The trial against Adolf Eichmann before the Jerusalem District Court was a global event. A camera team from the United States filmed the proceedings in the courtroom, a converted theater. Hundreds of journalists sitting in the rows of seats on the courtroom floor and in the galleries, or following the trial on screens in the press room, watched the testimony of witnesses as they described the firing squads and the gas chambers.
Eichmann, the former SS Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) and chief organizer of the Holocaust, sat in a bulletproof glass cell at the front of the room, on the left-hand side.
Rolf Vogel, a heavyset German with a round face, sat with the reporters. He was accredited as an employee of the Cologne-based Deutsche Zeitung, a business paper that was later acquired by Handelsblatt. In fact, Vogel was an agent with Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) — and he had been sent by the Chancellery in Bonn to monitor the trial.
Germany’s political leaders couldn’t have picked a more loyal agent.
The Nazis had classified Vogel, as a “half-Jew.” His mother was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, while he was ejected from the German military, the Wehrmacht. The Berlin native attributed the fact that he had survived what he called the “horrible time” to then Chancellery Chief of Staff Hans Globke, the most important and most controversial member of the Adenauer administration.
As a senior official at the Interior Ministry of the German Reich, Globke, had written a legal annotation on the perfidious Nuremberg Race Laws, in which he had not expressed any objection to the discrimination against Jews. But Globke’s annotation was helpful to so-called mongrels like Vogel, because it placed them in a better position than radical Nazis had originally intended, and the BND agent was grateful to Globke for the rest of his life.
A reserve officer in the postwar German military, the Bundeswehr, Vogel had already handled a number of delicate missions for Globke. He arranged the first arms deal with Israel, for example, and procured Uzi submachine guns for the Bundeswehr.
Now his mission was to influence the Eichmann trial, for which he was paid a flat rate of 2,000 deutschmarks per month plus a per diem, expenses and first-class plane tickets, to be paid from the budget of the Federal Government Press Office. It was Chancellor Adenauer himself who had sent Vogel to Israel, telling him: “You have to go to the Eichmann trial for me.”
Vogel was happy to oblige. He fed the Israeli prosecutors exonerative material on Globke and did everything he could to ensure that the prosecution remained limited to Eichmann.
He wanted to ensure that the Israelis did not emphasize, before the world public, the roles played by many other Germans. Together with a journalist for the tabloid newspaper Bild, Vogel even stole documents from an East German attorney in Jerusalem who was trying to capitalize on the Eichmann trial’s propaganda value for East Germany. Vogel feared that the documents could incriminate West German politicians or officials.
The Vogel mission was part of one of the most sensitive diplomatic and intelligence operations in the history of West Germany. From the government’s standpoint, there was nothing less at stake than the standing of Germans throughout the world and, along with it, possibly even the survival of the country.
The public had every reason to fear that the Cold War could become hot at any time. But which allies would still be willing to defend (West) Berlin, Bonn wondered, if the Eichmann trial created the impression that West Germany was a refuge for incorrigible former Nazis?
Today the number of German and Austrian perpetrators involved in the Holocaust is estimated at more than 200,000. Only a tiny number had already faced justice at the time. Fears in Bonn that the Eichmann trial could unleash an avalanche of accusations seemed more than justified.
When a US general with CIA connections offered to help the chancellor “soften the impact of the trial,” Adenauer said, according to BND records, that he was “very much interested.”
The Foreign Ministry also feared the consequences of the case. The Eichmann trial would “give a boost to all those forces abroad that view Germany and the Federal Republic with suspicion and resentment,” noted Foreign Minister Heinrich von Brentano.
Brentano, wrote to the chancellor: “In light of this horrid trial, we will be forced to clearly distance ourselves from these crimes.” The emphasis was on the words “forced to.” Investigating the Holocaust and confronting the Nazi past were clearly at the bottom of the Adenauer administration’s priority list.
By chance, the daughter of a Jew who had fled to Argentina from the Third Reich had become friends with one of Eichmann’s sons. In 1957, the emigrant wrote to the Hesse state attorney general in Frankfurt am Main, Fritz Bauer, to report that the Nazi war criminal was living in Buenos Aires under a false name.
