David G. Marwell
Unmasking the “Angel of Death”

If anyone embodies the archetype of the evil that was Auschwitz, it is surely Josef Mengele. Dubbed by the inmates and survivors of the camp the "Angel of Death," the immaculate doctor - with a slight flick of the finger - would casually select those permitted to live and work and those destined to die in the gas chambers. Among those he selected to live were the subjects upon whom he conducted his infamous race-inspired medical experiments. His postwar escape to South America and prolonged successful evasion from capture (in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil) only reinforced the fear and mystique of the man.

Popular culture has perpetuated the demonic legend. Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play, "The Deputy," featured a Mengele character with the stature of "absolute evil"; Ira Levin's 1976 novel (and later film), "The Boys From Brazil," portrayed the fiendish geneticist cloning Hitler; and none other than Charlton Heston played Mengele meeting his confused and ambivalent son, Rolf, in the 2003 film "My Father, Rua Alguem 5555." His was a stubborn legend. Even when Mengele's death had been definitively established, there was a refusal by many survivors and others to believe it. For them, the only fitting psychological and moral conclusion entailed live confrontation and subsequent just retribution.

As David G. Marwell notes in "Mengele: Unmasking the 'Angel of Death,'" little in Mengele's wealthy, respectably conservative, Catholic background helps to account for his Auschwitz career and his reputation as a monster. He was born in 1911, and his decision to study medicine, human genetics and physical anthropology in the 1930s was largely in tune with the scientific mood of the times. Given his driving professional ambition and increasingly Völkisch predispositions, he became a member of the Nazi Party in 1938, at which time he also joined the SS. He ultimately landed at the Frankfurt Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene, a research body closely aligned with official Nazi ideology. It was through this institute's director and Mengele's doctoral adviser, Otmar von Verschauer, that - after serving as a decorated medical officer in the Waffen SS Viking Division - Mengele was posted to Auschwitz in May 1943.

And it was there, apart from his selection activity (which was also conducted by other SS doctors), that Mengele perpetrated his criminal heredity experiments. Setting up an entire sophisticated research structure devoted to the nature of genetic and racial determinism, he variously experimented upon Roma, dwarfs and - most obsessively - twins. Although many of these deeds were indubitably cruel and cavalierly murderous, Marwell, like other biographers and scholars before him, insists upon stripping away the exaggerated aspects of the Mengele legend. Despite his innumerable crimes, Marwell writes, "what is known about Mengele's time at Auschwitz is more trope than truth. ... Mengele's outsize reputation as a medical monster is in inverse proportion to what is known and understood about what he actually did." Indeed, some prisoners claimed that they had never even heard his name. Survivor memory - perhaps suggestively nudged by Mengele's subsequent notoriety - has not always been entirely accurate. Thus, a few survivors remembered being selected by Mengele before his arrival at the camp. Some reported that he spoke Hungarian, which he did not. Others regarded him as tall and blond - in fact, he was relatively short and dark-haired. Given his alleged omnipotence, grotesque and untrue accusations - that Mengele had attempted to create Siamese twins by sewing together a pair of twins, or that he had attempted to make boys into girls and vice versa - were circulated. Contrarily, and for inmates confusingly, to further the "integrity" of his research, he would at times even be kind to his subjects and provide better conditions for them.

Moreover, some of the cruelest experiments conducted in Auschwitz, on mass sterilization and the effects of starvation, were carried out by other camp physicians. Mengele was one of many among a whole corps of medical staff - doctors, pharmacists, nurses, orderlies - posted in the camp. Apart from the experiments, their duties consisted of what "ordinary doctors" regularly and legitimately do. These included responsibility for the health of SS members and camp inmates, and preventing the spread of disease (like typhus, one of Mengele's achievements). This was the larger context in which Mengele worked, enabling him to enthusiastically exercise his - albeit racially perverted and ideologically inflected - scientific and research interests. With its vast available human resources, Auschwitz became an ideal laboratory.

"No one in history," Marwell writes, "had had access to the raw material that stood before him or had been so liberated from the restraints that tamed ambition and limited scientific progress." It was here that the line between being an ordinary "Hippocratic" doctor and a mass murderer was crossed. For physicians at Auschwitz, the informing biomedical Nazi vision that combined combating and destroying enemies of the Aryan race (above all, Jews), with positive steps to preserve and improve the German racial community, seamlessly encouraged the corruption of medical ethics, the denial of basic humanity and the practice of ruthless experimentation and medicalized killings. What particularly distinguished Mengele from other physicians was that he reveled in the culture that had been created in Auschwitz, in the opportunities and power it gave him. He saw himself as engaged in a putatively "cutting edge" scientific endeavor. He was quite correct when, in a remarkable letter to his son, he declared that he had not invented Auschwitz, it already existed. But it was in its unparalleled enabling culture that Mengele "realized" himself and, as the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton put it, "his actions so well articulated the camp's essence

Throughout the postwar years he expressed no remorse and either remained oblivious to, or rationalized, the enormity of his crimes. He remained a convinced Nazi and when pushed, he resorted to the timeworn justification that he had to do his duty and carry out orders. He had never harmed anyone personally. In any case, as Rolf summarized his father's words: "He couldn't help anyone. On the platform for instance. What was he to do, when the half-dead and infected people arrived? ... His job was to clarify only: 'able to work' and 'unable to work.' ... He thinks he saved the lives of thousands of people in that way. He hasn't ordered the extermination and he is not responsible. Also, the twins owe their lives to him.

"What specifically distinguishes Marwell's account from previous studies concerns his personal involvement in the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (O.S.I.) and the search for and identification of Mengele. Much of the volume is taken up with Mengele's escape to, and life in, various South American countries and the bungled attempts to locate and capture him. Astonishingly, Mengele was in American captivity in 1945 and the Israelis found him in 1960; for different reasons both ventures were simply dropped. Marwell comprehensively recounts this case of justice denied, and how - helped by his wealthy family, loyal friends and Nazi sympathizers - Mengele succeeded in evading his would-be captors. There is also highly detailed reportage regarding the seemingly endless investigations and multiple conflicts surrounding the interpretation of the medical and forensic evidence that in 1992 definitively established that Mengele had died in Brazil in 1979.

"Finally, in the end," Marwell writes with a certain flourish, "I held his bones in my hands." When in October 1992 the O.S.I. submitted its concluding report, "In the Matter of Josef Mengele," it was to the assistant attorney general for the criminal division, Robert S. Mueller III. He later handed it to his boss, the attorney general, William P. Barr.