NONFICTION: The tale of the commander of the prison camp at Auschwitz, and the Jew who tracked him down after the war.
British journalist Thomas Harding’s new book, “Hanns and Rudolf,” reads like a combination of a documentary and a suspense story.
It is the true story of the Nazi commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and of the British Army officer who finally brought this commander to justice.
Rudolf Höss — not to be confused with his fellow Nazi Rudolf Hess — quickly rose in the leadership ranks of the Third Reich to become the Auschwitz commander.
British Army officer Hanns Alexander was a Jew who fled Berlin for London as the Third Reich increased the pressure on Jews in Germany. Almost immediately after settling his family in England, he joined the British army to fight the Nazis in World War II.
Harding has a personal interest in this story, because Alexander was his great uncle. This fueled his ambition to research the story of his uncle’s work during and after the war.
The book uses alternating chapters to give the reader a matching time line in the lives of the two men. Their paths were sometimes less than a hundred miles apart. However, it wasn’t until after the German surrender that Höss’ location became Alexander’s prime concern.
As Hitler gained popularity in Germany, Höss met Heinrich Himmler and was appointed a member of the Schutzstaffel — the SS troops. His friendship with Himmler was a prime reason for his eventual appointment to run the prison camp at Auschwitz.
There is no need for hyperbole in describing the terrors of Auschwitz, and Harding spares any embellishment when he recounts Höss’ leadership there.
“Between 1940 and 1944 more than 1.3 million prisoners arrived at Auschwitz. Of these, 1.1 million died, of which one million were Jews. … Himmler was pleased with the work of his protégé,” Harding writes.
As Harding’s time line reaches the end of the war, the book takes on an aura of suspense. Höss, realizing the German cause is lost, prepares to flee Auschwitz to avoid prosecution.
Meanwhile, in another part of Europe, Alexander has been appointed to the British war crimes investigation team. He soon starts tracking Höss.
Höss initially evaded capture while many other higher-ups in the Third Reich were captured. Relying on bogus identification documents, he was able to get a job working on a farm a few miles from the Danish border. Alexander caught him there a few months later.
The story doesn’t end there. Alexander presents an extensive look at Höss’ confessions of the Auschwitz atrocities. Harding shows us a mind with layer upon layer of defense mechanisms, as Höss vainly attempts to rationalize his actions as part of following orders. It is a tragic, upsetting, yet very revealing story.
Steve Novak is a freelance writer in Cleveland.