Biographies & Memoirs

Architect of Death at Auschwitz: A Biography of Rudolf Höss

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Synopsis

Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, has been called the greatest mass murderer in history. From 1940 to 1945, more than one million men, women, and children were put to death at Auschwitz. In testimony at trial and in his memoirs, Höss acknowledged his participation in the Final Solution and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of persons at Auschwitz due to starvation and disease. Yet, he sought to blame his subordinates for the cruelty imposed on inmates. Höss also claimed that Hitler and Himmler, not he, were responsible for the calamity of the Final Solution and that he (Höss) was simply an unknowing “cog in the wheel” of the Nazi extermination machine.

Architect of Death at Auschwitz is both a biography of Höss and a critical analysis of his memoirs. The book describes the horrifying death suffered in the gas chambers. It details the tortuous life in camp for those found sufficiently fit to work yet given little to eat or wear, provided wholly inadequate medical care, and subjected to medical experimentation. The book dispels the impression Höss attempts to create that he was never cruel or mistreated any prisoners and demonstrates, instead, he acted with unscrupulous brutality.

I. Escape and Capture

In the fall of 1944, most objective observers knew Germany would lose the war. The Americans and British were advancing north through Italy and closing in on Berlin from the west while the Soviet army was approaching from the east. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler knew the end was coming and what it meant. While many in the outside world had heard about the Final Solution and the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, some did not believe the stories. Others thought they were exaggerated: “No such places could possibly exist. Germans are decent, honorable, cultured people. Even the Nazis could not murder millions of men, women and children simply because they are Jewish.” Himmler knew that as the Allies took more and more territory, especially in the east, they would liberate the extermination camps, and the Nazis would be unable to hide the abomination they had perpetrated. 

In November 1944, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss was the head of Amtsgruppe DI in the Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps, part of the SS Economic-Administrative Main Office (WVHA), overseeing all Nazi concentration camps. In Budapest, Hungary, he met with SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann who was responsible for rounding up Jews in their native countries and deporting them to the extermination camps. According to Eichmann, negotiations were ongoing between Himmler and Jewish representatives in Switzerland through various middlemen. Eichmann told Höss that Himmler had directed that all exterminations must stop immediately. On November 25, 1944, Himmler ordered that the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz be demolished. His purpose was unmistakable - - destroy the most obvious evidence that the Nazis had been systematically killing European Jews.

In the short span of mid-May to early July 1944, under Höss’ direct supervision, Auschwitz gas chambers had exterminated almost 400,000 Hungarian Jews, more than at any other comparable period. The Nazis killed and burned almost 10,000 human beings per day, using five gas chambers, crematoria, and outdoor pits. After July 1944, gassing significantly diminished. Now, in compliance with Himmler’s order, workers began dismantling crematorium II by removing the furnace, chimneys, and roof. Openings were made to place dynamite charges. In December 1944, crematorium III was disassembled. A squad of 50 women was formed to remove ashes from the incineration pits, fill them in, and cover them with turf. Crematorium IV, which was damaged during a prisoner revolt in October 1944, and Bunker II, which served as a gas chamber, were also taken apart. A barracks used as an undressing room for victims before entering Bunker II was torn down. On January 20, 1945, crematoria II and III were blown up with dynamite. Crematorium V was destroyed January 26, 1945.

 In the summer of 1944, the SS moved about half of the population of Auschwitz (then a total of about 130,000 inmates) to other camps. On January 18, 1945, the SS marched the remaining Auschwitz prisoners who were able to walk, approximately 56,000 inmates, including those of the Auschwitz satellite camps, west, away from the advancing Soviet Army. On January 27, 1945, the Soviets liberated Auschwitz and found about 7,000 prisoners, the total combined from Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Monowitz (the slave labor camp), who had been left behind because they were too weak to be removed on January 18. The fact that the Nazis left anyone alive was truly fortunate.

The Soviets also found the remnants of Hitler’s Final Solution. Despite the blasting of crematoria II and III, the walls, floors, underground dressing rooms, and gas chambers were clearly visible. Parts of the furnace of crematorium V remained. Other metal furnace parts were located on the grounds of Bunker II. The Nazis had burned down 29 of 35 storehouses where property stolen from incoming Jews was collected. In the warehouses that remained, the liberators found about 370,000 men's suits and 837,000 women's coats and dresses. Some 44,000 pairs of shoes were left, along with prostheses, household goods and other personal items. Perhaps most disturbing was the 7.7 tons of human hair packed and ready for transport which would be used to create yarn for garments for German workers and soldiers. According to estimates, the hair was shaved off about 140,000 female prisoners.

