Josef Mengele was born into a prosperous German family. His father's company manufactured farm machinery and supported Hitler because Hitler promised to improve the farmer's lot. Josef Mengele, an introverted child, had no interest in farming or in politics and wanted to be a doctor. He received his degree from Munich University.
He studied anthropology too, but a curious kind of anthropology that wasn't so unusual in the 20s and 30s. Charles Darwin's ideas of natural selection had been extended to "races" and to cultures. The fittest survived. And in Nazi Germany, Hitler had decreed that the Aryan race was superior to all others, and that Slavs and Jews were genetically inferior. Similar, less extreme movements could be found elsewhere. Herbert Spencer in England was a social Darwinist. But in Nazi Germany, genetics ("race") and learned behavior ("culture") became all mixed up. Jews, of course, were Jews by virtue of their religion, which is learned, not through inheritance.
Mengele was ambitious and the easiest path to the top lay in joining the SS, which he did. The practice of medicine was swept up in racist ideology. The oath to Hippocrates was superseded by the oath to the Führer. It began with minor procedures like abortion and sterilization, then quickly slid down the slippery slope. Propaganda films were shown, portraying the mentally disabled as "poor wretches" who are hopeless and should be relieved of their misery. I've seen one of these films, from 1939, and it's effective. At the time, Hitler had never heard of Mengele.
With the coming of war, the program was expanded. How long could people live in ice water? How long could they survive an extremely low air pressure? Human guinea pigs were chosen from among the Untermenschen. But he also collected hundreds of sets of twins and kept them separate for more detailed studies. Presumably the Soviet Union got the data, which was too bad because twin studies today are a flourishing business in the attempt to separate genetics from learning.
Mengele took care of "his twins," as he called them, when he wasn't killing them, but of his 3,000, only two hundred or so survived. As the end of the war approached he had them herded into the extermination rooms. They survived because Aschwitz had run out of Zyklon B.
At the end of the war, Mengele escaped punishment by disguising himself as an ordinary soldier in the Wehrmacht. After several years serving as a farmhand he made his way across the border into Italy, where he was given a new identity as a refugee, thence to Argentina. After twelve years working at a pharmaceutical firm he grew tired of the masquerade and assumed his real name, applying for a German passport, which was granted.
The hunt for Mengele, "The Doctor of Death", was unrelenting. He moved from country to country, acquire a twenty-five year old lover, suffered a stroke while swimming at the beach and died. One can only imagine the chagrin among his pursuers, who at first denied the report as fake but reluctantly accepted the evidence.
The film uses old newsreel footage, still photos, a few reenactments, and interviews with survivors and other witnesses. He was kind and gentle, his friends say. No doubt, but still an atrocious human being.
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