Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding
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|Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A sterling work that opens up a family history into that of the Nazis in all the right ways.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: August 2013|
|Publisher: William Heinemann|
This dual biography concerns, as the title makes clear, two men. One was from an inherently German, rich Jewish family – they had a powerboat so he could waterski on the lake at their country cottage – who fled the rise of the Nazis early in the 1930s, and got away moderately lightly, only losing properties and a large and successful medical career. The other was from an inherently German family, who signed up for First World War service before his age, but only really wanted to be a farmer and family man, yet who ended up running probably history's worst slaughterhouse. Both had a connection and a shared destiny that was largely unknown before this book was researched, there's a chance that both of them had the blood of one man and only one man directly on their hands from WWII service, and both of them – again, as the title makes clear – are given the dignity of the familiar, first name throughout this incredible book.
I have to admit I sniffed a little when I read so much coverage about this book in the broadsheets recently – I know it's a subject I'm constantly fascinated with, and it does sound intriguing, but it might not be that good – it's only getting the press because the writer is a journalist and it's a case of the papers looking after one of their own. Then of course it got nominated for major awards. Then, of course, the book reviewing gods conspired to give me a copy, and I found that it was just as fascinating, intelligent, compelling, dramatic and intimate as the papers had alleged. Yes, they were right and I was wrong.
That right/wrong dichotomy is one of the most important subjects here, as evidenced by the author's moral decision to characterise both his leads with their first name, even if one was his own great-uncle, and the other could in another world have been at the forefront of killing off his bloodline before it started. The forensic look at the two tales, twinned everywhere you look from the photos on the flyleafs to the alternating chapters, show that both men had complex, moral lives. Hoess might well have been commander of the camp at Auschwitz and then of the much larger death factory nearby of Birkenau, but he didn't intend that career for him. And while so many of his contemporaries spouted the 'only obeying orders' defence, there is case to be said here for the man, who was perhaps just too diligent and proficient at his job.
On the other side we have Alexander, the refugee, who was trying to become Anglicised, and whose work as a soldier for Britain was mostly menial hard labour – building harbour walls, etc – until he trained as a lieutenant, served in action in Europe, and was involved in the liberation of Belsen death camp. He too sort of fell into his job, firstly in translating evidence regarding that atrocity, then in seeking out the Nazi criminals for retribution, driving copious thousands of miles across a country he now hated to get the men he wanted. And no, the word 'hate' does not seem to appear in Hoess' attitudes to Jewry.
Belsen is the key, as so many indescribably suffering people had been forced to get there once Auschwitz was abandoned and allegedly purified of what the Nazis knew would condemn them. Hoess passed that way too, for he was now overseeing a lot more than one site, and the intricate chase was on. Every beat of the stories that have to combine at the capture of one by the other is given us here by brilliant research. You don't get to feel Thomas Harding got to the truth because he was a great journalist, with a powerful and rich band of researchers, you don't get the sense he had an inside edge on the story because of his rich personal connections to it, you get the sense he nails his book because he was the person with the ideal skills to do so and damn what it meant to his kith and kin.
The style is open, clear, forthright, and sprightly. It seeks – and finds – clarity at all times, whether to events or character, and delivers everything it manages to pick out of the private archives, classified documents and more just brilliantly. It only has the one quirk, that – to repeat – of the first names, but that is an indelible part of the book, for it not only rectifies the potential loss of Hanns' story for personal reasons, but also marries it with the honest, debatable life of Rudolf. Both men will become real humans for whoever reads these pages, and I heartily recommend them.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz: The Extraordinary Story of the Lilliput Troupe by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev was another very notable survey of the events in southern Poland from earlier in 2013.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding at Amazon.com.
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