Eichmann, Adolf (1906–1962)

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EICHMANN, ADOLF (1906–1962)


German Nazi and one of the chief architects of Jewish extermination during World War II.

Adolf Otto Eichmann was born Karl Adolf Eichmann in Solingen, an industrial town in the German Rhineland. His father was a bookkeeper who worked for an electric and electronics company. In 1913 his employer moved him to Linz, Austria, where his family joined him in 1916. Affiliated with the Evangelical Church and holding deep German national convictions, Eichmann père enrolled Adolf in an ultranational youth movement.

Adolf Eichmann was a mediocre student; he studied mechanical engineering but finished school without an occupation and without completing vocational training. Initially he made a living by working for a company that his father had established. In 1927, using his father's business connections, he went to work for a U.S. oil company as an itinerant agent who sold fuel products and negotiated for his employer in the establishment of filling stations. He was dismissed in 1933. The events that elevated the Nazi Party to power in Germany fired his imagination and he began to take a growing interest in politics. In 1932 he joined the Nazi Party in Austria.

After joining the party Eichmann made the acquaintance of an SS member named Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who recruited him for service in his organization. Kaltenbrunner arranged Eichmann's transfer to Germany for training purposes. The relationship between the two men became especially meaningful in subsequent years, as in 1942 Kaltenbrunner was appointed to the vastly powerful post of commander of the SS Security Police (RSHA) after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. After his transfer to Germany, Eichmann visited Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp (established in 1933), where he spent his training period. Afterward he joined the SD (Sicherheitsdienst; the Security Service of the Nazi Party), and was posted to the SD office in Berlin.


Eichmann quickly adopted the "Jewish question" as his main area of concern in his service for the SD. He began to take an interest in Jewish history, the doings of the Zionist movement, the development of the Jewish community in Palestine, and the activities of Jewish organizations around the world. Noticing the SD's mounting concern about the Jewish problem and the growing interest of the Reich leadership in solving the problem of German Jewry by means of emigration, Eichmann visited Palestine in 1937. Returning to Germany, he concluded that the idea of Jewish statehood was useless and that the Jews could never sustain a state that would solve the problem of their presence in Germany. Events in early 1938 gave Eichmann an opportunity for rapid professional advancement. After the Germans annexed Austria in March of that year, the SD sent him to Vienna as its representative and tasked him with organizing the emigration of Austrian Jewry.

Finding ways to facilitate the emigration of Jews from the Reich became Eichmann's main vocation during this time. As soon as he had set up his office in Vienna, he engineered a harsh campaign of terror against the Jews, including violence and humiliation in the streets and public places by thugs of the Austrian Nazi Party and members of the SA. Concurrently Eichmann established the Central Emigration Office, in which several organizations and administrative authorities joined forces to arrange the Jews' emigration expeditiously and efficiently. The office developed a modus operandi that facilitated the rapid actualization of the Jews' departure. Within days, Jews were forced to dispose of property and belongings and received their emigration papers from the state. This program, combining emigration and deportation action accompanied by terrorism and violence, was wildly successful. Several months after it began some 150,000 Jews, almost 75 percent of the pre-annexation population, had left Austria.

Eichmann's success in inducing the emigration of Austrian Jewry, in contrast to the difficulties that beset this cause in Germany, inspired the leaders of the SD in 1939 to establish a general emigration office along similar lines in Berlin and to station Eichmann at its head. In October 1939 Eichmann was placed in charge of Department IV B4 of the Gestapo, the secret political police of the SD. This department was tasked with dealing with the Jewish problem. After World War II began, its purview included millions of Jews who had come under German rule as inhabitants of occupied Poland and the annexed areas of Czechoslovakia.

In 1939–1940 Eichmann's office strove intensively to devise a territorial solution to the Jewish question. Eichmann himself visited Poland to follow the attempts of the SS to deport hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews from the annexed areas in western Poland to the General Government, the area in central Poland that had been placed under a severe German occupation regime. Eichmann then proposed that the Jews of the Reich be deported to a "Jewish reservation" in the Lublin area of occupied eastern Poland. Several thousand Jews from Austria and from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were deported to that area. In 1940, however, in view of difficulties that had surfaced in deporting Jews from the Reich to occupied Poland, Eichmann began to work intensively on another scheme, the Madagascar Plan. His intention now was to transform this eastern African island, a French colony, into a vast territorial ghetto to which the millions of Jews in Europe would be deported. Although Eichmann invested immense efforts in the Madagascar Plan during 1940, it had become clear by the end of that year that the realities of the war and other limitations made this baneful idea totally unworkable.

In March 1941, shortly before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Eichmann's department of the Gestapo was reorganized. Its staff was expanded to 107, mostly in administrative and white-collar posts. The Final Solution of the Jewish question was imminent, and Eichmann took part in the discussions that were held in the summer and autumn of 1941 about how to expedite and streamline the murders of Jews that had begun in the summer. Branches of his department were then established in various cities in the Reich and in the annexed Polish areas. In autumn 1941 Eichmann participated in discussions and decisions about the establishment of mass-murder facilities and the use of gas for this purpose in the Lublin area and the Auschwitz concentration camp. He also made preliminary visits to locations in eastern Europe where mass murders of Jews were being carried out.

