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Capturing the Architect of the Holocaust

Dec 22, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Randall Christopher

In the final days of World War II, as the Red Army advanced on Berlin and the Third Reich teetered on the edge of total military collapse, Adolf Hitler famously shot himself in his bunker. A wave of suicides would follow—high-ranking Nazi officials such as Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Philipp Bouhler, and Martin Bormann killed themselves before being captured by Allied forces. Many war criminals, however, managed to escape. As many as 9,000 Nazi officers and collaborators found refuge in South America; the majority fled to Argentina, which had maintained a close relationship with Nazi Germany.

Among those who evaded capture was Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi SS lieutenant colonel who masterminded the identification, assembly, and transportation of European Jews to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. After the fall of the Third Reich, Eichmann, who had come to be known as the architect of the Nazi genocide, was apprehended, but escaped from a detention camp and went into hiding in Austria. An Austrian-born bishop, Alois Hudal, helped Eichmann obtain falsified identity documents issued by the Vatican, enabling him to get an Argentine visa and an International Red Cross passport. (Hudal eventually admitted to abetting Nazi war criminals.) In the years following the war, Argentine President Juan Perón, a longtime admirer of Hitler’s and other fascist regimes, had established a network of so-called ratlines—escape routes—through ports in Spain and Italy to smuggle thousands of former SS officers and Nazi Party members out of Europe.

As the Nuremberg Trials brought Nazi war criminals to justice in 1945 and 1946, Eichmann lay in wait. In 1950, a fugitive who had assumed the alias of Richard Klement boarded a steamship to Buenos Aires. He would establish a middle-class lifestyle in the suburbs of the city with his wife and children, working at a Mercedes-Benz factory.

The thrilling story of how it all came crashing down is told in Randall Christopher’s new animated documentary, The Driver Is Red. A Holocaust survivor who was living in Buenos Aires became suspicious about his daughter’s new boyfriend and his family. Armed with surreptitious photographs of Klement, the father alerted Israeli intelligence, and Eichmann’s identity was confirmed beyond reasonable doubt. Mossad Special Agent Zvi Aharoni was sent to Buenos Aires to orchestrate an illegal surveillance and abduction scheme, Operation Finale. Eichmann was apprehended in 1960 and smuggled to Israel, where he would finally face justice. He was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity and was executed in Jerusalem in 1962.

Christopher’s film noir–inspired animation depicts the dramatic story of Eichmann’s capture. The actor Mark Pinter, reading from Aharoni’s book about the historic Nazi manhunt, lends the late Aharoni’s voice. “The first words Adolf Eichmann uttered to me were, ‘I have already resigned myself to my fate,’” wrote Aharoni, a German-born Jew who escaped with his mother and brother on one of the last trains out of Germany before World War II.

Christopher told me he made the film because he grew up largely ignorant of the Holocaust. This is an alarming trend. A recent survey found that 22 percent of Millennials admitted to not having heard of the Holocaust, while 41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of Millennials said they don't know about Auschwitz.

“In my opinion, we simply must make a deliberate, dedicated effort to know the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust—the most catastrophic event in human history,” Christopher said. The filmmaker believes it is especially important to study Weimar Germany, because “these events sprang from a democratic society with values and culture not much different from what we have today in the West.”

“People simply didn’t recognize that certain decisions and policies—though maybe not so terrible in themselves—open the door for more dangerous scenarios,” Christopher continued. “Nobody was voting for World War II when they voted for Hitler. But in voting for Hitler to do things like get rid of the communists and to bypass a dysfunctional Parliament, they also voted in favor of a situation where World War II and the Holocaust would be a possibility.”

Christopher believes that if the U.S. Congress “remains dysfunctional and unable to work together,” this might pave the way for a similar autocratic leader—something once considered “unthinkable in America.”

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Author: Emily Buder

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A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.