Madagascar, although this plan was rejected by his superior officers.

In 1941 after Hitler had already started killing Jews in the Soviet Union, Hitler ordered the extermination of the European Jews. Initially, Eichmann wasn’t thrilled with Hitler’s idea because Eichmann was nervous that killing the Jews would mean he would lose his job of deporting them. He overcame this hesitancy when he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was assigned the task of being in charge of all the matters that were related to the Final Solution. It was then when he advocated murdering the Jews.

Adolf Eichmann played a central role in deporting 1.5 million Jews from all over Europe to concentration camps and other killing centers in Poland and the Soviet Union. “They were stealing the breath of life from us,” Eichmann wrote. (Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company), page 35) He was speaking metaphorically about how the Jews stole the German’s breath, whereas the Nazis were literally stealing life from the Jews.

Eichmann’s capture

After the war, Eichmann was initially in American custody, though in 1946 he escaped. He fled to Argentina and lived there using a false name, Ricardo Klement. In 1960 Israeli Mossad agents captured him and brought him to Israel to be tried. After Eichmann was found guilty on December 15th, 1961 he was hanged at midnight between May 31st and June 1st, 1962. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered into the sea.

Eichmann’s trial

Eichmann’s trial took place in Beit Ha’am (today known as the Gerard Behan Center) in Jerusalem. During the trial Eichmann sat inside a bullet proof glass box to protect him from the victims’ families who might try to avenge their loved ones before the trial was completed. The witnesses were very carefully selected so that they each represented different Jewish communities.

Before the proceedings began, a decision needed to be made about the framework of the trial. Would the trial be about the specific actions that Eichmann personally carried out, or would it be a broader trial and involve other more general crimes such as being a central participant in the Final Solution? The choice was for the latter.

Before Eichmann’s trial, the Nuremberg Trials were held between 1945-1949. These were trials in which the Allied forces of World War II judged many Nazis for committing major war crimes. Historian Deborah E. Lipstadt compared the Nuremberg trials to Eichmann’s trial, and said, “At Nuremberg the crimes against the Jewish people had been a side bar, or an example of his crimes against humanity, so it was a subset. Here, this was front and center.” (Deborah E. Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial. http://nextbookpress.com/books/196/the-eichmann-trial/)

The prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, wanted to catch the emotional quality of what happened during the Holocaust. He wanted the trial to touch people’s hearts. Unlike in Nuremberg, where witness did not tell their painful stories, but instead evidence was from documents, in Eichmann’s trial, most of the evidence came from stories survivors told. The suffering of Eichmann’s victims was evident. Gideon Hausner’s opening statement reflected the trial’s emotional nature, “In this place, where I stand before you, Judges of Israel, to serve as the prosecutor of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me, here, at this very moment, stand six million prosecutors. But they cannot stand up and point an accusing finger to the glass cell and cry out: “I accuse.” For their ashes are piled up on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka, washed away by the rivers of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard. Therefore I shall speak for them, and say in their name the terrible indictment.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5ojhOzqNNU )

Eichmann was charged with:

  • Crimes against humanity,
  • War crimes,
  • Crimes against the Jewish people,
  • Membership in outlawed organizations.

The only defense Eichmann had was that he was just following orders. He didn’t dispute the facts that the witnesses claimed; he said that he was just obeying directions given by superior officers. When he was asked, he said that he didn’t think he was guilty of murder, but in human sense, he thought he was, because he was in charge of deporting the Jews which led to their death. After he was convicted and sentenced to death, he appealed. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal and stated that Eichmann’s claim of “just following orders” is not a legitimate defense. Therefore, the verdict of the lower court was upheld.