'Commandant of Auschwitz' by Rudolf Höss: Book Review

About the Author
Rudolf Höss (sometimes spelled 'Hoess' in English) was born in 1901 in Baden-Baden, Germany. Believe it or not, he was brought up in a deeply religious Catholic family, and was actually considering priesthood after leaving school! Eventually, however, he began to have doubts when a priest broke the rules of the Confessional and told his father something he had confessed to him privately. Furthermore, in his teenage years his father died - he had been the main driving force for Höss to go into the priesthood. Höss decided the military was more for him, and enrolled in service at the age of just 14. By 15, he was serving in World War I in places as far away as Palestine. He was decorated with many medals after the war.
Höss was later involved in the Freikorps and ended up in prison, sentenced to a minimum of 10 years, for a brutal political murder. However, once the new Nazi government took over, he was freed after serving six years. He signed up to the Nazi party, making his way through the ranks in different concentration camps before being given the job as Commander of the new Auschwitz camp, where he was in office until 1943 before being transferred to an office position in Berlin. After the war, the British military found him in hiding in Germany. He was tried for murder in 1946 and hanged on the site of the former Auschwitz I complex, not far from his old house, on 16th April 1947. The gallows, specially built for his execution, are still standing.

About the Book
The version of this book that I own is quite old; printed as early as the 1960s (I bought the cheapest version of this that I could on Amazon as, personally, I believe such literature should be free to all people and not sold at extortionate prices that chain bookshops profit from. But that is altogether a different discussion.)

Höss wrote this autobiography after his capture and whilst in prison. There is speculation as to whether he was forced to by the British or whether he wrote it all voluntarily. Whichever the case, it is an extremely interesting insight into the man who once oversaw the biggest concentration camp in history. He is quick to speak lowly of his colleagues and points out many of their misgivings; what's more, he almost tries to make the reader feel sorry for him at certain points. Höss moans that he had to fend for himself when gathering materials together for the construction of Auschwitz; that, on his visits, Himmler never paid attention to any problems that he or his staff were facing; that sometimes he could not spend enough time with his children because of his duties. Oh, yes, do pity him...
He also gives a brief explanation as to why he installed the now infamous 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate at the entrance of Auschwitz I. In the book, he discusses life in prison before joining the SS and says how he felt much better when occupied and given something to do rather than sit in his cell. Therefore, he says he could understand the mentality of prisoners and wanted to remind them of the 'freedom' and distraction work could bring. In my opinion, this 'understanding' is totally futile, as conditions in a German prison of the time would have been worlds apart from the horrors of a concentration camp. Furthermore, Höss could try and justify this descision as much as he pleased, but its sadistic, sarcastic undertones are still just as apparent.

Despite all this, does Höss express any apology, explanation or regret for what he did? Certainly not. Paradoxically, he does point out that he "never hated the Jewish race" but is honest about sending them to the gas chambers without much worry. Sometimes, he also shows the mentality of 'orders were orders', as many SS men and women did. The most disturbing aspect of the whole memoir is that it is overwhelmingly apparent that Höss considered himself to have a fairly clear conscience right up until the end. He was doing what was expected of him, to the best of his abilities. One episode from the book that particularly sticks out in my mind is when Höss describes being in the vicinity of The Little White House, which once operated as a gas chamber, when a victim approaches him and asks, "How can you do this? How can you kill such beautiful, darling children?" Does the guilt take hold? Does he even relate to his own children and empathise about how he might feel if someone took them away from him? Not even close; he decides to take a ride on his horse for a while to 'clear [his] head', but that is all he says on the subject.
Höss was clearly a cold, calculating man. He can be described as some kind of 'monster', but the fact the text is written so normally and plainly is what makes it all the more disconcerting. A fascinating book to read, if not a little disturbing.

Recommended for...
Students of History, Psychology and War Studies. However, I do believe this is the sort of book everyone should read, particularly those of teenage years, as part of the curriculum, to truly try to begin to understand the horrors of racism and genocide.