Sven Keller. Günzburg und der Fall Josef Mengele: Die Heimatstadt und die Jagd nach dem NS-Verbrecher. München: Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2003. 211 S. EUR 24.80 (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-486-64587-3.
Reviewed by Caroline Sharples (Department of History, University of Southampton)
Published on H-German (October, 2004)
Confronting the Murderer in their Midst
Sven Keller's work on the Swabian town of Günzburg is the latest, welcome addition to a growing canon of regional case studies on the legacy of the Third Reich. Tracing the story of the forty-year hunt for the notorious Auschwitz physician, Dr. Josef Mengele, this book focuses on the post-war history of a single West German town that, after 1945, found its own reputation indelibly linked with the atrocities committed under National Socialism.
Information on Mengele's wartime activities was circulating at the end of the conflict, but it was not until the 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trial that the full extent of his crimes gained currency in the public imagination. Arriving in Auschwitz in 1943, Mengele conducted barbaric human experiments and was involved in the selection of new arrivals, determining who would be sent immediately to the gas chambers. The gruesome details of his activities were carefully outlined during the Frankfurt trial, providing a series of revelations that fueled mythologized images of Mengele as the archetypal "excess perpetrator," a prototype for all SS doctors. Keller's work underlines the extent to which Mengele has remained a constant source of worldwide fascination, and the model for fictional sinister characters such as the doctor in the 1976 film, Marathon Man. Much has been written on the prolonged hunt for Mengele, a search characterized by a series of unsubstantiated sightings and wild goose chases taking Nazi hunters around the globe. However, as Keller points out, the person of Josef Mengele has gone largely unnoticed within existing historiography. This work therefore aims to redress the imbalance and bring us to a closer understanding of the man himself.
The popular demonic representations of Mengele certainly stand in stark contrast to the impressions retained of him by the people of his hometown. Born in Günzburg in June 1911, Josef Mengele was the eldest of three sons of local factory owner Karl Mengele and his wife, Wally. The family, as one of the largest employers in the area, were well known and highly respected members of the local community. Karl Mengele was a former Bürgermeister, a freeman of the town and the holder of a Golden Citizen Medal. Young Josef, meanwhile, was widely regarded as a model child, a well-mannered, intelligent boy brought up in strict accordance with the Catholic faith.
At the heart of Keller's book, then, are three fundamental questions: how did Josef Mengele evolve from a polite schoolboy into a brutal concentration camp killer? What role did Günzburg, as his birthplace, play in this process? And how did the town deal with the legacy of Mengele's crimes after 1945? The histories of the town and the doctor have become intertwined. Keller insists that Günzburg's role in the Mengele case cannot be ignored, a sentiment which, as Keller proceeds to illustrate, many journalists shared during the search for this war criminal.
Keller adopts a broadly chronological structure to his study, with the first chapter offering a brief biographical sketch of Mengele. This section lists the main events of Mengele's life in the factual manner of one perusing a resume, yet despite the initial subheading, "1911-1943: Kindheit, Karriere, Krieg," we learn nothing here about Mengele's childhood beyond the simple sentence stating that he was born in 1911 and remained in Günzburg throughout his youth before heading to Munich in 1930 to study medicine (p. 17). Keller spends his second chapter exploring the mythical image of Mengele, before returning, in chapter 3, to fill in some of the gaps in Mengele's earlier history as the means of considering the origins of his political and ideological convictions. It is at this point that the book begins to shift its attention firmly onto the town itself, and the establishment of what Keller terms the "Günzburg Myth"--the theme that rests at the heart of this study.
In 1964, the prosecutor in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, Fritz Bauer, told the West German press that Mengele remained the favorite son of Günzburg, a town that obstinately refused to overcome its Nazi past. Chapters 4 to 6 examine the truth behind this statement, scrutinizing the complex relationship between Günzburg and the Mengele family, and the way in which knowledge of Josef's crimes developed over the years. Later chapters describe the media whirlwind accompanying the final discovery of Mengele's body in Brazil in 1985, and Günzburg's final efforts to displace its close connections with the Mengele name.
Keller explains that at the heart of the "Günzburg Myth" was the belief that the town's inhabitants knew far more about the Auschwitz doctor than they cared to admit. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as occupying U.S. forces provided the local Günzburg residents with the first news of the crimes perpetrated in Auschwitz, Josef's wife, Irene, donned black clothes and proclaimed her husband to have been killed in Eastern Europe. Keller asserts that "the Mengele theatre show was a complete success": Josef's name was mentioned during the early war crimes trials, but no attempt was made to locate him (p. 116). During the 1950s, though, the small town environment of Günzburg gave rise to rumors suggesting that Mengele would soon be in Argentina, and when Karl Mengele died in November 1959, the level of expectation displayed by locals that the deceased's eldest child would be returning to pay his respects at the funeral revealed that the majority of people were convinced that Josef remained alive. The "Günzburg Myth" thus had its basis in the notion that not only had the Mengele family aided Josef's flight to South America and remained in contact with him, but that the town's inhabitants were complicit in what was effectively an open secret. Keller notes that, although Mengele did not make the anticipated appearance (the family apparently considered it too risky), many town citizens convinced themselves of the opposite. A "Funeral Legend" grew, to the extent that in 1967, Der Spiegel ran an article in which it stated that Mengele had been at his father's committal.
Throughout the 1960s, therefore, Günzburg was portrayed in both the West German and international press as a town of conspirators, a community anxious to defend the Mengele family and effectively harbor a wanted major war criminal. Drawing upon a wealth of material from the Günzburg town archives, and in particular the correspondence of the Oberbürgermeister, Keller provides a detailed analysis of this myth and challenges some of the assumptions made about the town. Keller argues that journalists flocked to Günzburg with preconceived opinions of the town's relationship with the Mengele family, quickly interpreting the reluctance or inability of Günzburg residents to answer their questions as evidence of a guilty conscience, without engaging with the cognitive problems that the reality of the Holocaust posed. This, combined with locals' inability to reconcile memories of "their" Mengele, with the crimes he was now accused of, was taken as further proof that the town was unwilling to confront the Nazi past.
While the overwhelming focus of this study rests upon this single town, Keller takes care to place events in Günzburg within a wider context, and stresses how the reactions displayed in Günzburg to the Mengele case were not all that different from those exhibited elsewhere in the Federal Republic. Adhering to conventional historical narratives, Keller points to a widespread West German reticence about the Nazi past during the early post-war years, and uses opinion poll data to reveal how many people remained opposed to the prosecution of Nazi war criminals throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. It is Keller's conclusion that the huge degree of interest and excitement ultimately generated by the Mengele case had its foundations in the basic lack of reliable information on the whereabouts of the Auschwitz doctor. Keller argues: "had Josef Mengele been arrested in 1945 or had he taken his own life like many of his colleagues, his hometown probably would never have been confronted with him and his crimes in Auschwitz, as was later the case. But his inexplicable disappearances without a trace made his name known to a wider public and made possible the establishment of the myths, the spectacular rumors, speculation and legends that became a lasting theme in the international press" (p. 185).
Following in the wake of numerous other studies of various West German towns confronting their historical associations with the Nazi regime, such as Peter Reichel's work on Hamburg and Gavriel Rosenfeld's on Munich, this work both compliments and enhances existing literature on regional memories of Nazism. It is a fascinating and immensely readable book, which, spanning the post-war era from 1945 right through to the 1980s, should merit attention from any scholars interested in the legacy of the Third Reich. Altogether, Sven Keller presents an impressive and well-written case study that not only offers new light on the character of Josef Mengele, but also highlights the far-reaching resonance that investigations into a wanted Nazi war criminal could have at the grassroots of the Federal Republic of Germany.
. Peter Reichel, Das Gedächtnis der Stadt: Hamburg im Umgang mit seiner nationalsozialistischen Vergangenheit (Hamburg: Dölling und Galitz Verlag, 1997); and Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, Munich and Memory: Architecture, Monuments and the Legacy of the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
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Caroline Sharples. Review of Keller, Sven, Günzburg und der Fall Josef Mengele: Die Heimatstadt und die Jagd nach dem NS-Verbrecher.
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