The Eichmann Trial

Adolf Eichmann was a German Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer (equivalent to a lieutenant colonel) and one of the major organisers of the Holocaust. Eichmann was tasked by SS-Obergruppenführer (general/lieutenant general) Reinhard Heydrich with facilitating and managing the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II.

In 1960, Eichmann was captured in Argentina by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. Following a widely-publicised trial in Israel, he was found guilty of war crimes and hanged in 1962.


Brief Biography

Eichmann joined the Austrian branch of the NSDAP (member number 889 895) and of the SS, enlisting on 1 April 1932, as an SS-Anwärter. He was accepted as a full SS member that November, appointed an SS-Mann, and assigned the SS number 45326.

Eichmann SS

For the next year, Eichmann was a member of the Allgemeine-SS and served in a mustering formation operating from Salzburg.

In September 1934 Eichmann landed a position in Heydrich’s SD, the powerful SS security service. There he started out as a filing clerk cataloguing information about Freemasons. Predictably, the Nazis believed that the Masons were assisting the Jews in their attempts to gain world domination.

Eichmann’s job was to compile information on prominent Freemasons in Germany. However, he was soon assigned to the Jewish section, which was busy collecting information on all prominent Jews. This marked the beginning of Eichmann’s interest in the Jews.

With the outbreak of war, Eichmann oversaw a fundamental change in policy – from “voluntary” emigration to forced deportation. During 1939-40, he and his team, which was to eventually include men such as Franz Novak, Rolf Günther, Dieter Wislicency, Otto Hunsche, Hermann Krumey, Theodor Dannecker and Heinz Röthke, amongst others, were responsible for the dumping into the Generalgouvernement of thousands of Poles and Jews from the Warthegau, as well as the expulsion of thousands more Jews from the Reich to Nisko, in eastern Poland. These operations provided valuable experience for the mass Europe-wide deportations that were to come.

It was during this phase of his career that Eichmann presented his Madagascar Plan, proposing to deport European Jews to the island of Madagascar, off the coast of east Africa. The plan was never implemented.

At the end of World War II, Eichmann was captured by the US Army, who did not know that this man who presented himself as “Otto Eckmann” was in fact a much bigger catch. Early in 1946, he escaped from US custody and hid in various parts of Germany for a few years. In 1948, he obtained a landing permit for Argentina, but did not use it immediately.

At the beginning of 1950, Eichmann went to Italy, where he posed as a refugee named Ricardo Klement. With the help of a Franciscan friar who had connections with Archbishop Alois Hudal, Eichmann obtained an `International Committee of the Red Cross’ humanitarian passport and an Argentinean visa. He arrived by ship in Argentina on 14 July 1950. For the next ten years, he worked in several odd jobs in the Buenos Aires area (from factory foreman, to junior water engineer and professional rabbit farmer). Eichmann also brought his family to Argentina. However, by the late 1950’s, the culpability of Eichmann’s role in the program to exterminate the Jews had become apparent.


The Charges

Eichmann was charged under a 1950 Israeli law enacted to punish Nazis and their collaborators. He was charged on 15 counts:

  • Charge 1: He was ultimately responsible for the murder of millions of Jews.
  • Charge 2: He placed these Jews, before they were murdered, in living conditions designed to kill them.
  • Charge 3: He caused them grave physical and mental harm.
  • Charge 4: He took actions which resulted in the sterilization of Jews and otherwise prevented childbirth.
  • Charge 5: He caused the enslavement, starvation, and deportation of millions of Jews.
  • Charge 6: He caused general persecution of Jews based on national, racial, religious and political grounds.
  • Charge 7: He spoiled Jewish property by inhuman measures involving compulsion, robbery, terrorism and violence.
  • Charge 8: That all of the above were punishable war crimes.
  • Charge 9: He deported a half-million Poles.
  • Charge 10: He deported 14,000 Slovenes.
  • Charge 11: He deported tens of thousands of gypsies.
  • Charge 12: He deported and murdered 100 Czech children from the village of Lidice.

The final three charges involved membership in organizations which were judged to be criminal by the Nuremberg Trials: the S.D., Gestapo, and S.S. The first 12 counts of the indictment each carried the death penalty as the maximum punishment.


