Konrad Adenauer looked even more grave than usual in his national television address.
It was April 1961, hours before Adolf Eichmann would go on trial in Jerusalem for his key role, as a senior Nazi and SS lieutenant colonel, in planning the murder of six million European Jews.
Adenauer, West German’s first chancellor, told viewers he hoped the biggest Nazi trial since Nuremberg – would “bring the full truth to light . . . and that justice will be done”.
Then he said something interesting: “In the German national body, in the moral life of the German people, there is no longer any National Socialism, no National Socialist feeling. We have become a constitutional state.”
Seen from today’s perspective, this statement was equal parts wishful thinking and a whopping lie – and no one knew that better than Konrad Adenauer.
A former mayor of Cologne and staunch Catholic conservative, Adenauer was 73 when he became West Germany's first chancellor in 1949. He was such a staunch anti-Nazi that western allies were prepared to tolerate an administration in Bonn – and institutions around West Germany – packed with Nazi functionaries.
Challenged on this many times by political rivals and foreign critics, Adenauer hit back that “one does not throw out the dirty water as long as one doesn’t have any clean water”.
His contested argument: fascism had permeated the German political system and civil service so completely that there was no one left but former Nazi party members to run the postwar federal republic.
For the chancellor, the news in 1960 that Eichmann had been captured and would stand trial was a political disaster. A decade of work to move his country beyond the Nazi era could, he feared, be undermined if the SS man in Jerusalem started naming names.
If the chancellor was alarmed, his chief of staff was in blind panic. Two decades before Hans Globke became West Germany's most senior civil servant, he had been a senior interior minister civil servant who aided the Nazi campaign against Europe's Jews.
Globke drafted the legal commentary on the 1935 Nuremberg laws, legalising the exclusion of Jews from public life, the theft of their assets and opening the door to their eventual murder. It was Globke’s idea to put a “J” in every Jewish citizen’s identity papers, alongside their new middle names: “Israel” for men, “Sara” for women. Globke’s fingerprints were also on laws outlawing “racial disgrace” – relations between Jews and “Aryans”. After the war, Globke confessed that he knew all about the Shoah, the industrialised murder of European Jews.
Eichmann was facing war crimes charges in Jerusalem as the Shoah’s logistics man who made the death camp trains run on time. But Globke had helped deliver the legal framework in which Eichmann, and countless others, had operated.
While Adenauer hoped the trial would “bring the full truth to light”, his chief of staff hoped the opposite – and was determined his name should not fall in the Jerusalem court room.
To ensure this, Globke activated the West German foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), he had set up four years previously.
But new reports, six decades on, reveal for the first time just how far the BND went. German intelligence recruited an informer inside the Eichmann defence team and even influenced the Israeli public prosecutor.
For historian Klaus-Dietmar Henke, who discovered the documents, the Eichmann case is a perfect example of life in what he terms “post-National Socialist Germany”.
Today’s Germany wrote the book on coming to terms with the past, and even gave the world a term for the process: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Six decades ago a them-not-us narrative prevailed: the Nazis were a band of criminals who snatched power, destroyed Germany and were now consigned to history.
The Nuremberg trials of senior Nazis, organised by the victorious allies and not Germans, had been followed by a flawed “denazification” process. Many ordinary Germans felt like victims of Hitler and had yet to be confronted with the scale of ordinary, everyday complicity that made the dehumanisation and murder of their neighbours possible.
Adenauer’s claim that there was “no National Socialist” feeling in his West Germany was untrue. Polls in the 1950s showed considerable lingering support for Hitler’s politics. Underground networks protected Nazi war criminals abroad while, at home, old boys’ networks in all corners of German life helped former Nazis restart their careers.
West Germany’s functionary elite had careers and mentalities shaped by the authoritarian, anti-pluralist days of the Kaiser.
Galvanised in the authoritarian Hitler years, the mentality still alive in Bonn’s corridors of power was that the end justified the means.
And the BND had this mentality “to the power of 10”, according to Prof Henke. Operating largely beyond political control and public scrutiny, the agency’s institutional attitudes and culture remained largely untouched into the 1970s. “The BND was a self-recruiting fraternity of men from the Nazi military and intelligence worlds who, a few years previously, had fought together in the war and had wanted to take over the world,” said Prof Dr Henke, a specialist in 20th century German history.
He was 14 when the Eichmann trial opened and remembers it as being “like the moon landing, the whole world was watching”.
Paraded before the world in live courtroom broadcasts, the bespectacled bureaucrat Eichmann became the face of the Nazi “Schreibtischtäter” or desk perpetrator.
Long before the trial began, Bonn’s ideological rivals in Soviet-controlled East Germany recognised the propaganda coup they had on their hands. A self-described “anti-fascist state”, the socialist Germany prided itself on having expelled or punished all Nazis in their zone (except, that is, the ones the Stasi secret police blackmailed and instrumentalised for their own purposes).
In the months before the trial began, East German newspapers ramped up efforts to frame Adenauer’s administration as a continuation of the Nazi regime, dubbing Globke “the Eichmann of Bonn”. Even Israeli’s newspapers denounced Adenauer’s right-hand man as a war criminal.
Terrified all this would reach Eichmann, Globke turned to his symbiotic relationship with Reinhard Gehlen, the BND's first president and former head of the Wehrmacht intelligence service on the eastern front.
Though the BND, then as now, is not known for ingenious spycraft, Gehlen pulled out the stops to tackle the ticking time bomb in Jerusalem.
His agents acquired a 1,300-page transcript of recordings Eichmann made before his arrest and – as is clear from newly released documents – recruited a junior staff member of the Eichmann defence team, headed by German lawyer Robert Servatius.
“To infiltrate a defence team, betraying a client, in judicial proceedings is perhaps the worst thing you can do, besides bribing a judge,” said Prof Henke. But in intelligence circles, particularly an agency run by a Nazi out to protect another, the end clearly justified the means.
Unknown to lead defence lawyer Servatius, the BND informer, as part of their trial preparations, talked to Eichmann nearly every day in his high-security prison cell – then reported back to Germany on the prisoner’s appearance, his health, his utterances. Six months before the trial began, the new documents show, the informer asked Eichmann the crucial question: did he know Hans Globke, and was he planning to mention him on the stand?
“When Eichmann said, ‘I’ve never heard of Globke’, the BND told Globke and it was a weight off his mind,” said Henke.
Fearful other big names in Bonn would be mentioned, the BND informer was instructed to keep working right up to Eichmann’s final appeal against his guilty verdict. Documents show how a second BND informer sought out Israel’s chief prosecutor and secured agreement that a belated demand from the Eichmann defence to call Globke as a witness was refused.
Henke says the chancellery was “involved directly” even in these final efforts, worried that a recently-published book about Globke’s Nazi past would find its way into Eichmann’s cell. They were right to be worried, as a copy of the book did reach him. “Eichmann read it carefully then had a fit, saying: ‘Look at everything Globke did and he’s sitting in the chancellery while I’m going to be hanged’,” said Prof Henke.
Eichmann was hanged 60 years ago, on May 31st, 1962. Globke retired with Adenauer in 1963, was awarded the Grand Cross of the order of merit of the Federal Republic, and in 1973 died in Bonn.
After the execution, when Konrad Adenauer thanked the Israeli government for its “honourable conduct” in the Eichmann trial, few were aware that Bonn was more interested in protecting its own than understanding what made the Shoah possible, let alone the importance of the verdict for survivors and families of the dead.
The cracks in West Germany’s postwar facade of amnesia only began to crack in 1968, when West Germany’s student revolutionary generation tackled their parents’ uncomfortable silence over their personal Nazi history.
“Today, grappling with the past is part of the federal republic’s DNA, whether it is the past of companies, the churches, the foreign ministry or, now, the intelligence service – but that is not a given,” said Prof Henke. “West Germany already began life with a huge moral burden, but it was only through courageous debate and challenges by brave individuals that the authoritarian, post-National Socialist system of Gehlen and Globke was shattered.”
Six decades on, though, traces of the system live on – such as when it comes to naming the BND informer inside Adolf Eichmann’s defence team.
Prof Henke knows who it was, as do many historians in this field, but the BND redacted dozens of pages of the report because, under German law, it is a serious offence to name an informer.
The German state will prosecute anyone who names in public the Eichmann informer who shielded Hans Globke, the man who helped legalise Jewish persecution.
Prof Henke says he warned the BND and the chancellery that the black blocks of redacted text would “turn this into a global story”. A compromise will allow him name the informer as soon as he dies.
His 1,600-page report is the latest produced by an independent group of historians commissioned by the BND. So far, the historian has had no reaction from senior BND officials about the agency’s Eichmann intervention. But he hopes the BND trainee programme will draw on his work and highlight the perils when an intelligence agency is beholden to the executive and not to the wider state.
“I think it’s decisive that future generations are trained to protect the rule of law, to have a spine and to put defending democracy before an institution,” said Prof Henke. “That is the best control on an intelligence service you can hope for.”
Eichmann’s capture in Argentina
After Nazi Germany's defeat in 1945, Adolf Eichmann was imprisoned in a camp for SS officers until he escaped and lived for five years in Lower Saxony as Otto Heininger. When Eichmann realised his cover was blown, a Nazi-sympathising Austrian bishop secured him a Red Cross passport and passage to Argentina under the name Ricardo Klement.
In 1953, German lawyer Fritz Bauer received a tip-off about Eichmann's new life in Buenos Aires. Bauer was state prosecutor in the West German state of Hesse, but was refused permission by his superiors to proceed with extradition. Fearing Eichmann would be warned by former Nazi colleagues in Germany, Bauer passed on his information to Mossad, the Israeli secret service.
Concerned Argentina would refuse an extradition request, Israel president David Ben-Gurion ordered Eichmann to be captured. A specialist team seized him on May 11th, 1960, near his home, 20km north of Buenos Aires. Eichmann was interrogated for nine days, then sedated and flown to Israel dressed as a drowsy flight attendant. Documents declassified in 2008 indicate the BND and US intelligence were aware Eichmann was living in Argentina.
They declined to investigate further as they believed it did not serve their Cold War interests.