Times review Ben Macintyre 24 Aug 2013.png

Rudolf Höss raised a family at the camp while overseeing mass extermination of Jews, but was brought to justice in 1946.

This book contains a deeply disturbing set of photographs of a group of German children at play, taken in the summer of 1942. They clamber on a slide, grinning merrily, and eat a picnic under the gaze of their doting mother and nanny. Theirs is a happy life: they have all the food they can eat, servants to meet their every whim; they have two tortoises, called Jumbo and Dilla, and three dogs; there are apple trees to climb in the walled garden.

This could be any normal happy family: except the house is in the middle of Auschwitz death camp; the servants are doomed slaves; beyond the walls of the garden, Jews, Gypsies and other enemies of the Nazi state are being slaughtered with a brutality and efficiency unequalled in history. The father of the happy children is Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, the man responsible for organising the mass murder taking place just a few yards away.

This book tells the parallel stories of Höss and Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who, as an officer in the British war crimes investigation unit, would eventually track down the Kommandant and bring him to justice. Höss’s life is grimly fascinating, whereas Alexander, the author’s great uncle, spent an uneventful war in the Pioneer Corps until fate set him on the trail of Nazi fugitives when it was over. Yet in combining them together, Thomas Harding has shed intriguing new light on the strange poison of Nazism, and one of its most lethal practitioners.

What makes Höss so interesting is the very ordinariness of his personality, and the laziness of his mind (though he was not stupid): he represents not just the banality of evil, but its apathy. The son of a pious and patriotic merchant, he had intended a career in the Church until the First World War gave him a taste for the military life. During the Twenties he knocked around with other disgruntled right-wing veterans, and became a friend and protégé of Heinrich Himmler.

Höss seemed to slip into the black creed of National Socialism without really thinking much about it. He was not a naturally violent man, let alone a psychopath. His anti-semitism was of the “scientific” rather than the emotional variety. “I never personally hated Jews, but I did see them as the enemies of our nation,” he later said. Höss did what he was told, and ensured that his underlings did the same. By 1939 he was a senior figure in the Nazi prison service under Himmler’s patronage, an obedient cog in the German machinery of imprisonment and death, and ideally placed to run a new camp being constructed near the southern Polish town of Oswiecim, or Auschwitz.

Hanns Alexander was living a very different life. The son of an upper-middle class doctor, he was brought up in comfort in Berlin. Albert Einstein sometimes came to dinner. That world fell apart with astonishing speed as the Nazis gained power, and by 1938 the family had decamped to Britain.

Höss, meanwhile, was helping to create the monstrous apparatus that would undoubtedly have consigned the Alexander family to oblivion had they not had the good sense, and the good fortune, to make their escape. As Kommandant of Auschwitz, Höss’s problems were logistical, never moral. Himmler wanted him to kill more people, more quickly; and so he did. “The reasoning behind the extermination process seemed to me right. I thought no more of it at the time — I had been given an order, I had to obey it. I could not allow myself to wonder whether this mass killing of Jews was necessary.” When told to increase the death rate, Höss ordered two additional buildings on the Auschwitz site to be converted into gas chambers. “I had solved the problem.”

With the collapse of the Third Reich, Höss went into hiding rather than kill himself, a decision he came to regret: not through guilt, but because self-inflicted death would have been neater. “We were bound and chained to that world of ours — we ought to have perished with it.”

Hanns Alexander, by this time, was working as an interpreter attached to the War Crimes Investigation Team, tasked with tracking down hundreds of escaped war criminals. Despite his lack of police or legal training, Alexander proved remarkably skilled at this. Harding describes him as “serious and determined, fierce to the point of brutality with those he interrogated, and full of hate”.

The “hunt” for Höss did not take long. Alexander tracked down his wife and children, now living in penury in an old sugar factory near Flensburg, and forced Frau Höss to reveal her husband’s whereabouts by threatening to ship her son to Siberia. Höss was found working as a farm labourer under the name Franz Lang. At first he denied his identity, and refused to take off his engagement ring, claiming it was stuck. When Alexander threatened to cut off his finger, he handed it over. The names of Höss and his wife were engraved inside.

Alexander turned his back as the soldiers under his command, many of whom were Jewish, administered a violent beating. “Call them off,” the accompanying doctor finally warned, “unless you want to take back a corpse.” Under interrogation, the bloodied Höss was forced to swallow alcohol, beaten with his own whip and left in a freezing cell without shoes or socks until he developed frostbite in both feet.

The American chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, Justice Robert Jackson, insisted that the Allies “flushed with victory and stung with injury” should nonetheless “stay the hands of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of law”. It would be interesting to know whether Alexander felt any later qualms about the rough treatment meted out to Höss, but like many former soldiers, he preferred not to talk about the war — unlike Höss who sang like a canary, providing a glimpse into the mind of this willing executioner, the evidence that would condemn him to death, and the raw material for this remarkable book.

Meticulously researched and deeply-felt, Hanns and Rudolf is written with a suppressed fury at the vicious moral emptiness of men like Höss, who were only following orders. “Himmler had ordered it, and had even explained the necessity, and I never really gave much thought to whether it was wrong,” wrote Höss in 1947, shortly before he was tried by a Polish court, and hanged at the death camp where he had overseen the killing of more than a million people.

More than 60 years later, in a poignant coda, Höss’s grandson visited that place for the first time, accompanied by Harding, to see where his father, oblivious to the carnage around him, once played in the Auschwitz sun.

Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding (William Heinemann, 368pp, £20, £16 ebook £11.98)