Shalom Life | April 04, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew who Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz

Thomas Harding's latest follows the lives of a notorious murderer, and his captor

By: Zak Edwards

Published: January 6th, 2014 in Culture » Books » Reviews

The opening of Thomas Harding’s Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew who Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, a book that follows the lives of the Kommandant of Auschwitz and his captor, is hesitant for two very good reasons. First, the titular Hanns didn’t speak about the events within Harding’s book, so there is palatable nervousness about writing on what others did not want to talk about, a common reaction by those who lived through World War II and the Holocaust.

Second, Harding eschews the usual caricatures we rely on to talk about Nazis and looks the titular Rudolf as the person he was as he became the monster for which he is remembered. This last reason even gets an apology in Harding’s opening and the book is an engaging look into these anxieties along with the disturbing truths that created men like Rudolf Höss, and the events that necessitated a hero like Hanns Alexander.

In our interview, Harding talks about why he didn’t want to refer to Rudolf Höss by his last name; to do so is to treat the subject perhaps a little too distantly. Hence not being called Alexander and Höss, Harding wants to treat the monster who oversaw the brutal deaths of three million people as a human being, and that approach brings big questions: How does someone become the Kommandant of Auschwitz? How does one go from being a little boy in rural Germany to the man who tortured and hung people for simply making eye contact? How does that same man return to his home and be considered a sweet father by his children?


(Thomas Harding)

These question are probably the most disturbing aspects of Harding’s incredible tale, especially as the answers become clearer and clearer. Rudolf Höss was a man, a very human man, who led a very strange life based on his own active choices that led him down the path to the extermination of three million other human beings. And while treating a man capable of such crimes like a human may sound like sympathy, Harding’s journalistic roots gives the story objectivity, or is perhaps less forgiving, and looks at the circumstances and choices Rudolf made.

Painting men like Rudolf as caricatures is a tactic as old as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, but showing him as a dedicated father who couldn’t get enough time away from work to read folk stories to his children is much harder to take in and process when reconciled with what he did as a day job.

Or, to use Harding’s word: “Disturbing.”

The Hanns half of Hanns and Rudolf follows Harding’s great uncle, the German Jew who escaped Germany, served in the British Forces, and became a war crimes investigator as the war ended. Like the man he eventually captured, Harding takes us through Hanns’ life, growing up Jewish in Germany, fleeing to Britain, poorly balancing his soldiering with his growing relationship with his future wife, with an approach that gives perspective and interest.

Hanns' evolution occurs as history was happening, giving a grounded perspective to the large events of the Second World War, and offering a unique insight. But these events also changed Hanns from a prankster teenager into a figure of vengeance.


(Hanns Alexander, left; Rudolf Höss, right)

When Hanns finally did capture Rudolf, he beat him, stripped him naked, and made the Kommandant walk through the snow until his feet were covered in frostbite. This moment, this humiliation of a man who deserves nothing less, is probably the key moment of Hanns and Rudolf, a book about how violence begets violence and how war changes and makes necessary certain people. One of the balances the book plays is the heroic actions of Hanns, but also a critical look at what was needed of him to be that hero, a lesson about the violence necessary to pursue one’s goals, especially if those goals are about seeking justice during wartime. The story of Jewish vengeance is satisfying, but not entirely pure.

Hanns and Rudolf is essential for those who want to know more about the Holocaust in a more personal and engaging way. Harding talked to me about his wishes for the book: that it would be engaging and individual, not overwhelming like the history of the Holocaust can be. With its energetic style, the book is a page turner, a passionate look into what war does to those who must participate, but it is also a story of redemption, of how Jews are not simply victims, but seekers of justice and perhaps even vengeance.

And in making Rudolf Höss human, we are given an even more disturbing portrait, and a reminder to remember.

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