on 25 August 2014
Once in a blue moon you come across a book which you can devour in no time, and consequently leaves you with a feeling of loss and bewilderment over where to find another read as easily enjoyable. 'Hanns and Rudolf' is one of these books.
Two diametrically opposed lives evolving from post WW1 Germany through the Rise of Nazism and the German Reich come full circle to be drawn together in (if perhaps not strictly a 'thriller') a thrilling historical account of WW2 through the eyes of two polar opposite war personalities.
Alternating chapters between Hanns the German Jew (later Nazi-hunter) and Rudolf the paradigmatic German country boy (later Kommandant of Auschwitz), Harding traces each lifetime from the very beginning. The first thing this achieves is the juxtaposition of a German Jew's life vs. the life of a 'normal' German boy in the rise of the Reich. Second, it allows the reader to trace the fabric of both personalities, a vital part of the book. For Rudolf, Harding addresses the constant moral enigma: how was the holocaust carried out? but addresses it from the biographical perspective of the man who personally administered the mass killings, the man who forced himself to look through the peep-hole of the gas chambers to show the face of unflappable conviction to his subordinates. This is an insight into humanness and how Rudolf lost his, retreating behind a wall of glass on the way to conducting one of the most abominable crimes in history. For Hanns, Harding highlights with how a German Jew deals with the intractable circumstances of Nazi Germany. An identical twin with an insatiable hunger for causing havoc and pulling pranks, Hanns develops into a prudent adult with a sense of duty, and it is specifically this which leads him along his extraordinary path to end up in post-war Auschwitz. Third, if the two characters' biographies were not interesting enough in themselves, Harding brings them together in a gripping dénouement, exploring the often overlooked matters of what happened after the war.
This book provided me with a different outlook on Nazi Germany. The concentration camps were not run by villainous killing experts, but men whose botched initiatives at mass murder evolved into a terrifyingly efficient system of genocide. The element of revenge that ought to induce satisfaction towards the book's end is tinged with an awareness of the inability to restore any sense of normality after such an atrocity. The comfort that one might think to find in revenge is therefore, in this book, replaced by settling for justice, since there were no winners in such a sad episode for mankind.
on 3 January 2014
I devoured this book in several sittings. I have read many books about the Holocaust, and seen many films, always returning to Primo Levi as author of the definitive accounts. This book similarly takes you right inside the minds of its subjects, and in particularly Rudolph, quoting many extracts from his own writings. You begin to even build up a feeling for this man - surely the archetype of evil - a feeling which starts, really, with calling him "Rudolph" in the book title, and then throughout the story, rather than the bleaker impersonal and more familiar Hoss. Thus is demonstrated the shifting sands of how we view people, and what determines what we think of them. Chillingly, it is Hoss himself who discovers (via an underling) how effective Zyklon B might be and then perfects it as instrument for mass murder. "Now my mind was at ease" he later wrote. How could I at any later point "feel" for this man? Yet I did over and over again - even when Hans "permits" a mass-beating of the newly captured Hoss (actually I think I find it difficult to call him Rudolph). It is these contradictions in feelings (also explored by Levi and Arendt - and indeed by Browning and Goldhagen) that make the history of the Holocaust so terrible yet so compelling. Matthew 7:1-3: King James Version: 7 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
Maybe this is what makes the book so compelling. The author does not judge by his own utterances of outrage, but sticks in the main to facts and testimonies. We have to come to our own conclusions and judge we must.
on 25 September 2013
This is a highly readable account of two Germans of much the same age: one who had to flee his privileged Berlin background and become immersed in a new country, culture and language; the other who rose from a more humble provincial background to be responsible for one of the most efficient extermination camps of all. That the former became responsible for bringing the latter to justice makes a fascinating story in itself, but the author, nephew of the hunter, has done a brilliant job of exploring the attitudes and motives of each, while keeping them firmly rooted in the events and influences of the time. The result is a more individual view of how Nazi Germany escalated it's attack on its own Jewish countrymen to the 'final solution' of mass murder, and the hasty rush in the immediate aftermath to bring the perpetrators to justice. It also explains how ground-breaking the Nurenburg trials were. The paradox is how Hess wrote up his story prior to his execution while Hanns generally refused to talk about it for the rest of his life.
