On Sunday, the news broke that Germany’s highest court had rejected the Bild newspaper’s request for unrestricted access to the foreign intelligence service’s files on Adolf Eichmann.
The reason for the request: to open up files that could shed light on whether West German authorities knew in the 1950s where Eichmann fled after World War II.
Bild contends that West German intelligence knew as early as 1952 that he was living under an assumed name in Argentina. But it wasn’t until 1960 that Israeli Mossad agents abducted him from that country and brought him to Yerushalayim for trial and execution.
It is hard to believe. It is now 52 years since Eichmann’s death. The facts of his role as a senior implementer of the “Final Solution” became known in full, grisly detail back then. Holocaust survivors came and identified him, told their tragic stories and the world was forced to confront the horrible truth which until then most had shunted aside and tried to forget.
The story passed into history. It became the grist of archival collections, academic research and periodic remembrances. Though the Jewish people can never forget what heinous crimes were visited upon them by those monsters, one might have thought that by now all was known, that the reservoir of revelations had finally dried up and there would be no more news updates from the Eichmann files.
Yet, the sordid tale refuses to end. Files remain to be opened. Questions remain to be answered.
What did the West Germans know and when did they know it?
The Bild newspaper’s allegation is credible enough. The postwar record of Germany, Austria and other collaborators of the Third Reich has not been one of wholehearted atonement and expiation. Far from it. On the contrary, the performance of those governments was sullied from the start by legal foot-dragging and cover-ups.
True, many Nazis were brought to justice, but for the most part that was due to the unflagging efforts of a small number of Nazi hunters and prosecutors who dogged the criminals and relentlessly pressured the governments.
Left to themselves, the outcome in postwar Europe would have been very different. Indeed, with the backing of societies still imbued with a murderous anti-Semitism, the former Nazis were many times granted the protective embrace of officialdom and even served in high office themselves in West and East Germany, Austria and elsewhere.
To be sure, there were exceptions. For example, the German judiciary in Ludwigsburg, at the Kammergericht, earned commendation from Holocaust historians for assembling numerous indictments and providing irrefutable documentation of Nazi criminality. And this was achieved despite the indifference and even hostility of the political leadership and the general population.
So it would not surprise us in the least if West German intelligence officials knew Eichmann’s whereabouts the whole time.
Of course, the BND (German intelligence agency) claims it has nothing to hide. It argues that most of its files on Eichmann are already public and only a small portion still needs to be blacked out because of laws on “protecting state security interests” and data protection.
If this is so — though rather unlikely, given the overturn of personnel in intervening years and the profound changes in security structures and methods — then let the BND submit the secret portions to an expert panel for confidential review. Let an impartial body decide whether “state security interests” are really at stake or not. As long as they fail to do so, or to release the material, the public will be completely justified in suspecting another cover-up.
The post-Holocaust period of bringing Nazi criminals to justice draws to a close. Soon there will be no one left to hunt down, as one by one the remnants of that evil host reach their ignominious graves.
But while the search for the criminals themselves winds down, the struggle for historical truth continues.
During the postwar period, a protracted struggle transpired in Germany over the statute of limitations for Nazi murderers and their accomplices. Each time the statute of limitations threatened to expire on murder, the legislature extended it after long debate.
There is no statute of limitations on such crimes. There is no statute of limitations on shame, either.