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

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Overview

The gripping true story of the tenacious soldier who tracked down Rudolf Höss, the infamous commander of the Auschwitz death camp and the murderer of 1.3 million men, women, and children.

For three and a half years, Rudolf Höss served as kommandant of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. During that time, he painstakingly tested and perfected the techniques of mass killing that made Auschwitz the most efficient tool of murder in the Nazi’s Final Solution. In the closing ...

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

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Overview

The gripping true story of the tenacious soldier who tracked down Rudolf Höss, the infamous commander of the Auschwitz death camp and the murderer of 1.3 million men, women, and children.

For three and a half years, Rudolf Höss served as kommandant of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. During that time, he painstakingly tested and perfected the techniques of mass killing that made Auschwitz the most efficient tool of murder in the Nazi’s Final Solution. In the closing days of the war, Höss hid among German Navy personnel, but was finally captured in 1946—disguised as a harmless and humble farmer in the countryside—by a German Jew, Hanns Alexander.

Reading like a fast-paced thriller, Hanns and Rudolf reveals the full, exhilarating story of Höss' capture as never before told. Delving deep into British Intelligence records and those of the Auschwitz and Belsen archives, and interviewing dozens of people, including Höss' daughter and grandson, author Thomas Harding provides the first account of Hans Alexander and Rudolf Höss’ intersecting lives, culminating with the hunt for the nefarious war criminal.

Both Alexander and Höss were born in Germany to middle-class families. Both grew up in religious communities, one Jewish, the other Catholic. Both loved their country. One, however, ended up joining the SS and orchestrated mass murder. The other fled with his family to London, returning to Germany with the British army to face his persecutors. Hanns and Rudolf powerfully recreates and chronicles the lives of the first Nazi hunter and his target—two men whose paths collide when one brings the other to justice.

This, then, is a Jew-fighting back story, a tale of courage, betrayal and revenge. Yet it is not simply an old-fashioned war story, for it challenges the traditional portrayal of the hero and villain. For at times, the brutal kommandant displays a capacity for compassion. And the behavior of his pursuer is not always above suspicion. This book is therefore a reminder of a more complex world, told through the lives of two men who grew up in parallel and yet opposing German cultures.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rudolf Höss (1900–1947), the coldly efficient lapsed-Catholic commandant of Auschwitz, the Third Reich’s most notorious killing machine, oversaw the murder of more than a million men, women, and children. Hanns Alexander (1917–2006) was a German Jewish émigré in the service of the British Army dead-set on hunting down Rudolf (throughout the book, Harding refers to them by their first names in order to humanize them) and bringing him to justice. In this gripping biography-based history, Harding, a former documentary filmmaker and journalist, profiles both men in chronological alternating chapters, starting with their births and childhoods, moving on to their experiences in WWII, and concluding when Hanns and Rudolf finally come face to face on a farm where the war criminal had been desperately trying to elude his pursuers. Rudolf emerges as a loyal, workaholic, career Nazi who, upon his capture, is chillingly candid about his role in the Final Solution, and readers will revel in Hanns’s admirable determination to avenge the deaths of his countrymen and the years of vicious anti-Semitism that forced his family to flee Berlin. 8-page b&w photo insert, 47 b&w photos throughout. Agent: Patrick Walsh, Conville and Walsh Literary Agency, U.K. (Sept.)
Buffalo News
“[A] hair-raising account… 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.”
Forward
“[M]eticulously researched and rivetingly reported… Harding’s book is factual but reads like an edge-of-the-seat thriller…. [I] applaud Harding’s clear-eyed narration and objectivity — that and his talent to produce a book that fascinates and disturbs in equal measure”
From the Publisher
“Thomas Harding has written a book of two intersecting lives: His uncle, a German Jew and potential Nazi victim, and Rudolf Höss, Kommandant of Auschwitz. In a neat historical irony, his uncle became a British officer who tracked down war criminals, including one of the worst mass murderers. A fascinating account, with chunks of new information, about one of history's darkest chapters.”

