Rudolf Höss was born to Catholic parents in Baden-Baden on 25 November 1900. His early life mirrored that of many of his generation who went on to adopt radical National Socialist views: he saw action in World War One and identified the Jewish community as having betrayed the Fatherland when Germany did not emerge victorious from the conflict. He joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and began working in the concentration camp system in late 1934; going on to play a key role in the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ in the 1940s.
Dachau and Sachsenhausen
The first concentration camp in the Third Reich was established in 1933 to imprison people who were politically opposed to the new Nazi regime. Among the prisoners of Dachau were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, and homosexuals, who were deemed subversive and a threat to a high national birth rate. The concentration camp system was administered by the Schutzstaffel (SS), an elite police corps led by Heinrich Himmler.
Rudolf Höss, having recently joined the SS at Himmler’s invitation, began work as a guard at Dachau in November 1934. He also assumed an administration role and in 1936 became a lieutenant at the Sachsenhausen camp. At both Dachau and Sachsenhausen he was further moulded into the SS mind-set that orders were to be obeyed without question and that no compassion should be felt towards camp inmates, who were subjected to both physical and mental brutality on a daily basis.
In early 1940, Höss was awarded the promotion that would later make him infamous. With his wife Hedwig and their young family (they eventually had five children) he relocated to Poland to take charge of a new camp called Auschwitz.
Commandant of Auschwitz
Auschwitz was originally built to contain Polish political prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war. Under Höss, it evolved into the largest, most notorious concentration camp and extermination centre of the Nazi regime. He presided over the day-to-day running of operations at the camp and attended some of the first gassing experiments on prisoners. During the early stages of the Holocaust, mass shootings were the most common way in which Jews and other people whom the Nazis considered Untermenschen (subhumans) were murdered. Höss was reportedly relieved when the gas released by Zyklon-B crystals was found to be an efficient and impersonal killing method, as he disliked the ‘bloodbath’ of shooting.
Höss was proud of the efficiency with which Auschwitz was run, especially the fact that prisoners were largely deceived about the true function of the gas chambers, believing that they were shower rooms. He later remarked on the ‘improvements’ that had been made at Auschwitz compared to Treblinka, one of the other extermination sites. Corruption at Auschwitz was extensive, however, and in late 1943 Höss was dismissed from his post following an official investigation. He subsequently worked in a concentration camp administration role in Berlin, but returned to Poland in the spring and summer of 1944 to oversee the mass murder of the Hungarian Jews, which was codenamed Aktion Höss.
An estimated 1.1 million people ultimately lost their lives in Auschwitz, ninety per cent of them Jews. During the day Höss calmly watched men, women and children go to their deaths, and in the evening he returned to his luxurious villa on the outskirts of the main Auschwitz camp. So close was this family home to the killing facilities that the Höss children had to rinse ash from the crematoria off the strawberries they picked in the garden.
Capture and Death
At the end of the war, Höss disguised himself as a sailor and then worked as a farmer before being tracked down and captured by the British in March 1946. In the months before he came to trial he penned his memoirs, later published under the title Commandant of Auschwitz. He remained unrepentant for his role in the ‘Final Solution’, maintaining that, ‘the reasons behind the extermination programme seemed to me to be right’. His one regret was not spending more time with his family.
Rudolf Höss was tried at Nuremberg and was hung on a gallows at Auschwitz on 16 April 1947, at the age of 46. He had supervised the murder of over a million human beings, yet one of his interrogators remarked that he nevertheless gave the impression of being ‘a normal person, like a grocery clerk’. To his death, Rudolf Höss considered himself a typical family man who had merely obeyed the orders of his superiors.