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The Eichmann Tapes

In 1957, Dutch journalist Willem Sassen interviewed Adolf Eichmann for 70 hours over six months at his home in Buenos Aires. Sassen was a member of the Waffen-SS who also fled to Argentina. Sassen agreed not to publish the content of their conversations for as long as Eichmann was still alive.

“Everything here could serve as evidence against me,” he said on the tape. “It could happen when I die or disappear, and this is my request: Everything I say here should be used for research. But as long as I am alive, I don’t want it to happen. I have no desire to exit the shadows into the spotlight.”

After the Mossad captured Eichmann on May 11, 1960, Sassen sold the publication rights for the tape recordings to Life Magazine. The article “Eichmann Tells His Own Damning Story” appeared on November 28, 1960. Eichmann denied the incriminating statements from the article in court, but Israeli prosecutor Gideon Hauser said, “He could hardly have been able to deny his own voice.”

Hausner tried to obtain the tapes until the last day of Eichmann’s cross-examination. An unidentified seller was prepared to sell the tapes for $20,000, which he was willing to pay, but the seller said they could not be taken to Israel until after the trial.

During the trial, Eichmann denied knowing about the extermination of the Jews, but he told Sassen, “Had we put 10.3 million Jews to death, then I would be content and would say, ‘Good, we have destroyed the enemy.’” He admits, “It is a difficult thing to say, and I know I will be judged for it, but this is the truth.”

“I didn’t care about the Jews deported to Auschwitz, whether they lived or died. It was the Fuehrer’s order: Jews who were fit to work would work, and those who weren’t would be sent to the Final Solution,” he says in one recording. When Sassen asks him if the Jews were to be eliminated or exterminated, Eichmann replies: “If that’s what I said, then yes.”

Eichmann said an SS brigade commander told him they put “sprinklers in the showers that looked just like a showerhead,” and then they would “bring in the idiots and throw inside hydrogen cyanide.”

During his escape from Germany, Eichmann said he arrived near Bergen-Belsen. “The area stunk of garlic,” he told Sassen. “And who sold the garlic? The Jews. I was shocked by the thought that they were all supposed to be dead already. After all, they said they had all been sent to the ovens. And now who is standing in front of me, bargaining with me, the bastards.”

At one point in the recording, Eichmann swatted a fly and described it as having “a Jewish nature.”

In the Life transcript, Eichmann said he wanted to teach the Allies a lesson after they bombed the Budapest-Vienna railroad track. He wished to convey the message: “Look, it does you no good when you bomb out our railroads because your allies, the Jews, have to endure the consequences.” He said he got permission from General Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who had become the new chief of the Security Police and Security Service, to force Jews to march to the Reich’s border. In his interview with Willem Sassen, Eichmann said less than 20,000 Jews were involved in the march, and “everything possible was done to make the trip hygienic and safe.” He claimed only two elderly people died. When they reached the border, the marchers were “put to work helping German, women, children and old people digging tank traps to defend the Reich.”

When the Germans defending Budapest against the Russian advance ran low on ammunition, Eichmann arranged “a living chain of Jews to carry shells from the depot and load them on streetcars” so they could resupply the fighters.

Eichmann made his last report to Himmler less than a month before Germany surrendered. At the time, he said, Himmler was negotiating with Count Folke Bernadotte about the Jews. “He wanted to make sure that at least 100 of the most prominent Jews we could lay our hands on would be held in a safe place. Thus, he hoped to strengthen our hand, for almost to the end Himmler was optimistic about making separate peace terms.”

Himmler also told Eichmann that he made a mistake in the way he set up the concentration camps. “I didn't know exactly what he meant by that, but he said it in such a pleasant soft way that I understood him to mean the concentration camps should have been more elegant, more artful, more polite.”

During the war’s final days, Eichman said he called his men to his Berlin office and said, “‘If it has to be, I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals.’ (‘Enemies of the Reich,’ I said, not ‘Jews.’) I spoke these words harshly and with emphasis. In fact, it gave me an extraordinary sense of elation to think that I was exiting from the stage in this way.”

