Sep 27, 2012

When a Nazi converts to Islam

He wore a beard, but not a full beard.

He walked to prayers at the nearby mosque.

He read the Quran, but in his own native German rather than the original Arabic.

These are the hints we have to the content of the new-found faith of a dying Nazi. The few facts. They are cryptic, almost incidental, and stubbornly ambiguous. The Nazi doctor known as Dr. Death and the Butcher of Mauthausen spent the last dozen years of his life as a Muslim. He converted, and declared himself changed, a man of faith. What that means, though, is anything but clear.

The 50-year hunt for Aribert Ferdinand Heim ended last week when a German court in Baden Baden decreed he died in Egypt in 1992. Evidence Heim died in Cairo emerged three years ago, but was only confirmed by district court judges on Friday, as reported by Der Spiegel and the New York Times.

With that ruling, certain facts about Heim's years in hiding become clear:

It's known he fled in 1962, abandoning his wife and son and his gynecology practice in Southern Germany when investigators came to his house while he wasn’t home, escaping prosecution for war crimes. He went to France, then Spain, Morocco, Libya, and finally to Cairo on a tourist visa. He changed his name to Tarek Hussein Farid. He learned Arabic and lived in a hotel, away from the other Western ex-pats and the small community of Germans in the more middle class neighborhoods. He converted in Islam in 1980.

But “he converted” meaning what, exactly?

Aribert Heim, as shown in his passport.
For the last few years, though we know now he was already dead, Heim has been the most wanted Nazi. He was named "Dr. Death" for his brutality in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. According to witnesses, he was more than an eager participant in the Third Reich's machinery of death. A Wafen-SS doctor, Heim tortured the concentration camp inmates with impunity. He "experimented" sadistically. Witnesses said he removed organs without anesthesia, timed deaths on his stop watch as his victims screamed in pain, and preserved Jews’ skulls for use as souvenir paperweights. He injected water, gasoline and various poisons into people's hearts, and watched while they died.

In the words of the court ruling closing the case last week, Heim was wanted because,
"als Revierarzt im österreichischen Konzentrationslager Mauthausen im Zeitraum Oktober bis November 1941 in zahlreichen Fällen Häftlinge durch Spritzen oder nicht notwendige Operationen grausam getötet zu haben."
"as district physician in the Austrian concentration camp Mauthausen, in the period between October and November 1941, in numerous cases, detainees were cruelly killed through injections or unnecessary operations."
As late as 1979, Heim was actively denying these charges. He said it was all a conspiracy, that Germany just wanted a scapegoat, and that the witnesses were lying, as he’d only been a doctor for the soldiers. He was reportedly seriously considering returning to Germany to face the charges. Notes and documents found in 2009 show Heim was trying to work out and solidify his defense. He appears to have spent some considerable amount of time in his Cairo rooms, attempting to make his case on paper. "What crueler deed could one accuse a doctor of than these brutalities and bestialities?" he wrote.

At least part of his defense, however, some 30 years after the end of the war, was a rant about Jews. He saw Jewish conspiracies at work in the world, and thought, apparently, his own innocence was proven by such anti-semitism. Weren’t the Jews to blame for student uprisings in 1968, when “the young Khazars Dutschke and Cohn-Bendit propagated their anarchist ideas”? Was no one paying attention to the atrocities of Zionism in Palestine? Weren’t the Jews really to blame for the Holocaust? It was, after all, the old Nazi scribbled, “The Jewish Khazar, [and the] Zionist lobby of the U.S. [who] were the first ones who in 1933 declared war against Hitler's Germany.”

During these years, Heim was working a series of reports on “Antisemitism,” “a general review on the true identity of the Khazars.” Between 1977 and ’78, using a pseudonym, he sent this to German media outlets and German leaders, such as Helmut Kohl, to several American media outlets, and a long list of U.S. leaders, starting with the First Lady at the time, Rosalynn Carter. Heim’s notes say copies were sent to more than a dozen U.S. Senators, including Tip O’Neil, Robert Byrd, Edward Kennedy, John Glenn (“Astronaut,” Heim noted), Orin Hatch, Mark Hatfield and Bob Dole.

In a cover letter to Newsweek, Heim claimed he wrote the reports because “historic facts should get the upper hand and justice should prevail in the politics.” A postscript demanded an answer as to why the news magazine was suppressing the truth. “Why we can not read the true history and true Identity of the Jewish-Khazar’s in your weekly, or are you under Zionist observance ( see report by G[eorge] Will 28.11.77)?” Heim wrote.

A young Egyptian who knew Heim at this time as “Uncle Tarek” reported it wasn’t clear to those around him why the German was in Cairo. He was, however, thought to be “in dispute with maybe the Jews.”

It was a year after these notebook rants and anti-semitic missives that Heim became Muslim. The documentation of this was confirmed by the Baden Baden court. As far as the court is concerned, his conversion was real, legally speaking.

Whether it marked a change in him is harder to ascertain.

