Before his arrest by Israel's Mossad intelligence service, Adolf Eichmann boasted openly to other foreigners in Argentina of the war crimes he had committed. He confided to one journalist that his only mistake was not having murdered all the Jews. "We didn't do our work correctly," he said.
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 second installment; the first can be read here..
Experts like Holger Meding assume that several thousand Croats, Hungarians and Belgians with Nazi pasts fled to Argentina, as well as up to 800 higher-ranking Nazi officials and a few dozen German mass murderers.
German-Argentine businessman Horst Carlos Fuldner helped them gain a foothold in their new home. He owned CAPRI, a company that planned hydroelectric power plants where many Nazis were employed, including a member of the Innsbruck group. Eichmann also began working for CAPRI and was sent to Tucumán Province in northwest Argentina.
Born in the western German city of Solingen and raised in Linz, Austria, Eichmann had completed only part of a training program as a machine builder. Now he was traveling around the region with a team of workers, measuring the flow rates of rivers and observing flow patterns. He lived inconspicuously in a secluded mountain village.
Eichmann brought his wife and sons to Argentina in 1952. According to records from the German Embassy in Buenos Aires, his employer Fuldner later claimed that it soon became common knowledge among the roughly 300 CAPRI employees "that Klement's real name was Eichmann."
But to his children, who no longer remembered him, he was Uncle Riccardo. Only after some time did they learn from the parents who the stern man was who had instructed them to say nothing about the family to friends and acquaintances.
When he lost his job in 1953, the family moved to the Argentine capital. Eichmann tried his hand as the owner of a laundry business, opened a fabric shop, sold sanitation facilities, raised rabbits and eventually landed a job as a welder and mechanic at a Mercedes-Benz plant. Meanwhile, he kept up his ties to the Nazi scene.
He met Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele at Café ABC, and he attended a raucous farewell party for the fervent anti-Semite and Nazi propagandist Johannn von Leers, who was moving to Egypt. Eichmann also presumably attended a ceremony Nazi immigrants had organized for Argentine strongman Juan Perón.
And he drank, which loosened his tongue.
Some Nazis believed that the Holocaust was a propaganda lie spread by the Allies and hoped that Eichmann would reinforce this conviction. As a result, there was great interest in the Holocaust organizer, and Eichmann gradually threw all caution to the wind.
He was only 50, a humorless pedant with a high forehead and thick glasses, who read books about the Third Reich and taught his sons that a sense of duty and obeying orders were the most important virtues.
Unlike many of his former SS comrades, Eichmann had difficulty supporting his family. He felt betrayed by fellow Nazis who had testified in Nuremberg, as his biographer Cesarani writes. Resentful and disappointed, he now met regularly with two journalists: Willem Sassen, a native of the Netherlands, and the German-born Argentine Eberhard Fritsch.
During the war Sassen, who had originally volunteered to serve in the Waffen-SS, met Henri Nannen, who would later become the publisher of the German magazine Stern. After 1945, Sassen fled across the Atlantic to escape prosecution and began reporting for Stern and other publications. The contact with Eichmann was established by a former SS officer and advisor to the German Krupp company.
Eberhard Fritsch, the third man in the group, had piercing eyes, a dueling scar on his cheek and a moustache. In Buenos Aires, he published Der Weg (The Way), a monthly magazine that advocated giving national socialism a second chance in Germany.
The three men met on Sundays at Sassen's village in Florida, a Buenos Aires suburb. With a tape recorder running, Eichmann talked about his crimes and boasted about his importance. "I was no ordinary recipient of orders," he said. "If I had been one, I would have been a fool. Instead, I was part of the thought process. I was an idealist."
There is not a single word of regret on the tapes, which are now in the German Federal Archives in Koblenz. In fact, Eichmann's only regret, he said, was having made the mistake of not having murdered all the Jews. "We didn't do our work correctly," he said. "There was more that could have been done."
