“Everything would have been different if I had come from a happy home with people who cared about me,” Josef Mengele wrote in the 500-page autobiography discovered after his death. Mengele’s autobiography offers a disturbing spectacle: the pathetic whining of a pampered, sadistic murderer, interlaced with sermons on racial superiority and odd little drawings of bunnies and wooden cabinets. Mengele is a prime case of the perpetrator’s urge to see himself as a sufferer, a common syndrome among war criminals. In Auschwitz he was a petty god dispensing death; after the war, he became a weakling.
When Mengele drowned in 1979 while swimming off the coast of Brazil he became the most famous Nazi to escape judgment for his crimes. But there was another Nazi fugitive who lasted much longer: Aribert Heim, who like Mengele was both a doctor and a genocidal killer. Tall, athletic, and good-looking, Heim served in the Austrian concentration camp Mauthausen in 1942 and 1943, where inmates called him “Dr. Death.” After the war, he played for a time on a German hockey team in Bad Nauheim, then became a successful gynecologist in Baden-Baden, and finally escaped to Egypt, where, after living in solitude for years and then converting to Islam, he died in 1992. Most of the Third Reich’s evildoers lived undisturbed, comfortable lives in postwar Germany. Heim too might have escaped the net of justice had he not drawn attention to himself by fleeing from the Bundesrepublik, whose citizens were all too eager to gloss over his crimes.
Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet tell Heim’s story in The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim, and it’s a horrifying one. Heim apparently enjoyed injecting gasoline directly into the hearts of inmates, especially Jews. Sometimes he would cut off the head of a corpse and, after baking the flesh off, give the skull to a friend or display it as a trophy. He once told a 12-year-old Jewish boy, before giving him a fatal injection, that his death was merited because the Jews had started the war.
When Kulish and Mekhennet traveled to Cairo to investigate Heim’s life and death there, they found a briefcase stuffed with his memorabilia, including travel brochures, old photographs, and sketches Heim had made of his medical condition. In the briefcase they discovered a long article in which Heim, excited like many anti-Semites by Arthur Koestler’s book The Thirteenth Tribe, argued that the Jews were really descendants of the Khazars and therefore, somehow, did not exist—and that therefore anti-Semitism didn’t exist either. If the Jewish people were a “colossal hoax,” as Heim insisted, then their claims against Germany must also be a fraud, and “anti-Semitism will have no meaning,” since the Jews are not Semites.
In other writings found in the briefcase, Heim compared himself to Menachem Begin, who was about to become Israel’s prime minister. Heim complained that he was being persecuted by his fellow countrymen, rather than honored for his service to his homeland like Begin, who had also killed innocents. Throughout his final years in Egypt, Heim wrote occasional coded letters to his family in Germany, but even his fellow Nazis in Egypt didn’t know him. As Kulish and Mekhennet remark, the irony of Heim’s life is that, had he stood trial in West Germany, he probably would have gotten only a few years in prison. German sentences for Nazi criminals like Heim were notoriously light, and acquittals were easily had. Most Nazi perpetrators were not tried at all. By telling Heim’s story, The Eternal Nazi shows how long it took for Germany to fully reckon with its Nazi past—a good 30 years. Like an archaic fossil sprung to life, Heim in the ’80s became a living reminder of an era when Nazi criminals were accepted in German society and shielded from punishment by friends, family, and the justice system.
For the most part, we think that there are two kinds of perpetrators of war crimes. There is the ordinary man (or, very rarely, woman) who lapses into, or becomes habituated to, killing, and there is the brutal monster. There might be some cases in between, though, and Heim could be one of them. Unlike Mengele, who was a psychopathic torturer through and through, Heim is in some ways a more doubtful instance, and therefore a more important one. He was supposed to be particularly evil because he talked to his victims sympathetically before he killed them. But perhaps he was just being ambivalent rather than sadistic: an even more frightening idea.
