The Nazi Doctor Who Got Away With Mass Murder, Fled to Cairo, and Became a Muslim
‘The Eternal Nazi’ tells the gripping story of the hunt for Aribert Heim, and the German detective who relentlessly pursued him
“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.)
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