Confronted by this lavishly endorsed book — ‘compelling’ (David Lodge), ‘gripping’(John le Carré),‘thrilling’ (Jonathan Freedland) — I felt depressed. Two weeks ago, the New York Times’s savvy London correspondent accused the British of being obsessed with the Nazis. This might appear a case of pots and kettles: not for nothing did America’s widely watched History Channel become known as the Hitler Channel. Nevertheless, Sarah Lyall had made a valid point. A stupefying 830 books on the Third Reich were published in the UK in 2010 and — although no figures are yet available for 2013 — a reduction any time soon seems unlikely.
Germany’s history of genocide is unforgivable. Still, how many more books, over what period of time, do we require to remind ourselves of that fact? What new detail can we possibly need to learn about Auschwitz and the dreadful kommandant whose memoirs were first published in England in 1959 and are still readily procurable today? (Death Dealer, available, with giftwrap, on Amazon for around £7.)
I don’t want to diminish the sincere motivation of a well-told true story. Hanns and Rudolf is as absorbing as Lodge, Le Carré and Freedland allege. (The use of the word ‘exhilarating’ by another endorser bothered me more.) Thomas Harding narrates, in careful, understated prose, the story of how his great uncle Hanns Alexander hunted down the man who vaingloriously identified himself as ‘the world’s greatest destroyer’: Rudolf Höss, the Bavarian-born kommandant of Auschwitz.
The hunt and trial occupy the book’s final heartstopping 50 pages; before that, however, Harding must lead the reader back — once more — to sit behind a protective wall of glass, and watch — once again — the terrible drama of how the powerful set out to annihilate the powerless, and did so with a combination of efficiency and brutality, the horror of which today has come to resemble for its observers a kind of infernal pornography.
Harding balances with scrupulous care the stories of the pursuer and the pursued. One chapter describes how Rudolf Höss, a 15-year-old soldier in the first world war, subsequently served a lengthy term in prison for murdering a fellow soldier in the Freikorps. The next describes the life of the Rothschild-rich Alexander family in Berlin, owners of an 18-room apartment on the Kaiserallee, a Mercedes touring car and a lakeside summer home. Höss, a family man who liked farming, signed up for the SS in 1933; the Alexanders (all but one stubborn great-aunt) fled to England in 1936. Young Hanns Alexander and his beguiling twin, Paul, arrived at Croydon aerodrome with the derisory ten-mark pittance permitted by the Third Reich.
The narrative of the Alexanders’ valiant recovery of some semblance of normal life in England offers no competition for the ensuing chapters that detail Rudolf’s dreadful career. The fault is not Harding’s; it is simply that evil, as ever, presents a more absorbing spectacle than virtue. All the usual ghastly details reappear: 500 female captives shot while standing naked in a field; 40,000 victims burned alive in a pit; ten prisoners killed for every one that escaped. We learn of the Austrian girl who, after Rudolf got her pregnant, was starved almost to death in a lightless underground cell. And we hear about Rudolf’s wife, Hedwig, robed in clothes robbed from corpses, as she entertained the Third Reich’s grandees to tea in her magnificently furnished Auschwitz home, while the Höss children donned striped pyjamas to play at being prisoners.
That children’s masquerade was one of the few activities to trigger an emotional response from the imperturbable Rudolf Höss. Quoting from the chilling memoir that Rudolf wrote in captivity, after the war, Harding uses Höss’s words to break up the catalogue of horrors that took place at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. Deployed in this way, the quotations achieve maximum effect. Leon Goldensohn, the US psychiatrist who analysed Höss before his trial, diagnosed the former kommandant as ‘an amoral psychopath’, evincing a lack of empathy ‘that could hardly be more extreme in a frank psychotic.’
On trial, Höss stated that he had never mistreated or killed prisoners; in his memoir, the kommandant recalled his relief at the simplicity of genocide (‘Now my mind was at ease’) and the pleasure he took in his work. (‘I really could not complain that life at Auschwitz was ever boring.’)Leaving the deathcamp that he personally helped to create (in order to oversee all mass executions from Sachshausen), Höss grew wistful: ‘The many difficult tasks I faced had brought me very close to it’ (Auschwitz).
Contrasting the camp’s infamous motto (Arbeit macht frei), with the motto of the Pioneer Regiment (Labor omnia vincit) in which Hanns Alexander enlisted in 1939, might sound a risky strategy. Harding knows what he is doing. Gradually — and this is where his narrative grows most intriguing — he begins to shift the focus. Despatched to Germany as an investigator in 1945, Hanns witnessed the horrors at Belsen. Filled with an ‘implacable’ hatred for its perpetrators, he evolved a split personality: jolly ‘Alex’ with an eye for the girls; implacable Hanns who hunts down war criminals while boasting to his English girlfriend that this blood-sport had become ‘my biggest enjoyment’. How should we assess the man who wrote to his ‘Poppit’ on stationery seized from an SS chief whose ‘suicide’ was faked after Hanns licensed his murder?
Le Carré is quite correct. The last section of Harding’s book does indeed read like a gripping thriller, no less so because we know how the pursuit of Höss is destined to end. The sense of discomfort lingers beyond that dramatic finale. It was Höss’s own grandson, Rainer, who suggested that he and his elderly mother should accompany Thomas Harding to Auschwitz. Approaching the gallows on which Rudolf Höss was hanged in 1947, Harding writes that ‘This is the moment I have been waiting for above all else.’ And then, while the mother shrieks a (reported) protest, he takes a photo of the grandson at the gallows. Thankfully, that particular image does not appear in this disturbing and amply illustrated book.
Miranda Seymour’s latest book is Noble Endeavours: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories.