Episodlet 4 – The Early Life of Joseph Mengele

Baer, Mengele and Höss
Baer, Mengele and Höss

Today’s episodlet is a tie in to episode 36 when we pit Joseph Mengele against his boss, Rudolf Höss. The reason for this episode is in large part due to my Facebook fans of Battle Ground History. Listeners Ricky G and Brian M both thought that my omission of the early days of the life of Mengele would have been interesting in understanding how a person could actually develop into the evil man he became. I listened so here we go.

Joseph was born into a pretty well to do family in Gunzburg, Bavaria, Germany on March 16, 1911. His parents Karl and Walburga had three children with Joseph being the oldest of three brothers, Karl Jr. and Alois. The Karl Mengele & Sons farm-machinery company of Gunzburg was a major employer of the town and well respected as were the members of the Mengele family. In an article published by the New York Times in 1996, they write how the name Mengele has caused problems for the town. The company still exists and employs around 10% of the working people in Gunzburg.

Interviews with citizens of the town, some who knew Joseph, were perplexed as to how he became the monster he was to become. As a Protestant minister said, “The Mengele’s have always been a good Christian family. The company was a good reputation. He must have forgotten where he came from.” A statement from the town at the 50th anniversary of Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in 1983 said, “As long as he lived in Gunzburg, nothing negative was known about him. On the contrary.”

Others have tried to rationalize his behavior, some even praising him like a former schoolteacher of Mengele’s, Josef Baumeister. He wrote a poem to his former student entitled, “To Joseph Mengele” where he says, “Your homeland will not throw stones at you.” In a different tact, an employee of the Mengele company was quoted as saying “Why pick on Gunzburg? He could have been born in Italy, in America or in Hamburg.”

I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the inhabitants of the city to come to grips with the heinous crimes committed by someone from their town who showed no signs of sociopathic behavior. After the finding of his bones in Brazil in 1985 another article from the New York Times was published entitled What Made This Man? Mengele, by author Robert Jay Lifton. In it, he questions how someone with such a non-descript background could do what he did.

Here is a paragraph describing him at Auschwitz. “Prisoners were struck by the stark contrast between his calm, playful manner and the horror of what he was doing. Occasionally, though, his detachment could give way to outbreaks of rage and violence, especially when he encountered resistance to his sense of ”the rules.” In one instance, a mother refused to be separated from her teenage daughter and scratched the face of the SS trooper who tried to enforce Mengele’s decision. Mengele drew his gun and shot both the woman and her child. Still raging, he ordered that all the people from that transport whom he had previously selected as workers be sent to the gas chamber.”

Compare this to the comment that there were “no apparent signs of aberrant behavior prior to the Nazis and Auschwitz.” But there may be a clue in this insight from the article, “According to an Auschwitz friend and fellow-SS physician, Mengele espoused the visionary SS ideology that the Nordic race was the only truly creative race, that it had been weakened by Christian morality of Jewish origin, and that Germany needed to revert to ancient German myths in creating an SS ”order” to purify the Nordic race. According to his friend, Mengele was an extreme anti-Semite, ‘’fully convinced that the annihilation of the Jews is a provision for the recovery of the world and Germany.’’ And Mengele considered these views to be scientifically derived.”

The last sentence, where he considered the views he had as scientific may explain the person he became. Racial purity and racial superiority were a popular theory back in the time of the Holocaust. While it gained significant support in Germany, let us not forget that other countries had a scientist who believed in the concept like the United States of America and their beliefs that whites were superior genetically to blacks. There are those today, like the famed discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, James Watson who, in 2007 said that he believed that African’s do not have the same intelligence as whites.

The use of scientific justification for an abnormal belief is not uncommon. Its application to kill people is. And that is what Joseph Mengele did. His use of his mentor, Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Vershuer’s work on genetics and in particular twins, was part of his reasoning. Back to Robert Jay Lifton’s article, “Mengele recognized that Auschwitz would permit him to pursue his mentor’s dream. From the hundreds of thousands of prisoners, he could collect twins in quantities never before available to a scientist. What is more, he could exercise total control over them.”

Lifton goes on further to state, “In Auschwitz, Mengele saw an opportunity to deepen and extend the Nazi racial vision by means of systematic research ‘’evidence.'” Mengele was a devout believer in the Nazi mind think of the time. His joining radical paramilitary groups like the Stahlhelm in 1934 and the SS in 1938 are examples of this fanaticism. Still, his early life gives us little information to understand what happened to make him the sadist that he was to become.

Lifton then shares what someone who worked with  Mengele said, “One inmate doctor, in his own excruciating struggles to come to terms with Mengele, thought of him as ”the double man” who had ”all the human feelings, pity and so on,” but also had in his psyche an ”impenetrable, indestructible cell, which is obedience to the received order.”

Others who were close to the doctor described him as a narcissist and a schizophrenic with “dead eyes” and no emotion. Other people like that walk among us who were not beaten as children, lived normal lives yet turned out to be evil people. How this happens, is a great mystery to science. How Joseph Mengele went from a bright, successful and normal person into the man who decided whether someone would live or die, we may never know.

Lastly, I’m returning yet again to Lifton and his summation about Mengele, “Yet, as far as we know, he had neither killed nor maimed before Auschwitz, and had, in fact, functioned in a more or less integrated way.

The perfect match between Mengele and Auschwitz changed all that. Through doubling, he could call forth his evil potential. That evil, generally speaking, is neither inherent in any self nor foreign to it. Under certain kinds of psychological and moral conditions, it can emerge. Crucial to that emergence is an ideology or world view, a theory or vision that justifies or demands evil actions.

Viewed in this light, Josef Mengele emerges as he really was: a visionary ideologue, an efficiently murderous functionary, a diligent careerist – and disturbingly human.”

Disturbingly human, something that defines many of the people in the Villains bracket.

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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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