Episode 36 – Joseph Mengele versus Rudolph Höss

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Episode 36 – Joseph Mengele versus Rudolph Höss

Today, we head on over to the Villains bracket. With these two men, you get the epitome of evil. Two SS officers from Nazi Germany, Joseph Mengele, and Rudolph Höss. As I’ve said in the past, the matchups are purely random so when this one came up, I was, to say the least, somewhat surprised. The reason for the shock, so to say, was that not only did both men know each other, they actually worked together at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Before I move on, I’d like to say that if you are a Holocaust denier, please unsubscribe from the podcast and go find something else to listen to. It happened, get over it. There may be discussions about the number of people murdered, but there can be no denying that it did, and it was horrific. During my childhood in New York City, I met countless men and women who lived through it, showing me their camp tattoos. To top it off, my father was a soldier in the German army during World War II, and he acknowledged their existence, much to his shame. To add one more piece of tragedy is that my aunt, my mother’s sister was murdered in Auschwitz as well.

The two men we will discuss today were knee deep in the massacre, and one of them even wrote a memoir where, Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Höss, where he admits his crimes against humanity.

The two other works I used to put together today’s podcast is Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees which chronicles the greatest mass murder in human history and Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a doctor who worked under Joseph Mengele.

I’ve been asked, in preparation for this episode, why Mengele is so much better known that Rudolf Höss. The reason is that while Höss was executed in 1947, Joseph Mengele was on the run from about 1947 until his death due to a stroke while swimming in 1979. Even his death didn’t stop his notoriety from continuing to gain steam. In 1985, a mock trial was held in Jerusalem, as the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal believed he was still alive. 

Joseph Mengele
Joseph Mengele

Our first beast of a contestant is Joseph Mengele. Born on March 16, 1911, to Karl and Walburga Mengele in Bavaria. Wait, I’m going to stop here. Giving details about this man’s childhood would be to give his life a sense of legitimacy which I am unwilling to do in this podcast. I’ve decided instead to do a episodlet instead due to requests from my listeners.

Having said that, Mengele was a well-respected man before his assignment to Auschwitz. In reality, there is nothing in his background that could explain his behavior during his time at the concentration camp. I’d like to share an insight that came from Toivi Blatt, a survivor of the Sobibor camp. “People ask me, ‘What did you learn?’ and I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street, you ask him, ‘Where is North Street?’ and he goes with you half a block and shows you and is nice and kind. That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these different situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me, I find myself thinking, ‘How will he be in Sobibor?’”

What this tells me is that there is no real explanation for the behavior of Joseph Mengele. What would compel someone to do what he did? In his book Auschwitz: A New History Laurence Rees writes about how the German people were slowly turned against Jews to the point where these people were compared to rats. Anti-semitism, as he points out, was active in Germany before the war which is something that the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels grabbed hold of. Instead of trying to change people’s minds, he reinforced their beliefs, accentuating it and enhancing it. 

There are a few myths I’d like to dispel about Joseph Mengele. First off, he was one of many physicians who worked at Auschwitz, but he was one out of thirty that seemed to genuinely enjoy his work there while others were appalled at what was going on, although not all. Secondly, he was not even in charge of the physicians there. The man who was in charge was Dr. Eduard Wirths. Wirths was tasked with trying to stem the tide of a typhus epidemic which was affecting many SS officers serving in the camp.

To understand more about Joseph Mengele, I’d like to read two paragraphs from the US Holocaust Museum website.

“Approximately 30 physicians served at Auschwitz while Mengele was assigned to the camp. As a required part feature of their “rounds,” medical staff performed “selections” of prisoners on the ramp. These selections determined who from among the mass of humanity arriving at Auschwitz would be retained for work and who would perish immediately in the gas chambers. 

Mengele is known as the “Angel of Death,” or sometimes as the “White Angel,” for his coldly cruel demeanor on the ramp. He is associated more closely with this “selection duty” than any other medical officer at Auschwitz, although by most accounts he performed this task no more often than any of his colleagues. The association is partially explained by his postwar notoriety. The pervasive image of Mengele at the ramp in so many survivors’ accounts also has to do with the fact that Mengele often appeared “off-duty” in the selection area whenever trainloads of new prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, searching for twins.”

The following is much more chilling as it comes from the Auschwitz website.

“The memory of this slightly built man, scarcely a hair out of place, his dark green tunic neatly pressed, his face well-scrubbed, his Death’s Head SS cap tilted rakishly to one side, remains vivid for those who survived his scrutiny when they arrived at the Auschwitz railhead. Polished boots slightly apart, his thumb resting on his pistol belt, he surveyed his prey with those dead gimlet eyes. Death to the left, life to the right. Four hundred thousand souls – babies, small children, young girls, mothers, fathers, and grandparents – are said to have been casually waved to the left-hand side with a flick of the cane clasped in a gloved hand.