The Court

*I think it is important to understand the background of the judges as to their impartiality*

The three-judge panel trying the case consisted of Justice Moshe Landau, Dr. Benjamin Halevy, and Dr. Yitzhak Raveh. Justice Landau was a member of the Israeli Supreme Court. He was born in Poland and educated in London, Dr. Halevy was the president of the Jerusalem District Court and a graduate of Berlin University. Dr. Raveh was a member of the Tel Aviv District Court and had emigrated from Germany in 1933, when Jews there first began to feel threats to their physical security from the government. All of the judges were fluent in German.


The Prosecution

Prosecutor Gideon Hausner
Prosecutor Gideon Hausner
The team charged with handling the prosecution of the case was headed by Israel Attorney General Gideon Hausner. Hausner came to Israel from his native Poland in 1927. He had served as a military prosecutor during Israel’s War of Independence, and later was President of the military Court. He had been appointed Attorney General just a few weeks. Assisting him was a team of attorneys which included Dr. Jacob Robinson, who was an assistant to the Chief prosecutor at the Nuremburg Tribunal, Gabriel Bach, a native of Germany who was educated in Britain, and Jacob Baror, the German-born District Attorney of Tel Aviv whose descendants were Orthodox rabbis. Zvi Terlo, an Assistant State Attorney, also assisted the effort.


Eichmann’s Defence Team

Eichmann trial His Lawyer Robert Servatius in Foreground
Eichmann’s lawyer Robert Servatius in Foreground

Although several prominent U.S. law firms volunteered to represent Eichmann, he asked for Dr. Robert Servatius to represent him. Servatius was a well-known lawyer from Cologne who had been a defence counsellor at the Nuremberg trials. But Eichmann could not afford him. The Israeli government agreed to pay the $30,000 fee and the Servatius arrived in October of 1960 to meet Eichmann for the first time, and plan the defence strategy. He was assisted by Dieter Wechtenbruch, a young attorney from Munich.





The basic strategy of the prosecution was to:

  • Argue that under the doctrine advanced by the defence, Hitler alone would be solely responsible for these crimes, and Hitler would be immune as a head of state.
  • Give a human side to the horror by having survivor testimony.
  • Use Eichmann’s own words to belie the fact that he was a disinterested bureaucrat only carrying out orders, but rather was passionate in his obsession with killing Jews.
  •  Use incriminating testimony from his colleagues at the Nuremberg Trials, the contents of thousands of documents, many of which were signed by Eichmann, and the Sassen interviews.



It was impossible for Eichmann to deny his role in the killing of Europe’s Jews. Servatius adopted the defence strategy that had been used at Nuremberg. Since he could not disavow the crime, he disavowed the responsibility for them. “He was just following orders” Eichmann’s defence was designed to let the SS Officer fade from the stand and replace him with the benevolent bureaucrat, a man whose actions had been misrepresented by the prosecution. He even went so far as to claim that his early actions during the period of forced emigration had been for the benefit of the Jews.

Base strategy:

  • Not cross-examine survivors of the concentration camps who testified.
  • Concentrate on the issues of the trial.
  • Avoid engaging in purposefully delaying tactics.
  • Contest the trial’s legality.
  • Contest the judges’ ability to be impartial.
  • Assert that the Nazi Punishment Law was invalid because it was extraterritorial and ex post facto (i.e. enacted after an action was committed which may have been perfectly legal at the time it occurred).
  • Advance that Eichmann was not a part of the leadership which made decisions, but that he only carried them out.
  • Contend that he was unable to resist carrying out these orders.
  • Declare that on occasion, he took actions which stopped persecution and extermination of Jews.
  • Assert that he was present at key meetings not because he was part of the leadership conspiring to commit war crimes, but because it was his department’s duty to take the minutes of these meetings.
  • Declare that the court did not have jurisdiction because Eichmann had been abducted from Argentina, and that only Argentina (or, perhaps, Germany since Eichmann claimed citizenship status as a German) had jurisdiction to bring charges against Eichmann.
  • Contend that Israel did not even exist when the alleged crimes occurred, so the Israeli Court had no jurisdiction.



