I am completely normal. Even while I was carrying out the task of extermination I led a normal family life and so on.— Rudolf Höss
Present-day systems of totalitarian government have opened up many new insights into the nature of man. By testing him to the limits of endurance, they have demonstrated not only what man can do but also what can be done with man. The concentration camps with their manifold functions of combating, excluding and destroying the opponent of the moment on the one hand, and of training a chosen 'elite' to hardness on the other — intended in either case to destroy all human qualities — fundamentally challenged accepted estimates of what a human being is capable of doing and also of suffering. In Chelmno, Treblinka and Auschwitz there perished both the last remnants of an optimistic view of man based on the value of the human personality, and the whole system of logical psychology. The camps brought the discovery that there was
'an absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power and cowardice; and which therefore anger could not avenge, love could not endure, friendship could not forgive.'(1)
This radical evil appears most clearly when viewed in its least obvious aspect. What are referred to as the barbaric features of the regime, to use a conventional phrase that falls far short of their true horror, were not based primarily upon the savagery of brutes systematically utilized by the leadership, upon elemental cruelty or sadism. It is true that in every society there are elements with whose aid a ruthlessly open reign of terror can be established and for a time maintained, and the National Socialist regime also made use of them, especially during the initial phase. But their number is limited, and more-over there are limits to the numbers that can be killed by hate, brutality or blood lust . To the industrially organized death factory, such as was perfected later, murder is limited solely by technical capacity. What happened in the extermination camps of the Third Reich is therefore not to be adequately explained in terms of the mobilization of destructive and criminal energies. The new, disturbing experience lay precisely in the fact that it did not need such means and impulses. It was the appeal to idealism, to the readiness for self-sacrifice to a historic mission, and the perpetually reawakened devotion to a utopian world which placed at the regime's disposal those forces without whose willingness to serve, self-discipline and sense of duty neither the proportions nor the cold perfectionism of the extermination system would have been possible. Despite differences in individual cases, it was preponderantly a credulous normality, devoted to its ideology and ideas of loyalty, that stamped the features of this horror. It has shattered the image of man more lastingly than ever the collective outbreak of base passions could have done.
It is part of the essence of totalitarian rule that it turns all concepts upside down, perverts all standards of judgement. It owes its support less to the attraction of satisfying impulses without fear of punishment than to the systematic confusion of moral values, accompanied by the proclamation of a new morality of its own. Freed from any overriding frame of reference, totalitarianism has no morality but opportunism designed to assist in gaining and keeping political power. In the name of history, the race, the national community or similar concepts beyond logical explanation, the totalitarian system arouses the latent willingness of disorientated people, hungry for certainty, to subordinate themselves to a 'higher law' and identify themselves with an 'iron necessity'. Countless simple, conscientious Germans during the years of the Third Reich were the less able to refuse the call of those in power because the regime's ability to present aims and arouse faith met their own longings, reinforced by a weariness of individual responsibility. They were filled with the need to be given commands, the need for order, for dependence, the desire for 'community' that goes largely unsatisfied in a plural society, and the hunger to prove themselves that had been thwarted during the critical years just past. Gripped by the ringing phrases of the new elite ethos, they followed this ethos selflessly, with discipline, and still with the subjective feeling of serving a just cause long after its criminal character had become manifest A minority, more or less by accident, had become directly involved in criminal activity. But the ideology of the 'higher law', the maxims of the new morality and mission in conjunction with the system's all-embracing structure of allegiance, made it possible for them patiently and dutifully to perform the most inhuman tasks without any consciousness of personal guilt.
This state of affairs is demonstrated with extreme and dreadful clarity in the person of one of the regime's second-grade officials, Rudolf Hoss. During the period of the Third Reich his name was unknown outside a comparatively restricted circle. Moreover, not only his character, education and intelligence but also his origins and career make him a truly representative phenomenon of his generation. The individual stages and turning-points of his life are typical of the development of many who passed through war, Freikorps, Vehmgericht, prison, and finally the general attachment to National Socialism. The inner journey, a constant search for dependency arising from restlessness, emptiness and aimlessness, is also typical, even if it rarely appeared in such an extreme form. His life demonstrates in a dreadful ideal case the dilemma of the man who has surrendered his independence, the abjectness of total servitude.
