“Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz”: Book review

The memoirs of Rudolf Höss, Kommandant of Auschwitz, written while in captivity before, during, and after his trial and while waiting for execution, are an important window into the mindset of the type of men who played key roles in the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War.

The picture you get of Höss upon reading these memoirs is of an unrepentant anti-Semite incapable of taking any real responsibility for his part in the atrocities, keen on passing all blame to his officers and superiors, who he constantly criticizes as imbeciles or misguided zealots whose dedication to a righteous cause ended up capsizing that very cause. Höss wants us to understand just how hard things were for him, while he played his martyred role of the overworked bureaucrat trying to follow impossible orders.

The memoirs are also an insight into the specifics of the Final Solution, including accounts of conversations with Himmler and other key planners. In this 1941 conversation, Höss relates how Himmler passed on the orders for annihilation:

“‘The Jews are the eternal enemies of the German people and must be exterminated. All the Jews within our reach must be annihilated during this war. If we do not succeed in destroying the biological foundation of Jewry now, then one day the Jews will destroy the German people.’ After receiving this far-reaching order, I returned to Auschwitz immediately.”

Intent on following all orders, no matter what their content or consequence, Höss relates how he went about the task with the detachment of an accountant: “I am unable to recall when the destruction of the Jews began – probably in September 1941, or perhaps not until January 1942. At first we dealt with the Jews from Upper Silesia. […] Originally, all the Jews transported to Auschwitz by the authority of Eichmann’s office were to be destroyed without exception, according to Himmler’s orders.”

There is no possibility in Höss’s mind that he can question these orders: “I had received an order; I had to carry it out. I could not allow myself to form an opinion as to whether this mass extermination of the Jews was necessary or not. At the time it was beyond my frame of mind. Since the Führer himself had ordered ‘The Final Solution of the Jewish Question,’ there was no second guessing for an old National Socialist, much less an SS officer. ‘Führer, you order. We obey’ was not just a phrase or a slogan. It was meant to be taken seriously.”

In fact, he did have an opinion on the order at the time – he believed the reasoning was sound: “Of course, this order was something extraordinary, something monstrous. However, the reasoning behind the order of this mass annihilation seemed correct to me. At the time I wasted no thoughts about it.“

Höss repeatedly complains of the difficulties he encountered in running the concentration camps, beset on all sides by idiotic and disobedient staff, hobbled by lack of resources, overwhelmed by endless transports. He is frustrated to see so many being selected to work, and cannot see the benefit from prolonging the inevitable: “The weak, the old, and those who were relatively healthy would soon become incapable of work, which would cause a further deterioration in the general standard and an unnecessary increase in hospital accommodations, requiring further medical personnel and medicines, and all for no purpose, since they would all be killed in the end.”

He laments again and again the terrible burden he carried in relation to an incompetent staff eager to flout orders. Few of his officers escape his judgment:

“Aumeier was no match for this chaos. Even the officers, such as Schötte, Schwarzhüber, Hössler, and so on, who were delegated to him were unable to understand the whole situation. So everyone just muddled along to the best of his ability. I, however, had to oversee everything. It was a full-time job for most of the officers just covering up their mistakes and carelessness from me.”
“There were many duds among these officers, who were the cause of the deplorable conditions. This would not have happened if we had honest and hard-working noncommissioned officers.”
“[Caesar] was not popular with those who worked for him; not because he was too strict or asked too much, but because of his arrogant behavior. He thought everyone was stupid and that he was the only one who had the knowledge.”
“It was difficult to work together with Fritzsch. I have tried time after time to point out his impossible behavior in a nice way. All for nothing.”
“Globocnik was a pompous ass who only understood how to make himself look good.”
“Globocnik’s staff was the elite of losers.”
“[Glücks] never took me seriously.”
“Grabner did not understand concentration camps and knew even less what the Political Department was supposed to do. I really had a difficult time with him in the beginning. […] At first he made so many mistakes that I requested he be transferred and someone else take his place.”
“Hartjenstein was too shortsighted, narrow-minded, pig-headed, and two-faced. He worked tirelessly against my orders and directives behind my back.”
“Dr. Lolling was an older man, tired and spent, who used morphine and liked to drink.”
“[Mauer] would never admit that he decisively contributed to the deterioration of Auschwitz and other other camps by his overzealousness in selecting Jews for work. And yet, that’s the way it was!”
“On his own initiative [Möckel] never really achieved anything noteworthy. He wasn’t capable of that. […] Mentally he was somewhat on the slow side when he had to do things that were new to him.”
“Sell was a very transparent person. He was tired and slow and had difficulty comprehending the situation and was neglectful in all his work.”

