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A U.S. Department of Justice insider’s biography reveals new details about Nazi physician Josef Mengele

Mengele: Unmasking the “Angel of Death”

David G. Marwell
Norton
2020
448 pp.
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It is perhaps the most darkly iconic image of the Holocaust. A transport of Jewish prisoners arrives at Auschwitz and is ordered to divide by gender and form ranks of five. Amid the prisoners stands a man in a white coat, directing victims either to forced labor or to the gas chamber. This physician is Josef Mengele, nicknamed the “Angel of Death” for his cold demeanor on the ramp. Since his disappearance during the Cold War, he has come to personify the “Nazi doctor,” a manifestation of evil that emerged as the surviving symbol of Nazi genocide.

Drawing from new sources and scholarship, historian David Marwell has written a compelling work that dispels many of the myths obscuring the identity of the infamous physician. Mengele: Unmasking the “Angel of Death” is at once a compact biography of the notorious war criminal, a detailed account of Mengele’s flight to South America, and an absorbing narrative of the quest to bring him to justice. Marwell is at his best and most fascinating when he is separating the historical Mengele from the conjecture and half-truths that surround him.

Josef Mengele was born in 1911 in Günz­burg, Bavaria, the son of a prosperous manufacturer. In 1937, he received an appointment as a physician and the following year defended his dissertation in medicine. Mengele later painted himself as a virulent anti-Semite whose engagement with Nazi ideology began quite early. However, Marwell argues convincingly that Mengele’s upbringing and early political orientation were conservative, Catholic, and imbued not with the Nazis’ racialist anti-Semitism but with the latent cultural anti-Semitism of his milieu. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the SS the next year. While in medical school, he became a true believer in the constructs of racial hygiene prevalent in Nazi Germany.

In 1942, Mengele served as a medical officer with the 5th SS Panzer Division “Wiking.” Two important details emerge here from Marwell’s research. First, we learn that Mengele’s unit engaged in vicious atrocities against Jews in Ukraine. Although it is uncertain whether Mengele participated in these activities, it is clear that he witnessed extreme violence against civilians and was inured to it. Second, Marwell convincingly argues that it was unlikely that Mengele was wounded in January 1943. It is frequently suggested that an injured Mengele came to Auschwitz in May 1943 in a routine transfer. However, Marwell surmises that Mengele applied for the position, encouraged by his mentor Otmar von Verschuer, a leading scientist known for his genetic research with twins.

Mengele began his career at Auschwitz as the medical officer responsible for Birkenau’s Gypsy camp and, following its liquidation in November 1943, undertook a new position as chief camp physician of Auschwitz II (Birkenau). “If Auschwitz … stands as a symbol of the Holocaust,” writes Marwell, “then Mengele, as perpetrator, has come to serve a similar role for the death camp itself.”

Stories of Mengele’s inhumane medical experimentation are legion, but his propensity for twin research is often misinterpreted. Although common wisdom suggests that Mengele’s preoccupation with twins reflected a desire to increase the German birth rate, Marwell shows that twin research was considered, at the time, the gold standard for the exploration of the genetics of disease. Mengele, Marwell maintains, was not a “mad scientist,” as he is often depicted. Despite the immoral and often lethal nature of his experiments, his methodology was consistent with that of other researchers in the scientific establishment, and Mengele himself was firmly entrenched in Germany’s mainstream medical community.

Of course, Mengele’s chief crime lay in his work on the ramp. He is associated more closely with “selection duty” than any other medical officer at Auschwitz, although he performed this task no more often than did any of his colleagues. The pervasive image of Mengele at the ramp in so many survivor accounts has to do not only with his postwar notoriety but also with the fact that Mengele often appeared at selections while off duty, searching for twins.

After the war, Mengele evaded capture and, with the aid of his prosperous family, fled to South America. In February 1979, he suffered a stroke and drowned while swimming near Bertioga, Brazil, and was buried under the fictive name Wolfgang Gerhard. The last chapters of Marwell’s book provide a page-turning account of the hunt for Mengele, ending in the exhumation of his body in 1985. As a U.S. Department of Justice official, Marwell describes his own participation in the forensic examination, which confirmed that the infamous Mengele had at last been found.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC 20024, USA.