Fifty years ago, one of the most spectacular trials of the 20th century began in Jerusalem: The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann. The proceedings against the former SS Obersturmbahnführer, who organized the deportations of millions of Jews to Nazi extermination camps, brought the Holocaust to the center of global attention. The German government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, however, reacted with panic. On the basis of secret documents, a SPIEGEL series tells the story of how Eichmann could remain at large for years after the war and how Adenauer’s government sought to influence the Eichmann trial. This is the first of the two-part initial instalment in the series. The second can be read here.

The oppressive early summer heat weighed down on Jerusalem on May 23, 1960. In the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, several members were dozing in their seats. But then, at 4 p.m., David Ben-Gurion stepped to the podium to make a statement. It consisted of exactly 62 words — and it contained a sensation. Israel’s security forces, the prime minister announced, had tracked down Adolf Eichmann, “one of the greatest of Nazi war criminals.” He was in Israel, Ben-Gurion said, where he would now stand trial.
For a short moment, there was silence, but then the delegates broke out into cheers.
Eichmann, of all people, the chief organizer of the Holocaust. The man whom the commandant of one extermination camp had described as being “obsessed” with murdering Jews.

“Well, my dear old friend Storfer, what rotten luck,” Eichmann once said mockingly to an Auschwitz inmate he had known before the war. “Look, I really cannot help you.”

Eichmann, an Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) in the SS, had been the head of the “Jewish Section” at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office), the SS organization charged with fighting “enemies of the Reich,” a position in which he was responsible for the deportation of Jews from Western Europe, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece to the extermination camps. He was the prototypical behind-the-scenes mastermind, an unscrupulous bureaucrat who never killed anyone with his own hands.

Postcards from the Death Camps

Beginning in 1941, men like Eichmann ensured that the Holocaust, as an act of industrialized mass murder, could acquire a position of grisly historic exclusivity. He and his staff developed the method by which the authorities and the police robbed the victims before deportation. Eichmann determined who was to board the trains to Auschwitz and Treblinka immediately and who would be deported later. He ensured that his men coordinated the transports. Figures showing the current status of the genocide were displayed in the offices of his section on Kurfürstenstrasse in Berlin.

The cunning bureaucrat was at odds with the foreign ministry and church representatives over his efforts to kill Jews from neutral countries as well as converted Jews. He stationed “Jew consultants” all over Europe, whose job was to intervene with German officials and those of other countries whenever the murderous transports were not moving quickly enough.