On a winter morning in Frankfurt, when it was still dark, the journalists were taken into a small, well-guarded room to show them the defendants at the forthcoming Auschwitz trial. That was in 1963. I remember staring at those faces, as the photographers scrambled among them, as if physiognomy would begin to unlock the mystery of how human beings—what sort of human beings?—had done those things.

Here and there were the faces of wild beasts, grinning uncomprehendingly: terrible Boger with his yellow eyes, the great skull of Kaduk. There was no mystery about them. When Etty Hillesum saw faces like those as the trains drew into the camp at Westerbork to begin the deportations to Auschwitz, she thought of the line in Scripture which says that God made man in His own image and, for the first and last time, her religious faith was shaken to its roots. But then there were the others. Mulka, the camp adjutant, looking like a bad-tempered old shopkeeper, or Perry Broad, who had been one of the youngest SS guards, still a sleek and youthful man in an immaculate three-piece suit with the expression of somebody accused of parking his Jaguar in a pedestrian zone. Their appearance told me nothing.

And there were the doctors. These men, trained in famous academies and some with high research qualifications, bound by the Hippocratic oath, had carried out selections on the ramp—dividing the incoming torrent from the trains into those who were sent straight to the gas chambers and those who were to be worked to death. Some had killed thousands by injections, or carried out experiments on helpless men, women, and children. Most had taken part in internal selections within the medical blocks, consigning to death those with infectious diseases, those too weak to be worth keeping, and those whose bodies had fulfilled their purposes in research.

If the sight of the doctors answered no fundamental questions, neither did the evidence as the long trial got into its stride. It became clear that the doctors above all had subscribed to an “Auschwitz code of values” which could not be reconciled in their own minds with the charge that they had betrayed all medical or human standards. It was not even as simple as “evil, be thou my good.” Early in the trial, one witness described how a group of Polish children had been brought to Auschwitz after being caught stealing coal. Since there was at the time no separate block for children, they were distributed among different huts. However, a medical decision was taken that “it was morally dangerous for children to sleep among adult men.” So the children were taken to the medical block and given lethal injections. “In this way,” said the witness quietly, “the morals of the camp were preserved.”

More than twenty years have passed since that trial, and it is only now, after reading Professor Lifton’s book, that I have begun to understand the fundamental question, How could they?—the subjective process in the minds of these doctors which allowed them to assimilate killing to the commandment of healing. But the importance and stature of The Nazi Doctors is much greater than that remark suggests. This is not only one of the most important works on medical ethics yet written. It also breaks through the frontiers of historiography to provide a convincing psychological interpretation of the Third Reich and the crimes of National Socialism. No one will be able, in my view, to write perceptively about those times in the future without referring to this interpretation, without bringing into the center of the analysis the dynamic which Lifton calls “the biomedical imperative.”

Rudolf Hess said in 1934 that “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.” It was an appeal to which a large part of the German medical profession responded with a sense of dazzled, revolutionary liberation. Medicine was no longer just one profession among others, or one of many branches of applied science and research. It had become the profession, the central intellectual resource of the New Order. Doctors acquired a status that engineers, nuclear physicists, even generals could not approach. Doctors were “biological soldiers.” Medicine was breaking away from mere “Christian” or “Judaic” compassion for the individual, and from the passive, remedial job of healing the sick. From now on, medical science would address itself to the “positive” task of actively shaping the future of the human race, to cultivating and pruning genetic stock for the future, to using “biological laws” in the service of a new understanding of the wholeness and interdependence of all life.

Lifton establishes the chronology, the steps that led eventually to doctors—not professional SS officers, but doctors of medicine—performing the supreme sacral rite of National Socialism: the selections on the ramp at Auschwitz. There were five such steps. The first was coercive sterilization. The second was the killing of impaired babies and children. The third was the so-called “euthanasia” program, the killing of impaired adults—cripples and the mentally handicapped—in the gas chambers of special institutes and adapted hospitals. Then came the extension of “euthanasia” to impaired or racially undesirable inmates brought from the concentration camps. Finally came the mass extermination of entire racial groups in the Einsatzkommando operations and then in the death camps.