While attempting to destroy evidence of the Final Solution, Himmler engaged in secret diplomacy with the Western Allies in the fantastic hope he would be chosen to lead Germany into peace after the war. Himmler proposed releasing tens of thousands of Jews as a good faith gesture to jump start the negotiations. At the end of World War I, Hitler claimed and World War I veterans like Höss believed that Germany lost the war, not due to any failure of German soldiers on the battlefield, but because Jews, among others, stabbed Germany in the back. Ironically, near the end of World War II, it would be Himmler, one of Hitler’s closest confidants, who would betray him, and he proposed using Jews to do it. Meanwhile, in January 1945, Himmler had given the order for the complete evacuation of all the camps in the east. According to several testimonies, he warned camp commanders: “The Führer holds you personally responsible for ... making sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy.” No matter what he did about the Jews without Hitler’s knowledge, Himmler knew he could not openly defy Hitler without facing certain death.

In addition to keeping witnesses out of the hands of the Allies, Himmler also, incredibly, wanted the camp prisoners to continue their slave labor on behalf on the German war effort. The retreat from Auschwitz in January 1945 was properly called a Death March. It was the middle of winter. Auschwitz prisoners, already severely compromised physically by conditions at the camp, were forced to march through the falling snow in intense cold. Some of the prisoners headed northwest towards Germany while others marched due west towards Austria. They had little or nothing to eat; thirst was their worst enemy. Inmates were forced to sleep wherever they stopped - - pig sties or barns or sometimes in the open. Many stumbled to the ground due to lack of strength. Without the assistance of a friend or relative or other prisoner to get them back on their feet, an SS guard would simply shoot them where they fell to keep the march moving. Corpses lined the roads. Open rail cars at Gleiwitz, 50 kilometers from Auschwitz, and Wodzislaw, 65 kilometers away, carried them the rest of the journey, if they could make it that far. Prisoners even died while riding in the open freight cars, only to be tossed out along the tracks to make room for the remaining inmates and guards.

As the war now progressed towards its inevitable end, communications were breaking down. SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl, the head of the WVHA, received no reports from Richard Baer, the Auschwitz commandant, regarding the location of the prisoners removed from Auschwitz. Pohl decided to send Höss in search of the Auschwitz prisoners. He found Baer at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp near Swidnica in western Poland making preparations for the arrival of the Auschwitz inmates. However, Baer had no idea where the 50,000 Auschwitz inmates might be. Although the original plan called for the Auschwitz prisoners to relocate to Gross-Rosen, that course was no longer feasible because of the Soviet advance. Höss drove on, hoping to reach Auschwitz in time to assure that the order for the destruction of everything important had been properly carried out. He could get no farther than the Oder River, near Raciborz, Poland, 85 kilometers west of Auschwitz; Soviet armored spearheads were already fanning out on the far side of the river.

There, Höss met up with the Auschwitz prisoners:

On all the roads and tracks in Upper Silesia west of the Oder I now met columns of prisoners, struggling through the deep snow. They had no food. Most of the non-commissioned officers in charge of these stumbling columns of corpses had no idea where they were supposed to be going. They only knew that their final destination was Gross-Rosen. But how to get there was a mystery. On their own authority they requisitioned food from the villages through which they passed, rested for a few hours, and then trudged on again. There was no question of spending the night in barns or schools, since these were all crammed with refugees. The route taken by these miserable columns was easy to follow, since every few hundred yards lay the bodies of prisoners who had collapsed or been shot. I directed all the columns I could reach to go westwards, into the Sudetenland, so as to avoid the incredibly chaotic bottle-neck near Neisse.

According to Höss, he gave strict orders to the men in charge of the columns of prisoners that they were to no longer shoot prisoners incapable of further marching. Instead, they were directed to hand them over in the villages to the Volksstürm or home guard. When he met officers from Auschwitz, who had managed to obtain a vehicle, he posted them at crossroads, to collect the wandering columns of prisoners, and move them westward, eventually by train if possible. As evidence of his further attempt to restore order, Höss related that near Głubczyce, he came upon a German Air Force officer preparing to shoot a prisoner leaning against a tree. When Höss shouted at him and asked what harm the prisoner had done him, the officer laughed impertinently in Höss’ face, so Höss drew his pistol and shot him - - the officer. Höss’ efforts on behalf of the prisoners is unverified.

