27 April 2023
Dr. Michael Tsokos forensic expert has dealt with about a quarter of a million cadavers, and he has worked among others on the victims of the Bosnian war and the floods of 2004. How does seeing genocide change someone? How realistic are CSI shows, What kind of technological advances can forensic experts use in their jobs? We have chatted with the famous expert and Germany’s most popular true crime writer before his presentation at the University of Pécs Medical School.
While reading your exciting and colourful biography, I noticed a number that states you have dealt with around 200000 dead bodies. This was mentioned in an interview in 2015; how much did this number grow since then?
If I had to make a guess, I would say around 50-60 thousand. This truly large number is mostly due to the victims of the 2004 tsunami. I was a part of the German identification team, and we arrived at the scene a few days after the tsunami, and we had to examine tens of thousands of bodies. Aside from that, part of my job in Berlin is examining bodies before cremation. There can be around 50 or 60 of these examinations for only external marks, and we also conduct around 2500 autopsies each year.
A layman may ask how much of a mental weight all of this is, and how all of this can be processed.
We need to look at the cadavers with a scientific view. These bodies are sources of information that has to be extracted: what happened to them, how did they get to this state? We do not see the person, or former person. The body is an empty shell that was left behind by the thing formerly inhabiting it: if we do not treat them like this, we will go insane from constantly thinking about deadly tragedies.
This scientific viewpoint has been present even in your childhood, since you were interested in bog bodies…
Yes, I was really excited by archaeology, Egyptian mummies and as you mentioned, those bodies that have been mostly preserved by the unique properties of bogs. At first, I wanted to become and archaeologist, but due to my interest in physiology and natural sciences, I ended up deciding on medicine.
And within that, you chose forensic medicine, and have visited Bosnia-Hercegovina on assignment from the UN during the early years of your career, where your task was identifying the victims of the war and genocide. You have mentioned that a forensic expert has to look at cadavers from a strictly scientific view, but I have to ask: how can you deal with such an obvious sign of human cruelty?
This was my first such experience; the Balkan war was up to that point only a distant, blurry thing for me. I have of course read about it and have seen the news, but it was only there that I realised that the events happened only a few thousand kilometres from us – or only a few hundred here from Pécs. I worked on location in 1998 (and in Kosovo in 1999), and a few years prior there was a war there – we saw the bombed houses, the craters left behind by landmines, and fresh graves.
I understood then, how quickly life can change or even end. This experience has stayed with me ever since, because in many cases I had to do autopsies on bodies of people who have gone to work in the morning and couldn’t wait to go home to their families – but then they were hit by an inattentive driver or were stabbed by a stranger.
I am often asked how my job has changed my relationship with death, and I tell them that it mostly made an impression on my relationship with life: I know how valuable life is, and how short it can be.
These days, there is another war only a few hours from here, and there are probably crimes against humanity committed at this very minute in Eastern Ukraine. Are you planning on visiting the war zone to examine the atrocities, if the intensity of the fighting decreases?
It is important to know that this is not up to me. Governments and international organisations have to make the decision, and they have to invite forensic experts. If this happens and I am chosen, I will be glad to accept the task. This is what I’m good at, and I have gained a lot of experience in identifying unnamed victims and the causes of their deaths – be that people buried in mass graves during the genocide in Bosnia, or victims of the 2004 tsunami, or terrorist attacks.
The results of such examinations would surely be in the middle of fierce debates, since both parties would try to make people believe opposing understandings. You are familiar with this situation, since the strange death of a Cameroonian bishop whom you examined was at the centre of a controversy. How can you depend on strictly scientific viewpoints in such a situation?
As long as I am sure that I can look at the events with an objective, non-emotional and impartial way, all of this does not influence me. But it requires constant self-assessment, and we have to ask ourselves: are we truly being objective, are neither sides influencing us to try and make us say the things they want to hear? However, this self-assessment and constant state of doubt is what makes my job interesting for me.
Aside from being an internationally acclaimed forensics experts, you have also gained popularity as a true crime author in Germany in the past few years. You have even published multiple bestsellers. When and how did you decide to become an author?
