Operation Finale: The History behind the Drama
The film Operation Finale releasing nationwide this week tells the true story of the 1960 capture in Argentina of Adolf Eichmann, the SS official in charge of deporting millions of European Jews to their death during the Holocaust. Through flashbacks, viewers see dramatizations of Eichmann’s actions that indicate he played a pivotal role in implementing the so-called “Final Solution.”
How accurately does the film portray Eichmann’s contributions to the Nazi genocide? Was he the “mastermind” of the Holocaust? And if not, why were his capture and subsequent trial so important to the postwar quest for justice for the victims and survivors?
Jürgen Matthäus, an historian at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies with expertise on Nazi perpetrators, explores these and other questions related to the film.
Q: The film refers to Eichmann both as the “architect of the Final Solution” and as “Hitler’s deadliest lieutenant.” Are these accurate descriptions of his role in the Holocaust, in your opinion? If not (or not entirely), how would you describe his role?
“Eager manager of genocide” seems a more apt description. “Architect of the Final Solution” assumes high-level planning for which Eichmann was under-qualified given his comparatively low rank in the Nazi hierarchy. Case in point: In January 1942, when Nazi leaders met at Wannsee to discuss the “final solution to the Jewish question,” Eichmann’s role was to take notes that he later shaped into a summary report.
For the dubious title of “Hitler’s deadliest lieutenant,” there would be competition from others, most notably SS leader Heinrich Himmler, but also SS-colonel Odilo Globocnik, who was responsible for the murder of more than two million Polish Jews as part of Aktion Reinhardt, a mass murder operation that remained outside of Eichmann’s realm of responsibilities.
Q: The film suggests that Hitler and three members of his inner circle — Himmler, Hermann Göring, and Eichmann — were primarily responsible for the Holocaust. Is this consistent with what we know today about what made the Holocaust possible?
No, and it’s not even consistent with what was known at the time of the Eichmann trial. The judgments at Nuremberg in 1945–46 presented to the world a vast set of crimes perpetrated not just by the regime’s leadership, but with the assistance of large segments of German society, especially its elites. And Raul Hilberg, whose book The Destruction of the European Jews came out around the time of the Eichmann trial, described the Holocaust as a process that required the active involvement of many groups, first in Germany and later in countries occupied by or allied with Germany. So we’re looking at an army of perpetrators, not a small circle of top Nazis.
Q: The defense that Eichmann offers for his role in the Holocaust is that he was essentially a bureaucrat — he was chained to his desk, processing paperwork, and was unaware of the consequences of his actions. What precedents were established in postwar trials about the culpability of people who did not directly kill anyone?
State-sponsored violence involves different people with different functions for the purpose of reaching a common goal. This creates a diffusion of responsibilities that allows participants to legitimize their actions by claiming they were only small cogs in a giant machine — when in fact, they were at least partly acting out of self-interest. In other words, they can invoke basic principles propagated by the regime to hide their own aspirations.
Like all executioners of the “Final Solution,” Eichmann had to decide whether he could reconcile what he was tasked to do with his values and ambitions. Not only did he see no moral or other reason to refrain from doing what he was told — an option available to most Holocaust perpetrators — but he also took pride in his role and derived pleasure from what he regarded as his achievements.
It is not clear to what extent his actions were driven by hard-core Nazi beliefs that Jews were “enemies of the German people.” Nevertheless, Eichmann functioned successfully as an agent of genocide by doing all he could (not just what he was told to do) in performing his assigned tasks. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, totalitarianism requires less ardent ideologues than “the people for whom the distinction between facts and fiction, true and false, no longer exist.”
Q: Why was the search for Eichmann so important? Why was it significant that he stand trial in Israel?
By the early 1960s, Israeli society had undergone major transformations, with a younger generation growing up who had not personally experienced the Holocaust. Capturing and putting on trial in Jerusalem a major German perpetrator for crimes against the Jewish people forced a public confrontation with the Holocaust — and its role in shaping a national identity — for its victims, many of whom had felt marginalized and reluctant to tell their stories.
Holocaust survivors played a major role — much more prominently than in Nuremberg or other earlier postwar court cases — during the Eichmann trial, far beyond supporting or embellishing the prosecution’s argument. Their testimony transformed personal memory into an official record. Moreover, the broadcasting of the trial via radio and television combined with extensive coverage in the print media created incentives for survivors to document their experiences and for researchers to interview them.
Q: What do you think is the most important legacy of the Eichmann trial today?
Scholars debate whether the Eichmann trial marked the start of a new “era of witness” or whether it merely perpetuated earlier postwar efforts by Jewish survivors to safeguard the evidence of the crimes. Irrespective of where one comes down in this debate, it seems clear that the trial’s legacy lies in confirming what Lawrence Douglas has called the “belief in the centrality of judgment to the project of being human” — a belief central to the ongoing attempts of preventing mass atrocities.
Jürgen Matthäus is the editor of the Mandel Center’s ongoing source series Documenting Life and Destruction: Holocaust Sources in Context (12 vols., Rowman & Littlefield, 2010ff.), and co-editor, with Patricia Heberer Rice, of Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes (University of Nebraska Press, 2008).
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, San Diego e.a.: Harvest, 1973, 474.
 Lawrence Douglas, “Arendt, German Law, and the Crime of Atrocity”, in: Richard J. Golsan and Sarah M. Misemer, eds., The Trial That Never Ends: Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in Retrospect (German and European Studies, №27), Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2017, 193.