The Makings of History / Israel's Gift to Eichmann

Secrecy breeds wild conspiracy theories - including about Eichmann's involvement in Israel's nuclear program. Where's the brave German archivist who will give the files to WikiLeaks?

Adolf Eichmann was convicted in the Jerusalem District Court and sentenced to death in December 1961. Half a century later, not everything that should be known about the case has been made public: Indeed, Germany is concealing documents that are apparently related to, among other things, the botched searches for the Nazi war criminal. There is no way of knowing why it is ashamed to reveal such information. Secrecy breeds wild conspiracy theories on the Internet - including even a story about Eichmann's involvement in Israel's nuclear program.

Where is the brave German archivist who will give the files to WikiLeaks?

Adolf Eichmann (AP photo)
AP Photo

The archives of the Mossad and Shin Bet security service are off-limits as well, including those files dealing with the pursuit of war criminals. So here's a challenge for the incoming Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs to tackle: permitting the regulated opening of their archives, in accordance with the law.

Israeli agents tried to capture Eichmann in Austria in December 1948. The attempt failed. The official version about the abduction appears on the Shin Bet's website, and was evidently worded very carefully, doubtless by some committee or another. The authors of this version conceal the first failed attempt to kidnap Eichmann, and claim - contrary to the truth - that the information about his being in Argentina reached Israel in 1957. The truth is that this information reached Israel in 1953; the source was renowned "Nazi hunter" Simon Wiesenthal, whose letter was buried in the files. Eichmann therefore enjoyed another seven years of freedom, a gift from the Jewish state.

The abandonment of the pursuit of Nazi war criminals reflects the tortured and twisted attitude of many people in the nascent state toward the Holocaust and its survivors, and the tendency of a young Israel to look only toward the future. It is no wonder that the Shin Bet inflates the halo of heroism surrounding the act of bringing Eichmann to Israel. In fact, we are talking merely about the abduction of a 54-year-old man, unarmed, who was returning home from work on a semi-dark street, without taking any precautions, as on every evening. A few of his acquaintances knew who he was; Eichmann even dictated his memoirs to one of them. Nor does the operation of smuggling him out of Argentina seem like one that required particular bravery.

Eichmann had taken a new name, but his son used his father's real name. Any secret service that wanted to could have kidnapped him. That didn't happen because no country was interested, really. Eichmann was brought to Israel and put on trial as a result of a demand by four Jews, Holocaust survivors, only one of whom was Israeli: Tuvia Friedman from Haifa. The other three were Simon Wiesenthal; Fritz Bauer, a Jewish prosecutor in Germany; and Lothar Hermann, who lived in Argentina and discovered one day that his daughter was striking up a friendship with Eichmann's son. It was only the pressure these four brought to bear on Israel that finally led to the decision to abduct Eichmann.

No Jewish heroism is thus at the heart of this story, but rather a Jewish commitment to doing historic justice.

David Ben-Gurion, who ordered Eichmann's capture, was not interested in the man himself; he could have ordered his assassination in Buenos Aires. The prime minister was interested in a trial. At the time, Israeli society was still having trouble coalescing, and Ben-Gurion needed the trial as a sort of excuse - to rebuff allegations regarding the rescue fiascos during the Holocaust, and mainly to justify forging relations with Germany. The trial was also intended to provide answers to a series of difficult questions that accompanied the memory of the Shoah, and to formulate an authorized and binding Zionist version of the lessons to be learned from it.

The hearings were accompanied by countless political manipulations; the judges, led by Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau, had to go to great lengths to keep it from being turned into a show trial. Ultimately, this was a formative event for society, which turned the Holocaust into one of the central components of Israeli identity.

Eichmann himself remained a mystery for many years, among other things because Israel refrained for some reason from allowing access to the autobiography he wrote in prison. The manuscript was kept a secret, and was made available for perusal by the public only in 1999. Hannah Arendt, too, was not familiar with the document when she published her book about the trial. Eichmann's autobiography reveals that, contrary to what Arendt thought, his evil was not banal: He orchestrated the annihilation of the Jews because he believed in the Nazi ideology.