“The real problem is to define when human life is worth living and when it has to be eradicated.”
His victims called him the Angel of Death. Others called him “absolute evil, only playing the part of a human.” People have argued he was worse than Hitler. His name was Josef Mengele.
Josef Mengele (pronounced men-gell-ay) was born March 16, 1911. His father founded a farm machinery production company that is still in existence today (infamously) under the Mengele name. He seemed to have a good upbringing in a middle-class home, though I read that his parents may have been distant and inattentive, leaving him alone for hours at a time while they worked.
Mengele struggled initially in school, but eventually found his stride, becoming a good student. He excelled in music and art and developed a love for skiing. In April 1930, he graduated high school and moved to Munich to study philosophy.
Though the Nazi Party was headquartered in Munich, Mengele initially showed little interest in party politics during his time there. However he began listening to speeches given Alfred Rosenberg, a high-ranking Nazi Party member. A year later in 1931, Mengele joined the German paramilitary organization often called the “Stormtroopers” — though he did not actually join the Nazi Party until six years later.
In the interim, Mengele switched degree fields to study anthropology and eugenics and earned his PhD in 1935. In January of ’37, Mengele took a position at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt where he worked under a geneticist named von Verscheur who had a particular interest in studying twins. Mengele would latch on to this interest in twins and remain a colleague of von Verscheur’s for the next 8 years. He earned his MD in 1938 for his research on clef lip and palate birth defects.
In 1937, he formally joined the Nazi Party. Mengele was driven by a passion for excellence and recognition, leading him to join the elite combat group, Waffen SS under Heinrich Himmler. Following basic training, Mengele, now a 2nd lieutenant, saw combat action in 1940. He held a dual role of both medical doctor and paramilitary operator, garnering him several military decorations including the Iron Cross 1st class. He was however seriously wounded in 1942 and declared unfit for further combat duties.
Mengele was then transferred to Berlin’s SS Race and Settlement main office and promoted to the rank of Captain.
At the behest of von Verscheur, Josef Mengele applied in 1943 for a medical physician’s post at Auschwitz, one of the most infamous Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Mengele’s work there was varied and brutal.
All camp doctors were required to participate in what was called “the selection:” conducting cursory fitness examinations of all prisoners who arrived at Auschwitz. Those deemed fit for forced labor (the minority of prisoners) were sent to the barracks. The rest of the prisoners were immediately sent to the gas chambers and the crematoriums.
Unlike many other Nazi doctors who found the task stressful and unpleasant, Mengele, on the other hand, rather enjoyed the task — even showing up on his day off to participate. He was often seen smiling and whistling as he chose who would live and who would die.
Another duty of Mengele at Auschwitz was visiting sick prisoners in the hospital barracks. Anyone who had not recovered after two weeks was sent to the gas chambers.
Josef Mengele’s first assignment at Auschwitz was over a camp of Romani (Gypsy) prisoners. However on or about August 1, 1944, Mengele ordered the entire camp exterminated in the gas chambers.
Mengele was also ruthless in dealing with disease outbreaks at Auschwitz. His solution was to send entire barracks to the gas chambers, sterilize the infected barracks, and then move disinfected prisoners back in. It “worked,” earning him the War Merit Cross — at the cost of hundreds of Jewish lives.
Mengele found a goldmine for his medical research at Auschwitz: tens of thousands of Jews whom the Nazis viewed as no better than rats. They became his “guinea pigs.”
Having gained an interest in studying twins while working under von Verscheur, Mengele used “the selection” to procure twins, mostly children, for brutal, pseudo-scientific experiments. Mengele also took an interest in dwarves and pregnant women, but twins were his special focus.
It’s estimated that thousands of sets of twins were subjected to various brutalizations in the name “research” by Dr. Mengele. The full extent of Mengele’s atrocities against his victims are painful to even imagine. Brown-eyed children had their eyes injected with blue dye to see if it would permanently change their color. Some victims had limbs amputated and internal organs removed, while alive, without anesthesia. Others were forceably inoculated with diseases so that Mengele could test out cures. Induced hypothermia was also performed to test the body’s reaction to the cold and response to various rewarming techniques. Mengele also experimented with sex changes and force sterilization.
