Eichmann Refused to Admit Guilt in Last-ditch Bid for Clemency

Newly-released letters detail Nazi criminal's pardon request and his brother's appeal to President Ben-Zvi: Show the world the 'magnanimity of the Jewish people.'

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961
Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961 Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Adolf Eichmann refused to admit any guilt for his war crimes in his last-ditch letter pleading for clemency, newly released papers reveal. The letter was sent to then-President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi two days before the Nazi’s execution in 1962.

The letters written by Eichmann, his wife and his brothers are now on display at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. Part of Eichmann’s clemency file, the letters are on show to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and 55 years since the Eichmann trial. They were written in German and translated into Hebrew.

“In their evaluation of my personality, the judges have made a significant error, since they cannot put themselves in the time and situation I was in during the war years,” Eichmann wrote to Ben-Zvi on May 29, two days before he was hanged.

According to the war criminal, the Jerusalem District Court judges who sentenced him to death, and the Supreme Court justices who rejected his appeal, ignored an important fact: “I never served at a rank so high that it could have been involved in such decisive and independent powers. I never gave any order in my own name, but rather always acted ‘on orders.’”

Eichmann added that had he actually “pushed zealously for the persecution of Jews, this would have found expression by promotion in rank, and other benefits. I never received any benefits.”

Eichmann invoked an emotional argument, writing, “It is not true I was never influenced by human feelings. Precisely under the impact of the unheard-of horrors to which I was witness, I immediately asked to be transferred to another post. I also revealed, of my own free will during my interrogation, horrors that were not previously known, so as to assist in determining the irrefutable truth. I declare again, as I did in court: I despise as the greatest crimes the horrors inflicted on the Jews, and I think it right that the perpetrators of these horrors be brought to justice now and in the future.”

A handwritten request for clemency by Adolf Eichmann, revealed on January 27, 2016.Credit: Reuters

However, Eichmann reiterated that since he was “not a responsible leader” but was “forced to serve as a mere instrument in the hands of the leaders,” he did not feel any guilt.

Eichmann ended his letter, “I am not able to recognise the court’s ruling as just, and I ask, Your Honour Mr. President, to exercise your right to grant pardons, and order that the death penalty not be carried out.”

Although knowledge of Eichmann’s clemency plea was known, the actual letter was only uncovered recently while documents were being digitally archived.

President Reuven Rivlin discussed Eichmann’s letter during a ceremony Wednesday honoring Holocaust survivors and the key figures involved in the Eichmann trial. These included Michael “Mickey” Goldman, the police officer who interrogated Eichmann, and Rafael Eitan. The latter ran the Mossad operation in which Eichmann was captured on the streets of Buenos Aires in 1960.

“The clemency process proved that even Eichmann and his family knew that, in the State of Israel, the conviction of a murderer like Eichmann is by means of a fair trial,” Rivlin declared. “We knew to give the evil man a defense attorney and to allow him to submit a clemency appeal, but when the time came to punish him for the horrors.”

In late 1961, Eichmann was sentenced to death by Jerusalem District Court for crimes against the Jewish people, against humanity and for war crimes. The Supreme Court rejected Eichmann’s appeal on May 29. After clemency was denied, Eichmann was hanged around midnight on May 31-June 1.

President Reuven Rivlin (center, front) poses for a group picture together with Rafi Eitan (standing, second left), and Mickey Goldman (standing, 3rd right).Credit: Reuters

The President’s Residence exhibit includes the famous note, in Ben-Zvi’s own hand, which decided Eichmann’s fate. In it, Ben-Zvi quoted from 1 Samuel 15:33, “As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.”

Eichmann’s mother had actually already died when her son was executed, but his wife and brothers also asked the president to spare his life. “After rejection of the appeal, my husband’s fate is in your hands. As a wife and mother of four children, I ask your honor for my husband’s life,” Vera Eichmann wrote.

Eichmann’s brothers wrote Ben-Zvi that clemency would be a way to show the world the “magnanimity of the Jewish people.”

The brothers added that knowing Adolf Eichmann as they did, the education he had received and the position of his family, “we can say that our brother would never have come into conflict with the ethical principles of the social order if not for the laws and orders of the leadership of the country at that time, to which he felt obligated by his oath as an officer.”

The official application for clemency, filed by Eichmann’s German defense attorney Robert Servatius, is also on display. Servatius asked the president to “take into account that the verdict is stained by the illegal abduction of the subject.”

Servatius argued that if Eichmann had been legally extradited to Israel, it would have been forbidden to execute him. Servatius also tried other arguments: “I would like it to be taken into consideration that Eichmann’s actions were caused by political events that occurred more than 17 years ago. He, an unimportant figure, was driven into it by fate an individual cannot be held accountable for the complexity of events, for the horrors of which the entire German people have been compelled to atone, with large sacrifice and suffering,” he wrote.

His explanation for the genocide of Europe’s Jews was that it came from an overblown bureaucracy that led to an abuse of people’s willingness to obey. “This person did not act out of anti-Semitism, but because he was bound to an oppressive bureaucratic system,” wrote Servatius.

One document not on show in the current exhibition is the request to pardon Eichmann by several Jewish intellectuals, including Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Hugo Bergmann and Lea Goldberg. They also requested that the president commute Eichmann’s sentence. “We don’t want the archenemy to force us to produce a hangman. If we do so, this will constitute a victory for him, which we do not wish to happen,” they wrote.

After the Israeli government rejected the appeal for clemency (with the exception of ministers Yosef Burg and Levi Eshkol, who supported clemency), Eichmann was hanged and his ashes scattered at sea by police officer Goldman.

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