“Auschwitz – the disgrace of the 20th century. Auschwitz – Rudolf Höss”
“Auschwitz – the disgrace of the 20th century. Auschwitz – Rudolf Höss”: this statement was uttered in a speech delivered by one of the defence lawyers at the Auschwitz trial. Rudolf Höß was the commandant and, indeed, the symbol of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest factory of death in history.At the same time he was a withdrawn, introverted and pedantic man, one who loved children and dreamt of living the peaceful life of a farmer. Rudolf Höß’ trial revealed a certain uniqueness of this accused in comparison with the other criminals. Firstly, he was the only member of the KL Auschwitz garrison to accept responsibility for his actions. Furthermore, he did not ask for a pardon, and he converted to Catholicism several days before the execution, writing the famous statement in which he admitted: “I caused unspeakable suffering to the Polish nation in particular. May God forgive me for my actions.” Höß talked in detail about the functioning of Auschwitz and about his own role in this “machine of death.” Secondly, he also stood out from the other war criminals in that while he justified his actions by the absolute compulsion to follow orders, he did not think that this absolved him of responsibility for his actions. He understood that he must be punished and thought it fair. Höß did not feel personal guilt, he considered himself a victim of the system in which he had believed fanatically, as he admitted, and which eventually betrayed him.
Rudolf Höß before a Polish court
In November 1939, Höß became deputy commandant at KL Sachsenhausen, while in May 1940 he was delegated to set up a new camp in Auschwitz, in the territory of occupied Poland.He was commandant of Auschwitz until 30 November 1943, when he was assigned to the Concentration Camps Inspectorate at the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office in Oranienburg. On Himmler’s orders, he returned to Auschwitz on 8 May 1944 to supervise the extermination of 430,000 Hungarian Jews (operation “Aktion Höß”). He also took part in the evacuation of the prisoner population, that is in the so-called death marches.
After the fall of the German Reich, he and his family hid in the British zone of occupation. Meanwhile, a special group – the War Crimes Division of the 21st Army Group – was already in possession of materials sufficient to effect his arrest. Having been brutally interrogated by the British, Höß was eventually taken to Nuremberg, where he appeared as a witness in three trials: the main Nuremberg trial, the trial of the head of the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office Oswald Pohl, and the IG Farben trial.
On 25 May 1946, Rudolf Höß was handed over to Polish officers and extradited to Poland. From 25 May to 30 July 1946 he was incarcerated in Mokotów prison, Warsaw, from where he was later transported to Montelupich prison in Kraków; this marked the beginning of his longest period of detention, lasting until 21 February 1947. The investigators there, headed by the eminent lawyer Jan Sehn, carried out preparations for Höß’ trial, which took place in Warsaw. Höß was again detained in Mokotów prison from 21 February to 4 April. He spent his last days in the prison in Wadowice.
Höß’ trial lasted from 11 to 29 March 1947 in Warsaw. It was held in one of the largest halls of the Polish Teachers’ Union building, which could accommodate 500 people, and was fitted with equipment which allowed for the simultaneous translation of proceedings into four languages: German, French, English, and Russian. Entrance cards allowing for participation in one court sitting were distributed among the members of the public (the number of people who wanted to attend far exceeded the hall’s capacity). There were 50 foreign delegates, including 30 government representatives and 20 witnesses.
Many of the judges and prosecutors participating in the trial were experienced prewar lawyers, but the hardest task awaited the court-appointed defense counsel: Franciszek Umbreit and Tadeusz Ostaszewski. On the one hand, the accused was no sadist, he had not murdered anyone, andhad been following orders issued in accordance with the law of the state which he served. But on the other hand, he was responsible for the deaths and degradation of hundreds of thousands of people.
