Mengele, Eichmann, and the Mossad
Spiegel Online has posted a fascinating interview with Rafi Eitan, a former Mossad agent who is now a minister in the Israeli cabinet. According to Eitan, Mengele was also in Buenos Aires when Eichmann was captured — and would have shared Eichmann’s fate but for the Mossad’s lack of boots on the ground:
SPIEGEL: Josef Mengele fled Germany for South America not long after the end of World War II. When did you pick up his trail?
Rafi Eitan: In the spring of 1960, as we were planning the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, we learned that Mengele was also in Buenos Aires. Our people checked out the address and it proved to be correct.
SPIEGEL: So why didn’t you arrest him?
Eitan: There were just 11 of us and we had our hands full dealing with Eichmann. After we had brought Eichmann to the house where we kept him until we flew him out, my boss at the Mossad, Isser Harel, called. He wanted us to arrest Mengele as well, but Mengele had left his home in the mean time. Harel said we should wait until he returned and then bring both he and Eichmann to Israel in the same plane. I refused because I didn’t want to endanger the success of the Eichmann operation.
SPIEGEL: Was there at any point a discussion about which of the two were more important — Mengele, the “Angel of Death” from Auschwitz, or Eichmann, who administered the deportation and murder of millions of Jews?
Eitan: No. In 1958, we resolved to capture a former Nazi and bring him to justice in Israel. Possible targets included Mengele, Eichmann, the former head of the Gestapo Heinrich Müller, and Hitler’s right-hand man Martin Bormann. The first one we could find was Eichmann, so we concentrated on him.
SPIEGEL: Was Mengele tipped off by the arrest of Eichmann?
Eitan: I assume so. We wanted to keep Eichmann’s extradition to Israel secret and then return to Buenos Aires to capture Mengele. But due to a leak, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had to make an official announcement about our success. When our agents returned to Argentina, Mengele had moved out of his apartment and gone underground.
Eitan also recalls that the Mossad had an opportunity years later to kill Mengele with a sniper, but chose not to:
SPIEGEL: He was never caught and died in 1979 not far from Sao Paulo when he had a stroke while swimming. Were you ever able to pick up his trail again before his death?
Eitan: We were able to find him one other time, but we were not able to organize an operation to capture him. We could have killed him with a sharpshooter, but we didn’t want to. It wasn’t about revenge.
That’s a remarkable — and inspiring — statement. Few tears would have been shed for Mengele if the Mossad had assassinated him, yet Israel was so committed to the rule of law that it preferred to let Mengele go free than stoop to the level of the Nazis. We should all be glad they made that choice: the Eichmann trial was a landmark in the history of international criminal justice, not least because it affirmed — for the first time ever — the central role universal jurisdiction plays in the struggle against impunity.