Adolf Eichmann was one of the most pivotal actors in the implementation of the “Final Solution.” Charged with managing and facilitating the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and killing centers in the German-occupied East, he was among the major organizers of the Holocaust.
Eichmann (1906–1962) was born in Solingen, Germany, on March 19, 1906. As a youth, he moved with his family to Linz, Austria. A poor student, he completed his basic schooling and began training in mechanical engineering. He did not finish his studies. In the uncertain economic times of the 1920s, he drifted from job to job as a day laborer, an office worker, and as a traveling salesman for Vacuum Oil Company, AG. In 1932, at the instigation of an acquaintance, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who would later serve as his superior in the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA), Eichmann entered the Austrian National Socialist (Nazi) Party, and the SS.
In 1933, as Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power in Germany, the Austrian government banned membership in the Austrian Nazi Party. Like many Austrian Nazis, Adolf Eichmann fled Austria for Bavaria. There in August 1933, Eichmann joined the "Austrian Legion," an association organized for Nazi Party members from Austria. There, he engaged in a few months' military training. In 1934, with the rank of SS-Scharführer (Sergeant) Eichmann joined the Security Service Main Office (Sicherheitsdienst (SD)-Hauptamt). He still worked for this organization when it became part of the RSHA in 1939. In the mid-1930s, Eichmann worked for SD office II-112, which had among its objectives the surveillance of Jewish organizations. Assigned to a section dealing with Zionist activities, Eichmann negotiated with Zionist functionaries and made an inspection tour of Palestine in 1937. His efforts to promote a "Zionist emigration of Jews from Germany by all [available] means" would serve him well in preparing him for his future activities.
During the Anschluss in March 1938, Eichmann personally led a raid on the Jewish Cultural Community offices. He then worked to organize a Central Office for Jewish Emigration (Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung) in Vienna, which opened officially on August 20, 1938. According to internal estimates, the Central Office "facilitated" the emigration of 110,000 Austrian Jews between August 1938 and June 1939. The Central Office was so successful in its forced emigration efforts that it created a template—often called the "Vienna Model"—or a Reich-wide Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration (Reichzentrale für jüdische Auswanderung).
Eichmann led the Central Office beginning in October 1939. Here he met with less "success," particularly as deportation of Jews began to replace emigration as a strategy for a "Jew-free" Germany. In this area, Eichmann was ultimately to play a pivotal role. In the summer of 1939, Eichmann became responsible for promoting the expulsion of Czech Jews from the newly annexed Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and created a further Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Prague, after the pattern of its Viennese counterpart.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Eichmann organized the first actual attempt at mass deportation from the Greater German Reich. He coordinated the deportation of some 3,500 Jews from Moravia and Vienna to Nisko on the San River, in that part of German-occupied Poland to be designated as the General Government (Generalgouvernement). Although problems with the deportation effort and a change in German policy put an end to these deportations, Eichmann's superiors were sufficiently satisfied with his initiative to ensure that he would play a role in future deportation proceedings.
After the foundation of the RSHA in September 1939, Eichmann moved from the SD to the Gestapo and became director of RSHA section (Referat) IV D 4 (Clearing Activities, or Räumungsangelegenheiten) (1940). After March 1941, he became director of section IV B 4 (Jewish Affairs, or Judenreferat).
In October 1940, Eichmann and the office IV D 4 organized the deportation of nearly 7,000 Jews from Baden and Saarpfalz to areas of unoccupied France. From his position in RSHA section IV B 4, however, Eichmann played his central role in the deportation of over 1.5 million Jews from all over Europe to killing centers and killing sites in occupied Poland and in parts of the occupied Soviet Union.
In the autumn of 1941, Eichmann, then an SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) and the chief of RSHA section IV B 4, took part in discussions in which the annihilation of the European Jews was planned. Since Eichmann was to be in charge of transporting Jews from all over Europe to the killing centers, RSHA chief Reinhard Heydrich asked Eichmann to prepare a presentation for the Wannsee Conference. At the conference, RSHA officials advised the appropriate government and Nazi Party agencies on the implementation of the "Final Solution." Eichmann also relayed these plans to his network of officials who would help him to carry out deportation efforts in German-occupied areas and in Germany's Axis partners.
Prominent among these "Eichmann-Männer" ("Eichmann's men") were his deputy Rolf Günther, Alois Brunner, Theodor Dannecker, and Dieter Wisliceny. In 1942, Eichmann and his henchmen organized the deportation of Jews from Slovakia, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium. In 1943 and 1944 came the turn of the Jews of Greece, northern Italy, and Hungary. Only in Hungary did Eichmann involve himself directly on the ground in the deportation process. From late April 1944, six weeks after Germany occupied Hungary, until early July, Eichmann and his aides deported some 440,000 Hungarian Jews.
At war's end, Eichmann found himself in US custody, but escaped in 1946. In the end, he succeeded, with the help of Catholic Church officials, in fleeing to Argentina. There he lived under a number of aliases, most famously Ricardo Klement. In 1960, agents of the Israeli Security Service (Mossad) abducted Eichmann and brought him to Israel to stand trial. The proceedings before a special district court in Jerusalem drew international attention, and historians roundly credit coverage of the trial (famously in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem) with awakening public interest in the Holocaust.
In December 1961, Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people. He was hanged at midnight between May 31 and June 1, 1962. Jewish authorities cremated his remains and scattered his ashes in the sea beyond Israeli boundary waters.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Investigate Eichmann’s role in the crimes of the Holocaust and how he rose to his position.
- Investigate reaction to Eichmann’s trial internationally after the verdict. How did observers and scholars describe his role and responsibility for the deaths of millions?
- Beyond the verdict, what was the impact of the Eichmann trial?
- Why are Nazi war criminals still pursued and tried so many years after the Holocaust?