Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) was responsible for the persecution and murder of millions of Jews in the death camps in Europe during World War II.
On May 13, 1960, Adolf Eichmann was seized by Israeli agents in Argentina and smuggled back to Jerusalem to stand trial for his role in the murder of one-third of Europe's Jewish people during World War II. The Eichmann trial of April through August 1961 gained worldwide attention as the most important trial of Nazi criminality since the Nuremberg trial of 1945-1946. For the first time a Jewish court convened in judgment upon a former persecutor. Eichmann was that SS (Schutzstaffel) officer responsible for transporting Jews and other victims to the extermination camps. What motivated him? The trial testimony showed him to be the ultimate conformist in a criminal state. As he said to an interrogator, "If they told me that my own father was a traitor and I had to kill him, I'd have done it. At that time I obeyed my orders without thinking, I just did as I was told. That's where I found my— how shall I say?—my fulfillment. It made no difference what the orders were."
(Karl) Adolf Eichmann was born into a religious middle-class Protestant family in Solingen in western Germany near the Rhine river on March 19, 1906. His father, an accountant for an electrical company, moved his family to Linz, Austria, in 1914. Eichmann's mother died when he was ten. Unlike his three brothers and one sister he was a poor student. Because of his dark looks he was apparently chided as "the little Jew." In Linz Eichmann went to the same secondary school Hitler had attended some 15 years before.
The resentment in Germany and Austria after defeat in World War I twisted an already inflamed nationalism, fed a lie that Germany had been "stabbed in the back" by the Jews. In 1919, amidst this new wave of anti-Semitism, the 13-year-old Eichmann was named in a newspaper as a member of a gang of youths who had tormented a Jewish classmate. Eichmann kept a precise record of each gang member's turn in beating up the victim (who died 20 years later in a death camp).
In the 1920s Eichmann drifted. He studied electrical engineering without success until his father decided that he should become an apprentice in an electrical appliance company, but his father wasn't satisfied with his son's progress there either. In 1928 Eichmann became a travelling salesman for an oil company through the help of Jewish relatives of his stepmother. He enjoyed his independence and his sporty car and became a joiner. As a member of the youth section of the Austro-German Veterans' Organization, he marched through the streets of Linz challenging the social democrats and cheering German nationalism. In 1932 the fanatical young Ernst Kaltenbrunner recruited Eichmann for the Austrian Nazi party and the SS. The Nazis promised that Austria would become part of a powerful German nation-state, and being a member of the SS gave Eichmann the chance to act superior after years of feeling inferior. Kaltenbrunner's father and Eichmann's father had been friends; their sons would make careers together in the SS. Kaltenbrunner became chief of the Security Service of the SS, second to Heinrich Himmler (and was hung as a war criminal in 1946).
When the Austrian government banned the Nazi Party in 1933, Eichmann, who did not have a job at the time, moved to Nazi Germany and joined the SS "Austrian Legion in exile." After a year he transferred to the Security Service where he found a niche for himself as an "expert" on Jewish affairs. He learned about Zionism and even briefly visited Palestine. When Austria was annexed by the Third Reich in 1938 Eichmann efficiently organized the expulsion of 45,000 Austrian Jews, first stripping them of their possessions. He became known in SS circles as the expert on forced emigration. When Germany invaded Poland, Hitler decided to exterminate the Polish Jews, and Eichmann's organizing ability turned towards mass murder. In the summer of 1941 he was among the first to be told of the "Final Solution," and on January 20, 1942, he was one of 15 who attended the Wannsee Conference where the formal pact was drawn between the political leadership and the bureaucracy to send European Jewry to the death camps. Jews were forced to wear the yellow star of David for easy identification; they were assembled for easy transport to their doom. Eichmann's principal concern was to maintain the killing capacity of the camps by maintaining a steady flow of victims. All the principles of civilization were turned on their head. First into the gas chambers were children, mothers, and the old. About 25 percent of each train load, the strongest men and women, were spared for slave labor. Very many died of starvation, sickness, and overwork. In 1944 Eichmann reported to Himmler that some four million Jews were killed in the camps and some two million more had been shot or killed by mobile units.
Eichmann was a bureaucratic mass murderer; he avoided the extermination sites and shielded himself from his acts through a bureaucratic language that deadened his conscience. Eichmann was limited, compartmentalized in mind and spirit. "Officialese is my only language," he said at his trial. Eichmann exemplified the terrifying discrepancy between the unparalleled and monstrous crime and the colorless official who carried out the evil. He viewed his victims as objects to be transported to their deaths as if they were nuts and bolts, and in 1944 he unsuccessfully sought to trade the lives of one million Jews for 10,000 trucks.
At the end of the war Eichmann was rounded up, but he managed to disguise his identity and escaped detection. ODESSA, the secret SS organization, arranged his flight to Argentina in 1952. Under the alias of Ricardo Klement, Eichmann created a new identity as the unassuming employee of the Mercedes-Benz car factory in Buenos Aires. His wife and two sons joined him.
On December 15, 1961, the Israeli court sentenced Eichmann to hang. His last words on June 1, 1962, were that he would not forget Austria, Germany, and Argentina. He was 56; his corpse was cremated, and his ashes scattered over the sea. Eichmann's inhuman acts in the name of Germany seemingly confirmed one 19th-century Austrian's fear that Europe was moving from humanity through nationality to beastiality.
Further Reading on Adolf Eichmann
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) and Jochen von Lang, editor, Eichmann Interrogated: Transcripts from the Archives of the Israeli Police (1984) provide additional information on Eichmann's activities and thoughts.
Additional Biography Sources
Malkin, Peter Z., Eichmann in my hands, New York, NY: Warner Books, 1990.