The Ambivalent War Criminal

“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.

This seems to me true, but why it is true I’m not sure. Maybe we just expect our monsters to be consistent. The man who hates and then kills, he makes sense, because he acts on his feelings. But the man who sympathizes, who sees the other man as a fellow human being worthy of regard and care, and then kills him anyway, he doesn’t make sense. Or maybe he does make sense, and the sense he makes tells us something horrifying about the nature of evil.

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