Rudolf Hoss was the type of a functionary in the true sense: the exemplary product of a combination of the urge to renounce individual self determination and totalitarian training in obedience. The suppression of personal 'spontaneity' and the absolute, reliable automatism of thought and action that are the models of every form of totalitarian training succeeded so completely in this case because Hoss had from an early age, through his own character and circumstances, felt at home only in a world of commands and found the consciousness of merit and self-confirmation only within this framework. 'Believe, obey, simply fight!' In this motto of the SS he saw his deepest needs recognized and understood. (2) In him the capacity for rational and responsible action had atrophied to an almost unique degree, and the only doubt which ever shadowed his docile face was whether any measure that was ordered was covered by the authority of the moment. If life had led him upon a different path, he might have handled dossiers or run the farm that he dreamt of with the same reliability with which in the end he murdered human beings Auschwitz.by the hundred thousand. Rudolf Hoss was the commandant of the concentration and extermination camp of Still with the feeling of being called to service, he made every effort, offering his observations and experiences, 'in an almost repellent manner to be helpful'(3) to the investigating authorities in Nuremberg and also later in Poland. With the same willingness with which he had become the executive of mass murder he placed the documents needed to condemn him at the disposal of his judges, and entirely in keeping with the pattern of commands to which he was firmly attached, he saw the opportunity to write down his life story as a 'piece of homework' for which he was grateful. (4)
These notes are not only a revealing document on the system and practice of the Third Reich's machinery of destruction, but also an impressive proof of the state of affairs referred to above: the record of the seduction of an average man by the pseudo-moral claims of a totalitarian ideology. If Hoss was not the type of the sadistic criminal, he also did not belong to that large socially inferior group who sought to enhance their self-esteem by membership of a privileged order. This type, whose energy and ruthlessness were merely the manifestations of a primitive nature drilled to military smartness, did indeed lend its stamp to Himmler's camp commandants as a whole. Rudolf Hoss differed considerably from this type. Among his most outstanding characteristics were strict attention to duty, unselfishness, love of nature, sentimentality, even a certain helpfulness and kindliness, simplicity, and finally a marked hankering after morality, an abnormal tendency to submit himself to strict imperatives and to feel authority over him. The dilemma which confronted him, along with a large number of his generation, was that this tendency remained largely unsatisfied in a society confused about its values and inclined to deny them or admit to them only shamefacedly. The military world alone seemed still to offer that firm and immovable world of concepts and values for which he yearned: comradeship, loyalty, honour, courage held good there in an absolutely direct and literal sense, unvitiated by differentiating glosses, which the simple, uncritical mind immediately felt to be 'subversive'.
It was this moral longing, as powerful as it was undirected, that made Rudolf Hoss suitable material for the demands of the totalitarian ethic, because it contained everything he was seeking: simple formulas, an uncomplicated schema of good and evil, a hierarchy of normal standards orientated according to military categories, and a utopia. For him, unlike the majority of his fellow SS leaders, the demands with which he found himself confronted lay on a different plane from his personal impulses. Precisely because what he had to do seemed to him for a long time difficult, it gave him a feeling of particularly meritorious achievement. Again and again he emphasizes in his life story how extremely difficult it had been for him, especially at the beginning, to be harsh, to watch executions, to see those who 'had run into the wire', to observe acts of brutality. He added that he was 'not suited to concentration camp service.'(5)
In fact, however, this psychological feature was the very key to his particular suitability for his work, according to Himmler's principles of selection. Constant effort towards self-mastery continually stimulated his misguided idealism, so that in the 'cold, indeed stony' attitude which in his own words he demanded of himself, Hoss could see the result of moral struggle. It was only through a continual process of hardening that he became the type of the passionless, fundamentally disinterested murderer to whom, beyond the given objective purposes, murder meant nothing. Hitler once stated that the expression 'crime' came from a world that had now been superseded, that there was now only positive and negative activity, (6) and Hoss was the product of this conception, standing outside all traditional moral categories, all personal contact with his acts.
All consciousness of individual guilt had been eliminated and murder was simply an administrative procedure. In the type represented by Hoss evil takes the shape of the uninvolved book-keeper, pedantic, sober, accurate. Hate, he states, had always been alien to him, and in later sections of his autobiography when he repeatedly complains of his vain struggles with malicious, rough subordinates, there is no hint of retrospective self-justification. The man who attached so much importance to his bourgeois 'decency', who proclaimed his aversion from his comrades' alcoholic excesses, who stated that he had never personally hated the Jews and had repudiated the anti-Semitic paper Der Sturmer because it was 'calculated to appeal to the basest instincts', precisely because of all this succeeded in becoming the 'ideal type' of Himmler's camp commandant, (7) since any subjective impulse, from sadism to pity, would have disturbed the smooth functioning of the mechanism of extermination.
