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An Ordinary Evil

Kevin Stevens

Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death, by David G Marwell, WW Norton, 496 pp, $32, ISBN: 978-0393609530

The Holocaust can make irony seem beside the point. The scale and depth of its horror, so overwhelming, so resistant to reason, can undermine its reality, so that history is too easily usurped by allegory or, worse, spectacle. The gap between appearance and reality, irony’s essential underpinning, dissolves when the real is replaced by the monstrous. The most significant event of the twentieth century – which changed our perception of all that came before and altered the course of all that followed – is significant precisely because this “revolving turntable of death”, as Wolfgang Sofsky has called the Nazi killing machine, was systematically conceived, implemented, and sustained by ordinary men and women.

From the beginning, the Nazis understood the importance, for their purposes, of rejecting humanism. An ideology that elevated supposedly typical Germanic physical characteristics to a mystical ideal while dehumanising Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and other “inferior” peoples could only take hold of a nation if propped up by false science and the perversion of rational modes of inquiry. Propaganda and pageantry (no friends of irony either) provided the public wrapping for this dark vision, with the result that the structures of the German state – not just the government and the military, but business and industry, bureaucracy, religion, scientific and educational institutions, and the arts – could all be bent toward goals that were relentlessly and unambiguously evil.

History is badly served when this evil is assessed in terms that are less than rational and less than humane. It is our responsibility not to dehumanise even the worst of the Nazi mass murderers. As Christopher Browning has put it, writing the history of Holocaust perpetrators “requires the rejection of demonization”. It also demands empathy for those who killed and denial of “the old clichés that to explain is to excuse, to understand is to forgive”. Empathy enables irony. And irony helps us know.

Historians of the Holocaust disagree on many fundamental issues, such as the role of antisemitism in German history or the motivation of “ordinary” German citizens who became mass killers, but there is broad agreement that the perpetrators, as Raul Hilberg argued sixty years ago in The Destruction of the European Jews, “were not different in their moral makeup from the rest of the population. The German perpetrator was not a special kind of German.” Following Hilberg, the most convincing Holocaust scholarship has been based on this moral observation and on factual accuracy and the careful presentation of provable actions and their consequences.

That many of those actions seem beyond the capability of anyone like ourselves, and yet were demonstrably so, is itself a massive irony. As Martin Amis has written, the Nazi offence combined the atavistic and the modern: “The National Socialists found the core of the reptile brain, and built an autobahn that went there.” The worst of the Holocaust crimes – from Reinhard Heydrich’s formation of the Einsatzgruppen, the SS death squads that followed the German army into Eastern Europe and rounded up and killed Jews via firing squad and gas vans; to Adolf Eichmann’s statistical analysis and deportation planning for the total elimination of Europe’s Jews; to the perversion of scientific method and the use of torture by Josef Mengele and other concentration camp doctors in what they claimed was the pursuit of knowledge – were consistent with the general aims of German social and political culture, as shaped by the Nazi party: legal and defensible within the closed system of its ideology, yet obviously criminal; and ordinary – that is to say, human.

The tendency to demonise is amply evident in the matter of Josef Mengele. Auschwitz’s notorious “Angel of Death” was, as the moniker implies, enveloped in myth. Like almost all German doctors in Auschwitz, Mengele was responsible for “selections”: inspecting arriving Jews and deeming who was fit for slave labour and who was to be sent directly to the gas chambers. However, unlike other doctors, most of whom found the task at best unpleasant, Mengele appeared to enjoy the process, smiling or whistling on the arrival ramp while he made his instant, murderous decisions with a movement of his thumb. What’s more, he often sought out ramp duty when he wasn’t scheduled for it and also made selections in surprise visits to the camp hospitals and to barracks where there had been outbreaks of disease.

Mengele relished ramp duty partly because it enabled him to keep an eye out for subjects for his equally infamous research. In 1943, it is likely that he requested transfer to Auschwitz from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology in Berlin, seeing the move as an opportunity to do anthropological and genetic study under conditions that no ethical or peacetime situation would allow. He created his own research institute in the camp, using inmates for human experimentation; collecting specimens, including heads, eyes, and other body parts, for shipment to the SS Medical Academy and elsewhere; and doing specialist studies of identical twins, people with eyes of two different colours, dwarves, and the physically abnormal. Though Mengele’s experiments were, partly, in pursuit of academic advancement, they aligned closely with Nazi medical ideology and were also intended to strengthen the premise that the “Aryan race” was superior, and to aid its goal of being able to identify its members scientifically.

Auschwitz prisoners who survived the initial selections were understandably terrified of the Nazi doctors, and of Mengele in particular. (“We feared [his] visits more than anything else because ... we never knew whether we would be permitted to live ... He was free to do whatever he pleased with us.”) Rumours and firsthand knowledge of his surgeries and experiments contributed to the mythicising, but so too did his appearance and demeanour. He was handsome, fastidious, carefully groomed, and calm. He wore white gloves and a monocle and carried a leather riding crop. Starkly memorable physically, rabid in his hatred of Jews, cold-blooded in directing children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the infirm to immediate death while preserving the lives of those he wanted to torture and kill in the name of science, he must indeed have appeared truly monstrous.

Yet he was an ordinary man. In October 1944, in the midst of these horrors, he took a week’s leave from Auschwitz to visit his parents, his wife, and his newborn son, Rolf. Years later, Mengele would write of this visit:

I remember so well how several times a day … I would rush – probably unnecessarily – the six-month-old Rolf to the basement because of air-raid warnings. I can still feel deeply – even today – that sense of worry and responsibility for the child.

David Marwell’s Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death offers us this telling detail and many others that give ironic shape to the nature of Mengele’s life and crimes. Squarely within the historiographical tradition of Hilberg and later scholars such as Robert Jay Lifton, Carol Rittner, Timothy Snyder, and others, Marwell is uniquely qualified to bring new perspective to a subject too often misunderstood. His book is a carefully researched, dispassionate account of Mengele’s life and, more importantly for scholarship, the short period between his death in Brazil in 1979 and the conclusion of the international investigations that proved that bones exhumed from his grave were indeed his.

Those investigations in the 1980s, conducted at perhaps the height of Mengele’s demonisation, were the culmination of decades of mystery, hearsay, intrigue, and growing anger at the knowledge that Mengele had been living underground – and for a time quite openly – in South America until his death. After evading capture after the war (he had been interned for a short period by the Americans and released), Mengele had lived, disguised, in Germany for four years before, with the help of family, friends, and Nazi sympathizers, fleeing to Argentina via Italy in 1949. For another thirty years, he lived in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil under various aliases, surrounded by rumour, pursued by Mossad (the Israeli national intelligence agency), and confident enough of his safety to maintain close contact with his family and to go so far as to obtain a West German passport and travel to Switzerland and Germany in 1956.

The inability of Israeli and German authorities to capture or extradite Mengele stoked the myth. The growing testimony of survivors (not all of it accurate) fed his gradual personification of Nazism to the point where, as Marwell puts it, he “became a well-known character in popular culture and stalked the nightmares and haunted the daydreams of legions.” He emerged as the embodiment “not only of the Holocaust itself but also of the failure of justice in the wake of the war”. Such was the intensity of feeling that many survivor groups refused to accept that he was dead, even after the conclusive examination of his bones.

Mengele is part biography, part thriller, part detective story. But it is all history, thoroughly investigated and meticulously documented. It tells the story of Mengele’s childhood and career up to the war; his years in Auschwitz; his escape and avoidance of his pursuers; and finally his death and how it was revealed to the world. And Marwell didn’t just record this history, he was part of it. As chief of investigative research for the US Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) in the 1980s, he was responsible for conducting historical and forensic research in support of the department’s investigation of Nazi war criminals, including Klaus Barbie. His work on the Mengele case included interviewing Mengele’s victims, visiting the scenes of his crimes and working closely with the German, Israeli, and American teams separately tasked with locating Mengele and bringing him to justice. He was present when Mengele’s bones were unearthed and tested for authenticity in 1985. He was there when the case was closed.

Marwell’s skills as a historian, combined with his real-life involvement, have enabled him to create a sound and thorough study without a trace of academic dryness. His sense of irony about Nazism, Mengele, and his own relationship to his subject as a scholar is measured and complex. As we all do, Marwell has had to deal with the Mengele myth, filtered through pop culture, testimony accurate and inaccurate, and serious history. But his engagement as a historian with primary sources that few have been allowed to see has given a special depth to his confrontation with the Mengele phenomenon. In a chilling passage early in the book, he describes a discovery he made while conducting research in the early ’80s, before his assignment to the Mengele investigation, at the International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany:

I came across a form signed by “Dr. Mengele” requesting that histological sections be made from an accompanying medical specimen, which had been sent to the SS medical laboratory on June 29, 1944 … It indicated that the “specimen” being sent to the laboratory was the head of a twelve-year-old boy. At that time, I was unaware of any conceivable reason why such a specimen would be of interest to Josef Mengele, and this document only reinforced my notion of him as a wildly sadistic, grotesque monster.

That notion was typical. The demonisation of Mengele was fed after the war not just by the nature of his crimes but by the breadth of survivor testimony. Unlike the other death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, which few prisoners survived, Auschwitz, the largest of the camps, had many thousands who lived on to bear witness to the horrors of a labour and extermination complex in which over a million people, the vast majority of them Jews, were murdered, either by being gassed or worked to death. Mengele’s crimes and mystique led to what survivor Hermann Langbein has called the “Mengele Effect”, a form of “memory displacement” whereby survivors imputed the crimes of other physicians to Mengele, “about whom they had read so many bad things”. He could also be idealised by survivors as a “handsome Siegfried”, and other Auschwitz doctors – even those who refused to participate in selections and criminal experiments – spoke of him after the war as a paragon of science and medicine.

Marwell acknowledges and details what Mengele did and didn’t do, correcting the record where necessary without softening the cruelty, hypocrisy, and self-deceit that enabled a “prize student” and decorated soldier to torture children and practise mass murder with apparent heedlessness. He paints a convincing picture of Mengele as the product of a conventional, conservative Bavarian home, his mother a devout Catholic, his father a successful businessman and member of the city council, and chronicles his diligent and enthusiastic academic career. Mengele studied medicine, genetics, and anthropology at universities in Munich, Bonn, Vienna, Leipzig, and Frankfurt, earning two doctorates and publishing his second dissertation, on the genetic pathology of the cleft lip and palate, in a respected German medical journal in 1939.

The eugenic implications of Mengele’s academic work were significant. Enforcement of the Nazi Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, passed in 1933, and the Marital Health Law, passed in 1935, was buttressed by the work of Mengele and others and resulted in the forced sterilisations of hundreds of thousands of Germans in the 1930s, as well as the prohibition of marriage between “healthy” individuals and those who had been sterilised. These were the first of a series of German laws that grew progressively more extreme, legalising not just unwanted medical interventions but also mass killing of the disabled and the incurably ill. Along with the Nuremberg Laws, eugenics-inspired legislation set the stage for the Final Solution.

Mengele, who joined the Nazi party and the SS in 1938, grew committed to the National Socialist political vision; among other things, Nazism, as Rudolph Hess defined it, was “applied biology”, and the notorious euthanasiast Franz Hamburger wrote medical textbooks directing aspiring Nazi physicians to concern themselves primarily with the health of the Volkskörper, the body of the people, “in which the single person like the cell of the human organism is just a building block, just a cell of the people as a whole”.

As Robert Jay Lifton has brilliantly explained, Nazi doctors played a central role in the genocide that was based on this biological vision, which justified mass murder “as a means of national and racial healing”. The transformation of doctors from healers to killers (all camp selections were made by doctors), and the definition of certain societal groups – from the disabled to specific ethnic groups – as cancers in the Volkskörper that must be extirpated, were crucial steps in the genocidal process. What Lifton calls “medicalized killing” provided ordinary people with the motivational principles and psychological mechanisms to participate in the Final Solution and even to see murder “as a therapeutic imperative”. Mengele’s entire academic career can be seen in this light as preparation for his “serendipitous transfer” to Auschwitz.

Marwell’s chapters on Auschwitz spare the reader none of its horror, both in general and in their cataloguing of Mengele’s experiments and his collection of data and specimens throughout 1943 and 1944 for Germany’s leading scientific institutions. Yet he concludes this catalogue with the observation that

the notion of Mengele as unhinged, driven by demons, and indulging grotesque and sadistic impulses, should be replaced by something perhaps more unsettling ... The science he pursued in Auschwitz, to the extent that we can reconstruct it, was not anomalous but rather was consistent with research carried on by others in what was considered to be the scientific establishment ... It is easier to dismiss an individual monster than to recognize the monstrous[ness] that can emerge from otherwise respected and enshrined institutions.

Demythologising Mengele and the environment in which he worked helps us understand the particular form of evil practised by the Nazis and recognise how ordinary people and respected establishments willingly and enthusiastically participated in it. Marwell also examines Mengele’s private life, unveiling the same irony: we see the man who buys a crib for his son, who reads Balzac to his ill wife, who is smiling and relaxed with coworkers in camp photographs.  

Marwell’s alertness to irony is indeed central to his book’s impact, and he is skilled at restraining commentary when the simple pronouncements of his subjects, by virtue of their language and context, shock us with their blindness to reality. Here, for example, is Mengele’s first wife, Irene, writing to researchers who were preparing a book about her husband:

I knew Josef Mengele as an absolutely honorable, decent, conscientious, very charming, elegant and amusing person. Otherwise I probably would not have married him. I grew up in a good, prosperous house, and did not lack for marriage possibilities.

She wrote those words in 1984.

And here is Mengele himself, writing in 1977, two years before his death, as he recalled a summer solstice celebration of the Greater German Youth League, which he had organised fifty years earlier:

We were proud of our big solstice fire, which blazed into the heavens on the ridge opposite the hometown, announcing that a small group of boys and girls today celebrated the solstice with fervent thoughts and desires in their hearts, to awaken and arouse the people of their homeland to the holy struggle of liberation from the shackles of the nefarious Versailles Treaty. The flames should liberate us and … illuminate our way, they should warm us with the love of our great people and of its high culture and they should incinerate all discord among us Germans.

Marwell knows that Mengele’s choice of language more than thirty years after the war, especially the word “incinerate”, which burns on the page as Nazi crimes still burn in history, tells us everything we need to know about this war criminal’s lack of contrition. This passage comes from an autobiographical novel that Mengele wrote late in life, a kind of autofiction in which he changed the names of people and places from history as he strove to clarify the “inner connections, causes, and processes” of his past by displacing “an individual fate onto entire groups” (the words are Mengele’s, from a letter to his son). Marwell had access to this retrospective diary as well as to Mengele’s correspondence and other writings, and much of Mengele’s power comes from Marwell’s decoding of what Mengele had encoded and the revelation of the deep irony of his remorselessness at a time when Holocaust survivor testimony was finally emerging coherently after a long period of silence.

When Marwell’s narrative shifts from the war to Mengele’s escape and flight to Argentina, and to the long and unsuccessful pursuit of him over the decades, his book assumes the pace and suspense of a thriller. He describes the audacity of Mengele’s return to Germany in 1956, his divorce from Irene and his marriage to his brother’s widow (the better to protect his family’s legacy), and the support of his relatives and friends while he was on the run (his family was in the machine tool business, and Mengele was a reseller of its planing and milling machines to Argentine builders and sawmills). Marwell also chronicles the series of coincidences in Germany in the late ’50s that led to the rumours of his escape to South America being confirmed, and he tells the story of the Mossad’s near capture of Mengele in 1962, when agents had him in their sights but did not make a move because they lacked certainty that it was him.

Pressured by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and others, German authorities had issued a warrant for Mengele’s arrest as early as 1959, but by the time Argentina approved extradition, Mengele had fled to Paraguay and gone underground again. The story of the failure of German and Israeli authorities to bring him to justice throughout the ’60s and ’70s is a complicated one, and Marwell does a good job of explaining the obstacles faced by investigators, including the network of Nazi sympathisers in South America, the challenge of anti-extradition laws, false sightings and conflicting testimony, and even the irony of how difficult it was under German law to monitor Mengele’s family:

German investigators had to operate under the constraints of a legal system that offered important protection to family members of an accused person, as well as significant safeguards for personal privacy. Designed to prevent the egregious violations of individual rights and privacy that had characterised the Nazi regime, these protections imposed meaningful hurdles for carrying out intercepts of telephone and postal communication.

Mossad’s capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 – and Eichmann’s confirmation that he had met Mengele three times during the 1950s – added to the general frustration of failing to apprehend Mengele. But the Israelis’ searches were hampered by political and legal constraints. Eichmann’s abduction unleashed a wave of antisemitic violence in Argentina, and the Argentine government requested an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council, claiming that his capture was a violation of its sovereign rights. It is easy to underestimate the difficulties that Mossad and other Nazi hunters faced in South America at the time.

In February 1979, Mengele suffered a stroke and drowned while swimming off a São Paulo beach. He was buried under the name “Wolfgang Gerhard”, which had been his alias since 1971, and his body lay in his grave untouched for six years. His end unknown, he became a hot topic in the US in the mid-’80s, when the persistence of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and New York senator Alfonse D’Amato led to the US Justice Department opening the OSI investigation that Marwell was part of. The last, and longest, section of Mengele is a detailed account of the combined efforts of US, German, and Israeli teams during this short period to sift the evidence of multiple sightings, conduct interviews with a variety of reliable and unreliable witnesses and to exhume and forensically examine Mengele’s bones when his grave was discovered.

This part of the book is less dramatic than the account of Mengele’s life, but it adds new and important detail to Holocaust documentation. Marwell thoroughly describes and assesses the hothouse media atmosphere of the international investigation, the bureaucratic infighting among the national teams and the Brazilian police over the exhumation and forensic examination, and the science behind the conclusion soon after the exhumation, with “reasonable certainty”, that the bones were Mengele’s.

Even then, however, doubts persisted, and the Israeli government and survivor groups were reluctant to admit that the man who had done so much evil and whom they had pursued for so long was actually dead and would not be brought to justice. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, published in 1986, accounted for the difficulty of survivors accepting Mengele’s death in this way:

That resolution was psychologically unsatisfactory, especially for Auschwitz survivors. The need was to capture him and put him on trial, to hear his confession, to put him at their mercy. Failing that, many survivors refused to believe that the remains in the Brazilian grave were Mengele’s. Soon after that identification, a twin whom Mengele had studied told me that she simply did not believe that the arrogant, overbearing figure she had known in Auschwitz could have undergone a “change in personality” and become the frightened hermit in Brazil. She was saying, in effect, that she and others had not been provided with a psychological experience of that “metamorphosis” from evil deity to evil human being.

But Mengele was never a deity of course and the all-too-human bones were his, as subsequent DNA testing and other investigations over the next seven years (including important documentation discoveries by Marwell himself) confirmed. Maddeningly, painfully for survivors, the Angel of Death escaped justice.

And so the case was closed. But not Marwell’s book. He ends with an epilogue that leaves us with a powerful sense of what Mengele was like in the final years before his death. The epilogue focuses on a meeting between him and his son Rolf, who travelled to Brazil in 1977 and spent several days with his father. Though he chose never to reveal Mengele’s whereabouts while he was still alive, Rolf had political views that were “diametrically opposed” to Mengele’s, and he had come to be horrified by the wartime actions of his father, whom he had met only once before, during Mengele’s European visit in 1956 (when Rolf was told that Mengele was his uncle). A few days into their reunion, Rolf confronted his father about his crimes, only to hear angry rationalisation and denial in response.

Referencing Mengele’s autofiction, interviews with Rolf, and letters between father and son before and after that visit, Marwell paints a picture of a bitter, unrepentant man who refused to accept or admit that what he, or the Nazis in general, had done was anything other than “to carry out orders”. Mengele dismissed his son’s challenges as coming from someone “pigheaded and spoiled by the postwar propaganda”. Among the last written words of Mengele’s life were these, from a letter to Rolf:

Inherited qualities, as well as education and environmental influences, force you to view the content of my life incorrectly … If, on the one hand, I cannot hope for understanding and empathy from you, on the other hand, I am not moved in the slightest to “justify” or even excuse decisions, actions, or behavior in my life beyond the objective explanation. I have already expressed this to you and others in other unmistakable words.

The monstrous gap between his crimes and how he chose to interpret them persisted to the end.

January 27th, 2020, marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In December, German chancellor Angela Merkel visited the camp for the first time in office. In the context of rising antisemitism in Germany and elsewhere, Merkel said that the responsibility to remember Nazi war crimes is part of Germany’s “national identity”. Yet throughout the world, the Holocaust is being forgotten or ignored. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, two-thirds of American millennials cannot identify what Auschwitz is, and 22 per cent say they haven’t heard of the Holocaust. The spectacle that is Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is ubiquitous in global culture.

We need the scholarship of David Marwell and others now more than ever. They do more than add to the historical record, as important as that is; they also keep the Nazi offence squarely in our collective consciousness, direct us to differentiate between reality and fantasy and continue to remind us of the central irony of our humanity – that we live in a world not of sorcerers and dragons but of men and women who love their children, are loyal to their friends, and are capable of unimaginable evil.

1/1/2020

Kevin Stevens is a novelist, critic, and editorial director of Imagine Books, the adult imprint of Charlesbridge Publishing in Boston. Visit him at kevin.stevens.net.

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