I would not say this was a conscious decision, it started with a request. I was approached by an author working on a thriller, and they asked me for help in the parts pertaining to forensics. I told them about some of my cases, and they told me I should write my own book, since no author or director could come up with such stories. I had to admit it was true, but after I started contacting publishers, nobody was interested.
I published my first book in 2009, and it immediately became a bestseller, and this is kind of how true crime as a genre was born in Germany. Then I met one of the most successful German authors, Sebastien Fitzek, who asked me to co-author a book with him, and I realised that I could place my real cases in fictional stories, and this is how my career as an author started.
People are clearly interested in crime, but there is much interest in forensics, too; this is clearly shown in the popularity in shows like CSI and its spinoffs. Have you watched these series?
I have seen some episodes, but I am not a regular viewer. I do not have much time to watch series, and when I do, I prefer to watch things that are more interesting to me – right now, Yellowstone is my favourite. I don’t really want to spend my free time watching TV series about forensic experts, but I am somewhat familiar with CSI.
What is definitely true is that the methods shown in these shows do not exists – you cannot take a blood sample from a dead body, analyse it with a computer and have the results about their identity in a few minutes. This is not how it works in real life, but in a 45-minute episode, this is how it has to be. But I do like the so-called CSI-effect, which means that after the success of these shows, many people became interested in forensics as a career. These form a singular circle in my head: CSI, true crime and forensics.
CSI sheds light on an important thing in its spectacular and shallow way: the field of forensics has undergone serious technological development on the past decades. What are the most important developments in the past three decades of your career?
The first one has been known for a long time, but its importance cannot be overstated, because it truly did change everything. I am of course talking about DNA analysis, since thanks to it forensics and fighting crime have changed fundamentally. The second is hair analysis and toxicology, which allows us to know what a person has drank or eaten, or what kinds of drugs or medication they have taken even by examining a few strands of hair – or even that they have taken cocaine two months prior, or that they have given up alcohol three months ago.
The third is computer tomography, or CT. This is not a new technology, but it has only been used in the mortuary in the past few years. This way we can record findings digitally and even conduct digital autopsies. Think about the possibilities we could have had if we had this technology at the time of death of Lady Diana or Kurt Cobain, and do a digital autopsy today, allowing us to re-examine these famous deaths using today’s technological advances and information!
Based on our talk so far, I am under the impression that forensics is one of the most exciting fields of medicine, especially because it is connected to so many other fields from law and international politics to high technology. How do you see this?
Forensics surely does not count as a classical medical career. Most people choosing medicine want to heal patients, and does not think they will deal with dead bodies in their career. But forensics is a melting pot of various medical disciplines. There are cases where someone dies of a gastroenterological cause, someone else dies of drug overdose, another one from a physical occurrence. We have to use various knowledge from classical medical knowledge to criminalistics, and this is what makes it all amazing and exciting to me.
You are giving a presentation to young medical students, and as you said, there has been a lot of interest for forensic medicine lately. Who do you think are the ideal nominees to become forensic experts?
I do not think the ideal candidate exists. It is important to be objective and curious, and you cannot be wary of things that make most people queasy or afraid. This could be a good base.
From expert to bestselling author
Michael Tsokos, born in 1967, has never been a doctor who only feels comfortable behind a desk or in a lab. After two years of voluntary military service, he graduated from the University of Kiel in 1995, and in only a few years, was conducting exhumations of the victims of the Balkan genocides in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 2004, he was tasks with identifying the German victims of the disastrous tsunami.
At the beginning of the 2000s, he was already counted as a renowned expert, and took over the leadership of the Charité Forensics Department in one of the most famous European university hospitals. After publishing multiple academic books, he published his first true crime book in 2009 – his mother, also working as a doctor, found it too brutal.
The German readership loved it, however, and Tsokos is a true celebrity in Germany now, and even has his own TV programme in which he does autopsies. He has used his fame and expertise to speak out about the helplessness and apathy of authorities about violence against children and works as the honorary ambassador of the German Children’s Association. His hobbies include taekwondo and cultivating carnivorous plants. He is married and the father of five children.
The interview was originally published on hvg.hu.
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