In my office at home I have one shelf on my bookshelf full of books with sticky tabs on the back indicating that I want to read them but have not yet found the time. When I get the chance I take one down and read it. Some are books I have had for years and some are new. This is one of those books.
I think like every aspiring historian, I went through a WWII phase in my youth where I read every book about WWII and all its aspects I could find. Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz by Rudolph Höss has sat on my shelf for almost twenty years and I finally got around to reading it recently.
First, the book itself. It is divided into four parts, Memoirs, final letters, camp profile, and profiles of individual SS men. It includes several appendices, an index, and a bibliography. Exclusive of appendices there is 332 pages of text.
Parts I and II of the book are his memoir and last words. The memoir portion is the most eye-opening. Rudolph Höss was in many ways a typical man as he describes his youth and adolescence. He was very nationalistic and despised he disorder in Germany following World War I. His longing for order led him to join the Nazi party and eventually the SS. As he describes it, it was almost happenstance that he became a camp guard and eventually a camp commandant. That is not exactly how it happened but that it was his perception is telling. Höss was a very efficient guard and camp administrator but perhaps the biggest reason he was so go at running camps is that he had absolutely no empathy for the inmate in the camps. As far as he was concerned they deserved whatever happened to them. If the Nazi decreed that Jews should die then he was going to do his best to make that killing as efficient is possible and that is what he did.
The whole part of his memoirs dealing with his time at Auschwitz comes off as self-serving. His expressions of remorse seem pro-forma at best and what comes through most clearly is his pride in his work, even though he never explicitly says this. Höss wrote his memoirs after he had already been condemned to death so he knew that by writing it he could expect no clemency. In fact, shortly after he finished writing, he was executed. In a display of Karma he was executed at Auschwitz by the Poles only yards from the entrance to Gas Chamber #1.
The letters to his wife and children show a man who felt bad, not because he was complicit in mass murder, but because he would not be around much longer. They are also an attempt to deflect any blame from his family, who lived at the camp while he was Kommandant. The letter attempts to make clear that his wife and children did not know what went on at the camp. AT least the letters prove that he was human and could feel love, which make his actions at Auschwitz in some ways even more inexplicable.
Part III is a description of the camps and how they were broken down and how they were operated. Of particular interest in this part was the breakdown of the camp rules and regulations. These rules detail the ruthless efficiency with which the Nazis organized the camps and go far to explaining how they were able to kill so many people.
The final part, part IV consists of profiles of other SS men written by Höss. These profiles are his impression of many of the men he worked with during his time with the SS. It is interesting, but I did not find it particularly illuminating.
This is an important book not because it offers any great insights into the Holocaust but because it shows the banality of evil in all its hideousness. Rudolph Höss was complicit in and facilitated the murder of millions of innocents. In his memoir he talks about it matter of factly. He weakly protests that he did not like the killing but that he had no choice. What I found most disturbing was his implicit contention throughout that the methods by which Jews and others were killed were designed to be as merciful as possible as if mercy entered into the calculation in mass murder on the scale practiced at Auschwitz and other camps. When he discusses the Jews Höss could just as easily be talking about putting down a rabid animal, because it is perfectly clear that he did not see them as humans.
This book should be read by everyone, whether interested in history or not, because it should serve as a reminder that such actions should never be tolerated again. Regardless of the despite in which a people is held, nobody or group deserves extermination. I highly recommend this book.
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