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Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, by Thomas Harding, Heinemann RRP£20/Simon & Schuster RRP$26, 368 pages

In the months before his trial in 1947, the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss wrote a memoir that told of his apprenticeship in Nazi obedience and the immense pride he took in the smooth running of the gas chambers. The book, for all its self-justificatory intent, remains a key to understanding the atrocity.

With disturbing indifference, Höss boasts of how the Nazi practice of extermination had become so “refined” under his command that the condemned remained deceived until the door shut on them in the false shower rooms, where they would be suffocated by Zyklon B gas. A stunted moral imagination had made him one of the most notorious mass murderers in history.

Hanns and Rudolf is the story of how a Jewish investigator called Hanns Alexander ran Rudolf Höss to ground at the war’s end. Born in Berlin, Alexander had joined the British army after fleeing anti-Semitic Germany in 1936. Nine years later, in April 1945, he entered Belsen camp with British troops. At last the Third Reich’s worst secret was out: the piles of naked, decomposed corpses revealed the unique moral horror of Nazism.

Belsen lent a moral clarity to the war Lieutenant Alexander had been fighting. Filled with a hatred for Hitler and his cohorts, he began to gather information on Höss, who had gone into hiding with his wife and children under the false name of Franz Lang. Sightings of the fugitive had been reported in north-western Germany along the Danish border. To Alexander it was unthinkable that a man who had presided over the killing of millions at Auschwitz should still be at liberty.

Thomas Harding, a British journalist who is related to Alexander on his mother’s side, tells the story with great verve. His great-uncle Hanns could not have been more different from the wretchedly servile Höss. The latter, born to a lower-middle class family in Baden-Baden in 1901, was a fastidious man who strangely flinched from displays of violence. Like Himmler, he was passionate about farming and dreamt of a rural utopia for the German people in a Poland without Jews.

In Auschwitz his life was divided between his family and the mechanics of mass murder. His wife, Hedwig, the so-called “Angel of Auschwitz”, ran the family villa in the concentration camp grounds, complete with flower beds, servants and artwork stolen from Jews. She and the family lived a life of luxury amid the attendant carnage.

Like many Nazi functionaries, Höss ensured that his awareness of the horrors was confined to his own special competence (the punctual departure of trains, the registration of arrivals). It was this willed ignorance that enabled him to ignore the moral consequences of his work. “No matter how chilling his daytime experiences were”, writes Harding, “he was able to return to the warmth of his family at night.”

From Himmler, Höss had learnt how much easier it is to kill people once they have been deprived of their humanity. “They are not like you and me”, Höss said of the Auschwitz Jews to his brother-in-law. “They are different ... They are here in order to die.”

After a nine-month search, Höss was found disguised as a farmer by British agents under Alexander’s command. To his American prosecutor the captive looked more like a “grocer’s assistant” than a mass murderer. Most of the 6,000 Reich Germans stationed at Auschwitz were unremarkable – “desk murderers” – who eliminated the innocent at the stroke of a pen. Höss was no exception. On April 16 1947, at the age of 46, he was hanged by the Allies at Auschwitz. He is a warning to us all of the dangers of blind adherence to ideology.

Ian Thomson’s biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage

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