The Disappearance of Josef Mengele
By Olivier Guez
217 pp. Verso. $20.
A fascinating novel based on true events and told from the perspective of one of history’s greatest monsters. This is an uncomfortable read, both because of that perspective and because of the terrible history involved here.
I initially worried that the framing of this book, from Mengele’s perspective, would have a “Breaking Bad” effect, in that it might serve to cause some readers to sympathize with the monstrous man at its center. Instead, it’s disconcerting and more likely to make you squirm since you’re forced to follow along as this awful individual scrambles to escape from justice.
You may or may not know how this story plays itself out, but the way Guez tells it here is closely aligned with the historical record, even if the life Mengele lived in South America and his inner monologues have to be created.
This is an uncomfortable book, and that’s a very good thing. It forces readers to reconcile with the actions of so-called “decent” governments and individuals in the face of real evil. I’m thinking here of the West German government, which for decades not only failed to place much impetus on the pursuit of escaped Nazis but turned a blind eye to many of the Nazis that stayed in Germany, even employing some of them. Ditto the actions of other governments, like that of the United States, which notoriously turned to Nazi scientists for assistance in various weapons programs.
See also Mengele’s son, Rolf, who refused to turn his father in to the authorities or reveal the “ratlines” that allowed him to stay hidden because he didn’t want to get his father’s accomplices in trouble. All this despite Rolf’s supposed revulsion at his father’s crimes.
Mengele was a monster, a butcher, but the actual villains of “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele” are those societies and individuals which enabled these war criminals to avoid prosecution. Among some of the most culpable were certain South American leaders at the time, such as Argentina’s Juan and Eva Perón, who offered their country as a sanctuary for Nazi war criminals, but it seems few who had the power emerge blameless.
Reading this is a harrowing reminder that it took more than 20 years for West Germany and much of the world to truly recognize the horror of the Holocaust.
One of the more outrageous examples of the denial of West Germany’s historic responsibility came after officials from the West German embassy in France saw a private screening of Alain Resnais’ 1956 film about the Holocaust, “Night and Fog.” Following the screening, a letter was sent to the French foreign minister demanding that the film be withdrawn from competition at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, in the name of helping restore French-German relations following the war. (and it was.)
“The Disappearance of Josef Mengele” does what the best literature should, by forcing us to reassess the past and our own culpability in it.