Bauer, a Jewish social democrat, had once fled from the Nazis himself. He wanted to have Eichmann extradited, but because he didn’t trust the German authorities, he inquired at the US consulate in Frankfurt to determine whether the Americans would help bring about the extradition of a “proven Nazi war criminal” from another country. But the US official he contacted did not understand who Bauer was referring to in his cryptic inquiry — and did nothing.
An Israeli diplomat was more interested and notified the Mossad. But the Israeli secret service agency had its doubts about Bauer’s information. A Mossad agent drove past Eichmann’s house in Buenos Aires, but he couldn’t imagine that the organizer of the Holocaust could possibly be living in such humble circumstances. A second Mossad agent came to a similar conclusion.
Upon Bauer’s insistence, the Mossad finally sent a third man to Argentina who was considered a particularly capable investigator. On March 19, the Israeli agent observed the former SS Obersturmbannführer hanging up laundry in front of the house.
Five weeks later, the first members of what eventually became a 10-member Mossad team that was to kidnap Eichmann arrived in Buenos Aires.
After capturing Eichmann, he was hidden for a few days in a converted bedroom in a mansion in Buenos Aires. Then he was instructed to put on a flight attendant’s uniform for the Israeli airline El Al. On May 22, Eichmann arrived in Tel Aviv and was taken to a secluded prison.
The German prosecutor Bauer, who had tipped off the Israelis, was notified in advance of the success of the mission. For the Adenauer administration, though, the arrest came as a complete surprise. Officials in Bonn were extremely worried that Eichmann’s testimony could incriminate West German politicians or government agencies because, as it turned out later, the BND had known Eichmann's location, and was even considered a BND agent.
On July 6, an aide to a “coordination meeting at the Federal Chancellery” noted that the federal government had to make it clear “that Eichmann had worked as a henchman of the Himmler SS machine and not as an agent of the then German Reich.” This, the aide argued, would make it impossible to link West German officials with Nazi pasts “to Eichmann’s misdeeds.”
A Foreign Ministry official wanted to prevent “leading public figures in the Federal Republic” from being incriminated. He argued it had to be demonstrated that only a “small group of individuals” had implemented the Holocaust and that those who “were not directly involved could not have had any knowledge of it.”
The funding for Eichmann’s defense lawyer also appeared to present a problem. What would happen if the Communist bloc tried to fund the defense and thus exert influence? It seemed to make more sense for the West German Foreign Ministry to assume the costs, allowing it a say in the defense strategy.
To avoid alarming the parliament and the public, the ministry advised Eichmann’s attorney to file a petition for the assumption of costs “as discreetly as possible.” Hans Rechenberg (BND confidential informant 7396) was instructed to handle the funding in the interim. Rechenberg had experience with Nazis, after having served as the press assistant for Hitler’s economics minister, Walther Funk.
Rechenberg was already negotiating with a Frankfurt bank to secure a loan of 100,000 deutschmarks for Eichmann’s defense when SPIEGEL reported that the federal government intended to pay Eichmann’s attorneys. Foreign Minister Brentano quickly canceled the project. In the end, Israel paid Eichmann’s legal fees.
The German government’s behavior in the Eichmann affair reveals a mentality which goes a long way toward explaining why Nazi war crimes were not pursued energetically in the early years of the Federal Republic. Damage control, particularly in the case of Eichmann, was seen as much more important. There were two departments at the Foreign Ministry devoted exclusively to handing the case. The “Committee of State Secretaries on the Protection of State Secrets,” headed by Globke, even established an interdepartmental task force, which included representatives of the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Chancellery, the BND, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History (aka the re-writers association).
The group was supposed to be kept secret. Its mission was to orchestrate Bonn’s Eichmann policy and, most of all, to determine whether all Germans who were incriminated in the Eichmann trial had been prosecuted after 1945. The goal was to fend off “potential accusations” that Bonn had protected Nazi war criminals.
The group was headed by Foreign Ministry official Hans Gawlik, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and was a public prosecutor in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) during the war. He defended various senior SS members in the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
It was later revealed that after assuming office Gawlik, who was hard of hearing and seemed harmless, had warned German war criminals against traveling to countries where they had been sentenced in absentia and could now face arrest.
Lorenz Bessel-Lorck represented the BfV on the task force. As a public prosecutor in the northern city of Flensburg prior to joining the BfV, Bessel-Lorck had helped a former euthanasia doctor continue practicing under a false name. This doctor had contributed to the murders of more than 100,000 sick and disabled Germans under the Nazis’ euthanasia program.
