Retelling Mengele’s downfall via Nazism and his own twisted nature

While readers may be tempted to search for a shred of remorse in Mengele’s last years, the more Guez discloses the doctor’s final thoughts and emotions, the more we are struck with horror.

 CONCENTRATION CAMP survivor Moshe Spitzer in front of Mauthausen, in Austria. SS doctor Josef Mengele selected him at Auschwitz as a worker to be sent there.  (photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
CONCENTRATION CAMP survivor Moshe Spitzer in front of Mauthausen, in Austria. SS doctor Josef Mengele selected him at Auschwitz as a worker to be sent there.
(photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

“This is the story of an unscrupulous man with a small, hard soul, struck down by a poisonous and deadly ideology,” author Olivier Guez confides in his historical novel, The Disappearance of Joseph Mengele. Piecing together letters, diaries and official documents, Guez reconstructs the notorious Auschwitz doctor’s life after his escape from Germany at the end of World War II

“This is the story of an unscrupulous man with a small, hard soul, struck down by a poisonous and deadly ideology.”

Olivier Guez

While readers may be tempted to search for a shred of remorse in Mengele’s last years, the more Guez discloses the doctor’s final thoughts and emotions, the more we are struck with horror at the sheer absence of anything resembling humanity in the deep recesses of the Angel of Death’s mind. 

Though Mengele lived out his days in denial and was never sentenced for his appalling crimes, Guez’s retelling reassures us that the doctor suffered his own self-imposed hell seeping with paranoia, rejection, isolation and despair.

As both an “ambitious young doctor” and the “archetypal cold, sadistic Nazi: a monster,” Joseph Mengele stands as the Auschwitz concentration camp’s Angel of Death, with his sinister figure directing victims to the gas chambers or conducting cruel and often lethal medical experiments on inmates, many of them children. At the end of the war, Mengele vanished without a trace, as survivors of his “human zoo” demanded justice for the atrocities the doctor committed.

mengele (credit: Courtesy)mengele (credit: Courtesy)

Beginning with Mengele’s 1949 arrival in Buenos Aries under the alias Helmut Gregor, Guez guides us through city streets teeming with Nazi and fascist fugitives rebuilding their reputation. Argentina under Juan Peron’s military dictatorship hopes its open-door policy where “war criminals are invited to build dams, missiles and nuclear power plants,” will turn “Argentina into a superpower.” 

It is in this ghostly fourth Reich, as Guez dubs it, that Mengele finds amnesty, protection and luxury. Living off his family’s wealth and the support of devoted Nazis, Mengele managed to evade arrest until he drowned during a stroke three decades later.

Though, as Guez puts it, “Mengele died in the immensity of the ocean, in the Brazilian sun, sneakily, without ever having faced the justice of men or answered to his victims for his unspeakable crimes,” it is the doctor’s own wickedness that sows the seeds of his destruction and witnesses his retribution.

Mengele: Conceited, manipulative and vain

Mengele is conceited, manipulative and vain; while he attempted to bribe Nazi loyalists to house him in South America, he was so abusive, critical, and cruel that they eventually refused his money and kicked him to the curb. 

His most loyal follower concealed Mengele for over a decade without any compensation, only to be told by the wealthy doctor “it would be better to accept… the death of his wife, rather than squander other people’s money,” when she is dying of cancer, and he begged for help to pay medical bills that he couldn’t afford.

SLOWLY BUT surely, Mengele’s supporters and family deserted him, and he was barred from the haven he worked so hard to achieve in Argentina. As the world picked up its search for the Angel of Death, Mengele’s paranoia and anxiety stifled him. He was always on the run, constantly ill, endured isolation and confined himself to a depressing prison of his own making in fear of being discovered. Mengele wondered constantly if it would not be better to just end his hopeless existence.

As Mengele’s anguish increased, he spewed his despair and rage at those around him. Even the doctor’s family couldn’t escape his “emotional blackmail” and manipulation. Mengele neurotically writes letters to his son, condemning his life choices and threatening to commit suicide if he does not come to visit his “lonely and unloved” father who “is in a state of collapse,” “has nearly died twice,” and “the Israelis are going to murder him.”

Despite the loathing, accusations and arrest warrants that ravaged his life, Mengele felt no guilt. When Mengele’s son confronted his father, the doctor’s disturbing ideology became apparent: “Have you never felt compassion for the children, the women, the old men you sent to the gas chamber? Do you have no remorse?” 

Mengele gave his son a filthy look. The boy understands nothing, really. “Mercy is not a valid concept, since the Jews do not belong to the human race.”

Mengele’s dialogue with his son, and much of Guez’s narration, is terse and cold. In this way, Guez succeeds in traversing the alarming lifelessness and seething rage of Mengele’s emotions, resurrecting the Angel of Death as he stands “on the selection ramp, the great orchestrator of the macabre ballet, a demon in immaculate uniform who hurried men into the darkness.”

The Disappearance of Joseph Mengele fuses extensive historical accounts with an unnerving recreation of Mengele’s disposition, in a retelling of the doctor’s downfall at the hands of Nazism and his own twisted nature. “The ambitious young doctor offered no resistance to the disease of Nazism: it preyed on his mediocre tastes, his vanity, envy and avarice, inciting him to commit monstrous crimes and to justify them,” Guez declares. 

His scrutiny of Mengele’s fate further reveals that the same evil and ruthlessness that brought the Angel of Death to commit such heinous crimes, in the end led the devil to his own “descent into hell.” 

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF JOSEPH MENGELE By Olivier Guez, Translated by Georgia de ChamberetVerso224 pages; $19.95