Josef Mengele: The Nature And Nurture Befind The Angel Of Death

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Yin and Yang, a popular Chinese philosophy stating that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites. Meaning that the two opposites, such as good and evil, complement each other and have to learn to achieve harmony in order to live in peace. Each of the opposites contain a small amount of each other, for example you can not have good without evil nor evil with no good. Humans have to learn to live in harmony with their inner “evil”, so that it does not overthrow their morality. This does not come as easy for some as it does for others, these are the people that we read about or see on the news doing inhuman things. It leads us to wonder what causes these individuals to become so gruesome, are they born evil or did a certain life experience set them off? Josef Mengele, a scientist who performed experiments on Jews and Gypsies, is a great example of both nature and nurture. His suppressed mental illness and his World War Ⅱ experiences, made the perfect equation for Mengele to become the stone cold killer known as “The Angel of Death.”

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Josef Mengele was born March 16, 1911 in Gunzburg, Germany. He was the oldest of three boys, and helped his father in their family owned factory. While it seemed he had a pretty ordinary life, his mother, Walburga Mengele, was not winning any mother of the year awards any time soon. It was said that she had a terrible temper and was feared by many at their factory. She is known to have forced her workers to be a “devout Catholic” and is described, by Mengele, as “not capable of loving.

As an adolescent, he stood out in his small town and was remembered as a relatively good child. He exceeded expectations scholastically, and was known as “classically handsome” with his polished appearance. After graduating high school, Mengele went to study philosophy at the University of Munich. He later transferred to Frankfurt to start his journey in medical school where he earned his PhD in physical anthropology. Before being sent off to battle, he was perceived to be a normal and likeable guy, by many of his colleagues and people in his town, and had not killed anyone prior to being transferred to Auschwitz. But after being wounded in the war, he returned to Auschwitz where “survivors repeatedly commented on his confusing duality of affection and violence.”

With his gruesome ways of torture and a victim count of over 400,000 people, Josef Mengele is commonly known as the “Angel of Death.” At his time in Auschwitz, Mengele met Dr Otmar von Verschuer, who later became his mentor and helped Mengele conduct his research on twins. When people were dropped off at the camp, Mengele would appear “off-duty” in search for twins. While he was usually cruel to children who first arrived at camp, he was somewhat welcoming to twins. He made sure they were properly taken care of and well fed, in some instances they got to keep their clothes and were not forced to shave their heads or leave their mothers. He gained their trust by making sure they were comfortable around him, he would bring them treats and tell them stories. Once they trusted him, he would load them up and “go on a little joy ride” to the science lab to begin his experiments. He removed limbs and organs from twins and sewed the twins together to see how they would heal. He did all of this without anesthetic, and if one of the twins died he would murder the other “so that they could die together.” Once they were dead he would dissect them and cut them into pieces “in furnish of research material”.

Not only was he interested in twins, he also engaged in research “aimed to illustrate the lack of resistance among Jews to various diseases.” He became a sadist and tortured innocent men, women, and children by experiments such as: sex change, blood transfusions, pressure chambers, and castrations. He became obsessed with changing one’s eye color, and would inject chemicals into their eyes in order to achieve his wanted results. After his experiments he would take the eyes of his victims for “research”, but these were later found by one of his colleagues pinned to the wall in his office. He would also often forc the medical staff in training, to perform his experiments for him so that he could watch.

Former colleagues of Mengele started describing him as taking on a new personality, saying that he “took pleasure in causing pain” to feed his egoism. But with his “affection towards children” it was apparent that he still contained some of his “prior self”, and was showing signs of duality. Mengele was experiencing, what is believed to be, a case of “pre-existing schizoid or sociopathic tendencies.” His ability to manipulate people and lack of sympathy when trying to make a medical discovery, as he would lash out in fits of rage when he came across any form of resistance, only helped prove his mental instability. His peak of interest in human genetics and how traits were passed down is what later led to his brutal and inhumane experiments. At Auschwitz he was able to perform his experiments on the Jews and Gypsies, especially children, which usually killed them. He believed that everything he was doing was only to benefit science, and was ultimately questioning what causes humans to become who they are, nature or nurture?

Nature versus nurture is a debate that comes up in philosophical research constantly. Some scientist, such as David Lykken, try to argue that personalities are based solely on genetics, also known as a “pre-wiring” or an inner “biological clock.” But Behavioral Theorist at Liverpool, believe that people become who they are by how they are raised and are the “product of exposure”, this is known as tabula rasa, meaning that an infant’s mind starts off “as a blank slate.” The answer is not as simple as one or the other, scientists are trying to emphasize “nature x nurture” instead of “nature vs nurture” to show how the two work together and are ultimately inseparable. A study conducted at the University of Liverpool, recently discovered that while family history of mental health issues was the second strongest reason of mental illness, the strongest was the life events and experiences one faces, such as trauma.

Because it is proven that Josef Mengele did have some sort of mental illness before going to the war, you could argue that he was born a killer. Just like Dick, from In Cold Blood, Mengele was perceived by many as “charming” and “normal”, but both could turn right around and commit vicious crimes with no feeling of remorse. We see Dick throughout the novel, preying on young woman and continuously hurting his family, even when he was a teen. He continues to be a pathological liar, he even states on multiple occasions that he “wants to be normal” but he can not seem to stop. These are signs that point to him having a mental illness, much like Josef Mengele. By looking at both of their “perfect” childhoods, them both being handsome and loved by many, it is not apparent to what led them to be the way they were. Because of this, you have to consider their mental illnesses that they were born with as a leading factor in causing them to become murderers.

Unlike Dick, Mengele was able to hold back his urges for most of his life. He was able to achieve this until he came back from WWⅡ, this experience was branded into his brain and led to the downfall of his mental health, causing him to be able to murder all those people. Much like Perry, from In Cold Blood, Mengele had a life altering experience. Perry had a rough childhood, with divorced parents, having an alcholic mother that neglected her children, and being “severely beaten by the cottage mistress” in the orphanage. This clearly damaged Perry psychologically as a child, and his inability to cope with his traumatizing experiences are what eventually led to him murdering the Clutter family. Although Mengele’s experience was not during his childhood, it still had the same effects on him. When Mengele was sent off to the war, he experienced some very graphic and brutal things and came back a completely different person, much like soldiers do when they return from war with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). This experience took a major toll on Mengele mentally, and was a main cause to him becoming the brutal “Angel of Death.”

The answer to the haunting question “Why?” is not as simple as nature or nurture, but more of nature and nurture. In Josef Mengele’s case, his pre-existing schizoid tendencies would likely not have been life altering if he would not have gone to the war. Much like when Dick and Perry crossed paths they ended up murdering a family of four, Mengele’s mixture of his mental illnesses and his experiences from war are what led him to become the serial killer he is infamously known as today. With the cost of the lives of a family of four and hundreds of thousands of Jews and Gypsies, Dick and Perry and Mengele could not find their perfect balance with their inner evil. 

16 December 2021

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