In the news reports, this detail is presented in the context of his hiding. It’s one of the ways he stayed underground, hidden from the Nazi hunters who were following shreds of rumors around the globe, looking for Heim in Finland and Chile, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.

Or was it more than a ruse?

There seem to be three possible interpretations of Heim’s conversion to Islam:
  1. He didn’t change in his “conversion,” as it was merely as a matter of disguise. 
  2. He changed. 
  3. He did change, but not in the ways that might matter to those morally opposed to Fascism and the Holocaust.
It seems that 1. is essentially an intuitive position, and would be very hard to support and very hard to falsify. Any detail that could support a conversion could just as easily be read as disguise. Each fact of religion and detail of practice can be actively doubted and alternatively interpreted as disingenuous, as a part of Heim’s façade. The question, it seems, is simply whether one believes it possible a Nazi – especially a Nazi who was as much of a Nazi as Heim – can change.

Conversely, 2. would seem to need to be based in optimism, an intuition, a strong belief that people can change. That optimism could be general, or attached to religion in general, as a place where people are transformed or empowered to be different than they are, or it could be attached to Islam in particular. If Islam is submission and order, jihad a “technology of the self,” then it could be the case that Heim found in this new faith a new habitus, a chance to be otherwise than he was. Whether or not his conversion is taken as “real” may depend just on whether or not one holds that conversion, in any important sense, is really possible.

But perhaps that change, if Heim changed, would have to be visible. Would have to mean an important change. Isn’t it the case, after all, that with “Dr. Death,” the change one would be interested in is very concrete, very specific? What one wants to find, if religion, Islam, or just people are to be thought of optimistically as able to become better, is not simply some “change,” but a change in the aging war criminal’s orientation towards his own horrific actions. A change, possibly, in his attitude towards Jews. A change, really, in his ability or willingness to acknowledge his own evilness.

The question is whether or not Heim found a new faith. To answer that, though, one has to decide what “conversion” is supposed to mean.

What is known about his conversion and his dozen years of Muslim piety, really, mostly, doesn’t serve to answer the question of change. The question just repeats: what would conversion really look like? It’s known that Heim “never missed a prayer at the mosque.” He fasted during Ramadan, when Muslims purify themselves in extensive fasting. He had his beard and read his Quran. He “was very ordered, exercise in the morning, then prayers at the main Al-Azhar mosque, and long sessions spent reading and writing while sitting on a rocking chair.”

In the end, thought, what does that tell us? Are those details the answer to the question?

At least in this instance, “change” and “conversion” and “faith,” to be worthwhile concepts to talk about, are going to need to mean something like a change of heart. A change of beliefs and practices too, to be sure, but more especially, more importantly, a reorientation towards the most important facts of Heim’s life, his participation in the Holocaust.

There is one important detail in the available information that supports the thought Heim didn’t change in this way, and didn’t abandon his ideology and anti-semitism. From that cache of documents, discovered in Cairo storage in 2009, there’s a letter dated to 1987, seven years after his conversion. Heim is writing to the Vatican on behalf of the Palestinians, arguing Jews have no right to a homeland in Palestine and have misrepresented their ethnicity in an elaborate, media-supported conspiracy, “this greatest 2nd millennium’s hoax,” in order to seize Palestine. The paranoia, the anti-semitism and theories of conspiracies of Jews are the same, here, as they were before his conversion.

Heim’s new faith apparently left at least this essential aspect of his Nazi outlook on the world untouched.

In the Vatican letter in 1987, Heim is even attempting to marshal evidence that the Holocaust has been greatly exaggerated. He claims conflicting census reports on the number of Jews in the world show there is a Zionist conspiracy, “a calculated mistake to demonstrate the colossal number of Jewish Khazars killed in WWII.”

So perhaps it was all a ruse, Heim’s conversion. Perhaps it was just one more way he integrated into the culture where he was hiding. Or, perhaps, after 18 years in Cairo he really did mark some difference and some change in his life, and did “really” convert, in the ways conversion is usually described, but it had no relation, no effect, no bearing on his anti-semitism, or his own actions as a Nazi doctor. Maybe he became a Muslim but still stayed a Nazi.

There are of course those who might see this as evidence for an intrinsic link between Islam and fascism. The intransigent anti-semitism of one Nazi convert says nothing, though, about the diversity of faiths that go under the name “Islam,” or even about the essential nature of the Islam that Heim claimed. His conversion can’t reasonably be interpreted as tarnishing the religion of more than two billion people, any more than the fact there were Nazis who were Catholics can be considered an important point about Catholicism.

What it does show is some of the ways in which “conversion” is thought of. And some the ambiguity in that concept. It can mean something strictly legal, something a document like the one the court examined and authenticated in Baden Baden serves to prove real. It can mean, also, the adoption of certain habits, and a habitus, things the converted do with their days. Or, alternatively, it can be demanded that the change, to be important, must be more than that: More than prayers and beards, more than “Muslim” written on a form.