Josef Mengele

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
Debate Guide [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.

Josef Mengele (1911-1979) was a Nazi SS Hauptsturmführer and physician at Auschwitz Concentration Camp, involved in direct killings and nonconsensual medical experiments on humans. He escaped prosecution and died, in 1979, while swimming in Paraguay. Robert Jay Lifton suggested that no untried Nazi "has evoked so much fantasy and fiction." Examples include the novel and book The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin, the drama The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth. Isser Harrel, head of the Israeli Mossad, said "the moment the name of Mengele was mentioned, Adolf Eichmann went into a panic. [1] Eichmann was higher-ranking and apparently in a much higher position of power within the SS.

Was Mengele a War Criminal?

In current international law, he was never tried, so he is arguably only a suspect. Lifton, perhaps the leading authority on Nazi medical atrocities, uses the term in historical writing,[1] as do many other historical authors. The Nuremberg trials used less formal definitions of proof and criminality than in modern courts, and he appears to meet that criterion. If nothing else, they criminalized membership in the SS, and there is little doubt Mengele was an SS member. The term certainly was used in contemporary trials; the single actual trial under International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg), under four-power control, was titled the "International Military Tribunal for the Trial of German Major War Criminals." Note that "alleged" or similar qualifiers were not used.

The term "war criminal" was, especially in the period of late World War II and the trials between 1945 and 1948, a term of art for those for whom there was abundant evidence, often in sworn testimony, but were never formally prosecuted due to their death, as with Adolf Hitler or, as in the case of Josef Mengele, escape. It is also common usage in works of military history, and cannot simply be erased from the literature.

Mengele has been described as supporting Nazi race and biological ideology, which variously categorized some people as "life unworthy of life", and also that the Jews and other groups needed to be physically exterminated. [2] His questionable actions fell into three categories:

  1. Participation in the established procedures of the Nazi genocide program, such as selecting camp arrivals for forced labor or immediate killing; these activities were under the immediate direction of camp Chief Medical Officer Eduard Wirths, who reported to camp commander Rudolf Höß, and part of the overall program of the Final Solution.[3]
  2. Involuntary medical experiments, under the sponsorship of Otmar von Verscheur[4] of the Kaiser William Institute of Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics[5]
  3. Killings and other actions that may have been for personal gratification (e.g., he saw a teenager not authorized to be in a coal storage area; he shot him in one knee, then the other, then "grabbed him by the hair and fired a bullet into his brain." [6])

He was not a policy-making official, but committed what experts and non-trial investigations consider atrocities. There is little doubt that he was a member of the SS, and membership in that body was criminalized in the verdict of the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg). Mengele was relatively little known immediately after the war, but an increasing body of historical writing drew attention to him.[7] Lifton observes that he has acquired "mythic" proportions as a (putative) war criminal, and indeed conducted atrocities. Nevertheless, he was one of the Nazi doctors that took advantage of eugenic opportunities in the camps, and “[i]n ordinary times, Mengele could have been a slightly sadistic German professor.” [8] Lifton emphasizes that von Verschuen had much influence on his actions. [9]

While he appeared on early lists of suspects, apparently not well distributed to prisoner of war camps, he was indicted, in 1981, by a German court.

Joseph Mengele is accused of having actively and decisively taken part in selections in the prisoners' sick blocks, of such prisoners who through hunger, deprivation, exhaustion, sickness, disease or other reasons were unfit for work in the camp and whose speedy recovery was not envisioned, and also of those who had contagious or singularly unsightly illnesses, such as a skin outbreak.

Those selected were killed either through injections or firing squads or by painful suffocation to death in the gas chambers in order to make room in the camp for the "fit" prisoners, selected by him or other SS doctors in the aforementioned fashion. 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 worked to do it while he watched. He is alleged also to have supervised, in cases of camp and hospital block selections, when SS sanitary workers threw granules of prussic acid formula Zyklon B into the inlet pipes of the rooms with people condemned to die hemmed together, or he threw it himself.[10]

Early life

Born in Günzburg, Germany, to a wealthy Roman Catholic family, he grew up under strict discipline. His father, Karl, owned a major manufacturing plant. Even today, the Karl-Mengele-Straße is one of the main streets of Günzburg. His mother, Walburga (Wally) was the family disciplinarian, and the parents quarreled. In his autobiography, Josef called his father "cold", his mother "not much better at loving" although he thought she had admirable decisiveness and energy. Warmth came from a nanny. He had two brothers, Karl Jr. and Alois. While there was sibling rivalry, especially with Karl, they were reasonably close.[11]

Matriculating at the University of Munich in 1930, initially in the faculties of philosophy and medicine, later adding paleontology and anthropology. While considered a "loner", he appeared to enjoy parties.[12]

In 1931, his father, joined the Nazi Party, and was a friend of the Nazi district leader (Kreisleiter), George Deisenhofer, a known anti-semite. Karl Sr. paid Deisenhofer a bribe for a seat on the town council, having earlier hosted Adolf Hitler to give a speech at his factory. Profits soared. [13]

Josef's first foray into right-wing politics also came in 1931, when, at age 20, he joined the youth branch of the paramilitary Freikorps, the Stahlhelm. Thinking it more a wave of the future, he joined the SA in January 1934, but, after the June purge, he resigned in October, for reasons of "kidney trouble.[14] He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the SS in 1938, and the SS Medical Corps in 1940.[15]

A first influence may have been Dr. Ernst Rudin, an advocate, along with Alfred Hioche and Karl Bindong, of the idea that doctors should destroy "life devoid of value." Rudin was among the architects of the July 1933 Law for the Protection of Hereditary Health, which established the Nazi criteria for mandatory sterilization. [16]

Pre-Auschwitz SS career

Joining the SS in 1940, he was assigned as a front-line physician to the SS Viking Division. After being wounded in action, his recovery was insufficient for him to be approved for front-line service.


Assigned to the SS Viking Division, he served as a combat physician and was wounded in action. He was decorated, according to his wife, for extracting wounded soldiers, under fire, from a burning tank.

Staff duty

Before moving to concentration camps, however, he was assigned to the RuSHA in 1942. Von Verschuer wrote "my assistant Mengele has been transferred to a post in Berlin so in his free time he can work at the Institute." [17]


left to right are Richard Baer, Josef Mengele, Josef Kramer, Rudolf Hoess and Anton Thumann, July 1944, probably celebrating Baer replacing Hoess as Commandant of Auschwitz

He transferred, from RuSHA, to Auschwitz between May 1943 and January 1945, and served as a general medical officer, conducted experiments under the sponsorship of von Verscheur, [4] [15] and conducted research of his own devising. Additionally, he was widely accused of random acts of gratuitous cruelty and murder. A prisoner-pathologist who assisted him, Miklos Myiszli, characterized Mengele as "among malefactors and criminals, the most dangerous type is the 'criminal doctor', especially when he is armed with powers such as those granted to Dr. Mengele."[18]


Nazi selection was the process by which a camp physician made instant decisions as to whether an arriving prisoner would be killed immediately or sent to slave labor. Other selections for life or death took place in the hospital block. Mengele did more selections than any other officer, and appeared to enjoy the duty. Survivors comment that he was always immaculately dressed, and often seemingly kind unless he broke into a rage. One survivor said he "conveyed the impression of a gentle and cultured man who had nothing to do with selections, [lethal injections with phenol] and Zyklon B."[19]

Lifton reports a prisoner doctor saying "Everything in Auschwitz was under ...Mengele...Mengele was the one who was present at all the transports. Usually he alone, himself, stood on the ramp and he made the selections. When he couldn't do it he sent another clever...[SS doctor] to do it." [19]

In the hospital, prisoner physician's assistant Olga Lengyel said "How we hated this charlatan!...How we despised his detached, haughty air, his constant whistling, his absurd orders!" Another prisoner doctor, Gisella Perl, feared his visits more than anything else "because...we never knew whether we would be permitted to continue to live...He was free to do whatever he pleased with us." Emphasizing his power of life and death, he would sometimes treat prisoners, which was unusual for SS physicians. [20]

