Mengele’s unethical research was part of existing beliefs, practice

Mengele’s background, the study of medicine and anthropology, was well suited to Nazi ideology.

JONA LAKS, survivor of Dr. Josef Mengele’s twins experiments, and granddaughter Lee Aldar pass under the notorious Auschwitz death camp gate in January. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
JONA LAKS, survivor of Dr. Josef Mengele’s twins experiments, and granddaughter Lee Aldar pass under the notorious Auschwitz death camp gate in January.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi physician, may well epitomize the diabolical evil of the Holocaust. A vile antisemite and true believer in racial hygiene, Mengele carried out “selections” of Jews for grossly inhumane “scientific” experiments conducted at Auschwitz.
In Mengele: Unmasking the “Angel of Death,” historian David Marwell masterfully chronicles Mengele’s life and career. Marwell investigated Mengele in the 1980s as chief of investigative research for the US Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations. His book spans Mengele’s university studies, combat experience with the Waffen-SS, tenure at Auschwitz and escape, plus the 34-year international search to bring him to justice – a conclusive, yet disappointing, end.
Like all doctors in 1930s Germany, Mengele came under Hitler’s concept of German medicine that departed from the traditional caregiving role, Marwell explains. The physician’s first responsibility was to the nation, not individual patients. As part of the Führer’s weltanschauung, doctors were “biological soldiers,” committed to ensuring Germany’s glorious destiny by “cleansing” the population of “inferior” genetic material: Jews, gypsies, the mentally ill, and the handicapped, among others. Hitler’s racial ideology violated the Hippocratic oath, as doctors enforced “eugenic” laws to foster “racial hygiene.” Medical professionals were empowered to take aggressive actions against those believed to menace the German people and the nation’s future. In this environment, a young Dr. Josef Mengele began practicing medicine.
The author recounts how Mengele’s background, the study of medicine and anthropology, was well suited to Nazi ideology. His early work on the heritability of oral clefts and their connection to other developmental disabilities inspired the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. Under this legislation, 375,000 people were forcibly sterilized from 1934 to the start of World War II.
In 1938, Mengele joined the Nazi Party and the SS. After a short stint as a Frankfort Institute scientist, he joined the Waffen-SS. A hereditary biology expert, he evaluated ethnic German immigrants for resettlement, part of the effort to redraw Europe’s racial and ethnic map. Mengele treated acute, combat-related injuries and saw combat in Ukraine and the Soviet Union. In 1943, he was posted to Auschwitz in occupied Poland.
Marwell explores Auschwitz’s environment and explains that camp doctors carried out “selections” when victims first arrived. They determined who would be murdered immediately in the gas chambers and who would be assigned to work. Sick patients sent to the infirmary were similarly assessed as candidates for gassing or for work. In some cases, certain subjects were judged suitable for research on hypothermia, starvation, drug therapy and sterilization techniques, including testicle and ovary irradiation, or other research. Many prisoners were intentionally infected with typhus to study the contagion rate and disease course. Mengele personally selected 20 Jewish children for tuberculosis experiments and applied electro-convulsive therapy on mentally ill inmates.
He set up a laboratory in a camp barracks with inmate physicians or scientists as staff. Mengele conducted twin research and studies of growth and physical anomalies, plus, preserved Jewish skeletons, human embryos and deceased newborns. When epidemics struck Auschwitz, he simply gassed sufferers. For example, Marwell relates that Mengele sent 1,500 worst-case inmates to be gassed when typhus and, later, scarlet fever were rampant.
Mengele also researched identical twins, dwarfism, oral clefts, people with different-colored eyes and sufferers of noma, a bacterial gangrene typically found in Roma populations. Marwell describes Mengele as untroubled by his work and unhampered by medical ethics or basic humanity. The “angel of death” routinely performed detailed measurements, filled out extensive questionnaires and performed physical exams, including dental impressions and fingerprinting. He drew blood from his subjects, often in large quantities, and performed simultaneous twin dissections or autopsies. Mengele harvested children’s eyes for research by first killing them with a chloroform injection directly in their hearts.
His access to large numbers of varied populations and his well-staffed pathology laboratory enabled him to conduct research otherwise impossible under normal conditions. A respected member of Germany’s scientific establishment and mainstream medical community, his monstrous, unethical research was part of existing beliefs and practice.
MARWELL’S EXTENSIVE detail on Mengele’s life after World War II begins with the Third Reich’s collapse when Mengele returned to Germany. He was screened by American authorities, released and kept a low profile under an assumed name. In 1949, he fled to Argentina, ruled by the Nazi-sympathizing Juan Peron. In Argentina for 10 years, he operated a mechanical equipment shop until news of Eichmann’s capture by the Mossad surfaced and he fled to Paraguay. In 1961, when the West German government began looking into his extradition, Mengele went undercover to a remote area of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In 1985, as part of an international multidisciplinary team of Germans, Israelis, Americans, Brazilians and representatives from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the author joined the search for Mengele. They were surprised to discover that Mengele had died in 1979 from a stroke while swimming and was buried as “Wolfgang Gerhard.” The exhumed body underwent a long process of identification until seven years later, DNA evidence, a methodology then in its infancy, identified the remains as Mengele’s and the case was closed.
This disappointing conclusion was difficult for the survivors and Israelis to accept. Mengele, the ultimate symbol of Holocaust atrocities, died before answering for his heinous crimes, depriving his victims of their day in court. Further, it was revealed in his last correspondence to his estranged son, Rolf, that Mengele remained unrepentant, expressed no remorse and defended his theories of racial purity to the end.  
Mengele: Unmasking the “Angel of Death”
By David Marwell
W. W. Norton & Company
448 pages; $16.99