Hans and Rudolph

Next week we are going to be adding a Book Review Section on our website.With this in mind I purchased the book “Hans and Rudolph which kept me spellbound , and I thought that I would share with you the review by Richard Overy which appeared in the Telegraph at the time.

I would really encourage you get a copy of the book which is a great read.

We also intend starting a Book Club and would love to hear from you regarding your interest.


Richard Overy

Thomas Harding is the great-nephew of Hanns Alexander, the Hanns of the title. At his great-uncle’s funeral in December 2006 he learnt that Hanns – or Howard, his adopted English name – had been briefly part of the British organisation that attempted tohunt down German war criminalsin 1945-46. He had been the officer responsible for the arrest of none other than the notorious commandant of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration/extermination camp, Rudolf Höss. On March 11 1946, at a farm in north Germany, Captain Howard Alexander and 25 men arrived late in the evening; after identifying Höss and allowing his men 10 minutes to beat him with axe handles, Harding had Höss bundled into a lorry and taken to the nearby prison.

The knowledge that his great-uncle had caught one of the chief monsters of the Third Reich prompted Harding to begin his own investigation and the result is this highly readable detective story about two very different life trajectories which finally intersected on that fateful March night. In truth, this is Harding’s hunt for the story of his great-uncle. Much is already known about Höss, and Harding relies far too much on the autobiography he wrote while awaiting trial and execution in Poland later in 1946, which is full of moderate sentiments and an apparent dislike of gratuitous violence and lewd language.

Even during his interrogations at Nuremberg Höss gave the impression of a quiet, reasonable man trapped in situations he had not expected. People thought he must be mad, but as he told one prison psychiatrist, Gustave Gilbert: “I am quite sane.” Sane he probably was, but a glance through the potted biography here shows a man who was utterly amoral, vicious, ruthless and ambitious.

Much more interesting is the reconstruction of the early life of Hanns, because this recounts the extraordinary transition for a successful German-Jewish family from the Twenties to the Thirties. Hanns’s father was a society doctor in Berlin who could entertain at table Albert Einstein or Max Reinhardt. When Hitler came to power Alexander senior expected that the noisy anti-Semitism of the SA rowdies would die down and a more normal Germany would emerge. He and his family stayed until 1936 despite all the evidence that the regime was bent on destroying Jewish livelihoods. Hanns and his twin brother came to London, learnt English and got jobs. When war broke out, they volunteered for the British Army Pioneer Corps.

At the end of the war Hanns, now a British Army captain, was one of those who entered Belsen. What he saw confirmed his decision to fight against Hitler’s Germany. He became an interpreter between British investigators and SS personnel, then an investigator. On his own initiative he hunted down the gauleiter of German-occupied Luxembourg, Gustav Simon. He tried to find the wartime head of the concentration camps, the odious Richard Glücks, and then, as a formal member of the War Crimes Investigation Team, undertook to track down Höss.

It would spoil the suspense to explain how he found the commandant of Auschwitz, but readers may be disappointed that this part of the story takes up no more than a few pages. This is really a book about the world of Hanns Alexander; fortunately this is in itself well worth reading. The family history is never dull or banal, and Harding has researched it thoroughly.

Hanns was a tough interrogator with a burning vengeance. It is not difficult to understand why. At Belsen he wrote about the “dead bodies walking about, dead bodies lying about, people who thought they were alive and they weren’t,” a vivid summary of the hell the camps had become. Hanns represented a decent and more tolerant Germany and was willing to fight alongside Germany’s enemies to see his country restored.

Harding hopes this book will show both men as human beings, neither a clear-cut hero, nor an unmitigated villain. This is harder to accept. Höss, like Hitler, was no doubt kind to animals and children, but when he had to make choices, be it as a Freikorps member in the early Twenties or as the camp commandant of Auschwitz in 1944, organising the murder of the final consignments of Hungarian Jews, he chose crime. Hanns was right.

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