If only they would all follow his orders, Auschwitz could have been so different: “I became bitterly aware that all of my good aspirations and the best of my intentions were ruined by the human shortcomings and stubbornness of most of the officers and men who were assigned to me.”

But it was not to be, and he was no match for the sea of inabilities which gradually overwhelmed all his best efforts: “Because of this early failure, patterns were developed which later on were to have tremendously disastrous consequences. These errors, however, could have been kept to a minimum, in fact, could have been curtailed, if the camp commanders and the duty officers would have done it the way I wanted it. They, however, did not wish to do this and, in fact, couldn’t because of their own narrow-mindedness, stubbornness, maliciousness, and, last but not least, for their own convenience.”

No amount of appeals up the chain of command were of any use: “[Glücks] could never understand my problems. This lack of understanding on the part of my superior nearly drove me to despair.”

Höss traces part of this back to the training all SS received from Eicke, first inspector of the concentration camps and one of the key figures in establishing the concentration camp system: “It was Eicke’s intention to conduct regular lectures for his SS men, in order to set the tone about the basic criminal danger of these prisoners and issue corresponding orders to prime the SS against the prisoners so that they would suppress any feelings of pity right from the start. Because of his constant hammering he created a hatred, an animosity against the prisoners which is incomprehensible and which outsiders cannot understand. This attitude spread into all the concentration camps, to all the SS men and officers who served in the concentration camps, and continued for many years, even after Eicke’s departure as inspector of concentration camps.”

Once they had been to Eicke’s lectures, they were completely ruined and beyond recovery by Höss: “My orders and decrees which conflicted with their training were simply modified because they, not I, were actually running the camp.”

Not only were these “nincompoops” responsible for allowing the conditions at Auschwitz to deteriorate, they are also held accountable for instigating all of the cruelty against the prisoners: “It is mainly Palitzsch’s fault that there were such depraved violations and inhuman mistreatment of the prisoners.”

They are to blame for not stopping the transports: “Müller had the power to stop the roundups or at least slow them down. He would also have been able to convince Himmler. He did not do it, although he knew the exact consequences. It just was not wanted.”

Finally, though, Höss wants it known that the total responsibility is ultimately Himmler’s: “In the summer of 1941 Himmler summoned me to Berlin to give me the disastrous and harsh order for the mass annihilation of the Jews from all over Europe. This resulted in Auschwitz becoming the greatest killing institution in history. This also affected the thousands upon thousands of non-Jews who were supposed to stay alive. They, in fact, died in epidemics and from illnesses caused by the overcrowding of the able-bodied Jews. The overcrowding of the Jews selected to work was the catastrophic reason for all our woes, illnesses, epidemics, inadequate food supplies, inadequate clothing, and the lack of even the basic hygienic facilities. Himmler, and Himmler alone, bears the guilt for this, since he constantly refused to acknowledge any reports from anyone about the conditions and refused to do anything about them.”

Höss seems to be trying to paint himself largely as a victim of circumstances, captive to orders. He would like it known how difficult the situation was for him to bear.

