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3. Everything / History & Politics / War / World War II
Dr Josef Mengele - the Angel of Death
Please note: This entry contains graphic descriptions of torture and mutilation that took place within Nazi concentration camps. We strongly advise that readers of a nervous or sensitive disposition do not read beyond this point.
I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.
So states the Hippocratic Oath, sworn by all doctors throughout the world. However, during World War II, one doctor would forsake this oath and bring about unprecedented levels of suffering and pain to those unfortunate enough to come into contact with him. Thousands perished under his scalpel or in the death camp he ran, and more were permanently disfigured. The doctor was Josef Mengele, latterly known as Auschwitz's 'Angel of Death.'
Mengele was born in 1911, in the village of Gunzburg in Germany's Bavarian region. He was the eldest of three children, and the son of a successful but distant factory owner and a strict Catholic matriarchal mother. Although he was never top of his classes, young Josef was a bright, handsome and charismatic youngster who matured into a self-confident, charming and articulate man, much sought-after by the women of Gunzburg.
Throughout his youth, Josef dreamt of leaving Gunzburg and pursuing a career in science. Making no secret of his ambitions, Josef once boasted - somewhat prophetically - that his name would one day appear in the encyclopedia. Despite his father's wishes for him to join the family business, in 1930 Josef gained entry to the University of Munich, in the Bavarian capital. It is possible that none of this would have mattered to history had Munich not been a hotbed of political intrigue, and the heart of the increasingly popular National Socialist German Workers Party under a political revolutionary named Adolf Hitler.
University, The Nazi Party and the Outbreak of War
Up until he left Gunzberg, Mengele had remained apolitical, satisfied in the pursuit of leisure and academic success. However, like thousands of young Germans, he succumbed to the highly seductive hysteria surrounding the Nazi party. Claiming it was 'impossible to stand aside in these politically-stirring times', Mengele joined the nationalist group Stahlhelm1, who, though not affiliated with the Nazi Party, shared the same ideals.
At university, Mengele still put his medical ambitions before any political sympathies he harboured, and his academic passions revealed nothing of the murderous tendencies which would one day emerge from them. However, Mengele fell under the influence of one Dr Ernst Rudin, who instilled into his students the concept that some lives were not worth living, and doctors as such were responsible for destroying such lives and thus ensuring the security of the general population2. After being forced to leave the Stahlhelm due to kidney disease, shortly after it was absorbed by the Nazi Party's SA organisation, Mengele devoted his time to his studies. Five years after entering University he was awarded a PhD for a thesis proving that it was possible to identify different racial groups by studying the jawbone. In 1936 Dr Mengele passed his medical examination and began work at a medical clinic in Leipzig.
In 1937, Mengele received a position as a research assistant at the Third Reich Institute for Heredity, Biology and Racial Purity in Frankfurt under Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a vocal supporter of the Nazis. As von Verschuer provided the parental adulation and affirmation that Mengele had missed as a child, the young doctor exhibited an unbending willingness to please his mentor. The Nazism that von Verschuer suggested to Mengele fulfilled his twin ambitions of becoming a renowned scientist and a genetic purifier. By 1938 Mengele was a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS)3 and with the outbreak of war, the young doctor would be assigned to the Waffen SS (the combat division of the SS) and win the Iron Cross First Class - Germany's highest military honour - for bravery. Wounds sustained in winning the Iron Cross would mean that Mengele was unable to return to combat, and the talented young scientist was assigned to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland.
Warning: Once again, this section contains details of Mengele's time at the Auschwitz extermination camp that readers will find disturbing and unsettling.
The facility at Auschwitz was a gruesome kingdom of human misery, inundated with lice, vermin and fleas, the foulest sanitary conditions known to man, and rife with diseases such as typhus. Funded by a grant secured by Professor von Verschuer, it was here that Mengele was ordered to unlock the secrets of genetic engineering and devise methods to eradicate inferior genes from the human population to create Hitler's 'perfect race.' This 'scientific' premise for Mengele's work would ultimately contribute nothing of value to the understanding of human genetics, but it would add volumes to the annals of human suffering.
Within days of his arrival at the camp, Mengele's horrific reputation was cemented when he sent a thousand gypsies to the gas chambers to avoid them spreading typhus to the Germans present. This reputation grew as Mengele stood by the infamous gates of Auschwitz each morning and selected which Jews would be sent directly to the gas chambers, and which would be interned for experiments. Josef Mengele callously sent more people to their deaths each morning than some army generals did during a day of campaigning on the Eastern Front. Unlike other scientists present - who had to drink heavily before this selection took place and expressed a deep disgust at their assigned task - Mengele performed the selections with relish, whistling continually and seeming to enjoy his grisly task; he would act in a caring and concerned manner when confronted with exhausted Jewish mothers and children, and then send them to the gas chambers a moment later.
In the name of scientific endeavour, Mengele's experimental subjects included children as well as adult men and women; often, his subjects would suffer dissection without the use of anaesthetic or be administered high-voltage shocks in order to test their pain endurance; men were castrated and women sterilised to prevent them from breeding. When the German Prosecutors office drew up indictments against Mengele in 1981, they found 78 different crimes to charge him with, including:
Having actively and decisively taken part in selections in the prisoners' sick blocks, of such prisoners who through hunger, deprivations, exhaustion, sickness, disease, abuse or other reasons were unfit for work in the camp and whose speedy recovery was not envisaged.... Those selected were killed either through injections or firing squads or by painful suffocation to death through prussic acid in the gas chambers in order to make room in the camp for the 'fit' prisoners, selected by him or other SS doctors.... The injections that killed were made with phenol, petrol, Evipal, chloroform, or air into the circulation, especially into the heart chamber, either with his own hands or he ordered the SS sanitary worker to do it while he watched.
Mengele was known to beat inmates to death in fits of rage, and then to calmly kill them with a single headshot from his service revolver. When the crematoria of the camp malfunctioned, Mengele had trenches dug, filled with petrol and set alight. He then watched as the condemned Jews, living and dead, adult and child were hurled bodily into the fiery pits. Anyone managing to crawl from the pit was kicked back into the fire by the camp guards.
Mengele's preferred area of 'research' at Auschwitz was on the subject of twins, on whom he conducted 'in vivo' experiments. Mengele kept his stock of twins in special barracks known as 'the zoo'. In the zoo, children had to come to terms with the news of the deaths of their parents and family members, while seeing the man who condemned them as the saviour of their own lives. These children were spared from beatings and forced labour as Mengele wanted to keep his specimens healthy. However, this state of health would not last long once his experiments started: blood from one twin would be taken and injected into the other, causing headaches and fevers; Mengele would inject dye into the eyes of twins to see if eye colour could be genetically altered, leading to infections and blindness; if a twin died, 'trophies' from their body would be added to the collection on the wall of his office, in a grim parody of a butterfly collection; several twins had organs and limbs swapped and removed in macabre surgical procedures without anaesthetic to see how their bodies would react; others would be deliberately infected with viral and bacterial agents to see if there was a relationship in how much time it took for each twin to succumb to the infections.
It is clear to all that Mengele's experimentation had nothing to do with scientific research, and everything to do with the edict of Aryan supremacy. However, this supremacy would be finally disproved to Mengele on 17 January, 1945, when the Soviet Army marched into Poland en route to Berlin. The 'inferior' Slavic Race was on a direct course to ending the Third Reich, and all that Mengele could do was flee.
During the first few years of the post-war era, Mengele went into hiding in Gunzburg, posing as a farm hand whilst still harbouring dreams of continuing his research. It finally became apparent to him that the Allies would not let a notorious war criminal resume his pre-war life without paying for his crimes. Still using a fake identity, Mengele fled to Argentina on an Italian ocean liner.
Mengele was to spend the next 30 years hiding from international authorities, and was sheltered by neo-Nazi networks in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. The United States Justice Department and the West German government seemed content to ignore Mengele, and the only people who came close to bringing him to trial were the highly controversial Israeli secret service. However, an escalating domestic situation and international uproar over the kidnapping of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 sidetracked Israeli efforts to capture the doctor.
Mengele dropped off the radar screen of most governments despite the protests of Nazi-hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal, and it was not until 1985 that a group of Auschwitz survivors tried Mengele in absentia, promoting both Israel and the USA to re-open the case of Dr Josef Mengele. However all these efforts would be in vain when letters from Mengele's European contact were seized and it came to light that Mengele had been living in Brazil.
Mengele had been harboured by a number of South American families, including a Brazilian schoolteacher. Although she never mentioned to anyone who her 'guest' had been, BBC reporters tracked down the school she worked in, and she retired just before the story became public. It is possible that harbouring Mengele had affected her, as the normally harsh disciplinarian was - according to one researcher's experience - unusually lenient towards graffiti containing Nazi symbolism. 40 years after Auschwitz, Mengele was still affecting the lives of children.
By the time Brazilian police located the family who had harboured Mengele all that remained of the doctor was a grave marked 'Wolfgang Gerhard', and skeletal remains. Mengele had finally been found, but his drowning in 1979, possibly linked to a stroke, meant that the 'Angel of Death,' who had sought to wield control over life itself, would forever escape judgement.
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