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"A large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. 'Warum?' I asked him in my poor German. 'Hier ist kein warum,' (there is no why here) he replied,
pushing me inside with a shove."
--Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz
In a remote corner of southern Poland, in a marshy valley where the Sola River flows into the Vistula about thirty miles west of Cracow, Heinrich Himmler decided in the spring of 1940 to build a new prison camp. The site chosen by some of his underlings had little to recommend it. Outside a bleak little town named Oswiecim, there stood an abandoned Austrian artillery barracks, a collection of about twenty single-story brick buildings, most of them dark and dirty. The surrounding countryside in the foothills of the Carpathians was strangely beautiful, a mosaic of meadows speckled with wild flowers, but a committee of Himmler's adjutants reported back to Berlin that the prospects for a large prison camp were forbidding. The water supply was polluted, and there were mosquitoes everywhere, and the barracks themselves were virtually useless.
Himmler was undaunted. In this first year of the subjugation of Poland, the need for new detention camps to help establish German law and order in the east was overwhelming. One of Himmler's most dedicated subordinates, SS Major Rudolf Hoess, commandant of the "protective custody camp" at Sachsenhausen, differed from his skeptical colleagues. He reported to Berlin that hard work could transform the marshes along the Vistula into a valuable outpost of the Reich. The place had two important qualities: it had good railroadconnections, but it was isolated from outside observation. Himmler promptly assigned Hoess to take charge of the project. On April 29, 1940, Hoess and five other SS officers from Sachsenhausen descended from the Breslau train and surveyed the prospect before them. "It was far away, in the back of beyond, in Poland," Hoess later recalled in the memoir that he wrote shortly before he was hanged in 1947. The Poles called the place Oswiecim; the Germans called it Auschwitz.
Hoess was a remarkable man, as anyone who confesses to personal responsibility for the death of about three million people presumably must be. It was he, apparently, who devised the famous steel sign that mockingly welcomed the trainloads of prisoners to Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes you free. He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labor does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom. "All my life I have thoroughly enjoyed working," Hoess wrote on the eve of his hanging. "I have done plenty of hard, physical work, under the severest conditions, in the coal mines, in oil refineries, and in brickyards. I have felled timbers, cut railroad ties, and stacked peat. . . . Work in prison [is] a means of training for those prisoners who are fundamentally unstable and who need to learn the meaning of endurance and perseverance. . . ."
He was not a mere brute. One of the few surviving photographs shows a man with a high forehead, large, searching eyes, a full-lipped and rather prissy mouth. His devout parents had been determined that he should become a priest. His father and his grandfather had been soldiers, and though the father retired from the Army to become a salesman in Baden-Baden, he passed on to his only son his belief in military discipline. And piety. He took his son on pilgrimages to shrines as far away as Einsiedeln and Lourdes. "I was taught," Hoess wrote, "that my highest duty was to help those in need. It was constantly impressed on me in forceful terms that I must obey promptly the wishes and commands of my parents, teachers and priests. . . ."
Such commands sometimes conflicted. Shortly after Hoess' father died, the World War broke out, and despite his mother's pleadings that he continue his studies, he lied about his age and managed to enlist at sixteen in the Twenty-first Regiment of Dragoons. He was sent to Turkey, then to the Iraqi front, then to Palestine. At eighteen he was already the commander of a cavalry unit. When the war ended, he refused to surrender and marched his own troops home through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, to Austria. He found his mother dead, his household dispersed. He took up arms again in one of the Freikorps units that fought in the Baltic states, and when the Freikorps became violently involved in the domestic battles of the Weimar Republic, Hoess too took part in an absurd political murder. He and a band of his comrades got drunk and then beat to death a schoolteacher whom they suspected of having informed on another nationalist. It was all a mistake. The schoolteacher had done nothing. Hoess was surprised to find himself arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
By his own account, he was a model prisoner. "I had been taught since childhood to be absolutely obedient and meticulously tidy and clean," he wrote, "so in these matters I did not find it difficult to conform to the strict discipline of the prison." When the worthy liberals of Weimar devised a system in which meritorious prisoners might pass a series of tests and trials that would lead to their freedom, Hoess was proud to become the first of eight hundred prisoners to reach the top rating, and to wear three stripes on his sleeve. Arbeit macht frei. But as a political prisoner, he could not be freed. He began to go mad. He could not eat, could not get to sleep. "I had to . . . walk round and round my cell, and was unable to lie still," he wrote. "Then I would sink exhausted onto the bed and fall asleep, only to wake again after a short time bathed in sweat from my nightmares. In these confused dreams, I was always being pursued and killed, or falling over a precipice. Two hours of darkness became a torment. Night after night I heard the clocks strike the hour. As morning approached, my dread increased. I feared the light of day and the people I should have to see once more. . . ."
A prison doctor finally told Hoess that he was suffering from "prison psychosis," and that he would get over it, and he did. But it was not until 1928, when a left-right coalition came to power in Berlin, that an amnesty freed Hoess and an army of others who had committed political crimes. After five years in prison, Hoess passionately wanted to become a farmer. He discovered a right-wing group called the League of Artamanen, which was establishing a network of agricultural communes. He found a girl who shared his views, and they got married and worked the land and had three children (there were ultimately to be five). He learned in due time that one of the leaders of the Artamanen was Heinrich Himmler, scarcely thirty, a thoughtful young man who wore a pince-nez and loved birds and flowers and held a degree in agronomy and owned a chicken farm outside Munich. With the rise of Hitler, Himmler became the commander of the Fhrer's private guard, the Schutzstaffel, or SS, and when Himmler called for recruits, Hoess answered the call. He claims to have had "many doubts and hesitations" about leaving the farm, claims to have known almost nothing about the new concentration camps that Hitler was building. "To me it was just a question of being an active soldier again, or resuming my military career," Hoess wrote. "I went to Dachau."
Hoess' memoirs are full of lies and evasions, of course, but they also provide a remarkable illustration of the whole process of self-delusion. Having joined the SS for a quasi-
military career, Hoess seems to have been surprised and strangely thrilled, at Dachau, the first time he saw a prisoner flogged. "When the man began to scream," he recalled, "I went hot and cold all over. . . . I am unable to give an explanation of this." Hoess dutifully regarded the prisoners as enemies of the state, regarded their forced labor as a justified punishment, regarded all the beatings and torments as a justified enforcement of discipline. He claims, nonetheless, to have had misgivings, and to have suppressed them. "I should have gone to [Himmler] and explained that I was not suited to concentration-camp service, because I felt too much sympathy for the prisoners. I was unable to find the courage to do this. . . . I did not wish to reveal my weakness. . . . I became reconciled to my lot."