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“The air became cleaner”
ON MAY 6, 1945, two middle-ranking SS officers stood on a small road bridge in the Austrian Alpine resort of Altaussee. Below them raced a clear mountain stream, and above loomed the giant pale-gray limestone of the Loser plateau. Nearby stood several wooden houses and cottages, whose gemütlich interiors are designed for late-night schnapps in front of fires after exhausting mountain hikes or invigorating swims in the therapeutic waters of the lake. However, neither man would have had his mind on such pleasant activities. Instead, they were discussing their options now that the American tanks were just a few miles away. As SS officers, neither relished the prospect of Allied captivity, yet both had different ideas of their next moves.
The younger man, an SS-Sturmbannführer—the equivalent of a major in the German army—intended to stay. A member of the Nazi party since he was sixteen, the thirty-year-old Dr. Wilhelm Höttl had spent his war working for the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, the SS intelligence service, and had served in Vienna, Berlin, and Budapest. Although his career was meteoric, he was not without his detractors. One of his superiors had described him as “the typical troublesome Viennese—a liar, a toady, a schemer, and a pronounced operator.”1 Such qualities are arguably useful for intelligence work, and it was these that Höttl intended to draw on. With his experience of waging a secret war against communist cells, he reckoned that he might be of use to the Americans, and instead of treating him as a war criminal, they might even regard him as an asset.
Höttl’s hopes were far from vain. Since February, he had been in contact with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA, in an attempt to broker a separate peace deal for his native Austria. The putative deal was codenamed “Herzog” and was the formulation of Höttl’s boss, SS-Obergruppenführer (General) Ernst Kaltenbrunner, himself an Austrian and the head of the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA).2 Höttl had made several trips to Switzerland to talk to representatives of Allen Dulles, the OSS station chief in Berne, and he was keen to ingratiate himself with the Americans, offering them information about Axis military preparations for a desperate last stand in the so-called “Alpine Redoubt,” as well as about gold shipments that were to be buried deep in the Austrian mountains.3 Unfortunately for Höttl, events overtook him, and before he could arrange a meeting between Dulles and Kaltenbrunner, an “independent” Austria was declared in Russian-occupied Vienna on April 27. Höttl made a final attempt to reach Switzerland at the beginning of May, but with French troops on the Austro-Swiss border, he was forced to stop when he had reached Liechtenstein and returned to seek refuge in Altaussee.4 Unbeknown to him, the Americans were indeed making plans for his exploitation. On April 21, Dulles reported that “Höttl’s record as [an] SD man and collaborator [of] Kaltenbrunner is of course bad, but I believe he desires to save his skin and therefore may be useful.”5 Another OSS officer agreed, although he advised caution: “To avoid any accusation that we are working with a Nazi reactionary,” reported Edgeworth Murray Leslie to Dulles, “I believe that we should keep our contact with him as indirect as possible.”6
The other man standing on the bridge that day did not share Höttl’s fluid sense of loyalty to the Nazi regime. Nine years older and one rank senior, the SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) was far from interested in peace deals and was convinced that the fight was still worth waging. He told Höttl that his intention was to hide in the mountains with a group of trustworthy young SS men, where he felt his Alpine skills would enable him to survive for years.7 Höttl would have had no doubt that his superior was sincere, as he had witnessed the depth of his commitment to the evils of Nazism. In fact, the two men had worked together in Hungary after the Germans had occupied that country the previous March. Höttl’s job was to run SD counter-espionage operations8 while his fellow Austrian’s brief was to implement the role of the bland-sounding Referat IV B 4 of the RSHA in the newly occupied territory. The Obersturmbannführer was to do his job well and with much zeal, because by June 1944, he had managed to deport some four hundred thousand Jews to be gassed at Birkenau.9 The older man’s name was Adolf Eichmann.
