On this day in 1961, former Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann—one of the key perpetrators of the Holocaust—was sentenced to death by an Israeli court after being found guilty on fifteen criminal charges, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. His widely publicized trial helped popularize the infamous defense of many evil men: That was just another cog in a bigger killing machine who had no choice but to follow orders.
While undoubtedly one of the most sinister figures in history, yet like many Nazi leaders, Eichmann had a relatively uninteresting life—he was college dropout-turned traveling oil salesman before joining the Nazi Party in 1932. He rose through the ranks to eventually become head of the “Jewish Department”, which was initially tasked with intimidating Jews, through violence and economic pressure, into leaving Germany, and increasingly all of Europe.
After drafting plans to deport Jews to distant “reservations” such as Madagascar, Eichmann was informed of a “Final Solution to the Jewish question”: rather than expulsion and resettlement, Jews were to be exterminated. This was decided at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, a meeting of leading Nazi figures chaired by Eichmann’s superior, Reinhard Heydrich—widely considered to be the darkest figure of the regime and the principal architect of the Holocaust.
Eichmann was thereafter charged with facilitating and managing the large-scale logistics of the Holocaust: the mass deportation of millions of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II. In essence, he was a faceless administrator of death, tallying the number of Jews in a given area, organizing the seizure and accounting of their solen property, and ensuring the trains ran on time to take them to certain death. He held regular meetings with staff and conducted inspections and tours of ghettos and camps across Europe, like some regional manager making sure all the stores under his care are running smoothly.
In this sense, Eichman revealed the morbidly dispassionate and bureaucratic nature of the Holocaust; he was never a leader or even a policymaker, but like hundreds of thousands involved in the Holocaust, was simply doing his job: Keeping the Nazi killing machine well-oiled and efficient.
After the war, Eichmann managed to avoid Allied forces under several aliases and connections, before finally settling in Argentina to live the quiet life he had denied of so many others. He was captured there by Mossad in 1960—a whole other saga worthy of its own post—and put in trial in Israel.
The trial revealed how normal men could commit and rationalize seemingly abnormal things (like the slaughter of an incalculable number of people). Eichmann defended his actions by simply asserting that he was “just following orders” (coined as the “Nuremberg Defense” for how often it was invoked by his associates after the war.). He insisted he had no authority in the Nazi regime, and that he was bound by his oath to Hitler; the decision to murder millions was made by the likes of Hitler and Heydrich, and he felt completely absolved of guilt. Reflecting on the Wannsee Conference that had implemented the Holocaust, Eichmann expressed relief and satisfaction that a clear decision had been made by the higherups, since it meant the killing were out of his hands.
Even before trial, investigators had concluded that Eichmann seemed genuinely incapable of grasping the enormity of his crimes, never once showing remorse. During trial, he admitted to not liking Jews and even seeing them as enemies, but claimed he did not think they needed to be killed. In one of his last statements in court, he admitted being guilty only for arranging the transports—not for the consequences.
(Eichmann would admit in trial that in 1945, he stated “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”; however, he wrote this off as simply reflecting his “opinion” at the time.)
In 2016, Eichmann’s written plea for pardon was published, revealing that this steadfast lack of conscience was evidently (and disturbingly) sincere: “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. I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty”.
Eichmann was executed by hanging on June 1, 1962. His last words were reportedly, “Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the three countries with which I have been most connected and which I will not forget. I greet my wife, my family and my friends. I am ready. We’ll meet again soon, as is the fate of all men. I die believing in God”; it is claimed he later mumbled “I hope that all of you will follow me”.
Eichmann’s trial had a lasting impact on our reflection and understanding of the Holocaust and of human evil as a whole. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial and later wrote a book about it, Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she described him as the embodiment of the “banality of evil”: an otherwise average and mundane person, rather than a fanatic or sociopath, who rationalized his evil actions rather than own them; who was motivated by advancing his career rather than ideological commitment; and who was simply complacent with what was going on around him.
Jewish Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who helped captured Eichmann, reflected on the trial:
The world now understands the concept of “desk murderer“. We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty.
The term “little Eichmanns” has since been used to describe people whose actions, on an individual scale, seem relatively harmless even to themselves, but who collectively create destructive and immoral systems in which they are actually complicit—but too far removed to notice, let alone feel responsible.
The Eichmann trial is a disturbing reminder that much of human evil, including the worst atrocities imaginable, are perpetrated or facilitated not by psychopaths or fanatics, but by normal and sometimes even otherwise decent people. It is a cautionary tale for all times, places, and people.