Profile March 2010

Death Becomes Him

Over the past decade, Ludwig Minelli has helped more than 1,000 people kill themselves and has turned Zurich into the undisputed world capital of assisted suicide. Minelli sees himself as a crusader for what he calls “the last human right”—and he believes that helping more and more people to die advances his cause. Even if you believe in an absolute right to die on your own terms, how far is too far in the quest to secure that right?

Later I wondered if that same carelessness led Minelli to put me in touch with a 97-year-old German physicist named Herbert Mataré. I met Mataré last August in the northern German village of Hückelhoven, near the Dutch border. He lives there in a red brick house shaded by tall trees and overgrown with ivy. He greeted me at the front door wearing a neatly pressed gray suit and a white shirt with an open collar. He walked briskly and without a cane, possessed a natural charm, and, for his age, seemed surprisingly energetic. A nephew of the famous German sculptor Ewald Mataré, whose works the Nazis dismissed as “degenerate,” he had inherited his uncle’s enthusiasm for art, shown in the impressive collection of paintings and statuary on display in his living room. Mataré led me into his study, where he took a seat on an old couch covered with thick blankets. Rows of technical and academic titles competed for shelf space with disordered piles of paper and back issues of Science and Scientific American.

Mataré’s own accomplishments in the field of applied physics are beyond dispute. The previous year, he had been the recipient of a lifetime-achievement award from the prestigious Eduard Rhein Foundation. It was given in recognition of Mataré’s invention, in 1948, of the solid-state amplifier, or “French transistor,” a breakthrough that paved the way for subsequent advances in the miniaturization of computing and information systems. The technology was based, in part, on earlier research he had conducted for the German firm Telefunken in Berlin during the Second World War. There he led a team of some 20 scientists working to strengthen the sensitivity of German radar in the hunt for Allied bombers. Yet he said he had never been a Nazi. “I can prove it,” he said, and recounted the time he was interrogated by the SS for allegedly suggesting to a neighbor that Hitler should be killed to hasten the end of the war. He almost certainly would have wound up in a concentration camp, he claimed, were it not for his importance to the radar laboratory. After the war, Mataré emigrated to the United States, but returned to Germany some years ago when his wife won a teaching job in Hückelhoven. When I met him there, he was still keeping busy with high-tech consulting work. “Just yesterday,” he said, “I had some chaps here who are building a new solar-concentrator power station and advised them what to do.”

Lately, though, Mataré’s scientific attention has wandered from physics to eugenics. He has written two books on the subject and become a frequent contributor to a pseudo-scientific journal called Mankind Quarterly. Among its founders was a Nazi doctor who conducted experimental genetic research on cadavers he obtained from Auschwitz. “They are very open to all the questions you can’t mention these days, problems of intelligence and race,” Mataré said of the journal. His own eugenic preoccupations seemed to reflect a deeply held fear that surging populations in the developing world will one day overwhelm and destroy the West. Compounding his concern, he said, is “the simple fact” that the people of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are not as intelligent as people of European descent. “There’s a gene you can check for brain development, and this gene is not there,” he told me. The more such populations are allowed to multiply, the likelier it becomes that they will pollute the gene pool and, in doing so, impede human progress. Or so went his theory. Mataré, therefore, had begun arguing for something he called “conscientious evolution,” defined as the effort to “hinder or eliminate the unnecessary multiplication of genetic stock that contributes to less qualified progeny.”

Given his opposition to the Nazis, I asked how he reconciled his views with theirs and if he ever worried where they might lead. He brushed the question aside. “You can always do something in exaggeration,” he said. “The Third Reich went overboard, because they didn’t have the guts to decide who was really useless and who was not … People say what they did was eugenic. It was dysgenic! It was dysgenic, because the Jews were more intelligent than the Germans.” There are only two approaches to solving the problem of overpopulation, he continued. One is to rein in birth rates in the developing world. The other, very simply, is for people to know when they should die. “Life is not sacred, not at all,” he said. “When you’re no longer useful, you have to go.”

Mataré had come to believe he now belonged in that category himself. He was losing his eyesight, needed a hearing aid, complained of stiff knees, and was tired of getting up to urinate during the night. Over the years, he had contemplated suicide several times and, at one point, even bought a cord with which to hang himself and, in case that failed, a pistol. “I still have them in my cupboard,” he said. Then he heard about Dignitas. He recognized Ludwig Minelli as a natural ally and became an enthusiastic supporter of his work. “It jibes with the solution to overpopulation,” he said, “because it is the right of everyone, a human right, to say, ‘Stop, I don’t want to live anymore.’” Mataré explained that he was currently in the process of arranging his own trip to Dignitas. It would not be the first time. Already he had twice traveled to Zurich intending to kill himself, only to call it off at the last minute. Though Minelli’s staff saw humor in Mataré’s chronic indecision, Minelli himself did not. “He was furious,” Mataré remembered. “He called and wrote and said that he’d had everything prepared, that people had been waiting for me with the drink, and then I hadn’t come.” Mataré said that Minelli asked to be compensated for the wasted effort.