The meetings in Sassen's house did not remain a secret. Other former SS members, including one of Himmler's adjutants, soon joined the group. On occasion, people who had not been involved in the Holocaust listened to Eichmann's horrific accounts. In the end, it may have been hundreds who knew the true identity of this man Klement from Buenos Aires. Not surprisingly, the information from Argentina eventually reached Germany.
According to its own account, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, maintained "several well-positioned connections" in the region. The Krupp advisor who had brought together Eichmann and Sassen worked for the Gehlen Organization and, later, the BND. The agency also gathered information about Fritsch and Sassen. And officials at BND headquarters in Pullach, near Munich, had connections to the German-Austrian SS milieu that had produced many BND employees and had its own ties to South America.
On June 24, 1952, a message was received in Pullach from a Source 35a. According to the message, Eichmann was "living in Argentina under the alias Clemens (Klemens)," and the "editor in chief of the German newspaper in Argentina Der Weg" (Fritsch) knew his address.
A year later, the Gehlen Organization received another piece of information. Eichmann was working on the construction site for a power plant outside Buenos Aires. A former agent with the organization had notified Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who in turn notified the BND, the Israelis and, through the World Jewish Congress, the CIA.
A few years later, the CIA and the BND notified each other that Eichmann had apparently been living in Argentina until recently.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which had an interest in the group associated with Fritsh because his radical right-wing newspaper was being sold in Germany, had similarly precise information. The federal agency, based in Cologne, was familiar with Eichmann's alias (albeit spelled incorrectly), his escape route from Germany and his connections to Fritsch and other Nazis.
The right-wing extremists even joked publicly about Eichmann's whereabouts. In 1959, when Eichmann was rumored to be in Kuwait, the neo-Nazi publication Reichsruf published an article titled "Where on Earth is Eichmann?" and promptly supplied the answer: in Argentina. The article went on to state that he had emigrated to the South American country via Italy and with the help of the Catholic Church. Even the serious reference publication Munzinger reported at the time that Eichmann was living in South America.
Did the West German intelligence agencies fail in their search for Eichmann? Or could it be that they simply didn't want to find him? The truth is more complicated. The Gehlen Organization and, later, the BND did not consider it part of their mission to help track down Nazi criminals. More importantly, there was not even a warrant for Eichmann's arrest until November 1956.
Like so many Nazi perpetrators, Eichmann benefited from the fact that West German public prosecutors only investigated a case if a complaint had been filed, as Andreas Eichmüller of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich learned. But even then the prosecutors' enthusiasm was limited.
When a Holocaust survivor wrote a letter about Eichmann to the Berlin judiciary in later 1952, an investigative proceeding was launched -- and terminated soon thereafter. Eichmann, the German courts argued, was not to be found.
Germany, it turned out, was still a perpetrator's paradise.
Since no arrest warrant had been issued, the name Eichmann did not appear on the search bulletins that were sent to German embassies, including the one in Buenos Aires.
Nothing further happened until August 19, 1954, when a stout woman walked into the German Embassy in the Argentine capital and applied for passports for her two older sons. She wrote in the applications that the young men "might want to travel to Germany during vacations to visit relatives." The woman's name was Vera Eichmann. She presented the sons' birth certificates and her marriage certificate. Copies are on file today in the archives of the German Foreign Ministry. The passports were issued.
But it wasn't just German consular officials who helped the Eichmanns. The archives also contain the preliminary travel documents Vera Eichmann and her children used when they left Austria to join Eichmann in Argentina. An employee of the Soviet occupying force in Vienna had signed the documents, and Italian officials had stamped them. The stated destination was Argentina.
But no one was interested in the Eichmann family, neither in Germany nor in the other countries involved.
When the Frankfurt public prosecutor's office finally took the initiative and, as a result, a warrant for Eichmann's arrest was issued in 1956, the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) declined to launch an international manhunt through Interpol. BKA officials claimed that the Interpol statutes prohibited the prosecution of "crimes of a political and racist nature."
