Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss was the Nazi commandant of the Auschwitz extermination camp.
Höss was born on November 25, 1900, in Baden-Baden, a town in southwest Germany. In high school, he trained for the priesthood yet his father’s death and the outset of World War I changed those career plans. In 1916, he joined the German army where he would be wounded three times and was twice awarded the Iron Cross. In 1920, Hoss joined the East Prussian Free Corps (Freikorps) and took part in the suppression of disturbances in Latvia and in quelling workers who were staging a revolt in the Ruhr. It was through the Freikorps, in early 1922, that Hoss was first introduced to Adolf Hitler.
Hoss immediately joined the Nazi Party and renounced his affiliation with the Catholic Church. When France and Belgium entered and occupied the Upper Rhine region in January 1923, Höss participated in the assassination of Freikorpsman Walter Kadow and was captured and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released in 1928 as part of the general amnesty.
In 1933, Hoss joined the SS and, in 1934, he was attached to the SS at Dachau. On August 1, 1938, Hoss was appointed as adjutant of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp until his appointment as Kommandant of the newly-built camp at Auschwitz in early 1940.
In May 1941, SS commander Heinrich Himmler told Höss that Hitler had given orders for the final solution of the Jewish question and that "I have chosen the Auschwitz camp for this purpose." Höss converted Auschwitz into an extermination camp and installed gas chambers and crematoria that were capable of killing 2,000 people every hour. Counting corpses with the cool dedication of a trained bookkeeper, he went home each night to the loving embrace of his own family who lived on the camp grounds.
Watching millions of innocent human beings dissolve in the gas chambers, burn in the crematoriums and their teeth melt into gold bars, Höss wrote poetry about the
beauty of Auschwitz.
Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann recounted in his memoirs how he was assigned in early 1942 to visit the Auschwitz death camp and report back to superiors on the killing of Jews. He wrote that the methods for killing were still crude, but these represented a gruesome foretaste of the factory-style gas chambers and crematoria that were to follow:
Höss, the Kommandant, told me that he used sulfuric acid to kill. Round cotton wool filters were soaked with this poison and thrown into the rooms where the Jews were assembled. The poison was instantly fatal. He burned the corpses on an iron grill, in the open air. He led me to a shallow ditch where a large number of corpses had just been burned.
Höss eventually found that gassing by carbon monoxide was inefficient and introduced the cyanide gas Zyklon B. He later recalled:
The gassing was carried out in the detention cells of Block 11. Proctected by a gas mask, I watched the killing myself. In the crowded cells, death came instantaneously the moment the Zyklon B was thrown in. A short, almost smothered cry, and it was all over... I must even admit that this gassing set my mind at rest, for the mass extermination of the Jews was to start soon, and at that time neither Eichmann nor I was certain as to how these mass killings were to be carried out. It would be by gas, but we did not know which gas and how it was to be used. Now we had the gas, and we had established a procedure.
Auschwitz became the killing centre where the largest numbers of European Jews were killed. After an experimental gassing there in September 1941 of 850 malnourished prisoners, mass murder became a daily routine. By mid 1942, mass gassing of Jews using Zyklon-B began at Auschwitz, where extermination was conducted on an industrial scale with 2.5 million persons eventually killed through gassing, starvation, disease, shooting, and burning.
At Auschwitz, so called camp doctors also performed vile and lethal medical experiments on concentration camps inmates, torturing Jewish children, Gypsy children and many others.
Patients were put into pressure chambers, tested with drugs, castrated, frozen to death, and exposed to various other traumas.
In late 1943, Höss was appointed chief inspector of the concentration camps and worked hard to improve the ’efficiency’ of the other extermination centres. He performed his job so well that he was commended in a 1944 SS report that called him ’a true pioneer in this area because of his new ideas and educational methods.’
At the approach of the Red Army in 1945, Höss fled Auschwitz and went into hiding in Germany under the name Franz Lang. He was tracked down by Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who had fled Berlin in the 1930’s, and was arrested by the Allied military police in 1946, who handed him over to the Polish authorities. In 1947, Hoss was tried and was sentenced to death. He was returned to Auschwitz to be hanged on a one-person gallows built outside the entrance to the gas chamber.
Before his execution, Höss related how he often felt weak-kneed at having to push hundreds of screaming, pleading children into the gas chambers:
I did, however, always feel ashamed of this weakness of mine after I talked to Adolf Eichmann. He explained to me that it was especially the children who have to be killed first, because where was the logic in killing a generation of older people and leaving alive a generation of young people who can be possible avengers of their parents and can constitute a new biological cell for the reemerging of this people.
His last words acknowledged his responsibility for all that occurred in Auschwitz and he did not appeal for leniency. He only asked for permission to send a farewell letter to his family and to return his wedding ring to his wife. On the morning of April 16, 1947, several dozen yards from his former villa near Crematorium I in the main camp, Rudolf Höss was hanged.
These are excerpts from Höss’ signed testimony given at the Nuremberg war crime trials:
RUDOLF FRANZ FERDINAND HÖSS, being first duly sworn, depose and say as follows:
I am forty-six years old, and have been a member of the NSDAPI since 1922; a member of the SS since 1934; a member of the Waffen-SS since 1939. I was a member from 1 December 1934 of the SS Guard Unit, the socalled Deathshead Formation (Totenkopf Verband).
I have been constantly associated with the administration of concentration camps since 1934, serving at Dachau until 1938; then as Adjutant in Sachsenhausen from 1938 - 5/1/1940, when I was appointed Kommandant of Auschwitz. I commanded Auschwitz until 12/1/1943 and estimate that at least 2.5 million victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about 3 million. This figure represents about 70-80% 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 burned 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.
All mass executions by gassing took place under the direct order, supervision, and responsibility of RSHA. I received all orders for carrying out these mass executions directly from RSHA.
The ’Final Solution’ of the Jewish question meant the complete extermination of all Jews in Europe. I was ordered to establish extermination facilities at Auschwitz in 6/1941. At that time, there were already in the General Government three other extermination camps: Belzec, Treblinka and Wolzek. These camps were under the Einsatzkommando of the Security Police and SD. I visited Treblinka to find out how they carried out their exterminations. The camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one-half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening. It took from 3-15 minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. We usually waited about one-half hour before we opened the doors and removed the bodies. After the bodies were removed our special Kommandos took off the rings and extracted the gold from the teeth of the corpses.
Another improvement we made over Treblinka was that we built our gas chamber 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.
We received from time to time special prisoners from the local Gestapo office. The SS doctors killed such prisoners by injections of benzine. Doctors had orders to write ordinary death certificates and could put down any reason at all for the cause of death.
From time to time we conducted medical experiments on women inmates, including sterilization and experiments relating to cancer. Most of the people who died under these experiments had been already condemned to death by the Gestapo.
I understand English as it is written above. The above statements are true; this declaration is made by me voluntarily and without compulsion; after reading over the statement I have signed and executed the same at Nuremberg, Germany, on the 4/5/1946. - Rudolf Höss.
J. Tennenbaum, Race and Reich (1956), 373–98; G.M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (1947), index; United Nations War Crimes Commission, Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals, 7 (1948); IMT, Trial of the Major War Criminals, 24 (1949), index; G. Reitlinger, Final Solution (1953), index; R. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jew (20033), 939–43, index; S. Paskuly (2nd ed.), R. Höss, Commandant at Auschwitz, intro. Primo Levi (1995).