As the two men stood on the bridge, Höttl may have reflected on a meeting the two men had had in Budapest one morning in late August 1944. Höttl had been relaxing in his apartment when Eichmann had entered in a markedly nervous state because of the recent coup in Romania against the pro-Axis leader Ion Antonescu. With the country about to join the Allies, Eichmann was worried that nothing could now stop a Russian advance into Hungary and Austria. “Eichmann then swallowed several glasses of brandy,” Höttl was to recall, “one after the other [. . .] I set a bottle of arak down with a glass, so he could help himself.”10
Eichmann, who Höttl noticed was unusually wearing battledress, found little solace in the brandy. Towards the end of the conversation, he stood to say farewell to Höttl and added, “We shall probably never see each other again.” When his subordinate asked him why, Eichmann told him that the Allies knew he was responsible for the deportation of so many Jews, and that they considered him a “top war criminal.” Höttl then decided to question him as to the extent of the extermination program. Höttl said:
To my surprise, Eichmann responded to that [. . .] He said that the number of murdered Jews was a very great Reich secret . . . Eichmann told me that, according to his information, some six million Jews had perished until then; four million in extermination camps and the remaining two million through shooting by the Operations Units and other causes such as disease.
Eichmann then indicated that Himmler thought the figure had to be higher, but he was convinced that the total of six million was correct.11 Although Eichmann was steady on his feet, Höttl cautioned his superior against driving with a bellyful of alcohol. The warning was doubtless ignored, as by many accounts Eichmann was no stranger to the brandy bottle.12
Now, just over eight months later, Eichmann appeared to be in a somewhat more redoubtable mood. He told Höttl that he intended to resist, but after many years of stress and spirits, he hardly looked the figure of some mighty Nazi recrudescence. Just 51⁄2 feet tall, the balding Eichmann was also very slight; his face was bony and his cheeks sunken. His face was afflicted by a nervous twitch, and he had an unpleasant and exaggerated laugh. Since he was constantly under the influence of alcohol, much of his courage was probably of the Dutch variety.13 It was just as well that he was going into the mountains, because his fellow Nazis wanted to have little to do with him. Eichmann’s boss, Kaltenbrunner, was also holed up in Altaussee and he saw his subordinate’s presence as baleful.
“Eichmann burst in on us like a Typhoid Mary,” Höttl recalled, “the personification of all the crimes that were now haunting Kaltenbrunner and his cohorts, the apocalyptic memento of their own sins.” According to Höttl, Kaltenbrunner told Eichmann “to get the hell out of Altaussee, as fast as he could.”14
However, before he left, Eichmann had some personal business to attend to—he had to say goodbye to his family, who were renting his uncle’s chalet a few hundred yards down the road at Fischerndorf 8.15 Eichmann later recalled how in turn he took his wife Vera and three sons into his arms. “I clung to them with a fervor that is only possible in such circumstances,” he would write. “The smallest was only three years old. Just three—and I was seeing him for the last time. I knew that the finest gift a German father can bequeath his son is the gift of discipline. And so I beat him.”16 Dressed in his camouflage uniform and carrying a submachine gun, Eichmann took the young Dieter between his knees and repeatedly struck him with his hand “in a calm and considered manner.” The reason behind this brutal farewell was to impress upon the boy that he should not go near the edge of the lake, into which he had recently fallen. “How he howled as my hand rose and fell! But, as it happened, he never fell into the water.”17 Before he left, the man who had been responsible for the deaths of so many now presented his wife with the means of destroying herself and the children. He handed her four poison capsules and said: “If the Russians come, you must bite them; if the Americans or the British come, then you needn’t.”18 He kept a capsule for himself, too, although, according to Höttl, the fanatical Eichmann was more likely to try to shoot it out if he were cornered.19
The Obersturmbannführer now headed into the hills to join his team of “trustworthy” SS men, who were ready for him at the Blaa-Alm, an inn-cum-hunting lodge hiding in a secluded valley 3 miles north of Altaussee.20 However, with the American army now so close, Eichmann decided to prune his cadre and paid off most of his men. With a small group of officers, he then made his way 2 miles northwest to the hamlet of Rettenbach-Alm. Although the party had now descended some 1,000 feet, their new spot was far more secluded.21 It was at this point that the party realized that no matter how deeply it penetrated into the Alps, it would be far safer if it divested itself of its most toxic constituent: Eichmann himself.
From the Hardcover edition.