Direct killings

As mentioned, he shot a number of prisoners. In the hospital block, he would give lethal injections "as though her were performing regular surgery...without showing any emotion at all."[20]

Things that enraged him included signs of Orthodox Judaism, and any form of defiance. When a mother fought being separated from her daughter, he shot them both, and then ordered everyone in the transport, including those who had already been selected for work, to the gas chambers. [19]

A 1959 arrest warrant mentioned his shooting multiple prisoners, killing at least one woman by pressing his foot on her body, and having thrown infants directly into open fires.[21]


The full range of his experiments is not known, although a good deal was concerned with heritable traits among twins, human dwarfs and Roma. The latter is known because it was reported to van Verschuen. Indeed, Lifton believes he came to Auschwitz for that purpose, having worked on twins for von Verschuer at Frankfurt, quoting Mengele's teacher as

What is absolutely need is research on series of families and twins selected at random...with and without hereditary diseases...[to achieve] complete and reliable determination of heredity in man [and] the extent of damage caused by adverse influences [as well as] relations between disease, racial types, and miscegenation.[22]

Benno Muller-Hill, who had access to Mengele's private papers, speculated "I would almost bet it was von Verschuer who talked him into going to Auschwitz. He would have said, 'There's a big opportunity for science there. Many races there, many people. Why don't you go? It's in the interest of science."[17]

Different observers questioned the quality of his experimentation. Lengyel said "His experiments were carried out in abnormal fashion. When he made blood transfusions her purposely used incorrect blood types. He did whatever pleased him and conducted his experiments like a rank amateur. He would inject substances and then ignore the results. He was not a savant. His was the mania of a collector." [23] Nyiszli reinforced the collector image, quoting Mengele, on seeing a small grease spot on a file they were using together, "How can you be so careless with these files, which I have compiled with so much love?"[24]

Lifton also called him a "collector". He quotes a prisoner anthropologist as saying the measurements were taken in an accepted manner. Mengele himself, however, wrote, in his 1935 dissertation, "It is not useful to take as many measurements as possible; one must restrict oneself to the most significant ones."[25]


Eva Mozes Kor, who, with her sister, were twin survivors of Auschwitz and Mengele. They were treated as special cases in selection, which the rest of their family did not survive. Their first contact with Mengele was the next morning, when he flew into a rage on encountering three corpses: "Why did you let these children die? I cannot afford to lose even one child!" he screamed at the SS. Kor said they had learned that Mengele wanted to learn the secret of twinning, and "one goal of his experimentations was to learn to create blond-haired, blue-eyed babies in multiple numbers to increase the German population."[26]

For twin research, he drafted a prisoner anthropologist to take measurements, Martina Puzyna, former assistant to the Polish anthropology professor Jan Czekanowski at the University of Lwów,[27] and a pathologist, Miklos Nyiszli. Nyiszli said Mengele had built a well-equipped pathological facility for him and the other prisoner pathologists, where Mengele would also do dissections.

Anthropological measurements and blood samples went to von Verschauer, but it is not clear if all of his work on twins did so. There was, however, a joint experiment, with Dr. Karin Magnussen at KWI, on eye pigmentation.[28]


While Mengele experimented on any dwarfs that became available, his most complex and well-documented relationship was with the performing troupe of the Ovitz family. [29]

Martin Gilbert writes that while he did protect the Ovitzes from death, he did experiment on them, and,

On one occasion, he exhibited the entire family naked at the SS hospital, in front of an audience of SS officers and camp guards, many of whom had been brought, by bus and car, from distant camps. The dwarfs were displayed on a pedestal, alonga detailed family tree drawn up by Mengele. [30]


Mengele was also fascinated by the Roma (Gypsies), treating them as a racially separate group like the Jews. Along with Werner Fischer at Sachsenhausen, they were infected to contagious diseases to see if there were differences in response from other groups. [31]

He was also interested in their eye coloration, and is reported by Nyszli to personally have killed heterochromic prisoners to send their eyes to Berlin.

