On This Day

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Associated Press
Adolf Eichmann listens to the guilty verdict read as he stands in a bulletproof glass enclosure in a Jerusalem court, Dec. 11, 1961.

On This Day: Adolf Eichmann Sentenced to Death for War Crimes

December 15, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 15, 1961, Adolf Eichmann, a former Gestapo lieutenant colonel who oversaw Nazi Germany’s mass deportation and killing of Jews, was sentenced to hang by a Jerusalem court.

The Eichmann Trial

Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann was known as the “Architect of the Holocaust” for his role in organizing the roundups and transportation of Jews to Nazi concentration camps. After the war, Eichmann was arrested by the Americans, but escaped and fled to Argentina in 1950, living under the name of Ricardo Klement.

The Israeli Secret Service learned of his whereabouts and seized him from the streets of Buenos Aires in May 1960. He was secretly transferred out of Argentina, which did not extradite criminals, and taken to Jerusalem.

The Israeli government indicted Eichmann on 15 charges, including crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. The trial, which began April 11, 1961, was held in Jerusalem and broadcast across the world, the first time that a trial had been televised. The Israelis hoped to use the trial to reveal the horrors of the Holocaust to the public, calling 90 concentration camp survivors to testify.

“One of the extraordinary aspects of the Eichmann trial is that no one knew very much about the Holocaust when the trial began,” explains the Web site for the PBS documentary “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann.” “Holocaust survivors did not speak about their ordeals at the hands of the Nazis until the trial. To many, the Holocaust was unspeakable remembrance, but the trial was a catharsis, and people began to tell their tales.”

Eichmann, who was placed in a bulletproof-glass booth to protect him from victims’ families, showed no remorse for his crimes, maintaining that he was merely following orders.

The trial closed in August; on Dec. 11, the three judges found Eichmann guilty on all counts. The verdict was followed by a reading of the nearly 100,000-word opinion, which took 17 hours.

In his final statement, Eichmann said, “I am not the monster I am made out to be. This mass slaughter is solely the responsibility of political leaders. My guilt lies in my obedience, my respect for discipline, my allegiance to the colors and the service.”

Four days later, on Dec. 15, he was sentenced to death. Around midnight of May 31-June 1, Eichmann was hanged in the only civil execution ever carried out by the state of Israel. He refused to repent before the execution.

Biography: Adolf Eichmann

Eichmann, born near Cologne in 1906, spent much of his youth in Linz, Austria, Adolf Hitler’s hometown. As a boy, Eichmann “was teased for his looks and dark complexion and was nicknamed ‘the little Jew’ by classmates,” according to History Place.

He joined the Nazi party in 1932 and soon joined the SD, the Nazi Security Service. He was put to work facilitating Jewish emigration from the Third Reich. As it became more difficult to find destinations from Jewish emigrants, he attempted to create Jewish territories in Poland and Madagascar, but the plans faltered.

In January 1942, he attended the Wannsee Conference, where Nazi leaders agreed upon the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”: extermination. Eichmann was made responsible for the implementation of all issues related to the Nazis’ Final Solution.

He oversaw the exportation of Jews to death camps over the next three years, continuing even after Heinrich Himmler ordered him to stop.

Extracts from a diary that Eichmann kept while in an Israeli prison were released in Germany in 1999. “Throughout his outpourings,” The Guardian reported, “he builds upon a well-worn theme: that he was a cog in a greater machine and was only following orders.”

The “Banality of Evil”

Many trial observers were struck by his plainness and appearance as nothing more than a drab, jobbing bureaucrat. In the February 1962 edition of The Atlantic, Martha Gellhorn wrote, “It would be a great comfort to us if he were insane; we could then dismiss him, with horror, no doubt, but reassuring ourselves that he is not like us, his machinery went criminally wrong, our machinery is in good order. There is no comfort. This is a sane man, and a sane man is capable of unrepentant, unlimited, planned evil.”

In her 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe those of Eichmann’s ilk, seemingly normal individuals are capable of unparalleled wickedness under a totalitarian regime.

“The Trouble with Eichmann was precisely that there were so many like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal,” she argued.

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