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 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.
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.
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 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 28 April 2015
This story is very interesting and it reads quickly, but I must say that I had a few major problems with it. At the very beginning Thomas Harding affirms for us that he in no way means to equate the two men morally, yet as you read through the book you get the impression that he in some way is. Right at the beginning he says "this story challenges the traditional portrayal of the hero and the villain. Both men were adored by their families and respected by their colleagues...Rudolf Hoess, the brutal Kommandant, displayed a capacity for compassion. And the behaviour of his pursuer, Hanns Alexander, was not always above suspicion." When Alexander finally catches Hoess, he allows his men some moments of revenge, where Hoess is beaten and humiliated. But these men were mostly German Jews; Jews who had lost family members to this man. Alexander himself lost family and friends. It may not be nice, but it is hardly difficult to understand their motivations and feelings. How in the world can this compare to a man who systematically murdered millions of innocent people who had no connection to him whatsoever in some of the most brutal ways imaginable? One of these men had a difficult, perhaps ultimately wrong, human reaction. One of these men can not even be described. Human is just not the word for this. What do you call such a personification of evil?
And the letter Hoess wrote to his children...I felt nauseated. Not from the letter but because I was beginning to feel bad for him. In fact, I already felt bad for him as he was separated from his family, which he clearly loved, and they he. And I don't want to feel bad for him. I feel that Harding has manipulated me into viewing this monster as human. I just don't think he is. And I feel he not only deserved what he got, but he should have gotten worse. And I don't feel bad for the family either. His wife knew, and ignored, the most unimaginable cruelty happening right next door? And am I supposed to believe the children know nothing? Children are not so stupid, especially the older ones. Obviously, they are not responsible, but I still can't feel bad for them.
I absolutely think Hoess was right when he wrote in his memiors that they should not publish the parts about his family, his "soft emotions," and his "secret doubts." He writes "Let the public go on thinking of me as a bloodthirsty brute, a cruel sadist, the murderer of millions-for that is the only way the vast majority will be able to imagine the Kommandant of Auschwitz. They would never understand that he too, had a heart, and was not a wicked man."
Right, and it is a desecration of the memories of all those millions of innocent people sent to their deaths, all those crying and laughing children sent to their early graves, all those families ripped apart, never to see each other again, to think otherwise. What kind of "heart" is that anyway?
I would have liked to give this book four stars, but I just can't. I am so bothered by this aspect of the book. Complex, Hoess might have been. Human, he certainly wasn't.
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 17 July 2014
I thought this was an excellent book. It's certainly not the first I've read about the Holocaust, but it's impressed me for a particular reason. The author, Thomas Harding, is the great-nephew of Hanns Alexander, the eponymous German Jew. Given what his family went through during the Third Reich, it would not be unreasonable to expect him to succumb to the temptation of painting a one-dimensional portrait of his great-uncle as the perfect hero and Rudolf Hoess as the blackest of black villains. Yet, remarkably, he doesn't. While he doesn't hesitate to describe in harrowing detail the mass murders and appalling 'lesser' crimes for which Rudolf Hoess was responsible, and his utter lack of real, genuine remorse for them as opposed to for their consequences for him and his family, he also reflects the other side of the man - the obedient, hard worker and loving father. In equal detail he describes the sometimes wilful child that his great-uncle was, and writes openly of his prolonged procrastination towards the girl who was later to become his wife. I was especially struck by how Hanns and his twin brother Paul, both as children and adults, teased children in an almost bullying way that left me feeling rather uncomfortable. I couldn't help wondering how that trait might have developed had they later found themselves in circumstances where it could have been given free rein and encouragement - running a concentration camp, for example. It's very much to Mr Harding's credit, especially given how emotionally involved he must be in the story - that he gave us a picture of both Mr Hoess and Mr Alexander as human beings, with all the qualities and the flaws that every human being has. I think that added a great deal to the awful fascination of their stories, and it makes it almost impossible to finish the book without wondering 'what might I have done?' - in either Mr Hoess's or Mr Alexander's position. A very, very good read.
on 28 September 2013
Really enjoyed this. It starts off with the ordinary backstories of both men, shows their increasingly divergent paths and choices and brings them back together with one as the pursuer and one the pursued- and the very different fates that await them. Hoess is presented as human- which he was, there is no such thing as monsters his evil was of the purely human variety- and its fascinating (yet very disturbing)descriptions of his family and home life amidst slaughter are important in rounding him out as a character and as a man- rather than a nazi sterotype. I cant begin to comprehend how someone who clearly adored their children could do such things to other peoples. On the other side of the coin Hanns story is also fascinating (if a bit embarrassing as a Brit that we didnt do more) and isnt something id read about before- this quiet unassuming man did quite extraordinary things in his youth, helping to fight for his adopted homeland and bringing to justice those who had deemed his people worthless. Fascinating.
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.