Review published on March 18, 2014.Reviewed by Mike Stafford
In 2006, Thomas Harding attended the funeral of his great-uncle Hanns. The content of the eulogy came as a surprise to the author; Hanns, a “nice but unremarkable” man, had been a war crimes investigator after WWII. Indeed, Hanns was responsible for the capture of Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Astounded by the revelation, journalist Harding set out to learn more about the hero in the family tree. Hanns and Rudolf is the fruit of Harding’s investigation.
Set out chronologically, intertwining the lives of Hanns Alexander and Rudolf Höss, the book is part history, part psychology, part family saga, and entirely brilliant. As the title suggests, Harding refers to both men by their first names. This is not to suggest any equivalence between the two, as Harding takes pains to express, but to remind the reader that both were ultimately human beings. Hanns, while clearly a man of great courage, was not above indulging the violent retribution meted out upon the captured Höss. Similarly, Höss was the self-confessed greatest mass murderer in history, but was a devoted family man and wrote poignant letters to his wife and children from prison.
This focus on humanity serves Harding well. The facts of his story alone are fascinating, but it’s the emotional and psychological heart of the book that make it so resonant. In the first half of the book, Harding searches for answers; how did Höss, a human being, become a murderer of millions? There are of course no firm answers, but Harding nods towards loyalty, duty, careerism, and subservience to authority. In the later parts of the book, Harding reflects upon the effect Hanns’ experiences had on him. One of the first allied soldiers to visit Belsen, Hanns was eyewitness to the worst atrocities of the Nazi regime. He became a furious crusader for Höss’s victims, murdered for an identity they shared with Hanns.
Harding tells a truly fascinating tale. Meticulously researched but with a more powerful narrative than much fiction, Hanns and Rudolf is filled with tensions and symmetry. Hanns fled Nazi Germany while Höss came to prominence in it; then in the ultimate reversal, the exiled Jew returned to judge his persecutors. As much as this is the story of two men, it is also the story of two families. The Alexanders enjoyed high social standing before the Nazi era, the head of their household being a successful doctor. The blackening of their fortunes charts the ramping up of Nazi persecution, from an angry mob outside their father’s house on the day of the anti-Jewish boycott, through to their eventual flight to Britain. Conversely, the Höss family thrived. The children enjoyed games at the villa at Auschwitz (surely one of the darkest images imaginable), and wife Hedwig seems to have enjoyed playing hostess to high-ranking visitors. Again, history sees their fortunes reversed, with Hanns rightly held up as a hero while Höss’s grandson expresses a very genuine desire to desecrate his grandfather’s grave.
Hanns and Rudolf is a magnificent book. In an era where WWII is passing from living memory and into history, it offers both, and does so in a way which is spellbinding, poignant and harrowing.
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