Rudolf Hoess, who should not be confused with Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuehrer who flew to England in 1941, was a career S.S. officer whose memoirs are one of the most important primary sources about the Holocaust. No other camp commander produced an autobiography or wrote so extensively about his career, and none occupied a more important position in the machinery of extermination. Hoess introduced Zyklon-B (Cyclone-B) gas to Auschwitz in 1941, mainly because he thought it would be the most efficient method of mass killing, and his camp became the largest ‘customer’ for this cyanide gas, which had formerly been used as an insecticide (Hoess 155). About 80% of the prisoners who arrived at the camp were gassed almost immediately, while the S.S. permitted the others to survive temporarily as slave laborers. Others were made available for the numerous medical experiments carried out by physicians like Josef Mengele and many others (Hoess 223). Hoess thought that about four million people died in Auschwitz from 1941 to January 1945, when it was liberated by the advancing Red Army, and this would make him one of the greatest mass murders in history. His victims including Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, homosexuals and political prisoners, and Hoess rationalized their destruction because he considered them to be enemies of the Third Reich. He regarded himself as a dutiful German soldier and bureaucrat who had always followed orders, even though he took no pleasure from the slaughter and brutality that were occurring all around him every day.
I knew that these memoirs had been published in English before, under the title Kommandant at Auschwitz, and I chose this book because I was familiar with the subject matter in general and wanted to find out what a high-raking S.S. officer would have to say for himself. I think Hoess was mostly telling the truth in this book and in his trial testimony at the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg. He wrote down this account in 1946-47 when he was imprisoned in Poland, and had about a year to complete it before he was hanged in 1947 (Hoess 178-80). He had to write it all from memory since he had no access to any other records in his prison cell. In my opinion, Hoess produced this lengthy account of the Holocaust simply because he was ordered to by higher authority, in this case the Polish War Crimes Commission, and he was a man who always followed instructions when given a job to do. As he says from the start, he was the product of a very authoritarian and militaristic upbringing, and served as a soldier in World War I from the age of 17, so all he had ever really known in his entire life was duty, obedience and Fatherland (Hoess 54). Hoess had also spent time in prison during the Weimar Republic, for his part in the murder of Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau (Hoess 62). He admitted that he also functioned very well in that highly structured and disciplined situation, to the point where his jailers considered him a model prisoner who never broke the rules (Hoess 64). Of course, this was also what he expected from the millions of prisoners who later fell under his control.
At the time, the information about the death camps and gas chambers was still quite new and shocking, at least to non-Germans or those who had been fortunate enough to escape Nazi occupation, but over the decades it has become all too familiar. Very rarely will students and researchers ever find a more detailed account from one of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, except perhaps for the recorded interviews that Adolf Eichmann gave to a Dutch journalist in Argentina before he was arrested by the Israelis and point on trial in Jerusalem. Like his friend and colleague Hoess, he was no denier of the Holocaust either, but provided a great deal of information about the organization of the S.S., and how the death camps and concentration camps operated (Hoess 240-41). Also like Hoess he obviously felt a great deal of pride in his administrative and technical abilities, and asserted that he was just another soldier who had to follow orders, no matter what his personal views on the morality of genocide.
Almost immediately after the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, Hoess joined the S.S., where he was assigned to concentration camp duty at Dachau and later Sachsenhausen, before receiving his big promotion as commander of Auschwitz in 1941. His real mentor was S.S. General Theodore Eiche, known as ‘Papa Eicke’ by his men, the first commander of the Death’s Head troops that ran the concentration camps. Eicke trained these men and women to be utterly merciless and harsh to the “enemy behind the barbed wire”, just as if they were in a war, and Hoess also thought that those under his command truly loved him (Hoess 243-44). He noted that those S.S. people who showed mercy to these enemies or refused to obey orders might very well be punished themselves, and perhaps even executed, but it would literally never have occurred to him to disobey in any case. During the war years, the S.S. universe of camps and slave laborers literally became a giant empire and a state-within-a state, controlled by the Economic and Administrative Main Office (WVHA), under Gen. Oswald Pohl (Hoess 312-13). Hoess had performed so well at Auschwitz that he received a promotion to headquarters in Berlin, as part of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps under Richard Gluecks, although he returned to Auschwitz again in 1944 to oversee the extermination of the Hungarian Jews and then the demolition of the gas chambers and evacuation of the camp complex ahead of the advancing Soviet armies (Hoess 257-58).
Hoess was almost certainly not simply the dutiful robot that he claimed to be, since he was a very early Nazi and an unquestioning supporter of its racist and anti-Semitic ideology. He toned this down to some degree under the circumstances of captivity in 1945-47, but he freely admitted that he disliked Jews and other groups he considered ‘inferior’. There is no reason to regard him as anything else except a convinced Nazi who carried out his orders with great initiative and enthusiasm throughout the entire lifespan on the Third Reich. His entire career for twelve years really was that of a death dealer who was trusted with a key position in operating the machinery of genocide. When it was all over and his fate was certain, he testified in great detail before the war crimes courts and in this book about all his crimes, and took a great deal of professional pride in his murderous accomplishments. Indeed, he discussed many subjects in these memoirs that had been top secret during the war, and that he had hardly dare mention even to his wife and children. At the end, he even tells his readers that he really had a heart after all, but it is very doubtful that his victims ever saw any sign of it. Concerning all the technical details about the administration of the death camps, and the training and organization of the S.S. personnel who ran them, there will never be another primary source as valuable as these memoirs.
Hoess, Rudolf. Death Dealer: Memoirs of the S.S. Kommandant at Auschwitz. DeCapo Press, 1996.