Josef Mengele (1911-1979), known as the "Angel of Death" (Todesengel in German), gained everlasting infamy as the chief Nazi doctor at Auschwitz concentration camp who personally selected prisoners for execution and conducted a series of hideous medical "experiments" on camp inmates as part of pseudoscientific racial studies.

Youth and Education

Mengele was born on March 16, 1911 in the village of Günzburg in Bavaria to a wealthy family who owned a farm machinery manufacturing business (Firma Karl Mengele & Söhne, which is still in operation today). The eldest of three brothers, young Josef was an extremely bright student, and all who knew him felt certain he was destined for a future of fortune and fame. They were close enough, I suppose, if infamy counts.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mengele studied philosophy at Munich, falling under the influence of racial ideology of Alfred Rosenberg and the National Socialist movement while working on his doctoral dissertation on racial differences in the structure of the lower jaw, which he completed in 1935. He then went on to receive a medical doctorate at the University of Frankfurt, where he studied under Otmar von Verschuer at the Institute of Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene, and wrote a second dissertation on "Clan examinations at lip-jaw-palate-cleft."

Rise through the Nazi Ranks

Meanwhile, Mengele had long since become deeply involved in radical German nationalism. In 1931, at the age of 20, he had joined the Stahlhelm ("Steel Helmet"), a paramilitary Freikorps dedicated to the destruction of the Weimar Republic. Then in 1933 he joined the "Stormtroopers" or "Brownshirts" - the enforcement wing of the Nazi Party, and finally applied for official Nazi party membership in 1937.

The following year Mengele joined the SS, and from 1938 to 1939 served in an elite mountain light-infantry regiment. In 1940 he was transferred to the reserve medical corps and served for the next three years in the Waffen-SS on the Russian Front. In 1942 he was declared medically unfit for duty as the result of combat wounds but had fought so bravely during the Eastern Campaign that he was promoted to rank of Captain. Withdrawn from the front lines, he volunteered to serve in a concentration camp at a time when that was increasingly viewed as an undesirable position, and was named chief medical officer of the Auschwitz death camp on May 24, 1943.


Mengele's stay at Auschwitz was a mere 21 months, but it proved more than enough to engrave his name on the roll of history's greatest villains and earn his nickname, "Angel of Death." When rail cars filled with new prisoners arrived at Auschwitz II Birkenau, Mengele would wait on the platform and personally select which inmates would be retained for work or medical experiments and which would be set directly to the gas chamber. Meanwhile Mengele supervised a series of some of the most sadistic experiments ever conducted in the name of science. Mengele's experimentation included placing subjects under extreme air pressure, testing overdoses of various drugs and poisons on them, conducting brutal amputations and surgeries without anesthesia to record their reactions to extreme pain, and subjecting them to various fatal traumas, such as slowly freezing them to death.

Some of the experiments were supposed to further the Nazi aim of creating a master race, including mutilation of genitals in attempts to increase fertility or induce sterility, and the injection of chemicals into the eyes of children in attempts to change their eye color to an "Aryan" shade of blue. Mengele also had an extreme fascination with twins, and singled out twins for special experimentation. In at least one case, he attempted to create artificial siamese twins by sewing the veins and arteries of two children together, although the attempt was unsuccessful, and merely led to a severe infection. Subjects of Mengele's experiments were almost always murdered afterward for further dissection, that is if they survived the experiment itself.

Life on the Run

As the War ended, Mengele left Auschwitz disguised as a member of the regular German infantry. From this point his secretive movements become difficult to trace. He turned up briefly at the Gross-Rosen work camp but left well before it was liberated. He was then seen at Matthausen and shortly thereafter was captured as a POW and held near Munich, but the Allies had no idea who he was, and eventually released him with the other prisoners. He then worked for four years as a stableman on a farm near Rosenheim in Bavaria until the authorities finally figured out that he existed and what he had done at Auschwitz and initiated a manhunt.

Now officially a fugitive, Mengele escaped to Argentina in 1949, apparently through Genoa, Italy and with the likely assistance of his family. Despite international efforts to track him down, Mengele was never apprehended, and lived out his life as a hunted man for the next 35 years, moving from country to country to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. By 1958 he was living in Uruguay where records show that he divorced his wife Irene, and married his brother Karl's widow, Martha, under his own name. Next he appeared in Paraguay in 1959, living under the name "José Mengele," with which he received Paraguayan citizenship. He then apparently moved to Brazil in 1961, where he reportedly became friends with another Nazi criminal, Wolfgang Gerhard, and lived in a succession of houses owned by a sympathetic Hungarian couple.

Mengele's whereabouts were not tracked down by Nazi hunters until the mid-1980s, and finally in 1985, a multinational team of forensic experts determined that Mengele had eventually taken on Gerhard's identity and died of a stroke on February 7, 1979 while swimming in the ocean at Enseada da Bertioga, near São Paulo, Brazil, and had later been buried under Gerhard's name. Dental records and a 1992 DNA test later confirmed these findings.

Enduring Infamy

Auschwitz is the most famous of the concentration camps, and Mengele has been deemed its central villain. Thus, Mengele's infamy has shown no signs of fading with time. He has been featured not only in numerous documentaries, books, and biopics, but has also been a frequent character in fiction and movies, featuring prominently, for example, in The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man.

As for Mengele's medical "discoveries," they died with him. His copious notes and records of his experiments, as well as those of the other doctors at Auschwitz, have never been found, and were apparently destroyed by Dr. Von Verschuer of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology in Berlin, whom records show received two truckloads of Auschwitz medical documents at the end of the War.

Not as if they had any real scientific value to begin with.

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