Josef Mengele – the Angel of Death Essay
Josef Mengele – the Angel of Death
After the war many Nazi doctors were tried at Nuremberg, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet the man who became the most infamous Nazi doctor — although Hitler himself may never heard of him — fled to South America and escaped prosecution. He was never caught and convicted, though he lived for decades thereafter.
Mengele, called ‘Uncle’ by the countless children he subjected to gruesome experiments and unthinkable torture, and known as the “Angel of Death” in the concentration camps, was responsible for the torture and deaths of 400,000 people, and the torment of thousands more. The most important thing to note about Mengele is that he was not an isolated example of an evil maniac gone berserk. He was simply part of a system and a much wider network of Nazi doctors. His work may have been different from those of the other doctors only in quantitative terms not qualitative terms.
Today, the Auschwitz experiments of Josef Mengele remain the most egregious example of the collaboration of unscrupulous researchers with equally unscrupulous senior scientists and prestigious scientific institutions – which is a phenomenon that could be happening on a wide scale in our own times, especially in matters of drug trials of giant pharmaceutical corporations. In 1947, the world learned of what is now the most infamous scandal in medical research: medical experiments conducted by Nazi doctors. Nazi doctors performed a variety of extremely disturbing experiments on prisoners in concentration camps.
Some experiments were designed to further the war effort. For example, to study gunshot wounds, Nazi doctors shot inmates and examined their wounds. To study diseases such as typhus, Nazi doctors intentionally infected inmates with disease. To study human capacity to withstand exposure to cold, Nazi doctors stripped inmates and exposed them to icy water or blizzards. However, the majority of experiments had less to do with winning the war and more to do with promoting or substantiating Nazi ideology. Doctors were interested in sterilizing undesirables, “curing” homosexuality, and establishing anthropological differences between races.
To find an effective means of mass sterilization, Nazi doctors injected hundreds of women with a caustic substance in the hope of obstructing their fallopian tubes, and inflicted severe burns and infections on both male and female prisoners by exposing them to high doses of radiation. To “cure” homosexuality, Nazi doctors injected hormones into inmates suspected of being homosexual. To catalog physical differences in race, Nazi doctors killed a number of prisoners, stripped the flesh off their bones, and saved their skeletons for an anthropological museum.
Dr. Mengele is among the best known SS physicians at Auschwitz, and was responsible along with other SS doctors for “selections” and medical experiments that used prisoners as guinea pigs. Mengele could never have thought of himself as a monstrous psychopath, though, but only as a “biomedical scientist” participating in a broad program of racial research. During the Holocaust Mengele and many other Nazi physicians used thousands of camp inmates, especially those with disabilities and “deformities” as subjects for their biomedical racial “research. “
Born in the Swabian section of Bavaria in 1911 into an upper middle-class family, Mengele eventually earned two doctorates. The first doctorate was in physical anthropology at Munich under Theodor Mollison in 1935 and the second was in medicine at Frankfurt under Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer in 1938. He received his license to practice medicine in late 1937 but apparently did not pursue certification in a specialty. Instead, he opted for research. As a student of anthropology, he had studied under the leading exponents of the “life unworthy of living” theory and it greatly influenced his thinking and behavior.
The notion that some lives were not worth living was rapidly becoming academically acceptable. His two dissertation supervisors were eugenicists, and his dissertations in anthropology at Munich and in medicine at Frankfurt both dealt with research in racial hygiene. After finishing his second doctorate, Mengele continued his research in Verschuer’s Frankfurt Institute for Hereditary Biology and Race Hygiene. As principal investigator, Verschuer supervised the research of numerous assistants under a variety of DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – German Research Foundation) research grants.
Verschuer’s 1938 report to the DFG on this sponsored research, focusing on the genetic study of twins and families, lists the work and publications of his assistant Mengele. Although Mengele did not join the Nazi party until 1938, he belonged to the brown-shirt storm troopers, the SA, during 1933-34 and in 1938 joined the SS. As an SS member, he was drafted during the war into the Waffen SS instead of the Wehrmacht, advancing by 1943 to the rank of captain (Hauptstrumfuhrer).
He served as an SS physician to the Eastern front until he was wounded and therefore posted to the concentration camp death head units in the rear. He functioned during 1943-1944 as one of the SS physicians at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. In his new post, Mengele performed the usual duties of a concentration camp SS physician as well as the special Auschwitz assignment of directing selections for the gas chamber. In addition, Auschwitz opened up unlimited opportunities for the ambitious researcher.
