Two or three generations have now grown up to whom the name
Adolf Eichmann, and indeed the whole ghastly 12-year Nazi era, are
just chapters in history textbooks.
It is good, though, to be reminded of these horrors and to draw
lessons from them. Journalist and author Neal Bascomb has
accomplished both ends in this narrative of the escape, pursuit,
capture, trial and execution of Eichmann, the Nazi officer charged
with carrying out the “final solution to the Jewish
problem.” That “final solution,” of course,
involved the roundup, deportation to concentration camps and
summary execution of as many Jews as possible in Nazi-occupied
central Europe. The now-accepted figure of six million victims has
never been seriously challenged.
Eichmann escaped from Germany in the chaotic last days of the
defeated Third Reich and was sent under an assumed identity to
Argentina, a country whose government and population were both
infested with Nazi sympathizers. He hid there successfully for 15
years, joined by his wife and sons, keeping out of the limelight by
holding a series of nondescript jobs. The victorious Allied
governments, preoccupied with postwar occupation problems, had no
real interest in tracking him down. Private-enterprise Nazi hunters
like Simon Wiesenthal worked fruitlessly at finding him, dealing
with unfounded rumors that he was living in places like Kuwait, New
Zealand, the United States and even Israel.
Israel did not exist when Eichmann dutifully supervised sending
those millions to the gas chambers. But the Israeli intelligence
service, of course, had special motivation for going after him.
They assembled, from within their own ranks and elsewhere, a band
of a dozen expert operatives who went to work in deep secrecy. The
group included a master forger, a doctor, an expert in disguises,
people who knew Argentina well, an experienced interrogator of
prisoners, and people with both the physical strength and the will
to subdue Eichmann when the time came. Most team members had
themselves been scarred one way or another by the Holocaust.
It was a ticklish business --- in effect kidnapping a German
citizen on Argentine soil and spiriting him off in secrecy for
trial in Israel. It involved forged documents, deceptive
identities, false cover stories, the whole repertoire of
cloak-and-dagger tactics. They even developed a means of instantly
changing license plates on the cars they were using in order to
Inevitably, a key element was sheer luck. The big break in
locating Eichmann came when one of his sons bragged to a girlfriend
about his father’s major role in the Nazi death machine, not
realizing that the girl’s father was half Jewish and a
passionate Nazi-hater. Learning about this, the man alerted the
Nazi-hunting network in Europe, and the chase was on.
Neal Bascomb tells this story in straightforward, almost
journalistic style. He has a large cast of characters to manipulate
--- the pursuit team itself, the several European governments that
were involved, Eichmann’s abettors and protectors --- but the
attentive reader can still follow the complex plot clearly.
Simply apprehending Eichmann was only part of the problem; the
pursuers had to find covert means of getting their people into
Argentina, keeping Eichmann in secret captivity after his capture,
getting him onto a plane and getting him to Israel, all without
many of the people directly involved knowing what was going on. It
was a beautifully planned operation and masterfully executed. There
were a few cliffhanger moments when things threatened to unravel,
but the team had backup plans for most of them.
At his trial, Eichmann famously claimed that he was only
following orders from superiors. He styled himself a faithful
soldier proud to do his duty for his country and showed no real
regrets (he had even told one of his captors “In a way, I
love Jews.”). Bascomb covers the famous trial itself only
cursorily, since many of its themes had been touched upon in his
main narrative of pursuit and capture.
There is enough drama --- and enough characters --- in this book
to flesh out a Dickens novel, but Bascomb wisely does not try to be
Dickens. He is simply a good reporter, telling us a story that
needs to be told, and also needs to be remembered and learned
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 22, 2011