The ideas of “racial hygiene” or coercive eugenics were circulating widely in the early years of this century, and not only in Germany. By 1920, for example, some twenty states in the United States had laws for the compulsory sterilization of the “feeble minded” and criminally insane. But in Germany, such thoughts were fatally to converge with new concepts about euthanasia. In Anglo-Saxon societies, as Lifton remarks, euthanasia implied on the whole the right of a person to choose death. In Germany, however, it had been argued since the late nineteenth century that the state as the supreme social organism retained the right to impose death on some of its subjects in the interest of the collectivity, the sacrifice of lives in war being only the most obvious precedent. An influential book published in 1920 by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens, put forward the concept of “life unworthy of life,” which was to become central to Nazi thinking and practice. The authors, a professor of law and a professor of psychiatry, declared that the destruction of “unworthy life” was in itself a healing process—a treatment for the social organism; they discussed the “ballast existence” of human beings reduced to empty shells and prophesied “a new age…. [There has been] an overestimation of the value of life as such.”

Hitler and the other Nazi leaders seized upon such literature, adding it to their mental brew of racialist dogma, collectivist theory, and paranoia about “Volkstod” (the dying out of the Germanic race). In 1933, the first year of Nazi power, a compulsory sterilization law was applied to a list of mental and supposedly hereditary afflictions, including schizophrenia, hereditary blindness and deafness, and even inherited alcoholism. The program was intended to sterilize nearly half a million people in its first phase, though Lifton believes that it was applied only to 350,000 at most. A national index of persons with hereditary taints was established, and the infamous Racial Institutes for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene were set up.

“Euthanasia”—Professor Lifton rightly uses quotation marks, for this was state killing, and the word is one of the earliest and ugliest of Nazi euphemisms—began in 1939. It was preceded by the Knauer case, the birth in Leipzig of a gravely malformed child whose parents appealed to Hitler for the right to end its life. Hitler’s accord, with an assurance that any possible legal proceedings against the doctors concerned would be quashed by the Führer, led to the establishment of a commission under Hitler’s personal physicians to register “life-unworthy” children and organize their killing.

Here for the first time doctors were dealing with the reality of “biological soldiering”: killing as healing. The deceptions were for the benefit not only of parents but of the medical staff as well. Although parents who refused to surrender their children to these institutions were coerced and threatened, there was much talk of “latest methods for healing”; children were perfunctorily “treated” for some time before being given lethal sedative overdoses, and doctors laid much emphasis on the research value of autopsies.

Already gratuitous cruelty was appearing. The extremes were represented by the abominable Dr. Pfannmüller at one such institution in Bavaria, who introduced “the natural method”: death by starvation. A member of a party of visitors describes how he pulled a dying child from its bed, and exhibited it “like a dead rabbit,” explaining that only a few more days were needed. “The picture of this fat, grinning man, in his fleshy hand the whimpering skeleton… is still vivid in my mind.” Pfannmüller exemplified a syndrome on which Lifton lays much emphasis: the association of sadism with omnipotence fantasies which came to affect many Nazi doctors.

The killing of adults “unworthy of life” began with an order from Hitler in October 1939, after the outbreak of war. “Patients considered incurable” were to be medically killed. But Lifton, in a memorable passage, warns against the temptation of interpreting this as only an aspect of war preparations and emergency measures:

Rather than medical killing being subsumed to war, the war itself was subsumed to the vast biomedical vision of which “euthanasia” was a part. Or, to put the matter another way, the deepest impulses behind the war had to do with the sequence of sterilization, direct medical killing, and genocide.

The program to kill “unworthy” adults, known as T4, after the Berlin address of its headquarters at Tiergarten 4, was a huge affair. Directed by a large medical and ancillary bureaucracy, it was conducted at six main centers in Germany and Austria. Gas chambers were introduced for the first time, as the mental hospitals of the Reich disgorged their “incurables,” and there was a complex coverup system of reassuring letters to relatives and of falsified death certificates. Jewish children had already been killed in the earlier program, and a number of Jewish adults were now sent to T4 centers from the camps—Jews alone required no medical paperwork or phony diagnosis to be murdered.


It is well known that T4 was halted in 1941, as a result of the only serious civilian protest in the history of the Third Reich. The facts leaked out: public demonstrations took place and Count von Galen, the Catholic bishop of Münster, delivered the famous sermon in which he declared the entire program to be a blasphemy against God: “poor unproductive people if you wish, but does this mean that they have lost their right to live?” Less familiar abroad is the resistance, religious and professional, put up by a few physicians. Professors like Karl Bonhoeffer and Gottfried Ewald, both psychiatrists, resisted, and so did several Protestant pastors involved in running mental hospitals. Paul-Gerhard Braune, the only objector who was arrested, wrote directly to Hitler condemning the very concept of “life unworthy of life” and warning that unless the “intolerable” program were halted, the moral foundations of the nation would be undermined.

