Hanns and Rudolf

Hanns and RudolfHanns and Rudolf Thomas Harding

I had a small problem with this book. Or to be more precise, with the marketing strategy employed in its promotion. The book tells the true story of how Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who worked for the British Army during the war, tracked down Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz, who was trying to find himself a ratline to freedom after the war ended. Alternate chapters bring us through the lives of each of the two men from their childhoods, until three quarters of the way through the book when the hunt begins and they share chapters, their lives now directly linked by the chase. The problem I have is with the fact that, given that this is a work of non-fiction, dealing with someone who by his own admission was directly responsible for the deaths of two and a half million people, the marketing blurb on the front (it seems we must have them) comes, not from an eminent historian or even biographer, but from that eminent spinner of spy yarns, John le Carré: ‘A gripping thriller’ is his first reaction, though he continues, ‘an unspeakable crime, an essential history’. On the back cover other reviewers have been blurbed using the words ‘thrilling’, ‘electrifying’, and ‘exhilarating’. And ultimately the problem really is that it is all of these things, and I could not help feeling a twinge of guilt for enjoying the book so much for its pure entertainment value.

Thomas Harding, the author, is a grand-nephew of Hanns Alexander. Given that his family suffered at the hands of the Nazis, he has done a laudable job of maintaining a balanced tone throughout. Both Hanns and Rudolf are given equal consideration – though Harding is at pains to point out at the start that he sees no moral equivalence between them – and there seems to be a genuine attempt to understand how Rudolf Höss became what he did. The style in which the book is written is direct and unfussy, possibly the result of the fact that Harding is a journalist, though possibly too in order to maintain that objectivity and balance. Ultimately, however, and through no fault of Harding, there really is no adequate explanation for why someone who wanted to be a farmer ultimately became one of the most prolific murderers of all time.

There are several photographs in the book. The most startling is not, as we might expect, the photographs of selection, or execution, or burial; it is rather the 1943 Höss family group photograph of Rudolf, his wife and their five children, the youngest of which is a two- or three-month-old baby. The mother sits looking at the baby on her lap, the others form a semicircle behind her and have obviously been told to look at the baby likewise. The two girls do so, their heads bowed timidly; the younger son looks directly at the camera from behind his mother’s shoulder, his gaze almost fearful; the older boy, standing beside his father looks warily at him or at something beyond him; Höss himself looks down at his wife and baby but there is nothing of the pride of a paterfamilias in his face; more a sort of discomfort. Here truly is a picture that paints a thousand words. And when we find ourselves slipping into the mode of reading this book as if it was a fiction thriller, this photograph pulls us up and reminds us that, as Harding himself says in the Author’s Note, we are dealing here with human beings. Perhaps not all the victims were inside the fence.