In another case in which a mother did not want to be separated from her thirteen-year-old daughter, and bit and scratched the face of the SS man who tried to force her to her assigned line, Mengele drew his gun and shot both the woman and the child. As a blanket punishment, he then sent to the gas all people from that transport who had previously been selected for work, with the comment: “Away with this shit!” (Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors.) 

There were moments when his death mask gave way to a more animated expression when Mengele came alive. There was excitement in his eyes, a tender touch in his hands. This was the moment when Josef Mengele, the geneticist, found a pair of twins. 

Mengele was almost fanatical about drawing blood from twins, mostly identical twins. He is reported to have bled some to death this way.

Once Mengele’s assistant rounded up 14 pairs of Gypsy twins during the night. Mengele placed them on his polished marble dissection table and put them to sleep. He then proceeded to inject chloroform into their hearts, killing them instantaneously. Mengele then began dissecting and meticulously noting each and every piece of the twins’ bodies.”

It is hard to continue to speak of the horrors this hideous beast committed on men women and children, but the following quote from the same website is where I will end my discussion of him.

“At Auschwitz Mengele did a number of twin studies, and these twins were usually murdered after the experiment was over and their bodies dissected. He supervised an operation by which two Gypsy children were sewn together to create Siamese twins; the hands of the children became badly infected where the veins had been resected.

Mengele injected chemicals into the eyes of children in an attempt to change their eye color. Unfortunately, a strict veil of secrecy over the experiments enabled Mengele to do his work more effectively. The full extent of his gruesome work will never be known because the records he sent to Dr. Von Verschuer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute were shipped out in two truckloads and destroyed by the latter.

Twins undergoing his experiments didn’t know what the objectives were. It is understood that he had a special pathology lab where he performed autopsies on twins who had died from experiments. It was located next to the crematorium.

Any remaining notes Mengele carried with him on his escape to South America and those were never found. Some forty years after the war, only a few of these twins could be found, many living in Israel and the United States. Strangely enough, many of them recall Mengele as a gentle, affable man who befriended them as children and gave them chocolates. Since many had immediately been separated from their families upon entering the camp, Mengele became a sort of father figure. Still, a tension existed, that at any time they could be killed if they did not keep a low profile. Older twins recognized his kindness as a deception.”

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point of why Joseph Mengele is in the Villains bracket. As I mentioned earlier, Mengele died in 1979, but many Nazi hunters did not believe the story of his death. He was buried in a grave under the name Wolfgang Gerhard. When his body was exhumed, and DNA tests returned, it was confirmed that is was the body of Mengele. Brazil, where he was buried, refused to send the body back to Germany, instead, ironically, his remains are an education aid for forensic medicine at the University of Sao Paulo.

Rudolph Höss
Rudolph Höss

Next up is the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Höss. He was born in the beautiful city of Baden-Baden on December 11, 1901. His parents were very strict Catholics. Rudolf’s father wanted his son to enter the priesthood, but that was never to be. 

Höss was an early member of the Nazi party having joined in 1922. Twelve years later, he joined the SS. During World War I, when he was a mere boy, he served first in a military hospital and then fought in the Middle East under the Ottoman’s. Injured three times in the fighting, he also contracted malaria. 

It is said that the German’s loss in the war along with the onerous Treaty of Versailles led Rudolf to become a staunch nationalist. His Nazi party member number is 3240 which shows how early on he joined. Compare this with Mengele’s member number of 5,574,974, and you see how early on Höss joined the party.

His ability to murder people was evident in May of 1923 when at the behest of Martin Bormann, who would become Adolph Hitler’s secretary, Höss and a number of fellow Nazi’s murdered Walther Kadow, believing that he had ratted on a German saboteur who was executed by French occupiers of the Ruhr. Rudolf was arrested and convicted of the murder with the judge handing down a sentence of 10 years in prison. He served only four years.

Let’s move on to April 30, 1940, the day that SS Hauptsturmfuhrer, aka Captain Rudolf Höss, became the commandant of one of the earliest concentration camps in what was known as the new territories. The camp was a shabby, broken down old Polish Army barrack. Höss was to take this run down dump and turn it into a place that in five years would kill approximately 1.1 million people. 

I’d like to read a quote about Rudolf Höss from the Lawrence Rees book about Auschwitz. “To look at, there was little exceptional about Rudolf Höss. He was of medium height, with regular features and dark hair. He was neither ugly nor strikingly handsome; he simply resembled – in the words of American lawyer Whitney Harris, who interrogated Höss at Nurmeburg – ‘a normal person, like a grocery clerk.’ Several Polish inmates of Auschwitz confirm the impression, remembering Höss as quiet and controlled, the type of person you walk past every day in the street and fail to notice. Thus, in appearance, Höss was as far away as it is possible to get from the conventional image of the red-faced, saliva-spitting SS monster – which, of course, make him all the more terrifying a figure.”

I’d like to break from Höss and talk a little bit about Auschwitz itself. At its height, there were three central complexes, Auschwitz I, which was the original camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau which would become the main execution/concentration camp, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz which was the labor camp. This third camp supplied workers for an IG Farben factory.