The task force seriously considered assigning a share of the blame to the victims of Nazi crimes. A representative of the Justice Ministry was tasked with procuring documents indicating “that a large proportion of the guards at concentration camps outside the German Reich consisted of Estonians, Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians and Jews” — as if these people had volunteered to work in concentration camps and had not acted on German orders.
As historical advisor, Hans Buchheim of the Institute of Contemporary History wrote brief reports on issues such as: “How many Germans of non-Jewish heritage did the Nazi regime persecute?” According to Buchheim, they made up no more than 5 percent of concentration camp inmates during the war.
“Of course, as a statistic this doesn’t make much of an impression,” the historian wrote to Gawlik, and devised a perfidious argument to make the small figure seem more significant than it was.
Buchheim claimed that only non-Jewish political prisoners had been “true opponents or at least critics of the regime,” because they had offered their opposition voluntarily. Jewish concentration camp inmates, Buchheim argued, would have been killed anyway, “irrespective of their individual behavior.” Therefore, according to Buchheim’s absurd logic, a non-Jewish regime opponent was far more valuable than a Jewish one.
The civil servants working under Gawlik also considered other ways of exerting influence. Bonn diplomats had discovered that one of Eichmann’s judges and the head of German affairs in the Israeli Foreign Ministry had filed petitions for compensation that had either been declined or were still pending. The German Foreign Ministry perceived this situation as being “particularly unpleasant” and urged the Interior and Justice Ministries to show good will.
The Eichmann task force had a dedicated line to Jerusalem. In addition to BND agent Vogel, representatives of the Federal Government Press Office and a delegation of observers from the Foreign Ministry had also traveled to Jerusalem to attend the trial.
The Germans were soon at loggerheads. In their reports to government headquarters in Bonn, they accused one another of “excessive ambition” or excessive drinking. Apparently the head of the delegation was so drunk on a number of occasions that a waiter had to carry him to his room.
Members of the Foreign Ministry delegation reported that BND agent Vogel was deficient when it came to his “education and, to a large extent, his personal behavior.” When Vogel disagreed with other members of the German delegation, he apparently threatened them “with criminal complaints, disciplinary action and newspaper articles,” all the while citing “his close ties to Mr. Chancellor.”
The Bonn envoys had in fact merely been instructed to monitor the trial. Of course, a few of them spread apologist theories among journalists, diplomats and the Israeli prosecutors. They downplayed the numbers of perpetrators or claimed, against their better judgment, that there had been no violent anti-Semitic excesses in the Third Reich before the pogrom known as Reichskristallnacht in 1938.
It was, after all, a hopeless endeavor. Bonn’s representatives were trying to convince correspondents that horrible atrocities had not just been committed by Germans, but also by people from the Baltic countries and elsewhere.
And then the same correspondents heard courtroom accounts like that of a father who described the moment he saw his three-year-old daughter in Auschwitz for the last time. As she was standing in line in front of the gas chamber, he said, he watched her red coat became smaller and smaller.
Many in the courtroom wept. Prosecutor Gabriel Bach spent several minutes leafing through papers in an effort to regain his self-control. He had just bought his young daughter a red coat two weeks before the trial. Fortunately for the Germans, the Israeli hosts ignored many of their indiscretions.
This was the situation in 1960 and 1961: Israel had put Eichmann on trial to galvanize its own young people and the world public. The crime of a century had only played a secondary role in the Nuremberg trials and, 15 years after the end of the war, threatened to fall into oblivion.
The German government, for its part, sought to create the impression that the Holocaust was no longer an issue.
To this end, Chancellor Adenauer availed himself of the services of the BND once again. The intelligence agency’s files on Eichmann consist of 3,000 pages. SPIEGEL has gained access to the majority of these documents, which demonstrate the lengths to which the BND went to rescue Bonn’s reputation.
The agency, for example, investigated West German journalists who, like Bölling, were reporting from Jerusalem. It looked into an Eichmann exhibit in Munich because it involved Globke. It tried to influence a dubious witness because the man, a former member of the German military administration in Greece, had accused Globke of being involved in the deportation of Greek Jews. The BND held out the prospect of a job for the man, insisting that it was only doing so as a “friendly gesture” — and, of course, in return for the man agreeing not to reveal his information. But he turned down the offer.
