How Josef Mengele Became The Angel Of Death

Dr. Josef Mengele’s medical facility at Auschwitz was perhaps the most horrifying place the Holocaust produced. Who was this man behind it all, and what made him the notorious “Angel of Death?”

Josef Megele

Wikimedia Commons/ATI Composite Josef Mengele; Auschwitz prisoners to be used in Mengele’s experiments.

Ask a person to name the worst crime in living memory, and the Holocaust will probably be what they come up with. Ask them to name the worst crime scene of the Holocaust, and Auschwitz is the natural answer.

Ask a person who knew that camp what the worst part of it was, and the killing center at Birkenau is the hands-down winner. Ask a survivor of Birkenau to name the most terrifying murderer in the whole complex, and they’ll give you the name of Dr. Josef Mengele.

On June 6, 1985, Brazilian police in São Paulo dug up the grave of a man named “Wolfgang Gerhard.” Forensic, and later genetic, evidence conclusively proved that the remains actually belonged to Josef Mengele, who had apparently died in a swimming accident. Who was this man, and how did he burn his name into the darkest nightmare of modern history?

Josef Mengele’s Privileged Youth

Josef Mengele Civilian Clothes

Wikimedia Commons

Josef Mengele lacks a terrible backstory to which one can point a finger when attempting to explain his vile acts. In fact, Mengele was a popular and witty rich kid whose father ran a successful business in Germany at a time when the national economy was cratering. Everybody at school seemed to like him, and he got excellent grades. Upon graduating it was natural that he would go on to university, and that he would succeed at anything he put his mind to.

Mengele earned his first doctorate, in anthropology, from the University of Munich in 1935. He did his post-doctoral work at Frankfurt under Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, who was a fully indoctrinated Nazi eugenicist. National Socialism always held that individuals were the product of their heredity, and von Verschuer was one of the Nazi-aligned scientists whose work seemed to legitimize that assertion.

Von Verschuer’s work revolved around hereditary influences on congenital defects such as cleft palate. Mengele was an enthusiastic assistant to von Verschuer, and he left the lab in 1938 with both a glowing recommendation and a second doctorate in medicine. For his dissertation topic, Mengele wrote about racial influences on the formation of the lower jaw.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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