Josef Mengele was the oldest of three sons born to Karl and Walburga Mengele in the 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. A big woman with a terrible temper, she was often known to walk the floor of her husband’s factory and publicly tell off employees for being lazy and poor workmanship. Warnings were hurriedly passed down the production line whenever Walburga was seen walking towards the factory, and workers purposely avoided her to get away from her wicked temper. Walburga ruled her home with an equal amount of firmness, demanding respect and obedience from her three sons, Josef, Alois, and Karl, Jr. A devoted Catholic, Walburga saw to it that her boys practiced the faith of the Church. She acted the same way in her relationship with her husband, Karl. One afternoon, Karl arrived home in a new automobile he had purchased in order to celebrate the success of his factory. However, instead of a good job from his wife, Karl was greeted with anger for wasting money on something as silly as a car without first talking with her. This was a moment in Josef’s childhood that made him realize how his mother wanted total control over the family. Josef’s memory of the relationship of his parents left an impression on his life. He describes in his memoirs that his father is a cold man who is distant and preoccupied with his work at the factory. Walburga is described as someone not capable of loving. She did though raise up Josef as a disciplined, respectful son but her cold-hearted methods may have added to her son’s ability 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 both greeted him as “Beppo,” a kind nickname for the young boy. Josef was never at the top of his class but still was seen as a bright student. He was well behaved, punctual, and often received praise from teachers for his actions. As Beppo got older he still worked on his social skills and was considered a handsome young man. Mengele is remembered as someone who had self-confidence, charming, and a good speaker he caught the eye of the village’s young women. Mengele at this age liked dressing nice in hand-tailored clothes and where he came up with his trademark, white cotton dress gloves, gloves that Auschwitz survivors used to distinguish him from other SS doctors.
During this time Josef’s dreams came into conflict with his father, Karl wanted his oldest son to work at the factory with him he wanted Josef to become an accountant. However, young Josef dreamt of a career beyond the business world and beyond his home. Josef wanted to leave Gunzburg and pursue a career in science and anthropology. He show his ambitions Josef would talk to friends and say that his name would one day be in the encyclopedia. In 1930 Josef graduated from the Gunzburg gymnasium, or high school, and passed his Abitur, a college entry exam. His score was the greatest but it was still good enough for him to be accepted to the University of Munich. At the time Munich was the start of the growing National Socialist movement, and led by a man named Adolf Hitler.
Josef Mengele left Gunzburg for Munich in October of 1930 to begin at Munich University. He enrolled as a student of Philosophy and Medicine, degrees that would lead his career to a path of darkness, Auschwitz. At the same time that young Mengele was beginning his studies, the city of Munich was undergoing a revolution. In 1930 the Nazis were the second-largest party in the German parliament. Adolf Hitler used Munich as the first stage to achieve domination over all of the German society. Mengele had remained non-political up until this point in his life he was happy in his search of all the good things in life. His goal to success was in his studies of anthropology and the academic world. However, he easily fell into the Nazi hysteria that took up so many of his friends.
In his memoirs he wrote: My political leanings were, I think for reasons of family tradition, national conservative. I had not joined any political organization. But in the long run it was impossible to stand aside in these politically stirring times, should our Fatherland not succumb to the Marxist-Bolshevik attack. This simple political concept finally became the decisive factor in my life. This “political concept” that Mengele talked about became his ride where he would look for a way to advance his career, his fame as a researcher and scientist. Wasting no time he joined a organization called the Stalhelm, or the Steel Helmets, in 1931. The Stalhelm wore decorative German uniforms and marched to nationalist music during public events. At this time they weren’t connected to the Nazi party, they still shared the same beliefs as the Nazis.
