11 Facts About Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz "Angel of Death"

The Auschwitz Angel of Death

Nazi Medical Officer Joseph Mengele
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Dr. Josef Mengele, the cruel staff doctor at Auschwitz death camp, acquired a certain legendary quality even before his death in 1979. His gruesome experiments on helpless inmates are the stuff of nightmares and he is considered by some to be among the vilest men in modern history. That this notorious Nazi doctor evaded capture for decades in South America only added to the growing mythology. What is the truth about the twisted man known to history as the “Angel of Death?”

The Mengele Family Was Wealthy

Josef Mengele
Photographer Unknown

Josef’s father Karl was an industrialist whose company produced farm machinery. The company prospered and the Mengele family was considered well-to-do in prewar Germany. Later, when Josef was on the run, Karl’s money, prestige, and influence would greatly help his son escape from Germany and establish himself in Argentina.

Mengele Was a Brilliant Academic

Josef Mengele and Colleague
Photographer Unknown

Josef earned a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Munich in 1935 at the age of 24. He followed this by working in genetics with some of the leading medical minds of Germany at the time, and he earned a second, medical doctorate with honors in 1938. He studied genetic traits such as cleft palates and his fascination with twins as experiment subjects was already growing.

Mengele Was a War Hero

Mengele in Uniform
Photographer Unknown

Mengele was a dedicated Nazi and joined the SS around the same time he earned his medical degree. When World War II broke out, he was sent to the eastern front as an officer to fight the Soviets. He earned an Iron Cross Second Class for bravery in combat in Ukraine in 1941. In 1942, he saved two German soldiers from a burning tank. This action earned him the Iron Cross First Class and a handful of other medals. Wounded in action, he was declared unfit for active duty and sent back to Germany.

He Was Not in Charge of Auschwitz

Mengele and other Nazis
Photographer Unknown

One common misconception of Mengele is that he was in charge of the Auschwitz death camp. This is not the case. He was actually one of several SS doctors assigned there. He had a great deal of autonomy there, however, because he was working under a sort of grant given to him by the government to study genetics and diseases. His status as a war hero and prestigious academic also gave him a stature not shared by the other doctors. When it was all put together, Mengele had a great deal of freedom to conduct his ghoulish experiments as he saw fit.

His Experiments Were the Stuff of Nightmares

The Liberation of Auschwitz
Photographer Unknown

At Auschwitz, Mengele was given absolute freedom to conduct his experiments on the Jewish inmates, who were all slated to die anyway. His grisly experiments were notoriously cruel and callous and utterly inhuman in their scope. He injected dye into the eyeballs of inmates to see if he could change their color. He deliberately infected inmates with horrible diseases to document their progress. He injected substances such as gasoline into the inmates, condemning them to a painful death, just to watch the process.

He liked to experiment on sets of twins and always separated them from the incoming train cars, saving them from immediate death in the gas chambers but keeping them for a fate which was, in some cases, far worse.

More than 70 medical research projects were undertaken in Nazi concentration camps between 1839 and 1945.

His Nickname Was the "Angel of Death"

Josef Mengele
Photographer Unknown

One of the more distasteful duties of the doctors at Auschwitz was standing on the platforms to meet the incoming trains. There, the doctors would divide the incoming Jews into those who would form labor gangs and those who would proceed immediately to the death chambers. Most of the Auschwitz doctors hated this duty and some even had to get drunk in order to do it.

Not Josef Mengele. By all accounts, he enjoyed it, putting on his best uniform and even meeting trains when he wasn’t scheduled to do so. Because of his good looks, snappy uniform and obvious enjoyment of this horrible task, he was nicknamed “the Angel of Death.”

Based on historical and documentary evidence, a total of 15,754 people were killed in the course of Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz. People who survived the experiments number at least 20,000, and they were often seriously disabled and handicapped for the remainder of their lives. 

