Youth and World War I
When World War I broke out, Höss served briefly in a military hospital and then, at age 14, was admitted to his father's and grandfather's old regiment, the German Army's 21st Regiment of Dragoons. Aged 15, he fought with the Ottoman Sixth Army at Baghdad, at Kut-el-Amara, and in Palestine. Höss was present at the right time and place to have been a witness to the Armenian genocide, an event which is not mentioned in his memoirs. While stationed in Turkey, he rose to the rank of Feldwebel (sergeant-in-chief) and at 17 was the youngest non-commissioned officer in the army. Wounded three times and a victim of malaria, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Iron Cross first and second class and other decorations. Höss also briefly commanded a cavalry unit. When the news of the armistice reached Damascus, where he was at that time, he and a few others decided not to wait for the British to arrest them as prisoners of war, but instead to try to ride all the way back home. This involved traversing the enemy territory of Romania, but they eventually made it back home to Bavaria.
Joining the Nazi party
After the Armistice of 11 November 1918, Höss completed his secondary education and soon joined some of the emerging nationalist paramilitary groups, first the East Prussian Volunteer Corps, and then the Free Corps "Rossbach" in the Baltic area, Silesia and the Ruhr. Höss participated in the armed terror attacks on Polish people during the Silesian uprisings against the Germans, and on French nationals during the French Occupation of the Ruhr. He joined the Nazi Party in 1922 (member number 3240) after hearing a speech by Adolf Hitler in Munich.
On 31 May 1923, in Mecklenburg, Höss and members of the Free Korps attacked and beat to death local schoolteacher Walther Kadow on the wishes of farm supervisor Martin Bormann, who later became Hitler's private secretary. Kadow was believed to have tipped off the French occupational authorities that Höss' fellow Nazi, paramilitary soldier Albert Leo Schlageter, was carrying out sabotage operations against French supply lines. Schlageter was arrested and executed on 26 May 1923; soon afterwards Höss and several accomplices, including Bormann, took their revenge on Kadow. In 1923, after one of the killers confessed to a local newspaper, Höss was arrested and tried as the ringleader. Although he later claimed that another man was actually in charge, Höss accepted the blame as the group's leader. He was convicted and sentenced (on 15 or 17 March 1924) to ten years in Brandenburg penitentiary, while Bormann received a one-year sentence.
Höss was released in July 1928 as part of a general amnesty and joined the Artaman League
, an anti-urbanization movement, or back-to-the-land movement
, that promoted a farm-based lifestyle. On 17 August 1929, he married Hedwig Hensel (3 March 1908 – 1989), whom he met in the Artaman League. Between 1930 and 1943 they had five children: two sons (Klaus and Hans-Rudolf) and three daughters (Ingebrigitt, Heidetraut and Annegret). Ingebrigitt was born on a farm in northern Germany in 1934 after Heidetraut, Höss's eldest daughter, was born in 1932; and Annegret, the youngest, was born in Auschwitz in November 1943.
It was during this time that he became acquainted with Heinrich Himmler
On 1 April 1934 Höss joined the SS, on Himmler's effective call-to-action, and in the same year moved to the Death's Head Units. He came to admire Himmler so much that he considered whatever he said to be the "gospel" and preferred to display his picture in his office rather than that of Hitler. Höss was assigned to the Dachau concentration camp in December 1934, where he held the post of Block leader. His mentor at Dachau was the then SS-brigadier general Theodor Eicke, the reorganizer of Nazi concentration camp system. In 1938, Höss was promoted to SS-captain and was made adjutant to Hermann Baranowski in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. There he led the firing squad that, on Himmler's orders on 15 September 1939, killed August Dickman, a Jehovah's Witness who was the first conscientious objector to be executed after the start of the War. Höss fired the finishing shot from his pistol. He joined the Waffen-SS in 1939 after the invasion of Poland. Höss excelled in that capacity, and was recommended by his superiors for further responsibility and promotion. By the end of his tour of duty there, he was serving as administrator of prisoners' property.
