Josef Mengele was born on March 16, 1911, in Günzburg, near Ulm, Germany. He was the eldest son of Karl Mengele, a prosperous manufacturer of farming implements. In 1935, he earned a PhD in physical anthropology from the University of Munich. He also held a doctoral degree in genetic medicine. In January 1937, he became the assistant of Dr. Otmar von Verschuer at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt. Verschuer was a leading scientific figure widely known for his research with twins.
Mengele before Auschwitz
Mengele joined the Nazi Party in 1937. He received his medical degree in 1938, the same year he joined the SS. Mengele was drafted into the army in June 1940, and subsequently volunteered for the medical service of the Waffen-SS (Armed SS). There is little (and often contradictory) documentation about Mengele's activities between this time and early 1943. It is clear, however, that he first functioned as a medical expert for the Race and Settlement Main Office in summer 1940 at the Central Immigration Office North-East in Posen (today Poznan). He then served as a medical officer with the SS Division “Wiking” (SS Pioneer Battalion V), with which he saw action on the Eastern Front.
Mengele and Other Physicians at Auschwitz
Wounded while on campaign, Mengele returned to Germany in January 1943. He began work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics, directed by his former mentor von Verschuer. In April of 1943, he received a promotion to the rank of SS captain. This promotion shortly preceded Mengele's transfer to Auschwitz, on May 30, 1943.
During his time at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele was not the only physician there. It is popularly believed that he was the highest-ranking physician at the camp. This is not the case. That “distinction” belonged to SS captain Dr. Eduard Wirths. Wirths’ position as garrison physician made him responsible in all medical matters for the entire camp complex.
Mengele began his career at Auschwitz in the spring of 1943 as the medical officer responsible for Birkenau's “Gypsy camp.” Several weeks after its liquidation, in November 1943 Mengele undertook a new position as Chief Camp Physician of Auschwitz II (Birkenau). He was still under Wirths' jurisdiction.
Approximately 30 physicians served at Auschwitz while Mengele was assigned to the camp. As a required part of their “rounds,” medical staff performed “selections” of prisoners on the ramp. These selections determined who from among the mass of humanity arriving at Auschwitz would be retained for work and who would perish immediately in the gas chambers.
Mengele is known as the “Angel of Death,” or sometimes as the “White Angel,” for his coldly cruel demeanor on the ramp. He is associated more closely with this “selection duty” than any other medical officer at Auschwitz, although by most accounts he performed this task no more often than any of his colleagues. The association is partially explained by his postwar notoriety. The pervasive image of Mengele at the ramp in so many survivors' accounts has also to do with the fact that Mengele often appeared “off-duty” in the selection area whenever trainloads of new prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, searching for twins.
Mengele’s Medical Experiments at Auschwitz
Mengele became interested in using twins for medical research through his mentor, Verschuer. Verschuer himself was famous for experimenting with identical and fraternal twins in order to trace the genetic origins of various diseases. During the 1930s, twin research was seen as an ideal tool in weighing the factors of human heredity and environment. Mengele and his mentor had performed a number of legitimate research protocols using twins as test subjects throughout the 1930s. Now, at Auschwitz, with full license to maim or kill his subjects, Mengele performed a broad range of agonizing and often lethal experiments with Jewish and Roma (Gypsy) twins, most of them children.
He had a wide variety of other research interests. Among these was a fascination with heterochromia, a condition in which the irises of an individual's eyes differ in coloration. Throughout his stay in Auschwitz, Mengele collected the eyes of his murdered victims, in part to furnish “research material” to colleague Karin Magnussen, a KWI researcher of eye pigmentation. He himself also conducted several experiments in an attempt to unlock the secret of artificially changing eye color. He also zealously documented in camp inmates the progression of the disease Noma, a type of gangrene which destroys the mucous membrane of the mouth and other tissues.
Mengele firmly endorsed Nazi racial theory and engaged in a wide spectrum of experiments which aimed to illustrate the lack of resistance among Jews or Roma to various diseases. He also attempted to demonstrate the “degeneration” of Jewish and “Gypsy” blood through the documentation of physical oddities and the collection and harvesting of tissue samples and body parts. Many of his “test subjects” died as a result of the experimentation or were murdered in order to facilitate post-mortem examination.
Like most “scientists” at work in the concentration camp environment, Mengele enlisted the aid of trained medical professionals among the prisoner population to perform the more grisly, or mundane, tasks and to carry out autopsies upon his dead victims. Much of our early knowledge of Mengele's activities at Auschwitz comes from Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a prisoner-physician who assisted Mengele under duress. Nyiszli published his experiences, initially in his native Hungarian, in 1946. His work Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account appeared in English in 1960.
Josef Mengele had hoped to use the “research” he had garnered in Auschwitz in order to produce his Habilitation, a second, post-doctoral, dissertation required for admission to a university faculty as a professor in German-speaking lands. Instead, in January 1945, as the Soviet Army advanced through western Poland, Mengele fled Auschwitz. He spent the next few weeks at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, until its evacuation. He then made his way west to evade capture by Soviet forces.
In the immediate postwar period, Mengele was in US custody. Unaware that Mengele's name already stood on a list of wanted war criminals, US officials quickly released him. From the summer of 1945 until spring 1949, using false papers, Mengele worked as a farmhand near Rosenheim, Bavaria. His prosperous family then aided his emigration to South America. He settled in Argentina.
Mengele’s crimes had been well documented before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) and other postwar courts. West German authorities issued a warrant for his arrest in 1959, and a request for extradition in 1960. Alarmed by the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in that same year, Mengele moved to Paraguay and then to Brazil. He spent the last years of his life near Sao Pãolo. In declining health, Mengele suffered a stroke and drowned while swimming at a vacation resort near Bertioga, Brazil, on February 7, 1979. He was buried in a suburb of Sao Pãolo under the fictive name “Wolfgang Gerhard.”
In 1985, German police, working on evidence they had recently confiscated from a Mengele family friend in Günzburg, located Mengele's grave and exhumed his corpse. Brazilian forensic experts thereafter positively identified the remains as Josef Mengele. In 1992, DNA evidence confirmed this conclusion. Mengele had eluded his captors for 34 years.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations existed in medicine during the Nazi era that might have made Mengele's activities and choices possible?
- Do similar factors still impact the profession today?