It was only during the eulogy at his great uncle’s funeral in December 2006 that journalist and author Thomas Harding discovered an astonishing detail about his grandmother’s brother, Hanns Alexander. It emerged that his charismatic, prankster relative — teller of dirty jokes and stacker of chairs in his north-west London synagogue — had tracked down and arrested the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss.
Speaking on the phone to The Times of Israel, Harding explains that he had known little about his great uncle’s history; as children they were told not to ask questions and that Hanns did not want to talk about his past. All he knew was that his family had come from Berlin to London in the 1930s and that Alexander had served in the British army.
But this new fact piqued Harding’s interest and he decided to investigate further. The result is the critically acclaimed book, “Hanns and Rudolf,” which tells the parallel biographies of these two German men whose lives eventually converge in an extraordinary way. Meticulously researched, including previously unseen photographs and letters, this compelling, articulately conveyed true story has now been translated into Hebrew.
Confirmation of his great uncle’s role as a war crimes investigator came during a visit to the Intelligence Corps Museum in Bedfordshire. Sitting in a small hut at the back of the military base, Harding was given an old file that held the official record of Höss’s arrest. As he leafed through it he came across the name H.H. Alexander, his great uncle. “I had one of those hair standing up on my neck moments,” he says. The information proved to be a catalyst to a book, which took six years to complete and which was recently shortlisted for the prestigious British Costa Biography Book Award.
The lives of each subject are relayed in alternate chapters, beginning with Höss. Harding deliberately chose to refer to both men by their first names and in doing so he manages to create an intimacy between the reader and his subject, a technique which provides an insight into their individual backgrounds, culture and historiographies.
He approached the material from a journalistic perspective and says that one of the reasons he wrote it in the way that he did — the book has a straightforward narrative style yet it still grips and unsettles — was because “a lot of it was new to me. I knew the basics but I didn’t understand about the paramilitary groups after the first World War, the Freikorps, or the land movement, for example.”
He explains that early on in the project, “I wanted to understand, how do you end up as the Kommandant of Auschwitz, how do you become one of the world’s mass murderers? Equally, how — after you’ve suffered terrible persecution -– do you decide to go back and face the persecutors? And when you do that, how do you make decisions about justice and revenge?”
Harding concluded that the only way he could answer these questions was to try and see them both as human beings — hence the chapter headings — rather than two-dimensional characters. At first the process proved to be difficult. “I found it harder because if Rudolf Höss is a human being and not some kind of monster or freak of nature, then it means it can happen again.”
The most challenging aspect of his research was tracking down surviving members of Höss’s family. He finally discovered Brigitte, Höss’s 80-year-old daughter, who lives in a suburb outside Washington DC and admits to having found the exchange between them very disturbing. Not only does she sleep under a picture of her parents, Harding explains, she just said that there were two sides to him. The man she knew she described as “the best father in the world.”
From Harding’s extensive investigations, which included reading Höss’s letters to his family and talking to the people who knew him or spent time with him, he thinks that — contrary to clinical opinion — Höss was not a psychopath and was someone capable of empathy and emotion. He believes that Hannah Arendt’s theory of “surrendering your thinking” partly explains what happened, as Höss ”made a decision to allow Himmler, his superior, to do his thinking for him – it was an active choice. This is not obeying orders; this is the opposite.” This choice, as well as a profound belief in scientific anti-Semitism, enabled Höss to justify and rationalize his actions. In trying to understand Höss and his motivation, Harding cautions, “I think it’s quite tempting to make these straight lines and look to causal relationships [from his childhood and adolescence]. It is important to remember he was a free agent. He — and his wife — made a series of decisions that resulted in over a million people’s deaths. There’s no great mystery here. He chose to do it.”
Harding’s great uncle Alexander had volunteered to serve with the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, a special unit of Jewish refugees and shortly after liberation, he was sent to Bergen-Belsen to act as an interpreter and gathered affidavits for the Belsen Trials in 1945. In Belsen he was confronted with crimes against humanity on German soil and the experience fueled him with an incandescent hatred towards the country of his birth. After he returned to England in 1946, Harding notes, he never went back to Germany again.
Harding discovered that a member of his family conducted a taped interview with Alexander in which he talks about the circumstances surrounding Höss’s arrest; as the arresting officer, Alexander had permitted his men to beat Höss for 10 minutes before imprisoning him. Harding explains that during the interview Alexander reads out from Höss’s memoirs. These state that for the most part he was treated well by the British, with the exception of the arresting officer. At this point, “There is a few seconds of silence and then Hanns says, ‘guilty.’ He says it in this way which is not ‘I’m guilty I made a mistake’ or ‘I did something wrong,’ it is ‘I did it and I’m proud of it.’ He took responsibility for Rudolf Höss being beaten up and was glad of it.”
Harding admits that he finds his uncle’s conduct inspiring because, “He didn’t kill Rudolf Höss and because of that Höss ended up taking up the witness stand in Nuremberg, providing crucial testimony.” After being convicted of war crimes, Höss was hanged in Auschwitz in April 1947.
The book’s epilogue describes a visit to Auschwitz that Harding takes with Höss’s grandson and former daughter-in-law. “It was the second time I had been to Auschwitz and it was very difficult. I was totally off balance the whole time,” he says. It was here that Harding saw the Höss family photographs; images that he found so shocking as they depicted details of an intimate ordinary life lived in the family villa, adjacent to the concentration camp. Picnics, animals and bicycle rides were commonplace.
Harding had no idea of the impact his book would have. Initially his family questioned what he was doing but their reticence turned to support and enormous pride at Alexander’s courage and determination. A project that began with excitement on learning “we had an avenging Jew in the family” concluded with one that revealed a remarkable, previously unknown aspect of the Holocaust.