Rudolf Höß

Rudolf Höß

Infobox Person
name = Rudolf Höß

image_size = 150px
caption = Rudolf Höß at the Nuremberg Trials
birth_name = Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höß
birth_date = birth date|1900|11|25
birth_place = Baden-Baden
death_date = death date and age|1947|04|16|1900|11|25
death_place =
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residence =
nationality = German
other_names =
known_for = First commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp
education =
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employer =
occupation = SS-Obersturmbannführer
home_town =
title =
salary =
networth =
height =
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term =
predecessor =
successor =
party = Nazi
boards =
religion = Roman Catholic
spouse =
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children =
parents =
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website =
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Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höß (in English commonly Hoess or Höss; November 25, 1900 - April 16, 1947) was an "SS-Obersturmbannführer" and from May 4, 1940 to November 1943 was the first commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp, where the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum estimates more than a million people were killed. [Commandant of Auschwitz: Rudolf Höß. ISBN 1 84212 024 7, Appendix One, page 193] [Piper, Franciszek & Meyer, Fritjof. [ "Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz. Neue Erkentnisse durch neue Archivfunde"] , "Osteuropa", 52, Jg., 5/2002, pp. 631-641, (review article).]

Early life

Rudolf Höss was born on November 25, 1900 in Baden-Baden into a strict Catholic family. In his early years, according to his autobiography, he was a lonely child with no playmates his own age, and all of his companionship came from adults. His father, a one-time army officer who served in German East Africa, ran a tea and coffee business; he raised his son on strict religious principles and with military discipline, having decided that young Rudolf would enter the priesthood. [Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess. ISBN 1 84212 024 7. pp. 29-31] Höss grew up with an almost fanatical belief in the central role of "duty" in a moral life. [ School of Theology - Seton Hall University, "A MASS MURDERER REPENTS: The Case of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz", by John Jay Hughes, March 25, 1998]

Höss began turning against the religion in his late teens, after an episode in which, he said, his own priest broke the Seal of the Confessional by telling his parents about an event at school which young Rudolf had described during confession. Soon afterwards, Höss's father died, and Höss began moving toward a military life. ["A MASS MURDERER REPENTS: The Case of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz"]

When the First World War broke out, Höss served briefly in a military hospital and then, at the age of 14, managed to get himself admitted to his father's and grandfather's old regiment, the German Army's 21st Regiment of Dragoons. He was sent to fight in Turkey, Iraq and Palestine. While stationed in Turkey he rose to the rank of "Feldwebel" and at the age of 17 was the youngest non-commissioned officer in the army. He was awarded the Eisernes Kreuz first and second class, among other medals. Höss also briefly served as commander of a cavalry unit.

After Germany's surrender, Höss joined up with nationalist paramilitary groups that were forming to impose order on the post-war chaos—first the East Prussian Volunteer Corps and then the Freikorps Roßbach. In Mecklenburg Höss and members of the Freikorps beat a suspected communist to death on the wishes of the local farm supervisor, Martin Bormann, who later became Hitler's private secretary. Höss participated in guerrilla attacks against French occupation forces in the Ruhr as well as against the Poles in the struggle for Silesia.

Early Nazi Service

Höss formally renounced his membership in the Catholic Church in 1922, and soon joined the NSDAP (Party Member #3240) after hearing Adolf Hitler speak in Munich. A year later, he served the party faithfully by helping to murder Walther Kadow, a communist school teacher. Kadow was believed to have tipped off the French occupational authorities that Höss's fellow Nazi, a paramilitary soldier named Albert Leo Schlageter, was carrying out sabotage operations against French supply lines. Schlageter was arrested and executed; soon afterwards Höss and several accomplices, including Martin Bormann, took their revenge on Kadow.

In 1924, after one of the killers gave the tale of the murder to a local newspaper, Höss was arrested and tried as the ringleader. Although he later claimed that another man was actually in charge, Höss said he accepted the blame as the group's leader; he was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in Brandenburg penitentiary for the crime. Bormann received a one-year sentence.