The recollection of one Auschwitz survivor concerning Höss’ actions on the Death March was quite different. George Klein stated that, as he hid inside a straw wagon, he heard the sound of a machine gun. He looked out and recognized Höss on a horse. According to Klein, Höss ordered 500-1000 women to lie down in a field. Their heads were covered. A German machine gun on a wagon opened fire, annihilating all of the women.   

Höss recalled “open coal trucks, loaded with frozen corpses, whole trainloads of prisoners who had been shunted on to open sidings and left there without food or shelter.” Roads were blocked by retreating military columns, as well as crowds of refugees. Höss even saw groups of prisoners, often without guards, who had escaped or whose guards had simply vanished. They, too, were making their way westwards. The snow was deep, and it was very cold. Having witnessed the chaotic mass of suffering humanity, Höss went to General Heinrich Schmauser in Breslau to urge him to stop the evacuation. Schmauser advised Höss of Himmler’s directive that made him responsible for assuring that not a single healthy prisoner remained in any camp under his authority.

Near the end of 1944, Höss’ family moved to the immediate vicinity of the Ravensbrück concentration camp, ninety kilometers north of Berlin. When the WVHA offices in Berlin were bombed by the Allies on April 16, 1945, the WVHA was moved north to Darss in Pomerania on the Baltic Sea. Höss and his family went with the Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps, headed by SS-Gruppenführer Richard Glücks, to Darss, then west to Schleswig-Holstein. In addition to his own family, Höss was responsible for the wife of Theodor Eicke, her daughter and children, and several other families and was instructed to keep them out of enemy hands. Eicke had been instrumental in establishing the Nazi concentration camps and was the first chief of the Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps. He had been shot down and killed during a reconnaissance flight in 1942. The Inspectorate group travelled by night in trucks, without lights, along crowded roads. Glücks and SS-Standartenführer Gerhard Maurer, the head of Amtsgruppe DII, the Labor Department, took a route different from Höss. In Rostock, two of the large trucks carrying the wireless equipment broke down, and by the time they were repaired, the trucks were captured by enemy tanks. On the way, the group learned that Hitler committed suicide April 30, 1945.

For too many Germans, Hitler was more than a leader, he was a Godhead. Höss and Hedwig were simultaneously struck by the same thought: “now we, too, must go.” Höss said:    

With the Führer gone, our world had gone. Was there any point in going on living? We would be pursued and persecuted wherever we went. We wanted to take poison. I had obtained some for my wife, lest she and the children fall alive into the hands of the Russians in the event of their making an unexpected advance.

The same thought had occurred to Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Tragically, he and his wife Magda murdered each of their six children by poison before killing themselves. Höss and Hedwig decided against that course:

Nevertheless, because of the children, we did not do this. For their sake we wanted to take on our own shoulders all that was coming. But we should have done it. I have always regretted it since. We would all have been spared a great deal, especially my wife and the children. How much more suffering will they have to endure? We were bound and fettered to that other world, and we should have disappeared with it.

After fleeing from Auschwitz, Frau Thomsen, the governess for the children of Höss and Hedwig, had gone to live with her mother at St. Michaelisdonn in Holstein. Höss took his family there. Himmler and other members of the government retreated to Flensburg, 110 kilometers north of St. Michaelisdonn, one of the last areas of Germany not in the hands of the Allies. Höss took his oldest son, Klaus, and drove to Flensburg, expecting to receive new orders. Hitler was dead but perhaps all was not lost if Himmler could lead them forward. Höss believed he still had some role to play in the Third Reich.

Höss was stunned by the scene. While the world had “crumbled beneath our feet,” Himmler was “beaming and in the best of spirits. There was no more talk of fighting.” He said: “Well, gentlemen, this is the end. You know what you now have to do.” Initially, Höss thought Himmler meant that, in accordance with what he had been preaching to the SS for years, each of them must make the ultimate sacrifice. Instead, Himmler instructed them to, “Hide in the Army.” Every man for himself was the order of the day. Supremely disappointed, Höss thought, “Such was our farewell message from the man to whom I had looked up so respectfully, in whom I had had such implicit trust, whose orders and utterances had been gospel to me.” Maurer and Höss looked at each other in “dumb astonishment.” These were not the inspiring words from the Reichsführer-SS that the veteran Nazis had expected. Höss felt betrayed. Himmler’s message was hardly consistent with the SS ideals for which Höss had served so many years. Höss claimed that, had he been alone, he would have committed some act of despair. But now, he had his department chiefs, the officers and men of his staff, and his family to look after.

