When Thomas Harding set out to chronicle the arrest of Auschwitz Kommandant Rudolf Höss, he was expecting to discover a monster. By the end of Hanns and Rudolf, he’d discovered a man.
Until your great-uncle Hanns Alexander’s funeral in 2006, you and most of your family had no idea that he was a Nazi-hunter for the British Army in the years after World War II, tracking down and sending to their deaths some of the worst criminals of the war. What did you feel when you first learned this?
I was surprised, shocked and intrigued. To think that someone in my own family had been a Nazi-hunter was incredible. That it was my great-uncle, a man who organized pranks, told stories, and at family events toasted the queen, was hard to believe. My interest was piqued and I was determined to find out the truth. As I researched the story I discovered that not only was my great-uncle indeed the man who tracked down and arrested the Kommandant of Auschwitz, but the story of how he managed this was itself extraordinary.
Why do you think Hanns never spoke of any of this with his family?
I can only guess at this as he never answered this question directly. As children we were told not to ask about the war and what took place when he was in Germany. It may have been that he just didn’t want to think about all those terrible things that he had witnessed in Belsen or the awful reports that he heard from the Auschwitz prison guards. It may have been that he wanted to protect the next generation from the burden of such truths. Or it may have been that he felt conflicted about what he himself had done. Perhaps it was a combination of all of these.
Hanns tracked down Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz, who admitted to overseeing the murder of more than 1,000,000 men, women, and children. How is it this story has never been told before?
That is a very interesting question. I think it is partly that he was a modest man, someone who did not crave attention. It was also a generational thing: many people who fought in the war did not want to talk about their experiences. It may also be that when he did talk about his war-time experiences, he spoke in anecdotes, and so nobody was able to place his stories in context. The arrest of the Kommandant has been told before, specifically by the Kommandant in his memoirs, but his story is both incomplete and one-sided.
You say in an introductory note that you call Höss by his first name throughout because he was a human being, and you apologize for doing so to anyone who might be offended. We really have only his own ramblings to decipher what humanity was in him—his professed love for his family, his insistence that orders must be followed. Do you believe any of it?
At first when I started writing this book I saw Hanns and Rudolf as cardboard cut-out figures, the attractive hero and the monstrous villain. As such, I referred to my great-uncle as “Hanns” and the Kommandant as “Höss”. After about three years I began to realize that to tell this story I had to treat them both as human beings. This lead me to redouble my efforts to collect information about these two men’s inner worlds: Who were they? What were they like? Why did they make the decisions that they made? By the end I had many sources for both men. For Rudolf Höss I had the memoirs that he wrote in prison before his trial in Poland, his letters to his wife and children, the interrogations carried out by the British, American and Polish officials, the testimony of those who knew him (including the prosecutor in Nuremberg, his barber in Auschwitz, his daughter). It is self-evident that he is a human being. It is also clear that some of what Rudolf Höss writes is self-serving, such as when he says that his wife did not know about what took place in the camp even though we know that she did. However, most scholars agree that the vast majority of what Höss wrote is both consistent and credible, and as such, has become a core piece of evidence of the Holocaust.
As you detail, in the months preceding his trial Rudolf was evaluated by several mental-health professionals who all labeled him “psychotic” and “sociopathic.” What do you think of Höss’s mind, having studied him so extensively?
First, I must state that I am not a mental-health professional. But I can speak as a journalist who has studied this subject for over six years. I was extremely lucky to have the reports from the psychologist and psychiatrist who examined Rudolf Höss while he waited to appear as a witness during the Nuremberg trials. One said that he showed signs of “apathy,” another said he was a “frank psychopath.” Yet both granted he was above normal intelligence. I also spoke to the American prosecutor who took Höss’ testimony in Nuremberg, Whitney Harris, who said Höss appeared ordinary to him, like a “grocer’s assistant,” someone whom you might walk past in the street and not pay any attention to. My great-uncle said something similar, describing the Kommandant as “normal.” When I interviewed Höss’ daughter, she went further, describing him as the “nicest father in the world,” that he was “kind” to them, that he appeared “sad” after he came home at night. In addition, having studied Höss’ letters and memoirs, it seems to me (again as a journalist, not as a clinician) that the Kommandant was able to express complex emotions such as empathy, and that he was capable of determining right and wrong. These descriptions appear to contradict the doctor’s descriptions in 1946. Perhaps it is the case that Rudolf Höss was not mentally ill, but instead he made a series of terrible decisions with atrocious consequences. To me this conclusion is more terrifying than seeing Höss as a psychopath or monster, because if he was an ordinary human being who committed appalling acts, then such atrocities could happen again, and we must be vigilant to ensure that they do not.
We won’t always have books with eye-witness accounts from the WWII generation. How do we ensure that it doesn’t go forgotten?
As I worked on this book, I realized that the waters are closing over the last witnesses who remember the Second World War. This added urgency to my research, and I worked hard to collect as many first-hand accounts as I could find. I also discovered that some extraordinary efforts have been made to capture the memories of these witnesses. The Shoah Foundation, for instance, has recorded the testimony of hundreds of people, including those who experienced Auschwitz and had specific encounters with Rudolf Höss. These videos are available via research centers in the USA and around the world.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.