When Thomas Harding phoned up the Imperial War Museum and asked whether, as he had recently been told, his German Jewish great-uncle might have brought one of the highest-ranking Nazi officers to justice, the woman on the other end of the line burst out laughing, doubtless imagining him to be a fantasist.
“She thought it was the most ridiculous thing, so that wasn’t very encouraging,” he recalls. “But my journalist nose had a sense that maybe there was something there. I don’t know about most people but I hadn’t grown up with any Jewish avenging war heroes in my family, so I was intrigued.”
As things transpired, his nose was on to something. Harding’s relative Hanns Alexander was indeed a Nazi hunter — among the first. And the story of his mission to track down and arrest Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz — recounted at his 2006 funeral — was no exaggeration.
As Harding explains in a new biography, Hanns and Rudolf, Alexander fled his homeland for Britain after the Nazis came to power. He joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and was dispatched to Belsen just a few weeks after it was liberated. With no experience, and, at that point, no knowledge of the fate of loved ones who had not escaped Germany, he was assigned as an interpreter for the fledgling war crimes investigation teams, quickly winning a reputation for his interrogative skills. After working to trace another architect of the Third Reich, Gustav Simon, Alexander and his colleagues began hunting for Höss.
Even by the standards of Nazi brutality, Höss stands out. Charged with turning Auschwitz into an efficient mass killing site — which he did with the installation of the gas chambers — his testimony at Nuremberg cited “improvements” to the system of extermination. By 1946, he was hiding in broad daylight as a farmer in rural Germany. Thanks to the perseverance and fortitude of Alexander and his peers, Höss was captured, tried, and subsequently executed at the camp where he had sent some 1,300,000 innocents to their deaths.
Yet Alexander kept largely silent about his exploits, so much so that family such as Harding, and his cousin James, the BBC news director, were in the dark about the war hero in their midst.
“He was definitely traumatised after Belsen,” Harding explains. “He talked about clearing up mass graves and seeing people in terrible shapes. And then he was asked to interrogate the guards, most of whom had come from Auschwitz. There had been rumours in the newspapers but he may have been the first person to actually hear, directly from the perpetrators, about how the selections took place, what happened as people were taken off transports. It would have been horrific.”
There was also the issue of the methods used to capture Höss. “They took axe handles with them. There’s a reason they did that. I think some things happened which may well have scared him about himself. We don’t know if he killed anyone but when Höss was arrested he was beaten up. Some people would say, well that was justified, he deserved it. But I think maybe Hanns got scared by that violence, that there were things that happened that he was not necessarily proud of.”
By and large, we have tended to shy away from discussing the darker sides of the fight for Holocaust retribution. Harding — whose book tells the stories of both Alexander and Höss — argues that this needs to change. It’s more comforting to treat Höss as a monster and Hanns as a victim, but that’s not the real world. It’s much more troubling to see them as the result of their actions and millions of decisions and crossroads. If we forget that, we will forget that other people can do the same thing and will not be able to stop this.
“There’s no relativism here. Höss was one of the worst criminals of all time, a man who had to face justice and I’m very glad he did. However, I do believe you can keep hold of that and understand him as a human being, because to demonise him as a monster is to undermine the terribleness of the crime.”
In researching his great-uncle’s story, Harding came across a chilling example of failure to confront the truth of the past. Reading Höss’s prison letters to his wife and children, Harding was “moved by them and was very conflicted for obvious reasons”. So he tracked down Höss’s grandson — the two visited Auschwitz together in 2009 — and learnt how the family had essentially rebooted history in 1947, avoiding discussion of what had happened.
“I then found Höss’s daughter, who lives near Washington DC. I found that conversation with her deeply distressing, because she was living this all-American life. She described her father as the best father in the world. She remembered him reading to her, going on sled rides, taking boat trips out on the river behind Auschwitz. She slept under her parents’ wedding picture. And even though she was aware of the cultural experiences of the Holocaust that we are — like Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List — she was not able to integrate that with her personal experience of her father.”
After six years of research, Harding is looking forward to hearing people’s reactions. More importantly, he hopes it will encourage others to come forward. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more stories come out because that generation really was reluctant to talk,” he says. “Even when I shared my book with somebody recently, she said her father was part of the group involved with the arrest of Höss, but she knew nothing about it. And for me, it’s really important to hear these stories about fighting for justice, fighting back, because growing up I didn’t.”
It has, he says, been a fascinating journey. “We are like most north London Jewish families, in and out of each other’s lives and yet we just didn’t talk about it. The idea of some kind of avenging Jew in the family — I thought it was something to be proud of and I wanted to find out more.” Luckily for us, he did.
Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, is published by William Heinemann (£20). Thomas Harding will be in conversation with James Harding at JW3, 341-351 Finchley Road, London NW3 on October 9