Friday, September 1, 2017

Review of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding (Windmill Books, 2013)

Born in 1901 Rudolf Höss served as an under-age soldier in the German Army in the Middle East during the First World War, fell in with the National Socialist Party in the early 1920s, serving time in prison for manslaughter, and tried his hand at farming before joining the SS and becoming an early employee of the first concentration camp. He worked his way up through the ranks becoming the founding commandant of Auschwitz, putting in place the architecture and practices of mass murder in the archipelago of related camps and refining the process to make it more efficient, and joining the senior management team in charge of running all concentration camps. He was thus a key player in the holocaust. Born in 1917, Hanns Alexander was the son of a rich Jewish doctor in Berlin (and great-uncle of the writer). As the National Socialists grew in power and Jews became more persecuted, along with his fellow family members he fled to England in 1936. Along with his twin brother he signed up with the Pioneer Corps, being sent to France and evacuated through Dunkirk, returning to France in 1944. As the war drew to a close he was transferred to the British war crimes unit to work as a translator, but later was made an investigator in his own right. Determined to prove himself, he tracked down the Gauleiter of Luxembourg and Rudolf Höss.

Hanns and Rudolf tells two intertwined biographies until their eventual convergence, telling the life stories of two German men who ended up on opposing sides, swapping roles of hunter and hunted.  The structure of the book thus consists of paired chapters focusing on a particular time period (in a very similar fashion to ‘Dietrich and Riefenstahl’, published in the same year and I reviewed a couple of months ago). While the focus is very much on the two men’s lives and their individual journeys, the narrative is also used to reflect in part on German society between the wars and how people became enrolled into the holocaust or were affected by virulent anti-semitism. The strength of the book is the contrasting biographies and the story of how they eventually came to intersect and the focus on their personalities and the everydayness of each man’s home life. While it is clear that Höss invented and performed monstrous acts, to his loved ones he was considered a dedicated and considerate family man. Hanns, while driven to seek justice, is a prankster and a little bit of a rogue.  They are poles apart, but are presented as stark black and white but as very dark and very light grey. Höss broke the dam of denial in the Nuremberg trials by admitting his crimes, and those of his fellow defendants, and detailing how the system worked, especially in his memoirs written in a Polish prison before his trial and execution.  The weakness of the book, however, is a reliance on those memoirs as personal testimony and a lack of critical engagement with them and deep reflection on the psychology and actions of Höss. The complexity of the man, who seemed to lead a double life or expressed a dual personality, is somehow lost and he’s presented somewhat at face value (rather than as someone trying to post-event justify their actions). The result was the narrative lacked a critical edge, failing to ask and answer difficult and penetrating questions about Höss life. Nonetheless, an interesting account of two contrasting men whose lives intersected in a dramatic way.

No comments: