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.