This is a well researched and readable biographical study that is also a fine tribute to the author's uncle.
on 28 October 2013
For anyone who finds the post-war accounts of the search for justice interesting, this is a must. It has a great personal touch in that the writer's admiration for his great-uncle Hanns shines through. I found the comparison between Hanns' and Rudolf's lives very interesting and thought the book was balanced in its views and in conveying the facts to the reader.
The writer had a healthy approach and did not veer towards outright condemnation of the Nazi, though his views were clear in that regard. He saw him as a flawed human being who had subscribed to and embraced a dangerous doctrine.
Well written, thought provoking and an enduringly interesting subject matter.
on 30 December 2013
I found I could not put this book down. The story of the lives of two men is told in a very simple and straightforward way. Both men were shaped by their past - and both damaged by it. What the Kommandant of Auschwitz was responsible for is truly inexplicable and I think this book does a great job of presenting the facts and leaving the reader to try and struggle with this problem. Clearly Rudolph was a monster - but in presenting him as a man, a husband and father reminds us of what we are capable of.
Just as Rudolf is a product of many unimaginable factors (joining the army first world war at the age of 14 - and killing people) so too is Hanns, a most remarkable man who in this book is presented in an equally realistic way. A man who grew up witnessing so much misery after a privileged early life and who joined the British army and took on the job of hunting down war criminals. What must have been in the mind of a Jewish soldier who entered Belsen shortly after it was discovered by the allies? Again unimaginable. There is no moral equivalence between the two men and happily one was hung and the other lived a long and I hope fruitful life.
The greatest part of the book is that it left me wrestling with my emotions and trying to put the events into a modern context. At this moment their are other Rudolfs doing bad stuff, and others being formed by the environments they are growing up in. And if a monster of our age was captured as the result of intimidating and bullying his wife and children, if he was subject to 'cruel and inhuman treatment' as no doubt Rudolph's beating and interrogation would be interpreted these days where would Hanns be? The recent case of the marine who 'finished off' an Afghan insurgent came to mind.
I have no answers and there are no simple ones, but good books make us ask questions.
Two Germans. One Jewish, one not. Both grow up affected by the rise of the Nazis. Hanns flees to London whilst Rudolf, a family man, becomes Kommandant of Auschwitz.
Harding's storytelling is compelling, and the book is real page-turner.
The war ends, and Hanns, as a member of the British Forces, goes to Europe to track down war criminals. Ironically tracking down Gustav Simon, the Gauleiter of Luxembourg proves a challenge, whereas locating and capturing Hoess is much simpler.
You're rooting for Hanns, yet trying to comprehend why family man Rudolf initiated and oversaw such atrocities.
It's a very moving book, and reminds us of the horrors of the Holocaust, its impact and why we can't forget it.
on 6 December 2013
Having been to Auschwitz last year, I was very interested to read this publication. An excellent book that highlights the lives of two very different people - Hanns the son of a wealthy Jewish doctor from Berlin and Rudolph, the designer and Kommandant of Auschwitz. Hanns' story may well have remained untold if not for this book and it is a story that is so important. Without Hanns, Rudolph Hoess may never have been caught and tried. Many hundreds of senior Nazi's may well have escaped trial and conviction if Hoess had escaped. His testomy was so important. He was a stickler for keeping records which assisted in the downfall of his superiors and cohort. The way the book is written is almost like a novel, therefore making it likely a wider readership will be ensured than if it was just another "stuffy" biography. Whilst the style is "light", it does not make the subject matter any less difficult, but what it does do is perhaps encourage a wider readership of the lives of such an important pair of individuals - one working for good, the other for evil.
