I finished reading an absolute thriller this week, named 'Hunting Eichmann' written by Neal Bascomb, and found it simply un-putdownable. Its about a notorious Nazi war criminal named Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann, his flight out of war-torn Germany into Argentina and then capture by Israeli secret service agents and trial.
Eichmann was a head of department on Jewish issues during the War and was in direct charge of deporting and plundering the jews of Hungary, Austria, Poland among other places to eventually dispatching to extermination in concentration camps. Eichmann got orders from Himmler but was known to be extravagantly aggressive in executing those orders. His infamy grew towards the end of the war, in 1944, through his publicized mass murders in Hungary. Bascomb has done great work in unraveling what Eichmann was up to, on the run just after Germany lost the war. Its surprising that he could manage to linger for as many as 6 years in Germany itself doing various odd jobs. Surprising because of the lack of attention from the Allied forces and failure to apprehend senior Nazi leaders and known mass murderers, such as Eichmann. Eventually it seems that Eichmann escaped to Argentina, not because of threat of capture in Germany but because of boredom and in search of a new life in a new country. The allies were clearly busy with countering the soviet threats and also capitalizing on the German technology and scientific manpower.
Eichmann, in Argentina was leading the life of a lower middle class citizen and not something like a celebrated fugitive in a favorable foreign country. Through meticulous planning and daring, more than 10 Israeli agents belonging to the Mossad reach Buenos Aires, Argentina. They are able to locate Eichmann's house through information provided primarily by the father of the girlfriend of Eichmann's son. Each of the Israeli agents have their own story to tell, mostly of losing family and kin in the concentration camps driven by Eichmann and others. The agents thankfully kept their cool and did not summarily assassinate Eichmann, but managed to smuggle him on an Israeli civilian jet to Israel for a proper trial.Eichmann was hanged until death in Israel and the ashes after the incineration of his corpse were scattered into the sea to avoid giving any neo-nazis a place of worship. After hanging, when Eichmann was released off the noose, there was a loud sound - of air escaping from the lungs of the corpse. I tried to imagine what that would sound like ! It is said to have given nightmares to the executioners ...
About the writing
The events are historical and dramatic but the narrative is colorful as well. Perhaps the reading seems even more gripping to me because the events are based on documented facts and the author manages to weave them into a superb storyline. It is pacy, there is never a dull moment anywhere. On several occasions, Bascomb does strain to impress upon the reader the dangers and suspense that the Israeli team faced. Sometimes he really overdoes it. Why should Vera Eichmann have a nightmare the very night before her husband is apprehended on the street ? Why should a car with four men stop Eichmann a few days prior to the operation just to ask directions to the city and put Eichmann in a state of tenuous doubt ? Such mentions border on the cinematic and the attempt to incite thrill just shows. Regardless, I found it eminently absorbing. The tension that builds when the Israelis are about to grab Eichmann on the street and push into a car is something to be experienced.
Some areas are thoroughly unconvincing and jarring. How come the Mossad chief even aimed to capture the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele also hiding in Argentina and take him along with Eichmann ? That too without informing other agents at all before Eichmann was captured ? The planning, reconnaissance and effort that went into trapping Eichmann was phenomenal, how could Mengele be captured as if it is just a casual takeaway ?
Banality of Evil
None of the characters in this affair are 'larger-than-life'. No matter what the 'James Bond' movies suggest, I have known that the secret service agents and spies are never so, they have to make every attempt to blend in with their surroundings and not catch attention. They need to be good at evading questions, telling lies, forgery, camouflaging through make-up, calm even under life-threatening pressure and be infinitely courageous. The Mossad agents, who trapped Eichmann were perfectly so in every degree. Further, these men had families and were settled in life otherwise. A comment on Mossad chief Isser Harel's recruitment strategy says that Mossad needed perfectly honest men to do a scoundrel's work.
Eichmann on the other hand was a revelation. During the war, this guy had a wife, three sons and a good house. He was slightly arrogant and had a taste for extravagant life but his appearance was no way close to resembling a bloodthirsty monster that he actually was. Eichmann's mass murders were purely hate-driven. When the Israeli agents caught him, Eichmann was nearly a nervous wreck, weak and balding, eking out a living on the city outskirts. Although its not unusual for such a weakling to be cruel, for a settled family guy to send millions of families to their death appears to be. That's where the banality of evil strikes.
Arresting Eichmann and hanging him was truly significant event in the context of our understanding of the terrible carnage in the war. Our collective consciousness of the Holocaust was enhanced because of the Eichmann trial. In contrast, the Nuremberg trials were really about the topmost leaders in the Nazi hierarchy and those were the public faces of the war crimes, not the real executioners. It also seems to have brought the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion a lot of political momentum and for Mossad, international awareness. According to Bascomb, Ben Gurion hurried the announcement of Eichmann's capture once he knew that more than 50 israelis were already aware of it. Such an announcement clearly endangered the Mossad operatives who were still in and around Argentina. Politicians are the same everywhere !
Israel : At founding and Modern times.
The nation of Israel is shining today as a progressive nation in spite of limited resources (human and natural) and being surrounded by Arab enemies. Terrible events like the Holocaust and Arab wars preceded the founding of this country some 60 years ago. Wars have continued. In Bascomb's words, what is admirable is the 'strong sense of purpose' that the young Israelis have, to withstand all calamities, fight for survival and be unique in its middle eastern neighborhood. Through ingenuity and hard work, they have succeeded in even farming in a desert through water management technologies. Somewhere I have heard about the Israelis retro-fitting an american F-16 fighter plane engine into the body of a french Mirage-2000 to gain performance advantages of both such aeroplanes.
Overall, it was a happy reading.