'As for me,' Hoss told a comrade in 1944, 'I have long since ceased to have any human feelings.'(8)
Such utterances were the realization of the idea of the SS camp functionary aimed at by Himmler and endorsed in countless speeches, the man who in his immunity to emotion corresponded only too closely to the bloodless, bureaucratic fanaticism of the Reichsfuhrer of the SS himself. If one reads the initials SS as standing for 'Societas Satanas', it is by no means clear from which type this order received its 'satanic' qualities: from the matter-of-fact, unemotional figures devoid of all personal impulses, such as Rudolf Hoss, or from the criminal, 'abnormal' elements; at least behind the latters' enjoyment of brutality there lay an overwhelming social, intellectual or otherwise motivated personal reaction which, significantly, 'appears to us like a last residue of humanly intelligible behaviour'. (9)
Hoss was born in 1900 in Baden-Baden, in a strict and unusually pious home. His father, whose dogmatic and over-powering figure furnished the rather oppressive experiences of Hoss's early development, had taken a vow that his son should be a priest. The educational principles described in the first pages of the autobiography read almost as if deliberately intended to set him on his subsequent path as commandant of Auschwitz:
I had been brought up by my parents to be respectful and obedient towards all grown-up people, and especially the elderly, regardless of their social status. I was taught that my highest duty was to help those in need. It was constantly impressed upon me in forceful terms that I must obey promptly the wishes and commands of my parents, teachers, priests, etc., and indeed of all grown-up people, including servants, and that nothing must distract me from this duty. Whatever they said was always right.
These basic principles on which I was brought up became part of my flesh and blood. I can still clearly remember how my father, who on account of his fervent Catholicism was a determined opponent of the Reich Government and its policy, never ceased to remind his friends that, however strong one's opposition might be, the laws and decrees of the State had to be obeyed unconditionally.
From my earliest youth I was brought up with a strong awareness of duty. In my parents' house it was insisted that every task be exactly and conscientiously carried out. Each member of the family had his own special duties to perform.(10)
This establishes the basic theme that ruled his life, with increasing importance and increasingly catastrophic results. There was no phase in his development when it did not, under changing authorities, operate to compel obedience. At the end of his life, in the Nuremberg cell, Rudolf Hoss summed up this situation with the words:
'I had nothing to say; I could only say Jawohl! We could only execute orders without thinking about it.'
Asked whether he could not have refused a given order, he replied —
'No, from our entire training the thought of refusing an order just didn't enter one's head, regardless of what kind of order it was.'(11)
This characteristic was supplemented and reinforced by an equally early, extraordinary introversion and lack of contact with others, which was peculiar to many of the National Socialist leadership and explained not merely their blind acceptance of authority but also their lack of human sympathy, their inability to identify with others.
'I always preferred to be alone' Hoss stated. 'When I had troubles I tried to cope with them alone. This was what most saddened my wife. I never had friends or close relationships with anyone, not even in my youth. I never had a friend. I never had any real intimacy with my parents — my sisters either. It only occurred to me after they were married that they were like strangers to me. — I always played alone as a child.'(12)
The sentimental love of animals which comes out again and again even in the description of his childhood, like his later, only briefly interrupted membership of military communities, was purely a search for compensation for the poverty of his personal relationships. Both were attempts to escape from the demands of his environment; in one case he turned to 'dumb friends', in the other to a protective anonymous institution where the individual no longer counted. It was just this removal of the individual element that constituted the attraction of military organizations and all-male associations for the inhibited solitary. Martin Broszat, in his introduction to Rudolf Hoss's autobiographical notes, remarks on the nature of 'comradeship':
'Quite apart from its positive side, it is not based on the personal and individual qualities of the partners, but is determined by the alleged situation of the group, by the purpose on which it is engaged, and is given indiscriminately to everyone who "belongs".'(13)
Immediately after his father's death in 1914 Rudolf Hoss insisted upon becoming a soldier. After continual but fruitless requests to his mother and his guardian, the fifteen-year-old finally succeeded in secretly joining a regiment. After a brief training he was sent to the Turkish front. Like anyone else he experienced the fears and inner anguish of his first action, and glimpsed 'in fear and trepidation' his 'first dead man'. Praised by his captain, who now satisfied his need for authority and someone to look up to, he reflected: 'If he had only known how I actually felt deep down!'(14) Several times wounded, but also several times decorated and holder among other medals of the Iron Cross First and Second Class, he became at seventeen the youngest NCO in the Army. To avoid internment after the Armistice he set out with his platoon, on his own initiative, on a remarkable odyssey from Anatolia to Germany and after wandering for three months reported back with his complete unit, according to regulations, to his regimental reserve unit.
