Hanns and Rudolf: The True Sto­ry of the Ger­man Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kom­man­dant of Auschwitz

Thomas Hard­ing
  • Review
By – March 19, 2014

In May 1945, in the after­math of the Sec­ond World War, the first British War Crimes Inves­ti­ga­tion Team is assem­bled to hunt down the senior Nazi offi­cials respon­si­ble for plan­ning and imple­ment­ing some of the worst atroc­i­ties the world has ever seen. One of the lead inves­ti­ga­tors was Lieu­tenant Hanns Alexan­der, a Ger­man Jew who had fled Berlin in the 1930s and found refuge in Eng­land. He was now serv­ing in the British army. Rudolf Hoss was one of his most impor­tant and elu­sive tar­gets: as Kom­man­dant of Aus­chwitz, Hӧss over­saw the trans­for­ma­tion of Auschwitz-Birke­nau from an old army bar­racks in Poland to a killing fac­to­ry of unprece­dent­ed effi­cien­cy and bru­tal­i­ty. By the end of the war, 1.1 mil­lion Jews had been killed in the camp, along with 20,000 Gyp­sies and tens of thou­sands of Pol­ish and Russ­ian pris­on­ers. Now Hoss is on the run and Alexan­der and his team are in hot pursuit.

Thomas Hard­ing has writ­ten a riv­et­ing account of the inter­sec­tion of two lives: his great-uncle, Hanns Alexan­der, and Kom­mandant Hoss. Hard­ing only learned about Alexander’s exploits in 2006 when he heard a eulo­gy giv­en at his funer­al. Alexan­der had indeed tracked down the Kom­man­dant of Auschwitz. 

In this fas­ci­nat­ing book based on archival mate­ri­als, fam­i­ly let­ters, tape record­ings, and inter­views with sur­vivors, Hard­ing pro­vides the first full treat­ment of Hoss’s cap­ture, and he does so with per­spec­tive and nuance. Hanns and Rudolf were men with many sides to their char­ac­ters; as such, this sto­ry chal­lenges the one-dimen­sion­al por­tray­al of hero and vil­lain. Hoss was cer­tain­ly capa­ble of unspeak­able cru­el­ty, but he also on occa­sion dis­played a capac­i­ty for human feel­ing. In the course of fol­low­ing the par­al­lel and oppos­ing lives of these two men, Hard­ing explores some dif­fi­cult ques­tions: How does a man become a mass mur­der­er? Why does a vic­tim choose to con­front his per­se­cu­tors? Is revenge ever jus­ti­fied? What does jus­tice mean in the wake of geno­cide? Were Jews the pow­er­less vic­tims they have been por­trayed to be? What hap­pens to the fam­i­lies of such men? It turns out, for exam­ple, that Brigitte Hӧss, the daugh­ter of Kom­man­dant Hӧss, has lived in the Wash­ing­ton region since 1972. She has not spo­ken to her grand­chil­dren about their grand­fa­ther and her son does not show much inter­est in the sto­ry, either.

This is a won­der­ful book, well-writ­ten and excit­ing, that pro­vides new infor­ma­tion about one of history’s dark­est chap­ters and the pur­suit of jus­tice for the vic­tims. Hoss’s testi­mony dur­ing inter­ro­ga­tions and at Nurem­berg was shock­ing in its detail and quite help­ful to the pros­e­cu­tors. Hoss was ulti­mate­ly sent to Poland to stand tri­al. The tri­al began on March 11, 1947 and con­clud­ed on March 27 of the same year: Hoss was con­vict­ed and deliv­ered the sen­tence of death by hang­ing in a non-pub­lic man­ner with­in the ter­ri­to­ry of the Auschwitz camp.” The exe­cu­tion was car­ried out on April 16 on a wood­en gal­lows a few feet from the old cre­ma­to­ri­um in Auschwitz, a fit­ting and iron­ic end to the man who over­saw the camp that has become sym­bol­ic of the Holocaust.

Relat­ed Con­tent: Hunt­ing Eich­mann: How a Band of Sur­vivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Noto­ri­ous Nazi

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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