The Angel of Death

In 1911, Karl Mengele became the sole owner of “Karl Mengele”, a business that manufactured farm equipment for milling and wood sawing. By the 1920s this company would become the third largest threshing Production Company in Germany, and the name Mengele would dominate throughout the country. Mengele’s business became Gunzburg’s largest employer and their family the most powerful. Even today the name “Mengele” is noticeably displayed across the factory. There are memorial stones honoring Karl, his wife Walburga, and their youngest sons, Alois and Karl Jr. Karl’s daughter in law was honored by having a school named after her, and his grandson continues to have stake in the firm, as well as the most luxurious home in Gunzburg. The story of the Mengele family is a triumphant one, if you ignore one detail. Throughout the memorials, one name is lacking, and for good reason. Josef Mengele was an ambitious young man who yearned to stand out from his family, and his desire was more than fulfilled. Mengele is infamous for his unethical human experiments at Auschwitz, and he is now referred to as the “Angel of Death.” Throughout this paper, I will explore Josef Mengele’s background and interest in Eugenics as well as examine the connection between Nazi doctor experiments and Nazi genocide.

The picture above shows that the prominence of the Mengele name still exists in Germany today. The name can be seen on many pieces of farm equipment, and still is displayed on the front of the Mengele factory.

Who was Josef Mengele?

Mengele was born on March 16th, 1911 in Gunzburg. He was a gifted child and wanted his success to be separate from that of his family. In 1930 he moved to Munich, where the overtones of Nazism and maxims of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party convinced Mengele to join in the pursuit of the goal of creating a German super-race. His first step in his quest towards this goal was enrolling at Munich University to study philosophy and medicine. His interests in anthropology and genetics grew, and he eventually earned his PhD for his thesis describing how to distinguish racial groups by examining their jaw. He first started working in Leipzig at the university’s medical clinic in 1936, and by 1937 he became a research assistant at the Third Reich Institute for Heredity, Biology and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt. Here he met Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, who influenced Mengele’s practices and future greatly. Here he was even more exposed to Nazi philosophy and the idea of purifying the German race. In result of that exposure, Mengele submitted his application for the Nazi party, and became a member in May 1937. In May of 1938 he joined Schutzstaffel, the SS, which was seen as the guardian of Germany’s racial cleanliness. After remaining at Frankfurt for a few years, Mengele earned his medical degree and then joined the army in 1940 (Posner and Ware). At this time, Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer was director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Mengele eventually moved to a post in Berlin in order to assist von Verschuer at the institute in his spare time. It was in 1943 that Mengele reached the final destination of his career, the place where he inflicted the most pain, and in his eyes, made the most progress towards perfecting the human race: Auschwitz.

This is a picture of Josef Mengele, taken around 1938, the time he joined the SS, this was the picture on the front of his Nazi party file.


The majority of Mengele’s work was driven by eugenics. Eugenics is defined as “the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.” The ideas of racial hygiene and improving the race were around long before the era of Hitler; many German scientists in the late nineteenth century supported these ideas. In 1883 Francis Galton coined the term eugenics. Galton was inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Galton and Darwin were cousins (Bachrach and Kuntz). The term eugenics originated from the Greeks, and when literally translated means “good birth.” Eugenics began as a way to identify and differentiate criminals; scientists would examine faces for objective signs of criminality, and dissect the brains of executed murderers to seek out the cause of their criminal behavior and differentiation from society. After the First World War, the practice of eugenics in Germany grew drastically. Shamed by defeat, German eugenics supporters claimed that medicine and charity were interfering with natural selection by allowing the unfit to survive. This threat to the German population, along with the declining birth rates, gave way to rapid support of racial hygiene. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics were opened in 1924 and 1927, respectively (Posner and Ware). These institutes were government supported, and Mengele would later find himself contributing greatly to the second of these institutes. At these institutes, individuals would undergo observation, measurements, and intelligence testing which would rank them as “superior” or “inferior.” The ideas of eugenics now became mainstream, those deemed superior were encouraged to reproduce and grow their families, while those who were inferior felt the effects in a different way. Funding for prisons, mental hospitals, and care homes were extremely cut and common educational resources encouraged people to look for hereditary blemishes in their lineage (Grodin). There were a few supporters of eliminating the inferior altogether, however at this time euthanasia was widely debated, but not practiced. A more accepted alternative to euthanasia was presented which prevented the inferior from reproducing and passing on their deficient genes: sterilization. However, political and religious opposition of sterilization prevented it from being practiced in Germany. That’s not to say it wasn’t practiced at all, between 1907 and 1933, 16,000 sterilization procedures were conducted on men and women in the United States alone (Bachrach and Kuntz). By this time, the idea of eugenics was validated to the public, seeing that the supporters were largely psychiatrists, anthropologists and medically trained experts. The concepts of racial cleansing were spreading fast, and it wasn’t long before the Nazi party adopted the ideologies.


