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Posner, Mengele, book cover

"Justification for Murder:
The Story of Dr. Josef Mengele"

Book Essay on:
Gerald L. Posner. Mengele: The Complete Story
(New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1986),
325 pages. UCSB: DD247. M46 P67 1986

by Tiffany Polfer
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$13 with preview
at amazon

About Tiffany Polfer

I am a senior history major. My background is split between two completely different time periods. I have taken a lot of classes that focus on the late antiquity period. However, I have also completed coursework regarding the World War II period in Europe. The Holocaust has always been an interest in me since high school, and the question of how people could justify such a massive slaughter was never answered for me. It was with this question in mind that I chose to write about Dr. Mengele, the man who was supposed to help humanity but instead ended up being one of the greatest perpetrators of the crimes against the Jewish community.

Abstract (back to top)Mengele from 2007 DVD

Mengele: The Complete Story is a biography of Dr. Josef Mengele, beginning with his days in Günzburg and ending with his eventual death and discovery in Brazil in 1985. Mengele grew up in a family that was driven by respect and prestige. Though Mengele was considered the cruelest man at Auschwitz, he believed that he helped the Jews through the selection, and that his beloved twins owed their lives to him. This was how Mengele was able to convince himself that he was actually helping humanity, that he saved all he could. This was not an uncommon belief, and it is one of the main reasons that Mengele was able to escape through the help of Nazi friends in South America. Through the story, Gerald Posner shows how Mengele justified his career at Auschwitz and how Mengele escaped detection for the rest of his life. This was done by drawing on interviews with Josef’s son Rolf, interviews with several colleagues and friends, and the several indictments that were drawn up during the pursuit of Dr. Mengele, to complete the picture of the man some consider to be the most wanted from Auschwitz.

Essay (back to top)
Josef Mengele

During the Holocaust, there was one man who was the face of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz. That man was Dr. Josef Mengele, the man who earned the nickname “Angel of Death”, due to his experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. Mengele was also the main physician who was in charge of the selections at the train yards, determining who would be granted a quick death at the gas chambers and who would be sentenced to hard labor until death. In Gerald L. Posner’s book, Mengele: The Complete Story, Posner claims that Mengele was able to justify his actions through a conviction that he was helping the people he experimented on. Mengele believed that he did not have any blame and that he was not responsible for Auschwitz or the Holocaust. Posner also showed how Mengele was able to evade capture through the help of a number of Nazi sympathizers in Germany and South America. Mengele evaded capture, sentencing, and the punishment of his crimes against humanity during Auschwitz because of this reliance on the vast networks of people willing to help him.

In Posner’s book, Posner draws on a wide variety of sources to create an in-depth look at Mengele. By using the West German indictment on Mengele for his crimes at Auschwitz, Posner produced the legal terms of what Mengele actually did during his stay. Another source that Posner frequently utilized were victims’ testimonials, or various inmate doctors that were forced to work with Mengele in his experiments. These sources allowed Posner to add to the legal terms with personal accounts, and human reactions to what Mengele did. One thing that was surprising was that a number of women who eventually became experiments frequently commented on how attractive Mengele was, despite his reputation. This came to light because Posner used these personal and individual narratives. Finally, Posner used sources that were close to Mengele himself, such as an interview with his son Rolf, interviews with close friends that would help Mengele escape Germany and capture, and various diaries and letters from Mengele himself. By utilizing these sources, Posner was able to gain a glimpse into the mental condition and the intimate thoughts of the doctor himself. Through Mengele’s letters and diaries, Posner tracked the change in Josef’s mental character as Mengele had the increasing pressure of capture in South America, as well as the justifications that Mengele gave himself and Rolf for his actions in Auschwitz.

Like a biography, Posner begins his book with the background information for Mengele. From the beginning of his life, Mengele was driven to achieve respect and recognition, particularly from his family. Because his father had achieved success in farm machinery production, there was a high level of achievement demanded from his progeny. In Mengele’s house, “Josef was especially anxious to do better than his two brothers… ‘Respect rather than affection seems to have ruled the house’” (Posner 5). One way that Mengele attempted to set himself apart was to excel in his studies, particularly anthropology. He became obsessed with unlocking the genetic secrets of each race, which would later become one of the diving forces behind his experiments at Auschwitz. Through his studies, Mengele wanted to break the standards set by his father and his brothers. “Josef pursued his desire for recognition in the encyclopedias of the world, ‘My family will be very impressed when I become the first Mengele scientist’” (Posner 7). This desire for recognition did not stay limited to the laboratory; it expanded into every action of Mengele’s life. The day Josef was awarded his Iron Cross for his actions in battle was the proudest moments of his life. In fact, through various witnesses at the camps, Mengele never failed to wear his medals at the selections in Auschwitz (Posner 24), the place where Mengele would win his notoriety.