In April 1943 Admiral Horthy,the Hungarian Regent asked Hitler 'What should we do with the Jews?'. He was told 'They are to be treated like tubercular bacillus'.
This excellent book by Thomas Harding tells the remarkable story of Hans Alexander, a German Jew who as a British officer tracked down Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz while serving in the war crimes investigation unit.
Some of the photographs in Harding's book are very disturbing. These are not ones of emaciated Camp Jews or the piles of dead Jews they are photographs of Hoss's young children playing on a slide, eating a picnic or simply playing in the famliy garden. The family garden was in the middle of the death camp where their father daily slaughtered men, women, children and babies. The happy children had pets and numerous Jewish servants who would in due course be murdered. A few yards away from the garden with its apple trees Jewish children were being gassed and shoved into ovens.
The book, like many others, emphasises the sheer ordinariness of men and women like Hoss. Like many other killers he was of average intelligence, a devoted father, and a loving husband. Like thousands of ordinary Germans he was an admirer of Hitler and his henchmen. He was the son of a merchant and he had intended entering the Church until service in WW1 changed his mind. In the 1920's he was befriended by Himmler.
As the author points out Hoss was not a psychopath. Like all too many Germans after 1933 he was nevertheless only too willing to do what he was told. In 1939 he became a very obedient part of the German killing machine.
The man who tracked him down was altogether different. Hanns Alexander was the son of a doctor who was a friend of Einstein. Seeing the dangers once Hitler became Chancellor the family fled to Britain.
When Himmler told Hoss to increase the murder rate at Auschwitz Hoss said 'I thought no more of it at the time-I had been given an order, I had to obey it'. He therefore had two more buildings converted into gas chambers in order to 'solve the problem'. Meanwhile, his children and wife had tea in their garden.
When the war ended Hoss hid until he was found by Hanns working on a farm under the name Franz Lang. He was severely beaten by the soldiers who were with Hanns. Under questioning Hoss revealed he was one of Hitler's willing-very willing-executioners. He was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death.
This riveting account demonstrates yet again what Arendt called the 'banality of evil'. Before he was hanged at the death camp where he had organised the massacre of hundreds of thousands before returning to the family home for tea-one frequently wonders with monsters like Hoss, and their wives, what they discussed at the table-he admitted that 'I never gave much thought to whether it was wrong'.
Harding tells us that some 60 years later Hoss's grandson paid a visit to the death camp to see where his father had played not knowing that just over the garden wall thousands of innocent people were being slaughtered daily.
Of all the numerous books on the Holocaust this is by far the most disturbing for it demonstrates how the ordinary German, not just the SS fanatic, was willing to commit mass murder on a daily basis before returning to the family hearth.
On 5 September 2013 Rochus Misch, for 5 years Hitler's courier, telephonist and bodyguard, died. He said working for Hitler was the best time of his life. He was an unquestioning admirer and servant of Hitler. He described Hitler as 'a perfectly ordinary man'. He was, he said 'a normal man with nice words'. Like all too many he claimed to know nothing of the Holocaust, despite listening to Hitler's telephone conversations. In his memoirs 'The Last Witness' he spoke of 'his unconditional loyalty to Hitler'. His daughter refused to have anything to do with him. He was one of the many thousands of 'ordinary' Germans who never regarded the actions of Hitler and his brood of evil doers as 'out of the ordinary'. Like them he developed a convenient amnesia after the war. He denied being a fanatic or a member of the Nazi Party.
Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, a leading historian of the Third Reich, has recently written that Misch was 'an unrepentant Nazi and SS man'. His claim that he, like others, knew nothing of the murder of millions of Jews is 'a downright lie'.
Misch is an example like Hoss of the culpability of ordinary Germans for the systematic annihilation of millions. They willingly drove the trains to the death camps. They kept the meticulous records of the industrialised butchery, and then like Hoss went home to have tea and biscuits with the family.
When the war ended Misch became a painter and a shop manager. Not far away worked former SS men as carpenters, dentists and lawyers, a common occurrence.
