Netflix’s Operation Finale tells the story about the capture, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, the “Architect of the Holocaust”, and raised one question after another. Why did Hitler hate the Jews so much? He did not invent anti-Semitism. It was already well-entrenched when he was born, he just assimilated it. After he came to power, he put his anti-Semitic plans into play and one of the major players in the operation was Adolf Eichmann.
At the end of World War II, many high-ranking Nazi officials, including Hitler, committed suicide to avoid capture. Those captured were tried in Nuremberg for war crimes. Eichmann avoided capture and relocated frequently hiding out in monasteries. In 1950, armed with a forged ID and fake Red Cross passport, he arrived in Argentina which, under Peron, had become a haven for Nazi war criminals. Eichmann settled in the country as “Ricardo Klement”. His family joined him two years later.
Operation Finale is a story about how Eichmann’s identity was discovered and how a team of Mossad agents captured him and flew him back to Israel to undergo trial.
Buenos Aires, 1960. A German boy named Klaus Eichmann meets and starts dating a girl named Sylvia. He gets invited to dinner and he regales his girlfriend’s blind father with stories about his SS father who, he claims, had died. His family lives in Buenos Aires with Ricardo Klement, an uncle.
It turns out Sylvia’s blind father, Lothar Hermann, is Jewish and had escaped the Dachau concentration camp. He emigrated to Argentina in 1938 and raised Sylvia a Catholic to escape persecution. He alerted authorities who brought up the matter with Israeli intelligence which, at best, is skeptical.
In Argentina, with a Mossad agent and an embassy man nearby, Sylvia knocks on the front door of the Eichmann residence. Her mission: To assure the identity of Ricardo Klement. Klaus, arriving unexpectedly, addresses Ricardo as “Father” in Sylvia’s presence. From a distance, the Mossad agent attempts to surreptitiously take a photo of Eichmann when he steps out on the porch.
Back in Israel, authorities are convinced that they have proof that Klement is Eichmann and proceeds to organize a team with the mission of kidnapping Eichmann and bringing him back to Israel to stand trial.
(Note: Historically, events didn’t happen in that order. Sylvia and Klaus met years earlier. The Hermann family had moved to another part of Argentina when, in 1957, a newspaper report mentioning Adolf Eichmann led Lothar Hermann to make a connection between the war criminal and the boy that his daughter once dated. He alerted German authorities who relayed the information to Israeli authorities but no serious action was taken. It was Lothar who accompanied his daughter to Buenos Aires to locate Eichmann’s house after which she knocked on the door and asked the old man who opened it if he was Herr Eichmann. Only after the address was confirmed and German authorities alerted Israel once more that Eichmann was living in Argentina did things start moving in earnest.)
The Mossad team arrive in Argentina, observes Eichmann’s routine for days and, one night while returning home from work, Eichmann is captured and brought to a safe house where, while waiting out a 10-day flight delay, agent Peter Malkin works on getting him to sign a document stating that he is voluntarily traveling to Israel to face trial.
How the Mossad agents manage to kidnap Eichmann, make him sign the document and physically move him from the safe house to the airport… well, it’s the stuff that spy movies are made of. But a top-caliber spy story, Operation Finale is not. The suspense often falters which is due, in part, to too many secondary characters whom the director saw fit to give more screen time than was necessary.
But what Operation Finale lacks in action and suspense, it more than makes up for in the lengthy conversations between Eichmann and Peter Malkin. Malkin, who had lost family members in the Holocaust, had his own ax to grind and devils to fight. Over cigarettes, wine and friendly banter, Malkin unmasks the prisoner who transforms from Klement to Eichmann himself but still insisting that he was merely a soldier following orders and not a policy maker as he was being made out to be. He points out too that punishing him is not the same as punishing the entire Nazi machine for the things it did during the war.
Operation Finale ends the way Eichmann’s real story ended. He was convicted and sentenced to death. In 1962, he was executed by hanging.
But while Eichmann’s life may have ended decades ago, I am still left with questions about the Holocaust. I know it happened. I know, from history books, that Hitler ordered the massacre of millions of Jews. But it still isn’t clear to me why he had so much hatred for the Jews. Even that may be secondary. Hitler would not have been able to pull off the massacre of Jews on that scale if the hatred for these people were not shared by many others who, like Eichmann, may not have been big and brave enough to make the orders but are willing enough to oversee their operation.
I’ve spent half the night reading about anti-Semitism. It’s not something borne of modern times. Although the term “anti-Semitism” was coined by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879, the sentiment goes back to as early as the fourth century BCE.
From there, much can be traced to early Judeo-Christian conflict. For example, that the Jews killed Jesus. But, over the centuries, the antipathy towards Jews had been cultural, economic, ethnic, racial, social, religious and ideological.
When Adolf Hitler was born, anti-Semitism was already strong. Not only in Europe but in other parts of the world. He merely used the hatred of Jews as a rallying point for his ascent to power. And there were many, like Adolf Eichmann, who believed as he did and were willing to take part in the extermination of Jews.
One would think that after Hitler and the Holocaust, the world would be a little more enlightened today. Yet, it seems that anti-Semitism is on the rise once more.