“This important and moving book describes the unlikely intersection of two very different lives—that of Hanns Alexander, the son of a prosperous German family in Berlin who became a refugee in London in the 1930s and Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Well-researched and grippingly written it provides a unique insight into the fate of Germany under National Socialism.”

Thomas Harding’s Hanns and Rudolf not only declines to forget, but challenges and defies the empty sententiousness characteristic of those who privately admit to being “tired of hearing about the Holocaust.” In this electrifying account of how a morally driven British Jewish soldier pursues and captures and brings to trial the turntail Kommandant of Auschwitz, Thomas Harding commemorates (and, for the tired, revivifies) a ringing Biblical injunction: Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue".

"Outstanding, outstanding, outstanding! I was riveted to the text. Thomas Harding writes superbly, the storyline is better than any contrived mystery, and a compelling part of history. I see a movie here....because while there is almost a saturation of Holocaust books and movies, this is most compelling because it is about PEOPLE, the deranged Nazi who didn't give any thought to what he was doing and murdered in cold blood and the German Jewish refugee, a charming but rather regular fella, who got caught up in a history-making capture that turned the course of the Nuremberg trials."

Kirkus Reviews
British documentary filmmaker and journalist Harding traces the lives of Auschwitz Kommandant Rudolf Höss and Hanns Alexander, a Jewish refugee from Nazism who hunted him down and brought him to justice. The author only learned about his great-uncle Hanns' wartime record when attending his funeral in 2006. Alexander served with British forces during World War II, refused awards for his wartime service and never told his own story. (He also swore he would never return to Germany, and he didn't.) Harding commemorates his great-uncle's life and the contributions that helped to ensure that crucial evidence was presented at the Nuremberg war crimes trials in what the New York Times described as "the crushing climax to the case." The author traces the lives of Alexander and Höss in parallel. Alexander's family, along with other Jews, were steadily stripped of the capacity to function following Hitler's assumption of power, yet they were conflicted about leaving their homeland. Höss joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and was later recruited into the administration of the concentration camp system by Heinrich Himmler. Höss organized the Auschwitz camps under Himmler's orders and accepted the part he was personally assigned in the Final Solution. Höss and Alexander crossed paths after the Allies liberated the Bergen-Belsen death camp on April 15, 1945; it was then that Alexander became an avenging stalker of Nazi war criminals and Höss his prey. Alexander's hunt unravels some of the background to Allied decisions about pursuing war criminals and punishing war crimes. Höss admitted to the murder of millions of Jews in interviews conducted for the war crimes tribunal and was finally executed in Poland. Harding's portrayal of both men's lives before the war sets the scene for the hunt and its aftermath. The protagonists' individual choices and family backgrounds give this biographical history a unique, intimate quality.
Rabbi Julia Neuberger
“Hanns & Rudolf packs an extraordinary punch about the nature of evil, told in a cool, dispassionate voice. As these two lives wrap around each other, the quality of evil becomes ever clearer, and more shocking.”
John Le Carré
"A gripping thriller, an unspeakable crime, an essential history."
The Times, Book of the Week - Ben Macintyre
"Thomas Harding has shed intriguing new light on the strange poison of Nazism, and one of its most lethal practitioners... Meticulously researched and deeply felt."
The Sunday Times - Max Hastings
"Fascinating and moving...This is a remarkable book, which deserves a wide readership."
John Le Carré
"A gripping thriller, an unspeakable crime, an essential history."
Washington Post - Evan Thomas
"Written with admirable restraint... [Hanns and Rudolf] fascinates and shocks."
Cynthia Ozick
"Thomas Harding’s Hanns and Rudolf not only declines to forget, but challenges and defies the empty sententiousness characteristic of those who privately admit to being “tired of hearing about the Holocaust.” In this electrifying account of how a morally driven British Jewish soldier pursues and captures and brings to trial the turntail Kommandant of Auschwitz, Thomas Harding commemorates (and, for the tired, revivifies) a ringing Biblical injunction: Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue".
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Altshuler
"Outstanding, outstanding, outstanding! I was riveted to the text. Thomas Harding writes superbly, the storyline is better than any contrived mystery, and a compelling part of history. I see a movie here....because while there is almost a saturation of Holocaust books and movies, this is most compelling because it is about PEOPLE, the deranged Nazi who didn't give any thought to what he was doing and murdered in cold blood and the German Jewish refugee, a charming but rather regular fella, who got caught up in a history-making capture that turned the course of the Nuremberg trials."