If one of the twins died from a “procedure,” Mengele would immediately kill the other twin to conduct comparative autopsies. In one night, Mengele suddenly murdered 14 twins by injecting chloroform into their heart. Perhaps as many as 3,000 twins were killed by Mengele. Just 150 pairs were found alive when the Allied forces liberated the camp in 1945 (video here).
On the Run
The war seemed inevitably lost, and with the Allied armies closing in, Mengele transferred to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp 170 miles from Auschwitz — just ten days before the Allies liberated Mengele’s survivors. This appointment would be short-lived however. Like many other SS officers, Mengele fled to avoid capture. Disguising himself as a common soldier, he began moving westward. His luck ran out in June of ’45 when he was captured by the Americans.
However, Mengele’s luck soon returned. When he had joined the SS back in 1938, he had refused to receive a blood-type tattoo common among SS officers. Despite registering as a POW under his real name, due to lacking this identifying tattoo, Mengele was released a month later.
Using a variety of aliases and following a network of former SS members and Nazi sympathizers, Mengele was able to escape Germany for Argentina in July of 1949.
South American Fugative
Josef Mengele settled in Buenos Aires and started a new life. His wife of 15 years and their only child Rolf, however, refused to join him, and they divorced in 1954. While in Argentina, Mengele secretly began practicing medicine again as an unlicensed doctor, including performing abortions. He was questioned in 1958 after a teenage girl died following a botched abortion.
That same year, Mengele, now a permanent legal resident of Argentina, married his widowed sister-in-law and brought her to Buenos Aires.
Fearing capture, they moved to Paraguay the following year under the alias José Mengele.
The Allies believed that Mengele was long dead and had never seriously sought him outside of Germany. Yet when his divorce papers from his first wife were discovered, they learned of his Argentine address. An intense manhunt kicked off and extradition was granted — but by this time, Mengele already lived in Paraguay.
In 1960, the director of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, made it his personal mission to capture and extradite Mengele back to Israel. However the search was abandoned when all their leads turned out to be dead ends — he had fled to Brazil.
The search was reignited a year later when Mengele was discovered on a farm in Brazil, and the Mossad once again was dispatched. Yet Mengele got lucky again. The Mossad was recalled to Israel due to tensions with Egypt. This would be the last serious effort to find Mengele before his death.
Death of an Angel
Tens of thousands of dollars were funneled to Mengele by his German family and Nazi supports allowing him to live out the remaining nearly two decades of his life in relative comfort. He lived and worked with various friends and business associates, occasionally being forced to move when he couldn’t help himself from bragging about his Nazi exploits. In 1977 his son Rolf, whom he’d not seen in 21 years, visited him in Brazil.
Two years later, in 1979, Mengele, now living under the alias of a friend, Wolfgang Gerhard, suffered a stroke while swimming. His identity as the Angel of Death was unknown at that time and he was buried under his assumed name.
In 1985, several allied countries and American business, unaware of Mengele’s death, put a $100,000 reward out of his capture. In Israel, he was tried in absentia. This resparked an interest in finding the notorious Nazi doctor. A year later, Mengele’s death was finally discovered and his body exhumed. Forensic examination tentatively confirmed the remains belonged to Mengele, and in 1992, new DNA technology produced a positive identification after Rolf provided a blood sample for comparison.
The doctor’s reign of terror was officially over.
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A burning question is: what birthed such evil within Josef Mengele? What’s most curious is that Mengele’s earlier writings were not at all racist, radical, or antisemitic. Much of his medical research prior to Auschwitz was considered sound for that period of western history. He was not interested in politics at a young age and his parents were not early supporters of Hitler. And there were no signs of brutality during his early years either.
I believe the shift can be traced to his Nazi indoctrination — a self-radicalization of sorts that began between 1930 and ’31. This radicalization was further entrenched by his work in eugenics with Dr. von Verscheur — particularly the study of twins. And when Mengele arrived at Auschwitz his radicalized transformation was completed.
