The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim
By Nicholas Kulish & Souad Mekhennet
(Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385532433, 320pp.)
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
I originally learned about this book following tweets regarding a January 10, 2015 newspaper article by Nicholas Kulish entitled "Old Nazis Never Die." Many twitter users came to the conclusion that escaped Nazis exerted strong influence in Egypt and Syria, and many attributed some of the animosity in those countries to the Zionist project to Nazi-style anti-antisemitism. A French film, which I have not seen, explores Nazis who fled to Egypt and Syria. See this article written by its director, Géraldine Schwarz, and published in Le Monde of January 2, 2015.
So I wanted to read this book to learn about this influence, but that is not its main focus. The authors focus on the process of denazification after World War II, from whose chaotic, unfocused, politicized origins emerged human rights laws and eventually war crime tribunals.
I knew close to zero about how Nazis were treated in postwar Germany and Austria. For some reason, I believed that Germany eagerly investigated and punished all senior Nazi officials, and the few who managed to escape lived in exile until Israel assassinated them or kidnapped them for trial or Germany successfully received them after extradition.
This is a much rosier picture than was actually the case. The scale of the crimes of the Third Reich meant that the number of those who committed war crimes was large. In addition, there was no legal framework for their prosecution since there was as yet no human rights law nor accepted definitions of war crimes. Germany and Austria were divided into districts administered by Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States, and cooperation across these district lines was not forthcoming and evaporated as the Cold War intensified. Germans resented the prosecution of Nazis as victors' justice. The United States and the Soviet Union saw that the prosecution of Nazis alienated Germans, and both countries wanted Germany as an ally, so they quickly ended their investigations. And nobody could administer postwar Europe without using some Nazis as bureaucrats, and many of these often continued in prominent political positions for decades thereafter.
Survivors of the concentration camps and massacres and a few law enforcement officials pressed authorities to prosecute those responsible. Their work was thwarted by indifferent politicians and law enforcement personnel, some of whom used to tip off suspects and enable them to destroy evidence or flee.
Aribert Heim was never captured. Sniffing out his impending arrest, he fled in 1962 to Egypt, where he lived until his death in 1992. He probably never imagined that he would spend three decades in exile, but cultural change in Germany in the 1960s produced a stronger anti-fascist movement which embraced prosecution of Nazis. Moreover, efforts of Holocaust survivors to inform the world about the Nazis' atrocities made people around the world more willing to support their arrest, trial and punishment.
This change from laxity regarding war crimes to strictness is the most fascinating part of the book.
The authors conclude by citing some examples of the acceptance of the war crimes framework in dealing with the worst atrocities of the Balkans wars of the 1990s and the genocide in Rwanda in 1996. I am less sanguine when I think about how Oliver North continues to gallivant about the United States despite the International Court of Justice ruling against the United States for its support of the contra terrorists in Nicaragua. And that occurred in the 1980s, thirty years ago. Forget about prosecuting the politicians who implemented the embargo on Iraq in the 1990s and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, many of whom continue in positions of power.
The authors note wryly: "It often feels in Germany as though there were many more Nazis than descendants of Nazis, when just opposite is the case." It's the same impression I get when white southerners tell me their ancestors "marched with Dr. King." I think, "Somebody must have been voting for George Wallace and Lester Maddox."
Nevertheless, even if recognition of war crimes is "too little, too late" or "after the horse has left the barn," humanity is inching forward. Even if the people talking about war crimes of others come from countries engaging now in war crimes, it's still progress.
Finally, the book increased my determination to learn more about the Holocaust and not because I've ever denied it or because I think understanding it is necessary for peace in the "Middle East." I want to learn about how people in one of the most advanced civilizations on the planet culturally and scientifically focused their hatred on a religious minority and then proceeded to seize their property, enslave them and then kill them on an industrial scale.
Dr. Heim, through the lens of his family members, comes across in this book as a relatively decent human being. That he almost certainly did some of the crimes his accusers witnessed, and possibly many more where no witnesses survived, demonstrates the black-hole-like power of war and fascist, totalitarian ideologies to create war criminals. It is up to us to recognize when we ourselves display those characteristics and to guide our societies away from that path.
And I hope historians are able to discuss in more detail fascist influences in Muslim countries, both before and after World War II, provided this is placed in a context of global fascist influence (see Henry Ford) and the injustices of colonialism and post-independence neo-colonialism.
P.S. The book is exciting as a detective drama, somewhat like Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides. So it is a fun, easy read.
P.P.S. Remember that a few people, like Franz Jägerstätter, chose to dissent.