• Nicholas Kulish and Souad Makhennet, The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim, Doubleday, 2014, 301 pages, $27.95.
RALEIGH — Back in the day, movies such as “Marathon Man” and “The Boys from Brazil” led one critic to quip that if a few dozen octogenarian Nazis hiding in Paraguay could wield so much influence, maybe they really were the master race. The Eternal Nazi authors Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet acknowledge the “superhuman Nazi of popular imagination” while focusing on Aribert Heim, once the world’s most wanted Nazi war criminal. He died more than 20 years ago, but his story remains instructive.
Born in 1914, the strapping Austrian excelled at ice hockey and easily mastered foreign languages. He completed his medical studies in Vienna at the age of 25 and was drafted into the SS, meaning he faced automatic arrest after World War II. Heim served nearly three years as a POW and during that stint worked as a doctor treating fellow prisoners. Missing from Heim’s file was his 1941 service in Mauthausen. Survivors of the concentration camp there charge that Heim killed inmates by injecting gasoline into their hearts and used their skulls to decorate his desk.
That evidence failed to emerge when Heim was released in 1947, and soon he was living the good life in West Germany. He practiced medicine as a gynecologist, acquired property, and in 1953 moved to a villa in Baden-Baden with his wife Friedl. Heim fathered two sons and an illegitimate daughter, Waltraut Boser, who inherited father’s athleticism and language skill.
Heim’s story confirms that what Clausewitz called the “fog of war” endures long after the conflict ends. Even so, the hunt was on for Nazi war criminals, and in 1961 the Israelis bagged Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Holocaust. He was tried and executed, and as other inquiries mounted, Heim began to get nervous. He finally decamped for Tangier then moved on to Egypt, where German military officers received a warm welcome, a legacy of support for the Axis powers in World War II. The authors also observe that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj al-Husseini, worked with the Nazis and even visited concentration camps.
In Egypt, Heim was able to maintain his properties in Europe remotely. He eventually converted to Islam and adopted the name Tarek Hussein Farid. In 1979, he had been on the cover of Der Spiegel, but sleuths such as German policeman Alfred Aedtner were unable to reel him in.
The Eternal Nazi also shows how celebrity Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was unable to see through United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s lies about his wartime service in areas where Jews were being deported to concentration camps. The U.N. boss, as one wag had it, suffered from “Waldheimer’s Disease,” which made him forget he was a Nazi. The authors note that some in the World Jewish Congress called Wiesenthal “Sleazenthal.” He also feuded with Elie Wiezel and tagged him a “superchauvinist.”
No private Nazi hunter or government agency was able to bag “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele, the big prize, and Treblinka guard John Demjanjuk turned out not to be “Ivan the Terrible.” Likewise, nobody was able to pry Heim out of Egypt where, he wrote, “I became in the last days of my life a beggar.”
Aribert Heim died in 1992, and in recent years the authors tracked down his briefcase, filled with documents, and put together the story. They are doubtless right that Heim’s 30 years of exile are harsher that any sentence he would have received in 1960s Germany, and that the exile inflicted more suffering on his family.
“The pursuit of Nazi war criminals is not just a dwindling exercise,” say the authors. “It has also set a precedent for genocide victims every where.” That is something of a stretch, given the authors’ oversights regarding the Nazis’ greatest collaborators — the Soviets.
During the 1939-41 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the authors note that Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin agreed to divide up Poland. The authors fail to note that during the pact the Soviets also handed over German Jewish communists to Hitler’s Gestapo.
After World War II, “the focus of American enmity was rapidly shifting away from the defeated Nazis and toward the Soviets’ rising ambitions in Europe.” So the Americans had “enmity,” but the Soviets only “ambitions.” Further, Eastern Europe was “slipping into the Communist camp” and Western Europe “gravitating toward the Americans.” Actually, Stalin invaded and occupied half of Europe, and many eastern Europeans, if they could, fled to the West.
The authors cite a “rivalry” between the USA and USSR. It was actually the Cold War, a half-century-long conflict between free democracies and Communist totalitarianism. Kulish, once the Berlin correspondent for The New York Times, should know that. But maybe Kulish and Souad Mekhennet, who also worked for the Times, are getting their history from back issues.
In 1932-33, Stalin starved to death millions of Ukrainians, a mass atrocity recently chronicled in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Walter Duranty, The New York Times’ Moscow correspondent at the time, denied that any such thing had taken place and claimed that under Stalin’s wise leadership, Ukraine flowed with milk and honey. Duranty’s articles played a role in U.S. recognition of the Soviet state.
No Nuremberg trials ever took place over the forced famine in Ukraine or the Gulag system of Soviet labor camps. Nobody tracked down those who ran the totalitarian system and brought them to trial. But the search for old Nazis is eternal.