“It was not without inner sympathy that I faced all of the occurrences in the camp. Outwardly I was cold, even stone-faced, but inwardly I was moved to the deepest.”
“Only as [the Gypsies] were marched barrack after barrack to Crematory I did they figure out what was going on. It was not easy to get them into the gas chamber. I personally did not witness this. Schwarzhüber told me that no previous extermination of the Jews had been as difficult as this. It had been especially hard for him because he knew almost every one of them and had a good relationship with them.”
“As the doors were being shut, I saw a woman trying to shove her children out of the chamber, crying out, ‘Why don’t you at least let my precious children live?’ There were many heartbreaking scenes like this which affected all who were present.”
“I had to make a tremendous effort to pull myself together in order not to show, not even once, in all the excitement after an incident, or to allow my inner doubts and depressions to come out in the open. I had to appear cold and heartless during these events which tear the heart apart in anyone who had any kind of human feelings. I couldn’t even turn away when deep human emotion rose within me. Coldly I had to stand and watch as the mothers went into the gas chambers with their laughing or crying children.”
“The mass annihilation with all the accompanying circumstances did not fail to affect those who had to carry it out. They just did not watch what was happening. With very few exceptions all who performed this monstrous ‘work’ had been ordered to this detail. All of us, including myself, were given enough to think about which left a deep impression. Many of the men often approached me during my inspection trips through the killing areas and poured out their depression and anxieties to me, hoping that I could give them some reassurance. During these conversations the question arose again and again ‘Is what we have to do here necessary? Is it necessary that hundreds of thousands of women and children have to be annihilated?’ And I, who countless times deep inside myself had asked the same question, had to put them off by reminding them that it was Hitler’s order. I had to tell them that it was necessary to destroy all the Jews in order to forever free Germany and the future generation from our toughest enemy.”
“I had to be like steel – colder, harder, and even more merciless toward the misery of the prisoners. I saw everything clearly, often too clearly, but I could not allow feelings to overcome me. I could not allow any emotion to stand in the way. Winning the war was the final goal; the rest didn’t matter.”
“Surely nothing is more difficult that to have to go through all this, to be cold, without mercy, and without compassion.”

Concurrent with these expressions of internal sympathy and compassion, of suffering in silence at the tragedy he had no choice but to command, we hear some phrases that are just downright eery and difficult to process – gassings are “calming,” he is able to “relax” during them, they leave him “impressed”:

“This first gassing of people did not really sink into my mind. Perhaps I was much too impressed by the whole procedure.”
“At the time I really didn’t waste any thoughts about the killing of the Russian POWs. It was ordered; I had to carry it out. But I must admit openly that the gassings had a calming effect on me, since in the near future the mass annihilation of the Jews was to begin.”
“Schwarz was my faithful helper who took a lot of work off my shoulders. Even during the extermination of the Jews, I could relax when Schwarz was on duty.”

Höss would like us to hide the truth of his inner empathies, willing to sacrifice himself to the maintenance of the public’s need to have a concrete evil to demonize: “I do ask, however, that when these notes are evaluated, […] all of my tender emotions, my most secret doubts, not be revealed to the public. May the general public simply go on seeing me as the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions, because the broad masses cannot conceive the Commandant of Auschwitz in any other way. They would never be able to understand that he also had a heart and he was not evil.”

Höss’s moral code is deeply duplicitous in a way he does not himself appear to grasp. “What is right? What is wrong” he asks rhetorically as he reminisces on his choice to leave the farm and join the SS. Indeed, he does seem internally confused about the division. On the one hand he has a sense of moral outrage for certain atrocities, inhumanity, ethical breaches, yet on the other hand he allows himself to preside over the mass exterminations in the same way he allowed himself to preside over the murder of an alleged traitor to his mercenary unit between the wars.

As a child he is consternated when a priest relays his confession to his father: “I am firmly convinced that this priest had violated the secrecy of the confessional. […] After this incident I could no longer trust any priest.” He is further disappointed in the Church when he encounters profiteers fleecing religious tourists in the middle east: “The settlers [in Jerusalem] openly told us about the profitable business there was from the pilgrims [who] would buy anything connected with the holy places or with the saints. […] This trivial traffic in so-called holy objects by the Church disgusted me. […] For a long time after my discharge from the army I tried to come to terms with what I had experienced.” He is prudish and priggish in his view of sexual relations: “Sexual intercourse without affection became unthinkable for me. So I was spared from having affairs and from the brothels.” He is moved and affected by the atrocities he witnesses while fighting in the Baltic States for the Free Corps after World War I: “Wherever the opposing forces collided, there was a slaughter until no one was left. […] For the first time I saw the horrors committed against civilians. The Latvians took horrible revenge against their own countrymen who quartered and supplied German or White Russian soldiers. They set fire to their homes and let the people living in them burn alive. Countless times I saw the horrible pictures of the burned-out cottages, the scorched and partially burned bodies of women and children.”