Relations with Nazi doctors

Hans Muench, a SS doctor known for humane behavior, said Mengele was ...not only intelligent but generally and scientifically a very interesting person. In a friendly personal exchange of views I could express different opinions that he tolerated...In contrast to others [SS physicians], a dozen of them, he was the easiest to get on with because he did not adopt a fixed, stubborn SS doctor's attitude."[32]

Relations with prisoner doctors

Psychological analysis

Lifton describes his detachment as "border[ing] on the schizoid," and further was the exemplar of the phenomenon of doubling (psychology), and also described narcissism and sadism.[33] G.M. Gilbert, in his discussion of Rudolf Hoess said "schizoid pathology seemed to be a selective factor "executive hierarchy of the concentration camp world."[34]

When he joined a field hospital in April or May, with the endorsement of his old friend, Otto-Hans Kahler, Kahler said "Mengele was at this time suffering from severe depression, to the point of contemplating suicide during the period they were together . immediately following the war. In fact, Kahler told OSI that he consulted Dr. Fritz Ulmann, a neurologist in the unit who presumably had an understanding of psychological issues about Mengele. Kahler says he referred Mengele to Ulmann and asked him to look after his former.colleague. Kahler does not speculate as to the cause of Mengele's depression, but does indicate that Mengele spoke openly about having performed selections at Auschwitz."[35]


After Allied bombers made small raids in late 1944, his wife and child moved back to Guenzburg on 23 November 1944. They had joined him in August, but observed, in September, he was depressed. [36] In December, he carried out his last experiments, in this case fatal ones for 11 female dwarfs, and then began to destroy his experimental facilities on 5 December. Taking some records with him, he departed Auschwitz on 17 January 1945.

He transferred to the Gross Rosen Concentration Camp in Silesia, but moved away again by 18 February. Soviet troops entered Auschwitz on 27 January. As the war came to an end, he had joined a regular army field hospital, Kriegslazarett (Field Hospital) 2/591, a mobile hospital attached to Kriegslazarett Abteilung 59, was Dr. Otto-Hans Kahler, an old friend of Mengele's who had worked with him at Dr. von Verschuer's. [37] Institute before the war he entrusted his research notes to an otherwise unidentified German nurse.[38]


As the war ended, It is unclear on which war crimes lists he was placed, and when. The chief research analyst of the U.S. Office of War Crimes recommened that he " placed on the wanted list and indicted for war crimes." The same analyst, however, did not list von Verschur.[39] Other Nazi physicians, charged with equivalent acts, were sentenced in the Medical Case at the Nuremberg Military Tribunals. Posner and Ware, however, said he was listed in the United Nations War Crimes Commission list in April or May, as well as the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects (CROWCASS). They agree, however, with the Justice Department report that it is unknown if this made its way to the camps.[40]

It is generally rejected that he was involved in U.S. intelligence cooperation, as there have been no suggestions of his having data of interest to Western intelligence.

The governments of Germany, Israel, and the United States agreed, in 1992, that he was dead.

Immediate postwar and prisoner of war

He probably spent time in Allied prisoner of war camps, but was not recognized as a listed subject for war crimes prosecution. An official study agreed that a "sterilization doctor" was in the Idar-Oberstein prisoner of war camp in the summer of 1945, but questioned if there was strong support that it was Mengele.[41]

Posner and Ware, however, based in part on Mengele's papers, say was in an American camp in June, and possibly a second camp. While they do not define it, Walters wrote it was Hembrechts, a British camp and in July. [42]Even though he was on wanted lists as early as April, these lists were not always available to the camp. They also observe that Mengele was not assumed to be an SS member, because he had chose, probably for reasons of personal vanity, not to receive the blood type tattoo that was the telltale sign of SS membership.


