Hoess, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand°

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HOESS, RUDOLF FRANZ FERDINAND ° (1900–1947), Nazi commandant of the *Auschwitz extermination camp. Born in Baden-Baden in southwest Germany, Hoess was an only son, the eldest of three children of a prosperous merchant's clerk and a housewife. In high school he trained for the priesthood, yet his father's death and the outset of war changed these plans. In 1916, he joined the army. Wounded three times, he was twice awarded the Iron Cross. He joined the East Prussian Free Corps (Freikorps) and took part in the suppression of disturbances in Latvia and in quelling workers who were staging a revolt in the Ruhr in 1920. A reunion of the Freikorps in early 1922 introduced him to Adolf Hitler for the first time. Hoess immediately joined the Nazi Party and renounced his affiliation with the Catholic Church. When France and Belgium entered and occupied the Upper Rhine region in January 1923, and extremist German elements responded with terror, Hoess participated in the assassination of Freikorpsman Walter Kadow on the estate of the man who was later to serve as Hitler's secretary, Martin *Bormann. Hoess was captured and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released in 1928 as part of the general amnesty. When Hitler came to power, Hoess joined the SS guard battalion at Dachau, serving under Camp Inspector (and future ss-Gruppenfuehrer) Theodor Eicke. Hoess's rise was rapid: first sergeant in March 1936, second lieutenant in September 1936, first lieutenant in September 1938, and captain in November 1938.

In 1939, he was named director of the concentration camp at *Sachsenhausen. In 1940, Hoess headed the commission charged to decide how to use the Polish army barracks at Auschwitz. His recommendations prompted Heinrich *Himmler's order on April 27, 1940, that established kl Auschwitz, which was planned to house about 10,000 prisoners. Hoess seized the opportunity to display his organizational talents, and was appointed commandant of the new camp on May 1, 1940. He tackled the tasks at hand with a passion, impressing Himmler with his skills. In March 1941 Himmler instructed Hoess to expand Auschwitz to hold the 30,000 prisoners expected to arrive in the course of the anticipated war with the Soviet Union. In addition, Himmler ordered that a camp for 100,000 prisoners of war be set up in nearby Brzezinka (kl Auschwitz-Birkenau) and that a labor force of 10,000 prisoners be placed at the disposal of I.G. Farben to construct a chemical works.

When Hitler limited Himmler's grand plans for Auschwitz in 1941, Auschwitz was assigned a special role in the plan to kill European Jews, euphemistically termed the "final solution of the Jewish question." In his autobiography, Hoess maintained that he first learned of the plan, and the designation of Auschwitz as the hub of the Holocaust, in the summer of 1941. Accordingly, he modified his plans for Birkenau, and began implementing installations of mass extermination. An experiment was conducted at Auschwitz on September 3, 1941, using the prussic (hydrocyanic) acid gas known commercially as Zyklon-b. Six hundred Soviet pows and 250 camp prisoners were gassed in the cellars of Block 11 with Hoess personally viewing the experiment.

During the lethal six months from July to December of 1942, Auschwitz served as a killing center. The killing process and the treasures looted from the victims led to widespread reports of corruption. Seven hundred SS men from various camps were either discharged from active service or put under arrest.

In Auschwitz, an investigation uncovered massive corruption; willful, unauthorized killing of prisoners (authorized killing by gas, hanging, and execution was permissible – indeed rewarded) and a special fund through which monies were funneled for officer-corps banquets. As a result, Hoess was reassigned – kicked upstairs – as chief of Department di, the Central Office within ss-wvha, in January 1944, where he coordinated all undertakings within the entire camp system. He controlled the activities of camp commandants and could submit proposals for personnel changes in the camps. Hoess's length of service and loyalty to the Nazi cause was rewarded by a mere mild punishment, which on paper looked like a promotion.

After the planned deportation of several hundred thousand Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz in May 1944, Hoess arranged for his successor at Auschwitz, Arthur Liebenhenschel, to be appointed commandant of the Lublin/Majdanek camp. Hoess then returned to Auschwitz, where he assumed the command of the SS garrison for several months. As such, the commandants of all the Auschwitz camps (kl Auschwitz i, ii, and iii) answered directly and formally to him. Thus, he presided over the murder of Hungarian Jews.