Olga Lengyel, a survivor of Auschwitz, remarked that less than 10 percent of the SS men there were sadists; in fact, she couldn’t remember a German who had not saved someone at some point. Yet most people were not saved but murdered, and sadism mixed readily with occasional gestures of sympathy. The recent, groundbreaking book by the historian Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies, delves into this ethical confusion, at times in the manner of Hermann Langbein’s unmatched eyewitness account People in Auschwitz. Lower’s focus is on German women who committed atrocities in the East; and some of them seem to have been rather kind in some ways. The reader keeps coming back to the incident of one woman, Erna Petri (the only one of Lower’s subjects to serve time for her murders), who first gave food to a hungry group of Jewish boys and then shot them in the back of the neck, just as Hitler’s soldiers had done to over a million Jews on the Eastern front. Is it really true that things could have gone either way? Lower’s research is superb, but her account hits the expected wall: How can an ordinary human being permit herself to do such terrible things? To which the memory of Nazism, along with Hutu Power and the other obsessive engines of mass cruelty, provides a ready answer: Human beings do. Somehow we never get tired of hearing this question and this answer, and we shouldn’t.
There is no way to tell Heim’s story without describing the atmosphere of postwar Germany. Kulish and Mekhennet adeptly portray the silence and repression that surrounded Nazi crimes. Until the 1958 Ulm trials, in which the massacres committed by the SS were widely publicized and Germans were forced to confront photos of soldiers shooting naked women and children and throwing them into ditches, many asserted that only a few leading Nazis had real blood on their hands. After Ulm came the 1960s: the Eichmann trial, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, and the explosion of rage from left-wing terrorists who announced that postwar Germany was still a fascist regime. (America and Israel were also fascist, according to the Red Army Faction, who wound up spreading Nazi guilt too thin and displacing it onto its victims.)
The terrorists were blood-soaked fanatics, but they did get one thing right: In postwar Germany prominent ex-Nazis thrived at all levels of society, including the highest echelons of government. The Nazi past eventually became the defining mark of German national identity. At least in West Germany, starting in the 1980s, every schoolchild saw pictures of emaciated corpses and was told that all Germans were responsible for the horror. The meaning of being German, the schoolchildren learned, was that Germany could never do anything like that again. But in the 1950s and ’60s the conscience-struck teaching of German guilt had not yet begun, and Nazi history existed mostly in what fathers refused to say to their children, what husbands concealed from their wives. Some children rejected their fathers utterly; some demanded to know more; and some loyally made excuses for Nazi misdeeds.
Like Mengele’s son Rolf, Rüdiger Heim shielded a murderer: He visited his father secretly, kept his whereabouts concealed, and funneled money to him so he could evade justice. (German law declares that a defendant’s family cannot be prosecuted for obstructing a criminal case in this way.) But Rüdiger protected his father in part because he thought he still might find out something that he needed to know. Both Rolf Mengele and Rüdiger Heim wanted to—had to—see and know who their father really was and what he had to say for himself. The answer, in both cases, was nothing, yet both sons shied away from the judgment that every civilized reader demands. The sons of Mengele and Heim denied their fathers’ victims what the victims needed most, to see these men on trial, and in this way they augmented their fathers’ crimes. Yet Rüdiger Heim comes off rather well in Kulish and Mekhennet’s book: He deplores anti-Semitism and is haunted by the German guilt for the Holocaust. He just can’t believe that his own father did what history says that he did.