Appointment order of Rudolf Höss as Commander of Auschwitz Concentration Camp
On 1 May 1940, Höss was appointed commandant of a prison camp in western Poland, a territory Germany had incorporated into the province of Upper Silesia. The camp was built around an old Austro-Hungarian (and later Polish) army barracks near the town of Oświęcim; its German name was Auschwitz. Höss commanded the camp for three and a half years, during which he expanded the original facility into a sprawling complex known as Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Höss had been ordered "to create a transition camp for ten thousand prisoners from the existing complex of well-preserved buildings," and he went to Auschwitz determined "to do things differently" and develop a more efficient camp than those at Dachau and Sachsenhausen where he had previously served. Höss lived at Auschwitz in a villa with his wife and five children.
The earliest inmates at Auschwitz were Soviet prisoners-of-war and Polish prisoners, including peasants and intellectuals. Some 700 arrived in June 1940, and were told they would not survive more than three months. At its peak, Auschwitz comprised three separate facilities: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. These included many satellite sub-camps, and the entire camp was built on about 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) that had been cleared of all inhabitants. Auschwitz I was the administrative centre for the complex; Auschwitz II Birkenau was the extermination camp where most of the murders were committed; and Auschwitz III Monowitz was the slave-labour camp for I.G. Farbenindustrie AG, and later other German industries. The main purpose of Monowitz was the production of buna, a form of synthetic rubber.
In June 1941, according to Höss's trial testimony, he was summoned to Berlin for a meeting with Himmler "to receive personal orders". Himmler told Höss that Hitler had given the order for the "Final solution". According to Höss, Himmler had selected Auschwitz for the extermination of Europe's Jews "on account of its easy access by rail and also because the extensive site offered space for measures ensuring isolation". Himmler described the project as a "secret Reich matter" and told Höss not to speak about it with SS-Gruppenführer Richard Glücks, head of the Nazi camp system run by the Death's Head Unit. Höss said that "no one was allowed to speak about these matters with any person and that everyone promised upon his life to keep the utmost secrecy". He told his wife about the camp's purpose only at the end of 1942, since she already knew about it from Fritz Bracht. Himmler told Höss that he would be receiving all operational orders from Adolf Eichmann, who arrived at the camp four weeks later.
Höss began testing and perfecting techniques of mass murder on 3 September 1941. His experiments led to Auschwitz becoming the most efficiently murderous instrument of the Final Solution and the Holocaust's most potent symbol. According to Höss, during standard camp operations, two or three trains carrying 2,000 prisoners each would arrive daily for four to six weeks. The prisoners were unloaded in the Birkenau camp; those fit for labour were marched to barracks in either Birkenau or one of the Auschwitz camps, while those unsuitable for work were driven into the gas chambers. At first, small gassing bunkers were located deep in the woods to avoid detection. Later, four large gas chambers and crematoria were constructed in Birkenau to make the killing process more efficient, and to handle the increasing rate of extermination.
Technically [it] wasn't so hard—it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers.... The killing itself took the least time. You could dispose of 2,000 head in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time. The killing was easy; you didn't even need guards to drive them into the chambers; they just went in expecting to take showers and, instead of water, we turned on poison gas. The whole thing went very quickly.
Höss experimented with various gassing methods. According to Eichmann's trial testimony in 1961, Höss told him that he used cotton filters soaked in sulfuric acid for early killings. Höss later introduced hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid), produced from the pesticide Zyklon B, to the process of extermination, after his deputy Karl Fritzsch had tested it on a group of Russian prisoners in 1941. With Zyklon B, he said that it took 3–15 minutes for the victims to die and that "we knew when the people were dead because they stopped screaming."
