About the Book by Oliver Guez Titiled “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Amanda DeMarco of the book by Oliver Guez titled “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele”:

Where does it go, the past? In 1949, it went to Argentina. In Olivier Guez’s novel “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele,” that is the year the notorious Auschwitz physician, the so-called Angel of Death, begins life anew as a fugitive in Buenos Aires. At the time, Argentina was actively importing Mengele’s kind: the country was, in Mr. Guez’s words, a “melting pot of Nazis . . . Italian Fascists . . . Vichy French . . . killers, torturers and adventurers,” a “ghostly Fourth Reich” in the Southern Cone.

President Juan Perón’s sense of military honor had been offended by the Nuremberg trials, and, he calculated, the brain trust of the former Axis could perhaps help him to forge a populist, authoritarian “Third Way” between the atheistic Communists and the Anglo-American imperialists. With the aid of high-ranking Catholic clergy who were kindly inclined toward Nazis, Mengele and his ilk made their way to South America, where they took up false identities, started new careers and sent for their families.

The journalist Uki Goñi laid bare the long-hidden story of Argentina’s support for Nazi war criminals in his 2002 investigation “The Real Odessa.” Mr. Guez’s novel, published in Paris in 2017 and now translated by Georgia de Chamberet, gives us an imaginative vision of what it was like to travel along one of Perón’s “ratlines” and emerge on the other side. Mr. Guez has been praised in the French press for his meticulous research, and rightly so. His Mengele takes his place in a vividly detailed tableau of South American society, ensconced in a circle of fugitive Nazis that includes Adolf Eichmann. Mr. Guez illustrates over the course of the novel that the past doesn’t disappear, but it does have a half-life. When they arrive, Mengele’s cohort is plotting their return to power. After all, “their beloved Germany will not have changed with just a wave of a magic wand.” Not by the wave of a wand, no, but gradually: by the mid-1950s their dream has withered and all that is left is a shared secret struggle for personal survival.

Mengele, hiding his former identity as a medical doctor, immediately finds work in Buenos Aires as the carpenter “Helmut Gregor.” His family supports him for decades with profits from their West German business and are aided by local police who tip them off whenever investigators get too close. It literally takes a village to support a war criminal. A parade of unsavory characters—Germans, exiles, Peronists and other South American sympathizers—abet Mengele in various ways, especially in the early postwar years. The main obstacles to his continued safety are his increasingly unpleasant demeanor and his hosts’ fear that they themselves will be punished for helping him. Both problems, it turns out, can be neutralized with money.

Deteriorating political conditions in Argentina drive Mengele to Paraguay, and then fear of capture pushes him to Brazil. Eichmann’s 1960 kidnapping by Mossad changes the tenor of his exile; Mengele suddenly feels “marked by the curse of Cain.” He is actively hunted by Israel and its allies and forced into hiding in his later years. By 1967, watching television at his home in the São Paulo slums, “he understands nothing of the world” and his health is failing. After a series of strokes, he dies, age 67, in 1979, having spent half of his life on the run. In Mr. Guez’s novel we experience existential dread as something like cosmic punishment: Mengele is “eaten alive by anxiety” long after the authorities have stopped looking for him, and is abandoned by those he loved, humiliated by history and surrounded by a racially diverse Brazilian society that he detests. In a 2017 interview, Mr. Guez said he felt that crimes like Mengele’s couldn’t truly be punished, but that Mengele suffered more in his Brazilian favela than he would have in a West German prison. “If the Israelis,” who had the death penalty, “had caught him . . . well, that would have been different.”

In the year of its publication, “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele” was awarded the Prix Renaudot. Its message struck a French nerve in the context of rising anti-Semitic attacks and fading Holocaust memory. Russia’s recent abuse of Nazi myths to justify its war in Ukraine underscores the continuing relevance of these stories. This makes it all the more important to remember accurately who these figures were.

Mengele’s postwar story—including, in 1985, the exhumation and identification of his remains—is not new, and is available in many forms: biographies, scholarly accounts and interviews with those who knew him. The work of this novel is to remind us of things we know but may lose sight of. Writing about Eichmann’s 1961 trial, Hannah Arendt described the banality of evil, in which seemingly ordinary people committed horrible crimes because they followed orders without exercising moral judgment; Eichmann’s lawyer described his client as a “small cog” in the Nazi death machine. The philosopher Bettina Stangneth later demonstrated, in her 2011 study “Eichmann Before Jerusalem,” that the “small cog” argument was a courtroom ploy and that Eichmann was an active co-creator of the Final Solution. Mr. Guez’s book can be understood in the same vein as Ms. Stangneth’s, a work that underscores not the banality of evil but its brazenness. Mr. Guez’s Mengele bloviates about Nazi values to justify his crimes, castigating the Germans for betraying “men of honour who fought until their last bullet was fired for the homeland and the Führer.” Mr. Guez’s own propensity for the florid only heightens the effect. His is a book that keeps the reader in a state of outrage at both Mengele’s unrepentance and the moral poverty of his backers.

With the exception of a few scenes set during wartime, Mr. Guez does not dwell on Mengele’s odious human experiments in Auschwitz. These episodes notwithstanding, and contrary to what many of the French reviews of the book imply, “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele” is not really about remembering the horrors of Nazi atrocities. It is, rather, about the quotidian but crucial work of understanding the tenacious allure of Nazism to an ambitious, self-deluded man with few defenses against it: “It preyed upon his mediocre tastes, his vanity, envy and avarice, inciting him to commit monstrous crimes and to justify them.” Mr. Guez means to “keep us on our guard” against the Mengeles of the world, those susceptible, malleable, advantage seekers who will always be among us.

Amanda DeMarco is an American writer and translator based in Berlin.

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