“Un momentito, Señor.”
They were the only three words Israeli intelligence officer Peter Malkin knew in Spanish. But they were about to change the course of history.
Malkin uttered the words to a balding Mercedes-Benz factory worker headed home from work on May 11, 1960. And when the man reluctantly acknowledged him, Malkin sprang into action. With the help of three other secret agents, he wrestled the man to the ground and into a car. As they sped away, they tied him down and covered him with a blanket in the back seat.
This wasn’t your average abduction. The man in the back seat was one of the world’s most notorious war criminals: Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official who helped Germany carry out the mass murder of 6 million Jews during World War II. For years, he had evaded the authorities and lived in relative peace in Argentina. Now, he was in the custody of the Mossad, Israel’s secret service—and his once secret crimes were about to become public knowledge.
Eichmann’s capture, interrogation and trial were part of one of history’s most ambitious secret missions. “The logistics [of the capture] were incredible,” says Guy Walters, author of Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring them to Justice. “It’s like a movie plot that occurs in real life. And it woke the world up to the Holocaust.”
But that awakening—and Eichmann’s capture—was decades in the making.
When he first joined the Austrian Nazi party in 1932, few would have predicted that Adolf Eichmann had a future as a mass murderer. But Eichmann was both a skilled bureaucrat and a committed anti-Semite. He rose swiftly through the ranks of the party, and by 1935 he was already helping the party plan its answers to the so-called “Jewish question,” Nazi terminology for a debate over how European Jews should be treated.
Though he later claimed that he was just following orders, Eichmann helped the Nazis tackle the logistics of mass murder. He attended the Wannsee Conference, the meeting at which a group of high-ranking Nazi officials coordinated the details of what they called the “Final Solution.” Though he did not make decisions there, he took notes on the conference and prepared data which were used by higher-ranking officials to determine exactly how to murder Europe’s Jewish population. After the conference, Eichmann helped implement the genocide, coordinating the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews in German-occupied areas.
But though many of the architects of the Holocaust were arrested, tried at Nuremberg and executed after the war, Eichmann escaped justice. After his capture by Americans as the war ended, he escaped, changing his identity multiple times as he traveled throughout postwar Europe. In Italy, he was given aid by Catholic priests and bishops with pro-Nazi sympathies, and reached Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1950.
Eichmann had a new identity—“Ricardo Klement,” laborer. His family joined him in Argentina soon after, living a relatively quiet life as Eichmann attempted to support himself at a variety of jobs. But he wasn’t the only Nazi in the South American country, and he didn’t make a secret of his past. Eichmann had social ties to other escaped Nazis, and even sat down for an extensive interview with a pro-Nazi journalist, to whom he complained that he had made a mistake by not murdering all of Europe’s Jews.
Rumors of Eichmann’s activities in Argentina made their way to the United States, Europe and Israel. But though both West German and American intelligence operations received tips on Eichmann, they didn’t follow up on the leads. “It wasn’t the job of the Americans to hunt Nazis,” says Walters.
But there was a new state that was very interested in arresting Eichmann: Israel. Thanks to Lothar Herrmann, a blind Jewish refugee who had fled to Argentina after being imprisoned in Dachau, they learned of his whereabouts and began planning one of history’s most ambitious captures. When Herrmann discovered Eichmann was in Argentina through his daughter Sylvia, who dated one of Eichmann’s sons, he wrote to Germany with the information.
A German-Jewish judge, Fritz Bauer, asked for more details, so with Sylvia’s help, Herrmann provided Eichmann’s address. Worried that Nazi sympathizers would alert Eichmann to any German investigation, Bauer covertly tipped off Mossad, the Israeli secret service, instead. Mossad assembled a “snatch team”—most of whom had seen their entire families wiped out during the Holocaust—to abduct Eichmann.
Their goal was not just to capture him, but to get him back to Israel where he could be tried publicly for his crimes. The plan was simple enough. As the team spied on Eichmann, they realized that his routine was extremely predictable. They decided to capture him as he walked back home after getting off of a city bus after work.
The carefully orchestrated plan to abduct Eichmann on May 11, 1960 was almost foiled when Eichmann didn’t get off the bus at the expected time. Half an hour later, though, Eichmann got off of a later bus. Malkin and his associates accosted him on a quiet, dark street. They took him to a “safe house” in Buenos Aires, where he was interrogated for days before he was drugged and put on a plane to Israel.
The trial that followed was among the first to be televised in its entirety. It gripped millions with its emotional testimony and its first-person views of the reality of the Holocaust. At the trial, Eichmann presented the same deceptively normal facade he had kept up in Argentina—an image of a meek bureaucrat who simply followed orders. That image caused political theorist Hannah Arendt to coin the term “the banality of evil,” arguing that Eichmann was not a psychopath, but a normal human.
“Actually, Eichmann was a rabid zealous key Nazi who was absolutely delighted to do his bit to try and kill as many Jews as possible,” says Walters. “He wasn’t just a functionary.” Though he insisted to the end that he wasn’t responsible for the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann was found guilty by a special tribunal. He was hanged on May 31, 1962.