Men­gele: Unmask­ing the Angel of Death”

  • Review
By – May 29, 2020

The name Josef Men­gele” exerts a kind of myth­ic pow­er, evok­ing a mon­strous sci­en­tist whose pro­fes­sion is killing. Auschwitz’s com­man­dant, Rudolf Höss, was sure­ly respon­si­ble for many more mur­ders. But it’s Men­gele, the doc­tor who decid­ed who would be killed upon arrival and who would live anoth­er day, that calls to mind the Tal­mu­dic fig­ure of the Angel of Death.

David Mar­well demythol­o­gizes Men­gele, metic­u­lous­ly doc­u­ment­ing how an ambi­tious researcher could become a faith­ful ser­vant to the Nazi geno­cide. As a grad­u­ate stu­dent, Men­gele was already drawn to new the­o­ries about how racial dif­fer­ences were demon­stra­ble through sci­ence and anthro­pol­o­gy. Those crack­pot the­o­ries, of course, became an arti­cle of faith for the Nazi Par­ty and the basis for its cam­paign of genocide.

Men­gele joined the Nazi par­ty out of sin­cere con­vic­tion. Late in his life, hid­ing under an assumed name in South Amer­i­ca, he still looked upon the Third Reich as an epoch which can be com­pared with that of Alexan­der the Great, Fred­er­ick the Great, or Napoleon.” How­ev­er advan­ta­geous his inter­est in racial sci­ence” may have been to his career, he gen­uine­ly believed in apply­ing genet­ics research to clas­si­fy­ing human beings by race, much as Lin­naeus had done with genus and species.

Mengele’s ear­ly life and his time at Auschwitz are just a pre­lude to this book’s main sub­ject: his flight from Ger­many at the end of the war, the attempts to find him and hold him for tri­al, and the even­tu­al deter­mi­na­tion of when and where he died. Mar­well can write author­i­ta­tive­ly about those events, often in the first per­son, because he was part of the team that inves­ti­gat­ed the case for the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice.

The post­war hunt for Men­gele was renewed in earnest in the 1980s, albeit two decades after the Eich­mann tri­al and forty years after the end of the Sec­ond World War. Israel’s Mossad had been look­ing for Men­gele in the 1960s and made good progress, but then the search was set aside until Men­achem Begin made it a pri­or­i­ty again after becom­ing Prime Min­is­ter in 1977. A few years lat­er, a news­pa­per arti­cle in the U.S. nation­al­ly cir­cu­lat­ed in the Sun­day sup­ple­ment Parade, pub­li­ciz­ing Mengele’s med­ical exper­i­ments on twins. Men­gele became both a sym­bol of heart­less evil and the object of a new inter­na­tion­al manhunt.

Marwell’s account of that hunt has all the plea­sures of a sus­pense­ful crime nov­el, and all the inside detail of a police pro­ce­dur­al. He reveals the foren­sic clues to where Men­gele had been and where he was like­ly to be, and whether he was dead or alive. The author recounts the innu­mer­able hours of library research, inter­views, and site vis­its which were indis­pens­able in those days before the Inter­net search­es. He also glimpses the life of Men­gele as a fugi­tive, and reveals where and when the Nazi died.

This absorb­ing, exhaus­tive­ly researched work is sure­ly des­tined to become the stan­dard ref­er­ence on its subject.

Discussion Questions