Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss (also Höß, Hoeß or Hoess; 25 November 1901 – 16 April 1947) was SS–Obersturmbannführer and the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II. He tested and carried into effect various methods to accelerate Hitler’s plan to systematically exterminate the Jewish population of Nazi-occupied Europe, known as the Final Solution.
In a February 26, 1942 letter to Martin Luther, Reinhard Heydrich follows up on the Wannsee Conference by asking Luther for administrative assistance in the implementation of the “Endlösung der Judenfrage” (Final Solution of the Jewish Question).
Höss introduced pesticide Zyklon B containing hydrogen cyanide to the killing process, thereby allowing soldiers at Auschwitz to murder 2,000 people every hour. He created the largest installation for the continuous annihilation of human beings ever known.
Höss joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and the SS in 1934. From 4 May 1940 to November 1943, and again from 8 May 1944 to 18 January 1945, he was in charge of Auschwitz where more than a million people were killed before the defeat of Germany.
|Born||(1901-11-25)25 November 1901
|Died||16 April 1947(1947-04-16) (aged 45)
|Years of service||At Auschwitz until 1945|
|Commands held||Commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp, 4 May 1940 – 1 December 1943, 8 May 1944 – 18 January 1945|
|Spouse(s)||Hedwig Hensel (m. 1929)|
Höss was born in Baden-Baden into a strict Catholic family. He lived with his mother Lina (née Speck) and father Franz Xaver Höss. Höss was the eldest of three children and the only son. He was baptised Rudolf Franz (or possibly Francis) Ferdinand on 11 December 1901. He was a lonely child with no playmates his own age until he entered elementary school; all of his companionship came from adults. He claimed in his autobiography that he was briefly abducted by Gypsies in his youth.
His father, a former army officer who served in German East Africa, ran a tea and coffee business; he brought his son up on strict religious principles and with military discipline, having decided that he would enter the priesthood. Höss grew up with an almost fanatical belief in the central role of duty in a moral life. During his early years, there was a constant emphasis on sin, guilt, and the need to do penance.
Höss began turning against religion in his early teens after an episode in which, he said, his priest broke the Seal of the Confessional by telling his father about an event at school that Höss had described during confession. Soon afterward, Höss’s father died and Höss began moving toward a military life.
When World War One 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. At age 15, he fought with the Ottoman Sixth Army at Baghdad, at Kut-el-Amara, and in Palestine. While stationed in Turkey, he rose to the rank of Feldwebel (sergeant) and at 17 he was the youngest non-commissioned officer in the army. Wounded three times and a victim of malaria, he was awarded the Gallipoli Star, the Iron Cross first and second class, and other decorations. Höss also briefly commanded a cavalry unit.
After Germany’s surrender in November 1918, Höss completed his secondary education and soon joined the emerging nationalist paramilitary groups, first, the East Prussian Volunteer Corps, and then the Freikorps 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 the French nationals during the Occupation of the Ruhr. He joined the Nazi Party in 1922 (Member No. 3240) after hearing Adolf Hitler‘s speech in Munich. Höss played a leading role in at least one political assassination for which he spent six years in jail.
On 31 May 1923, in Mecklenburg, Höss and members of the Freikorps attacked and beat to death local schoolteacher Walther Kadow on the wishes of the 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 ring leader. 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 May 1924 ) to 10 years in Brandenburg Penitentiary for the crime. Bormann received a one-year sentence.
Höss was released in July 1928 as part of a general amnesty and joined the völkisch Artamanen-Gesellschaft (“Artaman League“), a nationalist back-to-the-land movement that promoted clean living and 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).
Joining the SS
Höss became an SS man on 1 April 1934, on Himmler’s effective call-to-action, and joined the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head Units) in the same year. 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 Blockführer. His mentor at Dachau was Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke.
In 1938, Höss was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) and was made adjutant to Hermann Baranowski in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He joined the Waffen-SS wing of the SS in 1939 after the invasion of Poland. Höss excelled in his duties 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 the property of prisoners.
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 3 months.
At its peak, Auschwitz was three separate facilities: Auschwitz I; Auschwitz II-Birkenau; and Auschwitz III-Monowitz, including many satellite sub-camps, and 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 killing took place; and Auschwitz III Monowitz the slave labour camp for I.G. Farbenindustrie AG, and later other German industries .
Himmler told Höss that Hitler had given the order for the final solution of the Jewish question. 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 SS-Totenkopfverbände. 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 only told his wife about the camp’s purpose 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 4 weeks later.
Höss began testing and perfecting mass killing techniques on 3 September 1941.His experiments made Auschwitz the most efficiently murderous instrument of the Final Solution and the Holocaust‘s most potent symbol. According to Höss, during standard camp operations, two to three trains carrying 2,000 prisoners each would arrive daily for periods of 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 more efficient and to handle the increasing rate of exterminations.
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 1961 trial testimony, Höss told him that he used cotton filters soaked in sulfuric acid in early killings. Höss later introduced hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid), produced from the pesticide Zyklon B, to the killing process, after his deputy Karl Fritzsch 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”.
After being replaced as the Auschwitz commander by Arthur Liebehenschel, on 10 November 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 the inspector of the concentration camps under Richard Glücks.
On 8 May 1944, Höss returned to Auschwitz to supervise operation Aktion Höss, in which 430,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to the camp and killed in 56 day between May and July. Even Höss’s expanded facility could not handle the huge number of victims’ corpses, and the camp staff had to dispose of thousands of bodies by burning them in open pits.
Capture, trial, and execution
In the last days of the war, Himmler advised Höss to disguise himself among German Navy personnel. He evaded arrest for nearly a year. When captured by British troops on 11 March 1946 in Gottrupel, he was disguised as a gardener and called himself Franz Lang.
His wife, who feared that her son, Klaus, would be shipped off to the Soviet Union to be imprisoned or tortured, had told the British where he was. The British force that captured Höss was led by Hanns Alexander, a young Jewish man from Berlin who was forced to flee to England with his entire family during the rise of Nazi Germany.
Höss initially denied his identity until Alexander noticed his wedding ring and demanded to inspect it. Höss refused to remove it, claiming it was stuck. But when Alexander threatened to cut his finger off, Höss removed the ring. It had the names Rudolf and Hedwig inscribed inside. After being questioned and beaten with axe handles by the soldiers, Höss confessed his real identity.
Rudolf Höss appeared at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg on 15 April 1946 where he gave a detailed testimony of his crimes. He was called as a defense witness by Ernst Kaltenbrunner‘s lawyer, Dr. 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 SS-Obergruppenführer 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 Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
On 25 May 1946, he was handed over to Polish authorities and the Supreme National Tribunal in Poland tried him for murder. His trial lasted from 11 to 29 March 1947. During his trial, 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.”
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 in 1956 as Kommandant in Auschwitz; autobiographische Aufzeichnungen and later as Death Dealer: the Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz (among other editions).
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.
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
The original affidavit, signed by Rudolf Höss, is displayed in a glass case in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The photo displayed with the affidavit shows Hungarian Jewish women and children walking to one of the four gas chambers in the Birkenau death camp on 26 May 1944, carrying their hand baggage in sacks.
Dates of rank and awards
|Awards and decorations
See The Holocaust