In fact, T4 only paused, to continue for the rest of the war on an “informal” basis in which the central bureaucracy was dissolved and the medical staff of the killing institutions were left to carry on the work at their own discretion. The next step had already been taken. Early in 1941, the T4 leaders had agreed to allow Himmler to use their facilities for an operation to rid the concentration camps of “excess” population: “asocial” and invalid inmates.

This was the penultimate step to the death camps. The operation, known in office jargon as “14f13,” for the first time merged the SS empire of the camps with the biomedical purging of society. The doctors were now working closely with the SS; gas chambers were in use; the victims were being selected on grounds that no longer had much to do with any objective health criteria but a great deal to do with racial origin and political attitude. It was for 14f13 that the euphemism “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung) was first introduced to denote killing. Doctors in white coats appeared in the camps. Collective diagnosis was applied to Jews, and Lifton quotes some of the labels used: “Inflammatory Jew hostile to Germans,” or “Anti-German disposition. Symptoms: well-known functionary of the KPD [German Communist Party],” or “Diagnosis: fanatical German-hater and asocial psychopath. Principal symptoms: inveterate Communist.”

It was not long, however, before camp commandants were dispatching indiscriminate parties of victims chosen by their own guards for “special treatment” in the T4 gas chambers, simply to reduce overcrowding. By now, T4 staff were extracting gold teeth and fillings from corpses and forwarding them to headquarters in Berlin. It is no wonder that Lifton calls 14f13 the “medical bridge to genocide.” (Lifton here adds a detail which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been followed up in Germany. In 1942 a T4 “mission” went to Minsk on the eastern front. Its assignment is not known, but there are strong indications that its task was the killing of wounded German soldiers suffering from severe cerebral or psychological damage. Both Bishop von Galen and Braune had earlier expressed the fear that this would be one of the logical consequences of the program.)

The basis of Lifton’s method in this book is an extensive series of interviews. He spoke to twenty-nine men “significantly involved” in Nazi medical programs, including doctors implicated in T4 and employed at Auschwitz. He also interviewed a dozen old Nazis described as “nonmedical professionals,” and eighty Auschwitz survivors from the medical blocks, many of whom were in the tragic category of “prisoner-doctors” working under the supervision of masters like Eduard Wirths, the chief physician, or Josef Mengele. Lifton, who is himself Jewish, conducted these meetings as he felt a scholar should, restraining although not actually denying his own intense emotions, dissembling to a pardonable extent with some of the Nazi doctors by concealing from them the real extent and aim of his book.

This enterprise has already proved too much for some critics, for whom the idea of a Jewish academic tactfully, even at moments tenderly, addressing questions about their psychological stresses to men who did ramp duty at Auschwitz is—simply—unbearable. Such objections seem to me quite wrong. There is an overriding need to know the process by which highly educated and intelligent people contrived to justify to themselves their participation in acts like those. The alternative is to leave—for instance—Mengele protected behind generalizations about “the beast in all of us” or even “the banality of evil,” observations which hide him and his colleagues from examination as surely as the bulletproof screen shielded Eichmann at his trial.

The second part of Lifton’s book is a study of individual behavior at Auschwitz, primarily of the Nazi doctors but also of the prisoner-doctors. Lifton introduces this section by remarking that the place might well have been named the “Auschwitz Center for Therapeutic Racial Killing,” and emphasizing that Nazi ideologues indeed regarded it as a rather special and secret kind of public health venture. The doctors there referred in jest to “Therapia Magna Auschwitzensis”; shortened to “TM,” the abbreviation came to be their unofficial euphemism for the gas chambers. That was the approach that rendered it necessary that doctors, not other camp officials, should supervise the selection process.

Their responsibilities were arduous. They included not only selection on the ramp and supervision of the killing process, but selections within the camp, direct killing by injections (mostly by phenol), certifying death at individual executions, signing false death certificates, overseeing tooth extraction from corpses, controlling epidemics, performing abortions, observing floggings, offering advice on cremation and other means of corpse disposal, and—very important—general advice on controlling the influx of prisoners into the camp itself, which of course affected the proportion of arrivals sent straight to their deaths.