In 1942, Höss had an affair with an Auschwitz inmate, a political prisoner named Eleonore Hodys (or Nora Mattaliano-Hodys). The woman became pregnant, and was imprisoned in a standing-only arrest cell. Released from the arrest, she had an abortion in a camp hospital in 1943 and, according to her later testimony, just barely evaded being selected to be killed. The affair may have led to Höss's recall from the Auschwitz command in 1943. SS judge Georg Konrad Morgen and his assistant Wiebeck investigated the case in 1944, interviewed Hodys and Höss and intended to proceed against Höss, but the case was dismissed. Morgen, Wiebeck and Hodys gave testimony after the war.
After being replaced as the Auschwitz commander by Arthur Liebehenschel, on 10 November 1943, Höss assumed Liebehenschel's former position as the head of Amt D I in Amtsgruppe D of the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office (WVHA); he also was appointed deputy of the inspector of the concentration camps under Richard Glücks.
The ramp at Birkenau
, 1944. Chimneys of Crematoria II and III are visible on the horizon.
On 8 May 1944, Höss returned to Auschwitz to supervise Operation Höss, in which 430,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to the camp and killed in 56 days between May and July. Even Höss' expanded facility could not handle the huge number of victims' corpses, and the camp staff were obliged to dispose of thousands of bodies by burning them in open pits.
Höss concluded his murderous career in Ravensbrück concentration camp. He moved there in November 1944 with his family who lived close by. After the completion of the gas chamber, Höss coordinated the operations of killing by gassing there with a death toll of more than 2000 female prisoners.
Arrest, trial, and execution
In the last days of the war, Himmler advised Höss to disguise himself among Kriegsmarine personnel. He evaded arrest for nearly a year. When arrested on 11 March 1946 in Gottrupel (Germany), he was disguised as a gardener and called himself Franz Lang. His wife had revealed his whereabouts to protect her son, Klaus, who was being “badly beaten” by British soldiers. The British force that captured Höss included Hanns Alexander, a British captain originally from Berlin who was forced to flee to England with his entire family during the rise of Nazi Germany. According to Alexander, Höss attempted to bite into a cyanide pill once he was discovered. Höss initially denied his identity "insisting he was a lowly gardener, but Alexander saw his wedding ring and ordered Höss to take it off, threatening to cut off his finger if he did not. Höss' name was inscribed inside. The soldiers accompanying Alexander began to beat Höss with axe handles. After a few moments and a minor internal debate, Alexander pulled them off."
Rudolf Höss testified at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg on 15 April 1946, where he gave a detailed accounting of his crimes. He was called as a defense witness by Ernst Kaltenbrunner's lawyer, Kurt Kauffman. The transcript of Höss' testimony was later entered as evidence during the 4th Nuremberg Military Tribunal known as the Pohl Trial, named for principal defendant Oswald Pohl. Affidavits that Rudolf Höss made while imprisoned in Nuremberg were also used at the Pohl and IG Farben trials.
In his affidavit made at Nuremberg on 5 April 1946, Höss stated:
I commanded Auschwitz until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total of about 3,000,000 dead. This figure represents about 70% or 80% of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries. Included among the executed and burnt were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of Prisoner of War cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens (mostly Jewish) from The Netherlands, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
When accused of murdering three and a half million people, Höss replied, "No. Only two and one half million—the rest died from disease and starvation."
On 25 May 1946, he was handed over to Polish authorities and the Supreme National Tribunal in Poland tried him for murder. In his essay on the Final Solution in Auschwitz, which he wrote in Kraków, he revised the previously given death toll:
I myself never knew the total number, and I have nothing to help me arrive at an estimate.
I can only remember the figures involved in the larger actions, which were repeated to me by Eichmann or his deputies.
From Upper Silesia and the General Gouvernement 250,000
Germany and Theresienstadt 100,000
Slovakia 90,000 [Total 1,130,000]
I can no longer remember the figures for the smaller actions, but they were insignificant by comparison with the numbers given above. I regard a total of 2.5 million as far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive capabilities.
In his memoir, he also revealed his mistreatment at the hands of his British captors:
During the first interrogation they beat me to obtain evidence. I do not know what was in the transcript, or what I said, even though I signed it, because they gave me liquor and beat me with a whip. It was too much even for me to bear. The whip was my own. By chance it had found its way into my wife's luggage. My horse had hardly ever been touched by it, much less the prisoners. Somehow one of the interrogators probably thought that I had used it to constantly whip the prisoners.
After a few days I was taken to Minden on the Weser River, which was the main interrogation center in the British zone. There they treated me even more roughly, especially the first British prosecutor, who was a major. The conditions in the jail reflected the attitude of the first prosecutor.
Compared to where I had been before, Imprisonment with the IMT [International Military Tribunal] was like staying in a health spa.
His trial lasted from 11 to 29 March 1947. Höss was sentenced to death by hanging on 2 April 1947. The sentence was carried out on 16 April next to the crematorium of the former Auschwitz I concentration camp. He was hanged on a short-drop gallows constructed specifically for that purpose, at the location of the camp's Gestapo. The message on the board that marks the site reads:
This is where the camp Gestapo was located. Prisoners suspected of involvement in the camp's underground resistance movement or of preparing to escape were interrogated here. Many prisoners died as a result of being beaten or tortured. The first commandant of Auschwitz, SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, who was tried and sentenced to death after the war by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, was hanged here on 16 April 1947.
Höss wrote his autobiography while awaiting execution; it was published first in Polish in 1951 and then in German in 1956, edited by Martin Broszat. Later it appeared in various English editions (see Bibliography in References). It consists of two parts, one about his own life and the second about other SS men with whom he had become acquainted, mainly Heinrich Himmler and Theodor Eicke, among several others.
Höss being escorted to the gallows, 1947
Höss on the gallows, immediately before his execution
The location where Höss was hanged, with plaque
After discussions with Höss during the Nuremberg trials at which he testified, the American military psychologist Gustave Gilbert wrote the following:
In all of the discussions, Höss is quite matter-of-fact and apathetic, shows some belated interest in the enormity of his crime, but gives the impression that it never would have occurred to him if somebody hadn't asked him. There is too much apathy to leave any suggestion of remorse and even the prospect of hanging does not unduly stress him. One gets the general impression of a man who is intellectually normal, but with the schizoid apathy, insensitivity and lack of empathy that could hardly be more extreme in a frank psychotic.
Four days before he was executed, Höss acknowledged the enormity of his crimes in a message to the state prosecutor:
My conscience compels me to make the following declaration. In the solitude of my prison cell, I have come to the bitter recognition that I have sinned gravely against humanity. As Commandant of Auschwitz, I was responsible for carrying out part of the cruel plans of the 'Third Reich' for human destruction. In so doing I have inflicted terrible wounds on humanity. I caused unspeakable suffering for the Polish people in particular. I am to pay for this with my life. May the Lord God forgive one day what I have done. I ask the Polish people for forgiveness. In Polish prisons I experienced for the first time what human kindness is. Despite all that has happened I have experienced humane treatment which I could never have expected, and which has deeply shamed me. May the facts which are now coming out about the horrible crimes against humanity make the repetition of such cruel acts impossible for all time.
Shortly before his execution, Höss returned to the Catholic Church. On 10 April 1947, he received the sacrament of penance from Fr. Władysław Lohn, S.J., provincial of the Polish Province of the Society of Jesus. On the next day, the same priest administered to him Holy Communion as Viaticum.
Rudolf Höss married Hedwig Hensel on 17 August 1929. Issue:
- Klaus Höss: born 6 February 1930 and died in Australia
- Heidetraud Höss: born 9 April 1932.
- Inge-Brigitt Höss: born 18 August 1933.
- Hans-Jürgen Höss: born in May 1937
- Rainer Höss: born 25 May 1965 in Stuttgart.
- Annegret Höss: born 7 November 1943.