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Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz

By Thomas Harding. 348 pp. Simon & Schuster, 2013. $26.

The ironic trajectories of lives displaced and entangled by World War II can create what writers call“natural” stories, whose plot lines arise organically from the arc of historical events. In Hanns and Rudolf,the author pairs his great-uncle Hanns Alexander, a Jew whose middle-class family barely escaped Berlin when he was a teen, with Rudolf Höss, who joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and rose to run Auschwitz. Why? Thanks to a wartime concatenation of chance, ambition, and talents, the practical joker Hanns was transformed by his duties as a British army officer at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, volunteered to hunt Nazis,and in 1946 nailed Rudolf, then working as a farmer with fake identification. With poetic justice, the Nazi chieftain was hanged at Auschwitz a year later.

An adept storyteller, Harding makes the most of this twist of history. Alternating chapters illuminate each man’s life in detail and context. Hanns was the son of a doctor, a decorated World War I veteran who refused to believe his fellow Germans would embrace Nazi anti-Semitism until it was almost too late. After making it to England, Hanns and his twin,Paul, drew on ingenuity and persistence to overcome the hurdles facing German Jewish immigrants who wanted to join the fight against Nazi Germany;knowing five languages, Hanns became an interpreter. A handsome young dandy,he sowed his oats while his fiancée (and eventual wife) tried to rein him in. Along the way comes enriching background,like how belated the English efforts to round up Nazis at large were: trained investigators in substantial numbers were deployed only in late 1946.

Rudolf, a farm-boy loner meant to be a priest, enlisted in the Kaiser’s army at 14, became its youngest NCO at 16,then fought with the Freikorps in Latvia.He spent his first six years as a Nazi in prison for “executing” a Freikorps traitor.Later, thanks to friendships with Martin Bormann and Heinrich Himmler, he was chosen to design and build Auschwitz’s camp and mass-extermination factories,in which he took obsessive technocratic pride. He refurbished a huge house nearby for his wife Hedwig and family,who lived sumptuously. After the war,she betrayed him; Hanns, who had found Rudolf’s family but not his quarry,threatened to turn their son over to the Russians unless Hedwig snitched on her husband.

Rudolf Höss’s testimony at Nuremburg about the mechanics of Nazi extermination gave the first detailed look at how millions died, undercutting defendants’ claims at the trials that they knew nothing about it. Famously, even the psychologists who interviewed Rudolf found no trace of remorse; the word “psychosis”was used in their reports.

Based on Rudolf’s memoir, Hanns’s papers, family documents and memories, and his own solid research, Harding evokes two men whose paths would never have crossed had history not bent their lives onto a collision course.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.