Here, as Lifton says, the healing-killing paradox was at its most acute. Hard as it is to understand, the medical staff took seriously their obligations to maintain “standards of health” at Auschwitz. However, the price of protecting the inmates’ health (if that is the right expression: their average life expectancy was about three months) was to keep up a high killing rate among new arrivals at the ramp, and often to recommend the gassing of whole blocks of the camp which had become infected with typhus or other diseases, or were otherwise unmanageable.

There also remained the other, broader aspect of healing-killing: the necessities of the biomedical vision which required the curing of the Nordic race by ridding it of Jews and other “poisonous” elements. The doctors, in short, were invited to see their task as a supreme expression of medical responsibility, its value only emphasized by the fact that most doctors initially found it difficult to carry out—and some found it impossible. However, once these physicians had convinced themselves that they were still acting as doctors and not as slaughterhouse foremen, their sense of omnipotent rectitude could become extreme. The tale of the Polish children gassed to protect camp morals is one example. Another is the fact, cited by Lifton, that suicide by prisoners was regarded as a most serious offense and was followed by a careful official inquiry.

By contrast, the prisoner-doctors, most of whom were Jewish, faced their own dilemmas with open eyes. Essentially, they were all dead men and women on furlough; for any reason or none, at any moment, a prisoner-doctor could be dropped back into camp or gas chamber. Nonetheless, they did what they could to save lives, to help the sick in the medical blocks, and to restrain or mitigate the “hobby” programs of research which individual Nazi doctors were carrying out on prisoners. In order to do these things, they were obliged also to enter the awful paradoxes of Auschwitz. They provided lists for selections to the medical block doctors, knowing that the more reliable they were in assisting the death process, the more effectively they could persuade their masters to let them help others. In matters like the distribution of medicine—ten aspirins a day for a block containing thousands—they were again choosing candidates for survival by rejecting other claims to live. As Lifton says, in Auschwitz a rare syringe was worth more than a human life.

Curious, conditional bonds sometimes arose between these prisoner-doctors and the SS physicians; born of expediency, these bonds—as between terrorists and their hostages—could acquire some depth. The ties could be confessional, professional (doctors talking to doctors), sexual, or even scientific, for some of the prisoner-doctors, although appalled at the brutality of the experiments on prisoners, became almost in spite of themselves emotionally committed to their success. A few SS doctors, like the man named here as Ernst B., not only took pains to keep their prisoner-helpers alive and well-fed but even arranged forbidden meetings with their relatives in the main camp.

The extraordinary prisoner-doctor Hermann Langbein, who was in touch with a resistance group in the camp, managed to establish a sort of ascendancy over Eduard Wirths, the chief Auschwitz doctor. As his secretary, Langbein was able to extract concessions from Wirths, to encourage him in his power struggle against the SS political office, and even to dissuade him from resigning in a moment of despair. In three categories, however, the prisoner-doctors killed voluntarily. They killed vicious kapos, as indicated by resistance cells; they killed dangerous maniacs on the medical blocks whose behavior threatened to get the whole ward “selected”; most reluctantly, they also aborted babies or killed them at birth, in order to save their mothers from the gas chamber. As Dr. Olga Lengyel, one of the prisoner-doctors, said: “I marvel to what depths those Germans made us descend.”

Two psychological terms are advanced by Professor Lifton to interpret the adaptation of the Nazi doctors. These are “numbing” and “doubling,” and they have, of course, a validity which can extend far beyond the crimes of the Third Reich into any situation where human beings consent to behave in ways that contradict a previously internalized moral code—including war itself.

“Numbing,” a term Professor Lifton has formulated in earlier work, is fairly self-explanatory. Selection duty on the ramp was accompanied at Auschwitz by an almost literal numbing: the doctors drank heavily in what became a carefully observed group ritual, and encouraged shaken or reluctant newcomers to get drunk with them. More generally, the doctors protected themselves against impulses of pity or horror by a battery of mental devices. Racial ideology was the most important. Lifton suggests that the doctors tended to regard Jews not simply as “subhumans” beyond normal human consideration but as people who were in practice already dead by virtue of their presence in the camp. Experiments on living prisoners could thus be experienced by the doctors as a form of autopsy, and some of the contradictions that so horrified outsiders—for instance, careful antiseptically performed surgery on patients, who were then at once killed off—were evaded.

Josef Mengele provided numerous examples of such “extreme numbing,” but so did the doctors of the T4 program, including leading figures like Karl Brandt, an admirer of Albert Schweitzer and a man whom many contemporaries remembered as noble and upright: many decent Germans were bewildered by the revelations at his trial after the war. At the lowest level, “numbing” was only an extension of self-protective attitudes always present in the medical profession: the hardening to horror required in any casualty ward, or the “sawbones” humor common among surgeons. At the “euthanasia” center of Hadamar, a drunken party with music and mock sermons was held in the cremation room to “celebrate” the ten thousandth victim.

“Doubling” is a more complex idea. Lifton is defining the construction of a second “Nazi” or “Auschwitz” self. He is not, he insists, talking about the lasting dissociation of “dual personality,” but about a temporary dissolving of psychic glue as “a means of adaptation to extremity.” The second self accepted an entirely different set of criteria within the extreme circumstances. “Conscience” at Auschwitz meant performance of duty, loyalty to the doctors’ and SS groups, the “improvement” of camp conditions (i.e., making Auschwitz function more efficiently). At the same time, the prior self continued to exist, to be entered on leave when a doctor returned to his family: or when Rudolf Höss, the commandant, went home at night to his luxurious house and played lovingly with his children.

“Doubling” was a difficult feat, nonetheless. The strains were evident in Eduard Wirths, the chief camp doctor, a man formally responsible for all deaths in the medical blocks and co-responsible for the regular decisions on how many from the incoming trains were to be gassed and how many to be admitted for slave labor to the camp. Wirths was opposed to random brutality; he improved conditions in the medical blocks and reduced the rate of killing by injection because it was deterring prisoners from reporting sick. Yet this “aura of moral scrupulousness” did not prevent him from carrying out his own revolting experiments on typhus infection or cervical cancer. His letters home show a tormented personality who surrounded his wife and children with—as Lifton puts it—“a quality of absolute purity and goodness.” He wrote that his duties must be performed for the sake of “my children, my angel,” a German mission on behalf of that absolute purity of his other life. When Wirths was arrested in 1945, a British officer observed that he had shaken hands with a man who had caused the deaths of four million people. At that moment, Wirths understood that his “doubling” had collapsed, that the consequences of what the “Auschwitz self” had done were about to flood his prior self and his family with disgrace. That night, he managed to hang himself.

Lifton conducted a long and fascinating series of interviews with “Ernst B.,” an Auschwitz doctor who had refused—successfully—to conduct selections and who was remembered with gratitude by many surviving prisoners and prisoner-doctors as a man who had worked consistently to save lives, improve conditions, and obstruct some of the worst medical experiments of his colleagues. Here Lifton found himself in the midst of confusing debris left over from both “selves.” For much of the time, “Ernst B.” was candid and open about Auschwitz, admitting to shame and guilt. At other moments, however, he would veer into a harder, “Nazi” line. The Third Reich had used “primitive methods, but there was something that was right.” He consistently defended his doctor colleagues, refusing to take the easy and partly justifiable course of dissociating himself entirely from them. Most curiously, he stood up strongly for Mengele, and tried to persuade Lifton that Mengele had been a man of high integrity, that he was never cruel, and that his experiments on prisoners constituted “real scientific work.”

Mengele is the subject of a section of Lifton’s work, and also of a book by Gerald Posner and John Ware. While Posner and Ware present a chronicle of Mengele’s entire life, from youth in Günzburg to his pseudonymous grave in Brazil, Lifton is concerned only with the Auschwitz period and its implications. He observes: “While he is obscured by his demonic mythology, he has in many ways earned it…. My task is to try to understand how his individual psychological traits fed, and fed upon, the Nazi biomedical vision.”

It is, indeed, a very great pity that Josef Mengele was never caught and tried. Retribution apart, the survivors needed to understand just who, and what, it was that they so much feared. One of the twins from Mengele’s camp kindergarten said:

I would wish to have a good frontrow seat…. To me he is the key to my sense of fear from everything that is German…. I would be very interested to hear the details and to see him pass [through] this metamorphosis of turning back into a person instead of God Almighty.

