In Germany, the Nazis had been murdering mentally and physically disabled people as part of its euthanasia programme since 1939. In the beginning, doctors killed them by lethal injection. This was not considered fast enough, so they developed a new process of gassing that was faster and more effective in killing large numbers of people. Over 70,000 people were killed as part of the euthanasia programme.
Following the invasion of Poland, German occupation policy especially targeted the Jews but also brutalized non-Jewish Poles. In pursuit of lebensraum, Germany sought systematically to destroy Polish society and nationhood. The Nazis killed Polish priests and politicians, decimated the Polish leadership, and kidnapped the children of the Polish elite, who were raised as “voluntary Aryans” by their new German “parents.” Many Poles were also forced to perform hard labour on survival diets, were deprived of property and uprooted, and were interned in concentration camps.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews were subjected to antisemitism based on Christian theology, which blamed them for killing Jesus. Even after the Reformation, Catholicism and Lutheranism continued to persecute Jews, accusing them of blood libels and subjecting them to pogroms and expulsions. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence in the German empire and Austria-Hungary of the völkisch movement, which was developed by such thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. The movement embraced a pseudo-scientific racism that viewed Jews as a race whose members were locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination. These ideas became commonplace throughout Germany, with the professional classes adopting an ideology that did not see humans as racial equals with equal hereditary value. Although the völkisch parties had support in elections at first, by 1914 they were no longer influential. This did not mean that antisemitism had disappeared; instead it was incorporated into the platforms of several mainstream political parties.
Dr Daniel Romero Muñoz, who led the team that identified Mengele’s remains in 1985, saw an opportunity to put them to use. Several months ago, the head of the department of legal medicine at the University of São Paulo’s Medical School obtained permission to use them in his forensic medical courses. Today, his students are now learning their trade studying Mengele’s bones and connecting them to the life story of the man called the “angel of death”.
Otto Frank later described what it was like when the Nazis entered the annex in which he had been hiding. He said an SS man picked up a portfolio and asked whether there were any jewels in it. When Otto Frank said it only contained papers, the SS man threw the papers (and Anne Frank’s diary) on the floor, walking away with silverware and a candlestick in his briefcase. “If he had taken the diary with him,” Otto Frank recalled, “no one would ever have heard of my daughter.”
How, when, and why the Nazis’ decision to exterminate Europe’s Jews was made remains one of the most vexed and disputed of all important questions concerning the Holocaust. There was not simply an order from Hitler commanding the killing of the Jews, and there is general agreement that the genocide evolved in stages, steadily becoming more comprehensive. The Origins of the Final Solution by the universally respected historian Christopher R. Browning, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a magisterial examination of this subject in the wider context of the overall evolution of Nazi policy towards the Jews between the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 and the opening of the first extermination camps early in 1942.
Astonishingly, the Nazified notion of “race” leaped out in a line attributed to Hellman and nowhere present in the diary. “We’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer,” the Hacketts’ Anne says. “There’ve always been people that’ve had to . . . sometimes one race . . . sometimes another.” This pallid speech, yawning with vagueness, was conspicuously opposed to the pivotal reflection it was designed to betray:
Mengele sailed to Argentina in July 1949, assisted by a network of former SS members. He initially lived in and around Buenos Aires, then fled to Paraguay in 1959 and Brazil in 1960, while being sought by West Germany, Israel, and Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal who wanted to bring him to trial. He eluded capture in spite of extradition requests by the West German government and clandestine operations by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. He drowned in 1979 after suffering a stroke while swimming off the Brazilian coast, and was buried under a false name. His remains were disinterred and positively identified by forensic examination in 1985.