In January 1942 Eichmann participated in preparing the working meeting at Wannsee, where the modus operandi and responsibilities of various players in the German ruling system for the evacuation of the Jews were worked out. Eichmann wrote the invitations to the meeting and, in coordination with Heydrich, took the minutes. From early 1942 Eichmann's office was in charge of organizing and managing the transports that had begun to head for the newly established extermination centers in eastern Europe. His staff members organized the deportation of Jews from Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Greece, and Italy to the death camps.

In March 1944, after the Wehrmacht invaded Hungary, Eichmann and members of his office staff moved to that country to direct the deportation of Hungarian Jewry. Within a few months, from May to July 1944, some 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz for extermination. Concurrently Eichmann pursued contacts with Jewish activists in Budapest who sought to halt the mass murder by negotiating what became known as the "Trucks for Blood" program. These contacts were part of a scheme by Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, to build a bridge to the Western Allies in order to conclude a separate accord with them to end the war. Eichmann left Hungary but returned in October 1944 to organize the death marches of some 76,000 Jews to the Austrian border, where they were to build defensive fortifications against the advancing Red Army.


Although captured by U.S. soldiers and interned in a detention camp for SS men, Eichmann obfuscated his identity and escaped from the camp in early 1946. Under a false identity, he lived in a small town south of Hamburg, Germany, and worked as a lumberjack for four years. In early 1950 he made contact with an organization of SS veterans that smuggled Nazi war criminals to South America. He moved to Italy and thence, in July 1950, to Argentina, where he began a new life under the name Ricardo Klement. His wife and children in Germany joined him in summer 1952.

On 11 May 1960 Israeli agents captured Eichmann and had him secretly flown to Israel. In April 1961, after months of interrogation, his trial in Jerusalem District Court began. Eichmann was indicted for crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and membership in a hostile organization (the SS and the Gestapo). Refusing to confess, he claimed that he did not consider himself guilty of responsibility for murder in the sense of the indictment. Eichmann was willing to confess only to having aided the commission of a crime, arguing that he had never committed the crimes attributed to him. His attorney raised additional questions, such as the extent to which Jewish and Israeli judges could conduct the trial without prejudice and whether it was just to bring the defendant to trial in Israel, because Eichmann had been abducted from a country in which he held citizenship and taken for trial to a country where the offenses attributed to him had not been committed. The defense also argued that the basis in Israeli jurisprudence for the prosecution of Eichmann—the 1950 law that allowed Nazis and their accomplices to be tried in Israel—was being applied retroactively, that is, to crimes committed before it had been enacted.

The court rejected these arguments on the grounds of U.S. and British legal precedents and specific examination of the crimes attributed to the defendant that had been perpetrated under the criminal Nazi German regime. More than one hundred witnesses, most of whom were Holocaust survivors, gave testimony, and more than sixteen hundred documents were entered into evidence. The trial marked the first systematic, step-by-step presentation of how Nazi Germany had dealt with the "Jewish question" and, especially, the progression of the Final Solution and Eichmann's centrality in it. On 15 December 1961 the court sentenced him to death. Eichmann appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, which on 29 May 1962 upheld the outcome of the trial. After the president of the State of Israel rejected his application for clemency, Eichmann was executed on the night of 31 May–1 June 1962. It was Israel's first and the only court-ordered execution.

In subsequent years the Eichmann trial became a central event in the academic and public debate over the Holocaust and the Nazis' crimes. The philosopher and intellectual Hannah Arendt covered the trial for the New Yorker and her articles were gathered together in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in May 1963. Arendt's book touched off a far-reaching debate, mainly due to her view of Eichmann as a bureaucrat devoid of ideological, moral, and value considerations—the archetype of a murderer who acts within a totalitarian society that promotes terror, murder, and genocide as ordinary phenomena. She also defined Eichmann as representative of a human phenomenon that she termed the "banality of evil." Arendt's arguments attracted fierce resistance, especially among Holocaust survivors, but they led to extensive research that has continued into the early twenty-first century on issues related to the Nazi murderers' motivation and the relationship between ideology and bureaucracy in the process that led to the Final Solution.

The Eichmann trial was also an important landmark in the attitude of Israeli society toward the Holocaust. It was the first time that the story of the extermination of the Jews had been presented systematically, almost day-by-day, to the Israeli public. At the time the trial was held, nearly one-fourth of the population of the young State of Israel was composed of Holocaust survivors. They retold their experiences to Israeli society not as personal recountings for family or friends but rather in a public and state setting, on the witness stand at a trial that was broadcast on Israel Radio every day. The trial and, especially, the survivors' testimonies launched a process of coping with the Holocaust that has continued ever since in Israel, in the United States, and in Western Europe. The implications of this process continue to affect Israeli society and the patterns of commemoration and memorialization of a historical event that has shaped the historical consciousness of the Jewish people.

See alsoHeydrich, Reinhard; Holocaust; SS (Schutzstaffel); Wannsee Conference; World War II.


Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, 1963.

Lozowick, Yaacov. Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil. Translated by Haim Watzman. London and New York, 2002.

Safrian, Hans. Die Eichmann-Männer. Vienna, 1993.

Wojak, Irmtrud. Eichmanns Memoiren: Ein kritischer Essay. Frankfurt, Germany, 2002.

Daniel Blatman