Eichmann: the controversy of justice


You would have thought that bringing Nazis to justice would have been something the world could agree on, but the Mossad’s capture of the infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann prompted a fiery international debate that proved otherwise. Noam Weissman explores the truth about the stranger-than-fiction capture of one of the architects of the Final Solution and debates the ethical and moral questions raised by Eichmann’s trial and subsequent execution by the State of Israel.

Subscribe to this podcast

Episode Transcript

Six million. This number has become synonymous with the most heinous six-year period in history — the Holocaust. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Have you ever thought about how many of these Nazis were ever brought to justice? The number is shockingly miniscule. Something in the range of 5-10% — and some even say way less. The popular Amazon Prime show Hunters is based on this exact premise — that too few Nazis were brought to justice after the war.

Today we’re diving into the story of Adolf Eichmann, an infamous Nazi who fled Europe after WWII in an attempt to escape justice. We’re going into detail on how the Mossad tracked him down and captured him, put him on trial and his eventual execution in Israel. The legacy of this event in Israeli history is far reaching — and it raises legal questions and ethical debates and has had a long term impact on the identity of the young State of Israel. Today, we’ll get into that.

I want to quickly pose one question to think about throughout this episode:

Whose responsibility do you think it was to bring justice and hold Nazis accountable? Germany? Israel? The United Nations? Or someone else?

Adolf Eichmann was known as the “Architect” of the Holocaust and the Final Solution — the mass extermination of six million Jews during WWII. This guy was really one of the absolute worst. After the war in 1945, he said “I will leap into my grave laughing because” having “five million human beings on my conscience is a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” Not so surprising coming from one of the closest Nazis to Hitler himself.

Eichmann rose through the SS ranks to become a Lieutenant Colonel and one of Hitler’s top deputies. He was pretty key at the Wannsee Conference in 1942 — the conference that cemented The Final Solution, which was. the official strategy of how to exterminate the Jews. This is where Eichmann shined, organizing the deportations of Jews to the Nazis’ death camps, and quickly making a name for himself as a master administrator.

After WWII ended, Eichmann found himself in Argentina, a noted safe haven for Nazis, where he lived in quiet under the fake name “Ricardo Klement” until the late 1950s. His kids, however, kept their infamous last name — strangely at the urging of their father — and spoke with open admiration about their dad, you know, the war hero. Yikes. Eventually, word of their open talk about their father reached legendary Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal.

What followed was a top secret mission called Operation Finale.

The capture went down like this. A German-Jewish prosecutor by the name of Fritz Bauer realized that it was becoming too challenging to bring Nazi war criminals to justice in Germany, so he sort of/kind of leaked it to the Mossad. The Mossad dubbed Eichmann dybbuk, which is hebrew for evil spirit, and were excited to catch this uber-villain. Secretly spread across Argentina, the Mossad knew that every evening around 8:00 pm, Eichman would get off his bus and walk home.

On May 11th, 1960, a man, an undercover Mossad agent, asked Eichmann in Spanish if he had a moment to chat after he got off the bus. Eichmann grew suspicious and tried to run away. But before he could, other agents swarmed him and shoved him into a car. It was the mossad. They pounced on him, as they were pretty confident this was the famous Adolf Eichman. When they discovered the SS tattoo under his arm and the scar of an appendectomy which they knew about, they were sure they really got their guy.

They took him to a safe house and after being asked his identity several times, he admitted he was Adolf Eichmann.,andddd he asked for a glass of wine.

The Mossad wanted him to stand trial in Jerusalem, but it took a week to get him to sign an agreement to fly to Israel rather than stand trial in Argentina… Israel wouldn’t proceed without Eichmann’s own consent to fly. Seems pretty crazy to me…

Anyway — at this point, Israel had caught the right guy and obtained his consent to travel, but still, Israeli leaders were in a tough position. Argentina had a long history of turning down extradition requests for Nazi criminals hiding in its borders.

So, the Mossad decided to smuggle him out of the country. The removal of Eichmann played out like an even crazier version of Weekend at Bernie’s. The agents drugged him and dressed him in an El Al uniform — Israel’s national airline — and snuck him onto a plane, pretending that Eichmann was a tired flight attendant who needed to sleep.

These Mossad stories are always so unbelievable. They literally put him in a flight attendant costume and snuck him through an airport and out of Argentina’s borders. And I get stopped when I try to bring my tuna sandwiches (yes, I’m that guy) through security.