Keith Lowe
“A remarkable book: thoughtful, compelling and quite devastating in its humanity. Thomas Harding’s account of these two extraordinary men goes straight to the dark heart of Nazi Germany.”
Roger Moorhouse
"A fascinating, well-crafted book, entwining two biographies for an unusual and illuminating approach to the history of the Third Reich, its most heinous crime and its aftermath."
Lyn Smith
"This fascinating book, based on the gripping story of one man’s unrelenting pursuit of Rudolf Höss in his search for justice, confirms my belief that much of the most important knowledge of the Holocaust, comes from the personal accounts of those involved. Hanns and Rudolf vividly brings to life, not only the impact of Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies on the author’s German Jewish family, forced to flee Berlin in the 1930s; but shows how an ordinary German farmer became one of the most feared and notorious war criminals in history, implementing with chilling efficiency the extermination of over a million Jews in Auschwitz. As awareness of the full horror of these dark years continues to advance, this book fills a unique and vital role."
Jonathan Freedland
"Its climax as thrilling as any wartime adventure story, Hanns and Rudolf is also a moral inquiry into an eternal question: what makes a man turn to evil? Closely researched and tautly written, this book sheds light on a remarkable and previously unknown aspect of the Holocaust - the moment when a Jew and one of the highest-ranking Nazis came face to face and history held its breath."
James Holland
"This is a stunning book. Rudolf Höss' descent into the horror of mass murder is both chilling and deeply disturbing. It is also an utterly compelling and exhilarating account of one man's extraordinary hunt for the Kommandant of the most notorious death camp of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau."
David Lodge
"Only at his great uncle’s funeral in 2006 did Thomas Harding discover that Hanns Alexander, whose Jewish family fled to Britain from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, hunted down and captured Rudolf Höss, the ruthless commandant of Auschwitz, at the end of WW2. By tracing the lives of these two men in parallel until their dramatic convergence in 1946, Harding puts the monstrous evil of the Final Solution in two specific but very different human contexts. The result is a compelling book full of unexpected revelations and insights, an authentic addition to our knowledge and understanding of this dark chapter in European history. No-one who starts reading it can fail to go on to the end."
Jay Winik
"Written with the verve of a writer and the sure touch of an historian, Thomas Harding's Hanns and Rudolf is a fascinating, fresh, and compelling work of history."
Richard Breitman
“Thomas Harding has written a book of two intersecting lives: His uncle, a German Jew and potential Nazi victim, and Rudolf Höss, Kommandant of Auschwitz. In a neat historical irony, his uncle became a British officer who tracked down war criminals, including one of the worst mass murderers. A fascinating account, with chunks of new information, about one of history's darkest chapters.”
Antony Polonsky
“This important and moving book describes the unlikely intersection of two very different lives—that of Hanns Alexander, the son of a prosperous German family in Berlin who became a refugee in London in the 1930s and Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Well-researched and grippingly written it provides a unique insight into the fate of Germany under National Socialism.”
Library Journal
09/01/2013
Harding, a journalist and the nephew of one of his subjects, traces the lives of two men, humanized by the use of their first names throughout the book. He follows their journeys before, during, and after World War II until their paths eventually crossed when Hanns Alexander, the author's great-uncle, arrested Rudolf Höss. Hanns was a German Jew who fled Nazi oppression in 1938, joined the Pioneer Corps of the British Army, and returned to Germany in 1945 as an investigator with the British War Crimes Investigation Team. He pursued Rudolf Höss, the notorious kommandant of Auschwitz who had overseen more than a million murders there, and captured him in Gottrupel, Germany, in March 1946. Harding alternates biographical chapters, moving with each man across time, with Höss's capture and confession as the climactic moment. VERDICT Providing further details about efforts to capture and indict Nazi war criminals, this will be a compelling book for World War II history and biography buffs. Readers of Christopher R. Browning's Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland will find in this book another portal through which to understand the psyche of the oppressor. [See Prepub Alert, 3/25/13.]—Felicia J. Williamson, Sam Houston State Univ. Lib., Huntsville, TX
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476711843
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/3/2013
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 145,395
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Harding is a former documentary filmmaker and journalist who has written for the Financial Times and The Guardian, among other publications. He founded a television station in Oxford, England, and for many years was an award-winning publisher of a newspaper in West Virginia. He lives in Hampshire, England.