When Heim landed in Egypt in 1963, he found himself on welcoming, even familiar ground. President Nasser, if one trusts his own words on the subject, was as true a disciple of the Nazi cause as had ever lived. “During the Second World War, our sympathies were with the Germans,” Nasser told the Deutsche Nationalzeitung in May 1964, adding that “The lie of the 6 million murdered Jews is not taken seriously by anybody.” Wehrmacht Gen. Wilhelm Fahrmbacher prepared the Egyptian army for its effort to destroy Israel in 1948, and Wilhelm Voss, a former SS weapons expert, developed the Egyptian missile program. Johann von Leers, a convert to Islam known as Omar Amin, served Nasser as an anti-Semitic propagandist. Von Leers was famous for his lavish dinner parties, where his wife Gisele strutted about in primitive-looking gold jewelry and hinted that she was the reincarnation of a Bronze Age priestess. The circle of old Nazis in Egypt was riddled with spies. Because of the CIA’s partnership with ex-Nazi spymaster Reinhard Gehlen, many of the SS men in Egypt drew American paychecks. The most intriguing figure in this crew was Wolfgang Lotz, who was actually a blond, blue-eyed, German-born Jew masquerading as a Nazi. Lotz in fact worked for Mossad. Wary of this treacherous atmosphere, Heim had minimal contact with the other ex-Nazis in Egypt; in this as in so much else he was a man alone.
In February 1979 Der Spiegel broke the story that Dr. Aribert Heim, a Nazi war criminal whose location was unknown, was supporting himself by profits from his Berlin apartment building; the money was being channeled through Heim’s sister. In order to avoid getting in trouble for tax evasion, to show that the building’s profits went to Heim and not to her, the sister had to prove that he was still alive. So, Heim provided an audiotape in which he attested to his own existence and to the fact that he was still in hiding, living off rent paid by German citizens.
A political firestorm erupted. Heim’s tenants were outraged, along with the rest of the German public. Millions of Germans had recently been shaken by the vastly popular American-made mini-series Holocaust, which brought home the horrors of the Nazi genocide, and they were newly enthusiastic about war-crimes trials for aging Nazi offenders like Heim. Within months, Heim was tried and convicted in absentia and his livelihood seized. He was forced to move to a small room in one of Cairo’s many run-down hotels, where he became friends with the landlord’s children and tried to teach them English and French. (Heim was a fluent speaker of both languages, along with Arabic.) His landlord and his dentist started talking to him about the Muslim faith, and soon Heim was reading the Quran. Heim embraced Islam in 1980 and took the new name Tarek Hussein Farid.
His conversion might have been sincere, but perhaps he merely wanted a better disguise, afraid that Aribert Heim was now a household name, and that the law was closing in on him.
Kulish and Mekhennet show that the search for Heim was really the work of one man: Alfred Aedtner (who was aided by the famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal).
Aedtner was a Wehrmacht veteran who, after he became a police detective in 1964, tirelessly pursued German war criminals at a time when most of his fellow Germans wanted to forget or excuse the “excesses” of the Third Reich—or protect the perpetrators. The nondescript Aedtner was a mild, well-dressed aficionado of schnitzel and beer whose steely drive to bring Nazis to justice is never completely explained. Aedtner is the other protagonist of The Eternal Nazi, and he is every bit as significant as the vampiric entity of the title. Heim plays that ageless near-mythic figure, the evil man with a clear conscience, unrepentant to the end. The stolid Aedtner is simply a professional called to a task.
It is just as unclear to Aedtner’s son as it is to Kulish and Mekhennet why Aedtner was so dedicated to prosecuting Nazis, a job that meant traveling all over Europe to take testimonies, tracking down endless hints about potential witnesses, and following up tantalizing rumors that almost never panned out. (Heim was, over the years, said to be in Spain, Chile, and a number of other places where he never set foot.) Aedtner’s son says, “He wanted to get them,” the Verbrecher, the Nazi wrongdoers, and that desire made him work endless frustrating hours. The authors think that maybe Aedtner’s dedication to hunting Nazis “grew out of nothing more than an ingrained opposition to suffering, and he could never get over the extreme, almost limitless suffering that the Nazis had caused.”
If this was it, then Aedtner’s simple reaction accomplished something more than all the elaborate theories about Nazism put together. Aedtner would never have put it this way, but he probably agreed with the sentence from the Book of Job inscribed at Birkenau, which gives these words to the Nazis’ victims: “O Earth, cover not up my blood, and let my cry never cease.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.