Naturally Hoss, like his whole generation of homecoming soldiers uprooted by the war, at once found himself confronted by the problem of establishing himself in civilian life. He had meanwhile turned his back on the priesthood; his mother had died in 1917, and since he felt misunderstood by his relations he joined the East Prussian Volunteer Corps for the Protection of the Frontier. In his memoirs he makes the characteristic remark, which appears in this or very similar form in numerous biographies of men who later became officials of the Third Reich:
'In this way the problem of my profession was suddenly solved!'(15)
And at the same time — the more urgent individual problem for a man who was to find his fullest release from his own lack of direction inside the military collective and in the language of military commands — his release from all questions and doubts.
'I became a soldier once more. I found a home again, and a sense of security in the comradeship of my fellows. Oddly enough,' he adds, confirming the foregoing analysis, 'it was I, the lone wolf, always keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself, who felt continually drawn towards that comradeship which enables a man to rely on others in time of need and danger.'(16
As a member of the notorious Rossbach Freikorps he took part in the battles in the Baltic region, where he witnessed, 'dumb-founded', the 'destructive madness' of these pitiless conflicts, and went through the battles at Mecklenburg and in the Ruhr and Upper Silesia. Nevertheless, it seems that this training in brutalisation had its effect on the sensitive outsider. In any case, in 1923 his name crops up in the so-called Parchim Vehmgericht murder trial, when the State Court tried some former members of the Rossbach Freikorps, which had been declared illegal, who after a drinking orgy had carried off into the forest a young man whom they held to be a traitor, beaten him half dead with truncheons, and finally shot him. As one of the chief participants in this crime, Hoss was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. The analytical tone of his account of life in the Brandenburg penitentiary, written without any serious hint of personal distress caused by prison life and continually lapsing into sententious and knowing self-satisfaction, makes it clear that in the strict regimentation of prison he merely saw another kind of 'home', of 'protectedness', such as he had hitherto found in military organisations.
'I had been taught since childhood to be absolutely obedient and meticulously tidy and clean; so in these matters I did not find it difficult to conform to the strict discipline of prison. I conscientiously carried out my well-defined duties. I completed the work allotted to me, and usually more, to the satisfaction of the foreman. My cell was a model of neatness and cleanliness, and even the most malicious eyes could see nothing there with which to find fault.'(17)
The monotonous theme of his life, the cardinal, desperate question of his as of every dependent, empty life was: 'Where can I serve?' Later he was to employ exactly the same vocabulary — 'unconditional obedience', 'strictest order', 'conscientiousness', and 'fulfilment of the duties prescribed to me' — to describe his work in Auschwitz; the only philosophy of life he had with which to confront the monstrous conditions was that of the recruit who takes a naive and foolish pride in a well-made bed and the look of satisfaction on an NCO's face. The exemplary prisoner Hoss -was the first of approximately eight hundred prisoners to be found eligible for probation, with a resulting alleviation of his prison existence and the prospect of early release. Nevertheless repeated applications for release proved fruitless, Hoss remained in prison, and in his dreams the idea became more and more firmly established that later he would regain his lost contact with civilian life as a farmer with his own land.
After almost six years in prison he was unexpectedly released on the strength of the Amnesty Law of 14th July 1928, and soon afterwards joined the Bund der Artamanen, an organization that combined reactionary hostility towards civilisation with a belief in runes and the soil, and reformist aims based on agricultural settlement. He resolutely resisted pressure from former comrades to take office, as an old party member, in the NSDAP, on the grounds that although he agreed with the aims of the movement, he was opposed to its 'bargaining for the good will of the masses', its 'appeal to the lowest instincts of the masses'. Hoss wanted to settle on the land:
'There was for me only one object for which it was worth working and fighting, namely, a farm run by myself, on which I should live with a large and healthy family. That was to be the content and aim of my life.'(18)
Soon after his release he married, then worked for several years in various land-service groups in Brandenburg and Pomerania, and was about to be apportioned the land he had longed for when once again he received a call from authority, and Hoss was not the man to disobey. Heinrich Himmler, likewise a member of the Bund der Artamanen, invited him in 1934 to join the active SS. After long hesitation Hoss finally decided to exchange the uncertainties of a civilian future for the familiar service in a firmly knit community. Characteristically, as he later stated, he gave no thought to Himmler's remark that he would be placed in a unit guarding a concentration camp.
