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Angel of Death – The Story of a Slayer Classic

For as long as there has been heavy metal there have been accusations of Satanism. Those who do not understand or appreciate the genre often label not only the artists but also the fans as evil, awash with sin and damned to face an eternity burning in the fires of Hell. Urban legend in the late 1960s claimed that Led Zeppelin had signed a deal with the Devil himself, something that legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson had also allegedly done several decades earlier. Are KISS part of Satan’s army? Is Alice Cooper really a witch? Is Marilyn Manson the true Antichrist? The religious protesters and moral watchdogs that have led a campaign against the so-called shock rockers throughout their careers would certainly think so and this reputation has always found its way into popular culture, thus only adding to the fear that heavy metal is the Devil’s music.

Yet for Slayer, one of the original thrash metal acts to emerge from the American alternative music scene during the early 1980s, they were accused of something much worse. Due to their 1986 track Angel of Death, which depicted the horrifying war crimes of Auschwitz scientist Josef Mengele during the Second World War, the band have spent the last quarter of a century being labelled by the mainstream as Nazi sympathisers. And no matter how many times they have gone on the offensive and tried to justify their lyrics this is an urban legend that refuses to die.

‘I collect medals and other Nazi stuff that my dad got me started on because he gave me all this shit he got off of dead Nazis,’ claimed guitarist Jeff Hanneman in an interview with Revolver on how his obsession with Second World War memorabilia began. ‘I remember stopping someplace where I bought two books on Mengele. I thought, ‘This has gotta be some sick shit.’ So when it came time to do the record that stuff was still in my head — that’s where the lyrics to Angel of Death came from.’

They were the perfect target; with such a brutal name as Slayer, an album called Reign in Blood and a track titled Angel of Death they had set themselves up to be singled out as dangerous and morally corrupt. While the likes of W.A.S.P., Judas Priest and Black Sabbath had been included on the PMRC’s list of ‘Filthy Fifteen’ songs that were offensive and potentially dangerous, only two were cited for their supposed references to the occult; Mercyful Fate‘s Into the Coven and Venom‘s Possessed. Yet most musicians had stayed clear of the Holocaust due to war still being fresh in the minds of those who had lived through it, so for a band called Slayer to explore such concepts as Nazi experiments left a sour taste in the mouth of mainstream America.

‘If there is a God, why did he create Slayer? Does God like metal?’ posed Spin’s review of Reign in Blood in their September 1986 issue. ‘Does God want kids from Southern California to sing songs about decapitation? OK, so maybe God did not create Slayer. Maybe the Devil created Slayer. Then if so, how did he do it?’ Even now, over thirty years later, the name Slayer is synonymous with Auschwitz and, to those ignorant to the facts, even Devil worship. ‘Now you need to recognise, my friend, you need to repent or you’re going to perish,’ declared YouTube user Vigilant Christian after criticising the band’s 2015 promo video Repentless. ‘Repenting means to turn, you need to turn form your wicked ways, humble yourself and come to God so that Jesus Christ can give you eternal life.’

Josef Mengele, the eponymous Angel of Death whose war crimes had fascinated Hanneman, was a physician in the Schutzstaffel who earned the infamous moniker due to the sadistic experiments that he conducted on his prisoners while serving at Auschwitz. Despite having studied philosophy at Munich University and medicine at Frankfurt am Main University, Mengele’s main interest was in genetics and by 1937, at the age of just twenty-six, he was accepted into the Nazi Party and the SS the following year. ‘The prisoners who survived Auschwitz remember a German soldier and doctor who took pleasure in leading the selection process,’ explained author Holly Cefrey. ‘His personality was a combination of pleasantness and perversity. He stood on the railway platform in an impeccable uniform with white gloves. He often had a cheerful expression on his face and was heard humming classic music by many prisoners.’

Born in the German town of Gunzburg three years before Europe’s first Great War, Mengele arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp in May 1943 where he took on the responsibility of selecting which prisoners would be executed and which would be kept alive for forced labour and experimentation. ‘Those sent to their deaths were deemed unfit for slave work,’ says Cefrey. ‘Most children, elderly, disabled and pregnant women were immediately sent to die. Those sent to the left did not know that they would be dead in less than an hour. They were led to believe that they needed to take showers before entering the camp.’

Mengele’s morbid fascination with the human body and bioloical research would result in all manner of devious and immoral experimentations, particularly on twins, with his victims being treated like helpless guinea pigs as he attempted to create the perfect Aryan specimen to appease Adolf Hitler’s obsession with building a master race. He even injected chemicals into the eyeballs of children to see what kind of effect it would have on their colour. ‘Thirty-six children from one barrack in Birkenau were used for the eye tests, which resulted in painful infections and sometimes blindness,’ described Gerald L. Posner and John Ware in their exploration Mengele: The Complete Story. ‘After the tests the children were of no further use and so they were gassed.’

