Book Review: 'Hanns and Rudolf' by Thomas Harding

How an unassuming Jewish exile brought the Commandant of Auschwitz to justice.

By Ian Brunskill

Howard Harvey Alexander died in London in 2006, at the age of 89. Most of the mourners at his funeral thought they had gathered to remember a life well lived but not in any way remarkable. Known as Hanns, Alexander was a respected merchant banker, a supporter of his local synagogue, a dedicated family man. His great-nephew Thomas Harding recalled him as "a bit of a rogue and a prankster," fond of playing tricks and telling dirty jokes. World War II was a subject that the deceased had preferred to avoid, so the funeral eulogy caught many of the guests by surprise. It revealed that Hanns, at the end of the war, had been responsible for bringing to justice one of the most appalling mass murderers of the 20th century, the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss.

Once satisfied that the story was true—great-uncle Hanns was prone to exaggeration—Mr. Harding set out to discover how such an improbable turn of events could have come about. The result is an enthralling, thoughtful book—part history, part biography, part thriller. The story Mr. Harding tells is of two parallel lives—two opposite worlds—that in the chaos of the war's end converge and then collide. In that collision, Mr. Harding argues, modern history was changed.

Höss (the spelling Mr. Harding favors, over Hoess or Höß) owes his prominence in the history books not just to his crimes but to his shocking testimony at the Nuremberg war tribunal—where he appeared as a witness in the trial of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the Nazi security chief—and the grim autobiography he wrote while awaiting execution after his own trial a year later in Poland. (He was hanged in the grounds of the concentration camp he once commanded.)

Born in 1901 into a devout Catholic family in southwest Germany, with a domineering disciplinarian for a father, he was a solitary child, intended for the priesthood. Höss enlisted in World War I at the age of only 14 and saw action in the Middle East. After the war he was in one of the nationalist Freikorps paramilitary groups, fighting communist uprisings (or just seeking revenge for the recent defeat) in Latvia and Poland. He joined the Nazi Party after hearing Hitler in Munich in 1922. He spent time in prison (for his part in the killing of a former Freikorps member suspected of betraying a comrade), then joined an Aryan "back-to-the-land" league, laboring on a farm in Pomerania, where he married and started a family.

It was Heinrich Himmler, an acquaintance, who steered him into a career as a concentration-camp guard, first at Dachau, then at Sachsenhausen. In April 1940, Höss was appointed commandant of a new camp to be built in Upper Silesia, at Oswiecim-Auschwitz. The first trainload of Jews arrived in 1942.

Höss went on to a senior job with the Concentration Camp Inspectorate. At the end of the war, under an assumed identity, he found work on a small farm near the Danish border. He was at liberty for a year, an accepted member of the local community, while his wife and children lived with his brother-in-law nearby. Until Hanns Alexander tracked him down.

If Höss was a typical product of the political and intellectual underworld from which Hitler himself emerged—with its mix of anti-Semitism, half-baked eugenic theories, thuggish violence and resentment at the Treaty of Versailles—then Hanns Hermann Alexander was perhaps no less typical of a prosperous, cultured, assimilated German-Jewish world that the Nazis destroyed. Born in Berlin in 1917, he was the son of a leading society physician. The family occupied a vast 22-room apartment at one of the smartest addresses in the capital.

Life became steadily more difficult after 1933 until, in 1936, while visiting family in England, Dr. Alexander was warned that his name appeared on a Gestapo list of Jews to be rounded up. He decided to stay where he was. His family, joining him in due course, adjusted to the rather less grand surroundings of a two-bedroom flat in west London.

Tall, handsome and adaptable, Hanns took to his new life and with enthusiasm. When war was declared he was determined to enlist. He explained his decision to his sister: "I am sure we are all glad to see that there is still some justice in the world, although it seems to be a justice of force only." In April 1945, Lt. Alexander was assigned to the first British war-crimes investigation team. Less than a month later, he was in the newly liberated concentration camp at Belsen, preparing for what would be the first war-crimes trial. He was soon frustrated with his role as an interpreter. He wanted to be out and about, using his knowledge of the language and the country to track down the war-crimes suspects still at large.

Among them was Rudolf Höss. Mr. Harding crafts a thrilling narrative from the saga of pursuit and subterfuge that brought Höss into the dock. The detective work owes more to dogged dedication than deductive flair. Documents are sifted and photographs examined; doors are knocked on as old addresses are traced; new sightings and new aliases are followed up. The trail of the leading members of the Concentration Camp Inspectorate leads Hanns to Flensburg, in Germany's far north, where it threatens to peter out. While Höss himself remains elusive, the former camp commandant's family is found. Psychological pressure brought to bear on his wife proves key.

At Nuremberg, with what Primo Levi aptly called "disturbing bureaucratic obtuseness," Höss laid bare the organizational scale and scope of the Holocaust. But he also made chillingly clear that this was no simple matter of obeying orders from on high, as so many war-crimes defendants would try to claim. As Hannah Arendt later observed of the Eichmann trial, "mere compliance would never have been enough." Höss showed just how much depended on acts of initiative by individuals at all levels in the chain of command. Höss took pride in his work. Auschwitz, for him, was above all a triumph of administration. His calm account of his innovations, starting with the use of Zyklon B as an alternative to shootings, or the use of gas from motor exhausts, was heard in stunned silence at Nuremberg. His written recollections—sometimes inaccurate and dishonest, but always revealing—remain difficult to read. Had Hanns not caught him, we would have had none of this.

Mr. Harding sees this episode in his great-uncle's life as "a Jew fighting-back story." There is never any doubt about what was right and what unspeakably wrong. But as the use of his twin protagonists' first names in the title suggests, Mr. Harding is at pains to avoid easy stereotypes of hero and villain. He depicts not a battle of conflicting moral values or ideas but a gripping human drama, and he refuses to dodge any troubling questions raised along the way. His Rudolf is a vile man, but a man nonetheless. His Hanns—overconfident, inconsiderate, ever ready to bend a rule—doesn't always behave well.

In an epilogue, Mr. Harding visits Auschwitz with two members of Höss's family. It is a moving encounter, but awkward and inconclusive too. As Mr. Harding observes, without rancor: "History differs depending on the point of view, and is never as clear as you would expect."


Hanns and Rudolf

By Thomas Harding 
Simon & Schuster, 348 pages, $26