Is Dr Munch a confused old man or a defiant Nazi?

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The Independent Online
VISITORS come from afar to retired GP Hans Munch's little house in the Bavarian Alps to hear stories about the war, Auschwitz, and his good friend Josef Mengele. For 50 years he has told of his gruesome experiments on inmates, the technology of crematoria, and his profound admiration for the evil scientist known to posterity as the "Angel of Death".

"Mengele and the others sent us their material; heads, livers, spinal fluid, whatever came up," the 87-year- old doctor recently told Der Spiegel magazine. "We analysed it." Dr Munch went on to praise the advantages of gassing the inmates, spoke about the "servility" of Jews, and described at length the "ideal working conditions" at the Hygiene Institute he ran near the Auschwitz concentration camp: "I was able to conduct experiments on humans, that are otherwise only possible on rabbits. That was important work for science." Part of this "important work" involved infecting prisoners with malaria.

Since this appalling testimony appeared, the village of Rosshaupten has been flooded with visitors. The street in front of his house is clogged with TV crews. Anti-Nazi activists hurl bricks and abuse, there has been an attempted break-in and the telephone has been disconnected because of the abusive calls and death threats. War crimes prosecutors in Frankfurt have opened an investigation. Germans ask: how has this monster escaped punishment?

Well, after a trial by a Polish court, Dr Munch was acquitted of war crimes. The other 39 Auschwitz doctors were all convicted; 23 were sentenced to death. Dr Munch was set free because 19 former inmates testified to his innocence. That, according to Der Spiegel, was the beginning of the "myth of the good man of Auschwitz".

Dr Munch had refused to take part in the "selections" - the process whereby "superfluous" inmates were condemned to the gas chamber. There was nothing heroic about that. At his trial in Krakow the prosecutor asked him: "Can one conclude that every other doctor could have arranged not to participate in the selections?" - "I think that was possible," came the laconic reply.

Still, in the eyes of many of his victims, he was a good man. "Munch was humane to us, and in Auschwitz, in these terrible conditions, that meant a lot," a former inmate remembered in a German television documentary 17 years ago.

A member of the SS and volunteer for Auschwitz, Dr Munch has been racked by guilt ever since. He has tried to make amends by giving testimony on the Nazi crimes, to courts, to reporters, to anyone who cares to listen. Telling the story of Auschwitz is his personal purgatory, and so it should be.

But suddenly the plot has changed. In the Spiegel interview, readers are confronted by a callously unrepentant Nazi, boasting of his crimes. The media are lapping it up. And, as every editor know, Nazis sell.

But there is one fact Der Spiegel and the other amateur Nazi-hunters omit as they demolish the "myth". As Dr Munch's daughter Ruli puts it: "My father has no short-term memory." Less politely, he is senile.

Paul Moor, who made that documentary 17 years ago, has reached the same conclusion after talking to Dr Munch in recent weeks. "Dr Munch is nearly 88. He's no longer compos mentis." The producer of a camera team just back from Rosshaupten reports that he is completely unaware of the outrage he has caused.

What he may or may not have said to Der Spiegel must remain a matter of conjecture. But there is no mystery about why Dr Munch makes Germans uncomfortable. If even an SS officer in Auschwitz could refuse certain unpalatable orders with impunity, it destroys another myth: that resistance to the Nazis was futile.