Later I sent Minelli an e-mail asking about this. He denied demanding payment and claimed he had never pressured Mataré to go through with his plans. “We have told him all through the years he is a member that he will be totally free to take a decision to go back even if he has made an appointment for the assisted suicide,” Minelli wrote. By the time we met, though, Mataré insisted he had finally made up his mind and was looking forward to dying at Dignitas. His wife, a healthy German woman 32 years his junior, repeatedly begged him to reconsider, but her pleas had so far failed to sway him. I asked if he had purchased a burial plot. He said, “I don’t need a grave. I hate that kind of thing. My wife is still going to the cemetery, paying other people to put flowers on the graves of my sister, and her parents. It’s ridiculous. If you are a modern man, and you know what humanity is up against … it’s absolutely stupid to do such a thing about the disappearance of one person.” Mataré had determined cremation was the better way to go. “Minelli promised he would throw my ashes in Lake Zurich,” he said.

Jenny Geary became the 998th person to commit suicide at Dignitas. Within days, still more visitors to the Blue Oasis would push the number past 1,000. “There will be no celebration, of course,” Minelli had assured me. Since meeting Jenny at her hotel in Basel, I had been puzzling at her eerie calm in the face of death, struggling to replace the image of the glass of spritzer she had been holding that day with a plastic cup of sodium pentobarbital. I wondered if she had hesitated before gulping it down, if it was as strong as she had hoped, whether she experienced any pain. Her husband, Richard, having returned to England, eventually e-mailed with this account of her death:

We arrived as planned at 11:00 am, and Jenny had some papers to sign. Then the process was explained again, and we were told it would be videoed for the police to see later. She was given a stomach-calming medicine to prevent her from vomiting the principal drug, which is very bitter. She took this at about 11:20, and had to wait thirty minutes, which we passed together in the sunshine of the little garden by the pond … We went indoors at 11:50, and she said it was time, so she took the drug, as prescribed, straight down, like drinking a glass of schnapps. She slipped into a sleep in two minutes, and died eight minutes later. It was so peaceful, and, for us anyway, a perfect way for her to die.

If the Gearys’ experience is representative, Dignitas does have the ability to bring a merciful end to human suffering. But Minelli’s appetite for confrontation and his penchant for pushing beyond what society will accept, if not what it will allow, has led to something significantly more threatening than just an odious reputation. By the time of my visit, politicians in the Swiss government had come to view Dignitas as a national embarrassment and were weighing the possibility of eliminating suicide tourism altogether.

Meanwhile, Zurich’s chief public prosecutor, Andreas Brunner, had also zeroed in on Minelli’s operation. Earlier that summer, he had inked a much-publicized bilateral agreement with Exit, codifying a series of “professional standards” to guide the practice of assisted suicide. Though Minelli had not participated in the negotiations, they yielded several new provisions that appeared to have been drawn up with him in mind, including longer wait times for people wanting to commit suicide and strict limits on the number of accompaniments any one staff member may conduct in a single year, a particularly problematic provision for a small organization like Dignitas. Indeed, the document made little difference to Exit, where the procedures it specified had long been standard practice. Minelli, who views any attempt at regulation, no matter how minor, as an attack on his ability to operate, instantly dismissed it as a ploy to pressure him into accepting similar terms. “They want to cut us down,” he said. “If Dignitas didn’t exist, this agreement would never even have been discussed.” Still, though Minelli was offended by its implications, the agreement seemed to cause him no great concern and, more than anything, served to underscore Brunner’s impotence. The law was on his side, Minelli insisted, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him.

Others I spoke with were not so sure. In Basel, I met with the Dignitas physician who had written Jenny Geary’s prescription for sodium pentobarbital. She was short, with the well-toned arms of an athlete and jet-black hair in a long braid. We had agreed to have coffee at her house, but were forced to change our plans after her teenage son, learning I was a reporter, demanded that I stay away. She apologized on his behalf, explaining that he was afraid of being teased at school if kids found out his mother worked for Dignitas. Instead, we met at the train station and drove to a public park. She, too, wished to avoid publicly revealing her association with Minelli and selected the location to minimize the possibility we might be overheard. Boys kicked around a soccer ball nearby as we sat together at a picnic table. The doctor, who started working for Dignitas after it facilitated the death of her own father, in 2005, said she supported Minelli in his mission but worried that his theatrics had put the organization at risk. Particularly damaging were the helium demonstrations Minelli had conducted and his public assertion that healthy people should have unlimited access to lethal drugs. “If Dignitas is not careful and tries to do crazy things, it might happen that foreigners can no longer come to Switzerland, which I think would be too bad,” she said. “Minelli is narrow-minded. It’s very difficult to talk to him about what is reasonable and what is not … He is fighting against everything and everybody.” She seemed unsure that Dignitas will survive him. “I can’t imagine that he will give it over to anybody, unless he becomes ill or gets too old,” she said. “But I hope he stops working soon.”

So does Brunner, the public prosecutor. Several years ago, citing Minelli’s age, he joked to friends that his problem with Dignitas would ultimately be solved biologically. Minelli laughed when I mentioned the remark and noted that, for many years, Brunner had been a chain-smoker. “I’d say our chances are about even,” he told me. Still, there is no avoiding the inevitable. Soon enough, after years of sending others on their way, Minelli will find it is his turn to go. I wondered if he had given it any thought. “Of course,” he said. “I will ask Dignitas to accompany me.”

Presented by

Bruce Falconer, a former reporter for The Atlantic and for Mother Jones, is the associate editor of The American Scholar.

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