BERLIN // The German secret intelligence service, the BND, is trying to block a legal attempt to force it to declassify potentially embarrassing files about Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal organisers of the Holocaust. The Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig is expected to rule in the coming weeks on a case brought by a German journalist, Gaby Weber, who is seeking access to the agency's 4,500 documents on Eichmann, who was abducted by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1960, put on trial in Israel and hanged.
Researchers say the files could reveal whether West Germany's post-war security services knew about Eichmann's whereabouts before his capture or had even helped him. German law enforcement agencies and the civil service had many former Nazis, including SS and Gestapo officers, working in senior positions after the war. The BND itself was run until 1968 by Reinhard Gehlen, a former general in charge of intelligence-gathering on Germany's eastern front in the war.
Eichmann was the most notorious of the Nazi war criminals still at large after the Second World War. He had been in charge of co-ordinating the deportation of Jews from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe to the concentration camps, which made him directly responsible for the murder of millions of Jews. "The BND is arguing that revealing the contents of the files would harm Germany's national interests," said the spokeswoman for the court, Sibylle von Heimburg.
Intelligence sources said much of the information in the files was supplied by a foreign secret service, and that it was standard practice for agencies not to reveal secrets passed on by allied services. Also, the files contain private information about at least one person who is still alive, and are therefore subject to German privacy protection laws, sources said in interviews. The BND declined to comment.
Pressure on the agency to release its old files on Nazi fugitives has mounted since 2005 and 2006 when the US Central Intelligence Agency declassified many documents relating to Nazi war crimes. Those files indicated that the BND had information that could have led to Eichmann's arrest in the 1950s, but did not pass it on because it was afraid he would implicate a top aide to the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. Hans Globke was Adenauer's national security adviser and had helped draft the 1935 Nazi racial purity laws that stripped Jews of German citizenship.
The BND has been so opposed to declassification of the Eichmann documents that it initially refused to even show them to the judges at the Leipzig court. In the end, the government of Angela Merkel, the chancellor, ordered the case to go ahead. A decision to release the files could force the BND to open its archives on other top Nazis on the run half a century ago. Historians say it is high time that light was shed on a murky era when the hunt for Hitler's henchmen was obstructed by ex-Nazis in the former West Germany and Austria. Even among the victors of the Second World War, there was a view that forging new Cold War alliances and hiring former Nazi scientists and spies was more important than tracking war criminals.
The release of the US files caused an outcry because they showed that the CIA itself did not act on information it received from the BND in 1958 that Eichmann had been living in Argentina. In the end, the Israelis found Eichmann themselves, after a tip-off in 1957 from a German-Jewish émigré in Argentina whose daughter had met one of Eichmann's sons there by chance. The father contacted Fritz Bauer, the Jewish state prosecutor for the German state of Hesse.
Bauer in turn informed Israel, circumventing German authorities because, historians believe, he was concerned that ex-Nazis in their ranks might warn Eichmann, who had been living in Buenos Aires under the name Ricardo Klement. Eichmann had escaped from an Allied internment camp after the war and lived undercover in Germany until his escape to Argentina in 1950, while dozens of other Nazi high officials stood trial at Nuremberg. He told a fellow SS man in the 1950s that he regretted not having wiped out the entire Jewish people. "If 10.3 million of these opponents had been killed, we would have fulfilled our task," he said in a taped conversation that was offered to media after his arrest.
"If the CIA released its files, why can't the BND?" Remo Klinger, a lawyer representing Ms Weber, said. "We don't think the BND's reasons for keeping the documents classified are particularly plausible. "We think the release may embarrass the BND because it would show how much they knew when. After all this time, the public has a right to know." Uki Goni, an Argentine journalist who has researched the Nazi community in Argentina after the war, said Eichmann lived very openly in Buenos Aires.
He lived in a modest apartment with his family and worked for various companies, including as a foreman at Daimler-Benz. Mossad agents had him under surveillance for months before they seized him on May 11, 1960, as he was returning home from work. He was secretly flown out of the country without the knowledge of the Argentine authorities. The announcement of his arrest and subsequent trial on charges of crimes against humanity and against the Jewish people were an international sensation.
"The fact that the BND has been unwilling to open these documents suggests that there is something there," Goni said. "It could show there was collusion between fugitive Nazis in Argentina and the BND, or at least that the BND knew where they were and what aliases they lived under, and did nothing." Researchers say the BND's insistence on keeping the files under wraps is out of keeping with a new determination by German prosecutors to bring the last surviving Nazi war criminals to justice. The trial underway in Munich of John Demjanjuk on charges of helping to murder 27,900 Jews as a death camp guard is part of that trend.
"I am shocked that in the year 2010 you still have to go to court to get the BND to open its Nazi-related files," Goni said. "Whatever the BND or Germany did or didn't do about the Nazis in the 1950s or 60s cannot be embarrassing to Germany today because it doesn't reflect on modern Germany. The only thing that reflects on Germany today is the fact that they haven't opened the files, and that's embarrassing."