Hanns and Rudolf – The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz

By Thomas Harding

Simon and Schuster

348 pages, $26.00

By Stephanie Shapiro

News Book Reviewer

This hair-raising account of the capture of Rudolf Höss deserves a better title, perhaps one that could stand alone without the clunky subtitle. It’s too vivid for such drab presentation.

The narrative of Höss’ capture and development from a run-of-the-mill fascist in the 1920s to the brutal tyrant he became is rich in details of life in Europe during and between the two world wars.

Many who saw Hitler as too ridiculous to take seriously waited so long to flee his iron grip that they endured the horrors of Höss’ handiwork: Auschwitz and other death and labor camps. He designed the massive death factory from scratch and created a new occupational field for Nazis on their way up the career ladder: concentration camp management. (Höss, sometimes written as Hoess, is not to be confused with Hitler’s secretary, Rudolf Hess.)

As commandant, Höss and his family lived in luxury in a house just outside the camp. Eight servants took the four Höss children for walks and outings and looked after the house and grounds, before being returned to the camp each evening. The children even created a game where they pretended to be inmates, until their father ended it.

Harding doesn’t belabor the brutality of the camps, nor does he downplay it. Höss’ experience as he witnessed the flogging of a fellow officer before the war is graphic enough to show the gradual hardening of his personality and to foreshadow later atrocities.

The British Army translator Hanns Alexander’s escape to England in 1936 sets the stage for his own transition to Nazi hunter at the end of World War II. The author hadn’t heard of his great-uncle Hanns’ exploits and, yes, some shenanigans, until Hanns’ funeral in December 2006. To Harding, the uncle had been an unremarkable London banker, and now the task of re-creating the facts of his life presented a formidable task.

Parallel life stories here are necessary, as the two lives rush to their ultimately fatal, at least for Höss, collision. Telling the story of Hanns Alexander while keeping Rudolf Höss in the background would have produced a confusing jumble of facts, as would the opposite approach, focusing primarily on Höss.

Höss confessed to coordinating the killing of more than 2 million people and nearly got away with it, but for Hanns Alexander’s dogged pursuit of him through the German countryside. Höss fled under various aliases and in several hiding places and was finally captured in a barn at the end of a long, narrow rural road.

And Hanns Alexander is an original, unlike most fictional characters – except maybe Zorro – but who would play him? Someone in the cool, sardonic tradition of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman or Peter O’Toole.

After capturing Höss in the far countryside, he stops the convoy en route to the local jail, leaves a guard for the prisoner in the truck and joins his fellow soldiers in celebrating the capture with champagne and whiskey. Always sober, he then orders Höss to walk barefoot across the town square to jail.

Harding’s literary style benefits from his background as a journalist and filmmaker. He writes clear, almost clinical prose, not bogged down in academic, military or any other jargon. For example, “trousers that hung wide at the thigh” is how “jodhpurs,” part of a uniform, are described.

What does “Hanns and Rudolf” contribute to understanding the industrialized murder of millions that doesn’t repeat previous work? The author’s focus on significant events, with enough background facts to make sense of what happened, gives a context for the horror. Höss and Alexander are drawn in vivid contrast. The narrative also extends beyond the postwar Nuremberg and other war crimes trials, adding historical perspective for 21st-century readers.

After publication of “Hanns and Rudolf” Harding spent three years tracking down Höss’ daughter, who lives in Virginia. The Washington Post printed an account of their meeting in September 2013. Whether there are plans for a book about her is another story.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former night city editor at The Buffalo News.