At Auschwitz there were plenty of subjects for his experiments, all designed to unlock the secrets to a pure Aryan race, fulfilling the main Nazi goal of a pure Germany. This was mainly done through experiments on twins. Mengele loved twins because he would always have a genetic control case for his experiments, a gruesome ode to his scientific background. As Posner stated,

Within [the twins] lay the secret that Mengele has determined Auschwitz would unlock… the features that were identical he assumed were inherited; the rest developed… Thus, he reasoned, could Europe’s population be controlled and genetically engineered to perfection. Aryan perfection (Posner 3).

Posner goes on to describe Mengele’s quickness to send anyone who impeded the efficiency of the camp to the gas chambers. This was demonstrated through accounts of how Mengele sent to the chambers the gypsies in the typhoid epidemic or the 40,000 women in Camp C in Birkenau who couldn’t be fed (Posner 26). Mengele’s calm attitude at the selections was one of the most damning pieces of evidence in the testimonies against Mengele. The way Mengele justified his selections and beliefs towards the Jews was based on his ideas of who was superior. Mengele believed that both the Jews and the Germans had the potential to be superior. Dr. Lingens, one of the inmate doctors who worked with Mengele in Auschwitz, related, “He once told me there are only two gifted people in the world, Germans and Jews, and it’s a question of who will be superior… So he decided that they had to be destroyed” (Posner 27). It was also at Auschwitz that Mengele’s perverse attitudes towards life and death came to the surface, for example using doctors to pick out lists from their own patients to be sent to the gas chambers. Mengele also displayed a slight bi-polar attitude, for example, Mengele could be whistling and smiling at the selections, but the instant someone deviated from where Mengele pointed them, he would become very furious and kill them instantly. Another instance of doubling lay in Mengele’s treatment of his twins. Mengele would feed, clothe, and house his twins before he would send them to the operating room for the most painful and ghastly procedures, where the survival rate was very low.

Through all of these procedures, Mengele was obsessed with finding the key to unlock the perfect Aryan race. As the West German indictment states, he was obsessed to the point of sacrificing his subjects. “He fully intended the victim to die according to the manner of the experiment and valued their lives very cheaply. They often died merely to further his medical knowledge and academic education” (Posner 33). With this drive for acknowledgement, Posner set out to find how Mengele was able to justify what he had done to his fellow human beings. One method Mengele used was to shift the blame, claiming that he had done all he could to help the inmates. In the interview with Mengele’s son, Rolf, Rolf stated that his father’s defense was that “he [Mengele] was not personally responsible for the incidents there. Auschwitz already existed. He wanted to help but that was very limited. He couldn’t help everyone” (Posner 30). When Mengele became angry while insisting his innocence when Rolf confronted him about his actions, Rolf concluded that “he just did not want to see the basis and rules for the simplest humanity in Auschwitz. He didn’t understand that his presence alone had made him an accessory within the deepest meaning of inhumanity” (Posner 279). After WWII ended, Mengele convinced himself that what he had done actually helped humanity. It was through this conviction that Mengele justified what he did during the Holocaust.

After Auschwitz was evacuated because of the incoming Allied forces, Mengele had to go on the run. During this flight, Mengele found the first of many allies that would be willing to help, regardless of his status as the “Angel of Death.” Fritz Ulman, a man he met at a prisoner compound of the Americans, helped him by securing Mengele release papers from the compound in Ulmann’s names. This identification as Ulmann allowed Mengele to travel through Germany and the surrounding countries. However, as the trials of Nazi war criminals increased in the years following WWII, Mengele had to flee Germany and Europe to Argentina, a place that was considered a sanctuary to Nazi criminals, due to the large pro-Nazi community that existed there from before the war, a community that included Argentina’s president (Posner 99). While the flight to Argentina delayed capture, it also signified the fact that Dr. Mengele was no longer in a position of authority.

When Dr. Mengele was in Nazi Germany, he was a man who struck fear in almost all who dealt with. Even in the years following WWII, Mengele still had the support system of his family back in G ünzburg. In Argentina, Mengele was alone and isolated, “he plumbed new depths, alone, with a shared pensione room for a home, shuffling around the city in search of a menial job” (Posner 95). Gone were the days when Mengele could show off his coveted medals and authority. However, this isolation did not last long because Mengele was able to find the vast network of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers to establish himself in Argentina.

