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Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss

Rudolf Höss's assignment order to assume duties as Kommandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Rudolf Höss's assignment order to assume duties as Kommandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss (in English commonly Hoess or Höss or rarely Hoess; November 25, 1900 - April 16, 1947) was an SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lt. Colonel) and from May 4, 1940 to November 1943 was commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp, where an estimated 1.1-1.6 million people were killed.

Early life and World War I

Höss was born on November 25, 1900 in Baden-Baden into a strict Catholic family. Despite his father's wishes that he become a priest, he voluntarily joined the German Army's 21st Regiment of Dragoons and was sent to fight in Turkey, Iraq and Palestine during World War I. While stationed in Turkey he rose to the rank of Feldwebel and at the age of 17 was the youngest NCO in the Army and holder of the Iron Cross first and second class, among other medals. Höss also briefly served as commander of a cavalry unit.

After the end of the war, Höss became a fighter for the East Prussian Volunteer Corps and then the Freikorps Rossbach. Höss participated in terrorist actions against French occupation forces in the Ruhr as well as against the Poles in the struggle for Silesia.

In 1929 he married Hedwig Hensel. They had five children together.

Nazi Party and the SS

Höss joined the NSDAP in 1922 (Party Member #3240), and was sentenced to ten years in Brandenburg penitentiary in 1924 after his involvement in the murder of Walther Kadow, the alleged betrayer of proto-Nazi martyr Albert Leo Schlageter; his accomplice Martin Bormann received a mere one year in prison. Höss was pardoned in 1928 again following a general amnesty and joined the völkisch Artamanen-Gesellschaft ("Artaman Society") in 1929, where he met Heinrich Himmler.

In 1934 at Himmler's request Höss joined the SS. During the mid 1930s, Höss served in several Concentration Camp positions and was a member of the SS-Totenkopfverbände ("Death's Head Unit"). He began as an ordinary SS guard, then was transferred to the Dachau concentration camp, where he was given the office of "Blockführer" ("block leader") in 1935. Due to his experience of being in prison himself, Höss excelled in his duties and was recognized by his superiors for further responsibility and promotion.

In 1938 he received a promotion to SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) and became an adjutant to Hermann Baranowski in the Sachsenhausen camp. After joining the Waffen-SS in 1939, he became the commandant of Auschwitz in 1940 until he was ordered back in late 1943. During his time at Auschwitz, Höss organized and streamlined the techniques of mass murder which would allow the Nazis to implement the Final Solution. He was the first to introduce Zyklon B after his deputy Karl Fritzsch tested it on some Russian prisoners in 1941.

After being replaced as the Auschwitz commander by Arthur Liebehenschel on December 1, 1943, Höss assumed Liebehenschel's former position as the chairman of Amt D I in Amtsgruppe D of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (WVHA); he also was appointed deputy of WVHA leader Richard Glücks.

On May 8, 1944, however, Höss returned to supervise Aktion Höss in which 430,000 Hungarian Jews are killed.

Career in the SS

Dates of rank

  • SS-Anwärter: 20 September 1933
  • SS-Mann: 1 April 1934
  • SS-Sturmmann: 20 April 1934
  • SS-Unterscharführer: 28 November 1934
  • SS-Scharführer: 1 April 1935
  • SS-Oberscharführer: 1 July 1935
  • SS-Hauptscharführer: 1 March 1936
  • SS-Untersturmführer: 13 September 1936
  • SS-Obersturmführer: 11 September 1938
  • SS-Hauptsturmführer: 9 November 1938
  • SS-Sturmbannführer: 30 January 1941
  • SS-Obersturmbannführer: 18 July 1942

Significant awards

  • Iron Cross 1st Class (WWI)
  • Iron Cross 2nd Class (WWI)
  • Baden Military Bravery Medal (WWI)
  • Honor Cross for Combattants 1914-1918
  • Hungarian War Service Medal for Combattants 1914-1918
  • Turkish War Medal (WWI)
  • Silver Wound Badge (WWI)
  • Baltic Cross 1st Class (Freikorps)
  • Baltic Cross 2nd Class (Freikorps)
  • SS 8 year Long Service Decoration
  • War Merit Cross (2nd Class with Swords)
  • SS Honor Ring
  • SS Honor Sword
Rudolf Höss at the Nuremberg Trials
Rudolf Höss at the Nuremberg Trials
The location where Rudolf Höss was hanged
The location where Rudolf Höss was hanged
The location where Rudolf Höss was hanged, with plaque
The location where Rudolf Höss was hanged, with plaque

Höss was captured on March 11, 1946. He was disguised as a farmer. Supposedly his wife had revealed his whereabouts, and upon capture Höss confessed his real identity.

During the Nuremberg trials, he appeared as a witness in the trials of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Oswald Pohl, and the IG Farben corporation. On May 25, 1946, he was handed over to Poland, put on trial for murder, and sentenced to death by hanging on April 2, 1947. The sentence was carried out on April 16 immediately adjacent to the crematorium of the former Auschwitz I concentration camp. He was hanged on specially constructed gallows which previously was the location of the camp Gestapo, as seen in the pictures to the right. The message on the board 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-Obersturmbannfuhrer 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."

During the Nuremberg trial he stated:

"...Another improvement we made over Treblinka was that we built our gas chambers to accommodate 2,000 people at one time, whereas at Treblinka their 10 gas chambers only accommodated 200 people each. The way we selected our victims was as follows: we had two SS doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. The prisoners would be marched by one of the doctors who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit for work were sent into the Camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated, since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated. We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy but of course the foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz."

In his autobiography, which was published in 1958 as Rudolf Höss: Kommandant in Auschwitz and later as Death Dealer: the Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, he portrayed himself as having grown up with a "strong sense of duty" and avowed himself as a follower of the "high virtue of military obedience".

Cultural references

Höss appears as a character in the BBC television series Auschwitz: The Nazis and the "Final Solution" (2005) portrayed by Horst-Günter Marx, and in the Canadian miniseries Nuremberg (2002) portrayed by Colm Feore. He was also briefly portrayed in the film Schindler's List (1993) as the SS officer at Auschwitz bribed by Schindler with a pouch of diamonds. He is the main character (as Rudolf Lang) in the biographical novel La mort est mon métier (Death is My Trade, 1952) by French writer Robert Merle based on Höss's autobiography and his testimonies at Nuremberg. The novel La mort est mon métier was made into a German film called Aus einem deutschen Leben ("(Excerpts) from a German life") in 1977, starring Götz George as Franz Lang, which was the false name Höss had used while hiding as a farmer.

Kurt Vonnegut briefly references Höss in Mother Night. One of the prison guards who stands watch over Howard W. Campbell, Jr., claims to have been present at the hanging of Höss, indeed to have buckled the thick leather straps around his legs.

In the 1982 film adaptation of William Styron's 1979 novel Sophie's Choice, Höss is portrayed during his time as commandant of Auschwitz by the German actor Günther Maria Halmer (although Styron's main character during the Auschwitz scenes ("Sophie") is herself fictional, the camp and its conditions were painstakingly researched to facilitate an accurate representation of the conditions inside). Six years later Halmer reprised the role for a totally different production, this time for television, based on the work of another American author, Herman Wouk. The 1988 television mini-series adaptation of Wouk's 1978 novel War and Remembrance, which itself was the sequel to the very popular 1983 television mini-series adaptation of the 1971 Wouk novel The Winds of War, includes Höss as portrayed again by Halmer, though the earlier 1983 mini-series contained neither Höss's character nor Halmer's work since it primarily dealt with the pre-war period in America.

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