Josef Mengele


Following the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles penalises the defeated Germany, annexing land, imposing large war reparations, limiting the size of the German Army and blaming Germany and Austria-Hungary for starting the conflict. The new German Government, a coalition of left-leaning and centrist parties, attempts to rebuild the country but faces opposition from the right and extreme left. The instability is exacerbated by the failure of the domestic and global economies.

Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party) exploits the situation, advocating national pride, blaming the Treaty of Versailles, the left, and Jews for the political turmoil and claiming to have a solution to the economic crisis. The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power on 30 January 1933 when Hitler is appointed chancellor. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 16 March 1911 in Günzburg, a town in Bavaria, Germany. Mengele is the eldest of three sons. His father is the founder of a company that produces farm machinery. His family are upper middle-class.

1930 - After finishing his schooling Mengele studies philosophy at the University Munich, obtaining his degree in 1935.

1931 - Mengele joins the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmets), an extreme right-wing and antisemitic organisation.

1933 - The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power on 30 January when Hitler is appointed chancellor. Germany's last election until after the Second World War is held on 5 March. Though the Nazis win only 44% of the vote, Hitler persuades the Reichstag (parliament) to pass the Enabling Law, allowing him to govern independently for four years.

Hitler is now the Führer, the dictator of the fascist Third Reich, an empire where the individual belongs to the state, and where the state is fully controlled by the Nazis.

All Nazis in prison are issued with full pardons. Critics of the government and the Nazi Party are subject to arrest. Special courts are established for the trial of political detainees. Regional governments are dissolved and then reconstituted with governors handpicked by Hitler. Leftist political parties are banned. Germany is declared a one-party state. Jews and leftists are purged from the bureaucracy. Trade unions are dissolved and replaced with Nazi organisations. Germany withdraws from the League of Nations.

A program of public works, rearmament and forced labour helps bring the economy under control. Inflation comes down, the currency is stabilised and full employment achieved.

1934 - The Stahhelm (Steel Helmets) is incorporated into the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Brownshirts, Hitler's storm troopers. Mengele serves in the SA for a short period but is forced to resign by a kidney complaint.

1935 - Mengele enrols to study medicine at the University of Frankfurt am Main. He concentrates on physical anthropology and genetics.

1936 - Mengele passes his state medical examination. He begins working at the university medical clinic in Leipzig.

1937 - Mengele is appointed to the research staff of the newly founded Institute for Third Reich Hereditary, Biology and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt on 1 January. He joins the Nazi Party in May.

1938 - He obtains his medical degree and enlists in the Schutz-Staffel (SS), the Blackshirts, Hitler's personal guard.

Meanwhile, support for the Nazis is further buoyed by Hitler's policy of foreign expansion. Austria is annexed on 13 March. The Sudetenland, the German-speaking area in the north of Czechoslovakia, is ceded to Germany on 29 September under the terms of the Munich Agreement between Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

1939 - Bohemia and Moravia are occupied by Germany in March, while Slovakia is made a puppet state. German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

Mengele serves in France and Russia as a medical officer with the Waffen-SS, the armed component of the SS. He is promoted to lieutenant in 1941 and awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, while stationed on the Ukrainian front.

In January 1942, following an offensive deep behind Soviet lines, he is awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, the Black Badge for the Wounded and the Medal for the Care of the German People. Wounds received during this second campaign prevent Mengele returning to combat. He is posted instead to the office of race and resettlement in Berlin and promoted to captain.

1942 - On 20 January the Nazis complete the planning for the Endlosung (Final Solution), the extermination of the Jews, Gipsies, Slavs, homosexuals, communists, and other "undesirables" and "decadents" in death camps run by the SS and controlled by the Gestapo. About six million European Jews die in the following Holocaust. Most (about 4.5 million) of those killed come from Poland and the Soviet Union. About 125,000 are German Jews.

The Holocaust also claims about 500,000 Gipsies, between 10,000 and 25,000 homosexuals, 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, up to 3.5 million non-Jewish Poles, between 3.5 million and six million other Slavic civilians, as many as four million Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 1.5 million political dissidents.

By the end of the year, knowledge of the Final Solution becomes an open secret among the general German community.

1943 - In May SS head Heinrich Himmler appoints Mengele as a doctor at Birkenau, the supplementary extermination camp at Auschwitz in southern Poland, 60 km west of Krakow.

Mengele meets the incoming rail transports of new inmates and separates them into two groups - those fit for labour and those to be sent directly to the gas chambers. A third group suffers a different fate.

Mengele utilises his experience in medicine and interest in race and genetics to conduct a series of pseudoscientific experiments on selected inmates, principally infants, young twins, dwarfs and those with genetic abnormalities. He is given his own laboratory block, independent financing and a medical staff.

Mengele is supported by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics at Dahlem in Berlin. He sends specimens to the institute director, Dr Otmar von Verschuer, his former supervisor at the University of Frankfurt and an expert on the genetics of twins.

Mengele investigates ways to increase human fertility. He tries to find a genetic cause for the disease noma (a rare gangrenous condition of the face and mouth), studies physical abnormalities and contagious diseases, conducts experiments with wounds, and attempts to change the colour of inmate's eyes to blue with injections of chemicals directly into the eyeball. His chief interest is twins.

