The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel by Olivier Guez

The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel by Olivier Guez

Like many people I have a deep personal fascination with World War II (much influenced by my professional interests in this time period), but I was unsure if I wanted to read a book — fiction or otherwise — centered on so evil a person, a human being capable of having inflicted so much suffering on others. Indeed, the first third of the novel made me rather queasy: Should I be more detached from this historical material? Should I be reading this with a massive grain of salt? Should I be enjoying this read?

And that’s the thing: The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel is a captivating, enjoyable read. Guez’s prose is irrepressibly smooth, the plot is compelling and thrusts the reader forward, his characterization of Mengele is fascinating, successful, human. I did not want to like him — and here I think is Guez’s brilliance — I did not end up liking this horrendous human being, in fact, my distaste for him was confirmed, but Guez prevailed on me to acknowledge Mengele as a member of my own species. By the end of the book, I could not deny that Mengele and I shared a common sense of existence, a common biology, that he and I were human. And I therefore must confront the real horror of Nazi eugnenics and racism: humanity is cruelest to its own and any study of our inherent nature must accept our own cruelty.

Josef Mengele — in all his aliases (Pedro, Peter, Helmut, Wolfgang, so many others) — was not the only character in Guez’s meticulously researched historical novel who brought me to this uncomfortable realization. Mengele’s first wife, Irene; his second wife and ex-sister-in-law, Martha; his unwanted lover, Gitta; his father, Karl; and his mother, Walburga are those who inflict cruelties — justified or not, minor or abusive — on Mengele. This does not excuse Mengele, but in terms of a fictionalized view, Guez gives us a window into his psyche,

This novel is not about Mengele per se, it is a layered dissection of the interaction of individuals, their subjective desires, and their collective obligations as these factors intersect with history and its unavoidable tides. Guez writes without pretending any unique insight into Mengele’s interiority. That which Guez assumes and invents is well within the parameters of fiction; his characterization of Mengele is plausible, the world Guez constructs is recognizable as our own. I want to note that Guez’s deep research into the topic is visible, appreciated, exemplary. If only most writers of historical fiction did this. For historians, professional, hobby, and emergent, Guez’s brief but detailed note on sources is a fantastic bonus. But, I digress, the book isn’t about Mengele; it is about all that made the disappearance possible.

Therefore, added to the above cast is the vast network of enablers that made Mengele’s escape and assimilation possible. These friends, politicians, extended family members, and indeed all the clerks, secretaries, and supporting unnamed persons make the horror even more palpable — as tangible as the sense of the person sitting in the office next to me, the odor of my fellow-commuters on public transports, the sound of a door closing elsewhere in my apartment building. These people are not the cowardly or indifferent Germans who made the Third Reich and its genocide of Jews, Roma, and so many others possible, no, what Guez forces the reader to recognize is that there are people who are willingly complicit in promoting and preserving the genocidal, racist ideologies of the Nazis — and others like it. Juan and Evita Perón and their institutionalized obsession with Nazism and Fascism, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, officials in Germany from the highest levels of the state down to the municipality of Günzberg, where the Mengele family was headquartered and ran their multinational corporation from, and so many others were thrilled to be part of the Nazi machine, during and after WWII. Some were motivated by their own ambitions, others by a sense of loyalty, others by fanatical belief in Mengele’s work and Nazism. Guez brings this massive conspiracy to life, peoples it with individuals we recognize in our own lives.

There are also those individuals who were completely hoodwinked by Mengele, and therein lies the other side of this story. I hesitate to say this is the “redeeming” aspect of Guez’s novel; no, it is better described as a more recognizable payoff. Their stories are those which we expect to see in a novel like this; these are the characters whose snubs and betrayals serve as rewards for sitting through the horrors I have described above. When Mengele’s son, Rolf; his dog, Heinrich Lyons; his landlords, Geza and Gitta; and later, Elsa abandon Mengele, the reader is bound to exclaim, “Yes! Finally!” and feel a rush of tingly righteousness.

Still, mingled with this happier sensation is a sadness: it is not enough that Rolf Mengele refused his name, freezes out his father, it is bittersweet that Heinrich Lyons dies (no spoiler here, what dog outlives a man who lives into his late 60s?). I will not spoil what happens with Elsa, Geza, or Gitta. The reader cannot forget that an exhausted and geopolitically influenced Mossad had to redirect its efforts away from Mengele’s capture and lose the opportunity to deliver some closure and justice to the millions affected by the Shoah. The fact that Mengele’s story rolls on to the novels end is an unhappy reminder that the cruelties Mengele experienced were in no way comparable to that which he inflicted on others.

For all the nuance and complications woven into the characters interactions, the plot is straightforward: it is an account of how this sadistic individual got away with it and how he did not fully escape the consequences and punishment of a kind. There is a sense of satisfying comeuppance, though the degree to which any reader will feel vindicated will vary. I was glad that Mengele could not live in peace, but the measure of his penalties was small in comparison to the magnitude of his crimes. That too is Guez’s point: fate is not bound by any moral scale. There is no equilibrium in justice.

A note on audience: Because of the multiple meanings this novel could convey its merits could be misconstrued, its story could be twisted to serve neo-Nazi tendencies if read without some guidance or instruction for some readers. For that reason, I would not recommend this as a book for novice historians, undergraduate students, or for use in a classroom — except, perhaps, a graduate seminar. The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel requires dissection with historical guidance for readers who have less experience working with or knowledge of the histories this novel is built on.

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