Most importantly, the BND was to find out what testimony Eichmann was giving or had given on “public figures in West Germany, and active or former members of our own service.”
The intelligence service had learned that Eichmann, while still in Argentina, had already given two journalists extensive interviews. For months, BND sources and employees tried to get hold of the transcripts. But a few weeks after the Eichmann kidnapping, the magazine Life was already ahead of them. When the BND finally found out about it, a senior BND official asked a CIA counterpart whether it would be helpful for the German government to lean on Washington so that the US government would “suppress” publication of the story.
The CIA advised against this approach, noting that this was something not even the US government could do. The Americans apparently had a different understanding of the vaunted principle of freedom of the press in a free country.
In the first half of October 1960, the BND did manage to gain access to the world’s most famous prisoner. Eichmann occupied the only cell in a high-security police building near the port city of Haifa, which had been built by the former British colonial rulers. To prevent him from committing suicide, his guards replaced the glass lenses in his glasses with plastic lenses and had doctors examine him twice daily.
A BND source reported at length on the first visit by Eichmann’s defense team. The report included such details as a description of the security measures (“barbed wire and sentries”), the body search of visitors (“superficial”), the duration of the conversation (“2.5 hours”) and Eichmann’s condition (“upright, mentally alert, confident and not fearful or intimidated”).
The conversation with the attorneys took place in a room that was bisected by a wall of glass and plastic. Eichmann sat behind the wall. The cables for the headphones and microphones passed through the plastic. “While blinking his eyes,” the prisoner apparently indicated that he believed that the conversation was being recorded.
The BND was soon familiar with Eichmann’s statements to his Israeli interrogators, his letters to his brother Robert in Linz, the conversations with his attorneys and even the telegrams the attorneys were sending each other.
The BND gained its most important insight early on — on Oct. 25, 1960. In a “strictly confidential” memo, the agency noted that when asked about Globke, Eichmann had told his interrogators that the name “meant nothing to him, at least not in connection with the ‘mission of the final solution.’” Therefore, the memo continued, Eichmann “could not testify against Globke.”
The BND later gained the impression that Eichmann was pursuing the “well-meaning intention not to jeopardize” individuals living in freedom. However, BND headquarters did not believe that he could sustain this position.
In February 1961, two months before the trial was set to begin, the chancellor finally weighed in. Adenauer issued BND agent Vogel a letter of recommendation for a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Vogel was told to find out what Eichmann had told the Israelis about Globke.
Ben-Gurion met with the German emissary at the Sharon Hotel in the resort town of Herzlia. The small-statured Israeli prime minister with the Einstein hairstyle was a social democrat of Polish origin who had immigrated to Palestine in 1906. Ben-Gurion had tea and cookies served to his visitor and, according to Vogel, said that there was no need to talk about Globke. “If Konrad Adenauer has someone working for him, he’s investigated him more than we ever could,” Ben-Gurion said.
To this day, this remains the version told by the parties involved. They insist that there were no agreements with Bonn to protect Globke or other officials or politicians in the Eichmann trial. But is this true?
The Israelis were in dire straits in 1960 and 1961. Their military urgently needed weapons (to fight groups in the middle east trained and ideologically driven by Nazis, inc Otto Skorzeny), and the young country’s ailing economy was dependent on financial assistance. Adenauer had promised the Israeli premier both only a few weeks before Eichmann’s arrest.
But then the Nazi war criminal was arrested and the negotiations over the details were suspended.
According to documents in the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, Adenauer had his staff informed the Israeli negotiator that he could not meet with him because he was about to leave on vacation. After that, then Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard was called away on an urgent matter and was also unavailable.
The Foreign Ministry, in particular, stonewalled the Israelis.
The diplomats feared that if it were revealed that Bonn was supporting Israel to a significant extent, “the Federal Republic’s position in the Middle East would be jeopardized.”
Globke, of all people, told the Israeli negotiator that Bonn would wait until Eichmann had been sentenced before making the first tranche of the loan available to Jerusalem. Otherwise, Globke argued, people could get the “wrong impression” that there was a connection between the trial and the German aid to Israel.
The conversation with Globke took place on June 2, 1961, more than 14 months after Adenauer’s pledge to Ben-Gurion — and right in the middle of the Eichmann trial.