'To me it was just a question of being an active soldier once again, of resuming my military career.'
The commandant of Dachau concentration camp, to which Hoss was sent, was the then SS Standartenfuhrer Theodor Eicke, a man who combined the energy and organisational vigilance of the former officer with the unscrupulousness of the brutalized private soldier and whose writing paper bore the heading: 'Only one thing is valid: orders!' For Hoss this motto, which set him free from his indecision through the mechanism of unquestioning fulfilment of duty, was a golden phrase. This was what his father, this was what his captain, this was what the Freikorps leader and very much what the prison foreman had said. It was the foundation of his view of life, and it would be a mistake to see this reduction of existence to mere reaction to commands solely in terms of loss of dignity, and not to take account of the happiness it offered to many people tired of the burden of responsibility for their own existence. Remarkable, though clearly a first step towards that split in consciousness characteristic of adaptation to totalitarian conditions, is Hoss's statement that he emphatically rejected Eicke's terrorist practices. When the numerous beatings were carried out he always, according to his own admission, placed himself in the rear ranks, because he could not bear to watch torture, and he confesses with naive frankness that later too, as camp commandant of Auschwitz, he was 'rarely present' at the beatings to which he himself had condemned prisoners. Evidently quite oblivious of what little right he had to express indignation, he described his comrades who carried out the beatings in his stead as
'almost without exception sly, rough, violent, and often common creatures', adding almost unbelievably: 'They did not regard prisoners as human beings at all.'(19 )
Undoubtedly Hoss, with his mental rigidity, never recognized the contradictions of his behaviour. Even if the tendency to present himself in a favourable light continually creeps into his autobiography, we need scarcely question the honesty of his claims to feelings:
'I never grew indifferent to human suffering. I have always seen it and felt for it.'(20)
But it was the honesty of a man made deaf and blind by his pathologically restricted outlook and lacking genuine sympathy and moral standards, and also incapable of consciously realizing what he was doing. His introversion reflected an inaccessible emotional coldness, and what he believed to be sympathy for his victims was nothing but sentimental pity for himself, who was ordered to carry out such inhuman acts. Thus he was able to claim merit for a completely self-centred sentimentality, which placed him under no obligation to take any action, and to credit himself with the mendacious self-pity of the 'sorrowful murderer' as evidence of his humanitarianism.
Like many of his kind he was helped to get over such paradoxes presented by the realities of camp life by an increasing ability to keep separate the various planes of experience: the 'service' from those zones of private life in which feelings dominate, wives and children are paternally cared for, and exalted emotions are experienced. It is true that the continual alternation between his simple off-duty emotions and the vexations of daily routine, between the deeply felt idyll of the quiet evening at home and the executioner's trade, was not possible without occasional complications, and occasionally no doubt his subconscious mind rebelled against the imposed split in his personality. But it was the inability to see his individual situation, whether historical, social or moral, critically and in context- an inability characteristic of the type of unthinking underling he represented — which erected that barrier behind which he performed the tasks allotted to him with such unimpeachable self-righteousness. Moreover, he was haunted by the fear of being accused of weakness. The desire, bred by the perverted image of the National Socialist ideal man,
'to be described as harsh,' as Hoss remarked, 'in order not to be considered soft'
, nipped doubt in the bud. It helped when in 1938 he was transferred to Sachsenhauseri, where as camp adjutant his functions were predominantly bureaucratic, so that he 'no longer came into such direct contact with the prisoners' and the smoke-screen of phrases and pseudo-emotions was scarcely touched by the sight of the squalid everyday reality. Significantly he praised the camp commandant, SS Standartenfuhrer Hermann Baranowski, whom he revered as his 'magnified mirror image', for his 'good nature' and 'kind heart', which were coupled with the ability to be
'hard and mercilessly severe in all matters appertaining to service'.(21)
This schizophrenic state of mind, which enabled Hoss to keep his sentimental reserves in the midst of a world of brutal murder and to prescribe at the writing desk with unimaginative savagery measures he was too sensitive to watch being carried out, was something which he developed to an inconceivable degree two years later when, having proved himself in many different ways, he was given the task of building up Auschwitz. On almost every page of his life-story he speaks of having been 'completely filled,indeed obsessed' by his task, of how it was his 'whole preoccupation and endeavour' to create the maximum efficiency in the camp as requested.