The Trial

Eichmann was taken to a fortified police station at Yagur in Israel, where he spent nine months. The Israelis were unwilling to take him to trial based solely on the evidence in documents and witness testimony, so the prisoner was subject to daily interrogations, the transcripts of which totalled over 3,500 pages. The interrogator was Chief Inspector Avner Less of the national police. Using documents provided primarily by Yad Vashem and Nazi hunter Tuviah Friedman, Less was often able to determine when Eichmann was lying or being evasive. When additional information was brought forward that forced Eichmann into admitting what he had done, Eichmann would insist he had not had any authority in the Nazi hierarchy and had only been following orders. Inspector Less noted that Eichmann did not seem to realise the enormity of his crimes and showed no remorse. His pardon plea, released in 2016, did not contradict this: “There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders”, Eichmann wrote. “I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.”

Eichmann’s trial before the Jerusalem District Court began on 11 April 1961. The legal basis of the charges against Eichmann was the 1950 Nazi and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law, under which he was indicted on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, and membership in a criminal organisation. The trial was presided over by three judges: Moshe Landau, Benjamin Halevy and Yitzhak Raveh. The chief prosecutor was Israeli Attorney General Gideon Hausner, assisted by Gabriel Bach of the Department of Justice and Tel Aviv District Attorney Yaakov Bar-Or. The defence team consisted of German lawyer Robert Servatius, legal assistant Dieter Wechtenbruch, and Eichmann himself.

The Israeli government arranged for the trial to have prominent media coverage. Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation of the United States obtained exclusive rights to videotape the proceedings for television broadcast. Many major newspapers from all over the globe sent reporters and published front-page coverage of the story. The trial was held at the Beit Ha’am (today known as the Gerard Behar Centre), an auditorium in central Jerusalem. Eichmann sat inside a bulletproof glass booth to protect him from assassination attempts. The building was modified to allow journalists to watch the trial on closed-circuit television, and 750 seats were available in the auditorium itself. Israelis had the opportunity to watch live television broadcasts of the proceedings, and videotape was flown daily to the United States for broadcast the following day.

The prosecution case was presented over the course of 56 days, involving hundreds of documents and 112 witnesses (many of them Holocaust survivors). Hausner’s intention was to not only demonstrate Eichmann’s guilt but to present material about the entire Holocaust, thus producing a comprehensive record. Hausner’s opening address began, “It is not an individual that is in the dock at this historic trial and not the Nazi regime alone, but anti-Semitism throughout history.” Defence attorney Servatius repeatedly tried to curb the presentation of material not directly related to Eichmann, and was mostly successful. In addition to wartime documents, material presented as evidence included tapes and transcripts from Eichmann’s interrogation and Sassen’s interviews in Argentina. In the case of the Sassen interviews, only Eichmann’s hand-written notes were admitted into evidence.

Some of the evidence submitted by the prosecution took the form of depositions made by leading Nazis. The defence demanded that the men should be brought to Israel so that the defence’s right to cross-examination would not be abrogated. But Hausner, in his role as Attorney General, declared that he would be obliged to have any war criminals who entered Israel arrested. The prosecution proved that Eichmann had visited places where exterminations had taken place, including Chełmno extermination camp, Auschwitz, and Minsk (where he witnessed a mass shooting of Jews), and therefore was aware that the deportees were being killed.

When the prosecution rested, the defence opened its case with a motion to dismiss based on the trial itself being illegal. Servatius challenged Eichmann’s kidnapping and the basis for the Israeli law under which he had been indicted. He argued that if the trial were to continue, it should transfer its jurisdiction to West Germany. The prosecution countered by stating that the United Nations had endorsed Israel’s actions, and that both West Germany and Argentina had agreed that the charges against him were legitimate. The defence motion was subsequently dismissed.

The defence next engaged in a lengthy direct examination of Eichmann. Observers suchAdolf_Eichmann_at_Trial1961 as Moshe Pearlman and Hannah Arendt have remarked on Eichmann’s ordinariness in appearance and flat affect. In his testimony throughout the trial, Eichmann insisted he had no choice but to follow orders, as he was bound by an oath of loyalty—the same superior orders defence used by some defendants in the 1945–1946 Nuremberg trials. Eichmann asserted that the decisions had been made not by him, but by Müller, Heydrich, Himmler, and ultimately Hitler. Servatius also proposed that decisions of the Nazi government were acts of state and therefore not subject to normal judicial proceedings. Regarding the Wannsee Conference, Eichmann stated that he felt a sense of satisfaction and relief at its conclusion. As a clear decision to exterminate had been made by his superiors, the matter was out of his hands; he felt absolved of any guilt. On the last day of the examination, he stated that he was guilty of arranging the transports, but he did not feel guilty for the consequences.

