Bureaucrat in Nazi Germany who organized the transportation of Jews and other "undesirables" from around Europe to death camps in Poland and Germany.
Eichmann (1906-1962) fled Germany after the Second World War and lived in Argentina under an alias for 10 years before being kidnapped by Israeli intelligence agents, taken to Israel, and put on trial for crimes against humanity. He was convicted and executed.
To the end, Eichmann protested that he was just a functionary, just responsible for transporting Jews (not killing them), just following orders.
Life before the Party
Eichmann was born in Austria, to middle-class Protestant parents. He dropped out of an engineering education, worked briefly for his father's small mining company, and sold electrical supplies and oil.
He was friends with Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who would eventually be chief of SS intelligence and be hanged for war crimes after the Nuremberg Trials. At Kaltenbrunner's urging, Eichmann joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1932, signed up with the SS, and was serving as a guard at Dachau by 1934. The job didn't last long -- Eichmann found it tedious and sought a transfer into the SD (the SS's intelligence unit, run by Reinhard Heydrich). In the SD, he started as a filing clerk compiling data on Freemasons, but before long switched to assembling files on prominent Jews.
Eichmann was fascinated; he threw himself into the task, studying Jewish culture, history, and theology. Figuring (rightly) that being an expert on Jews and Judaism would help his career tremendously, he learned some Hebrew, some Yiddish, and familiarized himself with Zionism. He became the SS's "Jewish specialist." Before long, he was in charge of a special SS section on Jewish Affairs.
Seeds of the Final Solution
One of Eichmann's responsibilities was to seek a way to get rid of Europe's Jews. Killing them, the "Final Solution," wasn't Eichmann's first thought. He went to Palestine to try to negotiate for a Jewish homeland with Arab leaders, but Britain (which controlled Palestine) rebuffed him. He later proposed moving Europe's Jews en masse to Madagascar, but Heydrich and other Nazi leaders pronounced the idea unworkable.
In 1938, Germany annexed his homeland, Austria. While he continued to seek a solution, Eichmann was transferred to Vienna to pioneer an "Office for Jewish Emigration." The Office was the only agency authorized to issue exit permits to Jews wanting to leave German-controlled territory, and extorted massive payments from more than 150,000 of them who left in a year and a half. The idea was copied in Berlin and Prague, and Eichmann gained experience in the administrative needs associated with moving large numbers of people very quickly while still keeping track of who they are, where they came from and where they went.
During the war
In 1939, Eichmann was put in charge of Gestapo
Section IV B4 of the new Reich Main Security Office
(RSHA), which made him one of the most powerful men in the new German empire. In new conquered territory, he and Heydrich ordered Jews confined to severely overcrowded ghetto
s and labour camps, causing starvation and disease. Eichmann knew that whatever the Nazis eventually decided to do with Europe
's Jews, it would involve moving them; the neighbourhoods designated as ghetto
s were almost invariably close to rail junctions.
It remains unclear who decided that mass murder was the answer to what the Nazis saw as "the Jewish question." Heydrich was probably the first to make it a serious proposal, but possibly he got the idea from Adolf Hitler himself. At any rate, although it wasn't Eichmann's idea, he was largely responsible for making it happen.
The murders didn't reach industrial scale for some time. At first, Wehrmacht (regular army) and SS soldiers simply rounded Jews up in newly conquered villages and shot them. After witnessing this in Minsk, Eichmann, with the agreement of Heinrich Himmler, decided that a way could be found that was both more efficient and more humane. ("More humane" in the sense that it would be less traumatic for the murderers, that is. Shooting large numbers of people is messy and bloody and slow.) They tried using mobile gassing units, taken from targeted town to targeted town, but their sealed chambers were too small for the efficiency the Reich's leaders wanted. Eventually, at the Wannsee Conference at Berlin in 1942, Heydrich and Eichmann and other senior Nazi administrators decided to convert several concentration camps (used chiefly for labour) into death camps, and Eichmann was directed to devise a plan to move all of Europe's 11 million Jews to the new gas chambers at Sobibor, Chelmno, Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Eichmann took a particular interest in Auschwitz, visiting repeatedly to assess the efficiency of its operations. But he travelled throughout the growing Reich, making sure that the cattle-cars filled with Jews kept moving. The historical record suggests Eichmann had nothing in particular against Jews: he just had a bureaucratic task to do, and he took great pride and pleasure in doing it well. Eichmann's psychological disconnection of process and purpose later led philosopher and commentator Hannah Arendt to comment on Eichmann's demonstrating "the banality of evil." In Eichmann's mind, he was just a man doing a job.
Once it became clear to Himmler that Germany would probably lose the war, he ordered Eichmann to stop the deportations -- presumably looking to start minimizing his guilt. Nevertheless, Eichmann ordered one more deportation: 50,000 Hungarian Jews were rounded up and forced into a death march into Austria.
After the war
Eichmann fled Berlin in the last days of the Second World War
, but was arrested by American forces and confined to a prison camp. The Americans knew he was an important Nazi administrator, but didn't know how important; he escaped from the camp and used an underground network of former SS officers to flee to Argentina. He lived there under the name Ricardo Klement.
Israel's Mossad intelligence agency got a tip that Eichmann was alive in Argentina in the late 1950s, and sent a team there in May 1960 to find him. The team tracked him down, put him under surveillance, and eventually snatched him from a bus stop. The Mossad agents disguised him to get him past Argentine authorities and hauled him to Jerusalem to be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The charges (from www.pbs.org/eichmann/study4.htm):
- He was ultimately responsible for the murder of millions of Jews.
- He placed these Jews, before they were murdered, in living conditions designed to kill them.
- He caused them grave physical and mental harm.
- He took actions that resulted in the sterilization of Jews and otherwise prevented childbirth.
- He caused the enslavement, starvation, and deportation of millions of Jews.
- He caused general persecution of Jews based on national, racial, religious and political grounds.
- He spoiled Jewish property by inhuman measures involving compulsion, robbery, terrorism and violence.
- That all of the above were punishable war crimes.
- He deported a half-million Poles.
- He deported 14,000 Slovenes.
- He deported tens of thousands of Gypsies.
- He deported and murdered 100 Czech children from Lidice.
Three more charges involved membership in organizations which were judged to be criminal by the Nuremberg Trials: the SD, Gestapo, and SS. The trial was the first Nazi trial to be televised, and the world was riveted.
Eichmann never denied what he'd done -- he merely insisted that he'd had no choice but to follow orders (the same strategy that had failed for more senior Nazis at Nuremberg), and that he hadn't been personally responsible for the actual deaths of six million Jews in the Reich's death camps.
"Why me?" Eichmann asked on the stand, testifying in his defence. "Why not the local policemen, thousands of them? They would have been shot if they had refused to round up the Jews for the death camps. Why not hang them for not wanting to be shot? Why me? Everybody killed the Jews."
The Israeli court convicted Eichmann on all counts, and he was hanged at Ramleh Prison on May 31, 1962. He was cremated, and, so he would have no grave, his ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea.