HANNS AND RUDOLF: Q&A
Q. Why did you write this book?
A. At first I simply wanted to find out if my great-uncle had tracked down and arrested the Kommandant of Auschwitz. This then led to the question, what makes a German Jew return to face his Nazi persecutors? And once he s found him, what did he do? This drove me to want to find out more about the perpetrator. I wanted to find out how does one become the Kommandant of Auschwitz? What are the steps involved? What are the decision-points? To do this I had to find his family members. This was more than enough to start me on the adventure.
Q. What did you feel when you first learned your great-uncle was a Nazi hunter?
A. 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 it was itself extraordinary.
Q. How has the impression of your uncle changed?
A. Before I heard my great-uncle's eulogy my sense of Hanns was of a prankster, a larger-than-life character, someone who told us kids dirty jokes, who stayed late at the synagogue and cleared up the furniture. He was the man who made the toasts at family events, he liked to read the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling at special occasions. Now, having spent seven years on the book and having spent so much time with him as a research subject, I have come to see a more complex character. He was a man filled with great anger and disappointment, he refused to return to Germany and didn't want to talk about his wartime experiences. And yet I am filled with admiration at some of the choices that he made (I won't spoil the ending for those who have not got that far!).
Q. Did your family know that your great-uncle was a Nazi hunter?
A. There were rumours inside the family about my great-uncle's wartime exploits. But those who had heard 'something' did not believe what they heard. For the rest of us, including Hanns' two daughters, we had no idea that he had been a war crimes investigator let alone tracked down and arrested the Kommandant of Auschwitz. As to why he kept this secret, this is one of the questions I would most like to ask him. Perhaps it was because he didn't want to relive those dark days, or perhaps he didn't want to burden us, the next generation. Or maybe he didn't want to stir up the old hatred. Most likely it was a combination of all of these reasons.
Q. Why has this story never been told before?
A. 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.
Q. At what point in researching the book did you come up with the dual biography format?
A. When I started, I was interested only in my great uncle Hanns. I wanted to know if he was a Nazi hunter, did he actually arrest the Kommandant, why he did it, what were the consequences, what were the decisions and son on. Then I became quickly interested in Rudolf Höss himself. How does one become the Kommandant of Auschwitz? I wondered to myself? What were the steps involved? Again, the decisions. And then I realised that they were both Germans, and whilst of different ages (Rudolf Höss of course is about 16 years older than Hanns Alexander), they were subject to many of the same cultural contexts, pressures and situations, their lives then diverged and then came together at the end. This was when I came up with the idea of a double biography. It took me much longer than it should have to get the time line straight. For a while I started with a chapter that described Hanns' father's early life so that I could start both stories around 1901, but then it became clear that this would mislead the reader into thinking the story was going to be about Alfred and would confuse things. Then I had to work out the focus of the story, At first I thought of the story as being about HANNS and HÖSS, my sympathetic uncle, the hero, and the Kommandant, the two-dimensional villain. I now realise that it was easier for me to think of Höss this way, it allowed me to keep my distance, not to get emotionally involved. Eventually, it became clear that I had to tell both stories from the personal perspective, on the human level, this was when it became HANNS and RUDOLF.
Q. How have you been effected by writing Hanns and Rudolf?
A. My perspective has adjusted. I was amazed that a man could be both loved by his family and yet oversee one of the greatest mass murders in history. I was stunned by the arc of my great-uncle's story: from happy-go-lucky kid to cold-blooded Nazi hunter. I was surprised that I knew this story so well and yet didn't know it at all. Most of all, I was overwhelmed by the sense that humans are complex, defying easy explanations, and that Hanns and Rudolf should not be seen as cardboard cut-outs or two-dimensional characters.
Q. If he were still alive, what would you ask your great-uncle?
A. I do wish I had known about my great-uncle's story before he died so that I could ask him some unanswered questions: Why didn't he remain a Nazi hunter after the war? Did he kill the Gauleiter? Why didn't he talk about this story? Most of all I would like to have congratulated him and then tell him how proud I was of his actions.
Q. What insight do you have about why Rudolf acted the way he did?
A. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I have thought about this a great deal. The truth is that Rudolf Höss did not murder over a million people because of a bad childhood. First, his childhood was not that bad. And second, plenty of people had/ have far worst childhoods and did not/ do not turn out to be mass murderers. Instead, and for me this is fascinating, it is possible to trace Rudolf Höss as he made a series off decisions during his life - starting with running away to war at 14 years old, signing on with the Freikorps joining the Nazi party, moving to Dachau, and so on - which led him to becoming the Kommandant of Auschwitz. It is key to realise that he was fully aware of what he was doing along the way. To argue that he was a product of his circumstances let's him off the hook and makes excuses for his atrocities. On the other hand, I would equally argue that he was not a psychopath (though his actions almost by definition make him so). A panel of psychologists evaluated him later in life and found him to be above average intelligence and lacking in empathy. However, he was well-loved by his family and many of those who met him described him as an 'normal' man. Instead, what we have is a relatively intelligent and sane man, unburdened by a pre-determined psychological fate, who chooses to construct and manage the machinery that murders over a million women, men and children. Why does he want this? Some or all of the following is probably the answer: because he believes in the National Socialist ideology, because he wants to please his bosses, because he gains satisfaction from a 'job well done', because he and his family benefits materially from the endeavor, because he enjoys the power over other people, because he regards the subjects of his terror, particularly the Jews, as sub-human. To me this is far more frightening, and reveals something appalling about the human condition: anyone can become a mass murderer, it is a choice. One of the reasons I wrote the book as a dual biography was to allow the reader to compare the decisions and choices made by the two men, throwing into relief the power that each of them, each of us, has over our lives. In this way, Rudolf Höss serves as a warning: that such deeds can happen again, and that we must be vigilant to avoid future tragedies. For more on this subject read an article I wrote for the Daily Beast.
Q. Was Hanns religious?
A. My great-uncle and his family were not observant Jews in Berlin. After the end of the war, and all their experiences before and during, they became much more active in the local Jewish community in London (made up mostly from refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria). I am not sure it was a question of 'faith', but more a question of belonging, tradition and service to those around. Perhaps most all, it was about celebrating the freedom that they now had in England to celebrate their religion and culture. For many years Hanns was the unofficial caretaker of the synagogue, along with his brother Paul, stacking chairs, clearing up after the service, taking care of the Alexander Torah.
Q. Was the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany a surprise to the Alexanders?
A. No and Yes and no. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in Germany, as it was in the UK, France, Poland, USA and Russia. For example, Alfred's wife Henny's family were from Frankfurt. A few decades earlier they had lived on 'Jew Street', along with other wealthy (like the Rothschilds) and not so wealthy Jews. A few decades before that they had been severely restricted in their work, faith and social activities because of their religion. However, Alfred Alexander considered himself German. He fought in WW1 and won a medal. He lived in Berlin, the centre of the world's culture, he was friends with the great and the good, some of them at the top of their professions, worldwide. When they took power, he thought that Hitler and his thugs would fade away after the general population saw sense... until they didn't. This despite having experienced personal anti-Semitism. For example, when he graduated from medical school in Munich he was offered a job (I think it was Frankfurt) on the condition that he convert to Christianity. This was in the first decade of twentieth century.
Q. It is hard to fathom how an entire society buys into something so irrational. Do you have any new insights into how this happened?
A. I am not sure I have any new insight on this subject which has been studied and studied and studied. Here is one thing I can say, Rudolf believed anti-Semitism was quite the opposite of anything 'irrational'. Instead he viewed anti-Semitism as 'scientific', in contract to what he saw as the more populist anti-Semitism of the Jew with the hook nose and the bags of money. But is it really so hard to imagine a large group of people mobilised towards violent hatred when you remember what happened in Rwanda between the Tutsis and the Hutus? They killed perhaps as many as 1 million people in a hundred day period with just machetes. The 'whole society' did not buy into it, however, there were those who left the country, such as half the Jewish population, thousands of communists and other dissidents. In addition, there were a few who remained who helped the victims. However, your general point is correct, this was a society-wide genocide, not restricted to just a few psychopaths who worked for the SS. After all, it took tens of thousands of people to round up the Jews, transport them to the camps, run the camps, manage the machinery of murder. Only a tiny of fraction of these ever faced justice. It took many hundreds of thousands to at the very least turn a blind eye to what was going on, and of course millions voted the Nazis into power and at one point there were over 8 million members of the Nazi party. Some of this was down to ideology, some it was down to propaganda, but a great deal out of it was down to a mixture of hatred, selfishness and a lack of moral fortitude. The last is proven by those sadly few examples of Germans who worked to save the victims, either by hiding them or helping them escape. Some of these have been acknowledged by Yad Vashem as Righteous Amongst Nations. See here for a list.
Q. Can you tell us more about Hanns' siblings: Paul, Bella and Elsie?
A. Paul and Hanns were identical twins, most people could not, in fact still can not, tell them apart. They were very similar in their outlooks, fun-loving, eager to prank, family-centered, willing to do the work others did not wish to do, motivated by a strong sense of right and wrong. But there were differences. Paul was more easy-going, he took like a little less seriously, he was willing to work a little less hard. Hanns was quicker to anger, was more determined, was the more responsible of the pair. He considered himself the elder brother, even though born only 15 minutes earlier. After WWII, Paul bumped along from job to job, married, went to Canada for ten years, helped start a synagogue with other refugees in Toronto, and then returned to England, working as a jobbing carpenter without much direction, and filled with a certain aimlessness. Bella lost her husband, Harold, at the war's end when a plane landed into his car (I am not sure what caused the accident). She remarried quickly and dedicated herself to being a stay-at-home mother, as we would now call it. Elsie remained with her husband Eric, my grandfather, till he died in 1981. She also took care of the kids, before becoming a tour guide in England, ironically driving around elderly Germans and teaching them (often erroneously) about British history. Hanns and Paul would often lunch together. Their greatest joy was to arrange gag send-offs for family weddings: a horse and cart for one, a fire engine for another, an enormous horse for a third (actually it was my father and uncle dressed in a giant horse costume, I walked behind with my cousin clearing up the 'poop'). The four siblings always joined each other, with their children and grand-children, for religious holidays, birthdays and other celebrations. By the turn of the century family gatherings proved to be very busy and large affairs!
Q. How did the rest of his family react to you writing this story?
A. At first my family were reluctant. They were worried about dragging up all the old stories, hanging our dirty washing in public etc. 'What was the point?' they asked. Most of all, they didn't believe the story could be true. But as I progressed, and was able to persuade them that Hanns had indeed arrested the Kommandant of Auschwitz, they lent their support. In fact, I couldn't have completed the book without them. From one cousin I was handed two boxes of letters from Hanns and Paul written in the 1940s. From another, I was given photographs from the 1920s and 1930s. From a third, I received audio recordings with Hanns and his siblings. Now, of course, they are delighted with the book and fully supportive, basking in its success, and persuading all their friends to buy a copy!
Q. Is the building containing the Alexander apartment on Kaiserallee still standing?
A. No. It was torn down at the war's end and replaced with an ugly modern commercial building. However it adjoins a building that is exactly like the building that the Alexander's lived in - massive front door, balconies, high ceilings, wide-carpeted staircase - so it is still possible to visit Berlin and go to Bundesallee (renamed from Kaiserallee) and see what the property looked like.
Q. What can you say about the Kommandant’s character?
A. As I looked into it, and came across Höss' writings, I realised that he was capable of articulating a degree of emotion and empathy. Most surprising, were his letters to his children written in prison shortly before his death. I found them to be disturbingly expressive and moving. Then I heard the testimony of people who had spent time with him - his barber, his interrogator, some of the prisoners - and they recorded that he was like an 'ordinary man' and a 'grocer's assistant'. This too contradicted my image of him as a monster. Finally, I tracked down members of his family, and they told me that he was well-loved. His daughter even told me that he was the 'nicest father in the world'. (for my interview with his daughter in the Washington Post. This interview with Höss' daughter was both shocking and destabilising. How was it possible that this man - who had supervised the construction of Auschwitz, overseeing the murder of over a million men, women and children - could be called the 'nicest father in the world'? However, I would not say that any of this detracts from him being 'cold blooded' - if by that you mean, able to oversee the murder of over 2000 people an hour, rip children from their mother's and send them to the gas chamber, instruct people to inject children with Phenol, and then return to his family, ask his wife about her day, and take his children for a boat ride. Indeed, as one the worst mass-murderers in human history isn't he by definition 'cold blooded'? As to whether he is a 'psychopath' I have tried to answer that in another answer earlier.
Q. At what age did you think that Rudolf's path in life was set, the die cast?
A. I am sorry, but I don't agree with the premise of the question. I do not believe that anything is ever really 'set' or that the 'die is cast'. At any stage, Rudolf could have decided to switch course, end the murder, leave the Nazi Party, flee Germany, choose another direction. One of the arguments put forward by the defence attorneys at Nuremberg and other trials was that the perpetrators had no choice, that if they disobeyed orders, then they or their family would be punished. The judges refused to accept this argument as the defence failed to offer a single instance where they could prove that this was true. Of course, the cultural, political, economic and ideological conditions, circumstances, environment, context, experiences, environs, and milieu that Rudolf Höss inhabited and passed through would have left their mark. But none of this predicated his later choices or behaviors. I simply do not agree with a view of history which reduces a highly complex system, or systems, to a limited number of causes and outcomes. Ultimately, I believe that there are just too many moving parts for a historian to identify a single instance, or even a few internal or external pressures, and then say that these definitively propelled someone to take action. But more than the complexity of the issues, a painting-by-numbers approach to history also ignores a key part of the equation: human agency. This last point explains why two people who experience the same economic and social conditions, are exposed to the same cultural and ideological forces, and who come from the same family background, can lead very different lives... because they made different choices. I would turn the question on its head: if we can agree that Rudolf Höss had the opportunity NOT to become the Kommandant of Auschwitz, and yet still chose to do so, what does this say about human beings and our capacity to commit atrocities?
Q. Are Rudolf’s memoirs self-serving?
A. The overwhelming opinion is that Rudolf Höss prison memoirs are not only reliable and credible but, and this is critical, they serve as a hugely important part of the core evidence of the Holocaust. Yes, some of his writings are factually incorrect, for instance he lied about his wife not knowing about the murders in the camps, and some are inconsistent, such as his changing views on the numbers of those killed, while there are some instances were he is clearly dissembling, such as his avoidance of corruption in the camp. However, these examples are few, and for the most part he demonstrates extraordinary reliability. What cannot be denied, is that he was writing memoirs that he knew would be presented at his own trial. However, to simply state that this must have skewed his memory fails to understand the man's motivations, namely that he was proud of his actions and wanted to set the record straight (in contrast to this colleagues who in Nuremberg denied knowledge of the Final Solution).
Q. We won’t always have books with eye-witness accounts from the WWII generation. How do we ensure that it doesn’t go forgotten?
A. 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.
Q: Were there specific unexpected difficulties you had to face while investigating and writing the book?
A: For this book I had a personal relationship with one of the protagonists and not the other. That presented a different set of different problems. For the character I knew, Hanns Alexander, I had to challenge my superficial knowledge of my great-uncle and I had to deal with family dynamics during my research process. The advantage of course was that I had quick access to historical archives. When it came to Rudolf Höss, it was more difficult to track down the archives that I needed, and even harder to convince his family members to talk with me. In addition, I had to challenge my preconceptions of the war criminal. However, in some ways it was easier to be detached and objective when it came to writing about the Kommandant.
Q: How did you approach and deal with the research and recounting of the atrocities?
A: I found this really hard. The visits to the camps were very difficult for me, in the end I visited Auschwitz three times. First by myself, then with Rainer Höss and his mother, and then with survivors from my synagogue. The testimony from the survivors that have been recorded by the Shoah Foundation (funded by Steven Spielberg) were particularly troubling, the pain and suffering still so proximate. Also disturbing were the interviews I had with Höss' daughter, Brigitte, it made it very real and very human, impossible to objectify and compartmentalize. In terms of writing about the atrocities, almost at the end of the writing process my agent suggested I write more 'horror'. By this he meant be more graphic and detailed about the atrocities. This was when I wrote the scene about the piles of burning bodies and the buckets of oil being scooped and dumped. This was such a totally disgusting image for me, I found it extremely hard to write. It conveyed a part of the true horror and as such had to be in. I felt it vital not to avoid the horror for the sake of an easier read.
Q. What sources did you use for this book?
A. So I had access to various sources for Rudolf's side of the story: Rudolf's memoirs: These were written while he was in Polish prison in 1946/1947, first published in Polish as a memoirs and later published in English and around the world. I had passages from his memoirs translated especially for this book from the original German to English. Most historians consider these documents not only reliable, but a key part of the evidence of the Holocaust, though at times they are clearly self-serving, and there are examples of mistruths and inconsistencies. Rudolf's letters: Rudolf wrote a few letters while in prison. Again I had these translated from the originals. Interviews with his family members, including his daughter, daughter-in-law and grandson. Rudolf's family photos: taken while family was living in villa next to Auschwitz concentration camp. Interviews I carried out with people who knew Rudolf: These range from American prosecutor in Nuremberg who interrogated the Kommandant for a few days to the barber who cut his hair every week for three years. Archival interviews: particularly people who remembered the Kommandant personally, for example some are archived at the Auschwitz Museum while others are held by the Shoah Foundation (funded by Steven Spielberg) which comprise video testimony that are held on a database. Court documents: These include Nuremberg Trial, but also Belsen Trial, Frankfurt Trial and the trial of Rudolf himself in Poland.
Q. Did Rudolf's children know about the murders taking place in the camp?
A. Rudolf Höss' daughter Brigitte told me that she knew about the prison camp, she saw prisoners working in the camp and the house, but she was certain that she did not know about the murders, the gassings, the crematoria. When I went to Auschwitz, the wife of Rudolf's Höss' youngest son Hans-Jürgen, told me that her husband remembered the smell from the crematoria when he was growing up. It is hard to know for sure what is the truth. It is worth bearing in mind that the children, with the exception of Klaus, were quite young when they were at Auschwitz. For example Brigitte was 11-14 years old during this time.
Q. How were you able to remain objective given the atrocities described in the story?
A. The impartiality was intentional. It would have been easy to have passed judgment along the way - Rudolf was a terrible man', 'Rudolf oversaw an atrocity', 'Hanns was brutal with his captive' etc - but I chose not to. Why? Because I felt that the text would have much more power if the reader was allowed to make their own minds up. I still think that was the right decision. The two men's actions speak for themselves. As to how did I get there, this is probably the result of years of writing as a journalist, especially as an investigative journalist where the raw facts are presented forensically and with as little bias as possible. During the editing process I tried to remove all the judgments in the text, with the exception of two or three very minor nudges when it came to providing context to Rudolf Höss' memoirs.