Was Bonn taking a wait-and-see approach so as not to relinquish important leverage against the Israelis? Or did Adenauer truly fear the reaction of the world public if it became known that Bonn had promised loans and weapons to Israel during the trial?
Outraged over the Germans’ playing for time, a senior Israeli official wrote: “They (the Germans) have lied and cheated us for years.” Then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir wrote in the margin of the document: “This is true.” Behind the scenes, Israeli diplomats discussed whether “pressure can be applied on West Germany” by way of the Eichmann trial.
It would have been an easy thing to do. The historian Hanna Yablonka has demonstrated how the legendary Zionist Golda Meir influenced the Eichmann trial several times for political reasons. In one notable example, the connections between the Nazis and the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem were highlighted in the courtroom. Meir could also have pilloried West Germany, where many former Nazi perpetrators still worked in the ministries, the administration, the intelligence services and the economy.
But Israel needed the financial aid, the submarines and the tanks, and German Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss, who had also negotiated the arms shipments directly with Ben-Gurion, left no doubt that the Israelis were to protect Bonn’s reputation if they wanted weapons: “I have told my contacts that it is a matter of course that if the Federal Republic supports the security of Israel, it will not be held collectively liable, morally, politically or journalistically, for the crimes of a past generation in connection with the Eichmann trial.”
The Israelis had shown “understanding and responsiveness” for this position, Strauss reported. And so it happened that the question of how the Nazis had managed to involve significant portions of German society in the Holocaust was largely ignored.
“We only introduced information into the trial that was relevant for Eichmann,” says Gabriel Bach, the last remaining member of prosecution team still alive today. The Globke issue, he adds, simply wasn’t relevant.
Soon BND agent Vogel and the delegation of observers were sending reports to Bonn detailing their successes.
June 5, 1961: The judges made “a noticeable effort, while examining the witnesses, to highlight the resistance movement, particularly among Germans, as small as it was.”
June 15, 1961: In the indictment by Attorney General Gideon Hausner, “the word ‘Germans’ was always replaced with the word ‘Nazis’ whenever possible.”
June 29, 1961: The prosecutors were exhibiting an “absolutely positive view of State Secretary Globke.”
July 14, 1961: The Israeli Foreign Ministry had agreed “not to bring up” the case of diplomat Karl Werkmeister again. At the end of the trial, it was revealed that Bonn’s ambassador in Stockholm had once written maliciously anti-Semitic situation reports from Hungary.
July 25, 1961: Vogel reported that he had “just consulted with Attorney General Hausner and Chief Prosecutor Dr. Bach, together and separately, about the closing argument.”
Whether the Israeli position was always correctly portrayed in these reports is still not entirely clear. Former Prosecutor Bach, for example, denies ever having held a “positive view” of Globke. He notes that BND agent Vogel was apparently merely trying to throw his weight around.
It is clear, however, that Eichmann’s attorney gave his client a book about Globke and that the prisoner wrote a 40-page comment on the book. Attorney General Hausner asked Ben-Gurion whether there were political reasons not to introduce these notes into the trial. “There are,” Ben-Gurion replied. And, of course, Globke was not summoned to testify.
Neither an appearance by the head of the German Chancellery nor the inclusion of Eichmann’s notes in the trial would have changed Eichmann’s conviction, because there was no question that the former SS Obersturmbannführer was guilty. And to this day, no credible document has turned up that establishes a connection among Eichmann, Globke and the Holocaust.
Eichmann died on the night of May 31, 1962 in the prison in Ramla, a city 20 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv. When the execution squad placed the noose around his neck, he was asked whether he would like to say a few last words.
Eichmann sang the praises of Germany, Austria and Argentina, greeted his wife and family and ended with the sentence: “I am ready.” Each of the two executioners pressed a button, one of which opened the trap door. Eichmann fell three meters to his death.
A week later, Adenauer met with the deputy defense minister and current president of Israel, Shimon Peres. The chancellor asked his visitor to express his deep appreciation to Ben-Gurion “for the way the Eichmann trial was conducted and brought to an end. It was outstanding. I will never forget it.”
In August 1962, Adenauer approved military aid worth 240 million deutschmarks.
Thanks to Spiegel's Klaus Wiegrefe.