Höß was released in 1928 as part of a general amnesty and joined the "völkisch Artamanen-Gesellschaft" ("Artaman League") a nationalist back-to-the-land movement which promoted clean living and a farm-based lifestyle. In 1929 he married Hedwig Hensel, whom he met in the Artaman League. They would have five children together.


Joining the SS

Höss met Heinrich Himmler in 1929; in 1934 Himmler invited Höss to join the SS. That same year, Höss moved up to the "SS-Totenkopfverbände" (Death's Head Units) and in December he was assigned to the Dachau concentration camp, where he held the post of "Blockführer". Possibly because of his experience of being in prison himself, Höss excelled in his duties and was recommended by his superiors for further responsibility and promotion. By the end of his four years at Dachau, he was serving as administrator of the property of prisoners. [Testimony of Rudolf Höß at the Nuremberg Trials, available online at]

In 1938 he received a promotion to "SS-Hauptsturmführer", captain, and made adjutant to Hermann Baranowski in the Sachsenhausen camp. He joined the Waffen-SS in 1939.

Auschwitz Command

In May 1940, Höss was appointed commandant of a prison camp in western Poland, a territory that had been annexed outright by Germany and incorporated into the province of Upper Silesia. The camp was built around an old Austro-Hungarian army barracks near the town of Oświęcim, its German name Auschwitz. Höss would command the camp for three and a half years, during which time he expanded the original facility into a sprawling complex, the place now known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

At its peak size, Auschwitz was actually three separate facilities (Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II/Birkenau, and Auschwitz III/Monowitz), and was constructed on 8 100 ha (20,000 acres) which had been cleared of all inhabitants. [Testimony of Rudolf Höss at the Nuremberg Trials, see URL above] Its earliest inmates were Polish prisoners, including peasants, intellectuals, and Soviet prisoners-of-war. Auschwitz I was the administrative center for the complex; Birkenau was the extermination camp, where most of the killing took place.

In June 1941, according to Höss's later trial testimony, he was summoned to Berlin for a meeting with Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler "to receive personal orders." Himmler told Höss that Hitler had given the order for the physical extermination of Europe's Jews. Himmler had selected Auschwitz for this purpose, he said, "on account of its easy access by rail and also because the extensive site offered space for measures ensuring isolation." Himmler told Höss that he would be receiving all operational orders from Adolf Eichmann. Himmler described the project as a "secret Reich matter", meaning that "no one was allowed to speak about these matters with any person and that everyone promised upon his life to keep the utmost secrecy." Höss said he kept that secret until the end of 1942, when he told one person about the camp's purpose: his wife. [Testimony of Rudolf Höss at the Nuremberg Trials, see URL above]

After visiting the Treblinka concentration camp to study its methods of human extermination, [Hoess Affidavit for Nuremberg Trial at] Höss tested and perfected the techniques of mass killing which would make Auschwitz the most efficiently murderous instrument of the Nazi "Final Solution" and the most potent symbol of the Holocaust. [ Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess. ISBN 1 84212 024 7. Pages 106 to 157 and Appendix 1, pages 183 to 200.] According to Höss, during standard camp operations, two to three trains carrying 2,000 prisoners each would arrive daily for periods of four to six weeks. The prisoners were unloaded in the Birkenau camp; those fit for labor were marched to barracks in either Birkenau or to one of the Auschwitz camps; those unsuitable for work were driven into gas chambers and murdered. At first, small gassing bunkers were located "deep in the woods", to avoid detection. Later, 4 large gas chambers and crematoria were constructed in Birkenau to make the killing more efficient and to handle the increasing rate of exterminations. [Testimony of Rudolf Höss at the Nuremberg Trials, see URL above]

Höss "improved" on the methods at Treblinka by building his gas chambers ten times larger, so that they could kill 2,000 people at once rather than 200. He commented,

"Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated." [Hoess Affidavit for Nuremberg Trial, see URL above]

