Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Josef Mengele, the 'Angel of Death'

The Mengeles of Gunzburg

Josef Mengele was the eldest of three sons born to Karl and Walburga Mengele in the Bavarian village of Gunzburg. Karl was a local industrialist who owned a plant that manufactured farming equipment. He was known as a stern but fair employer and a hard worker. It was his wife, Walburga, however, whom his employees feared the most. An immense woman with a terrible temper, she was often known to storm onto the floor of her husband's factory and publicly chastise individual employees for laziness and poor workmanship. Warnings were hurriedly passed down the production line whenever Walburga was seen approaching the factory, and workers scrambled to stay clear of her wrath.

Walburga ruled her home with an equal amount of firmness, demanding respect and obedience from her three sons, Josef, Alois, and Karl, Jr. A devout Catholic, Walburga saw to it that her boys strictly practiced the faith of the Church. She was equally as cold and demanding in her relationship with her husband, Karl. One afternoon, Karl arrived home in a new automobile he had purchased in order to celebrate the growing success of his factory. However, instead of thrilling and impressing his wife with this purchase, Karl was greeted with spiteful admonishments for having so foolishly spent money on something as frivolous as a car without first consulting with her. It was a moment that exemplified the extent to which Walburga sought total control over her household and the lives of those who lived in it.

Josef as a young man
Josef as a young
man

It is clear from his memoirs that his mother's behavior and the relationship she shared with Karl left a lasting impression on young Josef. He describes his father as a cold man, distant and preoccupied with his work at the factory. Walburga is described as someone incapable of loving. While she may have indeed been able to mold a disciplined, respectful son in Josef, her cold-hearted methods may well have contributed to her son's capacity for murder and bloodlust as an SS doctor at Auschwitz.

Despite the lack of love and affection in his home, young Josef is remembered as a bright, cheerful boy in Gunzburg. Peers and adults alike greeted him as "Beppo," an affectionate nickname for the handsome, engaging young child. While never the top student in his classes, Josef nevertheless did well, and was recognized as a bright, ambitious student. He was the model of a well-behaved student, earning verbal compliments from his otherwise strict teachers, and high marks for conduct and punctuality.

As Beppo matured into adolescence, he continued to refine his social skills, becoming a strikingly handsome young man. Mengele is remembered as someone who exuded a natural self-confidence, a charming and articulate speaker who was much sought after by the village's young women. His perfectly-styled dark hair, the carefree light in his eyes, and his winsome smile, combined with his extraordinary social graces, imbued Mengele with a Kennedyesque charisma. It was at this early age that Mengele acquired the habit of dressing exclusively in hand-tailored clothing and sporting what would become his trademark, white cotton dress gloves, gloves that have been used by Auschwitz survivors to distinguish him from other SS doctors.

It was during this period that Josef and his ambition came into direct conflict with the wishes of his father, Karl. Josef's father wished for his eldest son to work for the family factory in Gunzburg, perhaps as an accountant. However, young Josef dreamt of a career far beyond the confining realm of business, and far beyond the boundaries of his provincial Bavarian home. Throughout his youth Josef dreamt of leaving Gunzburg and pursuing a career in science and anthropology. Making no secret of the scope of his ambitions, Josef once prophetically boasted to a friend that his name would one day appear in the encyclopedia. In 1930 Josef graduated from the Gunzburg gymnasium, or high school, and passed his Abitur, the preliminary college entry examination. While his score was unremarkable, it was good enough for him to be accepted to the University of Munich. Munich is the Capital of Bavaria, and at the time was the heart of the growing National Socialist movement, and led by a political revolutionary named Adolf Hitler.

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