Mengele was the most adept “doubler” of them all. The visual sense of him survives very clearly: neat and handsome, his black uniform immaculate, smiling pleasantly or whistling Puccini as he distributed death or life on the ramp, sometimes dashing into the oncoming torrent of human beings with a shout of “Get those twins over here!” In the medical blocks, Mengele’s absolute unpredictability terrified the inmates. His kindness toward some of “his” children, gypsies or twins or children with eyes of contrasting pigment, seemed quite genuine. This in no way impeded his ability to have them killed without any apparent feeling, or indeed to kill them himself for dissection. There was no chink in this armor, no way to “get around” Mengele or to take precautions against his changes of mood. And playing his “Auschwitz self” plainly gave him enjoyment, the pleasure of acting out the fantasy syndrome of sadism-omnipotence which affected so many of the Nazi doctors. Was this a man who loved his work, or who was in love with his own actor’s reflection in the black mirror of Auschwitz?

The Mengele myth afterward became so potent that the world now believes that he alone performed all the Auschwitz experiments, that he commanded the entire medical department or even the camp itself, that he committed atrocities that in fact never happened, and that he performed all the selections on the ramp—a fantasy that even some survivors share. However, Mengele was not the only experimenter, and—in terms of the deaths and agony inflicted—not the bloodiest. One should remember also Professor Clauberg, the only Auschwitz doctor with a real international reputation—for his infertility research—who carried out injections of caustic substances into the Fallopian tubes of hundreds, perhaps up to a thousand, Jewish women, or Horst Schumann’s irradiation of male and female genitals, or the program sponsored by Bayer (makers of aspirin) which involved the wholesale slaughter for dissection of patients given an experimental drug against typhus.

Mengele did research on dwarfs, on noma sufferers, and on heterochromia (contrasting eye color)—in the latter work, gypsy children were killed and their eyes dispatched in boxes to the Friedrich-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. But his obsession was with twins. By 1944, he had collected some 250 individual twin children; he did most of the measurement and examination himself, and provided the children—who looked on him as an “uncle”—with above-average care and nourishment. The twin unit was provided with a special laboratory and dissection suite, complete with a large library. Mengele killed some 15 percent of his twin subjects, which meant that many of them survived Auschwitz.

What was he after? He was plainly driven by a furious ambition to achieve academic fame, and the twins research was intended to form the basis of his Habilitation—qualification as lecturer and then professor. But opinions still differ both about the quality of his work and its purpose. Lifton tends to the view that he made exaggerated scientific claims for erratic and unsystematic work. He has also concluded, after initial skepticism, that Mengele was—as many prisoners have suggested—working not on genetic determinism but on learning “the secret of multiple births,” a discovery that would have had enormous implications for Nazi ideology and the accelerated breeding of “outstanding” racial types.

For the Nazi doctors, Auschwitz was the great temptation. It was not just that commitment to “research” was a handy catalyst for the numbing and doubling processes of self-deception. It was the blinding opportunity offered to ambition by a place in which live human beings were easier to come by than laboratory rats—to quote one particularly foul example, human flesh was used for blood experiments because it was far more plentiful than scarce animal meat. Some of the doctors said openly that it would be morally unforgiveable to pass up this unique chance of research on living human beings: another instance of the healing-killing paradox. History has no more terrible example of the Faustian bargain: for the chance of renown, for their own diseased vision of the higher good of the race, these doctors sold their souls.

Some paid their debts on earth. Many of the doctors were executed after the war, and many committed suicide. A number of them got off lightly. Professor Verschuer, who had supervised Mengele’s research and who was the recipient of those boxes of human eyes, was reinstated in a chair at the University of Münster after the war. A committee of fellow professors considered his case, and pronounced that “it would be pharisaical for us to regard in hindsight isolated incidents in the life of an otherwise brave and honorable man, who has had a difficult life and frequently displayed his nobility of character, as an unpardonable moral stain.” Similarly, the German Chamber of Physicians, sitting in 1955, refused to withdraw the title of doctor of medicine from their colleague Professor Clauberg.

Josef Mengele got clean away. Doggedly shielded and financed by the Mengele clan, using the wealth of the family agricultural machinery factory at Günzburg, he survived for thirty-five years until—a miserable, sick, frightened old man—he had a heart attack and died while swimming in Brazil in February 1979. When his bones were finally identified in 1985, I had the chance to look at his diaries, a stack of notebooks piled on the desk of a magazine office in Munich. They seemed no more than the ramblings of a sour exile engaged in lying to himself about the past, and offered little to grow excited about. To my surprise, however, Gerald Posner and John Ware have written a book on Mengele—well researched and wonderfully free of all the customary fantasy and exaggeration—that makes fascinating reading.