'I had only one end in view: to drive everything and everyone forward so that I could carry out the measures laid down. The Reichsfuhrer of the SS required every man to do his duty and if necessary to sacrifice himself entirely in so doing.'(22)
At the same time, the remarks about his vulnerable inner life do not cease, and in spite of all retrospective embellishments this coexistence of hectic diligence and perpetual self-pity provides a fairly accurate picture of his state of mind. The tragedies of the victims paled into a ghostly unreality that he no longer really noticed, leaving him the exemplary representative of that abstract approach which commits its murders methodically, with occasional private unease, but in general with patient disinterestedness. Asked whether he was convinced of the guilt of the murdered Jews, he said the question was unrealistic,
'he had really never wasted much thought on it'.(23)
Far from his being tormented by the despairing screams of men dying in agony, the process was finally reduced to an administrative problem: a question of timetable conferences to arrange the smooth transport of human loads, a question of types of oven, gassing capacities, and 'potentialities of fuel technology'. It was precisely this mechanization of the process of extermination which allowed him later to deny all personal responsibility and, what is so horrifying to the observer, to argue from the fact that he murdered without any personal emotion that he was free from guilt. Crucially revealing is his account of his relief that the use of gas made possible a method of killing as rational as it was bloodless and hygienic.
'I always shuddered at the prospect of carrying out extermination by shooting, when I thought of the vast numbers concerned, and of the women and children. The shooting of hostages and the group executions ordered by the Reichsfuhrer of the SS or by the Reich Central Security Office had been enough for me. I was therefore relieved to think that we were to be spared all these blood-baths.'(24)
The constant repetition of the personal pronoun reveals his intolerable self-centredness; the victims emerge only remotely as a burdensome and fundamentally annoying source of personal disquiet. Eloquently he describes his 'perpetual harassment', his private disappointments, the incomprehension of the responsible authorities towards his material and personal wishes, finally exclaiming at the end of one of these complaints, 'It was in truth not a happy or desirable state of affairs.'(25) It was these essentially practical difficulties, not the inhuman task, which, as he writes himself, brought him to despair and to that misanthropic bitterness of which he speaks with the offended mien of misunderstood virtue. In his moral lethargy the millionfold sufferings of the victims seemed as nothing by comparison with the technical difficulties of the executioner.
'Believe me, it wasn't always a pleasure to see those mountains of corpses and smell the perpetual burning.'(26)
The same unshakeable self-righteousness led him to adopt a tone of petty-bourgeois moral arrogance when reporting thefts and sexual misdemeanours among camp inmates or to record with an unmistakable undertone of surprised disapproval that Jewish Special Detachments (Sonderkommandos) were willing, in return for a short extension of their own lives, to help with the gassing of members of their own race.
Some of the one-sided perfectionist pride of the expert comes out in Hoss's statement:
'By the will of the Reichsfuhrer of the SS, Auschwitz became the greatest human extermination centre of all time,'(27)
or when he points out with the satisfaction of the successful planner that the gas chambers of his own camp had a capacity ten times greater than those of Treblinka. His descriptions of the individual stages in the process of extermination are also written entirely in the self-satisfied tone of a superior technician, even with a didactic touch, as though he wished to give the world the benefit of his experience in evolving the most rational methods of mass extermination. Thus, for example, after describing the outbreaks of panic when the first transports arrived, he writes:
With subsequent transports the difficult individuals were picked out early on and most carefully supervised. At the first sign of unrest, those responsible were unobtrusively led behind the building and killed with a small calibre gun that was inaudible to the others. The presence and calm behaviour of the Special Detachment served to reassure those who were worried or who suspected what was about to happen. A further calming effect was obtained by members of the Special Detachment accompanying them into the rooms and remaining with them until the last moment, while an SS man also stood in the doorway until the end. It was most important that the whole business of arriving and undressing should take place in an atmosphere of the greatest possible calm. People reluctant to take off their clothes had to be helped by those of their companions who had already undressed, or by men of the Special Detachment. The refractory ones were calmed down and encouraged to undress. The prisoners of the Special Detachment also saw to it that the process of undressing was carried out quickly, so that the victims would have little time to wonder what was happening.(28)
In the course of the years Hoss developed the various phases in the extermination process, gassing, disposal of the bodies, utilization of the throngs left behind by the dead, into a smoothly functioning system of linked procedures. It was in perfect keeping with the ambitious, cold hunger for organization typical of a man of his stamp, revealing an uninhibited thoroughness that sprang from the absence of all human consideration. It was the consciousness of this special achievement which caused him to say, 'At first I felt unhappy at the prospect of uprooting my self,' when, after three and a half years, he was recalled from Auschwitz and made head of the Political Department of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps.(29) This duty he carried out until the end of the war, visibly troubled by the desolate condition of most of the camps, which lacked the perfectionism of the Auschwitz model, but also unable, as the situation became increasingly acute, to do anything to improve matters. One final picture, typical in all its absurdity of this man's career and character, appears at the end of his account. He describes the termination of his work amid the chaos of total collapse.
