Book Review: 'Hunting Eichmann' by Neal Bascomb
How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down The World's Most Notorious Nazi
By Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 390 pp. $26
The Israeli team that abducted Adolf Eichmann from a dark, lonely road outside his Buenos Aires home in 1960 meticulously planned the secret operation. But none of its members anticipated the strange depression that overcame them almost as soon as they captured the fugitive war criminal. They did not foresee, Neal Bascomb writes, "the soul-hollowing effect of inhabiting the same space as" the man who had been the "operational manager of the Nazi genocide."
The Nazi hunters were recruited from Mossad and Shin Bet, the Israeli secret services, in part because they had lost their families or had been imprisoned themselves in the death camps Eichmann masterminded. Coolly and professionally, they had studied "Ricardo Klement," Eichmann's alias in Argentina. Yet once they wrestled him into a safe house, this "devil incarnate" turned out to be a surprisingly "pathetic creature," a skinny "runt" who was obedient and deferential to authority. "Was this the personification of evil?" wondered the head of the Mossad, Isser Harel. "Was this the messenger of death for six million Jews?"
Hannah Arendt, reporting later from Jerusalem on Eichmann's trial, gazed coldly at the defendant in his bullet-proof glass booth and was similarly struck by his sheer commonness, which she conveyed in her famous phrase "the banality of evil." Ordinary-looking and lower-middle-class Eichmann may have been, but as Bascomb makes clear in "Hunting Eichmann," banal was a false description of Germany's most notorious and elusive war criminal. In various disguises, sometimes under versions of his own name, in allied POW camps and on the loose, Eichmann dodged his pursuers for 15 years.
True, in the atmosphere of the Cold War, U.S. Army counterintelligence, the OSS and West German police showed little enthusiasm for hunting down Nazis, except to recruit them as anti-Soviet spies. Also weakening the effort was West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's fear that a roundup of Nazi accomplices would bring down too many of his own officials, including his security adviser Hans Globke, who had drafted Hitler's anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws.
Eichmann, an undistinguished petty bureaucrat, had so impressed his SS and Gestapo superiors with his "hate-fueled fanaticism" toward Jews that the officers more or less turned over their "Jewish department" to him. He put his heart into the "planned annihilation of the Jewish race," as a cooperating Nazi witness testified at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. He even traveled to pre-war Palestine to study Zionism and learn Hebrew, the better to understand the people he considered "the most dangerous enemy" of the Third Reich.
Eichmann was the perfect company man. "I sat at my desk," he said, "and did my work," setting schedules and quotas for Jews to be transported and gassed. But he was clever: He was careful, for example, never to be seen personally shooting a Jew or to allow himself to be photographed.
Even with the Allies closing in and bombs exploding around him, he did not want a single Jew to escape. A bully and a coward, he urged his aides to fight on, then fled into the Bavarian Alps and disguised himself as a lumberjack with help from SS comrades. Brazenly, he even sold black-market eggs to Jews from the liberated Belsen death camp. Bascomb's pages about Eichmann on the run in the chaos of postwar Germany are among his most exciting.
Though he had "little money, no safe house, no forged papers," Eichmann managed to hide his identity and eventually reach Juan Peron's Argentina along the notorious escape route code-named, as in the film, "Odessa." With his wife and three sons, he settled in a shabby neighborhood of Buenos Aires as a workman at a Mercedes-Benz plant. Other exiled Nazis at first helped him but soon shied away from his loud nostalgia for the Hitler days. He even proudly tape-recorded his reminiscences, the transcript of which the author freely uses.
Bascomb's account of Eichmann's abduction to Israel is detailed and well researched. But he strains to build up tension; his cinematic writing technique fails to work as effectively here as it did in "The Perfect Mile," his book about Roger Bannister's breaking of the four-minute mile, and his superb "Red Mutiny," about the 1905 sailors' revolt in Czarist Russia. Maybe it's because "Hunting Eichmann" relies heavily on retired Israeli secret service sources and never quite convinces us that they were in any real danger on Argentine soil.
In my reading, Mossad's clandestine op was dictated as much by internal Israeli politics as by a biblical sense of justice. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered Eichmann tried in an Israeli court for motives high and low: partly for pure vengeance, but also to educate a younger generation of Jews about the genocide and to stifle a neo-Nazi wave then rising in Europe.
In the end, Eichmann proved to be a formidable witness in his own defense, refusing to confess even on the gallows as he called out, "Long live Germany!" Because Bascomb summarizes more than humanizes the Israeli agents, the perverse effect is that Eichmann emerges as the true protagonist, and readers may well feel the "soul-hollowing effect" of inhabiting so many pages with him.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. As a GI, he attended the Nuremberg war crimes trial.