A new book describes the strange life led by a notorious and unrepentant Nazi leader in South America. Wikimedia Commons
Adolf Eichmann’s fame surpasses even that of SS leader Heinrich Himmler and holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich. So why write another book? It was the simplest of questions: I wanted to find out who knew Adolf Eichmann before the Mossad famously snatched him from Argentina and put him before a court in Israel.
Eichmann’s answer, given in Israel, is not hard to find: ”Until1946, I had next to no public profile, until [I] was branded [as] the murderer of 5 or 6 million Jews.” We should not be surprised to hear these words from an accused man — and this one in particular. Eichmann, after all, is famous for saying that he had been “just a small cog in Adolf Hitler’s extermination machine.” What is surprising is that, until now, the secondary literature on Eichmann has dutifully parroted this view. Other great controversies might surround the man behind the genocide, but everyone is agreed that until his trial in Jerusalem, the name Eichmann was known only to a small circle of people.
The suspicion that something was amiss, both in Eichmann’s story and in the research, arose when I started to read old newspapers. On May 23, 1960, the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, unexpectedly announced to the world that Adolf Eichmann had been captured and was to stand trial. What followed was not a puzzled silence but pages and pages of detailed articles describing a man about whom, supposedly, very little was known, by very few people. A glance at some even older publications confirmed my suspicion unequivocally. Long before the start of his trial, this “unknown” man already had more nicknames than most other Nazis: Caligula; Czar of the Jews; Manager of the Holocaust; Grand Inquisitor; Engineer of the Jewish Genocide; the Final Solutionist; the Bureaucrat; the Mass Murderer.
The evidence raises the questions: How had this knowledge come to be lost? How could a man cause himself to disappear, retrospectively, from the eyes of the world? The answer leads us to the problematic heart of the singular crime against humanity that we call the Holocaust, the Shoah, the extermination of the Jews.
Depending on whose account you read, Eichmann comes across variously as an ordinary man who was turned into a thoughtless murderer by a totalitarian regime; a radical anti-Semite whose aim was the extinction of the Jewish people, or a mentally ill man whose innate sadism was legitimated by the regime. We have a multitude of irreconcilable images of Eichmann, made even more so by the controversy around Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The public view, however, largely remains an empty shell. We are still missing a view of the “Eichmann phenomenon” before Jerusalem: the way Eichmann was perceived during the different periods of his life.
If we are to believe what Eichmann said in Israel, his real life — the one he had always longed for — began only in 1945, when the madness of the Thousand Year Reich lay in ruins. That was when the Adviser for Jewish Affairs became a harmless rabbit breeder, as he always had been at the bottom of his heart. It was the regime that had been evil, and his stellar career under Adolf Hitler had really been just a bizarre twist of fate.
But because Eichmann was aware that a lot of other people might see things differently, he carefully avoided using the name Adolf Eichmann, even making his wife call him by his first forename, Otto, which had also been his grandfather’s name.
While the others were capitulating, he disappeared among the prisoners of war, becoming “Adolf Karl Barth.” Before he managed to escape, he was tried as “Otto Eckmann.” Then he was “Otto Heninger,” a forester on the Lüneberg Heath in northern Germany, working alongside other men who had new names. After that, he bred chickens, enchanting the female population of his rural backwater in the evenings with his violin playing. The life of Otto Heninger, which was already so very like that of the Argentine rabbit breeder, had only two distinct disadvantages: he couldn’t contact his family and he was wanted for war crimes. “In the five years I spent underground, living as a ‘mole,’ it became second nature to me, whenever I saw a new face, to ask myself a few questions, like: Do you know this face? Does this person look like he has seen you before? Is he trying to recall when he might have met you? And during these years, the fear never left me that somebody could come up behind me and suddenly cry: ‘Eichmann!’”
His hope that, in time, grass would grow over the National Socialist genocide, just as it does over other graves, remained unfulfilled. Ultimately, he could see no solution but to flee the country, and so in 1950 Otto Heninger disappeared as well. “Ricardo Klement” left Europe from Genoa, receiving a new identity and new papers in Argentina. He was then able to begin the life he had always wanted: He found work on a hydroelectric power station project, and led a troop of surveyors across Tucumán, a subtropical area in the north of Argentina where the mountains and valleys are reminiscent of the Alps.
Wikimedia CommonsAdolf Eichmann's passport, on which he is listed as "Ricardo Klement'
He had plenty of time to make trips on horseback too, exploring the mountains, crossing the pampas, and even twice attempting to climb Aconcagua, the Americas’ highest mountain. Two years later, when his wife and their three sons were finally able to join him, he began taking the boys with him on his expeditions, teaching them to ride and fish and imparting to them his own love of nature. For a while, the collapse of the project’s firm somewhat dampened the family’s blissful existence: Ricardo Klement had to look for work, and he wasn’t always successful, but by 1955 at the latest, his happiness must have been complete. He was handed not only the manager’s job at a rabbit farm but also a fourth son, even though his wife was over 40. Little “Hasi” was the apple of his father’s eye. No wonder Klement then decided to build his own house, to accommodate his lovely wife, his four sons, Fifi the dachshund, Rex the German shepherd, the cuckoo clock, and the paintings of alpine scenes. If he hadn’t been kidnapped by Mossad, he would still be living the harmless life of Ricardo Klement.
This moving tale had just one major flaw: Ricardo Klement might have been the name on his passport, but the reformed Nazi and nature lover, a man who was now entirely apolitical, had never arrived in Argentina. Rural idylls were not Eichmann’s thing. For him, the war — his war — had never ended. In the evenings, he read and wrote, and his work was anything but introspective. This was no contented man in his 50s, reading for pleasure: the peaceable rabbit farmer was capable of throwing books against the wall and tearing them to pieces, filling them with aggressive marginalia, insults, and invectives, and covering mountains of paper with his commentaries, writing like a man possessed. Pencils snapped under the force of his scribbling; his fighting spirit was unbroken. The ideological warrior had not been defeated, and he was by no means alone.
The reason we know so much about his life in Argentina today is due to a happy coincidence. Over the last two years, documents have surfaced in several archives and are now available to researchers. For the first time, the Argentina Papers — Eichmann’s own notes made in exile — can be examined in conjunction with the taped and transcribed conversations known (slightly misleadingly) as the Sassen interviews. Suddenly, we are able to make connections that could never have been made before. And one thing in particular stands out: Not once during his escape and exile did Eichmann seek the shadows or try to act in secrecy. He wanted to be visible in Argentina, and he wanted to be viewed as he once had been: as the symbol of a new age.
Those who seek out the light will be seen. Clearly more people had dealings with Eichmann after 1945 than was previously thought. Tracing his route into the underground and into exile, we come across not only Nazi hunters and hit squads, but people who helped and sympathized with him and even became his friends — though for a long time afterward, they denied ever having known him, or said they had met him only briefly. Willem Sassen, a Dutch volunteer in the Waffen-SS and a war propagandist, spent decades claiming only to have been Eichmann’s “ghostwriter.” Like him, most of Eichmann’s friends denied most of their contact with the wanted man. Their denials no longer carry any weight. The Argentina Papers reveal the names of the people who sought Eichmann out to talk about old times and, more important, to discuss political plans for the future. For in spite of all attempts to ignore them, there they were: the Nazis in Argentina. They had escaped the Allied courts and were regrouping, with much bigger plans than to be left in peace to start new lives.
From a safe distance, the men around Eichmann used their freedom in exile to comment on developments in Germany and the rest of the world. They pursued ambitious plans for political overthrow, busily putting together a network of like-minded people. They even started counterfeiting documents designed to defend their view of glorious National Socialism against reality. And in their midst was Adolf Eichmann: self-assured, dedicated, and in demand as a specialist (with millions of murders to prove his expertise) — exactly what a man who had had his own department in the Head Office for Reich Security was used to.
If Eichmann ever really wanted to be the placid, harmless Ricardo Klement, it was not until he was sitting in an Israeli prison cell. In Argentina, he proudly signed photos for his comrades “Adolf Eichmann — SS-Obersturmbannführer (retired).”
Excerpted from Eichmann Before Jerusalem. Copyright © 2014 . Published by Knopf, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.