About 1,500 sets of twins are collected at Birkenau for "research" designed to develop a theory of heredity and the relation "between disease, racial types, and miscegenation" (racial interbreeding). Mengele hopes to discover the genetic key to creating an Aryan "master race". Twins are subjected to clinical examinations, blood tests, X-rays, anthropological measurements and post-mortem dissection following lethal injections of chloroform into their hearts. One twin serves as a control while the other endures the experiments.

Mengele's experiments represent only a few of the approximate 180 procedures conducted on humans in more than 30 "laboratories" scattered about the Third Reich.

The war turns against Germany in the winter of 1942-43 when the Sixth Army is defeated by Soviet forces at Stalingrad. By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic.

The Western Allies take Africa in 1943, land in Sicily and Italy, and prepare for the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later. Soviet troops, meanwhile, advance from the east.

1945 - Auschwitz is evacuated on 18 January and liberated by the Soviet Army on the 27 January. Of the 3,000 children involved in Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz only about 200 remain alive.

According to the television documentary Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz during the four and a half years of its existence. Of these, at least 1.1 million died. The documentary says that as well as the one million Jews killed (at least 200,000 of them children), "hundreds of Jehovah's witnesses, homosexuals, and other minorities were murdered. 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 21,000 Gipsies, 70,000 Polish political prisoners".

The majority of the victims died in gas chambers.

Following the evacuation of Auschwitz, Mengele is transferred to Gross Rosen concentration camp in Silesia, 280 km west of Auschwitz. He flees further west on 18 February, eight days before Gross Rosen is liberated.

By March, as the Western forces reach the Rhine River, Soviet armies have overrun most of Eastern Europe and are converging on Berlin. The Soviets march under the slogan, "There will be no pity. They have sown the wind and now they are harvesting the whirlwind."

By April an Allied victory in Europe is certain. Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin bunker on 30 April as Soviet troops storm the capital. On 7 May Germany surrenders unconditionally.

Mengele is named as a principal war criminal and added to the first central registry of war criminals and security suspects compiled by the Allied high command.

He is captured by Allied troops in June and held in a detention camp near Munich. However, by using the papers of another doctor, he is able to conceal his identity and is released in August. He goes underground, posing as a stableman on a farm near Rosenheim in Bavaria.

Beginning in November, 22 surviving Nazi leaders considered responsible for the crimes committed by Germany during the war are tried before an international military tribunal sitting in Nuremberg. Among those brought before the tribunal are Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hess, and Albert Speer. Twelve of the accused are sentenced to death, seven receive prison sentences, and three are acquitted.

Following the high-profile Nuremberg trials, lower-ranking Nazi war criminals are also brought to justice. Mengele, however, avoids arrest and prosecution.

1949 - With the aid of his family and former SS contacts, Mengele escapes to Buenos Aires in Argentina, obtaining a West German passport and identity card under his own name in 1958.

1959 - West Germany issues a warrant for his arrest and in 1960 the West German Foreign Ministry seeks his extradition from Argentina. Mengele flees to Brazil then Paraguay, where he gains citizenship.

1961 - Fearing he may be kidnapped by Israeli agents, he moves to Brazil, where he becomes friendly with ex-Nazi Wolfgang Gerhard, who allows Mengele to assume his identity.

Later, Rafi Eitan, an Israeli agent who participated in the kidnapping of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in May 1960, reveals just how closely Mengele came to being captured.

According to Eitan, Mengele had been identified and his Buenos Aires residence located by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, but an operation to apprehend him was passed over for fear that it might jeopardise the seizure of Eichmann.

By the time the Eichmann operation had been successfully completed, Mengele had disappeared.

1965 - The West German Government extends its extradition request from Argentina to Brazil. Mossad also believes that Mengele is living in Brazil but is diverted by the outbreak of the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours in 1967.

1979 - Mengele dies from a stroke while swimming on 7 February at Enseada da Bertioga, near Sao Paulo, Brazil, but is buried under Gerhard's name. News of his death does not reach the world until 1985.


1985 - Mengele is tried in absentia at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in February. Survivors of his experiments at Auschwitz provide testimony.

In May, West German police raid a house in Mengele's home town of Günzburg and discover documents that lead to his grave. On 6 June, police in Brazil exhume the body.

A team of leading forensic scientists from around the world is assembled to investigate the bones. The team concludes that the skeleton is that of Josef Mengele. The bones are then placed in storage at the Sao Paulo Legal Medical Institute.

2017 - The department of legal medicine at the University of Sao Paulo's Medical School obtains permission to use Mengele's bones for its forensic medical courses.


While there are other Nazis who, on the weight of numbers killed alone, qualify ahead of Mengele for inclusion in these files (Adolf Eichmann for instance), Mengele deserves his place. He was a sadist and a zealot, a fervent Nazi, an antisemite. But more significantly he is an exemplar of Hitler's seduction and perversion of the Germany people. He embraced the Third Reich absolutely and unquestioningly, as did so many others. There is some consolation in knowing that he died a lonely and embittered old man. There is no consolation in knowing that he died untried and unrepentant.