Glücks was taken, half dead, to the naval hospital and admitted under another name. Höss contacted a well-known submarine commander. He and the rest of the departmental staff dressed as sailors and were issued false papers as naval personnel. Höss became boatswain's mate Franz Lang and went to the island of Sylt with orders to report to the Naval Intelligence School. He knew enough about naval life to make himself inconspicuous. Höss sent Klaus back to Hedwig, along with his driver and car. With little work to do, Höss had time to ponder deeply what had happened.

Meanwhile, Himmler wandered about in the vicinity of Flensburg until May 21, when he set out with eleven SS officers hoping to pass through British and American lines to his native Bavaria. In an effort to disguise himself, he had gone so far as to shave off his moustache, wear a black patch over his left eye and, perhaps most degrading of all for him, don an enlisted man’s uniform. The group was stopped the first day at a British control point where, after questioning, Himmler confessed his identity. He was taken to British Army headquarters at Lueneburg where he was strip-searched and made to change into a British Army uniform to avoid any possibility that he might be concealing poison in his clothes. Unknown to his initial captor, Himmler kept his vial of potassium cyanide concealed in a cavity of his gums. When a second British intelligence officer arrived and instructed a medical officer to examine Himmler’s mouth, he bit on the vial and was dead in twelve minutes, despite frantic efforts to keep him alive. When Höss learned of Himmler’s death, he again contemplated his own fate. Höss, too, had a vial of poison but chose to “wait on events” before using it.

As Höss began his new life as Franz Lang, hoping to elude capture by the Allies, the soldier who would eventually capture him was starting his assignment as a Nazi hunter. At the end of April 1945, Lieutenant Howard Hervey Alexander, a British officer, received orders to report to British headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. He had been chosen to serve as a member of the war crimes investigation team. As it happened, Lt. Alexander was uniquely qualified for this special task. He was born Hanns Hermann Alexander in Berlin on May 6, 1917, fifteen minutes before his twin brother Paul. They were the children of Dr. Alfred Alexander and his wife Henny. The Alexanders were Jewish but generally attended synagogue on only the most holy of days.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Two months later, on April 1, 1933, the National Socialists called for a boycott of Jewish businesses. The Alexanders watched as SA (Sturmabteilung) storm troopers - - Nazi street thugs - - marched down their street and blocked the door to the office where Dr. Alexander maintained his medical practice. Only the intervention of Colonel Otto Meyer, under whom Dr. Alexander served in World War I, prompted the Brownshirts to disperse.

The atmosphere of Jewish hatred was too much for Hanns’ sister, Bella. She moved to London with her English fiancé. Anti-Jewish laws forced Hanns and Paul to change schools and outlawed Dr. Alexander’s ability to be reimbursed for treating patients from public health insurance, a significant part of his income. Nazi anti-semitism was affecting more and more of the Alexanders’ daily lives. Late in 1934, Hanns heard a sermon by a rabbi who warned that all Jews should leave Germany. In early 1936, while Dr. Alexander was in London visiting Bella, the decision was made to move the family to England. He stayed and told the rest of his family to come as soon as they could. Henny worked on selling Dr. Alexander’s practice in Berlin and then joined the family. In May 1936, Hanns traveled to Switzerland and met up with Paul who had gone there previously with Henny’s parents. He took the train south to Munich then west to Switzerland, passing through the town of Baden-Baden, the birth place of Rudolf Höss.

 Hanns flew to London in June 1936. By September 1936, the entire family was together in England. Hanns studied English, as the family made the best of their new life. They watched as the situation for Jews in Germany worsened. They listened in shock on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, as 250 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish-owned stores and businesses were attacked. Many who stood, watched and did nothing had been their non-Jewish neighbors and friends. Then on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and England declared war on Germany. Hanns decided to enlist, not to fight for the country of his birth, but in the Royal Air Force.

In May 1940, Hanns and his unit arrived in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. As the Germans overwhelmed the Netherlands and Belgium and pushed into France, Hanns was among 300,000 British and Allied forces trapped at Dunkirk between the Germans and the English Channel. His outfit was one of the last to be picked up on the French shore and returned to Great Britain.  Once back in England, he asked his commanding officer if he could change his name in his military papers to something sounding less German - - hence Howard Hervey Alexander. In 1943, both Hanns and his twin brother Paul, also a member of the Royal Air Force, applied and were accepted for officer’s candidate school. In July 1944, following the successful D-Day invasion at Normandy, Lt. Alexander returned to France. He arrived in Brussels for his new assignment as part of the war crimes investigation team on May 8, 1945.