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Read an Excerpt

Hanns and Rudolf

ALEXANDER. Howard Harvey, lovingly known as Hanns, passed away quickly and peacefully on Friday, 23rd December. Cremation on Thursday, 28th December, 2.30 p.m. at Hoop Lane, Golders Green Crematorium, West Chapel. No flowers please. Donations, if desired, to North London Hospice.

Daily Telegraph, December 28, 2006

Hanns Alexander’s funeral was held on a cold and rainy afternoon three days after Christmas. Considering the weather, and the timing, the turnout was impressive. More than three hundred people packed into the chapel. The congregation arrived early, and in full force, grabbing all the seats. Fifteen people from Hanns’s old bank, Warburg’s, were in attendance, including the former and current CEO. His close friends were there, as was the extended family. Hanns’s wife of sixty years, Ann, sat in the front row, along with the couple’s two daughters, Jackie and Annette.

The synagogue’s cantor recited the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. He then paused. Looking down upon Ann and her two daughters, he delivered a short sermon, saying how sorry he was for their loss and how Hanns would be missed by the entire community. When he had finished, two of Hanns’s nephews stood to give a joint eulogy.

Much was familiar: Hanns growing up in Berlin. The Alexanders fleeing the Nazis and moving to England. Hanns fighting with the British Army. His career as a low-level banker. His commitment to the family and his half-century of schlepping for the synagogue.

But there was one detail that caught nearly everyone off guard: that at the war’s end Hanns had tracked down the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss.

This piqued my interest. For Hanns Alexander was my grandmother’s brother, my great-uncle. Growing up, we had been cautioned not to ask questions about the war. Now I learned that Hanns may have been a Nazi hunter.

The idea that this nice but unremarkable man had been a Second World War hero seemed unlikely. Presumably, this was just another of Hanns’s tales. For he was a bit of a rogue and a prankster, much respected for sure, but also a man who liked to play tricks on his elders and tell dirty jokes to us youngsters, and who, if truth be told, was prone to exaggeration. After all, if he had really been a Nazi hunter, wouldn’t it have been mentioned in his obituary?

I decided to find out if it was true.

*

We live in an age when the waters are closing over the history of the Second World War, when we are about to lose the last remaining witnesses, when all that is left are accounts retold so many times that they have lost their original veracity. And so we are left with caricatures: Hitler and Himmler as monsters, Churchill and Roosevelt as conquering warriors, and millions of Jews as victims.

Yet Hanns Alexander and Rudolf Höss were men with many sides to their characters. As such, this story challenges the traditional portrayal of the hero and the villain. Both men were adored by their families and respected by their colleagues. Both grew up in Germany in the early decades of the twentieth century and, in their way, loved their country. At times, Rudolf Höss, the brutal Kommandant, displayed a capacity for compassion. And the behavior of his pursuer, Hanns Alexander, was not always above suspicion. This book is therefore a reminder of a more complex world, told through the lives of two men who grew up in parallel and yet opposing German cultures.

It is also an attempt to follow the courses of the two men’s lives, and to understand how they came to meet. And the attempt raises difficult questions. How does a man become a mass murderer? Why does a person choose to confront his persecutors? What happens to the families of such men? Is revenge ever justified?

Even more, this story is an argument that when the worlds of these two men collided, modern history was changed. The testimony that emerged proved particularly significant in the war crimes trials at the end of the Second World War: Höss was the first senior Nazi to admit to executing Himmler and Hitler’s Final Solution. And he did so in great and shocking detail. This testimony, unprecedented in its description of human evil, drove the world to swear that such unspeakable atrocities would never again be repeated. From this point forward, those suffering from extreme injustice could dare to hope for intervention.

It is also the story of surprise. In my comfortable north London upbringing, Jews—and I am one—were cast as the victims of the Holocaust, not its avengers. I had never really questioned that stereo-type until I fell into this story. Or, to be more accurate, it fell to me.

This is a Jew-fighting-back story. And while there are some well-known examples of resistance—uprisings in the ghettos, revolts in the camps, attacks from the woods—such examples are few. Each should be celebrated, as an inspiration to others. Even when faced with profound brutality, hope for survival—and perhaps revenge—is still possible.

This is a story pieced together from histories, biographies, archives, family letters, old tape recordings and interviews with survivors. And it is a story that was, for reasons that I think will become clear, never fully told by the men at its heart: Hanns and Rudolf.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 17, 2013

    The author has gone back into the early childhood and adult year

    The author has gone back into the early childhood and adult years to give a little insight into the character of Höss. Most of the men in powerful positions during the Nazi era were the same age and I wonder if there is any correlation between their possible involvement in live warfare during WW1 and their propensity to commit acts of savagery without any sense of wrongdoing. That isn't an excuse of course, but we are talking about normal men from everyday walks of life, who ordered and committed atrocious acts of cruelty upon their fellow human beings.
    Although Höss was given the assessment/title of psychopath (in this book) by a medical professional I would argue that the person diagnosing him was probably not impartial enough for that title to be definitive without further assessment by other professionals.
    Deeming him a person with psychopathic tendencies makes it easier for the lay person to accept that someone, or any person, would help create and perfect a killing system of such proficiency the likes of which has never been seen before and I hope never is again. Instead of accepting the reality that the majority of the people in charge were just Tom, Dick and Harry's and nice girls from next door.
    What I admired most about the way the author described Hanns Alexander was the way he didn't hide the anger. He didn't try to be diplomatic or hide what he really felt. Hanns wore his anger on his sleeve.
    These criminals took his home, his city and some of his family. Why wasn't anyone looking for justice for the victims? Forgotten during the war, despite reports of mass murder, and forgotten after the war, because punishing the criminals didn't take precedence over post-war power struggles. So Hanns ended up acting like a vigilante to get the information he wanted and he let his anger control his actions.
    None of us can say how we would react to seeing the horrors and live evidence of the suffering in the aftermath of the liberation.
    The writing suffered now and again from the literal translation, which was evident in the sentence structure.
    Aside from that this book is a powerful reminder that some of the perpetrators were actually hunted down and punished. Unfortunately the reality is that only a few received their dues and the majority of the murderers were allowed to live a full life, unlike their many victims.
    Historical accounts like this should serve as a reminder never to forget.
    I received a copy of this book via NetGalley.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 5, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent

    Well written, informative story of finding and bringing to justice a nazi killer.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 18, 2014

    This is a fabulous book.  Don't miss it.  

    This is a fabulous book.  Don't miss it.  

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    Posted September 18, 2013

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