Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Josef Mengele, the 'Angel of Death'


Mengele in Paraguay, 1960
Mengele in
Paraguay, 1960

Dr. Josef Mengele fled from Auschwitz on January 17, 1945, as the Soviet army advanced across the crumbling German Reich towards Berlin. During the first few years of the post-war era, Mengele remained in hiding on farm near his native Gunzburg. He assumed a fake identity, and worked as a farm hand, keeping informed of events through secret contacts with old Gunzburg friends. Incredibly, he at first aspired to continue his career as a research scientist, but it became increasingly apparent that the Allies were not going to let a notorious war criminal such as he simply resume the life he had enjoyed prior to the war without paying for the crimes he had committed during it. Mengele finally decided that he was no longer safe in Europe and escaped through Italy to an ocean liner bound for Argentina.

Mengele arrived in Argentina in 1949, a country that was ruled by the popular dictator Juan Peron. The right-wing ruler had already cultivated a friendly relationship with Nazis in Europe, as well as with those who lived in the German expatriate community in Argentina. Mengele was able to slip unnoticed into such a setting with ease and had soon established a network of Nazi devotees who were willing to help him assume a new identity in South America.

Photo for Mengele's false ID card
Photo for Mengele's
false ID card

Mengele was to spend the next 30 years on the run from international authorities. While he received aid and shelter from the neo-Nazi network in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, Mengele was also inadvertently assisted by a lack of commitment on the part of the West German government to bring the Angel of Death to justice, and a similar lack of commitment on the part of the United States Justice Department. The Israeli government had no such lack of commitment to his capture, trial and execution. In fact, Israeli agents were close to seizing Mengele on a handful of occasions in the early-to-mid 1960s. However, international uproar over Israel's kidnapping of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960, and pressing security issues involving hostile Arab states, sidetracked Israeli efforts to pursue Mengele.

While Nazi-hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal continued to press for Mengele's capture and execution, the notorious Nazi doctor seemed to drop off the radar screen of most international governments. Interest in his case was suddenly reinvigorated when, on January 17, 1985, a group of Auschwitz survivors returned to the death camp to memorialize friends and family who had perished there. A week later, many of the same survivors gathered in Jerusalem to try Mengele in absentia. The event was televised around the globe, and for four consecutive nights, the airwaves were filled with images of survivors recounting their gruesome, barbaric treatment at the hands of Josef Mengele. Within less than a month, both the United States Justice Department and the Israeli government had announced that the case of Josef Mengele was officially reopened and strategies were redrawn to bring the Nazi doctor to justice.

Josef Mengele, Nazi war criminal
Josef Mengele,
Nazi war criminal

However, these fledgling efforts were stopped in their tracks when, on May 31, 1985, West German police raided the home of Hans Sedlmeier, a lifelong friend of Mengele's, and his contact person in Europe. The police seized several letters from Mengele and other German expatriates living with him in Brazil, and Brazilian authorities were immediately notified. Within a week Brazilian police had identified the families that had harbored Mengele, and through them were able to locate the grave where Mengele's body had been buried after a drowning accident in 1979. Forensic tests on the skeletal remains confirmed that the body was indeed that of Josef Mengele. Survivors of Mengele's treatment who had longed all of their post-war lives to confront this cruel and demonic man denied that this could indeed be him. Many still live for the day when they will be able to extract justice for their suffering from the man who was responsible for so much of it, both during and after the war. Alas, Mengele has escaped earthly judgment through that act over which he sought to wield total control — death itself.

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