Hanns’ first assignment was to interrogate SS officers at a concentration camp in northern Germany - - Bergen-Belsen - - 300 kilometers west of Berlin. He and his driver arrived on May 12, almost a month after the camp had been liberated by the British on April 15. Inside the camp, Hanns beheld the true horror of the thousand-year Reich. Liberating British forces found not just dead inmates but piles of corpses. Health concerns required immediate burial of the dead by bulldozer in mass graves. The living were emaciated and barely alive. Typhus was a continuing threat. The camp had no water, food or medicine and little shelter. The journey of approximately 20,000 of the inmates forced to march out of Auschwitz on January 18 had ended at Bergen-Belsen. Present day visitors to Bergen-Belsen will find numerous mass graves each containing the remains of between 500 and 2000 human beings.

While the British soldiers were deeply affected by Bergen-Belsen, the experience touched Hanns’ soul. Hanns was German and this atrocity occurred in Germany. And he was Jewish. If he and his family had not gone to England, the fate of any of these poor wretched human beings could have been his fate or his family’s. Hanns was outraged. On May 16, Lt. Col. Leo Genn received a telegram at Bergen-Belsen instructing him to take command of the team of investigators and interpreters assembled at the camp. The unit was called Number 1 War Crimes Investigation Team or “1 WCIT.”   Hanns worked as an interpreter for the unit. They had a list of 165 high profile war criminals. On the list was Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz, though his name was misspelled and his birthdate, height and weight were wrong.

On May 17, Hanns and one of the team investigators, Captain Fox, drove 27 kilometers south to Celle where they interviewed their first witness, SS-Obersturmführer Franz Hössler, who had been assigned to Auschwitz. Hanns asked Hössler what he knew about the gas chambers. Hössler responded that everyone knew about the gas chambers but he was not involved in the selection of prisoners - - that was done by the doctors. Hössler claimed he made many complaints to the commandant, Höss, about people being sent to the gas chambers but was told it was none of his business.

As Nazi hunters would learn, the SS minimized their own involvement and tended to blame others for the barbaric acts that were committed. Hanns and Captain Fox had no way of knowing that, in fact, Hössler was one of Höss’ most ruthless and cold-blooded killers. On September 16, 1940, Hössler traveled with Höss to the Chelmno extermination camp for an inspection of its body-burning facilities. On July 28, 1941, 575 Auschwitz inmates were adjudged to be invalids, cripples or chronically ill prisoners and selected for termination. Hössler accompanied the group to the Sonnenstein Euthanasia Center in eastern Germany on the pretext of taking them to another camp where the work would be easier. At Sonnenstein, they were gassed in a bathhouse with carbon monoxide delivered through the showers as part of the Aktion 14f13 program. Hössler supervised the first extermination of Jews at the Auschwitz I crematorium on February 15, 1942.

On June 10, 1942, about fifty prisoners from an Auschwitz penal company attempted to escape while at work. During the pursuit thirteen were killed, while nine managed to escape. The next morning after roll call, Camp Commander Hans Aumeier demanded the names of the organizers of the breakout from the remaining 320 prisoners. When no one answered, Aumeier called twenty prisoners from the ranks and personally shot seventeen, while Hössler shot three. That evening the entire penal company was gassed in Bunker I. In October 1943, Hössler, pretending to be a representative of the Foreign Ministry, instructed a group of incoming Jews, who believed they were being transported to Switzerland, that they must undress and be disinfected before continuing their journey. Hössler was very polite and reassuring when, in fact, the group was being ushered into one of the Auschwitz gas chambers. On May 25, 1944, several hundred persons from a Hungarian transport fled into the woods to avoid gassing. Hössler took charge of the operation to recover the group, and once the Hungarians were cornered in a floodlit area, directed that all those who had tried to escape be shot.

After interviewing Hössler, Captain Fox and Hanns drove 32 kilometers west to Schwarmstedt where they interviewed Fritz Klein, one of the doctors who Hössler identified as being responsible for making selections of prisoners for the gas chamber.  He acknowledged he had overseen many of the selections. He said he acted on orders of Dr. Eduard Wirths, the chief camp physician. Klein identified the commandant of the camp - - Rudolf Höss. The next day, back at Celle, Hanns and Captain Fox interviewed Elizabeth Volkenrath, a senior women’s guard at Auschwitz. When asked, she said Rudolf Höss was responsible for the events at Auschwitz.

The sights at Bergen-Belsen and the statements of the perpetrators motivated Hanns to act. He vowed to hunt down Nazi war criminals, in particular Höss. Hanns asked Lt. Col. Genn to set out on his own. Genn refused. Hanns went anyway on his own time. Although he interviewed hundreds of German soldiers and civilians in the summer of 1945, few provided information of any value. The commandant of Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war was SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, formerly one of Höss’ adjutants at Auschwitz. At Genn’s request, Hanns re-interviewed Kramer on September 1 to correct his original statement that he knew nothing about the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Similar to Hössler, Kramer sought to minimize his knowledge and involvement in the atrocities. Kramer related that Höss advised him that, even though the gas chamber and crematorium were situated in his part of the camp, Kramer had no jurisdiction. In all likelihood, the conversation between Höss and Kramer took place between May and July 1944 when Kramer was the commandant of Birkenau and Höss returned to Auschwitz for the sole purpose of supervising the extermination of Hungarian Jews. At that point, Hanns and Genn realized that Höss’ testimony could establish the existence of the Holocaust.

Several weeks after Himmler’s death on May 23, 1945, the Sylt Naval Intelligence School, where Höss was serving as boatswain’s mate Franz Lang, surrendered to the British and was removed to the internment district between the Kiel Canal and the Schlei.  Höss was transported to a prison in Heide, a small town located one hundred miles south of Flensburg. There, Höss was close to his family, whom he was able to see quite often. Klaus visited him every few days. Höss petitioned for release, asserting that he was Franz Lang, a farmer, and wished to work on a local estate. The Allies wanted Nazi leaders to answer for war crimes, not ordinary soldiers and sailors. He was released and obtained a job through the Labor Department. On July 5, 1945, Höss arrived at Gottrupel, six miles west of Flensburg. He slept in a barn at the edge of the village and began farming land.

The first war crimes trial did not take place in Nuremberg. Instead, it began on September 17, 1945 in the German city of Lüneberg against Josef Kramer and 44 other defendants associated with the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Kramer testified that Höss was responsible for deaths of millions of people in the Auschwitz gas chambers. The trial ended November 17, three days before the Nuremberg trial began. Kramer, Klein, Hössler, Volkenrath, and Irma Grese, a guard at Auschwitz who refused to cooperate with investigators, were convicted and executed. As the trial neared its end, Hanns again sought permission to hunt fugitive war criminals. This time Genn agreed. Hanns was given access to war criminal files, a car and driver, and the power to arrest. He was also promoted to captain.

Following his successful capture of Gustav Simon, the Gauleiter of Luxembourg, and a trip to London to become engaged, Hanns returned with orders to focus on a new mission - - capture the men who ran the Concentration Camp Inspectorate, Amtsgruppe D. SS-Standartenführer Dr. Enno Lolling, the head of Amtsgruppe DIII, committed suicide in May 1945, and SS-Sturmbannführer Wilhelm Max Burger, the head of Amtsgruppe DIV, was in Polish custody. That left Glücks, Höss, and Maurer. At the end of January 1946, Hanns and Major Caola, another investigator, drove to Hanns’ hometown of Berlin. They then drove to the offices of the Inspectorate in Oranienburg, 35 kilometers north of Berlin. All documents had been destroyed, so they sought out former Inspectorate staff members. They learned that Glücks, Maurer and Höss, along with their families, had fled north towards the Danish border.

Twice while Höss worked at Gottrupel, he traveled the 116 kilometers to St. Michaelisdonn to see Hedwig. They met briefly outside of town to avoid being seen by British patrols. Shortly after Christmas 1945, Hedwig’s brother Fritz, who worked in Flensburg, met with Höss to give him a letter and clothes from Hedwig. Fritz told him he was in grave danger, as the British Field Security Police were watching Hedwig and the children. The police had also repeatedly searched their house. Direct communication with his family was no longer possible. Höss could only contact them through Fritz. In early March 1946, Fritz visited Höss with news about his family and to talk about their future. They discussed smuggling everyone out of the country. Höss knew they could not all go together; it was too risky. He decided the family should leave Germany. He would go first, and his family would follow.