Research subjects were available in large numbers, and the restraints of medical ethics did not apply. Further, Mengele could compel highly skilled inmate physicians to design and conduct research, perform tests and autopsies, and produce research papers, without the need to share credit with them. It is therefore not surprising that Mengele used Auschwitz as a research laboratory. Otmar von Verschuer, Mengele’s mentor who was himself a protege of Eugen Fischer, had left Frankfurt for Berlin in 1942 to succeed Fischer as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology.
Mengele had worked at the institute during SS assignments to Berlin and thus continued to contribute to Verschuer’s research projects (Cefrey 62). When Mengele went to Auschwitz, Vershuer realized the potential of this posting, and as principal investigator, he carried Mengele’s Auschwitz experiments on his DFG grants. Therefore, Mengele’s experiments — that often necessitated the killing of children, thousands of them (especially twins) — were part of the official program and in pursuing his shockingly macabre “research” he was only following the broad lines of Nazi research agenda.
Driven by the desire to advance his medical career by scientific publications, Dr Mengele began to conduct all kinds of utterly atrocious medical experiments on living Jews, children, twins, disabled people, and all those who fell into the Nazi category of ‘Untermenschen’ – all of whom he took from the barracks of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, or ‘selected’ right away on their arrival, and brought to his hospital block.
Mengele used the pretext of medical treatment to kill thousands upon thousands of prisoners, personally administering the horrific torture procedures, for example as by injecting them with phenol, petrol, chloroform, or by ordering SS medical orderlies to do so. From the moment of his arrival at Auschwitz, Mengele joined the other SS officers and SS doctors, among them Dr Clauberg and Dr Kremer, in the ‘selection’ of Jews reaching the Auschwitz railway junction from all over Europe.
With a movement of the hand or the wave of a stick, he indicated as ‘unfit for work’, and thus destined for immediate death in the gas chambers, all children, old people, sick, crippled and weak Jews, and all pregnant women. Between May 1943 and November 1944 Mengele conducted, also along with Dr. Heinz Thilo, scores of such selections. Mengele was especially on the lookout for twins and other promising research subjects (Lifton 165).
He also took an equally decisive part in several selections in the camp infirmary, pointing out for death by shooting, injection or gassing those Jews whose strength had been sapped by starvation, force labor, untreated illness or ill-treatment by the guards. On May 26, 1943, only two days after he arrived at Aushwitz, Mengele committed his first mass murder. There was a typhoid epidemic in the barracks of over a thousand Gypsies who had been brought to the camp two months earlier.
For Dr Mengele, typhoid was not an illness to be cured, but one to be eliminated; that day, all the Gypsies were dragged out of their barracks and driven to the gas chambers. Against their names in the camp register were put the letters ‘SB’ – ‘Sondebehandlung’, Special Treatment. This was just a sign of much worse things to come. In perpetrating a host of such ghastly “medical and scientific experiments,” Mengele was of course being an independent member of a larger cohort of wanton butchers.
These Nazi doctors most brazenly forsook their Hippocratic Oath and armed themselves with scalpels, forceps, and needles in inflicting immeasurable pain and torture on hundreds of thousands of innocent people, a significant portion of them being children. Mengele regularly mailed the results of his research on twins to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. There scientists analyzed the samples of blood obtained before death and the organs obtained after dissection.
It was a systematic, organized and purposeful enterprise. Though few of these doctors collected scientifically valid data and many of the experiments were expressions of pure pathological sadism, the Nazi doctors justified their acts of torture and inhumanity as attempts to improve German medicine and advance science. Mengele himself, through his research on twins, dreamed of being able to genetically engineer a flawless race.
The ultimate goal was to produce an ideal race of Aryan men and women endowed with only the finest genetic traits, who would rapidly multiply and rule the world. (Lagnado, Dekel 61) Of the approximately 350 doctors who are estimated to have committed medical crimes, only about 20 doctors and 3 assistants were brought to justice in Nuremberg (Spitz 50). Some others were tried, and sentenced to in American military trials at Dachau.
Still many doctors escaped, including one who would become the most infamous of them all, Dr. Josef Mengele. Human experimentation neither arose with the Nazis, nor ended with them; however, the history of human experimentation in the West is usually divided into two eras: before the Nazis and after. Mengele is by no means such a grotesque aberration as he may appear to be at first. Nazi doctors perpetrated some of the most horrendous actions during the Third Reich, but the shadows of Auschwitz and Nuremberg are long.
Though Mengele escaped scot-free, we at least know about his evil deeds; there may be many others of his ilk alive today and even working in collaboration with reputed organizations whose work we may never even come to know. Works Cited Cefrey, Holly. “Doctor Josef Mengele: The Angel of Death” New York : The Rosen Publishing Group, 2001 Lagnado, Lucette Matalon; Dekel, Sheila Cohn. “Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. ” New York : Penguin Books, 1992 Lifton, Robert Jay. “The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide” New