As the bombs were falling, Eichmann said Gestapo officials were manufacturing employment documents to allow them to hide their real jobs from postwar investigators. “There were hundreds of civilian letterheads on file in that office, and if a particular one was not available, we could always have it printed,” he said. In an example of his false bravado, Eichmann told the Gestapo chief, Heinrich Mueller, he didn’t need false papers and showed him his gun. “‘When I see no other way out, it is my last medicine. I have no need for anything else.’” Unlike Hitler and others, however, Eichmann did not commit suicide.

Eichmann claimed he wanted “to find peace with my former opponents” and would have surrendered to the German authorities “if I did not always feel that the political interest in my case would be too great to lead to a clear, objective way out.” He said he would have brought Jews as witnesses for his defense, including “Dr. Kasztner, Dr. Epstein, Dr. Rottenberg, Dr. Baeck, the entire Council of Elders in Theresienstadt ghetto...After all, there also relatively harmless actions which took place under the general heading, ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.’”

The Life article ended without a mea culpa. “I must say that I regret nothing...I will not humble myself or repent in any way. I could do it too cheaply in today’s climate. It would be too easy to pretend that I had turned suddenly from a Saul to a Paul. No, I can say truthfully that if we had killed all the 10 million Jews that Himmler’s statistician originally listed in 1933, I would say, ‘Good, we have destroyed an enemy.’ But here I do not mean wiping them out entirely. That would not be proper – and we carried on a proper way.” Paradoxically, he added that he believed fate must have wanted the Jews to survive and that “through thousands of years of learning and development had become superior to us...It is very depressing for me to think of that people writing laws over 6,000 years of written history. But it tells me that they must be a people of the first magnitude, for law-givers have always been great.”

The tapes were considered lost until an anonymous person contributed 15 hours of the recordings to a German archive in the 1990s with the caveat that they were kept secret. According to Yariv Mozer, director of the documentary The Devil’s Confessions: The Lost Eichmann Tapes:

For many years, nobody knew where the recordings were located. It seems Sassen gave them in the 1990s to the Eichmann family. I presume because he felt the need to make amends for his actions, for his supposed betrayal by giving the interviews to Life. The Eichmann family sold the recordings in the 1990s to a publisher in Switzerland. When the publisher went bankrupt, the materials were taken to the vault of another publisher in Switzerland, and from there, they were transferred to the German National Archives [in Koblenz] because they didn’t want to have any connection to them. The German archives wanted to make sure the recordings were original. When Sassen confirmed this before his death in 2001, they released a few minutes of the material to the media.

A German documentary series in the late-1990s, Hitler’s Henchmen, included brief excerpts from the tapes. A 2010 German docudrama titled Eichmanns Ende – Liebe, Verrat, Tod told the story of the relationship between Eichmann and Sassen based on a transcript of their conversations.

For years, only researchers vetted by the archive were given access to the tapes, in part out of fear a neo-Nazi might gain access and misuse them. Mozer convinced the anonymous owner of the recordings that the 60th anniversary of Eichmann’s trial was approaching, and it would be an excellent opportunity to compare what Eichmann said in the interviews and what he said in the courtroom. He was permitted to use the tapes.

A portion of the tapes published in Life dealt with the “Blood for Goods” deal. According to the documentary, one reason the tapes were not used in the trial was that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion did not want the issue, which had led to the controversial trial of Rudolf Kasztner, resurrected.

Sources: Isabel Kershner, “Nazi Tapes Provide a Chilling Sequel to the Eichmann Trial,” New York Times, (July 4, 2022).
Nirit Anderman, “Long-lost Recordings of Eichmann Confessing to the Final Solution Revealed,” Haaretz, (May. 23, 2022).
Adolf Eichmann, “‘To Sum It All Up, I Regret,” Life, (December 5, 1960).

Photo: Milli John / Israeli Government Press Office.