It’s likely that Mengele, at first, believed he was doing good work — truly benefiting humanity by his research and ridding the world of what he believed (due to Nazi radicalization) was a race of inferior and dangerous people.
“It would be a sin, a crime . . . and irresponsible not to utilize the possibilities that Auschwitz had for twin research.”Josef Mengele
Mengele was also highly success driven. While other Nazi doctors did the bare minimum, Mengele was relentless in his brutal experiments. He was consumed by ambition. No other SS doctor at Auschwitz was as combat decorated as Mengele was — and he wore his medals and experience as a badge of honor, viewing himself as superior. He had an extreme desire for recognition and accolades, and he believed his “work” at Auschwitz would achieve these — and often it did.
I read several suggested personality profiles for Josef Mengele: most often referring to him as a psychopath coupled with sadistic personality disorder and malignant narcissism. Obsessive compulsive disorder was also mentioned.
I believe there’s some solid basis for each of these. He was considered charismatic, good looking, and charming — superficial charm is characteristic of psychopathy. Inmates said of Mengele that he “conveyed the impression of a gentle and cultured man” and spoke of the ”cheerful expression on his face,” describing him as “fun loving” and “playful.” And yet he was prone to bouts of rage and irrational violence. On one occasion, Mengele drew his gun and shot a woman and her child for resisting another SS officer. He then condemned every Jew at “the selection” that day to the gas chambers, including those previously slated for work detail.
And he was undeniably sadistic — withholding anesthesia as he severed limbs and cut out organs from living victims. He also remained unrepentant and remorseless throughout the rest of his life.
Mengele also viewed himself as a god, believing he possessed omnipotence over his victims — the ultimate act of power being snuffing out an innocent life.
Jekyll and Hyde
Yet none of that explains Mengele’s ability to switch in a moment between the “gentle, cheerful, fun loving” doctor and the sadistic, unempathetic mass murderer. It’s this very conundrum that earned him the nickname Angel of Death from his victims. His survivors would often comment on the confusing duality of his affection and violence.
Mengele introduced himself to his child victims as “Uncle Mengele” and “Uncle Pepi.” He brought them sweets and allowed them to wear their own clothing instead of the usual prison rags. He remembered little things about them and behaved fatherly towards them, patting them on the head. And he would berate any Nazi soldier who mistreated “his children,” as he called them.
And yet he would take those same children he had “lovingly” doted on, and subject them to beatings, inhuman torture, and deadly experiments. He would bring sweets to twins and invite them for a ride in his car — and then drive them to the gas chamber. When it came time to kill, he lacked any feeling whatsoever towards a child that just moments ago he had shown fondness towards. When performing his brutal research, inmates said his eyes would change. Survivors described them as “dead eyes” and his personality as detached, as if he was from another planet.
Dr. Robert J. Gould coined a term for this phenomenon of switching personality, ethics, and morals in a moment and in different settings: he called it “doubling.” It’s the “ability” for someone like Mengele to perform horrific acts of violence without remorse or emotion, but then come home and be a loving father and husband. Mengele could turn off his empathy as a child lay screaming on an operating table from Mengele’s vile experiments, and then turn his empathy back on as he made a different child laugh — and even protected them. He was a person with two sides in complete opposition to each other, never overlapping — madness and sanity compartmentalized.
This is a very reasonable explanation, and it’s occasionally seen in serial killers like the Golden State Killer, whose wife, daughter, and grandchild all spoke lovingly of him after his arrest, not once sensing any inkling of his brutal persona. Mafia bosses and cartel kingpins often exhibit the same behavior — cherishing family one moment while being a stone-cold killer a moment later.
It’s a baffling diagnosis, but one that seems to well-fit Mengele’s duality of tenderness and brutality.
He was capable of being so kind to the children,Miklós Nyiszli, inmate doctor
To have them become fond of him,
To bring them sugar,
To think of small details in their daily lives,
To do things we would genuinely admire.
And then, next to that,
The crematoria smoke,
Tomorrow or in a half-hour,
He is going to send them there.
Well, that is where the anomaly lay.