Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Josef Mengele, the 'Angel of Death'

At Harmony with Evil

In the words of several Auschwitz eyewitnesses and survivors, and of historians and psychologists, Dr. Josef Mengele was not merely of Auschwitz. Dr. Josef Mengele was Auschwitz. Through his actions and demeanor, Mengele was able to embody the unearthly contradictions of a death camp where arriving prisoners were serenaded with waltz music played by a prisoner orchestra, while a few yards away hundreds of people were reduced to ash in the crematoria; a camp where affection and comfort were lavished upon the children living in the Zoo, only so as to keep them healthy enough for twisted and pointless experimentation; a camp where Mengele himself escorted his beloved "children" to the gas chambers, referring to their walks as a game he called "on the way to the chimney."

The Buildings of Auschwitz
The Buildings of Auschwitz

It is never an easy task to imagine that any human being is capable of committing acts of such wanton brutality and base cruelty, acts that bespeak not merely the individual's disregard for the value of human life, but his endless desire to degrade and destroy it. The Holocaust has presented history with an enigma, with events and personalities that perhaps defy explanation and meaning. Yet it is in our efforts to prevent such future tragedies from occurring that we strive to understand what it is that motivates such individuals to behave in this way.

Josef Mengele harbored a deep-seated ambition to achieve greatness, and was internally driven from an early age to distinguish himself as an adult. This is evident in the choices he made throughout his career as a Nazi. He did not merely join the army, he joined the SS; and he did not merely join the SS, he joined the Waffen SS; and when posted at Auschwitz he did not perform some selections, he seemed to be present at almost all selections. In every way possible, Mengele sought to advance his own interests by demonstrating that there was no one else in the field who did things quite like he did, that there was no one else with his sense of devotion or zeal.

But does this go far enough towards explaining the leap from ambitious young scientist to murderous barbarian? Does this explain the transformation of an affable young man named Beppo to a cold-blooded, torturous demon? Author and professor Robert Jay Lifton has posited that for one such as Mengele, such a duality was possible because of a phenomena he refers to as "doubling":

The key to understanding how Nazi doctors came to do the work of Auschwitz is the psychological principle I call "doubling": the division of the self into two functioning wholes, so that a part-self acts as an entire self. An Auschwitz doctor could, through doubling, not only kill and contribute to the killing, but also organize silently, on behalf of that evil project, an entire self-structure encompassing virtually all aspects of his behavior. The individual Nazi doctor needed his Auschwitz self to function psychologically in an environment so antithetical to his previous ethical standards. At the same time, he needed his prior self in order to continue to see himself as humane physician, husband, and father. The Auschwitz self had to be both autonomous and connected to the prior self that gave rise to it.

Josef Mengele in 1956
Josef Mengele in
1956

While there is a certain logic to Lifton's argument, that doctors accustomed to adhering to the Hippocratic oath needed an "Auschwitz self" to function in the death camp, he himself points to Mengele's especial affinity for work in this milieu. In other words, it was not a great leap that Mengele was required to make in order for the Auschwitz self to emerge from the prior self:

Mengele's embrace of the Auschwitz self gave the impression of a quick, adaptive affinity...Doubling was indeed required of a man who befriended children and then drove some of them personally to the gas chamber. Whatever his affinity for Auschwitz, a man who could be pictured under ordinary conditions as "a slightly sadistic German professor" had to form a new self to become an energetic killer. The point about Mengele's doubling is that his prior self could be readily absorbed into the Auschwitz self; and his continuing allegiance to the Nazi ideology and project enabled his Auschwitz self, more than in the case of other Nazi doctors, to remain active over the years after the Second World War.

Perhaps that is the greatest mystery, not that the process of doubling occurred within Mengele, but the fact that it occurred without conscious effort on his part, the fact that the Auschwitz self seemed to rise from within, rather than split off from, his prior self. Why did Mengele slip into the role of the Auschwitz self with such ease? What was it about his psychological makeup that allowed him to convey the appearance of his prior self while simultaneously behaving as the Auschwitz self? Because Mengele himself died before he could be captured and interviewed, it is possible that the last word may be that, at least in his case, such behavior was possible because he was simply an embodiment of evil, and there is no psychological way of explaining how he became so.

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