Today In History: Dr. Mengele Finally Dies

February 7, 1979

Dr. Josef Mengele, one of history’s most terrifying figures, died today in 1979 of a stroke while on a swim in Brazil. Mengele was a medical doctor who conducted a series of bizarre and cruel experiments upon prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

He was born in 1911, to a farm machinery manufacturing family. Mengele developed an interest in philosophy that he pursued in school. He became fascinated with Alfred Rosenberg, a theorist whose ideas would heavily influence the Nazis. Rosenberg portrayed Aryans as the categorical superiors of all the other, inferior races.

Mengele diverged from philosophy to get a medical degree from the University of Frankfurt am Main. He was, by this point, a confirmed Nazi and later joined the SA, the armed wing of the Nazi Party. He also joined the Nazi Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene and, later, the SS.

Heinrich Himmler named Mengele the chief doctor at Auschwitz in 1943. There, he screened new prisoners as they came off the trains, deciding in an instant whether they would be sentenced to hard labor or murdered.

Mengele was both cruel and ambitious. He fancied himself a legitimate doctor, and dreamed of producing “groundbreaking” work through his experiments at Auschwitz. His experiments on live subjects were beyond grotesque, beyond sadistic. If you wish to learn about them in detail, here are some descriptions.

After the Axis defeat, Mengele fled first to Bavaria and then, like many Nazis, to South America. Mengele settled first in Paraguay, and then Brazil, where he fraternized with Wolfgang Gerhard, another prominent Nazi.

In 1985, forensic investigators discovered that Gerhard had died while swimming six years prior. However, the real Gerhard had died well before, and Mengele had assumed his identity.

Mengele, nicknamed the “Angel of Death,” remained unrepentant about his crimes until the time of his death.

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