Politically he began to grow but Mengele still continued his studies, concentrating on anthropology, paleontology, and medicine. Medicine was only a secondary interest of Mengele’s; his growing obsession was for eugenics, the study of genetics and how to reveal the sources of human deformities and imperfections. Mengele became interested in this field when he heard a lecture given by a number of famous German academic and medical professionals were promoting the theory of “unworthy life,” a theory which explained that some lives were not worthy of living. It was this point in his life that Mengele began to try and make a name for himself, his goals were to become famous as a scientific researcher and to advance the perfection of the German race. He was very ambitious but this passion did not reveal anything of the murderous man that would soon come. One of his university colleagues, Professor Hans Grebe, stated that “There was nothing in his personality to suggest that he would do what he did.”
If Mengele became a cold-blooded monster at the top of his Nazi career, he definitely was influenced by some of Germany’s most diabolical minds. As a student Mengele went to the lectures of Dr. Ernst Rudin, who explained that there were some lives not worth living and more importantly that doctors had the responsibility to destroy these lives so you can remove them from the general population. Rudin’s well-known views gained the attention of Hitler himself, and he was drafted to help in making the Law for the Protection of Heredity Health, which passed in 1933, the same year that the Nazis took complete control of the German government. Rudin contributed to the Nazi law that called for the sterilization of the people with the following flaws, for fear that they may reproduce and continue to ruin the German gene pool: feeblemindedness; schizophrenia; manic depression; epilepsy; hereditary blindness; deafness; physical deformities; Huntington’s disease; and alcoholism. In 1934 Hitler ordered the SA to combine with the Stalhelm organization which would make Mengele a member. However, he had a kidney problem that put him in a weakened condition which forced him to resign from the organization. He was now free to use all of his time to with his studies. Five years after entering the University, Mengele was awarded a Ph.D. for his thesis entitled “Racial Morphological Research on the Lower Jaw Section of Four Racial Groups.” Mengele suggested that it was possible to identify different racial groups by studying the jaw. In 1936 Mengele passed his state medical examination and began working in Leipzig at the university medical clinic.
The next year, 1937, proved to be a turning point for both Mengele’s career and the history of the Holocaust itself. He received a position as a research assistant with the Third Reich Institute for Hereditary, Biology and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfort. He was assigned to work for Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, one of the brightest minds in the field of genetics. Mengele quickly tried acquiring for von Verschuer’s praise and approval, which he quickly obtained. von Verschuer gave Mengele the parental figure that he never had before and Mengele in return would do anything to please his mentor von Verschuer. Mengele’s dreams have almost come true he was becoming a renowned scientist and had found unity within the Nazi movement. He became an official Party member in 1937.
In May of 1938 he applied for membership and was accepted into the SS Hilter’s elite force. By the age of 28, Mengele moved up as a nazi and acquired great power and influence. This same year, Frankfort University awarded Mengele his medical degree. It was also in 1938 that he received his first experience in military training, spending three months training for combat with the German Army. For the rest of 1938 until 1940 Mengele remained with the Institute, assisting von Verschuer and reviewing the work of other researchers. In 1939 war broke out, and Mengele was excited to fight for Father Germany. He was not disappointed; although he had to wait until June of 1940 due to his kidney problem, he was accepted to the Waffen SS, elite soldiers within the SS itself. Mengele continued to make a name for himself, this time as a soldier. As a lieutenant, he was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class in June of 1941 on the Ukrainian Front. In January of 1942, while serving with the SS Viking Division deep behind Soviet lines, he pulled two German soldiers from a burning tank, and was awarded the Iron Cross First Class, as well as the Black Badge for the Wounded and the Medal for the Care of the German People. Mengele during this second campaign received some wounds that prevented his return to combat. Instead, he was assigned to the Race and Resettlement Office in Berlin, where he was promoted to captain. His mentor, Professor von Verschuer since he was a prominent scientist knew first-hand about the Final Solution policy and the building of enormous concentration camps across Europe. He also knew that these camps would be great opportunities for living genetic research on human subjects. Within a year after being posted to Berlin, Dr. Josef Mengele received a new assignment. In May of 1943, Dr. Josef Mengele received a new assignment and departed from Berlin to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland.