Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz
by Thomas Harding
Simon & Schuster, 369 Pages, $26
At the end of 2006, journalist Thomas Harding attended the funeral of his great-uncle, Hanns Alexander, in London. After the recital of the Kaddish, two of Hanns’s nephews gave a eulogy that traced their uncle’s life, from his upbringing in Berlin to his family’s flight from Nazi Germany to England, and then to his war effort with the British Army against his native country. Much of this was known to the congregation.
However, Harding was jolted by one detail that had formerly never been aired: In 1945 Hanns had changed from soldier to Nazi hunter and was responsible for tracking down the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss. His interest thoroughly piqued, Harding began investigating and the result is the meticulously researched and rivetingly reported “Hanns and Rudolf.”
Throughout the book, Harding refers to both men by their first names. In doing so, he brings the reader closer to his subjects. Harding alternates his subjects for each chapter, beginning first with Rudolf’s origins, then switching to those of Hanns in Chapter 2, and so on. Such a structure allows the reader to view the differences between the two men — Catholic and Jew, persecutor and persecuted, vanquished and vanquisher — and affords Harding enough room to flesh each of them out into full-bodied beings.
Harding’s early chapters skillfully set scenes for what will ensue. After a lonely childhood Rudolf signs up to fight in World War I, where he serves on the Mesopotamian frontlines. He shoots his first man and realizes he can kill quickly and efficiently in the heat of battle. Commended and promoted, he ignores the armistice, joins the Freikorps and takes part in massacring Bolsheviks in Latvia. Such slaughtering seems to have little effect on him. However, when he is noticed by Heinrich Himmler and tasked with supervising a newly established political prisoner camp in Dachau, he is appalled by the brutal corporal punishment meted out by sadistic guards. Harding excels at pinpointing these contradictions but leaves the reader to extrapolate the conclusions.
Hanns’s beginnings are calmer and less gripping, partly due to the fact that he was born in 1917, 16 years after Rudolf, and thus missed out on war and the subsequent political mayhem. But when Hitler becomes chancellor and the Nazi stranglehold tightens, Hanns’s affluent Jewish family feels the pressure and fears the worst. Suddenly his father, an eminent doctor, loses patients and income; Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and Richard Strauss are no longer at their dinner table or parties.
Harding’s account of the Jewish boycott and Hanns’s escape out of Germany, aged 19, is laced with tension — a feat that is all the more remarkable since we know exactly what follows in both instances. Hanns makes a new life for himself in Britain. His mother stays behind in Berlin to try to sell the family practice — just as the Gestapo is increasing its roundups. We read on, anxious to discover if she can get out in time.