It was this vast network that allowed Mengele to elude capture all the way till his death of natural events in 1979. Mengele was able to find many people who helped him to take refuge in countries that were sympathetic to the Nazi cause and party. From his time directly after the war ended, Mengele was able to find allies and people who were still sympathetic to him everywhere. This did not end when Mengele got to South America. Because there were plenty of people who were willing to overlook Mengele’s Nazi past, or helped him because of this connection, and overlooked the fact that Mengele was considered to be one of the most wanted men out of the Holocaust, Mengele escaped to live his life. These collaborators did not even believe the charges that were surfacing of Mengele’s cruelty in Auschwitz; they just felt that they were all fabrications or exaggerations.

While Mengele was in Argentina, enough time had passed that Mengele allowed himself to relax his caution. This relaxed attitude even allowed him to apply for citizenship under his real name of Josef Mengele, instead of one of the many pseudonyms he was using up to that point. However, this relaxation did not last long because the search for him was increasing in intensity. The American and British governments began to increase their efforts to find Mengele based on the dossier that Hermann Langbein began to accumulate. Through Langbein’s efforts, these pursuers pinned down Mengele’s location to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Because his secret location was no longer secret, Mengele fled to another safe haven in Paraguay, a place that was a better hiding place for wanted criminals because of its isolation and vast corruption. The search for Mengele increased after this close call after West Germany drew up an arrest warrant for Mengele in 1959, drawing Nazi Hunters like Simon Wiesenthal and countries like Israel into the hunt.

It would be the Israelis who would come closest to finding Mengele, forcing him back on the run, this time to São Paolo, Brazil. After the Israeli organization of the Mossad kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in 1960, “the former Iron Cross hero was stricken with panic as his worst fear was confirmed… A few days later Mengele wrote that the ‘situation [had] become unmanageable’” (Posner 148). This fear would drive Mengele to entertain thoughts of suicide, as was seen in his diary entries and his letters to his son Rolf. However, Mengele was able to meet one more ally who would set him on his final stage of his flight. Wolfgang Gerhard, a fanatical Nazi, helped Mengele settle in Brazil with a family, the Stammers, who would house Mengele until he wore out his welcome with his domineering ways.

Mengele’s growing paranoia enabled him to escape detection and arrest for a long time. The fact that he was able to elude authorities allowed Mengele to gain a legend-like status. As Posner writes, “The myth of the ‘bionic’ Mengele was growing. The mere mention of Mengele’s name seemed to provoke a sense of awe and fear, as if anyone who followed his trail was sure to die” (Posner 214). After Israel dropped out of the search because of internal governmental problems, the search for Mengele began to fall apart. The search’s falling apart was another reason why Mengele dodged the bullet in many places. Because no real institutions were backing the search, the Nazi hunters were misled and focused on the wrong country to look for Mengele. As Posner writes, “The tragedy was that… their judgment became clouded by their need for publicity. By working to sustain the interest in their search, they inadvertently kept the spotlight on the wrong country – Paraguay” (Posner 205).

While the question of how Mengele justified his actions was answered by his son, Rolf, and the question of how he eluded capture was answered by his partners, one question remained unanswered, the question of accountability. Did Mengele ever pay for his crimes against humanity? Legally, Mengele was never tried in a formal court because he died before capture. However, it was his fall from glory that could have been the greatest punishment Mengele endured. From an early age, he pursued glory and recognition. However, he would be driven to paranoia, dying alone and buried in a small, unmarked hillside grave. He would only gain recognition because of his crimes against humanity, not his contributions. Mengele was never able to gain the respect that he desired.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/21/08)

Book Reviews

  • Thornton, Larry. "Mengele: The Complete Story." The Historian 64.3-4 (Spring-Summer 2002): 852(2). Expanded Academic ASAP. (limited access)
    In addition to a summary of Posner’s book, Larry Thornton also declares that Posner and Ware’s book is one of the most complete look at Josef Mengele’s life. Thornton believes that Posner spent the perfect amount of time on Mengele’s action in Auschwitz to cover all the atrocities that occurred there. In fact, it was the detail put into Mengele’s actions in South America that made Thornton so pleased with the book.
  • "Books: Evil of the mediocre; Review of 'Mengele - The Complete Story' by Gerald L Posner and John Ware." Sunday Times (London) (August 31, 1986): NA. Expanded Academic ASAP. (limited access)
    In this review, Norman Stone mainly summarizes the book, not to submit an opinion on Posner’s work. However, Stone does touch on the fact that he believes that Posner should have spent more time on Mengele’s stay at Auschwitz.