Posner and Ware believe he first became aware of being identified, in court, in April 1946. Rudolf Hoess was a defense witness, in the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg), for Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the RSHA. Hoess testified,

Medical experiments were carried out in various camps. For example, in Auschwitz, there were experiments carried out by Professor Klaubert [sic, probably Carl Clausen] and Dr. Schumann; also medical experiments on twins by SS doctor Mengele.[43]

Escaping Germany

After leaving POW camps, he worked as a farm laborer in German, until his family was able to help him move to Argentina in the spring of 1949. His wife was unwilling to follow him, as his son Rolf explained:

My mother did not want to go into hiding with him. She loved Germany and Europe, the culture was dear to her, she had studied art history, and she was close to her parents. Also, in 1948, she had met Alfons Hackenjos, later to be her second husband. Yet, still it was a very difficult decision for her because she still had feelings for Josef. She made a conscious effort to erase his picture from her mind and terminate her feelings for him.[44]

South America

Argentina granted him asylum in 1949, and he lived there until West Germany asked for him to be extradited in 1960. He moved to Brazil, and then Paraguay, where his status became unclear. [45]



  1. 1.0 1.1 Robert Jay Lifton (1986), The Nazi Doctors: medical killing and the psychology of genocide, Basic Books, p. 338
  2. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, p. 21
  3. Auschwitz, United States Holocaust Museum
  4. 4.0 4.1 Rebecca Erbelding (28 April 2008), The Historiography of Josef Mengele: Home, George Mason University
  5. Bentley Glass (October 1981), "A Hidden Chapter of German Eugenics between the Two World Wars", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 125 (5)
  6. Gerald Astor (1983), The Last Nazi: the life and times of Dr. Joseph Mengele, Donald H. Fine, ISBN 091765746, p. 130
  7. Rebecca Erbelding (28 April 2008), The Historiography of Josef Mengele: Biography, George Mason University
  8. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, p. 346
  9. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, p. 355
  10. Arrest warrant and indictment issued in Frankfurt am Main, 19 January 1981, by the Landgericht 22. Strafkammer (State Court Number 22), file number (22)50/L Js340/68, quoted in Posner & Ware, p. 328
  11. Gerald Posner and John Ware (1986), Mengele: the Complete Story, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0070505985, pp. 5-7
  12. Astor, pp. 12-14
  13. Posner and Ware, pp. 8-9
  14. Astor, pp. 16-19
  15. 15.0 15.1 Mengele, Josef, Yad Vashem Historical Center
  16. Posner and Ware, pp. 9-10
  17. 17.0 17.1 Posner and Ware, pp. 17-18
  18. Miklos Nyiszli (1993), Auschwitz: a doctor's eyewitness account, Arcade, p. 52
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, pp. 342-344
  20. 20.0 20.1 Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, pp. 344-346
  21. Arrest warrant, Amtsgericht Freiburg/Br., 5 June 1949, quoted by Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, p. 527, source given as Yad Vashem archives
  22. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, p. 348
  23. Astor, p. 102
  24. Nyiszli, p. 100
  25. Lifton, pp. 344-366
  26. Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojani Buccieri (2009), Surviving the Angel of Death: the Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz, Tanglewood Books, ISBN 9781933718285, pp. 29-38, 40-42}}
  27. Božidar Jezernik, "The Abode of the Other (Museums in German Concentration Camps 1933-1945)=", Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics 1 (1): 7–27, p. 17
  28. Astor, pp. 98-99
  29. Efraim Zuroff, "In Our Hearts We Were Giants; The Remarkable Story of The Lilliput Troupe", All About Jewish Theater
  30. Martin Gilbert (1987), The Holocaust: a history of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War, Macmillan, p. 689
  31. Medical Experiments, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
  32. Astor, p. 133
  33. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, pp. 374-379
  34. G.M. Gilbert (1950), The Psychology of Dictatorship, Ronald Press, pp. 252-253
  35. Office of Special Investigations, Criminal Division; Neal M. Sher, director (October 1992), In the Matter of Josef Mengele: A Report to the Attorney General, Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice, pp. 26-27
  36. Posner and Ware, pp. 54-56
  37. Department of Justice, pp. 26-29
  38. Posner and Ware, pp. 57-61
  39. Astor, pp. 141-142
  40. Posner and Ware, pp. 63-64
  41. Department of Justice, pp. 16-21
  42. Guy Walters (2010), Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice, Random House, p. 65
  43. IMT, Nuremberg, morning session, Volume XI, 1946, quoted by Posner and Ware, p. 76
  44. Posner and Ware, p. 88
  45. The Search for Perpetrators, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum