STODDARD MARTIN steps gingerly into an ethical quagmire
Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Thomas Harding. Heinemann, Sept 2013. £20
Literature to do with the Holocaust implicates all of us. Any responsible person who has ever felt a twinge of anti-Semitism or other unwelcome prejudice reads with a growing unease: isn’t he too hiding a guilty secret? Disquiet of course travels further: what would he do were his society being directed by authorities who demanded a certain line of orthodoxy from him or else? When old Nazis were asked “Why did you participate in such horrors?” and responded “We were just following orders”, how many of us can truthfully say we would have stood out and not done the same? How many of us are willing to imperil our careers or the welfare of our families, to say nothing of our lives, in such heresy? The stakes are indeed high when one deals in literature of this genre, for the writer, for the commentator, even for the reader. A slight deviation in tone and one may produce the wrong inference. Terrible discomfort may afflict partial doubters. Descent into denial threatens moral collapse and/or relegation into a category of sociopath. An apt response may seem that of Martin Bormann Jr.: to relieve himself on his father’s picture.
Laws exist in Germany and Austria outlawing denial. In less implicated countries legislation seems extreme and, beyond cultural suasion, we are left to the mercy of our own intellectual/emotional responses to the evidence set before us. This is why veracity of memory is crucial and David Cesarani and other historians of the topic have worried about survivor accounts that bake facts, elide, exaggerate or otherwise distort, however innocently or – if not quite that – understandably. There are still frightful glissandos in this terrible saga. How many perished? Five million? Six? Many will say that to argue over figures is ghoulish and in any case beside the point: a massive state-sponsored crime. Yet perhaps it does matter to posterity that a chief executor of the horror first claimed that only ten thousand had perished in his camp, then later signed an affidavit saying two and a half million and was finally charged with and hanged for the death of four millions. How justice got to producing this staggering last figure is material to anyone used to weighing the reliability of evidence.
The executor in question was Rudolf Höss, a lower middle class Swabian, wounded in World War I, associated with Martin Bormann in dissident post-war activities and sufficiently trusted by Heinrich Himmler during the Third Reich to become commandant of Auschwitz. On a dark night in March 1946, Höss was captured in a barn on the Danish border by Hanns Alexander, an officer in the British army of privileged Berlin Jewish origin. By order and desire Alexander was impelled to hunt down war criminals. Hanns and Rudolf is a double biography of him and his prey by a great-nephew who knew nothing of Alexander’s war work until after his death in 2006. Thomas Harding (his branch of the family changed name) is a scrupulous person who has used all available means to unearth the truth in these matters, including testimony from Höss’s children and other relations, two of whom joined him in a visit to the death-camp. The account he gives is thus full of contradictions slight and grand. At one point he asks a Belsen survivor whom his father helped how people who experienced the same event from the same point of view could have very different recollections and she replies, “You can ask ten people who were in the same place at the same time and you will get ten answers” [i]. If this is normal, how can truth be made stable? “Through the research process”, Harding states in a postscript to his book, “I came to learn that history – like the story of the blind men describing the elephant – is never as clear as you would expect.”
When Hanns tracked down Rudolf on that cold night in 1946, he was leading a posse armed with axe-handles and motivated by “hatred for the bastards”. Höss was stripped naked and beaten, until a doctor told Alexander to “call them off unless you want to take back a corpse”[ii]. As prisoner, Höss was treated with not much more kindness nor interrogated with more gentleness than you would expect. One consequence of this, as the late Harold Pinter[iii] or other campaigners against torture might predict, is recorded by Harding in an endnote:
“Those ten minutes of abuse, along with allegations of further attacks by British hands, would be enough for scores of Holocaust revisionists to argue over the years that Rudolf Höss’ testimony was tainted. Their argument goes like this: Höss’ testimony was beaten out of him and therefore his evidence at Nuremburg, and later his autobiography, could not be relied upon. This led them, supposedly logically, to argue that because the ‘story’ of the Final Solution relied so heavily on Rudolf Höss’ testimony the Holocaust never really happened.” [iv]
Harding is right to imply illogic to the deniers’ conclusion. On the other hand, he follows many in seeing the testimony of Höss as crucial to the Nuremburg process – a much-needed ‘smoking gun’. He also sees the figures Höss eventually signed up to – the two and a half million, to say nothing of four million mooted in Warsaw (a Russian inflation) – as beyond credibility. “According to many historians,” he says in a further note, “including those at the Auschwitz Museum, the most likely figure is that 1.3 million people died at Auschwitz, of whom ninety percent were Jewish.”[v] This estimate ought to satisfy reasonable readers; it is compromised, however, by a previous note in which Harding states, “According to the Auschwitz Museum… 1.3 million or more people [were] deported to Auschwitz”. Did all of them die? The literature is now rich with tales of survivors. So between ‘died’ and ‘deported to’ which is the more accurate verb? What is the spectrum of probabilities?
Höss himself in both trial and memoir[vi] dismissed some of the larger figures as technically beyond the capacity of the killing apparatus he apparently so efficiently set up. His children, somewhat surprisingly given the atmosphere of admission and atonement in the culture they grew old in, maintained that – despite living within meters of the crematoria – they never knew what was going on. This they put down to having been kids at the time; but how easy is it to keep from a child’s eye all trace of crimes on the scale of even the lowest estimates now generally accepted? It is of course understandable that children should wish to retain doubt about evils ascribed to a father whom they prefer to remember as kindness itself; it is also understandable that, when pressed, they like others should retire behind the defence that he was only a cog in a machine, a soldier carrying out orders, and would have been punished had he behaved otherwise, perhaps even executed. And yet…
We are in danger of being led into a moral quagmire, a confusion hardly helped ex post facto by knowledge that successors to the victorious overlords of 1945 have seen fit to ‘sex up’ Gulf of Tonkin resolutions, weapons-of-mass-destruction dossiers and the like in order to pursue military adventures of dubious justification. Thomas Harding is a young man alive in a post-Watergate, post-Tony Blair era of unstable certainties. He is a Jew of a generation that has been enjoined to assert ‘never again’ and to believe that the ‘tough Jew’ is a necessity that too many of his great-grandparents’ era in Europe failed to credit, to their terrible cost. But what that cost was exactly his book is too even-handed to clarify. Prejudice, discrimination, threat, expropriation, extortion and exile are all established beyond doubt: these things happened to his forbears or were witnessed by them with their own eyes. The rest with all its subdivisions – how many to disease, euthanasia or starvation; how many to causes also being meted out to half a continent during the winter of ’44-’45 – relies on report, documentation, evidence and testimony; matters that require to be tested in court and in judgements whose probity must be validated not by the hot breath of immediate press report[vii] but by the cold eye of long-term history.
David Cesarani and others have been right to voice concern. No book on this topic can afford to be loose, let alone tendentious or sententious, understandable as those temptations may be. As we move on in time and new generations look back, more and more clarity, it is hoped, will emerge. Thomas Harding is an honest man who has done his best against some odds to find human dimensions in an arch-enemy of his forbears and take a cool measure of a family hero driven in large part by outrage, vengeance and hatred and with a penchant for pranksterish deception[viii]. None of this is easy. What it produces for us to ponder is, if not unpalatable, in any case a bitter pill. Little is resolved fully. Possibly it never can be. We are like blindfold horses turning the wheel of a mill, circling round and round imagining our progress to be towards clover-filled pastures, which we may never reach[ix]. It is easy to see how a writer may come to feel, as Anthony Julius confessed in the last paragraph of his six hundred page tome on anti-Semitism – Trials of the Diaspora – that he had staggered through ‘muck’ long enough and hoped he would never have to deal with the topic again[x]. Mystical and idealistic aspects of Jewish tradition are the pastures that those who truly care for this people may readily prefer to attend to.
Dr. STODDARD MARTIN is an academic and publisher
[i] Lucille Eichengreen. See note page 314-15
[ii] Pg. 243. Höss’s whereabouts had been extracted from his wife by informing her that a train was about to take her 14 year old son to Siberia and that she would never see him again
[iii] The Nobel Prize winner’s views about torture are well-known and were vociferously expressed in person, in speeches, in plays and in his work for English and International PEN
[iv] See note pgs 318-19
[v] See note page 310. The apparently contradictory note which follows can be found on page 299
[vi] This was written largely in Warsaw when Höss was awaiting trial and was encouraged by the authorities there
[vii] Harding describes how Höss’s testimony at Nuremburg was reported instantly around the world, pg 259-60
[viii] Hanns enjoyed pulling off pranks from an early age, not least ones of identity with his twin brother Paul. This could provide comic outcomes, for example, in fooling girls whom one or the other wished to seduce
[ix] I am indebted for this Sisyphean image to the late Shusha Guppy whose award-winning memoir of her Persian childhood was entitled The Blindfold Horse (1988)
[x] Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 587: “Anti-Semitism is a sewer. This is my second book on the subject and I intend it to be my last.”