On May 23, 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion stood before the Knesset and announced: “One of the greatest Nazi war criminals, Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for what they called the Final Solution…is under arrest in Israel and will be placed on trial shortly under the terms of the law for the trial of Nazis and their collaborators.” The Knesset members, and Israeli society in general, which was often quite divided, were unified in their enthusiasm,
So… the entire world was enthusiastic too, right?! Well…not exactly.

Let’s take a look at the diplomatic reactions.

First of all — the capture, smuggling, and trial of Eichmann gave rise to many fiery international debates.

Is it flouting international law for one country to smuggle an accused criminal out of another country? Can a country decide that a criminal should stand trial on their soil, when his crime and arrest occurred in a different country? Yes, six million Jews were killed but a total of 11 million civilians were killed during the war too.

Argentina was furious. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution against Israel (resolution 132 if you’re keeping score) stating that Israel violated Argentina’s sovereignty. Israel’s actions were condemned by the United States, Britain, France, China and the Soviet Union. Time Magazine even called Israel’s decision to capture Eichmann “inverse racism.”

Why did they care about this capture of an obviously guilty person, thousands of miles away?

These countries argued that if Israel faced no consequences after snatching a fugitive from a foreign land, other countries might do the same. And especially after WWII, nobody wanted to threaten international peace or cooperation.

Argentina claimed Israel’s actions were

“typical of the methods used by a regime completely and universally condemned.”

Just speaking personally here, it is kinda hard to take Argentina’s sweeping condemnation of Israel so seriously when they were an international leader in “importing Nazis” but I digress.

Not only was there diplomatic controversy, but controversy within the Jewish world too.
At the time, many Jews living in the Diaspora were offended by what they believed was Israel attempting to speak on their behalf, a debate that has come up again and again since the founding of the state. Isaiah Berlin, a British Jewish philosopher wrote a series of letters condemning the trial taking place in Jerusalem and questioning the motives of that decision. The American Jewish Committee was also outraged by Israel’s decision to try Eichmann in Jerusalem, arguing that the war criminal had perpetrated horrors against Jews and non-Jews alike, and not specifically against the State of Israel, which didn’t exist at the time. They believed an international tribunal in Germany was more fitting.

Nowadays, if you’re really upset about an idea you hear, you post an, insta story, tweet your frustration or share your feelings through a dramatic TikTok. But, in the 60’s, Ben-Gurion did not have that option. Instead he went public in the New York Times, penning an op-ed and going straight for the American Jewish jugular, saying, “Only a Jew with an inferiority complex could say that; only one who does not realize that a Jew is a human being.”

But for many, and the majority of world Jewry, the capture of Eichmann by the 12-year-old country of Israel was worthy of celebration. As one of Eichmann’s biographers put it, “The purpose of catching Eichmann was clear from the beginning — one, to remind the world what the Germans did to the Jews, and two, to remind Israeli youth why the State of Israel needs to exist.” Ronen Bergman, author of the riveting Rise and Kill First, says it best: “The goal was to stir an internationally resonant awareness and ineradicable memory of the Holocaust.”

Ben-Gurion clearly felt this sentiment too, as he said at the time:

“Everything that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews must be revealed at the trial and must be described in detail. It is essential for us; there is a new generation that has heard about the Holocaust but which did not live through it…. It is essential not just for us but for the entire world. The world wants to forget what happened and is even tired of hearing about it.”

The capture, trial, and execution of Eichmann showed the world that while the Jewish people had no autonomy for nearly 2,000 years, they were now capable of taking matters into their own hands. This time, it wasn’t Jews who stood trapped behind barbed wire but an accused Nazi who sat behind a protective glass cage in a court of Jewish judges in Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish state. Let that soak in…

Eichmann’s trial began in April of 1961.

More than a hundred Holocaust survivors gave testimonies and hundreds of documents were presented as evidence. They painted Eichmann as the main architect of the Holocaust, a diligent worker who facilitated and managed the incredibly tricky logistics involved in the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos, concentration camps, and their eventual deaths.

