By Gerald Steinacher
April 11, 1961 marked the beginning of the trial against Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. In the course of the trial, the world came face to face with the reality of the Holocaust or what the Nazis called the “final solution of the Jewish problem” – the killing of 6 million people. Newspapers around the world published thousands of articles about Eichmann and his role in the Holocaust. But what none of the international journalists touched upon was probably the most intriguing aspect of Eichmann’s story: the way in which he, the bureaucrat of the Holocaust, managed to escape justice soon after the war and flee to Argentina.
The prominent philosopher Hannah Arendt, who closely followed the trial in Israel, was one of those who wondered why Eichmann’s escape never attracted more international attention. In her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem she wrote “the trial authorities, for various reasons, had decided not to admit any testimony covering the time after the close of the war.” It seems that there was a conscious effort to restrict the dissemination of information on how Eichmann managed to escape to Argentina. This part of his story was to remain largely a secret, which took historians more than fifty years to uncover.
We now know what the Israeli authorities kept hidden during the Eichmann trial: the involvement of Vatican circles, Western intelligence services, various governments and the International Committee of the Red Cross in the escape of Eichmann and thousands of other Nazis, war criminals, and Holocaust perpetrators. A picture has emerged that raises many uncomfortable questions. It is clear that the agencies involved knew exactly what they were doing, but were able to justify the decisions they made and the actions they took with the Cold War. After all, as the Third Reich lay in ruins, the only enemy left for the Western Powers was the communist Soviet Union. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, communism was a ‘godless, deadly enemy’, even worse than Nazism.
After laying low in Germany for several years, in 1950 Adolf Eichmann decided to immigrate to Argentina. He used a tried route through Italy, where he acquired a new identity as Riccardo Klement, a South Tyrolean from Bolzano, and a travel document from the Red Cross. In Italy he was helped by the Vatican Aid Commission for Refugees, in cooperation with a small group of catholic priests, former SS comrades and some Argentinean officials. The ease with which he reached Argentina was also the result of Western intelligence services, such as the CIA and the German BND, turning a blind eye to where Eichmann was hiding. Research suggests that they knew of his new identity as Riccardo Klement, but ignored the information. But why would the Israeli government be so careful not to reveal any of this during Eichmann’s trial? The true reasons are unclear, but it is possible that Israelis simply did not want to embarrass governments and institutions who were now their allies.
Riccardo Klement’s life on the run came to an abrupt end in May 1960, when he was kidnapped by Israeli government agents just outside of his home in Buenos Aires and taken to Jerusalem: “I, the undersigned, Adolf Eichmann, hereby declare out of my own free will that since now my true identity has been revealed, I see clearly that it is useless to try and escape judgment any longer.” Eichmann had to stand trial and in the process the world came to know the horrible details about the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, from their forced emigration to centrally- planned industrialized genocide. But the world had to wait 50 years longer to finally learn the truth about how some of the worst Holocaust perpetrators fled justice and who were the institutions helping them do it.
Gerald Steinacher is a Joseph A. Schumpeter Research Fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and Lecturer on Contemporary History at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. He is the author of Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice.