Mengele was a monster – and a product of his time

Josef Mengele

By David G Marwell
Norton, 420pp, £20/$32

Josef Mengele, the doctor-scientist of Auschwitz, reared in a conservative, Catholic, conventional family, was “perhaps”, the Italian author Claudio Magris wrote, “the most atrocious murderer in all the death camps”. With a ready smile he performed horrible experiments on children, pursuing his research on twins with “a particular relish for gypsy twins”. He would gouge out eyes, inject prisoners with viruses and burn their genitals. Merely to read about his work is disgusting and horrifying. Nobody more than Mengele seems to confirm the truth of George Steiner’s assertion that the Nazis created the hell on earth which for centuries Europeans had imagined and poets and painters had depicted.

Magris devoted three pages to Mengele in his excellent book Danube. But what he writes about the “Angel of Death” isn’t always accurate. That is made clear in this absorbing new book by David G Marwell, who worked on the Mengele case at the US Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s, proving among other things that Mengele had died in 1979.

Yet Magris’s mistakes, chief among them his belief that Mengele was sheltered for three years in a monastery – rather than working incognito as a farmhand in a hamlet in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps – are not that important. What matters and disturbs is his observation that “when he was in hiding he did not gouge out eyes or disembowel people, and I do not imagine that he suffered from withdrawal symptoms. He will have behaved well … He did not kill because he couldn’t … and he resigned himself to this sacrifice without making a fuss.” Conversely of course, he had tortured, mutilated and murdered at Auschwitz because he could, because it was expected of him, and because he found pleasure and satisfaction in doing so.

When he eventually made his escape to South America, first to Argentina, then to Paraguay, he re-established himself as a modestly successful businessman. He didn’t torture or kill anyone there either. For the most part he kept his head down and led what appeared to be a normal, rather dull life.

I find this disconnection between his past and present, and his ability to live as if everything he had done in Auschwitz had been a matter of duty, fascinating. Thirty years ago I attempted to understand such disconnection in a novel entitled The Sins of the Father. That told the story of a Nazi criminal snatched by Mossad in Argentina and transported to Israel for trial. The novel was concerned with the effect on the next generation, but I also attempted, certainly not altogether to my satisfaction, to try to understand how a man could put his criminal past behind him as something no longer of any importance.

My Nazi was an engineer, Mengele a scientist, and it seems that he continued to believe that his scientific work was valuable, its value justifying whatever he did. Of course the “race science” he pursued is now thoroughly discredited. Things were different in Mengele’s youth. The science (or pseudo-science) of eugenics, with which Mengele’s research on twins was concerned, had a respectable following in England and the United States.

Marwell notes that Mengele’s mentor, Otmar von Verschuer, gave a lecture to the Royal Society in London in June 1939 in which he paid tribute to Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin) as “the founder of our science”. If the Nazis made the “science” of eugenics the subject of practical experiment, they were translating into action ideas which had been held by high-minded men and women seeking means of improving the national stock and preventing the “unfit” from breeding.

Late in life Mengele made contact with his son, Rolf, whom he hadn’t seen since the boy was a baby. They exchanged letters in which Mengele explained himself with no hint of apology, and eventually Rolf visited him in Paraguay. Differences between them were apparent. In a last letter, after Rolf had returned to Germany, Mengele wrote: “On the basis of my worldview and my specific profession I attach, more than most, of course, special meaning to the terms offspring, inheritance, son. On the other hand, I understand, as well, the power of environment.”

It was quite a long letter, but the meaning was clear. If Rolf didn’t think as he did, it was because Rolf had been led “to view the content of my life incorrectly, if not intentionally negatively”.

“Mengele’s world view,” Marwell concludes, “was little changed from that summer day in 1944 when he had stalked the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” In 1984, Mengele’s divorced wife Irene wrote to researchers working on a book about her first husband: “I knew Josef Mengele as an absolutely honourable, decent, conscientious, very charming, elegant and amusing person. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have married him.” Magris ended his note on Mengele rather differently: “The Gorgon, said Joseph Roth about Nazism, is banal. Mengele’s victims are characters in a tragedy, but Mengele himself is a figure in a farrago of gibberish.”