Mengele Escaped to Argentina

Mengele ID Photo
Photographer Unknown

In 1945, as the Soviets moved eastward, it became apparent that the Germans would be defeated. By the time Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945, Dr. Mengele and the other SS officers were long gone. He hid out in Germany for a while, finding work as a farm laborer under an assumed name. It wasn’t long before his name began appearing on lists of most-wanted war criminals and in 1949 he decided to follow many of his fellow Nazis to Argentina. He was put in contact with Argentine agents, who aided him with necessary papers and permits.

At First, His Life in Argentina Wasn't Bad

Mengele on a Bicycle
Photogrpher Unknown

Mengele found a warm reception in Argentina. Many former Nazis and old friends were there, and the Juan Domingo Perón regime was friendly to them. Mengele even met President Perón on more than one occasion. Josef's father Karl had business contacts in Argentina, and Josef found that his father's prestige rubbed off on him a bit (his father's money didn't hurt, either). He moved in high circles and although he often used an assumed name, everyone in the Argentine-German community knew who he was. It was only after Perón was deposed and his father died that Josef was forced to go back underground.

He Was the World's Most-Wanted Nazi

Adolf Eichmann on Trial
Photographer Unknown

Most of the most notorious Nazis had been captured by the Allies and were tried at the Nuremberg Trials. Twenty-three physician and non-physician defendants were tried at Nuremberg for their roles in the experiments. Seven were acquitted, seven were executed, and the rest received prison sentences. 

Many mid-level Nazis escaped and with them a handful of serious war criminals. After the war, Jewish Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal began tracking these men down in order to bring them to justice. By 1950, two names were at the top of every Nazi hunter's wish list: Mengele and Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat who had overseen the logistics of sending millions to their deaths. Eichmann was snatched off a Buenos Aires street by a team of Mossad agents in 1960. The team had been actively looking for Mengele, too. Once Eichmann was tried and hanged, Mengele stood alone as the most-wanted former Nazi.

His Life Was Nothing Like the Legends

Dr. Josef Mengele
Photographer Unknown

Because this murderous Nazi had evaded capture for so long, a legend grew around him. There were unconfirmed Mengele sightings everywhere from Argentina to Peru and several innocent men with a passing resemblance to the fugitive were harassed or questioned. According to some, he was hiding in a jungle laboratory in Paraguay, under the protection of President Alfredo Stroessner, surrounded by former Nazi colleagues and bodyguards, perfecting his idea of the master race.

The truth was completely different. He lived his final years in poverty, moving around in Paraguay and Brazil, staying with isolated families where he frequently wore out his welcome due to his acrimonious nature. He was helped by his family and an ever-dwindling circle of Nazi friends. He became paranoid, convinced that the Israelis were hot on his trail, and the stress greatly affected his health. He was a lonely, bitter man whose heart was still filled with hatred. He died in a swimming accident in Brazil in 1979.

Discovering Mengele

In 1979, a man drowned in a swimming accident and was buried under the name of the deceased Austrian Wolfgang Gerhard in the cemetery of Nossa Senhora do Rosario at Embu in southern Brazil. Acting on information that he was, in fact, Josef Mengele, forensic anthropologists exhumed the body in 1985; forensic pathological analysis of the dental records and skeletal features led the team to conclude that the body was Mengele's beyond a reasonable doubt. 

However, the Israeli police cast doubt on the investigations, noting inconsistencies in the testimony of the witnesses and the presence of fractures which did not match Mengele's historical records. DNA investigations of the skeleton's remains were compared to DNA from living relatives—Mengele's son was still alive at the time and blood samples were drawn from him. That provided additional supporting evidence that the exhumed remains were Mengele's. 

Identifying Mengele's remains was one of the earliest uses of the process of forensic identification in the prosecution of war crimes. 


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Minster, Christopher. "11 Facts About Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz "Angel of Death"." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/ten-facts-about-dr-josef-mengele-2136588. Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). 11 Facts About Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz "Angel of Death". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ten-facts-about-dr-josef-mengele-2136588 Minster, Christopher. "11 Facts About Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz "Angel of Death"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ten-facts-about-dr-josef-mengele-2136588 (accessed June 3, 2023).