Some 60 years ago, in May 1960, Mossad agents captured Otto Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. His capture, subsequent trail, and execution received wide media attention. Some foolishly claim that Eichmann’s fate was predetermined. However, I firmly believe that justice was done in Jerusalem, as it had been done in Nuremberg.
Up until Eichmann joined the Schutzstaffel (SS) in 1932, he led a very mundane, unremarkable life. Frankly speaking, Eichmann was a dismal failure at everything he tried to do. Even in the SS, he was a mere “cog” in the national socialist machine. However, the SS empowered Eichmann to be “successful;” and, without doubt, he was successful at establishing a system to forcibly deport “undesirables.” Had Eichmann, a mere “obersturmbannfuhrer” (lieutenant colonel), only been a low-ranking bureaucrat in the Rube Goldberg-like Nazi political machine, then odds are he wouldn’t have met the hangman on June 1, 1962.
Eichmann’s defense was that he was simply following orders in a totalitarian “Fuhrerprinzip system.” Essentially, Eichmann claimed that he was not guilty because he was carrying out the acts of the state. The Justices in Jerusalem differentiated between the acts of the state and the individual acts of Eichmann. That is, the processing of documents for forced emigration was clearly an act of state. Commandeering transports – interrupting munition supply trains – to ensure that deliveries to Auschwitz continued was clearly an act of Eichmann. Consequently, the judges concluded that Eichmann had not merely been following orders, but believed in the Nazi cause wholeheartedly and had been a key perpetrator of the genocide.
The trial and the surrounding media coverage sparked renewed interest in the events of World War II, and the resulting increase in publication of memoirs and scholarly works helped raise public awareness of the Holocaust.
Hannah Arendt described Eichmann sitting in his bullet proof, glass cage at Jerusalem as the embodiment of the “banality of evil,” displaying neither guilt nor hatred. Simon Wiesenthal coined the phrase “desk murderer” to describe Eichmann. According to Wiesenthal, “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.”
Given Wiesenthal’s definition, we have plenty of bureaucratic “little Eichmanns” in the world today causing misery and suffering and harming others – doing so because they are just following orders.
John Di Genio