How Josef Mengele Became The Angel Of Death

Published October 17, 2021
Updated October 21, 2021

Dr. Josef Mengele's medical facility at Auschwitz was perhaps the most horrifying place the Holocaust produced. Who was this man behind it all and what made him the notorious "Angel of Death"?

Ask a person to name the worst crime in living memory and the Holocaust will probably be what they come up with. Ask them to name the worst crime scene of the Holocaust and Auschwitz is the natural answer.

Ask a person who knew that camp what the worst part of it was, and the killing center at Birkenau is the hands-down winner. Ask a survivor of Birkenau to name the most terrifying murderer in the whole complex and they’ll give you the name of Dr. Josef Mengele.

Josef Mengele

Wikimedia Commons/ATI CompositeJosef Mengele; Auschwitz prisoners to be used in Josef Mengele’s experiments.

On June 6, 1985, Brazilian police in São Paulo dug up the grave of a man named “Wolfgang Gerhard.” Forensic and later genetic evidence conclusively proved that the remains actually belonged to Josef Mengele, who had apparently died in a swimming accident.

Who was this man and how did he burn his name into the darkest nightmare of modern history?

Josef Mengele’s Privileged Youth

Josef Mengele As A Teenager

Wikimedia Commons

Josef Mengele lacks a terrible backstory to which one can point a finger when attempting to explain his vile acts. In fact, Mengele was a popular and witty rich kid whose father ran a successful business in Germany at a time when the national economy was cratering.

Everybody at school seemed to like him and he got excellent grades. Upon graduating, it seemed natural that he would go on to university and that he would succeed at anything he put his mind to.

Mengele earned his first doctorate in anthropology from the University of Munich in 1935. He did his post-doctoral work at Frankfurt under Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, who was a fully indoctrinated Nazi eugenicist. National Socialism always held that individuals were the product of their heredity, and von Verschuer was one of the Nazi-aligned scientists whose work seemed to legitimize that assertion.

Von Verschuer’s work revolved around hereditary influences on congenital defects such as cleft palate. Mengele was an enthusiastic assistant to von Verschuer, and he left the lab in 1938 with both a glowing recommendation and a second doctorate in medicine. For his dissertation topic, Mengele wrote about racial influences on the formation of the lower jaw.

Honorable Military Service On The Eastern Front

Josef Mengele Picture

Wikimedia Commons

Josef Mengele had joined the Nazi Party in 1937, at the age of 26, while working under his mentor in Frankfurt. In 1938, he joined the SS and a reserve unit of the Wehrmacht. His unit was called up in 1940, and he seems to have served willingly, even volunteering for the Waffen-SS medical service.

Between the fall of France and the invasion of the Soviet Union, Mengele practiced eugenics in Poland by evaluating Polish nationals for potential “Germanization,” or race-based citizenship in the Reich.

In 1941, his unit was deployed to Ukraine in a combat role. Josef Mengele – the rich, popular kid and outstanding student – distinguished himself again at the front for bravery bordering on heroics. He was decorated several times, once for dragging wounded men out of a burning tank, and repeatedly commended for his dedication to service.

In January 1943, a German army surrendered at Stalingrad. That summer, another German army was eviscerated at Kursk. Between the two battles, during the meatgrinder offensive at Rostov, Mengele was severely wounded and rendered unfit for further action.

He was shipped back home to Germany, where he again connected with his old mentor von Verschuer and received a wound badge, a promotion to captain, and the assignment of a lifetime: In May 1943, Mengele reported for duty to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Josef Mengele At Auschwitz

People Arrive At Auschwitz

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad VashemAuschwitz.

Mengele got to Auschwitz during a transitional period. The camp had long been the site of forced labor and POW internment, but the winter of 1942-43 had seen the camp ramp up its killing machine, centered on the Birkenau sub-camp, where Mengele was assigned as a medical officer.

With the uprisings and shutdown in the Treblinka and Sobibor camps, and with the increased tempo of the killing program across the East, Auschwitz was about to get very busy, and Mengele was going to be in the thick of it.

Accounts given later by both survivors and guards describe Josef Mengele as an enthusiastic member of the staff who volunteered for extra duty, managed operations that were technically above his pay grade, and seemed to be almost everywhere at once.

Josef Mengele was absolutely in his element in Auschwitz; his uniform was always pressed and neat, and he always seemed to have a faint smile on his face.

Every doctor in his part of the camp was required to take a turn as the selection officer – dividing incoming shipments between those who were to work and those who were to be immediately gassed – and many found the work depressing. Josef Mengele adored it and he was always willing to take other doctors’ shifts on the arrival ramp.

In the normal course of his work, he managed an infirmary where the sick were executed, assisted other German doctors with their work, supervised inmate medical staff, and conducted his own research among the thousands of inmates he personally selected for the human experiment program he also started and managed.

Children Used For Nazi Experiments

Wikimedia CommonsJosef Mengele’s prisoners to be used for twin research at Auschwitz.

The experiments he devised were ghoulish beyond belief. Motivated and energized by the seemingly bottomless pool of condemned human beings placed at his disposal, Mengele continued the work he had started at Frankfurt by studying the influence of heredity on various physical traits.

