Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Hunt for Adolf Eichmann

"My Knees Began to Tremble!"

On June 20, 1961, Adolf Eichmann, 55, took the stand in his own defense. Across the world, millions watched as this timid-looking man finally emerged from the glass booth. Eichmann was determined to present his perspective on the Nazi era for posterity. Though by 1960, the war had been over for 15 years, he remained devoted to the ideas and principles expounded by Adolf Hitler and his beloved Nazi Party. Eichmann's attorney, a German lawyer named Dr. Robert Servatius, led his witness through the early years of the Nazi's rise to power. Though Eichmann had a good memory, he was selective on what he could remember on cross-examination.

When asked about the mass deportations, he pleaded for understanding. "Today, I am unable to express an opinion...and I do not wish either to deny it or to consider it as a fact," he said to the court, "I no longer remember these details. If I might look at a document which relates to this, perhaps I can give some details about it." He tried to avoid responsibility for the billions stolen from the victims of the Third Reich. "What to do with property?" Eichmann asked the court, "I do not know about that. I do, however, know that after laws came into force...property was seized by the heads of the District Finance Administration...At the time I was not particularly familiar with details of the legal aspects of property." When the judge inquired if Eichmann was directly responsible, the defendant replied, "Of course, since I dealt with it, that is quite clearly correct."

For days at a time, the prosecution went over the damning evidence of the gassing of prisoners. Eichmann at first tried to evade responsibility for the killings. "Your honor, these are matters which I myself cannot work out," he said, "First, I was not at all responsible for such matters...there would have been records to that effect. After all, the fact of the gassings extended over a considerable period and was not limited to just one month...I no longer remember. I have lost all contact with that time. I have a very vague recollection of some gas business...Someone must have spoken about one way or the other about it, because otherwise I would not have known about it." Later, Eichmann was forced to admit that he knew precisely what was being done at Auschwitz. "I went there some five or six times, I am not sure of the exact number,' he told the court. However, faced with captured documents from his own office, Section IV B4, Eichmann finally admitted culpability. When asked if the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz was a matter for his department, Eichmann replied, "In the framework of my competence in Hungary, yes."

Eichmann writing in jail
Eichmann writing in jail

Concerning the ghettos where millions died at the hands of the Nazis, Eichmann's explanation followed a similar pattern. First he would deny any involvement. Then he would say that he was only following orders that he was helpless to disobey. Finally, when he was confronted with proof, Eichmann would admit his role. When asked about the inmates of the enclosed ghettos, he said that their fate was decided by him. "Yes, that is correct," he told the judge, "I have just said that. Because when it came to the eastern territories, I was responsible for in accordance with orders, was drawing up the timetables, the guidelines...then the Jews had to be transported to the concentration camp."

Though hundreds died on trains during each trip to the camps, Eichmann said, "The first dead bodies of Jews which I saw, were something I could not grasp...my knees began to tremble...the sight was completely new, I found it unbelievable...then I must confess, death really lost its horror for me. That is how things are, because the more you have to take in these fantastic and apocalyptic images, the less novel and shocking one finds it."

Mass executions of Jewish prisoners were common
Mass executions of Jewish prisoners
were common

The verdict came on December 15, 1961. Eichmann was found guilty on all 15 charges. "In the judgment we described the crimes in which the accused took part," the court said, "They are of unparalleled horror in their nature and scope. The objective of the crimes against the Jewish people...was to obliterate an entire people from the face of the earth...this court sentences Adolf Eichmann to death for crimes against humanity."

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