'We ourselves had to flee,' he writes. 'We went first of all towards the Darss, then after two days we headed for Schleswig-Holstein. All this was in accordance with the orders of the Reichsfuhrer of the SS. What we were supposed to do for him, or what duties we were still intended to perform, we could not imagine.'(30)
Thus at the end of this unindependent life, lived throughout at second hand, there stands senseless compliance with a senseless order, an act of blind obedience.
In fact a great deal remained inexplicable to Rudolf Hoss. Although in his statements he later admitted the criminal nature of his work, he seems never to have quite realized who he was and what his name meant in connection with the name of Auschwitz. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that even in admitting his guilt he was merely making a final effort to obey, this time the investigating officials and the court, who now condemned organized genocide and whom, 'always in accordance with orders', he wished to please by repudiating his own actions. The American court psychologist G. M. Gilbert, from a conversation with Hoss, gained the impression that the former commandant of Auschwitz
'would never have become aware of the monstrous nature of his crime if someone had not pointed it out to him'.(31)
Not only countless passages in his autobiography, but far more their whole tone and style, prove that even as his end approached he was unable to see his actions in terms of guilt and responsibility. Instead, he remained fixated to the last on command and obedience, not because he hoped, by stressing his purely executive function, to justify or even save himself, but simply because he was incapable of seeing the situation in any other light. Like one of the executioners of the French Revolution, Hoss considered himself merely the axe, and seemed always to be asking during his trial whether it was the axe that was being judged. No appeal, no shock could disturb his conviction that he had always done right, that he had done his duty
'conscientiously, attentively, and to everyone's satisfaction'. 'In prison,' he writes in that section of his account dealing with his arrival in Warsaw to be handed over to the Polish authorities, 'several of the officials came at me, and showed me their Auschwitz tattoo numbers. I could not understand them.'(32)
Whatever had been done in his name had nothing to do with the solitary, nature-loving, soft-hearted Rudolf Hoss who was affectionately devoted to his family and above all to his children. Fundamentally it simply was not his business.
Finally realizing that the world would not recognize this distinction, he felt himself the victim of personal tragedy. He blamed fate for his plight, for having obstinately
'intervened to save my life, so that at the end I might be put to death in this shameful manner. Unknowingly[!],' he wrote, 'I was a cog in the chain of the great extermination machine of the Third Reich.'
With the characteristic twist of the introvert, in the final sentence of his autobiography he turned away from this world that had maltreated him, deceived him, left him alone with a responsibility that was not his, and finally had not understood him. Now and for the remainder of his life he abandoned himself to that self-pity which was one of the dominant features of his personality:
'Let the public continue to regard me as the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, and the mass murderer, for the masses could never imagine the commandant of Auschwitz in any other light. They could never understand that he, too, had a heart and that he was not evil.'(33)
But if the most terrible page of history appears in the autobiography which he left behind, it is not terrible only because of the millions of murdered it lists. It is terrible no less because of the picture it presents of those organizers of mass murder who 'also had a heart', but whose blind obedience to orders and immunity to personal feelings involved greater guilt than any 'heartless' criminal ever brought upon himself.
The Polish Supreme People's Court, established to try war criminals, condemned Rudolf Hoss to death on 2nd April 1947. A fortnight later he was hanged at Auschwitz.