The horrors of Auschwitz were not exactly ideal inspiration for an artist intent on gaining commercial success. Even as many of their contemporaries incorporated elements of Satanism and death into their lyrics, the Holocaust is rarely discussed in popular music and for a metal group signing to a major label this could have been career suicide. Only forty-one years had passed since the Second World War had come to an end and many survivors of the concentration camps were still alive, thus the subject of Mengele and his horrific experiments was a sensitive matter than needed a certain degree of sensitivity.

‘Columbia Records wouldn’t put Reign in Blood out because of that song,’ fellow guitarist Kerry King told Spin almost thirty years later. ‘When you put it in perspective, it’s really just a historic statement. It doesn’t say Nazis are good; it doesn’t say Nazis are bad. If it was on the History Channel it would be getting awards and people would love it. But because Slayer did it, it’s dangerous. And as a record company, we’re not going to put it out. And then Geffen Records comes along and puts it out and probably made a shit ton of money on it. But that’s just how people are.’

While Slayer had the support of Def Jam its parent company took issue with the song. ‘I think it was more lyrical content than anything else, I guess they were offended,’ frontman Tom Araya told Metal Forces at the time of the album’s release. ‘You see a lot of these major corporations are Jew-orientated. Now let me make it clear that I’ve got nothing against Jews but a lot of them do own these major companies and some of them could be hot-headed, which is understandable because they don’t like to see shit about concentration camps and a Nazi criminal. They don’t like seeing Nazis criminals glorified, but Angel of Death is not glorifying him, it’s just stating what he did and got away with.’

Mengele was not captured at the end of the Second World War and so escaped the punishment that a trial would inevitably bring. Instead he spent the remainder of his life on the run and would survive another thirty-four years until finally dying in February 1979 after suffering a stroke and drowning. ‘Those who had hoped for another Eichmann trial or another Nuremberg Nazi doctors trial felt that a chance to bring the guilty to justice had escaped them,’ declared Posner and Ware. ‘An opportunity to understand the crime of the physicians, the medical facilitators of mass murder, had been lost. Many ordinary people had a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach that justice had been denied.’

Hanneman’s interest in the Nazis was in part due to his father, who had served in the Second World War and had told his son stories of the horrors he had witnessed while fighting in Europe. Having researched Auschwitz and, specifically, Mengele, when it came time to write material for their third album he utilised his newfound knowledge in his lyrics. Angel of Death documented in graphic detail many of the brutal experiments that were conducted either at Mengele’s hands or under his command. While lines such as ‘showers that cleanse you of your life’ are relatively subtle references to the gas chambers where thousands of prisoners were executed, other more explicit passages included, ‘Pumped with fluid inside your brain, pressure in your skull begins pushing through your eyes. Burning flesh drips away, test of heat burns your skin, your mind starts to boil.’

Due to the lyrical content of Angel of Death and the controversy that would follow Slayer have since been mired by rumours of not only admiring Mengele but also being Nazi sympathisers. ‘Yeah, ‘Slayer are Nazis, fascists, communists’ – all that fun shit. And of course we got the most flack for it in Germany,’ confessed King in 2018 when looking back on legacy of the song. ‘I was always like, ‘Read the lyrics and tell me what’s offensive about it. Can you see it as a documentary, or do you think Slayer‘s preaching fucking World War II?’ People get this thought in their heads, especially in Europe and you’ll never talk them out of it.’

What protesters have found most offensive about the song is that Hanneman did not condemn Mengele’s crimes in his lyrics, instead merely documenting the facts and leaving the listener to make up their own mind. ‘I know why people misinterpret it – it’s because they get this knee-jerk reaction to it,’ Hanneman told KNAC.com in 2004. ‘When they read the lyrics, there’s nothing I put in the lyrics that says necessarily he was a bad man, because to me – well, isn’t that obvious?!?!?! I shouldn’t have to tell you that.’

Reign in Blood was released a little over seven years after Mengele’s death and less than a year since his fate had been discovered and so the wounds were once again raw when Angel of Death made its debut. The disturbing subject matter of its lyrics did little to convince the media that Slayer were not dangerous. ‘We’ve got a Cuban drummer and a Chilean singer and bass player: two people who would’ve been in the gas chambers if the Nazis got a hold of us,’ stated Araya. ‘So how can we be Nazis? It’s so ridiculous. We don’t really ignore it but we kind of let it go and eventually hope you stop asking and figure it out.’

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