Midnight in Berlin?

Of hunting real-life Nazis, and other German stories.


It was at a New Year’s Eve party in Berlin, if memory serves, that David Marwell showed me his Justice Department badge with a position, “Historian,” emblazoned on it. He’d been part of an Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s that was a euphemism for the band of Nazi hunters focused on tracking down Klaus Barbie and Josef Mengele.

Marwell and his colleagues eventually found that Mengele had died in Brazil in 1979. As he recounts in his new book, Mengele: Unmasking the “Angel of Death,” Marwell actually held Mengele’s bones in his hands after following his trail through archived documents, interviews, and intelligence reports. It is a fascinating story, told with verve in the book and rounded out with an authoritative look at Mengele’s life and career based on his own autobiographical novel.

But it was a story Marwell waited more than 30 years to tell. Marwell, who has a doctorate in history, went on from the OSI to become the last American to head the Berlin Document Center, which stored the Nazi archives, including its telling membership cards. This is when I got to know him in Berlin in the early 1990s.

He returned to the States and became associate director at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, before becoming director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. In short, he was very busy. But he had this book in him and, thankfully, it has now seen the light of day.

It comes at a time when Nazi hunting is enjoying something of a resurgence, not least with the new Amazon series, “Hunters” — a revenge fantasy about tracking down a Nazi conspiracy in the United States in the late 1970s. Al Pacino hams it up as the leader of this hit squad in a program that all too clearly is modeled on a comic book.

Entertaining as the series may be, there is much more drama in Marwell’s real-life account of hunting for Mengele. It hasn’t hurt that other duties kept him from writing it sooner. In fact, the book benefits from declassified material that wasn’t available earlier.

I’ve written before about how another Berlin friend, Debra Jo Immergut, had to wait decades for her novel about sympathetic women prisoners, The Captives, to find a publisher. There, too, patience paid off.

I would hardly compare the early 1990s in Berlin to the 1920s’ Paris depicted in Woody Allen’s 2011 reverie “Midnight in Paris,” which has been running on cable TV lately. In it, Owen Wilson, playing a contemporary American writer, magically goes back in time and hobnobs with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Luis Buñuel, among others.

But the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall drew a number of American journalists and other writers to a city trying to heal four decades of division, resulting in a certain creative ferment. Fred Kempe was there, and his research and reporting for the Wall Street Journal led him to write a book about his personal connection to Germany, Father/Land: A Personal Search for the New Germany, which was published in 1999.

Kempe went on to serve as editor and publisher of the Wall Street Journal Europe and to write a revisionist history of the U.S.-Soviet showdown over Germany, Berlin, 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth. He returned to the States to become chief executive of the Atlantic Council in 2007, and has had little time to write more books.

Our Germany was not the happy bubble of Allen’s Paris, nor the setting of the comic-book-Nazi chase of Pacino’s hunters. It was, on the contrary, very real and gave us a lasting sense of how complex and grey the world can be.

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