While in prison for murdering the alleged traitor, his moral sensitivities are further offended when he overhears “one prisoner in a nearby cell tell another how he robbed a forester’s house after making sure that the forester was safely seated in a tavern. During the robbery he killed the maid with an axe, then murdered the wife, who was in her final month of pregnancy. After that he took the four little children, one by one, and smashed each head against the wall until they stopped screaming, because they were crying.”

Yet his moral code permits the murder itself: “In the Parchimer Vehme murder trial I was sentenced to ten years in prison. […] A group of us had beaten to death a man named Parchimer, who betrayed a friend named Schlageter to the French. […] I am still firmly convinced that this traitor deserved to die. Since in all probability no German court would have sentenced him, we passed judgment on him by an unwritten law which we had instituted ourselves [in the Free Corps] because of the need of the times.”

While in prison he learns the difficult life of the prisoner, suffering to a level of comparative comfort relative to the conditions of his eventual trustees in Auschwitz, yet the lessons learned as a prisoner seem never to extend to any concrete outcomes when the roles are reversed and he finds himself in the position of jailor:

“I never got used to the petty aggravations of the common guards, particularly when they were contrived or hateful. They upset me very much. […] Every prisoner with a sensitive nature suffers much more from unjust, malicious, and intended psychological abuse than from physical abuse. He perceives it to be much more humiliating and depressing than any physical abuse.”
“In [my] nightmares, I was constantly persecuted, beaten, or shot to death, or I was plunging into a deep abyss. Those nights became torture to me.”
“In my opinion, many of the inmates could have been brought back on the right path if the prison officials would have been more humane than just doing their jobs.”
“A prisoner’s whole life depends upon the behavior and prejudice of the various guards and supervisors in spite of all the rules and regulations.”

The only thing he appears to carry over from his own imprisonment is the concept of working while in captivity: “For those locked up, work is an effective, positive disciplinary measure, insofar as others maintain self-control, thereby enabling a person to better resist the demoralizing influences of imprisonment. It is also a means of education for those prisoners who are basically unstable; for those who need to get used to regularity and endurance; and for those who, through the beneficial influence of work, can be saved from a life of crime. […] That’s how the motto ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ [‘Work sets you free’ – Höss had this motto of Eicke’s copied from Dachau to Auschwitz] is to be understood. It was Eicke’s firm intention that those prisoners, no matter from what category, who stood out from the mass because of their continued diligent work performance, were to be released, no matter what the Gestapo and the civil authorities said. A few prisoners were released in this manner. However, because of the war, these good intentions did not materialize on a larger scale.”

While describing the internal torment he felt during the atrocities, he also continues to maintain that the Jews are the enemies of the German people (“I considered them to be the enemy of our nation”). Although he does not hate them (“I want to emphasize here that I personally never hated the Jews. […] Besides, the feeling of hatred is not in me.”), he regrets that the climate of propaganda actually hurt the cause of anti-Semitism rather than furthering its aims: “I have always rejected ’Der Sturmer,’ Streicher’s anti-Semitic newspaper, because of the disgusting sensationalism calculated to work on man’s basest instincts. […] This newspaper did a lot of damage and has never been of any use to serious scientific anti-Semitism. In fact, it has damaged the case of anti-Semitism by turning people off.”

He believes that the policy of extermination did even more damage: “Today I realize that the extermination of the Jews was wrong, absolutely wrong. It was exactly because of this mass extermination that Germany earned itself the hatred of the entire world. The cause of anti-Semitism was not served by this act at all, in fact, just the opposite. The Jews have come much closer to their final goal.”

When you read Höss’s account of his childhood and how he “listened in radiant rapture as [my father] spoke of the blessed and civilizing activities of the missionary society” you receive an impression of a child of the times – an era when old colonial orders were reaching the end of their tenure as empires of the earth, empires that saw fit to categorize other nations or races as sub-par and suitable for either being enslaved or being converted to the civilized manners, traditions, and religious beliefs of the West. In fact, when you consider the eugenics and race laws and sterilization campaigns against the mentally ill in America, not to mention the treatment of African Americans, alongside the adventures of colonial powers such as Britain and Belgium, it is hard to separate out this foundational sense of racial superiority as something specifically German, although Höss’s memoirs do stand out, separated, as something quite unique.

hoss

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