Who was Josef Mengele?
Some of the most enduring images of Auschwitz are the terrible scenes of the arrival of a transport of Jews to that concentration camp. Amid the chaos and despair stood a lone figure in immaculate uniform and spotless white gloves inspecting the inmates and waving each in turn to one side or the other with his riding crop. To one side lay starvation, brutality, and deprivation but a chance for survival. To the other side, instant death in the gas chambers. The frightening figure making this decision was, frequently, Josef Mengele, one of the doctors assigned to Auschwitz. He has come to symbolize the manner in which medicine became a tool for genocide.
Mengele was born in Bavaria shortly before World War I to an upper middle class family which ran a machine tools business. A promising student, he was sent to Munich in the 1920's where he was attracted to the racial theories of Alfred Rosenberg, the "philosopher" of National Socialism. As Mengele became an adherent of National Socialist ideology, he moved to Frankfurt-am-Main where he received his medical degree studying under Otmar von Verschuer, the director of the Institute for Racial Hygiene at the University of Frankfurt. The main emphasis of his research was the importance of heredity within the context of Nazi "race science." By the time his education had finished Mengele was a member of both the National Socialist Party and the SS. He was a fanatic anti-Semite and hated the Roma and Sinta (Gypsies) even more than he hated Jews.
At the beginning of World War II, Mengele was activated for service with the Waffen-SS. He served as a medical officer with several units in the invasion of the Soviet Union, receiving four medals for his action. After being wounded and declared unfit for active service, Mengele was appointed to serve as a physician at Auschwitz in May, 1943. Mengele was not the chief physician at Auschwitz - that was Eduard Wirths - but Mengele had his own laboratory block, independent financing and a staff of inmate physicians whom he supervised.
More than any other SS doctor assigned to Auschwitz, Mengele seemed comfortable with the harsh regime and murderous proceeding at the camp. Mengele was assigned - as were other doctors at Auschwitz - to supervise the "selections" of incoming transports. These selections determined which would be sent immediately to the gas chamber, and which would become prisoners in the camp. Unlike several of the other physicians, however, he seemed to glory in the power it gave him. Mengele carried a riding crop with which he indicated life or death to the arriving prisoners. He often used the crop on the prisoners and there are reports of his using his pistol to kill recalcitrant prisoners. Unlike the other physicians, Mengele was often present at the arrival ramps when he was not scheduled be there to make sure that his orders that twins be sent to his "laboratory" were carried out.
Mengele, according to other doctors who served at Auschwitz, was in total agreement with the brutal administration of Auschwitz. He clearly believed that the prisoners were less than human and acted upon that belief. There are several known cases where Mengele personally murdered inmates either with his pistol or with fatal injections of phenol. The extent to which he deviated from the ethical standards of medicine is illustrated by his treatment of the 600 sick women he found in the "hospital" on his arrival at Auschwitz. He ordered all of them immediately sent to the gas chambers. But it was not just his administration of the medical department of Auschwitz that merited his inclusion as one of the worst criminals at Auschwitz. It was the experiments that he performed on helpless, hapless inmates.
The passion which drew Mengele to the arrival ramps was his "collection" of twins. Like his mentor, Dr. Verschuer, Mengele believed that if sets of twins without hereditary defects were carefully analyzed a researcher could synthesize a complete and reliable determination of heredity and the relation "between disease, racial types, and miscegenation." This research was enthusiastically supported by Dr. Verschuer who arranged for Mengele to receive financial aid for his work. Mengele continued his careful measurement of twins even after the other experiments at Auschwitz had been discontinued.
Mengele's collection of twins was housed in a special block where he and the prison doctors who assisted him - which included a radiologist, an anthropologist, and a pathologist - carefully measured and examined the twins. The files were carefully arranged and the last document, the report of the dissection of the victim, always on top. Principally because Mengele considered his "data base"of great scientific value, the twins were often better treated than other prisoners at Auschwitz. Mengele protected them from the harsh labor assignments and made sure that they had adequate rations, but no matter how well they were treated, Mengele never thought of them as people. They were always just subjects of his research. And the final step of that research was always a post-mortem examination. Mengele had no compunction whatsoever about personally killing twins as the final step of his research. He is known to have killed twins just to settle an argument over diagnosis with another doctor.
Mengele's experimental interest was not limited to twins. In addition to his research on twins, Mengele maintained a "collection" of dwarves and people (especially Jews) with genetic abnormalities that he found on the arrival ramps. He was especially interested in a condition called "noma" which is a gangrenous condition of the face and mouth due to extreme debilitation. While it is clear that this rare disease was caused, in Auschwitz, by the conditions of the camp, Mengele attempted to find racial and genetic causes for the condition.
A final area of experimentation in which Mengele engaged were his attempts to change the color of eyes. These experiments were entirely racial in nature. Starting with an interest in prisoners wth eyes of different color and prisoners with blonde hair and brown eyes, Mengele began to inject various chemicals into the eyes of his experimental subjects. Scientifically, of course, there is no way that injections of methylene blue can alter the color of eyes. The only result was pain and infections. Many of the children eventually recovered from the injections but they led to death in one case and, blindness in another.
In addition to his experiments, Mengele assiduously collected "specimens" for Dr. Verschuer. Seven sets of twins with different colored eyes, for example, were killed with phenol injections and, after dissection, the eyes sent to his mentor. In 1944, Verschuer, then at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology wrote a proposal for new research in which he stated:
In fact, there was a steady stream of such specimens as the eyes mentioned above went to Dr. Verschuer.
With the end of the war Mengele became a fugitive. He never worked as a physician again. He eventually escaped to South America - probably with the help of his family - where he lived as a hunted man. In 1985, while in Brazil, he suffered a stroke while swimming and drowned. His work, as with the other "experiments" carried out by other doctors at Auschwitz, died with him. His notes and files on the twins have never been found and what is known is scientifically and medically useless.
Where to start your research
The most complete book on how Josef Mengele and other doctors were affected by Nazi philosophy is:
Personal narratives by twins who survived Mengele's experiments include:
Contemporary bioethical disputes in the areas of medical genetics, human experimentation, and euthanasia are explained in:
Personal accounts of medical experiments conducted at Auschwitz.
Two memoirs written by prisoner physicians working with Mengele is:
A site maintained by victims of the medical experiments at Auschwitz is at
Last modified: May 18, 1999