Höss experimented with various methods of gassing. According to Adolf Eichmann's trial testimony in 1961, Höss told him that he used cotton filters soaked in sulfuric acid in early killings. Höss later introduced the poison gas Zyklon B, a crystallized form of prussic acid, into the killing process, after his deputy Karl Fritzsch tested it on a group of Russian prisoners in 1941. [ Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess. ISBN 1 84212 024 7. Page 146] With Zyklon B, he said that it took 3-15 minutes for the victims to die, and that "we knew when the people were dead because they stopped screaming." [Hoess Affidavit for Nuremberg Trial, see URL above]

Höss later testified that Himmler himself visited the camp in 1942, and "watched in detail one processing from beginning to end." Eichmann, Höss said, visited the camp and observed its operations frequently. [Testimony of Rudolf Höss at the Nuremberg Trials, see URL above]

In his affidavit prepared for the Nuremberg trials in 1946, Höss asserted that local residents were well aware of the camp's purpose:

"We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy but of course the foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz." [ [ Modern History Sourcebook: Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz: Testimony at Nuremberg, 1946] August 1997]

After Auschwitz

After being replaced as the Auschwitz commander by Arthur Liebehenschel on December 1, 1943, Höss assumed Liebehenschel's former position as the chairman of "Amt D I" in "Amtsgruppe D" of the "SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt" (WVHA); he also was appointed deputy of WVHA leader Richard Glücks.

On May 8, 1944, however, Höss returned to Auschwitz to supervise Aktion Höß in which 430,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to the camp and killed between May and July of that year. Even Höss's industrial killing factory couldn't handle the huge number of victims' corpses, and the camp staff had to dispose of thousands of bodies by burning them in open pits. [Wilkinson, Alec, "Picturing Auschwitz", New Yorker Magazine, March 17, 2008, pp. 50-54]

Capture, trial, and execution

In the last days of the war, Höss was advised by Himmler to disguise himself among German Navy personnel; he evaded arrest for close to a year. When he was captured by British troops on March 11, 1946, he was disguised as a farmer. His wife had told the British where he could be found, fearing that her son, Klaus, would be shipped off to Russia. After Höss's capture, he confessed his real identity after being severely beaten by his captors.

During the Nuremberg trials, he appeared as a witness in the trials of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Oswald Pohl, and the IG Farben corporation. On 25 May 1946, he was handed over to Polish authorities, and the Supreme National Tribunal in Poland tried him for murder. Höss was sentenced to death on 2 April 1947. The sentence was carried out on 16 April immediately adjacent to the crematorium of the former Auschwitz I concentration camp. He was hanged on gallows constructed specifically for that purpose, at the former location of the camp Gestapo, as seen in the pictures to the right. The message on the board reads:

"This is where the camp Gestapo was located. Prisoners suspected of involvement in the camp's underground resistance movement or of preparing to escape were interrogated here. Many prisoners died as a result of being beaten or tortured. The first commandant of Auschwitz, SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, who was tried and sentenced to death after the war by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, was hanged here on 16 April 1947."

Höss wrote his autobiography while awaiting execution; it was published in 1958 as and later as .

Four days before he was hanged, Höss sent a message to the state prosecutor, including these comments:

"My conscience compels me to make the following declaration. In the solitude of my prison cell I have come to the bitter recognition that I have sinned gravely against humanity. As Commandant of Auschwitz I was responsible for carrying out part of the cruel plans of the "Third Reich" for human destruction. In so doing I have inflicted terrible wounds on humanity. I caused unspeakable suffering for the Polish people in particular. I am to pay for this with my life. May the Lord God forgive one day what I have done." [John Jay Hughes, [ A MASS MURDERER REPENTS: The Case of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz] ]

Timeline of Promotion

Dates of rank

* SS-Anwärter: 20 September 1933
* SS-Mann: 1 April 1934
* SS-Sturmmann: 20 April 1934
* SS-Unterscharführer: 28 November 1934
* SS-Scharführer: 1 April 1935
* SS-Oberscharführer: 1 July 1935
* SS-Hauptscharführer: 1 March 1936
* SS-Untersturmführer: 13 September 1936
* SS-Obersturmführer: 11 September 1938
* SS-Hauptsturmführer: 9 November 1938
* SS-Sturmbannführer: 30 January 1941
* SS-Obersturmbannführer: 18 July 1942

Significant awards

*Iron Cross 1st Class (World War I)
*Iron Cross 2nd Class (World War I)
*Baden Military Bravery Medal (World War I)
*Honour Cross for Combatants 1914-1918
*Hungarian War Service Medal for Combatants 1914-1918
*Turkish War Medal (World War I)
*Silver Wound Badge (World War I)
*Baltic Cross 1st Class (Freikorps)
*Baltic Cross 2nd Class (Freikorps)
*SS 8 year Long Service Decoration
*War Merit Cross (2nd Class with Swords)
*SS Honour Ring
*SS Honour Sword

Cultural references

Höss appears as a character in the BBC television series "Auschwitz: The Nazis and the "Final Solution" (2005) portrayed by Horst-Günter Marx, and in the Canadian miniseries "Nuremberg" (2000) portrayed by Colm Feore. In the movie "Operation Eichmann" (1961), Höss is portrayed by actor John Banner, who would become famous in the role of Sgt Schultz on the long-running sitcom Hogan's Heroes. In the mini-series "Holocaust" (1978), actor David Daker was in role of Rudolf Höss. He was also briefly portrayed in the film "Schindler's List" (1993) as the SS officer at Auschwitz bribed by Schindler with a pouch of diamonds. He is the main character (as Rudolf Lang) in the biographical novel "La mort est mon métier" ("Death is my Trade", 1952) by French writer Robert Merle based on Höss's autobiography and his testimonies at Nuremberg. The novel "La mort est mon métier" was made into a German film called "Aus einem deutschen Leben" ("(Excerpts) from a German life") in 1977, starring Götz George as Franz Lang, which was the false name Höss had used while hiding as a farmer.

Kurt Vonnegut makes a brief reference to Höß in "Mother Night". One of the prison guards who stands watch over Howard W. Campbell, Jr., claims to have been present at the hanging of Höss, indeed to have buckled the thick leather straps around his legs.

In the 1982 film adaptation of William Styron's 1979 novel "Sophie's Choice", Höss is portrayed during his time as commandant of Auschwitz by the German actor Günther Maria Halmer (although Styron's main character during the Auschwitz scenes ("Sophie") is herself fictional, the camp and its conditions were painstakingly researched to facilitate an accurate representation of the conditions inside). Six years later Halmer reprised the role for a totally different production, this time for television, based on the work of another American author, Herman Wouk. The 1988 television mini-series adaptation of Wouk's 1978 novel "War and Remembrance", which itself was the sequel to the very popular 1983 television mini-series adaptation of the 1971 Wouk novel "The Winds of War", includes Höss as portrayed again by Halmer, though the earlier 1983 mini-series contained neither Höss's character nor Halmer's work since it primarily dealt with the pre-war period in America.

He was featured as a persistent spiritual presence in Lily Brett's semi-autobiographical 1999 novel "Too Many Men". As the novel's heroine, Ruth Rothwax, a child of Holocaust survivors, visits present-day Poland with her father, Höss's ghost converses with her from Hell. Höss hopes that by making his presence known to one who has a determined view on the suffering he has caused, he can gain the "sensitivity" needed to elevate himself out of Hell.


* Autobiography, edited by Steven Paskuly: ""
* S.S. Personnel Service Record of Rudolf Höss, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland


External links

* [ Jewish Virtual Library: Rudolf Höss]
* [ Modern History Sourcebook: Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz: Testimony at Nuremberg, 1946]

NAME=Höß, Rudolf
SHORT DESCRIPTION=German war criminal, commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp
DATE OF BIRTH=25 November 1900
DATE OF DEATH=16 April 1947

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