How Josef Mengele Became The Angel Of Death

Published June 6, 2016
Updated July 16, 2020

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"?

Josef Mengele

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

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.

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 Camp

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.

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