Nazi Doctors

While it is easy to get caught up in the specific case of Josef Mengele, it is crucial to keep in mind that he was only one minuscule part in the broad scope of Nazi medicine. From the start, the Nazi party had such a lavish vision of racial purity that the progression to widespread killing was inevitable.  Not only was killing necessary for the attainment of the Nazi party goals, but doctors were required as well. When Hitler published Mein Kampf he mentioned using modern medical means to reach the goal of their racial mission (Lifton). Their justification for these killings was the slogan “lebensunwertes Leben” or “life unworthy of life.” The Nazis established five steps to carry out the concepts of their slogan.  The first step was forced sterilization of those whose genes were undesirable to reproduce in the Nazis’ eyes. Next was the killing of impaired children in hospitals. The next step focused on adults, mostly those in mental hospitals, and killing those deemed impaired. The Fourth step was killing impaired inmates of concentration and extermination camps. Lastly, the Nazis performed mass killings (Lifton). In order to carry out the Nazis plan, doctors were required for every step of the way. Medical professionals held other responsibilities at the concentration and extermination camps as well. At Auschwitz specifically, doctors were in charge of selecting inmates to be killed, deciding how to kill, experimenting on inmates and taking care of SS personnel. It seems that doctors were involved in every aspect of concentration camps.

Descriptions of Nazi doctors range from decent and moral to barbaric and corrupt. The most “decent Nazi” was said to be Karl Brandt (Lifton).  He was a highly educated man and played a crucial role in the racial cleansing by heading the administration of the Nazi euthanasia program. His joining of the medical killing is significant, he was an elite healer and his joining legitimized the process. On the other side of the spectrum is Hermann Pfannmuller. He was a brutalized physician known for his extreme killing of children. Rather than waste medicine on the patients, Pfannmuller preferred to starve them to death. He is the depiction of a corrupt doctor turned murderer. No matter what their attitude, or how they’re remembered, each Nazi doctor played a crucial role in the destruction of the boundary between creating life and destroying it.


This image shows Nazi officials at an exhibition in the German Hygiene Museum in 1935. The figure of the “glass man” promotes health and eugenics (Bachrach and Kuntz)


Although it is impossible to blame any act of genocide on one certain factor, there is no doubt that the theories and practices of eugenics and Nazi medicine played a major role in the holocaust. The Nazi party had a scientific vision of perfecting the human species, and the Germans felt that they themselves were perfect. Adam Jones refers to this belief as collective pathological narcissism (384) and the Germans perfectly demonstrated it by seeing themselves as superior as a whole. In order to spread their perfection and destroy anything inferior, Mengele and Nazi doctors like him were required to perform their unethical work. Hitler’s goal was to rid Germany of people who were not superior, because they were seen as a threat to the health of the nation. Mengele would observe, manipulate and distort the traits of twins in hopes of perfecting the German race. Perhaps the most disturbing detail in Mengele’s story is the fact that he was seen as a friendly, charming man, even to his patients. Mengele was not disturbed by the wicked nature of his tasks, he thought of himself as a scientist, and this legitimized his role and duties. By examining Jewish and Gypsy twins, Mengele’s goal was to improve the breeding of the German race by creating two members of the master race through one pregnancy. Mengele was only one fragment in the operation of creating a perfect race. As bizarre as they seem, there was a reasoning behind the insanity of his experiments. The perfect species was seen as a blue eyed, blond haired Aryan. One step towards this species for Mengele was seeing if he could adjust the pigmentation of eye colors. He would inject different colored dyes into the eyes of his patients (Cornwell). The result was often blindness, and afterward the children were gassed since they no longer served a purpose. A more gruesome step in Mengele’s process was referred to as the “in vivo” stage. First, precise measurements were taken by an assistant, and any differences between twins was noted. Next, Mengele would have the twins remove their clothing and he would examine them himself in great detail. After these examination, Mengele would perform various, often times torturous, experiments. These included amputations, punctures, typhus injections, and intentionally infected wounds. One extremely graphic example included a pair of twins, one of which was a hunchback. Mengele sewed the hunchback to the other twin, and also sewed their wrists together. The two children died of gangrene not long after the operation. Blood transfusions were often common at this stage of Mengele’s work.The last step was dissection. Mengele would kill the children he had so feverishly worked upon, often by an injection of chloroform to the heart (Cornwell). This step allowed him to completely understand the differences and similarities among twins by examining their internal organs and development. Mengele killed hundreds of children in the few years he spent as Auschwitz, however his ultimate goal was to create new life in the most perfect form (Grodin).