Identical twins are useful for this kind of genetics research because they, of course, have identical genes. Any differences between them, therefore, must be the result of environmental factors. This makes sets of twins perfect for isolating genetic factors by comparing and contrasting their bodies and behavior.

Mengele assembled hundreds of pairs of twins and sometimes spent hours measuring various parts of their bodies and taking careful notes. He often injected one twin with mysterious substances and monitored the illness that ensued. He applied painful clamps to children’s limbs to induce gangrene, injected dye into their eyes – which were then shipped back to a pathology lab in Germany – and gave them spinal taps.

When the test subject died, the child’s twin would be immediately killed with an injection of chloroform to the heart and both would be dissected for comparison. On one occasion, Josef Mengele killed 14 pairs of twins this way and spent a sleepless night performing autopsies on his victims.

Josef Mengele’s Volatile Temperament

Josef Mengele Experiments

For all of his methodical work habits, Mengele could be impulsive. During one selection — between work and death — on the arrival platform, a middle-aged woman who had been selected for work refused to be separated from her 14-year-old daughter, who had been assigned death.

A guard who tried to pry them apart got a nasty scratch on the face and had to fall back. Mengele stepped in to resolve the matter by shooting both the girl and her mother, and then he cut short the selection and sent everybody to the gas chamber.

On another occasion, the Birkenau doctors argued over whether a boy they had all grown fond of had tuberculosis. Mengele left the room and came back an hour or two later, apologizing for the argument and admitting he had been wrong. During his absence, he had shot the boy and dissected him for signs of the disease, which he hadn’t found.

In 1944, Mengele’s zest and enthusiasm for his work earned him a management position at the camp. In this capacity, he was responsible for public health measures at the camp in addition to his own research at Birkenau. Again, his impulsive streak surfaced when he made decisions for the tens of thousands of inmates.

When Typhus broke out among the women’s barracks, for example, Mengele solved the problem in his characteristic way: he ordered one block of 600 women gassed and their barracks fumigated, then he moved the next block of women over and fumigated their barracks. This was repeated for each women’s block until the last one was clean and ready for a new shipment of workers. He did it again a few months later during a scarlet fever outbreak.

Josef Mengele Womens Camp


Through it all, Mengele’s research continued. In the pointless effort to prove crackpot Nazi race theories, Mengele stitched pairs of twins together at the back, gouged out the eyes of people with different-colored irises, and vivisected children who knew him as kindly old “Uncle Papi.”

When a form of gangrene called noma broke out in the Gypsy camp, Mengele’s absurd focus on race led him to investigate the genetic causes he was sure were behind the epidemic. To study this, he sawed off the heads of infected prisoners and sent the preserved samples to Germany for study.

After the glut of Hungarian prisoners were mostly killed off during the summer of 1944, the transports of new prisoners slowed down and eventually stopped. Operations at the camp were wound down through the fall and into the winter.

In January 1945, the camp complex at Auschwitz was mostly dismantled and the starving prisoners force-marched to – of all places – Dresden (which was about to be bombed mercilessly by the Allies). Dr. Josef Mengele packed up his research notes and specimens, dropped them off with a trusted friend, and headed west to avoid capture by the Red Army.

Escape To Brazil And Evasion Of Justice

Josef Mengele Passport Photo

Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Josef Mengele managed to avoid the victorious Allies until June, when he was picked up by an American patrol. He was traveling under his own name at the time, but the wanted criminal list hadn’t been efficiently distributed and the Americans let him go. Mengele spent some time working as a farmhand before deciding to skip out of the country in 1949.

Using a variety of aliases, and sometimes his own name again, Mengele managed to avoid capture for decades. It helps that almost nobody was looking for him and that the governments of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay were all highly sympathetic to the escaping Nazis who sought refuge there.

Even in exile, and with the world to lose if he got caught, Mengele couldn’t behave himself. In the 1950s, he opened an unlicensed medical practice in Buenos Aires, where he specialized in performing illegal abortions.

This actually got him arrested when one of his patients died, but according to one witness, a friend of his showed up in court with a bulging envelope full of cash for the judge, who subsequently dismissed the case.

In 1959, Mengele traveled to Paraguay to treat the former Secretary to the Fuhrer, Martin Bormann, who had been sentenced to death in absentia at Nuremberg and who was now dying of stomach cancer. In 1956, the West German government issued identity papers for Josef Mengele under his own name and allowed his family to leave the country unobserved to visit him in South America.

Israeli efforts to capture him were diverted, first by the chance to capture SS lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann, then by the looming threat of war with Egypt, which drew the Mossad’s attention away from fugitive Nazis.

Josef Mengele In The 1970s

Bettmann/GettyJosef Mengele (center, at edge of table), with friends in the 1970s.

Finally, one day in 1979, the 68-year-old Dr. Josef Mengele went out for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean. He suffered a sudden stroke in the water and drowned. After his death, friends and family gradually admitted that they had known all along where he had been hiding and that they had sheltered him from justice all his life.

In March 2016, a Brazilian court awarded control over Mengele’s exhumed remains to the University of São Paulo. According to a statement from the doctor in the case, the remains will be used by student doctors for medical research.

After learning about Josef Mengele and his terrifying human experiments, read about the Ilse Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald” and meet the men who helped Hitler rise to power.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.