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The reality of evil: 60 years on from the Eichmann trial


SIXTY years ago today, Adolf Eichmann was brought into the dock of an Israeli courtroom to hear his fate.

Flanked by two guards, enclosed behind bulletproof glass, the German dubbed the ‘architect of the Final Solution’ put on headphones through which a translator relayed the words of the Hebrew-speaking judge.  

Eichmann listened impassively as he was sentenced to death by hanging, then removed his headphones and was led away. 

Three days earlier, on December 12, 1961, the balding, bespectacled 55-year-old had been found guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people and membership of a criminal organisation. 

As an SS lieutenant-colonel in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Eichmann was head of the Reich Security Main Office’s Department of Jewish Affairs – a pivotal figure in arranging the deportation of millions of Jews to ghettoes and death camps in Eastern Europe. 

He prepared the ground for, and attended, the infamous Wannsee Conference of senior Nazis in Berlin in January 1942, where plans were agreed for the extermination programme. Then, with ruthless efficiency and attention to detail, Eichmann organised the machinery of industrialised mass murder. 

After the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, he escaped from custody and went into hiding in various places in Germany. Then in 1950, with the help of an organisation led by a Catholic bishop, he made his way to Argentina.  

Eichmann’s wife and sons joined him in 1952 and, using a false identity, he found work at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Buenos Aires, later building his family a house. 

But the Israeli secret service Mossad learned of his whereabouts and on May 11, 1960, its agents abducted him outside his home and flew him to Israel to face justice.   

Eichmann’s trial, which was televised worldwide, started on April 11, 1961, before a special tribunal of the Jerusalem District Court overseen by three judges.  

 In his testimony, he did not deny the Holocaust, or his role in organising it, but tried to give the impression that he had merely been a disinterested, deskbound bureaucrat who was just following orders. 

 Like the senior Nazis during the 1946 Nuremberg Trials, he claimed he was bound to carry out the instructions of his superiors, having taken an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. 

But the judges concluded that, far from being a clerkish, faceless functionary, Eichmann was a fervent, Jew-hating ideologue, a key player who had enthusiastically embraced his evil task of enabling genocide. 

After the death sentence, Eichmann persisted in claiming his innocence. ‘There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders,’ he wrote in a letter asking for clemency. ‘I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.’ 

Around midnight on May 31, 1962, Eichmann was hanged at a prison near Tel Aviv. It was only the second use of the death penalty in Israel since the founding of the state in 1948, and remains so today.

His last words were said to have been: ‘Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the three countries with which I have been most connected and which I will not forget. I greet my wife, my family and my friends. I am ready. We’ll meet again soon, as is the fate of all men. I die believing in God.’

However, in 2014, a different version of Eichmann’s final moments emerged which exposed something more sinister behind his mask of blandness. 

Rafi Eitan, one of the Mossad agents who had abucted him, attended the execution. He said that as Eichmann went to the gallows, he heard him say: ‘I hope that all of you will follow me.’ 

Eichmann’s body was cremated hours after his execution and his ashes were scattered into the sea outside Israel’s territorial limits.  

Later that year, controversy arose over a book by the noted political philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt, who had covered the trial for The New Yorker magazine. 

Entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, it outlined her observations and conclusions about the proceedings.

Arendt, a German-born Jew who had escaped to America from Nazi-occupied France in 1941, had no sympathy for Eichmann. But she was trying to fathom how an apparently mundane and commonplace individual was capable of such heinous crimes. Her description of Eichmann as terribly and terrifyingly normal’, and her assertion that he performed ‘evil deeds without evil intentions’ brought bitter condemnation from many quarters. 

The phrase ‘the banality of evil’ was seized upon by critics. Was she saying evil was banal, or that the processes the Nazis used to commit evil were banal? The debate over it continues to this day. 

Also thrown into focus by the Eichmann trial, 15 years after the issue arose at Nuremberg, was the question of ultimate responsibility for a person’s actions. Basically, in a chain of command, where does the buck stop?  

If the Nazis’ defence of superior orders was taken to its logical conclusion, only one man was guilty – their leader, Hitler. Everyone else below him was shorn of responsibility, because they were doing only what they had been told. 

At Nuremberg, that argument was rejected. The judges said when an individual follows an order that is illegal under international law, he is responsible for that choice. 

They accepted that a person might perform an evil deed if he was threatened with death. But they said there was no evidence of the Nazis ever killing one of their number for refusing to take part in Holocaust actions. 

Mercifully, we are now more than 75 years away from the unspeakable evil of the Nazis. But on an entirely different plane, the question of corporate and individual responsibility and accountability still occasionally troubles society. 

Two of the best-known examples are the 1966 Aberfan disaster and the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, where blunders that led to tragedy ultimately went unpunished. And in the aftermath of other civil and criminal cases, we have often seen the headline: Is no one to blame? 

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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