The venerable Max Planck Society, which runs Germany's finest research institutes, has been entertaining some very special guests this week. A group of septuagenarians were flown to Berlin, and told by their hosts: "We are very sorry".
The visitors, survivors of the worst experiments on human beings in history, had not come all the way from Poland, Israel and the United States just for the apology. They had sought for 56 years a meaning for their torment at the hands of the Auschwitz doctor, Joseph Mengele. In Berlin they found an answer at last, but not one that will bring them or Germany peace.
For new research proves that Mengele's experiments on thousands of human guinea pigs had been no aberrations, but served eminent scientists who continued their glittering careers after the war. Indeed, one scholar connected to Mengele's Auschwitz projects, Nobel laureate Adolf Butenandt, was president of the Max Planck Society until his retirement in 1972.
Efraim Reichenberg, a Hungarian Jew deported in 1994 to Auschwitz, has been investigating the so-called "twins project" for many years, and drew the same conclusion long ago. "Mengele was just a small cog in the machinery of mass murder," he says. "The biggest crime in history was carried out under the orders of the world's greatest scientists."
Mr Reichenberg and his older brother Laszlo were mistaken for twins. Laszlo had a beautiful baritone voice, Efraim could not sing to save his life. "Mengele wanted to know why we were different," he recalls. For months on end, "we both brothers received injections in our necks, which immediately made our throats swell up. We developed high fever; sometimes we could not say a word." They survived among the few of the 1,500 "Mengele twins" to do so but Laszlo died of his injuries in 1946. Efraim's mangled vocal chords, larynx and part of the oesophagus had to be removed in a series of 22 gruelling operations. He was speechless until a German company developed a voice box in the 1980s. "It's one of the ironies of my life. They took my voice away, and they gave it back to me."
The very name of Dr Mengele has become synonymous with Nazi depravity. But those who have looked into recently opened files have concluded that the "Angel of Death" was merely a scapegoat for the real brains of serious scientific projects.
"Mengele was sort of set up," says Professor Robert Proctor, an American authority on Nazi science. "There was some very important whitewashing after the war. The leading philosophers and theorists of the Final Solution went free." A working group commissioned by the Max Planck Society reported this week that it had established direct links between leading academic centres and Dr Mengele's laboratory.
The mastermind behind the Auschwitz projects was Otmar von Verschuer, Mengele's former PhD supervisor and head of the prestigious Anthropology Institute in Berlin. "Verschuer influenced the entire philosophy of genocide," Prof Proctor says. Verschuer was to become one of the world's leading human geneticists after the war. He died in a car crash in 1969.
The notorious experiments in which inmates were deliberately infected with tuberculosis were Verschuer's idea. Another scholar linked to the project was Butenandt, a pioneer of the contraceptive pill. When he died in 1996, he was mourned as one of the greatest Germans of the 20th century.Reuse content