In pursuit of the remaining three Inspectorate leaders, Hanns drove to Flensburg to interview Glücks’ wife. She confirmed that she and her husband left Berlin with Höss at the end of April 1945, ten months earlier. Although she said her husband had committed suicide, Hanns was doubtful. Unable to obtain confirmation about Glücks’ fate, Hanns focused on Höss. On March 8, 1946, Hanns went to the headquarters of the British Field Security Section 92 at Heide. There, he met Captain William Victor Cross who told Hanns they had been monitoring Höss’ wife and children and recently intercepted a letter from Höss. Coincidentally, Hedwig had been brought in for questioning the day before and was being held in nearby Lunden prison.

No doubt surprised and pleased, Hanns immediately drove to the prison and sat down in a cell with Hedwig Höss. Hanns told her who he was and his purpose. Hedwig, continuing to display Nazi arrogance and spousal loyalty, refused to give him any information. The next day, March 9, he drove 43 kilometers south to her home at St. Michaelisdonn where he confronted the four oldest children, while Hedwig remained in custody. Hanns asked them where their father was living. He went to each child separately, beginning with Klaus. Hanns screamed the question into Klaus’ face and banged his fist on the table but it was no use. He even threatened to kill Hedwig. The children would not betray their father. Hanns was determined not to leave empty-handed. He took fifteen-year-old Klaus with him.

When they arrived at Lunden prison, Hanns led Klaus to Hedwig’s cell. Though surprised to see her son in the jail, her demeanor did not change. When Hanns asked Hedwig where Höss was living, she again said she did not know. The next day, March 10, Hanns questioned Klaus further. He said he had not seen his father since the last days of the war. Angry at the attack on her child, Hedwig said she and Klaus would go on a hunger strike. Hanns then placed them in separate cells. The next time he asked Hedwig for Höss’ location, she said he was dead.

On the evening of March 11, 1946, a noisy steam engine was pulled behind the prison. Hanns burst into Hedwig’s cell and told her Klaus would be on the train and headed for Siberia; she would never see her oldest son again. Hedwig could save Klaus only by divulging her husband’s location and alias. Hanns left a pencil and paper on her bed. Hedwig was broken; she could not take the chance the British captain was bluffing. When Hanns returned to Hedwig’s cell ten minutes later, he retrieved a piece of paper on which Hedwig had indicated Höss was living at the Hans Peter Hansen farm in Gottrupel under the name Franz Lang.

Hanns and Captain Cross decided to arrest Höss as soon as possible. Gottrupel was only an hour’s drive northeast of Lunden. The men of the Field Security Section 92 were organized and briefed on the mission. Like Hanns, many of them were German Jews who had been forced from Germany and who had lost loved ones in Auschwitz. Anticipating that Höss would be injured, Hanns took a doctor. At 11 p.m. the group of 25 men arrived at Gottrupel. Hanns and the doctor approached the barn at the Hans Peter Hansen farm and knocked loudly. Höss, awakened from sleep, thinking he was being robbed.

Höss opened the door. Before him was a large group of British soldiers with guns drawn. Hanns stuck a pistol into his mouth and searched Höss for cyanide pills. According to Höss, his vial of poison had broken two days before. When Hanns asked to see identification papers, Höss produced the false Franz Lang ID. Hanns knew it was fake. He told Höss he believed he was the commandant of Auschwitz. Höss denied it. Hanns compared a photograph of Rudolf Höss to the man who stood before him and knew it was Höss. He continued to insist his name was Franz Lang. Höss did not yet know Hedwig had given up his false name and hiding place. He could only hope that he could convince Hanns of his false identity and be given the chance to flee the country as he had planned.

Hanns noticed Höss was wearing his wedding ring. “Give it to me,” he said. “I can’t,” replied Höss, “it has been stuck for years.” “No problem,” Hanns said, “I’ll just cut off your finger.” When Höss realized Hanns intended to carry through with his threat, he handed him the ring. On the inside was inscribed the names “Rudolf” and “Hedwig.” The commandant of Auschwitz was now in his custody. Hanns was aware his men hated Höss, as did he. Willing to face the consequences, he gave them the chance to take their “pound of flesh” from Höss. They almost literally did so. Hanns told the men, “In ten minutes, I want to have Höss in my car - - undamaged”, and left. The soldiers dragged Höss to one of the barn’s slaughter tables, ripped off his pajamas and beat him with axe handles. Höss screamed. After a short time, the doctor told Hanns, “Call them off unless you want to take back a corpse.” The beating ended, and Höss was carried out of the barn covered only with a blanket.