They dredge up for rueful examination all the nonsense about Mengele as the Führer of heavily guarded Nazi enclaves in the jungle, all the phony announcements that he had been found or had escaped arrest by hours. It is—alas—all too clear why Mengele evaded capture and retribution for so long. The reason is that nobody tried hard enough or long enough to find him. His cover was not difficult to penetrate; in fact, in his Argentina years, he abandoned concealment altogether and frequently used his own name. Even after his move to Paraguay in 1959, a typist at the West German embassy in Asunción was able to remark casually that her broken ankle had been set by a German doctor named Mengele. His nineteen years in Brazil, from October 1960 to his death in 1979, took him from one fairly amateurish concealment and pseudonym to another, much of the time within reach of the city of São Paulo or, finally, in its suburbs.

Any dedicated team of investigative journalists, given time, patience, money, and a modest element of luck, would have tracked him down. No such team appeared. Posner and Ware, a New York lawyer and a British television producer, were the right kind of investigators, but they only began their hunt when Mengele was already dead.

Before 1960, the year of Eichmann’s kidnapping from Argentina by a Mossad unit, few people were much interested in Mengele. In that year, however, the West German press began to give copious publicity to his crimes, and rewards were offered. The West German authorities, in contrast, did little until they went into a final burst of activity long after his death. In spite of the pressure of the late Fritz Bauer, public prosecutor in Frankfurt and the real architect of the 1963 Auschwitz trial, the police failed to intercept the steady flow of letters between Mengele and his family in Günzburg, or the busy correspondence of Hans Sedlmeier, the family lawyer, who supplied Mengele with money, visited him on several occasions, arranged his trip to Switzerland to meet his son Rolf, and dealt with the various families who sheltered him in Brazil. One raid on Sedlmeier’s house was frustrated by a police source in Günzburg who tipped off the intended target. It was not until May 1985 that a more securely planned raid hit Sedlmeier again, and found reams of Mengele correspondence and data in his wife’s cupboard. As for the West German embassy in Paraguay, its efforts to lay hold of Mengele in 1959 and 1960, when he was living under its nose, were puny.

The Paraguayans themselves, President Stroessner in person and some of his henchmen, were responsible for the obsessive conviction in Europe and North America that Mengele was hidden in that country, although—as Stroessner and Co. knew very well—he had remained there for only a year. Why did they not say openly that he had gone? In fact they did so, but only after they had told so many lies and behaved so evasively that nobody believed a word they said. Their motive seems not to have been any political sympathy for old Nazis, but something much more Latin American: furious patriotic resentment at the way that Nazi-hunters and foreign governments seemed to be pushing them around. They were damned if they would help foreigners who insulted Paraguayan sovereignty and made disparaging remarks about the regime. The result of their refusal to cooperate was, of course, to make things far worse. The world concluded not only that Mengele was still in Paraguay but also that Stroessner was an old German fascist who was deliberately protecting his own.

Every con man and hack who could raise money from a credulous newspaper was soon reporting sure-fire sightings or near-miss meetings, almost all in Paraguay. A more serious question is why the Israelis missed him. Posner and Ware have taken much trouble to seek the answer, and have talked to many of the Mossad men involved. The explanation turns out to be prosaic: bad luck, and lack of resources. In 1960, Isser Harel, then head of Mossad, made some efforts to find and seize Mengele while he was in Argentina on the successful operation to kidnap Eichmann. In spite of a few good leads, Isser Harel had neither the time nor the men to do the job thoroughly. Two years later, however, the small Mossad team under Zvi Aharoni made a breakthrough. An ex-SS officer named Willem Sassen agreed to help, and soon established that Mengele was living in Brazil under the protection of a certain Wolfgang Gerhard. Aharoni and his men trailed Gerhard to a farm near São Paulo. And there, while they were eating sandwiches and contemplating the next move, three men rounded the corner of the track and passed within feet of them. Two were Brazilians, but the third was an elderly European with a mustache. It is almost certain that this was Josef Mengele.

