Monday, November 18, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“HANNS AND RUDOLF – The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz” by Thomas Harding (Random House – William Heinemann, $NZ37: 99)
Hanns was Hanns Alexander, German-born Jew, refugee from Hitler, officer in the British Army. Rudolf was Rudolf Hoss, Kommandant of Auschwitz, the man most directly responsible for the murder of about one-and-a-half million human beings. After the British liberated Belsen, they set about bringing to book those important Nazi war criminals whom they could find in that northern part of Germany that they were occupying. Hanns was assigned to the unit hunting the biggest offenders. He had to give up on tracking down one, as the leads went cold. He was determined not to give up on his second case. Diligently following every clue, he managed to locate the isolated barn where Hoss had hidden since the war’s end. With a hand-picked unit, he took the man in.
Hoss was tried three times – first by the British at Belsen. Then by the international war crimes court led by the Americans in Nuremburg. Finally by the Poles in Warsaw. The Poles hanged him in 1947.
To the prosecution, the value of Hoss was that he was willing to confess all his crimes matter-of-factly. This was at a time when other leading Nazi criminals were still claiming not to have known about the attempted genocide. After Hoss wrote, in prison, his “autobiography”, parts of which were read aloud by the prosecution in court, some of the other defendants changed their stories and admitted that they did know what the death camps were about. They now tried to plead that either they were “only obeying orders”, or that their superiors were really responsible for what was happening.
The author of Hanns and Rudolf, Thomas Harding, is Hanns Alexander’s great-nephew (his grandmother was Hanns’ sister) and he is proud of his great-uncle. He writes his story as a double biography of the war criminal and the man who captured him. Inevitably, though, it is Hoss who dominates the story
What strikes you most about Hoss is his dogged unimaginativeness – his complete inability to see anything more important than currying favour with his boss Heinrich Himmler or with other powerful Nazi officials.
From the earliest age, he dived into extreme nationalism, readily abandoning the Catholicism in which he had been raised to serve the Reich. He was officially too young to serve in the First World War, but he lied about his age and served anyway with reasonable distinction. Because he was part of the German forces that were trying to prop up the Turkish Empire, he was in the Middle East when the war ended in 1918 – but typically he was one of the soldiers who avoided surrender by making their way in haste back to Germany. The Reich came first.
In the turmoil that following the collapse of the German Empire, he joined other extreme nationalists in the Freikorps, fighting the Poles in East Prussia and harassing Social Democrats in Germany. And when the Weimar Republic seemed to stabilise and extreme nationalists lost favour, he retreated into the Blut-und-Boden back-to-the-land Artamanen League, labouring as a farmer, marrying, raising a family. Like his comrade Martin Bormann, he had already joined the Nazi Party when it was just a small bunch of Bavarian cranks. Therefore, when Hitler came to power – and in spite of his lack of real achievement – Hoss was in a position to be regarded as an “Old Fighter” and to gain favour.
So to his career as a concentration camp commandant, first learning his trade at Dachau under the likes of Theodore Eicke, then moving on to greater responsibilities at Sachsenhausen, until Himmler put him in charge of a small camp in an obscure village in occupied Poland called Oswiecim – Auschwitz in German. Punctiliously, at Himmler’s request, Hoss expanded Auschwitz into a massive multi-site facility.
How messy mass-killings were by machine-gun or exhaust fumes! Hoss came up with the ingenious solution of gassing prisoners with canisters of granulated Zyklon B. He was also ingenious in arranging Lagerorchester – orchestras made up of prisoners whose soothing music would prevent people from getting too fearful or upset as they were marched to “showers”. (It had been so annoying when, on one occasion, a group of prisoners panicked and started fighting back.) And once the practicalities of mass-murder were worked out, and once Hoss had received a pat on the head from Himmler and other Nazi bigwigs, he had no further qualms about what he was doing. His only worry was that Himmler might change his mind and think he wasn’t doing his job efficiently enough.
Thomas Harding is fully aware that his chief source for Hoss’s feelings and reactions is the “autobiography” Hoss wrote when he was finally under arrest. Harding therefore knows that there could be streams of self-deception and self-justification in Hoss’s account of himself. Even so, his account rings true. Early in the Nazi regime, when he was working at Dachau, Hoss was genuinely upset by the cruelty and crass violence of the Nazi guards in their treatment of prisoners. What he wanted was a smooth, orderly, efficient means of murdering thousands of people, without the upsetting screams and blood. This was what he created at Auschwitz. It was so smooth and orderly that Hoss’s family, living in the villa attached to the death camp, could blithely ignore what was going on over their back garden wall. His children grew up remembering Auschwitz as a place of back-garden picnics, games and canoeing on the nearby river, only occasionally marred by an unpleasant smell.
Harding’s particular skill is his totally dispassionate style. He does not dwell on the methods of murder, the scale of the operation, the suffering, accounts of survivors or accounts of individuals who perished. He knows that readers will already be aware of these things. Instead, he focuses on this unimaginative, morally-dead technocrat and lets us judge how monstrous his actions were. It is more shocking to read of the quiet, fond papa routinely going off to this work each day than it would be if he were depicted as an eager sadist.
Of course I am tempted to use Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about the “banality of evil” – or I would be if I had not heard [via Youtube] Dr Yaacov Lozowick, former director of Yad Vashem, object to the term and point out, correctly, that those who ran death camps were not mere order-signing bureaucrats, but were fully aware of what they were doing. Yet there still seems something to Hannah Arendt’s phrase. This man Hoss was totally undistinguished in appearance and bearing. There was nothing perversely glamorous about him. He was a human zero who murdered masses of people.
It occurs to me that in this notice, I have neglected to say much about the book’s “hero”. Hanns Alexander and his twin bother Paul appear to have been a pair of cheerful rascals, often pulling practical jokes, sometimes telling smutty stories and very positive in temperament. Thomas Harding does not make them out to be saints. Hanns and Rudolf gives a full account of Hanns’ life as the son of a prosperous Berlin Jewish family, escape to Britain, eagerness both to fight and to gain British citizenship, and post D-Day military career. At first Hanns was assigned to the pioneer corps (clearing roads, building bridges etc. for the advancing British army). As a detective hunting down Rudolf Hoss, Hanns was strictly an amateur, as he had no police training. But he was extraordinarily clever and dogged at following clues.
There is one moment in the book where you find yourself totally on his side, even when he was doing something slightly dodgy. When Hanns set out to arrest Hoss, he took a group which contained some British soldiers who were, like him, Jews. They already knew what Auschwitz was and who Hoss was. Hanns knew that he had to get Hoss back to prison alive, so that he could testify in court. But at the point of arrest he told his men “In ten minutes I want Hoss in my car – undamaged”. Then he turned his back and walked away. Of course the men beat the crap out of Hoss, as Hanns knew they would
In the circumstances, it is hard to see how they would have wanted to do anything else.