This month, German State Prosecutors have been requested to bring charges against another 30 Auschwitz death camp guards who until now have escaped justice. Like many, once the war ended they had re-entered German society posing as ordinary citizens. In many proven cases, despite their ghastly secrets being known, people like them were protected by friends and neighbours. There were and still are many, many like Hoss and Misch.
Do read this remarkable and disturbing book.
Do read this book.
The author of this absorbing book was surprised to discover, at his great-uncle's funeral, that his relative was the man who tracked down war criminal Rudolf Hoss. In this engaging work, he tells the story of two men's lives in an honest and sympathetic manner. Harding parallels their biographies - Rudolf Hoss, born in 1901 in Baden-Baden, whose father had decided he would join the priesthood, but who joined the army to fight in WWI at the age of fourteen and who was a Commander at just sixteen years old; an odd mix of family man and committed National Socialist. Hanns Alexander, meanwhile, was born in 1933 to a rich and influential family, his father, an eminant doctor, was initially reluctant to even consider leaving Germany until the danger became too great. Luckily, Dr Alexander was visiting his married daughter in London when it became evident that he was to be arrested and the family managed to finally meet up again in England. When war broke out, both Hanns and his twin brother Paul were determined to enlist.
This work takes us through the war years, where Hoss recalled how Himmler gave him personal orders to Auschwitz to become, "a site of mass annihilation." Zyklon B provided a cheap and quick method of killing hundreds of people at a time. Later, Hoss chillingly recalled how solving the problem of the mechanism for mass murder meant that, "now my mind was at ease." As the war neared its end, the Allies created a database of alleged war criminals and the Commandant of Auschwitz was high on that list. However, the British war crimes response was not seen as of major importance until British troops entered Belsen. Hanns Alexander was chosen for the first ever war crimes investigation team, first as an interpreter and later as a war crimes investigator. When Hanns arrived at Belsen his shock, rage and purpose was palpable - he knew that what happened in the concentration camps could easily have happened to him had he stayed in Germany. Hanns vowed to hunt down missing war criminals, especially Kommandant Hoss. How Hoss was tracked down and what happened to him at the close of the war is unveiled, often reading more like a thriller than a factual account.
The author has really managed to write a book which is immensely readable, interesting and sympathetic to all the people he writes about; which, frankly, is more than Hoss deserves. His complete inability to realise what he was accountable for is truly shocking; his crimes almost defy belief. This, however, is an important book - it is a thrilling story of justice and the search for a man trying to evade capture, an account of how people forced to leave their country started again and the biography of two very different men. It is Rudolf Hoss's normality which shocks you when you consider even a small number of the crimes he perpetuated. It is Hanns Alexander's normality which shows you how resourceful and brave people can be when their cause is just. An excellent book and highly recommended.
on 3 July 2014
What a fantastic book!
It is never dull, it spares no punches and despite the early declaration of the author as to why he wrote the book, we see both characters (of Hanns and Rudolf) as rounded individuals, with likable traits and wicked flaws. In fact such is the author's skill that, at times, I was having to check myself from beginning to feel sorry for Rudolf Hoss, the kommandant of Auschwitz and one of the deadliest and inhuman mass murderers we've ever had the misfortune to witness.
You see, we are introduced to Rudolf, and Hanns, the German Jew working for the British army who eventually tracked him down, as small boys. Their tales are told in parallel and we watch them grow, see their characters develop and understand the twists of fate and circumstance that led each along their own paths in life.
Inside Auschwitz the life of the Kommandant and his family is revealed in stark contrast to the horror of existence as an inmate. For me the most sickening thing wasn't how Rudolf could kill tens of thousands and return home like he'd spent the day counting paperclips, it was how his wife, Hedwig, knew what was happening and yet was able to fret about matching curtains and seamstresses.
This is a simply stunning book. Heroic, tragic, gutwrenching and at times light hearted. Please read it.