After the collapse of the Nazi regime, Hoess eluded capture for nine months. He was imprisoned in former army barracks at Heide, and then transferred to the main British center for interrogations of the most wanted war criminals. Surprisingly, Hoess was candid in his testimony, giving precise though passive answers. He corrected figures, when he knew them, and statements that he judged to be untrue.

Hoess neither protected anyone nor evaded his own responsibility. Instead, he viewed his deeds as a technical challenge, a triumph of coping with unprecedented circumstances. In prison after conviction, he wrote his memoirs.

His last words once again acknowledged his responsibility for all that occurred in Auschwitz. He did not appeal for leniency. He only asked for permission to send a farewell letter to his family and to return his wedding ring to his wife. On the morning of April 16, 1947, several dozen yards from his former villa near Crematorium i in the main camp, Rudolf Hoess was hanged.

He left behind a legacy of obedience to the Nazi cause and initiative in the implementation of the final solution. He left behind more than a million people murdered by gas and a memoir, which is remarkable for its detail and its detachment.

His description of the killing process is precise, detailed, ice cold:

The extermination process in Auschwitz took place as follows: Jews selected for gassing were taken as quietly as possible to the crematories. The men were already separated from the women. In the undressing chamber, prisoners of the *Sonderkommandos, who were specially chosen for this purpose, would tell them in their own language that they were going to be bathed and deloused, and that they must leave their clothing neatly together, and, above all, remember where they put them, so that they would be able to find them again quickly after the delousing. The Sonderkommando had the greatest interest in seeing that the operation proceeded smoothly and quickly. After undressing, the Jews went into the gas chamber, which was furnished with showers and water pipes and gave a realistic impression of a bathhouse.

The women went in first with their children, followed by the men, who were always fewer in number. This part of the operation nearly always went smoothly since the Sonderkommando would always calm those who showed any anxiety or perhaps even had some clue as to their fate. As an additional precaution, the Sonderkommando and an SS soldier always stayed in the chamber until the very last moment.

The door would be screwed shut and the waiting disinfection squads would immediately pour the gas [crystals] into the vents in the ceiling of the gas chamber down an air shaft which went to the floor. This ensured the rapid distribution of the gas. The process could be observed through the peep hole in the door. Those who were standing next to the air shaft were killed immediately. I can state that about one-third died immediately. The remainder staggered about and began to scream and struggle for air. The screaming, however, soon changed to gasping and in a few moments everyone lay still. After twenty minutes at the most no movement could be detected. The time required for the gas to take effect varied according to weather conditions and depended on whether it was damp or dry, cold or warm. It also depended on the quality of the gas, which was never exactly the same, and on the composition of the transports, which might contain a high proportion of healthy Jews, or the old and sick, or children. The victims became unconscious after a few minutes, according to the distance from the air shaft. Those who screamed and those who were old, sick, or weak, or the small children died quicker than those who were healthy or young.

The door was opened a half an hour after the gas was thrown in and the ventilation system was turned on. Work was immediately started to remove the corpses. There was no noticeable change in the bodies and no sign of convulsions or discoloration. Only after the bodies had been left lying for some time – several hours – did the usual death stains appear where they were laid. Seldom did it occur that they were soiled with feces. There were no signs of wounds of any kind. The faces were not contorted.

The Sonderkommando now set about removing the gold teeth and cutting the hair from the women. After this, the bodies were taken up by an elevator and laid in front of the ovens, which had meanwhile been fired up. Depending on the size of the bodies, up to three corpses could be put in through one oven door at the same time. The time required for cremation also depended on the number of bodies in each retort, but on average it took twenty minutes.


J. Tennenbaum, Race and Reich (1956), 373–98; G.M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (1947), index; United Nations War Crimes Commission, Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals, 7 (1948); imt,Trial of the Major War Criminals, 24 (1949), index; G. Reitlinger, Final Solution (1953), index; R. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jew (20033), 939–43, index; S. Paskuly (2nd ed.), R. Hoess, Commandant at Auschwitz, intro. Primo Levi (1995).

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]