How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased down the World's Most Notorious Nazi
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sixty-four years after the end of World War II and the period known as the Nazi Holocaust, we still grapple with the question of responsibility. Was the Final Solution only accomplished due to the insistence of Adolf Hitler? Or was it the result of decisions made by Hitler and the leadership of the Nazi Party?
Maybe, those really responsible were not elites at all, but rather the German people, who knowingly allowed the Holocaust to happen. This theory has been espoused in major works like Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1993) and Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997).
An alternate theory is that although the Nazi Party created the genocidal policies against Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents, and others, the real danger and source of accountability lay with the administrators and bureaucrats. This was the premise behind Unmasking Administrative Evil (1998) by Guy Adams and Danny Balfour.
Just as any first year political science graduate student should be able to demarcate between policy-making institutions and policy-enforcing institutions, so too do the authors surmise that the real culprits of the Holocaust were those putting up and cutting the Nazi red tape, i.e., those who enforced violent public policy, allowed the Holocaust to happen.
SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann was one of those bureaucrats. He believed in all of the characteristics of the classic, Max Weber-inspired bureaucracy and behaved accordingly. Unfortunately for mankind, Eichmann was also a Nazi and personally charged with carrying out much of the administration of Hitler’s terrifying plan of total extermination of all European Jewry.
Ever the consummate bureaucrat, Eichmann seemed to treat his task as just another administrative dilemma or a “logistical problem that required solving.” He methodically created lists identifying the number of Jews across Europe and assisted the Nazi Party in putting into place a successive series of dehumanizing steps to remove Jews from Europe—isolation, securing their wealth, ghettoization, deportation, and extermination.
When interviewed years later about his involvement in the war—he was also one of the attendees of the 1942 Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was discussed and presented—Eichmann said, “I never killed anyone ... I was involved in collection and transport.”
Regardless of how Eichmann viewed his own role in the war, there was no doubt how the rest of the world and his victims regarded his involvement in the Holocaust. And as the world watched in muted rage and shock as concentration camp after camp were “liberated” by the Allies in 1945—Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and others—the full extent of the Nazi war machine reared its head for the public to see. And the public wanted justice.
This took the form of the highly publicized Nuremberg Trials from 1946 to 1947 and the less publicized killings of many Nazis and SS officials by various Jewish “avenger” groups and partisan units. And yet, Eichmann was not one of those captured, tried, or killed. It would take another 15 years for that to happen as Eichmann, once considered the Holocaust’s “architect,” changed his identity, name, location, and personality to escape capture several times.
Eichmann’s 15 years on the run are the basis for Neal Bascomb’s new book, Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. This book is a first-class thriller and an unbelievable story of perseverance and the search for redemption. The fact that most people have never understood or been exposed to this story is one of many reasons that make Bascomb’s new book an absolute must-read.
If Eichmann was so despised, why was he allowed to escape in the first place? This question gets at the heart at what must be one of the 20th Century’s greatest debacles—the lack of post-Nuremberg effort to track down Nazis and other people responsible for the Holocaust. Although the Trials were a major event and lay the seeds for the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, only 22 Nazis were ever tried.
The vast majority committed suicide, were killed elsewhere, were never tried, or escaped abroad. Eichmann was one of the latter, getting documentation and travel permits through a “ratline” for former German Nazis and Italian Fascists to escape Europe and seek new lives abroad, mostly in South America.
Bascomb offers a lot of compelling evidence and an eviscerating argument that points to why exactly Eichmann could not immediately be brought to justice—no one really wanted the case. As Europe and the rest of the world began to rebuild in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, most countries and their leaders were desperate to leave the specter of Nazism behind and concentrate on the new world enemy—Communism versus Capitalism, manifested in taking sides during the Cold War.
If it had not been for concentration camp survivors-turned Nazi hunters like Tuviah Friedman and Simon Wiesenthal who persisted for years to corroborate evidence on Eichmann’s whereabouts, the case may have gone cold and never been resolved. But, through more than one twist of fate, the case for bringing Eichmann to justice eventually landed in the lap of Isser Harel, the director of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
Once Harel became involved with the case and made it known, at least internally, that trying Eichmann for his role in the Holocaust was Israel’s responsibility since no one else wanted him, the young agency moved very fast. When enough evidence was obtained that Eichmann was posing as a “Riccardo Klement” and living with his wife and sons in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Harel put together an Israeli intelligence team to capture him.
By this point in the tale, I had reduced my finger nails to painful nubs and was racing through the book. Bascomb has a gift for these kinds of historical and dramatic narratives and his exhausting research in tracking down former Mossad agents as well as Nazis is evident because Hunting Eichmann is such a darn good read.
Bascomb’s description of the capture team reminded me of scenes in The Great Escape (1963), The Sting (1973) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001) where the various team members are handpicked and come together for the first time—emotional baggage included. For Eichmann’s capture, the group included Shalom Dani, the forger; Moshe Tabor and Peter Malkin, the strongmen; Ephraim Ilani, the native Spanish speaker; star Mossad agents Yaakov Gat and Zvi Aharoni; Avraham Shalom, deputy director of Shin Bet, Israeli’s domestic security service; and Rafi Eitan, who coordinated activities between Shin Bet and Mossad.
Bascomb walks the reader through the entire operation from start to finish as the agents were learning their roles and responsibilities as well. Each agent had to assume a new identity (and sometimes more than one), travel to Argentina from different points of embarkation, learn enough Spanish to get by and memorize over and over again every aspect of the plan.
But, the greatest surprise of the book still awaited me—the Israeli capture team’s use of their fledgling national airline, El Al, as a cover for capturing Eichmann and flying him back to Israel without the consent or knowledge of the Argentine government. When the team eventually does track Eichmann down and kidnap him in an elaborate and well-planned out scheme, only a handful of Israelis even knew about the covert operation.
When his capture became public knowledge in Israel and immediately the rest of the world, the Argentine government was shocked and demanded his return, which never happened. Instead, Eichmann was tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity and eventually put to death by hanging on 31 May 1962—the only time the death penalty had been used till and since in the State of Israel.
In the post-September 11 age of homeland security, treaties, NGOs, and inter-governmental cooperation, it seems impossible that this kind of kidnap/capture operation could be conducted now, which makes Bascomb’s book all the more important. Although Eichmann and the “banality” of his evil, as Hannah Arendt referred to it, may never be displaced from the human psyche, we should turn instead to commemorating and memorializing the men who brought him to justice.
Hopefully, this book gives them the credit they have always deserved. As Harel told his team before the capture, “Our memory reaches back through recorded history. The memory book lies open and the hand still writes.” Although Hunting Eichmann will hardly be the last book on this subject, it is comforting to know that someone’s hand is still writing.