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Holocaust mastermind

April 7, 2011

Adolf Eichmann, a principal "architect" of the Holocaust, went on trial fifty years ago in Israel. To mark the anniversary, Berlin's Topography of Terror museum explores the unraveling of the leading Nazi organizer.

Adolf Eichmann listens to the guilty verdict
An Israeli court sentenced Eichmann to death in 1961Image: AP

The verdict read out against Adolf Eichmann on December 16, 1961, in a Jerusalem court, was clear:

"Guilty of causing the death of millions of Jews … Guilty of creating living conditions intended to annihilate millions of Jews. Guilty of causing severe physical and psychological damage to millions of Jews."

The trial that began April 11, 1961 ended eight months later with Adolf Eichmann being sentenced to death for masterminding Nazi Germany's "Final Solution." In May of 1962, he became the only person in modern Israeli history to be executed for a crime.

Fifty years after Eichmann's trial began, Berlin's Topography of Terror museum is exhibiting video footage and information on the proceedings against the man whose role in Hitler's genocide only became widely known years after World War II ended.

A 'recipient of orders'?

Visitors to the Topography of Terror museum
Topography of Terror is located at the former site of the Gestapo and SS headquartersImage: DW

In "The Trial - Adolf Eichmann in Court," the outdoor museum located on the former site of the headquarters of Nazi Germany's secret police, the Gestapo, and the SS, recounts Eichmann's 1960 capture by Israel's Mossad intelligence service in Argentina, where he had escaped with his family a decade before, after hiding from the authorities for four years in Germany, Austria and northern Italy.

Visitors to the exhibition can hear Eichmann defending himself to the Israeli court as a mere "recipient of orders".

"I regret and deplore the former German state leadership's ordered extermination of Jews. However, I myself was unable to do any different. I was simply a tool in the hands of stronger forces - and of an unfathomable fate."

But the prosecution's witnesses paint a different picture of Eichmann. Heinrich Grüber, a Protestant theologian who was involved with a Christian group that helped Jews in Nazi Berlin, testified that Eichmann was what he called a "mercenary type."

"We distinguished between soldiers and mercenaries," viewers can hear Grüber testify. "The mercenary was the kind who cast off his reason and his conscience when he put on his uniform."

While Grüber died in 1975, Gabriel Bach, the deputy prosecutor in Eichmann's trial, returned this month at age 84 to his country of birth to attend the exhibition's April 6 opening, bringing black and white photographs of himself at the trial as a young man.

"I will never forget the first moment of the trial," Bach recounted, "when the judges entered the courtroom with the Israeli emblem behind them. This man, whose sole endeavor, at least in the last years of his life, was to annihilate our people, got up and stood to attention before a sovereign Israeli court."

“It was that moment that made clear to me the significance of the state of Israel - more than any parade, any demonstration or any newspaper article,” Bach said.

Secrecy continues

The aging cardboard passport used by Adolf Eichmann
With the secret help of sympathetic churchmen and falsified documents, Eichmann escaped to ArgentinaImage: AP

Eichmann's trial was of great significance for Israel, but it also had - and still has - implications for Germany's handling of its Nazi history.

The trial only took place in Israel because Germany chose not to pursue Eichmann in Argentina, although the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) apparently knew of his whereabouts from the early 1950s.

Exhibition organizers at Topography of Terror wanted to include early BND documents concerning Eichmann's location, but have been denied access by the BND - despite a May 2010 decision by the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig declaring the withholding of the Eichmann files illegal.

The office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has refused to put pressure on the BND to disclose the papers, to the dismay of historians.

"I'm somewhat appalled that the chancellor's office is showing itself in such a bad light," said Norbert Kampe, Director of the House of the Wannsee Conference museum, which educates visitors about the infamous meeting of senior Nazi officials, at which Eichmann presented figures on Jews across Europe that were to be murdered in the Nazi's 'Final Solution' to the 'Jewish problem.'

Gabriel Bach
Bach says the Eichmann trial solidified his pride in the State of IsraelImage: DW

Kampe called it "incomprehensible that [the Chancellery] should simply adopt and support the BND's strategy. In other critical cases in the past, the Chancellery has opened the archives for research purposes with no problem. I don't know why they should suppress research efforts when it comes to Eichmann."

Hard questions

Adolf Eichmann's trial is considered a turning point in German post-war history, in that it marked the beginning of the German people's interest in uncovering and confronting Nazi crimes.

And yet many questions concerning Eichmann's trial remain unanswered. For that reason, Topography of Terror is hosting an international conference from May 24-26 on the developments and challenges in relation to the study of Eichmann's trial.

The BND's and the current German government's reluctance to give access to the information is expected to come up as a topic of discussion.

Author: Marcel Fürstenau / dl
Editor: Nicole Goebel