The nature and extent of Germany’s collective guilt for the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities in World War II has been a topic of debate since even before the war ended. Individual guilt was somewhat easier to grasp and was put on public display in war crimes trials in Germany and Poland. Yet the extent to which any individual defendant admitted or acknowledged guilt is in itself a separate matter.
This is seen in the autobiography written by Auschwitz camp commander Rudolf Hoess while in prison following the war. Hoess’ several hundred page work was first published some 50 years ago and has since appeared in a variety of editions and under varying titles. The latest is The Commandant, a condensed volume edited by Jürg Amann, a Swiss author and dramatist. Amann edited Hoess’ writings down to about 100 pages, what he terms a 16-part monologue conceived for the stage and as a radio play. Yet even The Commandant provides a singular view into the operations and psychology of the Nazi killing machine.
Whether an intentional construction or a reflection of a psychological compartmentalization employed by those running the death camps, Hoess almost simultaneously defends his actions, accepts a slight form of, what is to him, responsibility for what occurred, and claims to have been greatly disturbed by them. As Ian Buruma notes in an Afterword, these internal inconsistencies leave us with a man who might exemplify what Hannah Arendt had in mind when she referred to “the banality of evil.”
It doesn’t take long for Hoess to lay the groundwork for the so-called “Nuremberg defense,” the claim that “I was just following orders.” In the first chapter, Hoess tells us, “Even from childhood on up, I was trained in a complete awareness of duty. Attention to duty was greatly respected in my parents’ home, so that all orders would be performed exactly and conscientiously.” In other words, it was impossible for him to have acted any differently when told to kill Jews.
Of course, that trait was reinforced by his belief in the Nazi party. When the orders for Hoess to create a mass killing center to annihilate the Jews came down, he recognized them as “something extraordinary, something monstrous.” But he didn’t give them a thought or form an opinion about them. Why? It was not his place to be “second guessing” the Fuhrer. According to Hoess, when Himmler issued orders in Hitler’s name, those orders “were holy. There was no reflection, no interpretation, no explanation about these orders. Whatever the Fuhrer or Himmler ordered was always right.”
Still, given a chance in prison to consider those orders and express an opinion on them, he says they were “absolutely wrong.” Yet his reasoning is insightful. It was not morals, decency, or even justice that rendered the orders wrong. Instead, he objects because “[i]t was exactly because of this mass extermination that Germany earned itself the hatred of the entire world. The cause of anti-Semitism was not served by this act at all, in fact, just the opposite.”
What is also disturbing is the empathy Hoess claims to have had for the prisoners. In the 1920s, Hoess was among a group of people who, invoking “an unwritten law,” killed someone they considered a traitor. Hoess suggests that the six years in prison for his role in the murder allowed him to understand what concentration camp inmates were going through. “I had been a prisoner for too long for me not to notice their needs,” he wrote. “It was not without inner sympathy that I faced all of the occurrences in the camp. Outwardly I was cold, even stone-faced, but inwardly I was moved to the deepest.” Of course, empathy caused him to be encouraged by the efficacy of gassing Jews rather than shooting them. He felt that would alleviate the stress that was leading to suicides of SS Special Action troops “who could no longer mentally endure wading in the bloodbath.” Hoess doesn’t say whether this was better for the victims. In fact, the first gassing he observed didn’t really stand out in his mind because “I was much too impressed by the whole procedure.”