Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angels of Death: The Doctors

The Nazi Doctors

Dr. Joseph Mengele
Dr. Joseph Mengele

Children were fond of him, and he brought them sweets and even gave them rides to the place where they were to be exterminated. Joseph Mengele, the doctor of Auschwitz and ultimate Angel of Death, was an anomaly.

A leader in the Nazi biomedical vision, he thrived on experiments with genetic abnormalities. Even surpassing Hitler at times, Mengele has come to embody the archetype of Absolute Evil, perhaps because he so egregiously violated his professional oath to honor and preserve life.

Mengele arrived in Auschwitz on May 30, 1943. He was 32, from a Catholic family, and had long been a Nazi enthusiast. In school, his specialty had been physical anthropology and genetics, and he was fully committed to bringing science into the service of the Nazi enterprise. In fact, he specifically asked to be sent to Auschwitz because of opportunities such a place could provide for his research.

In charge of the "selections" process, he'd show up at the prisoner transports looking quite elegant, and would decide at a glance each person's destiny. If anyone started trouble over being separated from a relative, he might wordlessly beat or shoot them both. He appeared to have no conscience, and sent anyone with an imperfection (including imperfect height) right to the gas chamber. However, he kept the twins, as many sets of doubles as he could find. They were destined for his labs.

Mengele enjoyed his powerful position and was completely at home with his tasks. To uphold the Nazi ideal of racial purification was his driving motivation. Yet no one quite knew what to expect. Even as he separated families and killed with impunity, he might step into the role of concerned physician and whimsically allow some people to live. The power of life and death resided in him.

In his desire to improve the efficiency of the camp as a killing machine, he taught other doctors how to give phenol injections to a long line of prisoners, quickly ending their lives. He also shot people, and by some reports he tossed live babies into the crematoria. Throughout all of this, he kept a detached, efficient demeanor and viewed himself as strictly a scientist.

Twins arriving at the death camp
Twins arriving at the death camp

Mengele's great passion was his research on twins. They were weighed, measured, and compared in every way. Blood was endlessly withdrawn and they were questioned about their family histories. Some he would kill for pathological examinations, dissecting a few himself and keeping a few parts preserved. Others he might operate on without anesthesia, removing limbs or sexual organs. He even did some sex-change operations. If one twin died during these experiments, the other was no longer of use, so he or she was simply gassed.

Substances were injected into living children to see how they reacted, often damaging or killing them. It didn't matter much to Mengele; there were always more on the way. Yet even as he targeted them for mutilation or death, he'd play with them and show great affection. Afterward, he might walk around with their heads or pin their eyes to a bulletin board.

He also studied dwarves and particular types of mutilating diseases, but one odd experiment was his attempt to change eye color to blue. He'd inject the eyes of children with a chemical that caused immense pain and even blindness, but which failed to have the desired effect. Those who worked with him thought him scientifically irresponsible and naïve.

Overall, Mengele was caught up with the idea of genetic cultivation of a superior race, and his esteemed position there at the camp fed his desire to be a god. He kept notes on all of his procedures to send to his mentor, but most of these were lost. After the war, Mengele escaped the Nuremburg trials and fled to South America. He died in 1979 and his remains were identified by a team of forensic anthropologists. Even so, his evil lives on in the fictions and fantasies of a cruel doctor who killed without conscience and was responsible for the destruction of many thousands of innocent people.

While some doctors go into the profession precisely for power over life and death, that anyone in the healing profession would so indifferently inflict pain and destruction on those in his care is rather jarring. Unfortunately, doctors who harm are difficult to detect and stop.  Some are careful, having vulnerable victims easily within reach, and others are actually protected by the medical establishment. Let's look at a recent case where an obvious sociopath got away with killing because no one bothered to listen to those who complained. In some respects, Dr. Michael Swango practiced his fiendish experiments like a contemporary Mengele.

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