From 1940 to 1945, 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz with 1.1 million dying there. There were approximately 7,000 SS officers who staffed the facility with 12% convicted of war crimes, or about 840. Rudolf Höss claimed that around 3 million people died there, 2.5 million who were murdered. 

In his testimony about the atrocities he committed he stated the following. “I commanded Auschwitz until 1 December 1943 and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total of about 3,000,000 dead. This figure represents about 70% or 80% of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries. Included among the executed and burnt were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of Prisoner of War cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens (mostly Jewish) from The Netherlands, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.” 

When you read this, you feel the coldness of his heart, the matter-of-factness of his statement. Psychologist Gustave Gilbert wrote this about Höss, “In all of the discussions, Höss is quite matter-of-fact and apathetic, shows some belated interest in the enormity of his crime, but gives the impression that it never would have occurred to him if somebody hadn’t asked him. There is too much apathy to leave any suggestion of remorse, and even the prospect of hanging does not unduly stress him. One gets the general impression of a man who is intellectually normal, but with the schizoid apathy, insensitivity and lack of empathy that could hardly be more extreme in a frank psychotic.”

To understand Hoss’s cold-hearted murderous mind, I want to share this quote from his own hand. Let me warn you beforehand, it is graphic and disconcerting. “The gassing was carried out in the detention cells of Block 11. Protected by a gas mask, I watched the killing myself. In the crowded cells, death came instantaneously the moment the Zyklon B was thrown in. A short, almost smothered cry, and it was all over… I must even admit that this gassing set my mind at rest, for the mass extermination of the Jews was to start soon, and at that time neither Eichmann nor I was certain as to how these mass killings were to be carried out. It would be by gas, but we did not know which gas and how it was to be used. Now we had the gas, and we had established a procedure.”

Rudolf Höss was so good at what he did that he was appointed to be an inspector of other concentration camps to improve their killing efficiency. Höss was able to do this without blinking an eye. He commented once to the camp commander of Treblinka that using carbon monoxide gas was a poor choice and that he should step up to a more efficient gas like Zyklon B. 

Here is one last quote from the confession of Rudolf Höss, which was given to the prosecutors at his trial in 1947, “The camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one-half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So, when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening. It took from 3-15 minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. We usually waited about one-half hour before we opened the doors and removed the bodies. After the bodies were removed, our special Kommandos took off the rings and extracted the gold from the teeth of the corpses.”

Before we move on to the scoring of these two despicable human beings, I’d like to take a moment to catch my breath. The research into the atrocities that Mengele and Höss perpetrated on the poor souls at Auschwitz was tough. I can’t imagine what they went through. I hope that my sharing this story, we can prevent another holocaust in the future.

To that end, I’d like to read a passage from the foreword to the book entitled Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklo Nyiszli. Written by Bruno Bettelheim, it has become a classic.

“The history of mankind, as of the Western world, abounds in persecutions for religious or political reasons. Large numbers of men were exterminated in other centuries too. Germany itself was depopulated by the Thirty Years’ War, during which millions of civilians died. And if two atomic bombs had not sufficed, maybe as many millions in Japan would have been exterminated as in the German extermination camps. War is horrible, and man’s inhumanity to man even more so. Yet the importance of accounts on the extermination caps lies not in their all too familiar story but in something far more unusual and horrifying. It lies in a new dimension of man, an aspect we all wish to forget about, but forget only at our own risk. Strange as it may sound, the unique features of the extermination camps is not that the Germans exterminated millions of people – that this is possible has been accepted in our picture of man, though not for centuries has it happened on that scale, and perhaps never with such callousness. What was new, unique, terrifying, was that millions, like lemmings, marched themselves to their own death. This is what is incredible; this we must come to understand.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

Regarding the 15 points for how long each man was evil, Rudolf Höss takes the full score as his evil behavior began with the murder of Walther Kadow in 1923, ending in 1945. As for Mengele, he started his murderous behavior in 1943, finishing in 1945 as well which gives him 2 points. 

Next up is the 20 points based on how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This is a tough one, but I will have to go with Höss again as his control of Auschwitz and his consulting for other camps led to the murder of over a million people. Höss 20, Mengele 15. 

The next category is their lasting effect on world history. Joseph Mengele, because of his eluding capture, was the focus of a manhunt and was in the papers of the day describing his misdeeds. Höss, for his part, was forgotten by many people with his execution in 1947. For these reasons, Mengele gets 25 points and Höss 15.

The last score is the 40 points for how bad or evil they were to their country and this one is hands-down in favor of Rudolf Höss. He is directly responsible for the murder of 1.1. Million people while Mengele, while a sadist, came nowhere near which is why he gets 35.

The final total is Rudolf Höss with 90 and Joseph Mengele with 77. Höss moves on to the second round to face off against either Maximilien Robespierre or Mao Tse Tung.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.

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