Josef Mengele was one of the most notorious war criminals in history. During World War II the Nazi doctor performed medical experiments in a concentration camp on unwilling children and adults, and with a jerk of his thumb he sent many unlucky men, women and children to their immediate deaths.
He escaped justice after the Third Reich fell by fleeing the country and although his death was later confirmed, and his body uncovered in a cemetery in Brazil, his victims’ demand for justice has not been fulfilled, nor has it satisfied an abundant interest in his life and crimes.
David Marwell’s “Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death” is a fine addition to other biographies of the evil doctor, as it is partly a biography and partly a memoir, as historian David Marwell was the U.S. Justice Department’s chief of investigative research in the Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s.
Mr. Marwell was involved in the Mengele investigation and he performed numerous interviews of victims and other parties, examined documents and visited Germany and other countries around the world gathering evidence. He also coordinated the investigation with partners in Israel, Germany and other governments and private organizations. He even held Mengele’s bones in his hands.
“While this book is based on both primary sources from archives throughout the world and the careful research of a host of brilliant scholars, it also relies on the writings of Mengele himself,” Mr. Marwell writes. “I read his correspondence and diaries from his later life and was exposed to the intimate details of his health complaints, frustrations, and private reflections, and to the style and rhythm of his thoughts. In addition, I had access to Mengele’s own attempt at the very enterprise in which I was engaged.”
Mr. Marwell notes that late in Mengele’s life, he wrote but never published an autobiographical novel, which was about a man shaped in a very special way by his time, as Mengele put it.
Josef Mengele was born on March 16, 1911, and died on Feb. 7, 1979, Mr. Marwell informs us. At almost the exact midpoint of his life, in the summer of 1944, in addition to his medical experiments, he performed his dubious duty on the ramp at the Auschwitz II concentration camp (Birkenau), sorting new arrivals and determining their fate. Since then, Mr. Marwell explains, Mengele’s reputation has grown to nearly mythical heights.
“He would become both the personification of the movement that so animated him and the most notorious author of its crimes,” Mr. Marwell writes. “Referred to by some as the ‘Angel of Death,’ Mengele became a well-known character in popular culture and stalked the nightmares and haunted the daydreams of legions. At some point, he emerged as the embodiment not only of the Holocaust itself but also of the failure of justice in the wake of the war — a persona that helped to obscure any chance of or understanding who this man really was and what motivated him.”
Mr. Marwell covers Mengele’s normal childhood in Germany and his education as a doctor and scientist. When the war breaks out, Mengele first served as a medical officer in a frontline combat unit, the Fifth Waffen-SS Viking Division. Little is known of his time in the unit, but Mr. Marwell notes that as his time in the combat unit comes almost directly before his assignment at Auschwitz, it marked an important transition from the young scientist to an SS officer on a ramp at a concentration camp.
“As a symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz seems particularly apt, even though well more than a million Jews had already been murdered by the Nazis before its gas chambers were operational,” Mr. Marwell writes. “Auschwitz can be seen, in the words of historian Peter Hayes, as the “Capital of the Holocaust.”
Mr. Marwell informs us that Auschwitz was both a concentration camp for punishment and exploitation, and an extermination camp with wholesale murder as its goal.
“If Auschwitz, as a place, stands as a symbol of the Holocaust, then Mengele, as perpetrator, has come to serve a similar role for the death camp itself. Perhaps for this reason much of what is known about Mengele’s time at Auschwitz is more trope than truth,” Mr. Marwell notes.
Mr. Marwell explains that many imagined encounters and misattributed deeds have obscured the larger nature of Mengele’s enterprise, but there is no question of guilt, as Mengele was indisputably guilty of many crimes.
Unlike the capture, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, Mengele’s end is somewhat anticlimactic. Still, “Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death” is an interesting look back at a truly evil man and the investigation that confirmed he no longer walks the Earth.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
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MENGELE: UNMASKING THE “ANGEL OF DEATH”
By David G. Marwell
Norton, $30, 496 pages