While opening the trial, presiding judge Alfred Eimer declared: “Let us respect the human dignity of the accused, for one who stands before the tribunal is first and foremost a human being.” Höß was very composed during the trial, he testified calmly, at times adding comments to the testimonies of witnesses. He frequently spoke of the obligation to follow orders, but also stressed that he was unaware of many violations, and had only suspicions with regards to others (for instance, that the prisoners’ food rations were being stolen, and that kapos behaved sadistically and abused their power). He repeatedly asserted: “Personally, I have not stolen anything, nor have I abused or killed prisoners. Everything I have done had been commanded by my superiors. I have not done anything out of ill will. That said, I do not intend to evade responsibility.”
Höß was charged with membership in a criminal organization – the SS – and consequently with planning, organizing and perpetrating crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against peace. As camp commandant, he was also charged with the physical and moral ill-treatment of prisoners, and with participating in the plunder of victims’ property. The indictment also included the accusation that he personally abused prisoners and shot at them. The line of defence chosen by his lawyers was based on two arguments. Tadeusz Ostaszewski emphasized how Höß’ personality set him apart from the other German criminals: he confessed his guilt, took full responsibility for his actions, did not ask for leniency, and cooperated with the Polish judicial system. Ostaszewski aimed to demonstrate that “Höß had been instilled with moral values, which later became a problem for him at Auschwitz”. He described the SS as a “school for murderers,” and the commandant at Auschwitz as a “product of this school.” Addressing the judges, he said: “German history has placed Höß in the dock.” The second defence attorney, Franciszek Umbreit, attempted to prove that Höß was wrongfully accused of having personally committed acts of cruelty towards prisoners. While witness testimonies given during the trial (as well as those recorded in the course of the investigation) were shocking, not a single witness saw Höß abusing prisoners. They admitted in their testimonies that they had heard about Höß’s sadism only from other inmates. Some prisoners even admitted that “Höß treated inmates decently in the sense that he never beat or abused them himself, only smiled at them with scorn”. The majority of witnesses were convinced that Höß had been well aware of what was going on in the camp, for he had seen executions and the abuse of prisoners on many occasions. “I dare say that the defendant Höß was present [during the execution – J.L.] and saw everything.” Proving that Höß was not a sadist, which distinguished him positively from other SS men, could not have made a difference with regards to the final verdict – as the camp commandant he was responsible for everything that had happened on its grounds. Rudolf Höß was condemned to death. Once the sentence had been passed, he thanked his lawyers, and then declared that he would not ask for clemency, for he had realized that he could not be pardoned.
The surprising findings made by Prof. Batawia
Höß was interviewed in Nuremberg by an American psychologist, Gustave Gilbert, who examined all of those accused in the Nuremberg trials. Gilbert expressed his first impression of Höß in one sentence:“There is nothing in this apathetic, short man that could lead you to believe that he was the worst murderer in history.” Höß did not open up to Dr. Gilbert; there was not enough time for that in Nuremberg. Despite this, the psychologist formulated an initial diagnosis of Höß: “a cold, absent and schizoid individual, ready to blindly follow an ideology and automatically take the path of least resistance within a community of psychopaths.”
In the Kraków prison at Montelupich Street, Höß was examined by the eminent Polish psychiatrist and criminologist Prof. Stanisław Batawia, who attempted to answer a fundamental question: “Can the commandant of the largest Nazi extermination camp be a sane person?” He had many conversations with the former Auschwitz commandant (some of them lasting even 5 hours), and subjected him to psychological tests. At first Höß only answered questions, but later he began to talk: “He was shy and sensitive, which was not in keeping with what you would expect of a typical Nazi concentration camp commandant, and what our imagination tends to associate with the word Auschwitz.” Batawia’s account shows a man with no passion or personal ambitions, calm and matter-of-fact, pedantic even. Höß frequently made corrections in his own testimony and that of witness, adding various details – some of which were self-incriminating.
According to Batawia, Höß was of average intelligence, and he “loved animals, was fond of small children, and quickly formed attachments to people.” The Polish professor attributed the fact that Höß blindly followed orders to an overbearing father, who had stifled the individualism of his small child, thereby intensifying its shyness and introvertive behavior, and instilling in his son complete obedience to parents, teachers, and priests. These traits were later heightened by the SS training – called “dog training” by Batawia – which aimed to ensure that the SS men responded in a desired way to the commands of their superiors. Batawia was of the opinion that “in order to understand the mentality of an SS man, instead of considering it in purely psychological terms, one should rather take into account the laws of physiology applicable to the higher functions of the nervous system.” The National–Socialist ideology led to the degradation of personality. Höß had struggled with being in command of the camp, but he was apprehensive about admitting to this weakness. “I understand what was evil about it,” he said to the professor. Batawia formulated the following final diagnosis: “While being incapable of personally abusing his victims and even reluctant to participate in hare chases, he became a murderer who orchestrated mass executions of women and children […], totally devoted to the cause, only obeying and executing orders, more robot-like than human.”
Batawia attributed the transformation of the mild-mannered and harmless Höß into a murderer of hundreds of thousands of people to the historical events and specific social environment that had influenced him: “Over time, the once socially harmless individual developed a specific type of fascist mentality. […] First the precursors of Hitlerism, and later the National-Socialist ideology transformed young Rudolf Höß, who had had a deep moral sense, into a criminal of unprecedented measure, who faithfully followed a false and murderous ideology, ultimately drowning in the abyss of Hitlerite crime.”
Professor Batawia found that his patient “did not truly hate Jews, communists, political criminals or even common criminals. He believed, deeply and blindly, in the righteousness of National-Socialist ideology, which demanded that its opponents be eliminated without mercy. This belief and deep conviction were powerful enough to drive his actions without having to resort to hatred.” Asked by Prof. Batawia whether he had considered resigning from the post of commandant, he replied that he had been given an order and could not have refused its execution. Besides, as he added, “my refusal would not have changed the situation, I would have been replaced by someone else and the extermination would have been carried out just the same, in accordance with the detailed plan conceived before.” Batawia, however, underlined one fundamental and particular thing which set Höß apart from the other war criminals: despite having accepted that absolute obedience was unconditionally required, he also maintained that the fact that he was following orders did not absolve him of responsibility for his actions, even though – as was mentioned earlier – he felt no personal guilt for the crimes.
At the request of former prisoners, his execution was carried out on the grounds of the former camp on 16 April 1947. In their petition, the inmates wrote: “This man, who had committed murders and played a prominent part in causing the deaths of millions of people, should die in the same place as his victims.” A gallows was erected in front of the building that used to house the office of the camp command, this in order to avoid using the gallows still standing next to block 11, on which prisoners were hanged. As his last wish, the condemned man requested a cup of coffee and the presence of a Catholic priest during execution. Rudolf Höß’ body was burnt in an undisclosed location, and his ashes were thrown into the nearby river.
Regardless of Höß’ attitude in prison, his religious conversion, and acceptance of responsibility, he has remained as the symbol of Auschwitz – the largest factory of death in history. His trial shed considerable light on the organization and functioning of the German state, which used people like Höß – faithfully following orders – to create its bulwark: an omnipotent and efficient killing machine. Fifteen years later, the trial of Adolf Eichmann demonstrated with even greater clarity how important for the Nazi regime were individuals who displayed unquestioning loyalty and obedience.
One of the prisoners who testified during the trial quoted the following statement made by Höß: “Our system is so horrifying that no one in the world will ever believe it was possible. For even if some Jew had escaped from Auschwitz and recounted what he had seen, he would have been taken for a fantasizing liar.”
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Dr. Joanna Lubecka – a historian and political scientist, and an Associate Professor at the Ignatianum University in Kraków, she holds lectures at the Institute of Political and Administrative Sciences and currently works at the Institute of National Remembrance (the Kraków Branch of the Historical Research Office). She has authored many scientific works and publications intended for the general public, and also delivered lectures on issues including historical remembrance in Polish-German relations and a reckoning of the crimes committed by Germany during World War II.
 Cf. the account of Izaak Egon Ochshorn.