I only became aware of Thomas Harding’s new book, Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, because of Harding’s recent piece in the Washington Post about the Kommandant’s daughter, Brigitte, who still lives in northern Virginia. The book’s publisher reached out to me after I tweeted the link to the article and sent me a review copy, which I tore through this weekend because I couldn’t bear to put the book down.
The subtitle is a little misleading, as this book isn’t so much the story of a chase as it is a pair of contemporary portraits of two German men whose lives headed in opposite directions with the rise of the Third Reich, setting them on courses that end in one hunting down and capturing the other after the war’s conclusion. The chase itself isn’t long, so most of the book is spent getting us up to that point. Harding’s achievement here is making both biographies interesting enough that the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages – and in presenting Rudolf in a neutral fashion even though he’s one of the worst monsters in our species’ history.
That Rudolf is Rudolf Höss, the man who oversaw the construction of the concentration camp at Auschwitz and devised the scheme where the pesticide Zyklon-B was used to exterminate Jews and other prisoners in huge numbers, with well over a million killed at the camp. Höss’ eventual devolution into a calm, apathetic architect of history’s most efficient mass producer of death starts from early childhood – including a fanatical father who died young and a lack of any close ties to family members – but also reveals a tremendous amount about the “just following orders” mentality of so many members of the SS, the Nazi Party, and of the German population as a whole. While running Auschwitz, Höss would return home each night to his villa just beyond the camp’s walls, where he lived with his wife and five children in a luxurious house staffed with slaves drawn from the prison.
Hanns, the hero of the story and the author’s great-uncle, is Hanns Alexander, a German Jew born into fortunate circumstances that would largely disappear before he fled to the UK with his family in 1936. Left without a state after the Nazi regime revoked their citizenship, Hanns chose to join the British army, which set up a separate unit for refugees seeking to fight their former countries that allowed them to serve in non-combat roles (because, you know, can’t trust ‘em). After the war ended, Hanns became a private hunter of war criminals in his spare time, eventually parlaying that into a formal role that led him to recapture the puppet ruler of Luxembourg, Gustav Simon, and to earn a command to track down Höss himself. Hanns’ own drive to fight against Germany – more than fighting for Britain or the allies – derived from the personal injustice that he underwent when he and his family had to flee from the Nazis, as well as the more general sense of outrage from the massive crimes the German state and its people had committed against the Jews and other so-called enemies of the state.
Höss’ testimony played a pivotal role in the Nuremberg trials because of his willingness to admit his own role in the Holocaust and in the chain of command that made the mass murders possible, which means Hanns himself contributed to the convictions and executions of many of the surviving leaders of the Third Reich. Höss comes across as a weirdly complex character, a loving father and family man who beat down his rare compunctions over gassing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children because he refused to show weakness to his superiors or to those under his command. Did he do this for fear for his own safety in a regime where guards who showed mercy to prisoners would be beaten or killed? Or was he simply nursing his own desire for success and praise by trying to set an example of fanaticism that others would revere?
The conflict between Höss’ work and family selves, his apparent apathy toward his victims, and his unclear motivation for his actions at Auschwitz make him the far more compelling character than Alexander, whose life is much easier to understand. Hanns watched fellow Germans pull the rug out from under his comfortable life, and his personal fury combined with that from his moral compass to turn him into a rabid Nazi hunter, yet one who declined to discuss his role in capturing these criminals for most of the rest of his life. It’s a simple narrative for a man’s life, one that’s easy to fathom. Turning into a cockroach the way Höss did is a lot harder to understand, and it’s part of why I couldn’t avert my eyes from Hanns and Rudolf until he’d been hanged.
I’ve been busy plowing through more titles from the Bloomsbury 100 as well, but nothing that merited a long post here. Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which draws parallels between the swift decline of a noble Austrian family and that of the Hapsburgs’ reign, heading into the disaster of World War I that led to the breakup of their sprawling, unwieldy empire. It dragged horribly, however, with Dickensian descriptions and an absurd amount of moralizing over peccadilloes that barely merit mention today.
Theodor Fontaine’s Effi Briest, named by Thomas Mann as one of the six most essential novels ever written, was a stronger read, even though the morality play also fails to resonate today. Based on a true story from the late 1800s, Effi Briest tells the title character’s tragic history from her arranged marriage to a man much her senior through her extramarital affair with the lothario Crampas to her divorce and fall from grace. It’s far more believable than the similar Madame Bovary and less prolix than Anna Karenina, two similarly-themed novels, working more along the lines of The Awakening, another novel of adultery where the plight of the woman in a male-dominated, moralistic society takes center stage.
Eugenie Grandet is the second Balzac novel I’ve read, along with Old Goriot, both part of his Human Comedy novel sequence. It’s another tragedy, this one the story of Eugenie’s miserly father and how his parsimony destroys his wife, himself, and, even after his death, his daughter, when even a small count of generosity would have saved them all. I’ve found Balzac’s prose to be his great strength – I enjoy his phrasing and descriptions yet never find them slow or monotonous – but the story in Eugenie Grandet had less of the dark comedy that made Old Goriot a better read.
Next up: Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.