“For the most part,” explains David Mikics in a review of a new biography of Aribert Heim, best described as a lesser known peer of Josef Mengele,” we think that there are two kinds of perpetrators of war crimes.” We are, he suggests, wrong about this.
There is the ordinary man (or, very rarely, woman) who lapses into, or becomes habituated to, killing, and there is the brutal monster. There might be some cases in between, though, and Heim could be one of them. Unlike Mengele, who was a psychopathic torturer through and through, Heim is in some ways a more doubtful instance, and therefore a more important one. He was supposed to be particularly evil because he talked to his victims sympathetically before he killed them. But perhaps he was just being ambivalent rather than sadistic: an even more frightening idea.