Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Josef Mengele, the 'Angel of Death'

The Making of a Young Nazi

Josef Mengele left Gunzburg for Munich in October of 1930 to begin his studies at Munich University. He enrolled as a student of Philosophy and Medicine, degrees that would ultimately lead his career path to the Heart of Darkness, Auschwitz. At the same time that young Mengele was beginning his studies, the City of Munich was in the throes of an ideological revolution. In 1930 the Nazis were the second-largest party in the German parliament. Adolf Hitler used Munich as the primary stage from which he would achieve domination over all of German society. His hateful, frenzied, nationalistic speeches incited his Bavarian audiences, and intoxicated them with visions of a new German Empire populated by the German Super-Race.

Mengele had remained apolitical up until this point in his life. He was satisfied in his pursuit of life's leisure pleasures. His quest for success and renown was confined to the realm of anthropology and academia. However, he easily succumbed to the contagious Nazi hysteria that swept up so many of his peers. In his memoirs he wrote:

"My political leanings were, I think for reasons of family tradition, national conservative. I had not joined any political organization. But in the long run it was impossible to stand aside in these politically stirring times, should our Fatherland not succumb to the Marxist-Bolshevik attack. This simple political concept finally became the decisive factor in my life."

This "political concept" that Mengele wrote of became his vehicle upon which he would seek to advance his career, his fame as a researcher and scientist. Wasting no time, he joined a nationalistic organization called the Stalhelm, or the Steel Helmets, in 1931. The Stalhelm wore decorative German uniforms and paraded to nationalist music during public events. While they were not yet affiliated with the Nazi Party at this time, they nonetheless shared the same rabid nationalistic ideology as the Nazis.

As his political consciousness began to blossom, Mengele commenced his studies, focusing on anthropology and paleontology, as well as medicine. Medicine, or the art of healing, was truly a secondary interest of Mengele's; his growing passion was for eugenics, the search for the keys to unlock the secret of genetics and reveal the sources of human deformities and imperfections. Mengele's interest in this field of study arose at a time when a number of prominent German academics and medical professionals were espousing the theory of "unworthy life," a theory which advanced the notion that some lives were simply not worthy of living. It was here that Mengele began to strive in his efforts to distinguish himself, to both gain renown and respect as a scientific researcher and to advance the perfection of the German race. However ambitious Mengele may have been in this regard, his academic passion revealed little to nothing of the murderous zeal that was to one day result from it. One of his university colleagues, Professor Hans Grebe, has stated that "There was nothing in his personality to suggest that he would do what he did (as an SS doctor at Auschwitz)."

If Mengele himself became a cold-blooded monster at the height of his Nazi career, he certainly learned at the feet of some of Germany's most diabolical minds. As a student Mengele attended the lectures of Dr. Ernst Rudin, who posited not only that there were some lives not worth living, but that doctors had a responsibility to destroy such life and remove it from the general population. His prominent views gained the attention of Hitler himself, and Rudin was drafted to assist in composing the Law for the Protection of Heredity Health, which passed in 1933, the same year that the Nazis took complete control of the German government. This unapologetic Social Darwinist contributed to the Nazi decree that called for the sterilization of those demonstrating the following flaws, lest they reproduce and further contaminate the German gene pool: feeblemindedness; schizophrenia; manic depression; epilepsy; hereditary blindness; deafness; physical deformities; Huntington's disease; and alcoholism.

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