On the night between May 31 and June 1, 1962, the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, mastermind of the systematic murder of six million Jews and other perceived enemies of the Third Reich, was executed by Israel. Eichmann’s killing followed his dramatic abduction from Buenos Aires two years earlier, when Mossad agents transferred him to Israel for trial.
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Eichmann had been born in Germany on March 19, 1906, but lived much of his life in Austria. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932 and began to rise through the ranks.
He started working on the Jewish issue toward the end of 1934. Although he never reached the level of policy maker, it was he who eventually became responsible for implementing the “Final Solution” – a euphemism for deporting the Jews of occupied Europe to the east and murdering them.
Escape – and recapture
Although he was captured and initially held by the Americans after the war, Eichmann escaped and, with much help, took refuge in Argentina in 1950. It would take a decade for Israel to collate sufficient information about his whereabouts to be able to carry out his abduction.
On May 23, 1960, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced that Eichmann was in Israel’s hands, and that he would be brought to trial in Jerusalem.
The charges against Eichmann included crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against the Jewish people. His trial was conducted by a special tribunal of the Jerusalem District Court, on April 11, 1961, presided over by Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau.
The evidentiary stages went on until August, and the judges announced their verdict – guilty on all the major charges – on December 12. Three days later, the defendant was sentenced to death.
In 1954, Israel had eliminated the death penalty in all but cases of certain special crimes, such as genocide and treason. And in practice, the only other time the penalty has been meted out was in the case of Meir Tobianski, who was convicted of treason by a kangaroo court during the 1948 War of Independence, and brought before a firing squad. His conviction was posthumously overturned.
An appeal for clemency
Eichmann appealed both his conviction and his sentence to Israel’s Supreme Court, but his appeal was rejected by a five-judge panel on May 29, 1962. Eichmann’s lawyer, Robert Servatius, then requested clemency from President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who passed the request on to the attorney general, Gideon Hauser.
Hauser felt the issue was momentous enough that it should be decided upon by the government, which met secretly that same afternoon, at Frumin House in Jerusalem, where the Knesset then met.
The minutes of that government meeting were only declassified a few years ago. In a 2007 article in Haaretz, historian Yechiam Weitz described how Finance Minister Levi Eshkol, who a few years later would become Israel’s prime minister, asked his colleagues to consider converting the sentence to life imprisonment. Eshkol argued that keeping Eichmann alive, “with a mark of Cain on his forehead,” would be far more meaningful a punishment than “the five minutes of the carrying-out of the ruling.”
When the cabinet voted, only Yosef Burg, the welfare minister, supported Eshkol’s position, with the other 11 ministers voting for the immediate imposition of the sentence. On that basis, the president rejected the request from Servatius.
Similarly, a small but well-regarded group of 20 intellectuals – who included Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and Lea Goldberg – drafted a letter to President Ben-Zvi, urging him to commute Eichmann’s sentence, “for the sake of our country and for the sake of our people.” Buber also asked to meet with Ben-Gurion, who made a pilgrimage to the philosopher’s house and spoke with him for two hours, but he did not succeed in convincing the premier that Eichmann’s sentence should be averted.
Late on the night of May 31, 1962, Eichmann was hanged in Ramle Prison. His body was cremated and, to avoid any possibility of there being any relic or place of burial that might later serve as a focus of commemoration for the Nazi, his ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea, beyond the territorial waters of Israel.