This post is about David G. Marwell’s brilliant book MENGELE: UNMASKING THE “ANGEL OF DEATH”, which you may view on Amazon here.
One landmark in Marwell’s career came subsequent to his joining the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations in 1980 and involves his participation in the hunt for the fugitive Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
In the immediate wake of the Holocaust, many of the most notorious Nazi doctors were held accountable for their crimes against humanity. Mengele, however, evaded personal accountability. In the chaos following the war, American troops captured him but lacked awareness of his crimes. Moreover, most SS officers bore a tattoo with their blood type, but Mengele had no such marking. The Americans released him. Under an assumed identity, he fled justice through the ratlines to Argentina. Mengele’s complex tale of escape from apprehension effectively ended when he died of a stroke while swimming off the coast of Brazil in 1979.
Mengele’s family had protectors who kept his death a secret. Mengele meanwhile had become a central symbol of the crimes against humanity committed at Auschwitz, with barbaric acts other Nazi doctors carried out sometimes erroneously attributed to him. Auschwitz survivors, speaking about Mengele, might moreover allege they heard him speaking Hungarian, though we have no evidence he knew that language. So notorious was his reputation for carrying out “selections” at the concentration camp’s arrivals ramp — deciding which prisoners would be immediately gassed, and which spared, only to be tortured and later murdered — that Mengele was nicknamed ‘the angel of death.’
Mengele’s crimes and person became distorted and mythologized in the popular imagination through entertainments including the 1978 film The Boys from Brazil, with Gregory Peck as Mengele. This cultural phenomenon continued for decades; in 2003, Charlton Heston played Mengele in My Father. Interviewing David Marwell for this post, I asked:
Among depictions of Mengele in fictionalized treatments including novels and films, are there any that you consider true to his character?
Marwell told me: “No.”
By the time Marwell began searching for Mengele, Mengele was already dead, yet no small number of survivors were left with the futile hope that he might still be arrested and brought to justice. Forcing those victims to struggle through years of foredoomed hopes was one more blow that Mengele’s protectors inflicted against them.
When Marwell began work on this book, he intended to limit himself to an account of the search for Mengele. That portion of this volume is meticulously detailed yet personal. Marwell had a front row seat to history; his narrative is absorbing. The author is accurately able to report that his hunt for Mengele ended with him holding the Nazi’s bones. To imagine how that must have felt really gives me pause.
Marwell’s intellectual curiosity and scholarly training led him to want as accurate an idea of Mengele, the man, as could be had. Mengele, the man is the topic of the rest of this book. The volume’s subtitle is Unmasking the “Angel of Death” precisely because much of what was commonly said about Mengele was based on fictions rather than on source materials. As a mark of the value of Marwell’s contribution to Mengele studies, Gerald Posner, an author of Mengele: The Complete Story, published in 2000, says of Marwell’s 2020 volume: “At long last, in this important book, Mengele has been captured.”
Born in Günzburg in 1911, Mengele earned degrees in Anthropology and Medicine when Nazism was ascendant in the early 1930s. Though some evaluate Mengele’s early work as respectable science, we do well to keep in mind that the Nazis tainted science with their racist ideology. Think of it this way: How purely scientific could Mengele have been if he deemed himself superior to Albert Einstein in all things? Nazism did not permit truly free inquiry. According to Nazis, whatever might disprove Aryan superiority was out of line with science.
Medically, Mengele was educated in, and enthusiastic about, a perverse notion that instead of treating individual patients, German doctors had to be supremely concerned with strengthening the Volk. Thus, Mengele could unflinchingly take healthy non-Aryan twins and perform unnecessary amputations on them, disguising his atrocities as medical research.
Marwell had extraordinary access to existing source materials and so is able to go into great depth about Mengele’s scientific efforts, yet the Nazis destroyed a considerable quantity of the evidence. Indeed, when I asked Marwell:
What about Mengele that we can’t possibly ever know, would you most want to know?
his response was: “I would like to know the full story of his scientific work at Auschwitz: the nature and aims of his experiments, and his overall research agenda.”
In South America, Mengele worked on an autobiographical novelization of his life, attempting to contribute to the mythologizing of his image by justifying his unjustfiable crimes. Basing some of his investigations on that text, Marwell carried out remarkable detective work that alone makes his book well worth reading. Curious about Mengele’s self-serving writings, I asked:
Quite apart from its subject matter, is Mengele’s memoir well-organized and well-written?
Marwell said: “Mengele’s autobiographical novel is composed of several different sections, written over several years. I would not say that it is well organized, and the writing is a bit plodding and occasionally over-dramatic. There are many lengthy discursions into philosophy, history, science, and politics – he spends 100 pages on his birth and places it in a much broader historical context. It was most helpful to me when he provided a more-or-less straightforward narrative – as in his description of his flight from Europe to South America.”
Mengele’s son Rolf, born in 1944, resident in Europe as a child, did not comprehend until adolescence who his father was and the crimes he had committed. Marwell documents and frames Rolf’s shadowy and unpleasant long-distance relationship with his father in a final chapter of the book. I asked:
Have you seen evidence that Joseph Mengele felt anything resembling love towards his son?
“It is hard for me to judge whether Mengele felt ‘love’ towards Rolf,” Marwell said. “He certainly had powerful feelings toward him, was concerned about his well-being, and was terribly pained by his forced separation from him. I suppose that sounds a lot like love.”
A final question I posed to Marwell was:
What aspects of Mengele’s life that currently remain hidden have some potential for being discovered in the future?
Marwell said: “It is possible there are still Mengele letters and other writings. In the last ten years, five letters were sold at auction which came, one can guess from his family.”
I know one additional aspect of Mengele’s life that warrants further investigation, namely: What were the prevailing social attitudes towards Jews in Günzburg and its environs when Mengele was growing up there? The region, Swabia, had a small but significant Jewish population. Current scholarship claims there is scant evidence that Mengele’s formative years were marked by antisemitism. Yet it is often noted that his mother was a devout Catholic. How often did the young Josef Mengele hear said that all Jews had to pay for the death of his savior? Mengele’s father, meanwhile, let the aspiring dictator Adolph Hitler use the family’s business premises for campaign events.
For many decades before Hitler seized power, Jews were well-integrated in German society, interfaith marriages were regular occurrences, and Jews held high positions in many fields, including the government. The man who drafted the Weimar Constitution, Hugo Preuß, hailed from a Jewish family. Political antisemitism increased as a backlash during Mengele’s childhood, yet we do not know enough about what Mengele’s family members and neighbors thought about the related issues. Perhaps by scouring regional newspapers from the period, records of local church sermons, and other sources, scholars will eventually be able to fill in the picture.
With that said, I wholeheartedly endorse David Marwell’s Mengele: Unmasking the “Angel of Death” as being indispensable to the libraries of all people interested in the Holocaust.
David G. Marwell’s website is here.
At this link, you may view a video of Marwell’s book launch.
The Amazon link for Mengele: Unmasking “The Angel of Death” is here.
And the Barnes & Noble link for the excellent book is here.
(Designer Richard Ljoenes won the
Graphis Design Annual, Silver Award for
this book cover)