Mengele, Josef (1911–1979)

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MENGELE, JOSEF (1911–1979)


Nazi doctor and war criminal.

For twenty-one months Josef Mengele exercised the power of life and death over thousands of Auschwitz inmates. Nicknamed the "Angel of Death," he supervised a gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau and conducted horrific pseudoscientific experiments that killed many and scarred the survivors. Testimony from Auschwitz commonly emphasizes his immaculate appearance, his whistling of arias, and his indifference to the pain of experimental subjects as well as the paradox of his occasionally apparent kindness toward Auschwitz children. With his professional ambition and commitment to National Socialist ideology, Mengele personified the evil of Auschwitz and the Third Reich.

Born 16 March 1911, Mengele lived comfortably with his wealthy, devoutly Roman Catholic, Bavarian family. Choosing an academic career, he began his studies at the University of Munich in 1930, where he also embraced National Socialist ideology. The politics of the age apparently influenced Mengele's interests; he chose to study anthropology and medicine, interested in how genetic and other manipulations might improve a race. He was awarded a PhD in 1935 and passed his state medical examination the following year. In 1937 Mengele joined a prestigious research team, headed by one of Europe's foremost geneticists, who was also a committed National Socialist, at the University of Frankfurt's Institute of Hereditary Biology and Race Research. This was his first step into elite National Socialist academic circles and toward Auschwitz. Mengele also joined the National Socialist Party in 1937 and the Schutzstaffel (SS) the next year. After a brief stint as a Wehrmacht medical officer in 1940 he transferred to the Waffen-SS, earning the Iron Cross First and Second Class on the eastern front.

In May 1943 Mengele became a camp doctor at Auschwitz, hoping to use this assignment as a stepping-stone to an academic career. He executed his duties with a flourish that impressed colleagues and terrified inmates. Shortly after his arrival he quelled a typhus epidemic by sending hundreds of inmates to the gas chambers with no apparent regard for their lives. Among their duties, the doctors selected which inmates went immediately to the gas chambers and which inmates were assigned to labor details. Unlike most of the other SS doctors, Mengele appeared to relish this responsibility, performing selections more frequently than required.

In a laboratory located in Crematorium 2, outfitted with modern equipment and staffed by inmate professionals, Mengele subjected prisoners to an array of injections and other caustic and toxic procedures in his quest to discover keys to the genetic manipulation of supposed Aryan features. Mengele particularly used twins, one serving as subject and the other the control. After the test, both twins might be fatally injected and immediately dissected to determine the impact of the test. Dyes were injected into eyes to see whether eye color could be altered. These tests, which had dubious scientific value, were conducted without any regard for the subjects themselves. Mengele also participated in the ongoing research on human sterilization, which was intended to find ways to prevent the reproduction of "undesirable" groups, thus guaranteeing the supposed racial purity of the Germans. Literally thousands of people suffered from the brutal treatments directed by Mengele; many perished.

By late 1944 Mengele's world began to collapse. The war was clearly lost, as were the doctor's hopes for a prestigious career in the Third Reich. Mengele left Auschwitz a few days before the Red Army liberated the camp in January 1945. As Germany disintegrated Mengele sought to evade capture. He was named a principal war criminal in April 1945 but successfully avoided detection in the chaos of postwar Germany by assuming the identity of another soldier.

Facing prosecution, he left Europe in 1949; family funds facilitated his escape to South America. Pursued sporadically and unsuccessfully by governments and by independent Nazi-hunters, he lived in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, sometimes comfortable, sometimes fearful of capture, and sometimes in squalid circumstances. He resented the loss of the respect and recognition he thought his right as a man of science. As time passed, the circulation of stories about Auschwitz and Mengele's evasion of capture in spite of offers of substantial rewards made him seem a figure of almost mythical attributes. The actual story was mundane. Dependent upon an allowance from his family and shielded by sympathizers or hired caretakers, he was bitter, fearful, and largely isolated. Perhaps he eluded his day in court, but he lived in disgrace and exile. In 1979 Mengele suffered a stroke while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, died, and was buried under a false name in Brazil. The mystery continued until 1985 when his body was exhumed and conclusively identified. However, some who had been subjects of his experiments refused to believe that body belonged to Mengele; he will likely always be "alive" to haunt them.

See alsoAuschwitz-Birkenau; Concentration Camps; Eugenics; Nazism; SS (Schutzstaffel).


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Astor, Gerald. The "Last" Nazi: The Life and Times of Dr. Joseph Mengele. New York, 1985.

Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1995.

Kater, Michael H. Doctors under Hitler. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989.

Lagnado, Lucette Matalon, and Sheila Cohn Dekel. Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. New York, 1991.

Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York, 1986.

Mitscherlich, Alexander, and Fred Mielke. Doctors of Infamy: The Story of the Nazi Medical Crimes. Translated by Heinz Norden. New York, 1949.

Posner, Gerald L., and John Ware. Mengele: The Complete Story. New York, 1986.

Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

Larry Thornton