How Josef Mengele Exploited a Culture of Apathy to Carry out Unpunished Cruelty

German Physician, Josef Mengele, joined the Nazi party in 1937. The following year, he received his medical degree and joined the Schutzstaffel (SS). He was later drafted into the army and was assigned to the Auschwitz II concentration camp as Chief Camp Physician in 1943.

During his infamous tenure at the concentration camp, he conducted various inhumane experimental treatments and killed many Jewish prisoners. Medical staff performed “selections” of prisoners, determining from among the mass of humanity arriving at Auschwitz who would be retained for work and who would perish immediately in the gas chambers. He has been called the “Angel of Death” or sometimes “White Angel” for his coldly cruel demeanor.

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During Nazi rule, parents were told that their handicapped children would be taken to homes for special treatments. Instead, they were murdered with a gradual overdose of Luminal. Since Luminal is a sedative that was often administered by people like Mengele in small doses to unruly children at the time — there was no other way to treat epilepsy, for instance — nurses often had no way of knowing who was administering the fatal dose. Nor could they tell whether a child was sleeping or entering into a comatose state. The more people there were involved in the killing, the less culpability any one individual felt.

At the conclusion of World War II, Mengele was held in U.S. custody. Officials quickly released him, unaware his name existed on a list of wanted war criminals. His prosperous family aided his emigration to Argentina, but after hearing a fellow Nazi was captured nearby, he fled to Brazil. In 1979, he died of a stroke while swimming in Bertioga, Brazil.

An order of Luminal from the Mercury One historical collection. Photo courtesy of Mercury One.

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