Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Josef Mengele, the 'Angel of Death'

The Student Finds a Mentor

In 1934, Hitler ordered the SA, or Brownshirts, to absorb the Stalhelm organization, automatically making Mengele a member. However, a kidney ailment which left him in a weakened condition, forced him to resign from the organization. He was now free to devote all of his time to his studies. Five years after entering the University, Mengele was awarded a Ph.D. for his thesis entitled "Racial Morphological Research on the Lower Jaw Section of Four Racial Groups." Through rather dry scientific prose Mengele postulated that it was possible to detect and identify different racial groups by studying the jaw. While devoid of any racist (specifically anti-Semitic) overtones, Mengele's argument paralleled those made by others who claimed that physical characteristics such as the jawbone or the shape of one's nose could be used to determine if someone was Jewish. In 1936 Mengele passed his state medical examination and began working in Leipzig at the university medical clinic.

Mengele conducting
Mengele conducting "racial purity"
interviews in 1940 with an elderly Polish

The next year, 1937, proved to be a turning point for both Mengele's career and the history of the Holocaust itself. He was recommended for and received a position as a research assistant with the Third Reich Institute for Hereditary, Biology and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfort. He was assigned to work for Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, one of the premier minds in the field of genetics. Von Verschuer was a public supporter of Hitler's, praising him for "being the first statesman to recognize hereditary biological and race hygiene." Mengele quickly applied himself in his unabashed pursuit of von Verschuer's praise and approval, which he quickly acquired. In von Verschuer Mengele had found the parental adulation and affirmation so sorely missing from his childhood. As von Verschuer provided Mengele with that for which he had longed for all his life, Mengele returned the gesture with an unbending willingness to please his mentor.

The two streams of ambition that had come to define Mengele's life, becoming a renowned scientist and a genetic purifier, had found unity within the Nazi movement. He became an official Party member in 1937. In May of 1938 he applied for membership with and was accepted into the Schutzstaffel, or SS. This was Hitler's elite corps of race guardians, those who demonstrated both the purist Aryan racial background and adherence to Nazi ideology and practices. By the age of 28, Mengele had climbed to a place of prominence within the Nazi hierarchy and was positioned to wield great power and influence.

Josef as a Waffen SS officer in 1942
Josef as a Waffen SS officer
in 1942

This same year, Frankfort University awarded Mengele his medical degree. It was also in 1938 that he received his first experience in military training, spending three months training for combat with the Wehrmacht, or German Army. For the rest of 1938 until 1940 Mengele remained with the Institute, assisting von Verschuer and reviewing the work of other researchers. In 1939 war broke out, and Mengele was electrified with the hope of fighting for Father Germany. He was not disappointed; although he had to wait until June of 1940 due to his prior kidney ailment, he was accepted to the Waffen SS, elite soldiers within the SS itself, and the most fanatical adherents to Hitler's call to preserve and protect the German race.

Mengele continued to distinguish himself, this time as a soldier. As a lieutenant, he was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class in June of 1941 on the Ukrainian Front. In January of 1942, while serving with the SS Viking Division deep behind Soviet lines, he pulled two German soldiers from a burning tank, and was awarded the Iron Cross First Class, as well as the Black Badge for the Wounded and the Medal for the Care of the German People. Wounds he received during this second campaign prevented Mengele from returning to combat. Instead, he was posted at the Race and Resettlement Office in Berlin, where he was also promoted to the rank of captain. By this time his mentor, Professor von Verschuer, was also stationed in Berlin at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Hereditary Teaching and Genetics. A prominent Nazi scientist such as von Verschuer certainly had first-hand knowledge of the Final Solution policy that had recently been formalized in Berlin by the top members of the Nazi hierarchy. He would have also correspondingly been aware of Nazi plans to construct enormous concentration camps across Europe, and that such camps held untold opportunities for in vivo experiments, living genetic research to be conducted on human subjects. Within a year after being posted to Berlin, Dr. Josef Mengele received a new assignment. In May of 1943, Mengele departed from Berlin for his next assignment: the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland.

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