Near certainty was not good enough for Aharoni, who flew to Paris to meet Harel and plan the kidnapping. Here the witnesses contradict one another. Aharoni says that Harel ordered him to drop the Mengele inquiry and concentrate on the case of Yosselle Schumacher, a child abducted by his Orthodox grandfather to prevent his parents from taking him back to Russia. Harel claims that he carried on the Mengele operation, but failed to confirm the identity of the man on Gerhard’s farm. What is certain is that, when Harel was replaced shortly afterward, his successor, Meir Amit, insisted on the concentration of Mossad’s efforts upon tasks directly connected with the state security of Israel. Mossad, simply, was too small to pursue effectively both the hunt for old Nazis and more urgent problems like Nasser’s attempt to develop ballistic missiles.

Nobody else came anything like as near to Mengele as the Israelis. But the Mengele-hunting industry boomed on for more than twenty-five years, fueled by sensational nonsense about vast Mossad raiding projects. Many of the most amazing tales emanated from the offices of Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna.

Posner and Ware make a judgment on Wiesenthal that seems to me fair. There is no doubt that many of the Mengele sightings or Mengele hide-out reports that Wiesenthal spooned into the jaws of credulous newsmen were quite baseless, and that a man as tough and shrewd as he was should have known that they were baseless. He encouraged the idea that he was a spider sitting at the center of a worldwide web of agents and informants, which was unfortunately not the case. However, Wiesenthal was not by nature a boastful fantasist out for headlines. His problem was that the Jewish Documentation Center was a hopelessly under-financed one-man operation. If anybody had given Wiesenthal the money and agents he really needed, I have no doubt that he would have found his man. As it was, he took the only sensible course open to him: using every means to raise publicity and keep the world excited about the search for Mengele, in the hope that—eventually—a reliable informant would be persuaded to come forward. But in spite of all the rewards and feature movies and pseudo-trials staged “in absentia,” none did so. One detail, however, continues to nag. What happened to Willem Sassen, who found the way to Mengele in 1962? Or, more properly, what happened to his information, and why did Aharoni and his colleagues apparently sit on it, instead of passing it on to others who might have made good use of it? This is a hole in the story which Posner and Ware do not fill.

On the subject of Mengele, both books have drawn on the testimony of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew whom Mengele appointed as his personal research pathologist. His memoir was first published in an English translation in 1960, and Seaver Books have done well to issue it again now in a cheap paper-back. Nyiszli saw more than any other survivor whose writings are known to me. Mengele’s dissection laboratory was set up in one of the crematory blocks, and Nyiszli’s job was not only to assist his research but to care for the health of the Sonderkommando—the special work squad of Jewish prisoners whose appalling task was to assist in the process of gassing and cremation. Each Sonderkommando was put to death after about four months, and Nyiszli was a witness both to the ultimate secret of mass murder and to the heroic revolt of a Sonderkommando on the night of October 6, 1944 (all were killed, but only after they had blown up one of the crematories and killed dozens of SS men with weapons smuggled in by the Polish resistance).

Nyiszli was not, it seems, very popular with other prisoner-doctors, who resented his remarkable privileges and felt that he put altogether too much professional zeal into his work for Mengele. But we do not have to like him in order to recognize that this is the best brief account of the Auschwitz experience available to a reader, even though—like both Lifton’s book and that by Posner and Ware—it would have been greatly helped by a plan of the camp itself. The book also reprints the famous essay by Bruno Bettelheim which served as its foreword in 1960, and which added so much fuel to the agonizing controversy over Jewish behavior in Nazi Europe. I do not agree with it, but its eloquence and outrage must guarantee it a permanent place in Jewish historiography.

“The Jews of Europe,” Bettelheim wrote, “could have marched as free men against the SS, rather than to first grovel, then wait to be rounded up for their own extermination, and finally walk themselves to the gas chambers.” The essay also includes Bettelheim’s attack on the Anne Frank legend, in which he claims that the Franks should have obtained guns and gone down fighting, and—here I sympathize—he criticizes the stage version of the Diary for the way it ends with Anne proclaiming her belief that there is good in all men. For Bettelheim this speech “denies implicitly that Auschwitz ever existed.”

The opposite point of view is put by Etty Hillesum, the young Dutch Jew who voluntarily entered the Westerbork transit camp to help her friends and her people as they awaited the trains to Auschwitz. Her own train left in October 1943, and she did not return. The new volume of her letters is a supplement to the wonderful An Interrupted Life which was based on her diaries.* But even a person as brave and original as Etty Hillesum could write, a few months before the death she foresaw quite clearly, that “this is something people refuse to admit to themselves: at a given point you can no longer do, but can only be and accept.”

This Issue

May 28, 1987