On the drive back to Heide, Höss confirmed to Hanns he was the commandant of Auschwitz and that he was “personally responsible for the deaths of 10,000 people.” Once in Heide, Hanns removed the blanket from Höss’ shoulders and made him walk naked to the prison. He was back in the barracks from which he was released by the British eight months before. Hanns and a sergeant began interrogating Höss, while forcing him to drink alcohol and beating him with a whip taken from Höss. Believing Höss had used the whip to flog prisoners, his interrogators turned it on him. Throughout the questioning, Höss was handcuffed. He would complain later to Dr. Leon Goldensohn, the psychiatrist at Nuremberg, that, without shoes or socks, he suffered from frostbite in the cold cell.

On March 15, Höss was driven to Camp Tomato in Minden near Hanover where he was subjected to additional interrogation. Höss said he received “further rough treatment” at the hands of the English prosecutor, and the conditions in the prison accorded with that behavior. Following questioning, Höss provided a statement, eight pages in length, which was typed and signed on or about March 15, 1946. The statement (see Appendix I) provides background of his early days with the SS and his concentration camp experience at Dachau and Sachsenhausen before starting the camp at Auschwitz. Höss states that Himmler ordered him to Berlin in June 1941 where he was told that Hitler had directed the Final Solution of the Jewish question. Höss indicates that other extermination camps - - Belzec, Treblinka, and Wolzek near Lublin (Sobibor) - - could not be expanded to handle mass exterminations as could Auschwitz. Himmler directed him to contact SS Obersturmbannführer Eichmann concerning the sequence of incoming transports.

In his statement, Höss explained that the first transports of Jews came from Slovakia and Upper Silesia in 1941, and that people were deceived into believing they were being deloused as they were led to the gas chambers. They were killed with Zyklon B within 3-10 minutes. Before they were cremated, gold teeth were removed. Until the crematoria were built, the bodies were burned in pits. Remaining bones were pulverized, and ashes were dispersed in the river. Höss also explained the selection process at the train platform to determine who was fit to work and the extermination and cremation process after the large crematoria were built. He described how the clothing and property of prisoners were sorted by a work party of prisoners. Valuables were sent to Berlin. Höss also discussed the medical experiments conducted on prisoners at Auschwitz. 

The capture of Rudolf Höss was noteworthy, especially to the prosecutors at the trial of Nazi war criminals ongoing in Nuremberg. By late March 1946, the Prosecution had presented its evidence and most of the prosecutors had gone home. Lieutenant Commander Whitney R. Harris, U.S.N.R., a member of the United States prosecution team remained in Nuremberg. When he learned that Höss was in British custody in northern Germany, he asked the British to send him to Nuremberg. The British had their statement and promptly obliged. After three weeks of British captivity, for the first time since his arrest, Höss’ handcuffs were removed. He was shaved, given a haircut and allowed to wash. Höss was on his way to Nuremberg.

Of his first statement given to the British, Höss said, “I do not know what is in the record, although I signed it.” Höss had been roughly handled by his British captors, motivated as much by retribution as to gain a confession. That document, standing alone, would constitute a poor foundation on which to base proof from Höss of the existence of the Holocaust. However, for reasons known only to Höss, he chose to speak on multiple occasions of the atrocities perpetrated at Auschwitz. He provided an affidavit at Nuremberg on April 5, 1946. Höss then testified before the Tribunal at Nuremberg on April 15, 1946. As he awaited his own trial in Poland, he wrote an autobiography encompassing the events at Auschwitz when he was commandant until 1943 and when he returned to oversee the extermination of Hungarian Jews in 1944. Finally, at his own trial in 1947, Höss admitted, for the most part, the allegations of the charges against him. Höss never complained that mistreatment affected any statement or testimony he gave after March 15, 1946. Comparison of Höss’ statement of March 15, his affidavit of April 5 and his testimony of April 15 at Nuremberg, and his memoirs indicates that the substance of the facts he relates about Auschwitz is in all material aspects the same.  Whatever might be said of the British treatment of Höss after his capture, it had no impact on the truth of his admissions.

About the author

I am a retired United States Magistrate Judge in San Antonio. In addition to Architect of Death at Auschwitz, I authored The Appomattox Generals published in 2013. For 30 years, I have been a volunteer with Camp Discovery, a summer camp for children with cancer. view profile

Published on July 24, 2020

Published by McFarland Books

90000 words

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs

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