Throughout his cross-examination, prosecutor Hausner attempted to get Eichmann to admit he was personally guilty, but no such confession was forthcoming. Eichmann admitted to not liking the Jews and viewing them as adversaries, but stated that he never thought their annihilation was justified. When Hausner produced evidence that Eichmann had stated in 1945 that “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction”, Eichmann said he meant “enemies of the Reich” such as the Soviets. During later examination by the judges, he admitted he meant the Jews, and said the remark was an accurate reflection of his opinion at the time.


The Verdict and Sentence

For four months. the Trial of Adolf Eichmann had dominated Israeli life. For most people, Eichmann’s guilt was never in doubt. The real question was, how to punish one man who had cause the deaths of millions.

Although the world had known about Nazi war crimes, it was not until the Eichmann trial that many people became truly aware of the “The Holocaust”. For a large section of the Israeli public, almost nothing was known about the Shoah prior.

The trial adjourned on 14 August, and the verdict was read on 12 December. It had been a year and a half since Eichmann’s capture, and 16 years since the liberation of the Nazi camps. The time had come for Eichmann to be judged.

The judges declared him not guilty of personally killing anyone and not guilty of overseeing and controlling the activities of the Einsatzgruppen. He was deemed responsible for the dreadful conditions on board the deportation trains and for obtaining Jews to fill those trains. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against Poles, Slovenes and Gypsies. He was responsible, the court said, “for millions of deaths, the particulars of his rank and function did not excuse his actions.” He was also found guilty of membership in three organisations that had been deemed criminal at the Nuremberg trials: the Gestapo, the SD, and the SS. When considering the sentence, the judges concluded that Eichmann had not merely been following orders, but believed in the Nazi cause wholeheartedly and had been a key perpetrator of the genocide. On 15 December 1961, Eichmann was sentenced to death by hanging.


Appeals and Execution

Adolf Eichmann walking in the yard of his cell in Ramle prison
Servatius appealed the verdict, mostly relying on legal arguments about Israel’s jurisdiction and the legality of the laws under which Eichmann was charged. Appeal hearings took place between 22 and 29 March 1962. Eichmann’s wife Vera flew to Israel and saw him for the last time at the end of April. On 29 May, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the appeal and upheld the District Court’s judgement on all counts. Eichmann immediately petitioned Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi for clemency. The content of his letter to the President pleading for pardon and other original court documents of the trial were made public on 27 January 2016. Prominent people such as Hugo Bergmann, Pearl Buck, Martin Buber, and Ernst Simon spoke up on his behalf. Ben-Gurion called a special cabinet meeting to resolve the issue. The cabinet decided not to recommend to President Ben-Zvi to grant clemency to Eichmann. As a result, Ben-Zvi rejected the appeal to commute Eichmann’s sentence. At 8:00 PM on 31 May, Eichmann was informed that his final appeal had been declined. His last meal was the usual prison fare of cheese, bread, olives, and tea, along with a half bottle of wine.

Eichmann was hanged at a prison in Ramla hours later. The hanging, scheduled for midnight at the end of 31 May, was slightly delayed and thus took place a few minutes into 1 June 1962. The execution was attended by a small group of officials, four journalists and the Canadian clergyman William Lovell Hull, who had been his spiritual counsellor while in prison.

Eichmann made his final speech on the gallows:

“Long live Germany! Long live Austria! Long live Argentina! I owe a lot to these countries and I shall not forget them. I had to obey the rules of war and of my flag!”

It was declared that no grave would mark his life, and more importantly, he would have no resting place in Israel. His ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean see (In international waters).



The Eichmann trial aroused international interest, bringing Nazi atrocities to the forefront of world news. Testimonies of Holocaust survivors, especially those of ghetto fighters such as Zivia Lubetkin, generated interest in Jewish resistance. The trial prompted a new openness in Israel; many Holocaust survivors felt able to share their experiences as the country confronted this traumatic chapter.


The filming of the trial by producer Milton Fruchtman and blacklisted TV director Leo Hurwitz was the subject of the film “The Eichmann Show”, featuring Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia. The film intercuts dramatic scenes with historical footage from the trial. (It’s actually a pretty good film)


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