Web Sites

  • Douglas B. Lynott. “Dr Josef Mengele, ruthless Nazi concentration camp doctor” (August 29, 2007) http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killer/history/mengele/index_1.html
    This is the crime library website, and in it is a compilation of all the most notorious criminals and murders. Under the Mengele section, the website begins with Mengele’s presence at the selections at the train yards of Auschwitz. After the selections, the author looks into Mengele’s past and his behavior to understand how Mengele could act in such a paradoxical way, such as caring for women he was sending to the gas chambers.
  • Lenin Imports. "Dr. Josef Mengele biography (1911-1979?): Angel of Death" (July 1, 2007)
    This website is one of the most informative websites I found. It offers a timeline of Mengele’s life and career, listing all the awards and education that Mengele attained before his time in Auschwitz. While the actual section of his life at Auschwitz is very cursory, the author does a great job detailing how Mengele went on the run to South America.
  • Holocaust History webpage. “Who was Josef Mengele?” (August 6, 2007)
    This is one of the most informative and complete biographies of Mengele. This is a short essay on the life and times of Josef Mengele. The essay goes into great detail about Mengele’s life. This is basically a shortened web version of Posner’s book, but it does not attempt to answer any questions such as how Mengele justified his times at Auschwitz.
  • Various Authors and Contributors. “Dr. Josef Mengele – Nazi Doctor & Experiments” (August 10, 2007) http://hitlernews.cloudworth.com/mengele.php
    This website is a list of links to various interviews and news articles regarding Josef Mengele. Through these interviews or articles, you can piece together a full picture of Josef Mengele, better than reading any biography already written. In addition to including information by Mengele’s coworkers or victims, the website also includes diary entries from Josef himself.
  • Wikipedia. “Josef Mengele” (June 29, 2007) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Mengele
    In addition to the biographical information, this website includes the most informative and complete sections on how Mengele survived after WWII ended. By detailing Mengele’s escape from Europe to South America and the various people who helped Mengele, the author shows how the most wanted man escaped detection for the rest of his life.

Other Books

  • Astor, Gerald. The Last Nazi: The Life and Times of Dr. Josef Mengele (New York: D.I. Fine, 1985). 305 pages. UCSB: D804.64 A75
    The Last Nazi: the Life and Times of Dr. Joseph Mengele is a biography of Joseph Mengele. However, Astor does not simply focus on Mengele, he also covers the events that went into the concentration camp organization, the selections, the gas chambers, and other background information. However, the focus of the book is Dr. Mengele. In order to form a complete view of Mengele and his motivations, Astor separates his life into different sections, including his childhood in Günzburg and his development into a Nazi party member, his different behaviors in Auschwitz (that of a healer and a scientist), his flight from Germany, and ending with the discovery of his body in Brazil. Astor draws on a variety of different sources such as newspaper articles, books about the Holocaust, personal stories and victims’ testimonials to create a complete and personal view of the man that would become known as the “Angel of Death”. It is through this personal look that Astor attempts to answer the pivotal question of how Mengele went from a doctor to the twisted personality in Auschwitz, and how Mengele himself justified his actions.
  • Lagnado, Lucette Matalon. Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz (New York: Penguin Books, 1992) 320 pages. Amazon.com
    In Lucette Matalon Lagnado’s book Children of Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz, Lagnado issues a biography of Dr. Josef Mengele alongside the young twins who were victims of Mengele and their stories. By presenting Mengele’s biography alongside the victims’ testimonials, Lagnado shows the contradiction in Mengele’s behavior ad life. For example, by placing his childhood sandwiched by a description of how Mengele beat a young boy’s father for asking for water and the life of a young Jewish girl in the ghetto. Lagnado was able to show the inconsistency of Mengele, and the change from carefree child to the sadistic doctor at Auschwitz. Like the other books, Children of Flames is a biography of Mengele, but the main focus in his crimes against twins in Auschwitz. Mengele loved twins, as Posner said; he felt that twins held the secret to a pure race. It was also twins that would receive the most inhumane treatments from Mengele. By using victims’ accounts next to Mengele’s biography, Lagnado achieves her goal of never allowing the reader to forget that the man they are reading about committed some of the most atrocious crimes against humanity.

(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/20/08; last updated:
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