Hanns and Rudolf – The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz
By Thomas Harding
William Heinemann – £20.00
To call this book mesmerizing might be a little far fetched, but it’s one of the most readable and un-put-down-able books I’ve read in a long time. Like John Le Carre has written on the front cover of Hanns and Rudolf – The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz: ”A gripping thriller, an unspeakable crime, an essential history.”
I absolutely couldn’t agree more.
The book does read like a thriller, the crime(s) herein are not only ”unspeakable,” but unfortunately very real, and its seventeen chapters are indeed, an essential overview of relatively recent (European) history.
In brief, during the terrible aftermath of the Second World War, the first British War Crimes Investigation Team is assembled to hunt down an array of seemingly soulless, despicable, senior Nazi dirt-bags, who were responsible for having surely committed the worst crime/stain on humanity ever. Lieutenant Hanns Alexander is at the vanguard of the investigations; Rudolf Hoss is his most sought after, yet all elusive target.
So within these 287 pages, what we get is a very readable account of Germany during the politically tempestuous thirties, and a very gritty/sickening account of The Final Solution. This is particularly brought to bear in Chapter Nine (‘Rudolf – Oswiecim, Upper Silesia 1942’) where author Thomas Harding writes: ”The first trainload of Jews to be transported to Auschwitz arrived in the spring of 1942. Tired and disorientated by their journey, these men, women and children were taken off the train in Birkenau, where those judged able to work were led away, and the rest were marched six hundred yards to one of the small farmhouses at the back of the camp. Here they were told to undress behind especially erected screens, all the while unaware of the fate that awaited them. On one of the farmhouse doors had been written the words ‘Disinfection Room,’ and towards this the guards directed the prisoners, telling them, with the assistance of interpreters, that they should remember where they had stowed their luggage so that they could locate it after they had been deloused. Now naked, the prisoners were ushered into the disinfection room, two or three hundred at a time, before the doors were screwed tight. Then guards on the roof dropped two canisters of granulated Zyklon B into the room below. After ten minutes all the prisoners were dead.”
Some may have taken umbrage at my earlier description of senior Nazi officials as seemingly soulless, despicable dirt-bags.’ But to my mind, there are no words that can accurately describe those who were even in the slightest, responsible for such actions as that depicted above.
Perhaps someone can offer a better description?
As for an objective evaluation of the Auschwitz Kommandant, Rudolf Hoss, one needs to take account of what Harding later writes in the very same chapter: ”As the summer of 1943 came to a close, Rudolf was at the pinnacle of his Kommandant career: he oversaw a network of camps that housed over 80,000 people, manned by over one thousand guards. He had constructed the most effective killing machine in human history, capable of murdering over four thousand people a day. His wife was able to enjoy the benefits of such a position: entertaining the most powerful men in the land in her lavishly appointed home.”
I have to say, not all of Hanns and Rudolf evolves around such descriptive and inexorable extermination of the Jews. Much light is also shed on the early years of both protagonists (as well as their later/final years), Berlin during Weinmar, as well as the aforementioned criminal investigations that took place in 1945/6.
Quite simply, this really is a tremendous book; written with verve, truth and humanistic compassion.