Historical News and Comment
Lessons of the Mengele Affair
With the possible exceptions of Hitler and Himmler, no man has been so vilified in recent years as the personification of Nazi evil as Dr. Josef Mengele. The Mengele legend was the basis for two novels that Hollywood turned into popular movies: William Goldman's The Marathon Man and Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil. In the latter film, Gregory Peck played a relentlessly malevolent Dr. Mengele who cloned dozens of little Hitlers as part of a diabolical Latin American Nazi conspiracy.
In countless newspapers and magazine articles, Mengele has been routinely accused of sending 400,000 people to their deaths in gas chambers while serving as the chief physician at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943 and 1944. The man dubbed the "Angel of Death" supposedly conducted gruesome "experiments" on selected Jewish victims and habitually delighted in sadistic atrocities. For example, according to U.S. News and World Report (June 24, 1985) he enjoyed "giving candy to children he tossed alive into the ovens while he hummed Mozart and Wagner." The Washington Post (March 8, 1985) reported that Mengele "routinely tossed babies into ovens alive" and "ordered pregnant women onto their backs, then stomped them until they aborted."
The media campaign reached a climax in June 1985 when the Mengele name was repeated daily on newspaper front pages and television network evening news broadcasts. Mengele's face stared from the cover of the gossipy mass circulation People weekly. A hunt that had been going on for years finally came to an end when an international team of forensic scientists positively identified the mortal remains exhumed from a Brazilian grave as those of Dr. Josef Mengele. Testimony from relatives and former friends of the German physician and a large collection of documentary material further established that Mengele had died in a drowning accident in February 1979.
While no sane person would excuse or whitewash atrocities, no matter who commits them, a basic regard for truth and decency compels another, more thoughtful look at the Mengele legend. How much truth is there to the fantastic accusations?
The stock allegation that Mengele "sent 400,000 Jews to the Auschwitz gas chambers" is a falsehood based in part on misrepresentation. It is true that, along with other camp physicians, Mengele routinely selected persons who were capable of working from among the transports of new arrivals to the camp. Holocaust writers maintain that all Jews arriving at Auschwitz who could not work were immediately killed in gas chambers. The 400,000 figure is simply a conjectural estimate of the number of unemployable Jews who arrived at Birkenau in 1943 and 1944 while Mengele was the chief physician there.
Actually, large numbers of unemployable Jews were admitted to the camp and interned there. Consistent with other evidence, official German records show that a very high proportion of Birkenau's overwhelmingly Jewish population in 1943 and 1944 was unable to work. (See: G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution, p. 125, and, A. Butz, Hoax, p. 124)
Many Jews survived the war as a result of medical care in the camp infirmary, which was under Dr. Mengele's general supervision. One such person was Otto Frank, father of the famous Anne Frank. After coming down sick, Otto was transferred to the camp hospital, where he remained until Soviet troops reached Auschwitz in January 1945. When the Germans evacuated the camp shortly beforehand, they left behind those who could not move, including sick, elderly and infirm inmates, and a number of children. The most horrific charges made against Mengele, such as the tale that he tossed live babies into ovens, are sick and absurd fables that contradict what is known about the doctor's character. For example, as Time magazine reported (June 24, 1985), Mengele was "given to occasional flourishes of gallantry: after transferring a pregnant Jewish doctor to Cracow to do research for him, Mengele sent her flowers upon the birth of her son."
It's conceivable, of course, that Mengele could have murdered inmates, although camp officials who committed such crimes risked severe punishment. For example, the Buchenwald camp physician, Dr. Waldemar Hoven, was sentenced to death by an SS court for murdering inmates there.
Nationally syndicated columnist Jeffrey Hart told readers that he doubted many of the "monster Mengele" stories being peddled in the mass media. "... As a professional historian, I would urge some caution about many of the anecdotes that are being routinely accepted as fact," wrote Hart. "My own historical hunch is that much of this kind of thing is mythology, concocted as a kind of metaphor ... I doubt the story that he killed a women by crushing her throat with his boot. It will be a long time before scholars sift the fact from the fiction about Mengele." (The Washington Times, July 9, 1985)
While Hart deserves praise for his cautious public skepticism of part of the Mengele mythology, he would show real courage if he looked at the entire Holocaust story with the same questioning eye. What's his "hunch" about the popular story, certified at Nuremberg, that the Germans manufactured soap from Jewish corpses? How about the stories of gassings at Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Auschwitz?
The evidence seems rather clear that Mengele did, in fact, perform medical research operations on Auschwitz inmates. In this regard it's perhaps worth noting that the U.S. government conducted similar medical "experiments" both during and after the Second World War. American military physicians infected Negroes with syphilis without their knowledge as part of an investigation of new ways to treat venereal disease. And during the 1950s the CIA financed psychiatric experiments involving LSD, sleep deprivation, massive shock therapy and attempted brain-washing of hospital patients without their knowledge or consent. One survivor, Louis Weinstein, is now reportedly a "human guinea pig, a poor, pathetic man with no memory, no life." The U.S. government has been sued for redress on behalf of Weinstein and eight other persons. (The Washington Post, August 1, 1985, editorial)
A flawed but enlightening article about Mengele by Professor Robert Jay Lifton of the City University of New York appeared in the July 21, 1985 issue of the The New York Times Magazine. The lengthy essay begins by noting that "Mengele has long been the focus of what could be called a cult of demonic personality. He has been seen as the embodiment of absolute evil ..." But, as Lifton explains, he was not the "nonhuman or even superhuman force" portrayed in the media.
As a young man Mengele was popular, intelligent and serious. During his three years of military service, mostly on the Eastern front, he proved himself a brave and diligent soldier, and received five decorations, including the Iron Cross First Class and Second Class. As the chief physician at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mengele was in charge of the large staff of inmate doctors, most of them Jewish, who treated inmates.
Lifton points out that the "eyewitness" testimony about Mengele at the well-publicized 1963-1965 Frankfurt Auschwitz trial was riddled with errors. For example, although Mengele was only one of numerous camp doctors who took turns deciding which new arrivals at Auschwitz-Birkenau would be assigned to work and which would not, a Jewish inmate who unloaded incoming transports insisted at the trial that Mengele alone was always there for the selections. When the judge commented, "Mengele cannot have been there all the time," the witness replied: "In my opinion, always. Night and day." Other former inmates described Mengele as "very Aryan looking" or "tall and blond," although he was actually of medium height, with dark hair and a dark complexion.
Among the many myths circulated about Mengele, Lifton writes, are the stories that he advised President Stroessner of Paraguay on how to exterminate the country's native Indian population, and that he made a fortune in South America in an extensive drug trade run by former Nazis.
A valuable contemporary record of Mengele's character and performance during his stay at Auschwitz is the "Evaluation of SS Captain Dr. Josef Mengele," dated August 19, 1944, prepared by the Auschwitz SS Physician's Office. (Original on file at the Berlin Document Center.) The report is very flattering:
Dr. Mengele has an open, honest, solid character. He is absolutely reliable, upright and straightforward. He does not manifest any weakness of character, bad tendencies or cravings. His emotional and physical make-up is outstanding.
During his period of service at the Auschwitz concentration camp, he applied his practical and theoretical knowledge to combating severe epidemics. With prudence and persistent energy, and often under the most difficult conditions, he completed every assigned task to the complete satisfaction of his superiors. He showed himself capable of handling any situation. In addition, he used what little free time he had to ardently further his education as an anthropologist.
His tactful and modest deportment is that of a good soldier. Because of his demeanor, he is especially well liked by his comrades. He treats subordinates with absolute fairness and requisite severity, but is nevertheless exceptionally admired and liked.
In his behavior, work record and attitude, Dr. Mengele shows an absolutely solid and mature outlook on life. He is a Catholic. His speaking manner is spontaneous, uninhibited, convincing and lively.
The personal evaluation went on to note that Mengele had "contracted typhus while conscientiously performing his duties as a physician at Auschwitz." It listed the awards he had received for bravery and outstanding service, and concluded that he was worthy of promotion.
After fleeing to South America to avoid becoming a show trial defendant, Mengele lived for ten years in Argentina and Paraguay under his own name. There is no evidence that he ever felt ashamed or guilty about anything he did at Auschwitz. To the contrary. In a letter to his son Rolf he wrote: "I have not the slightest reason to justify or apologize for any of my decisions or actions." (Time, July 1, 1985)
Among his personal papers found by Brazilian police in June 1985 was a rambling semi-autobiographical essay entitled in Latin "Fiat Lux" ("Let There Be Light"), apparently written by Mengele while he was still living on a Bavarian farm shortly after the end of the war. The contents of the essay have so far not been made public. (The New York Times, June 23, 1985)
Mengele occasionally spoke about his past with Mr. and Mrs. Stammer, a couple with whom he lived for 13 years on their farm near Sao Paulo, Brazil. Mrs. Gitta Stammer recalled that Mengele had said that the Jews had been an alien group working against Germany whom the Germans wanted out of their country. Mengele repeatedly insisted that he had not committed any crime, and that instead he had become a victim of great injustice. (New York Times, June 14, 1985; Baltimore Sun, June 14, 1985)
During the final years of his life Mengele lived with an Austrian couple, Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert, at their Brazilian farm. In an interview the Bosserts expressed great admiration and a special affection for their modest guest. In reply to a question about Mengele's alleged atrocities at Auschwitz, Wolfram Bossert said: "I admire him as a person for his many good qualities, not for what he committed. And even today there's doubt as to whether that's really true." (Washington Post, June 10, 1985)
A long-time friend of both Dr. Mengele and the Mengele family in Germany, Hans Sedlmeier, told a reporter: "I could tell you what Mengele did, what he did during Auschwitz, what he did after Auschwitz, but you wouldn't believe me. The newspapers won't print the truth, because it's not in the interest of the Jews.... I refuse to talk about the Mengele affair. Journalists have already written so many lies, and what the Jewish press has asserted..." Apparently exasperated, he did not finish the sentence. (New York Times, June 13, 1985)
In its sensationalized treatment of the Mengele story, the mass media ignored what is probably the most important lesson of this entire affair. Right up until the summer of 1985. when it was conclusively established that Mengele had been dead since 1979, the "Holocaust experts" and professional "Nazi hunters" solemnly insisted that the German doctor was alive. Most of them maintained that he was hiding in Paraguay.
Israeli "Nazi hunter" Tuvia Friedman reported in late 1984 that Mengele had recently been sighted in Orlando and Tampa, Florida, and in New Orleans. (AP, Oct. 3, 1984) A few months later Friedman announced that although he owned "major properties" in the United States, Mengele was probably in Italy. Moreover, the fugitive doctor had recently been spotted at a big Nazi reunion in Bermuda. (Jewish Week, Feb. 8, 1985)
Stanley E. Morris, a federal official involved in the U.S. government's investigation of Mengele, told a reporter in May that "tons of information is coming in daily, most of it useless" about Mengele. "One letter was from a person who claimed to see Martin Bormann, Hitler and Mengele riding together in a convertible in Philadelphia," he said. (New York Times, May 28, 1985)
In late January 1985, U.S. Congressman Robert Torricelli (Dem.-NJ) returned from a visit to Paraguay with the "astonishing news" that Mengele was living in a German colony in the Paraguayan mountains. (Newsweek, Feb. 4, 1985) Citing two supposedly very reliable sources, the London Sunday Times (Feb. 10, 1985) reported that Mengele was living "fairly openly" in Paraguay, spending much of his time in a log cabin near the summer palace of President Alfredo Stroessner. The most famous "Nazi hunter" of all, Simon Wiesenthal, announced that he was "100 percent sure" that Mengele was living in Paraguay and charged that the Mengele family in West Germany knew just where. (Newsweek, May 20, 1985) By the end of May 1985, the reward money offered by Wiesenthal, the Israeli and West German governments, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and others for the capture of Mengele totalled $3.4 million.
Internationally prominent "Holocaust expert" and "Nazi hunter" Serge Klarsfeld charged that "Mengele is in Paraguay under the personal protection of President Stroessner." The Paris-based Jewish lawyer even pinpointed his residence: "Mengele is living in a large private villa outside Asuncion, either one owned by Stroessener himself or by a friend of Stroessner." (Newsweek, May 20, 1985)
Klarsfeld's wife, Beate, flew to Paraguay in late May where she demonstrated in downtown Asuncion carrying a sign calling President Stroessner a liar for stating that he did not know where Mengele was living. While American television and newspapers lavished Mrs. IClarsfeld with praise and sympathetic coverage, the people of Paraguay rather naturally regarded her conduct as insulting and disgraceful. She was promptly ejected from her hotel.
As history has shown, it was not Stroessner who had been lying, but rather Klarsfeld and her self-righteous allies.
One of the few individuals who had the rare courage to publicly condemn the blazing irresponsibility of the "experts" in the Mengele case was A. Dane Bowen, Jr., a history professor at Lock Haven (Pa.) University. In a letter to The New York Times (June 29, 1985) he admonished: "Both the professional Nazi hunters and those U.S. politicians who have chased votes at the expense of a friendly foreign power should be big enough to apologize publicly for having recklessly charged that the Paraguayan government has been currently or recently 'protecting' Josef Mengele."
For years, the "Holocaust experts" and "Nazi hunters" have been portrayed by the mass media as oracles of profound insight and trustworthy information. They are treated with an awed reverence not accorded other public figures, and even their most sensational allegations are accepted uncritically and passed on to the public as fact. But for all those who care to see, the dramatic finale to the worldwide search for Mengele discredited the "experts" and conspicuously pointed up their reckless disregard for accuracy.
Although the search for Mengele is now a thing of the past, the frenetic hunt for "Nazi fugitives" goes on. The undaunted Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles has even issued a "Most Wanted List," complete with rewards, of "Nazi war criminals at large." This may well prove to be yet another embarrassing miscalculation because high on the Center's list is Leon Degrelle, the charismatic Belgian political leader and wartime hero of the Wallonia volunteer SS legion. Now a Spanish citizen, the articulate Degrelle has been living openly in Spain for years and welcomes opportunities to defend his views. His presentations on Dutch and Spanish television in recent years were, by all accounts, highly persuasive.
It appears that as long as historical revisionists continue their work, there will be no let up in the media-conscious hunt for elusive "Nazi fugitives." Serge Klarsfeld candidly admitted to the The New York Times (March 3, 1985) that part of the motive for the intense focus on Mengele and other "Nazi criminals" in recent years has been to offset the challenge by revisionist historians to Holocaust orthodoxy.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Fall 1985 (Vol. 6, No. 3), pages 377-383.