Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Josef Mengele, the 'Angel of Death'


The 'Gate of Death' at Auschwitz
The 'Gate of Death' at Auschwitz

The death factory at Auschwitz was a gruesome kingdom of human misery. Barracks and their inhabitants were inundated with the foulest of sanitary conditions. Diseases such as typhus and diarrhea were rampant, as were lice, vermin and fleas. It was over this kingdom which Dr. Josef Mengele sought to preside. Mengele's stated mission at Auschwitz was to perform research on human genetics. His work was funded through a grant that Professor von Verschuer had secured through the German Research Council in August of 1943. The goal of Mengele's work was to unlock the secrets of genetic engineering, and to devise methods for eradicating inferior gene strands from the human population as a means to creating a Germanic super-race. However, despite the scientific premise for his work, Mengele's accomplishments added volumes to the annals of human cruelty while contributing nothing of value to the greater understanding of human genetics and genetic engineering.

Mengele set out to immediately distinguish himself from the other SS doctors at Auschwitz. He already stood apart as the only doctor in the camp to have been decorated for his conduct in battle. Mengele made certain to festoon his impeccable SS uniform with the medals he had been awarded. He often made reference to his experiences on the front, and was obviously very proud and protective of his medals. But it was not merely his military background which would come to distinguish Mengele from his colleagues, but his obsessed devotion to his work at Auschwitz that established his reputation as a ruthless, cold-blooded killer whose name inspired fear even in other SS officers. He immediately demonstrated a deep capacity for wanton murder during a typhus epidemic that broke out in the camp just days after he had arrived. He ordered a thousand Gypsy men and women who had the disease to the gas chambers, while sparing the lives of German Gypsies. The significance of this incident is twofold: Mengele adhered to the Nazi belief that Gypsies were a subspecies of the human race, and therefore were "unworthy life". However, the fact that he spared the lives of German Gypsies, at least in this instance, may have resulted from the fact that Mengele himself had many Gypsy aspects to his own physical appearance, from his tawny skin to his dark hair and eyes. He did not at all resemble the ideal Nazi Aryan with blonde hair and blue eyes. At any rate, his willingness to execute 1,000 innocent people in one moment may point to a psychological need to purge the world of those things which he hated about his own self.

Ovens in the crematorium of Auschwitz
Ovens in the crematorium of Auschwitz

Whatever it was that inspired Mengele to commit this first act of murder, it continued to fuel his ambition to be Auschwitz's premier authority over matters of life and death. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the selection process, which was primarily held after trains carrying Jewish deportees had arrived at the camp. According to Dr. Ella Lingens, an Austrian doctor who was imprisoned at Auschwitz for attempting to hide some Jewish friends, Mengele relished his role as selector:

Some like Werner Rhode who hated his work, and Hans Konig who was deeply disgusted by the job, had to get drunk before they appeared on the ramp. Only two doctors performed the selections without any stimulants of any kind: Dr. Josef Mengele and Dr. Fritz Klein. Dr. Mengele was particularly cold and cynical. He (Mengele) once told me that there are only two gifted people in the world, Germans and Jews, and it's a question of who will be superior. So he decided that they had to be destroyed.

Mengele performed this task with relish, appearing at selections to which he had not been officially assigned, always dressed in his best dress uniform. He carried himself with grace and ease in his shiny black boots, his neatly pressed trousers and jacket, and his white cotton gloves, while a sea of misery washed up at his feet in the form of exhausted and starving prisoners. Dr. Olga Lengyel, another inmate-doctor, bitterly recalls Mengele's demeanor on the ramp:

How we despised his detached, haughty air, his continual whistling, his frigid cruelty. Day after day he was at his post, watching the pitiful crowd of men and women and children go struggling past, all in the last stages of exhaustion from the inhuman journey in the cattle trucks. He would point with his cane at each person and direct them with one word: "right" or "left." He seemed to enjoy his grisly task.

This "frigid cruelty" Dr. Lengyels spoke of would oftentimes give way to a searing hot rage which Mengele would unleash without warning upon those who sought to challenge the order he sought to establish in the camp. Inmate-doctor Gisella Perl recalls an incident when Mengele caught a woman in her sixth attempt to escape from a truck transporting victims to the gas chamber:

He grabbed her by the neck and proceeded to beat her head to a bloody pulp. He hit her, slapped her, boxed her, always her head — screaming at the top of his voice, "You want to escape, don't you. You can't escape now. You are going to burn like the others, you are going to croak, you dirty Jew." As I watched, I saw her two beautiful, intelligent eyes disappear under a layer of blood. And in a few seconds, her straight, pointed nose was a flat, broken, bleeding mass. Half an hour later, Dr. Mengele returned to the hospital. He took a piece of perfumed soap out of his bag and, whistling gaily with a smile of deep satisfaction on his face, he began to wash his hands.

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