Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi
by Neal Bascomb, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, $26
When agents of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann off a Buenos Aires street on May 11, 1960, it was the culmination of a painstaking and wide-ranging hunt for one of the senior architects of the Holocaust. The story of that complex hunt is very well told in Neal Bascomb’s monumental new history.
Bascomb’s research? Splendid. His writing? Lean and lucid. The details of the mission? First class. While he fully chronicles Eichmann’s wartime atrocities, his escape from Germany and his flight to Argentina, what will truly grip readers is Bascomb’s ability to get inside the heads and souls of Eichmann’s captors.
Theirs was not an easy task. Living under the name Ricardo Klement in Juan Peron’s Argentina, Eichmann was then a little-known figure despite his key role in Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Indeed, so rare were pictures of Eichmann that an Israeli agent had to seduce one of the Nazi’s former mistresses to obtain her only image of him.
Bascomb expertly unravels the often convoluted tale of how Eichmann was finally brought to justice: How death camp survivors like Simon Wiesenthal and Tuviah Friedman began to piece together a profile of the war criminal, who together with Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele soon became the most-wanted Nazi fugitives. Rumors of their whereabouts abounded, and it took 15 years for the young state of Israel to learn where Eichmann was hiding.
A German lawyer, Fritz Bauer, whose source remains a state secret in Germany, convinced Mossad chief Isser Harel that Eichmann was living in Argentina. Mossad had previously investigated and dismissed a tip about Klement, but they sent another agent, Holocaust survivor Zvi Aharoni, to Argentina to investigate.
When Aharoni brought back photos (taken by a camera secreted in a briefcase) of Eichmann, Harel sought the government’s permission to assemble a team of agents who could capture Eichmann and bring him to Israel to face trial. That team ultimately consisted largely of Holocaust survivors like Aharoni, men and women whose own families had been among Eichmann’s victims. And their mission was not to kill the Nazi, but to capture him, interrogate him and get him to Jerusalem unharmed.
If this book were just the tale of a war criminal’s capture, it would be thrilling enough. But Bascomb goes beyond thrills and brings us a psychological portrait of a genocidal criminal and of the determined hunters who brought him to justice.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.