The only German agency that continued to pursue the case was the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. In 1958, it asked the embassy in Buenos Aires for assistance. The embassy's response was sobering:
After that, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution suspended its investigation.
Oddly enough, the diplomats were relatively familiar with Eichmann's milieu. Fuldner, the German-Argentine businessman who had helped Eichmann escape, paid regular visits to the embassy, where he was considered "capable." There is ample evidence that Bonn's envoys were familiar with his company and many of Eichmann's coworkers at CAPRI. They thought highly of the director of the German-Argentine Chamber of Commerce, who in turn was friendly with an acquaintance of Eichmann.
Even Dutch journalist Sassen's name appears in the embassy records, but for another reason. He had refused to pay alimony to a woman in the northern German city of Oldenburg who had claimed that he was the father of her child. The embassy made inquiries about Sassen at the BND's request.
The BND has consistently denied this, and the agency's files available to SPIEGEL so far corroborate its version. A secret BND memorandum states that Eichmann had "no connection to the BND."
It is noticeable that in 1958, at about the same time as the Office for the Protection of the Constitution had sent its request to the embassy in Buenos Aires, Fuldner advised Eichmann to keep a low profile.
Ambassador Werner Juncker, a member of the Nazi Party from 1935 onward, had other priorities than to support the pursuit of Nazi criminals. He later wrote about the Eichmann trial that it was
Georg Negwer, now 84, was the cultural attaché in Buenos Aires at the time. When the Foreign Ministry in Bonn demanded a statement from the ambassador and other diplomats in Buenos Aires after Eichmann's arrest, they all claimed that they had never heard of him and that they hadn't even known a man named Klement (a.k.a. Eichmann). Only Negwer stated that he was aware of the role the abominable bureaucrat had played in the Third Reich. A native of Silesia, Negwer had read about Eichmann during his training period.
He believes to this day that Ambassador Junker and his former colleagues did not lie. According to Negwer, Nazis kept a low profile in Buenos Aires and didn't "walk around with a sign."
But Negwer also describes events at the embassy that threatened to end in brawls between Nazis and other German immigrants.
The tens of thousands of Germans in Buenos Aires were divided. Nazis and non-Nazis had their own theaters, their own newspapers and their own athletic clubs. The embassy, for its part, tried to maintain unity between the different camps. The Nazis were invited to functions, just as everyone else was. "An effort was made to get along with each other," says Negwer. There was apparently not so much as a hint of social distance.
In Negwer's view, finding men like Eichmann was not the real problem. Instead, it was getting them out of Argentina and putting them on trial.
The CIA was the first to address the issue of what exactly would happen if Eichmann were found. He was not a US citizen, had apparently not killed any Americans and had not committed murder on American soil. This meant that he was not a case for the US courts. Besides, the Western allies had delegated the criminal prosecution of Nazi crimes to the new Federal Republic of Germany. In a memorandum for then CIA Director Allen Dulles, an advisor noted that Washington could only support West Germany with an extradition request, but that anything else was "illegal."
The American foreign intelligence service isn't exactly known for being overly concerned with the principles of constitutionality. But the Israelis also recognized the problem. Israeli diplomats discreetly inquired with their German counterparts as to whether there was an extradition agreement between Bonn and Buenos Aires. There wasn't.
Instead, the Argentines treated German extradition requests "extremely dilatorily," as the BND concluded. Many a Nazi criminal managed to disappear because Argentine authorities had been so slow to arrest them.
It was clear that extraordinary methods were needed to catch Eichmann.
In April 1960, a Mossad team traveled to Argentina. Its mission was to prepare for the abduction of Adolf Eichmann.
In the next installment of this series, SPIEGEL will explore how then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer ordered Germany's foreign intelligence agency to find out what Eichmann might say at his trial -- and who in the government it might incriminate.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan