Rudolf Hoess, the son of a shopkeeper, was born in Baden-Baden, Germany on 25th November, 1900. Hoess later recalled: "I had been brought up by my parents to be respectful and obedient towards all grown-up people, and especially the elderly, regardless of their social status. I was taught that my highest duty was to help those in need. It was constantly impressed upon me in forceful terms that I must obey promptly the wishes and commands of my parents, teachers, priests, etc., and indeed of all grown-up people, including servants, and that nothing must distract me from this duty. Whatever they said was always right."
His father, a devout Catholic, hoped his son would become a priest. Instead, at the age of fifteen, he joined the German Army and served on the Turkish front during the First World War. At the age of 17 was the youngest non-commissioned officer in the army. Wounded several times he won the Iron Cross for bravery.
After the war he joined the Freikorps where he fought with Martin Bormann. After hearing Adolf Hitler speak in Munich in 1922 Hess joined the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). On 31st May 1923, in Mecklenburg, Hoess and members of the Freikorps beat suspected Communist Walther Kadow to death. In 1923, after one of the killers gave the tale of the murder to a local newspaper, Hoess was arrested and tried as the leader of the gang that committed the crime. Hoess was found guilty and sentenced on 17th May 1924 to 10 years in Brandenburg Penitentiary.
Hoess was released in July 1928 as part of a general amnesty and became a farm worker. On 17th August 1929, he married Hedwig Hensel and over the next few years they had five children together. He met Heinrich Himmler in the year of his marriage and in 1934 he joined the Schutzstaffel (SS). Soon afterwards he became a guard at Dachau. It was the first concentration camp to be built in Nazi Germany.
Theodor Eicke, the camp commandant, later recalled: "There were times when we has no coats, no boots, no socks. Without so much as a murmur, our men wore their own clothes on duty. We were generally regarded as a necessary evil that only cost money; little men of no consequence standing guard behind barbed wire. The pay of my officers and men, meagre though it was, I had to beg from the various State Finance Offices. As Oberführer I earned in Dachau 230 Reichmark per month and was fortunate because I enjoyed the confidence of my Reichsführer (Himmler). At the beginning there was not a single cartridge, not a single rifle, let alone machine guns. Only three of my men knew how to operate a machine gun. They slept in draughty factory halls. Everywhere there was poverty and want. At the time these men belonged to SS District South. They left it to me to take care of my men's troubles but, unasked, sent men they wanted to be rid of in Munich for some reason or another. These misfits polluted my unit and troubled its state of mind. I had to contend with disloyalty, embezzlement and corruption."
Hoess commented: "I can clearly remember the first flogging that I witnessed. Eicke had issued orders that a minimum of one company from the guard unit must attend the infliction of these corporal punishments. Two prisoners who had stolen cigarettes from the canteen were sentenced to twenty-five lashes each with the whip. The troops under arms were formed up in an open square in the centre of which stood the Whipping block.Two prisoners were led forward by their block leaders. Then the commandant arrived. The commander of the protective custody compound and the senior company commander reported to him. The Rapportfiihrer read out the sentence and the first prisoner, a small impenitent malingerer, was made to lie along; the length of the block. Two soldiers held his head and hands and two block leaders carried out the punishment, delivering alternate strokes. The prisoner uttered no sound. The other prisoner, a professional politician of strong physique, behaved quite differently. He cried out at the very first stroke and tried to break free. He went on screaming to the end, although the commandant yelled at him to keep quiet. I was standing in the first rank and was compelled to watch the whole procedure. I say compelled, because if I had been in the rear I would not have looked. When the man began to scream I went hot and cold all over. In fact the whole thing, even the beating of the first prisoner made me shudder. Later on, at the beginning of the war, I attended my first execution, but it did not affect me nearly so much as witnessing that first corporal punishment."
Theodor Eicke was impressed by Hoess and recommended him for promotion. In 1938 Hoess he he was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) and was made adjutant to Hermann Baranowski in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. The following year he joined the Waffen-SS. In May 1940, he became commander of Auschwitz in occupied Poland.
In June, 1941, Heinrich Himmler ordered that Auschwitz be greatly increased in size and the following year it became an extermination camp. Bathhouses disguised as gas chambers were added. Hess introduced Zyklon-B gas, that enabled the Nazis to kill 2,000 people at a time. Hess was promoted to Deputy Inspector General and took charge of the Schutzstaffel (SS) department that administered German concentration camps. In a 1944 SS report Hoess was described as "a true pioneer in this area because of his new ideas and educational methods."
His biographer, Louis L. Snyder, has pointed out: "The personality and character of Hoess have fascinated students of abnormal psychology. He regarded himself as a perfectly normal man who led an uneventful family life while carrying out his orders to the best of his ability. Believing that he was more sensitive than most people, he tried to conceal this defect with an icy exterior. He felt that he had a difficult but necessary job to perform and that he had to undertake the assigned task without sympathy and without pity."
Hoess admitted that members of the Red Army were routinely executed: "It was made known that these measures were taken because the Russians had been killing all German soldiers who were partly members or belonged to special sections of the NSDAP, especially members of the SS, and also because the political officials of the Red Army had been ordered, if taken prisoner, to create every kind of disturbance in the prisoner-of-war camps and their places of employment and to carry out sabotage wherever possible. The political officials of the Red Army thus identified were brought to Auschwitz for liquidation. The first, smaller transports of them were executed by firing squads."
