January 3, 2014 2:10:02 PM
Growing up, Thomas Harding knew his great-uncle Hanns Alexander as an elderly, prankish, ordinary former banker who enjoyed telling dirty jokes to kids. He also knew not to ask his great-uncle about World War II. Then at Alexander's funeral in 2006, Harding learned from the eulogy something that surprised almost everyone attending: after the war, Alexander had tracked down and brought to justice the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss. Thomas, a journalist and filmmaker, determined to find out if this was true, and his researches have led him to write Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz (Simon and Schuster). The book is brilliantly laid out, with chronological chapters alternating between Alexander and Hoss, tracing their upbringings and choices until the two are brought together in the final chapters. The format forces comparisons between the two men, and although one is a hero and one a war criminal, they were ordinary men caught up in the chaos of war, both of whom were doing their duty as they saw it. Thus the book raises huge and unanswerable questions of chance, choice, destiny, and responsibility.
Alexander was born in 1917 in Berlin, the son of a society physician with many famous friends. At home, he might have dined with guests like Albert Einstein or Marlene Dietrich. It was a cultured and prosperous Jewish family, the sort whose world was destroyed by the Nazis. They had a huge 22-room apartment in a fashionable district in the capital. Like many Jews, they assumed that the difficulties imposed by the Nazis would eventually be reversed. In 1936, Alexander's father was visiting relatives in England when he got a warning that his name was on a list of Jews the Gestapo was bent on rounding up. He stayed in England, and his family was eventually able to join him. There were huge adjustments; the family had but a two-bedroom flat in London, but Hanns easily learned English and got a job. With the declaration of war, he was eager to enlist within the army of his adopted country. He had dutiful, unremarkable service within Europe, including landing in Normandy, until the victory came, but days after VE Day, his unit entered the concentration camp at Belsen. He was faced with its horrors, writing at the time, "There were dead bodies walking about, dead bodies lying about, people who thought they were alive and they weren't." Something snapped; Hanns might have been self-centered and carefree before, but his anger at what he saw, the crimes suffered by German Jews like himself, inspired him to a level of involvement he had not shown before. He was glad to be assigned a role of interpreter for the first war-crime trial, but he wanted to use his knowledge of German and Germany to track down suspects. Initially, he did this on his own, and then it became an official assignment. The climax of his work was tracking down Hoss, which he did with tenacity, and it must be said, with brutality.
Rudolf Hoss was born in 1901 near Baden-Baden to a devout Catholic family. He might have been intended by his family for the priesthood, but he falsely enlisted in the army at age fourteen and saw service in the Middle East during World War I. After the war he joined a paramilitary group that fought the communists, and fit nicely into Hitler's underworld of anti-Semitism, resentment over the Treaty of Versailles, and thuggery. He was an early joiner to the Nazi Party after he heard Hitler speak in Munich in 1922. He became an acquaintance of Heinrich Himmler, and joined an Aryan farming league. He loved horses, and the SS needed horses, and he was glad to set up a stable. But to run an SS stable, he had to be an SS officer, and he signed up. When Himmler saw him again, he influenced Hoss to abandon the horses and return to soldiery, recommending that he start training as a supervisor of the camp Himmler had established in Dachau. Eventually in April 1940 he was appointed commandant of a new camp to be built at Auschwitz, and the first Jews arrived in 1942. It seems that he had an initial concern for unfair and illegal treatment of Jews, an attitude that was ditched or worn away in his duties to the Reich. He helped design in the camp's killing machines, he was a witness to the first Jews to be gassed, and he oversaw millions of such murders. With the collapse of the Reich, he went into hiding, assumed the identity of a farm hand in northern Germany, but could not keep up the masquerade once Alexander found him.
Unlike other Nazis, Hoss seems to have come to an understanding of how completely wrong his actions had been. He confessed to his astonishing crimes in a memoir he wrote while awaiting execution, but more importantly, he openly testified against others at Nuremberg. After his testimony, he was tried in Poland for the murder of three million, and hanged at Auschwitz itself. There is never any doubt in this book about how the end was fitting, but the author has deliberately referred throughout to his twin protagonists by first name, as in the title, to emphasize that they were both human beings, even if there were no moral equivalence. Hanns was often inconsiderate and brutal, and Rudolf was a vile man rather than a vile monster. Their parallel lives and their climactic collision are here displayed in a dramatic and exciting account, a worthy addition to WWII histories.