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Rudolf Höss (R) stands with Josef Mengele (C) and Richard Baer (L)

Rudolf Höss: The mastermind of Auschwitz

Image: Rudolf Höss (R) stands with Auschwitz chief medical officer Josef Mengele (C) and Commander of Auschwitz I Richard Baer (L) | Public Domain

The Zone of Interest, the new Academy Award-nominated film from director Jonathan Glazer, tells the story of Rudolf Höss and his wife as they strive to build a dream life for their family in a house next to the Auschwitz camp. The film is being released in the UK on Friday, 2nd February.

His name is not as universally known as the likes of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels, but Rudolf Höss was one of the central figures of the Holocaust. His appetite for mass murder helped make Auschwitz the most notorious of all the death camps.

The child soldier

Born in the German town of Baden-Baden on 25th November 1901, Rudolf Höss was raised in a fervently Catholic household overseen by a domineering father. This rigidly disciplined upbringing instilled the young Höss with stern beliefs regarding sin, penance and the importance of doing your duty.

The militaristic atmosphere meant Höss was well placed for life as a teenage soldier during World War I. He was wounded several times, earning decorations including the Iron Cross. He continued to live a martial life after the war ended, joining the far-right paramilitary groups that emerged in the wake of Germany’s defeat.

A pivotal moment came in 1922 when Höss heard a speech by the rising firebrand of the radical right, Adolf Hitler. Höss joined the Nazi Party soon after.

An early murder

The following year, Höss’s commitment to politically motivated violence was brutally demonstrated when he helped carry out the murder of Walther Kadow, a schoolteacher suspected of having betrayed a Nazi-affiliated activist named Albert Leo Schlageter to the authorities.

Schlageter, who was executed for carrying out acts of sabotage, was held up as a martyr by the Nazis, with Hitler singing his praises in Mein Kampf. When Kadow, himself a far-right nationalist, was implicated as the traitor who’d tipped the authorities off to Schlageter’s activities, Höss and some Nazi cronies were ordered to take revenge. They did so by beating him to death in a forest – an assassination which led to Höss being handed a 10-year prison sentence.

However, he only served four years before being released. The year after regaining his freedom he married Hedwig Hensel, with whom he had several children.

The rising star of the SS

The next big turning point came in 1934 when he joined the SS. That same year, he was assigned to a senior position at Dachau, one of the first Nazi concentration camps. This was the start of a career path that defined his dark place in history, with Höss honing his skills as an overseer at Dachau and then at another camp called Sachsenhausen.

He was known to be a merciless and very hands-on officer, personally firing the bullet that killed August Dickmann, the first person to be executed for being a conscientious objector during World War II. His merits as an iron-fisted officer led to him being dispatched to oversee a new camp, Auschwitz, in 1940.

Höss was instrumental in expanding Auschwitz from a rudimentary set-up to a sprawling complex consisting of separate facilities – including forced labour camps and areas set aside specifically for exterminating men, women and children.

Perfecting the machinery of death

Höss and his family lived in a luxurious villa just metres away from the camp. Here, they led an ostensibly ordinary domestic life even as Höss orchestrated a regime of mass murder.

Höss was determined to play his part in the Final Solution with maximum efficiency. He oversaw the first use of the pesticide Zyklon-B in gas chambers, which allowed the camp officers to wipe out hundreds of prisoners at a time. As Höss later testified, the successful test runs of Zyklon-B ‘set my mind at rest for the mass extermination of the Jews was to start soon’.

Höss’s tenure at Auschwitz was interrupted when he was assigned elsewhere in 1943, perhaps partly because of an affair he had with a female prisoner. He returned in 1944 to spearhead the industrialised murder of Jews and other captives.

The commandant’s downfall

The collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 made a fugitive of this once lofty figure. He and his family managed to evade capture until 1946 when his wife was found working at a sugar factory in a village called St Michaelisdonn.

Under interrogation from German Jewish Nazi hunter Hanns Alexander and British soldiers, she gave up the address where her husband was living as a labourer named ‘Franz Lang’. The stunned Höss was in his pyjamas when investigators swept in to arrest him. Although he denied his true identity at first, the inscription on his wedding ring confirmed that he was the wanted war criminal.

Justice served

Providing testimony at the tribunal at Nuremberg, Höss laid bare the Nazis’ chillingly scientific approach to genocide. It was a remarkably frank admission of unspeakable crimes by this nondescript man who was described by one interrogator as ‘like a grocery clerk’.

Höss was given over to Polish authorities, who successfully tried him for murder. While awaiting execution he wrote his autobiography, where he diverted some of the blame to other functionaries and tried to diminish his own status to a mere ‘cog in the wheel of the great extermination machine’.

In a stroke of poetic justice, the former boss of Auschwitz was executed on 16th April 1947 at the camp he helped to create, while former prisoners looked on.

Höss has since been depicted in books, films and TV shows – notably Martin Amis’ 2014 novel The Zone of Interest and its 2023 film adaptation by Jonathan Glazer. While Amis renames Höss ‘Paul Doll’ and presents a love triangle involving Doll, his wife (renamed 'Hannah') and another Nazi officer, Glazer uses their real names and focuses entirely on the family’s ghoulish domestic existence – how life in their villa contrasted with the horrors of Höss’s own making, just yards from where his children played.