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moreorless : heroes & killers of the 20th century
- JOSEF MENGELE
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AKA 'Angel of Death'.
Kill tally: Directly responsible for the deaths of thousands at Auschwitz concentration camp.
Background: 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 (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, Germany. His upper middle-class family are the proprietors of machine tools business. He is the eldest of three sons.
1930 - After finishing his schooling he studies philosophy at the University Munich, obtaining his degree in 1935, before going on to study medicine at the University of Frankfurt am Main, where he concentrates on physical anthropology and genetics. In 1931 he 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 to pass the Enabling Law, allowing him to govern independently of the parliament 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; and the country 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 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.
1936 - He passes his state medical examination and begins working in Leipzig at the university medical clinic.
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. Support for Hitler is further buoyed by his 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.
1940 - Beginning from 10 July, the 'Battle of Britain' rages in the skies as the British Royal Air Force (RAF) desperately combats wave after wave of aerial attacks and bombing raids by the Luftwaffe while launching counteroffensive bombing missions into Germany.
Though outnumbered by four to one the RAF is able to inflict enough damage to the German forces to cause Hitler to suspend 'Operation Sealion', the proposed invasion of Britain by sea. By the end of September, the 'Battle of Britain' is effectively over. Germany has suffered its first major defeat of the war.
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.
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 selects incoming Jews for labour or extermination in the gas chambers and conducts pseudoscientific medical experiments on inmates, principally infants, young twins, dwarfs and those with genetic abnormalities. He is given his own laboratory block, independent financing and a medical staff.
He is also supported by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics at Dahlem in Berlin and 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 Soviets win victory at Stalingrad. 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.
In the skies over Germany the Allied air forces intensify their bombing raids. The strategy of indiscriminate area bombing will kill an estimated 600,000 civilians, including about 75,000 children.
1945 - Auschwitz is evacuated on 18 January and liberated by the Soviet Army on the 27 January. Of the 3,000 children involved in his 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. 1.1 million of them died here. "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, and one million Jews, at least 200,000 of them children."
The majority of those killed died in gas chambers.
Following the evacuation of Auschwitz, Mengele is transferred to Gross Rosen concentration camp in Silesia, Poland, to the 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."
Few are spared. As the Soviets move through Germany they rape at least two million German women in an undisciplined advance that is now acknowledged as the largest case of mass rape in history.
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 will avoid 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.
1965 - The West German Government extends its extradition request from Argentina to Brazil. Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, 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.
2005 - On 10 May a national memorial to the Holocaust is opened in Berlin. The 'Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe' is located near the Brandenburg Gate in the centre of the city. It includes a museum with exhibits on the Nazi's campaign to wipe out European Jews.
Comment: 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.
Links are to external sites.
Germany - A Country Study (Library of Congress Country Studies Series)
How Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele cheated justice for 34 years (Chicago Tribune Magazine, May 18, 1986)
Holocaust Educational Resource (The Nizkor Project)
Page created on 30 April 2001. Reviewed June 2002. Updated 15 February 2006.
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