The photos of Eichmann in the courtroom showed a small balding man with blocky glasses wearing large headphones over his ears to translate the Hebrew. It was here that Hannah Arendt, the Jewish German writer and philosopher, who was covering the trial for the New Yorker, coined the provocative and controversial term “banality of evil.” What she meant was that Eichmann looked more like “a bank teller” than a criminal mastermind and mass murderer. His answers to the prosecution’s questions painted an unrepentant man who was unwilling to accept responsibility for his role as a main destroyer of European Jewry. “Why me?” Eichmann asked. “Why not the local policemen, thousands of them? Everybody killed the Jews. Why me?”

We all have some crazy image of a monstrous villain in our heads. A villain can’t look like me and you. Right? And that’s what is so scary about Eichman. He just seemed like a regular guy. Regular in capital quotation marks. And banal also meaning that he was just bureaucratically doing his job, you know, just like you and me.

Back to the trial.

In December 1961, Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, and war crimes. There was a debate among some of the Israeli leaders about Eichmann’s fate. The majority of the Knesset pushed execution but a few held out, arguing that life in prison was more humane. Capital punishment was inherited from the British Mandate’s legal code but is very rarely used. The death penalty at that point, had only been used once in Israel’s history.

Golda Meir, an opponent of capital punishment throughout her entire career, changed gears, supporting the death penalty in this case. She did express sadness, though, that it would fall to a Jew to take Eichmann’s life.

Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, was hanged in front of a dozen people in a prison just outside of Jerusalem on May 31, 1962

One of the positive results to come out of the Eichmann trial — aside from bringing a despicable war criminal to justice — was that it opened the curtain on the Holocaust, inspiring thousands of survivors who had suffered through the atrocities to speak openly and freely, following in the footsteps of the dozens of witnesses who gave testimony in Jerusalem. It’s hard to imagine now, but then, there was stigma and shame Holocaust survivors felt. In Israel, Jews who fought for and died were said to have “fallen,” whereas Jews who died in the Holocaust “perished.”

Right — there’s a difference there. This difference of language points to a very different disposition.

And, at the end of the day, even if the Eichmann trial did raise a lot of unanswerable questions, there are some things we can be certain about: It changed the way the world and specifically the Jewish world viewed the Holocaust. It brought the experiences of the survivors to center stage and exposed the many evils of Hitler’s grand plan.

See, Israel did not always have Yad Vashem — the national museum dedicated to Holocaust memory. Up until that point, the feeling in Israel towards the Holocaust survivors was more negative with many people asking “why didn’t you fight back?” Israeli Jews wanted to feel like “the new Jew,” you know, the suntanned, attractive, muscular Jew who had agency, taking care of themselves! They often couldn’t understand how in the world their Jewish brothers and sisters didn’t fight back. And they were kinda embarrassed. Sometimes they even got a little nasty.

Yair Lapid recounts how there was a survivor of Auschwitz who was nicknamed “Soap” by his Israeli friends. Why “Soap”? Because they knew that Nazis used Jewish bodies to make soap.

This would all come to a grinding halt with the Eichman trial. The trial gave survivors a real voice. It gave them the space to speak about the horrors they experienced and made the general Israeli public understand their experiences. It was now clear to Israeli society that Jewish life could not be lived without a profound attachment to Jewish history, no matter how painful parts of that might be.

The Eichman trial also established Israel, a country in its adolescence, as unwilling to lie down when it had the opportunity to hold murderers accountable, and it confirmed the Jewish people as the architects of their own fate, willing to go the distance for justice. This moment brought a small sliver of justice to the millions of victims and thousands of survivors of the Holocaust.

So that’s how Israel secretly captured a Nazi war criminal and put him on trial in front of the whole world.

Five Fast Facts

  1. Only 5-10% of Nazis are assumed to have ever been brought to justice.
  2. Adolf Eichmann was the architect of the Final Solution / the Holocaust.
  3. Eichmann’s capture by the Mossad is one of — if not the — most famous operations in the history of the Mossad.
  4. The International community condemned Israel for violating Argentina’s sovereignty and bringing him to Israel. 
  5. Eichmann’s trial was a huge moment in terms of awareness and knowledge of the Holocaust in the Jewish world. 

Those are the facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it. The Holocaust and the State of Israel will inextricably be linked, but not for the reason many think. I do not subscribe to the idea that Israel exists because of the Holocaust. That idea is false in a myriad of ways. However, I hope we can all agree that if there were an Israel in the 30s and 40s, there would have not been a Holocaust. And Ben Gurion wanted this to be clear to everyone. With a safe and secure Israel, there will never again be a Holocaust. 

Enjoy this podcast with friends by hosting a podcast listening party.