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The Architect of the Holocaust Denied His Guilt Until His Dying Day

New letters released Wednesday show Adolf Eichmann's pleas for amnesty.

Nazi leader and war criminal Adolf Eichmann takes oath on May 5, 1961 during his trial in front of an Israeli Court in Jerusalem. He was sentenced to death and executed in Jerusalem on May 30, 1962. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Nazi leader and war criminal Adolf Eichmann takes oath on May 5, 1961 during his trial in front of an Israeli Court in Jerusalem. He was sentenced to death and executed in Jerusalem on May 30, 1962. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Adolf Eichmann was a disenchanted, recently laid-off traveling salesman when he joined an Austrian branch of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s. He quickly rose in its ranks and ultimately helped mastermind the brutal push that led to the murder of six million Jews at concentration camps across Europe.

But on May 29, 1962, 17 years after Nazi Germany surrendered and two years after Eichmann was flown to Israel to face trial, he penned a letter to then-Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi proclaiming his innocence — and his abject lack of remorse.  

“I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty,” he wrote.

Two days later he was hanged in Jerusalem.

The letter, which was made public for the first time Wednesday, was released by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Unlike other Nazis, Eichmann avoided facing trial for his crimes in the Nuremberg tribunal because after he was captured by U.S. troops, he escaped from a prisoner of war camp and — with the help of a network of former Nazis and sympathetic monks — fled to Italy. Other Catholic churches helped facilitate his travel to Argentina in 1950, where he lived freely under a pseudonym for an entire decade.

The leaders of the new state of Israel, however, had not forgotten about him.

In 1960, when Argentines were busy celebrating the 150th anniversary of their revolution against Spain, Israeli Mossad agents snuck into the country undercover and kidnapped Eichmann. Israel believed Argentina would help block his extradition, so the agents disguised him as an Israeli who worked for an airline but had suffered a traumatic head injury. Somehow, it worked: They flew him on an El Al flight to Dakar and then onwards to Israel, where he was immediately placed in detention.

According to the agents who kidnapped him, when he was shoved onto the floor of a sedan and hidden with a blanket, he said “I have already accepted my fate.”

But the letter released Wednesday implied that he had in fact not accepted his fate at all. Instead, Eichmann begged Ben-Zvi to pardon him, claiming he had only ever followed orders and should not be held responsible for the atrocities he said he had no choice but to commit.

“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, adding that he detested crimes committed against Jews.

His letter left no impression on the Israeli president, who saw the trial — the world’s first ever to be televised — as a moment of pride for his state. Eichmann was, in fact, so hated in Israel that authorities placed him in a glass booth for the duration of the 16-week trial out of fear a civilian would attempt to murder him before the trial was complete, earning him the nickname “The Man in the Glass Booth.”

He faced 15 charges, including crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. More than 100 witnesses testified in court, and on Dec. 15, 1961 he was found guilty on every count. For many of the victims, it was the first time they spoke publicly about what they experienced during the Holocaust.

Eichmann’s body was never returned to Europe. He was cremated in Israel and his ashes were thrown into the sea.

There are still alleged Nazi commanders who have not yet faced trial. On Tuesday, the Simon Wiesenthal Center released a list of 10 they believe could be prosecuted in 2016.

Efraim Zuroff, who directs the center’s Jerusalem branch, said the trials would send an important signal that the Holocaust has not been forgotten.

“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. Old age should not afford protection to people that committed such heinous crimes,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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