The Hunt for Rudolf Hoess

In a recently published book Thomas Harding describes the parallel lives of Rudolf Hoess, the camp commander of Auschwitz and Hanns Alexander the man who captured him. The book is interesting to read and shows how the lives of two young men were dramatically influenced by the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and how they ended up on two opposing sides: one as a victim and the other as a perpetrator. Their paths literally cross when Hanns Alexander as a member of the war crimes unit arrests Rudolf Hoess in order for him to be tried and sentenced for his crimes.

Rudolf Hoess was commander of Auschwitz from 1940-1943 and as such was responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews. The book does not reveal a lot of new information on Hoess himself. After his arrest and during the one year he spent in prison before being executed Hoess started to write down some autobiographic notes which were published as a book entitled: Komandant in Auschwitz in 1958. This book which has been translated in many languages is without doubt one of the most compelling books on the topic and provides a clarifying insight in the mind of a perpetrator and mass murderer. One of the most gripping passages is how Hoess describes how he had to watch how Russian prisoners of war were gassed. He felt horrible but nevertheless felt obliged to keep watching as he knew everyone closely looked at his reaction. He felt that he was the commander of the camp and had to set the example. This passage clearly shows how this man – like so many others – unquestioningly obeyed orders and only felt responsible towards his task and his superiors rather than feeling any moral responsibility for the fate of his victims. He was given the task to exterminate an entire race so that is what he did. He never questioned the order and sincerely believed that he was doing the right thing.

Interesting are the interviews the author conducted with the family members of Hoess amongst whom the now 80-year old daughter of Hoess. She describes her father as the nicest man on earth and their lives in the house just next to the concentration camp as paradise. These are painful remarks and even an insult to the victims and yet it bluntly shows how the children of Hoess experienced their world. It also shows how much Auschwitz was a world apart and how Hoess as the head of a family had managed to create a peaceful home to his children on the very premises of Auschwitz.

The book also openly and frankly describes how the family and especially the 16 year-old son of Rudolf Hoess was pressured and forced to reveal the whereabouts of his father after the war when Hoess went into hiding. It also describes how Hoess himself was severely beaten up after he was arrested and later in prison. The use of threat and force towards both Hoess himself and his family were caused by strong and understandable emotions – yet his son could not be held responsible for his father’s crimes and after his arrest Hoess too was an unarmed man who couldn’t defend himself and who no longer posed a threat. Despite all the crimes he had committed he too should have been entitled to a human and fair treatment but he was denied these rights. Unlike many of his victims Hoess survived the beatings. He was put on trial and sentenced to death by a Polish court on April 2, 1947. On April 16, 1947 Hoess was hanged in Auschwitz. By that time his capturer was back in the UK and rarely spoke about this phase in his life. This book reveals his story and brings back to life the story of Hoess, one of the biggest mass murderers in history.

Blog originally posted: Februari 2014

Literature references:

  • Auschwitz in den Augen der SS – Rudolf Hoess, Pery Broad, Johann Paul Kremer, Auschwitz-Birkenau: Staatliches Museum 1998.
  • Harding, T. (2013). Hanns and Rudolf – The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, London: William Heineman.
  • Hoess, R. (2000). Commandant of Auschwitz. The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess. Phoenix Press: London