Mengele’s Flee and Capture

By the time the Russians had entered Auschwitz, Mengele was long gone. He fled west and did everything he could to cover his tracks. Others tried to deny connection with him as well; Professor von Verschuer had Mengele’s documents removed from the institution and demolished any evidence of association with him. For two months, Mengele stayed with the Wehrmacht soldiers, the military of the Nazis, in Czechoslovakia and eventually made their way to what is now East Germany and was previously Saxony. The unit he was with was captured by Americans, but Mengele showed no evidence of affiliation with the SS. Because of his luck and lies, Mengele was freed 6 weeks after his detainment (Posner and Ware). Freedom was sweet, but what Mengele really wanted was his research documents. Soon after his release Mengele risked being captured again and entered a Russian zone where a nurse friend of his was holding his documents. His mission was a success and he then went to Munich to stay with a trusted friend. Mengele was smart in his concealment; he altered the release papers of a friend and went by the cover name “Fritz Hollman.” Using his alias, Mengele attained a job at the farm of Georg and Maria Fischer. Mengele’s anxiety over capture grew and by the spring of 1949 he decided to flee to Argentina (Lynott).


Through former SS contacts, he arranged his flight and arrived in Buenos Aires on August 26, 1949. Here he developed a system of Nazi supporters who helped Mengele establish a new identity and life. Over the next ten years Mengele lived in Argentina and by 1959 West Germany had issued the first warrant for his arrest. Around the same time, Mengele created a new alias, “Jose Mengele” and moved to Paraguay. The Israeli Mossad was actively searching for Mengele, and he narrowly escaped their capture by moving to Paraguay just two weeks before they searched Argentina. In the same year, he moved to São Paul and lived with Hungarian refuges on their farm (Lynott). In 1976 he once again changed his alias to “Wolfgang Gerhard.”  Mengele lived peacefully in São Paul until his eventual death in 1979. It is suggested that Mengele drowned or suffered a stroke while swimming. He was buried under the name of his most recent alias, Wolfgang Gerhard and his body discovered in 1985 (Posner and Ware).

Above is a newspaper clipping from June 22, 1985, when Mengele's body was discovered in Brazil. The title reads "Experts say body in Brazil is Nazi fugitive Josef Mengele"

Throughout this paper, I have investigated Josef Mengele’s background and association to Eugenics as well as examined the connection between his experiments and other Nazi doctors’ to Nazi genocide.Throughout the holocaust, mass killings were justified with the ultimate goal of healing, but the boundaries between the two became unclear. While he only is a small piece in the racial hygiene movement of the Nazis, he is often the starting point of research into the topic.  Perhaps Mengele is often the focus of this topic because he demonstrates the human capacity to take something as innocent as healing and turn it into the destruction of life.

Mengele's skull, major dental work can been seen, suggesting that even Mengele pursued the dream of becoming the perfect human being


Works Cited

Bachrach, Susan D., and Dieter Kuntz. Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004. Print.

Cornwell, John. Hitler’s Scientists. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.

Grodin, Annas. The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.

Jones, Adam. “Psychological Perspectives” in Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

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

Lynott, Douglas B. “Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’” Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’ — — Crime Library on N.p., n.d. Web.

Posner, Gerald L., and John Ware. “Fugitive:How Nazi War Criminal Josef Mengele Cheated Justice For 34 Years.” Chicago Tribune. N.p., 18 May 1986. Web.

Posner, Gerald L., and Ware, John. Mengele: The Complete Story. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000. Print.