Inmates were used to provide medical care at Auschwitz. Gisella Perl was a Jewish doctor in the camp: "One of the basic Nazi aims was to demoralize, humiliate, ruin us, not only physically but also spiritually. They did everything in their power to push us into the bottomless depths of degradation. Their spies were constantly among us to keep them informed about every thought, every feeling, every reaction we had, and one never knew who was one of their agents. There was only one law in Auschwitz - the law of the jungle - the law of self-preservation. Women who in their former lives were decent self-respecting human beings now stole, lied, spied, beat the others and - if necessary - killed them, in order to save their miserable lives. Stealing became an art, a virtue, something to be proud of."
Hoess later admitted: "I must admit that the gassing process had a calming effect on me. I always had a horror of the shootings, thinking of the number of people, the women and children. I was relieved that we were spared these blood baths.... We tried to fool the victims into believing that they were going through a delousing process. Of course, at times they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties. Frequently women would hide their children under their clothes, but we found them and we sent the children to be exterminated. We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy, but the foul and nauseating stench from the continued burning of bodies permeated the whole area and all the people living around Auschwitz knew what was going on."
Hoess claimed that he had been brought up to believe that anti-Semitism was a form of "pest control". He explained: "When in the summer of 1941 he (Hitler) gave me the order to prepare installations at Auschwitz where mass exterminations could take place, and personally to carry out these exterminations, I did not have the slightest idea of their scale or consequences. It was certainly an extraordinary and monstrous order. Nevertheless the reasons behind the extermination programme seemed to me right. I did not reflect on it at the time: I had been given an order, and I had to carry it out. Whether this mass extermination of the Jews was necessary or not was something on which I could not allow myself to form an opinion, for I lacked the necessary breadth of view."
In April, 1945, Germany surrendered. Hoess managed to avoid capture and worked on a farm. He was eventually captured and at his trial admitted: "I commanded Auschwitz up to 1st December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were killed and disposed of there by gassing and burning; at least a further half million died of starvation and illness, which makes a total of 3,000,000 dead. The number represents about 70 or 80 per cent of all the people who were sent to Auschwitz as prisoners. Very young children, being incapable of working, were killed as a matter of principle."
I had been brought up by my parents to be respectful and obedient towards all grown-up people, and especially the elderly, regardless of their social status. I was taught that my highest duty was to help those in need. It was constantly impressed upon me in forceful terms that I must obey promptly the wishes and commands of my parents, teachers, priests, etc., and indeed of all grown-up people, including servants, and that nothing must distract me from this duty. Whatever they said was always right.
These basic principles on which I was brought up became part of my flesh and blood. I can still clearly remember how my father, who on account of his fervent Catholicism was a determined opponent of the Reich Government and its policy, never ceased to remind his friends that, however strong one's opposition might be, the laws and decrees of the State had to be obeyed unconditionally.
From my earliest youth I was brought up with a strong awareness of duty. In my parents' house it was insisted that every task be exactly and conscientiously carried out. Each member of the family had his own special duties to perform.
When in the summer of 1941 he (Hitler) gave me the order to prepare installations at Auschwitz where mass exterminations could take place, and personally to carry out these exterminations, I did not have the slightest idea of their scale or consequences. It was certainly an extraordinary and monstrous order. Nevertheless the reasons behind the extermination programme seemed to me right. I did not reflect on it at the time: I had been given an order, and I had to carry it out. Whether this mass extermination of the Jews was necessary or not was something on which I could not allow myself to form an opinion, for I lacked the necessary breadth of view.
Dr. Kauffmann: Is it true that in 1941 you were ordered to Berlin to see Himmler? Please state briefly what was discussed.
Rudolf Höss: Yes. In the summer of 1941 1 was summoned to Berlin to Reichsfuhrer SS Himmler to receive personal orders. He told me something to the effect - I do not remember the exact words- - that the Fuhrer had given the order for a final solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, must carry out that order. If it is not carried out now then the Jews will later on destroy the German people. He had chosen Auschwitz on account of its easy access by rail and also because the extensive site offered space for measures ensuring isolation.
Before the mass extermination of the Jews began, the Russian politruks and political commissars were liquidated in almost all the concentration camps during 1941 and 1942.
In accordance with a secret order issued by Hitler, these Russian politruks and political commissars were combed out of all the prisoner-of-war camps by special detachments from the Gestapo. When identified they were transferred to the nearest concentration camp for liquidation.
It was made known that these measures were taken because the Russians had been killing all German soldiers who were partly members or belonged to special sections of the NSDAP, especially members of the SS, and also because the political officials of the Red Army had been ordered, if taken prisoner, to create every kind of disturbance in the prisoner-of-war camps and their places of employment and to carry out sabotage wherever possible.
The political officials of the Red Army thus identified were brought to Auschwitz for liquidation. The first, smaller transports of them were executed by firing squads.
While I was away on duty, my deputy, Fritzsch, the commander of the protective custody camp, first tried gas for these killings. It was a preparation of prussic acid, called Cyclon B, which was used in the camp as an insecticide and of which there was always a stock on hand. On my return Fritzsh reported this to me, and the gas was used again for the next transport.
The gassing was carried out in the detention cells of Block II. Protected by a gas-mask, I watched the killing myself. The Russians were ordered to undress in the anteroom; they then quietly entered the mortuary, for they had been told they were to be deloused. The doors were then sealed and the gas shaken down through the holes in the roof. I do not know how long this killing took. For a little while a humming sound could be heard. When the powder was thrown in, there were cries of "Gas!," then a great bellowing, and the trapped prisoners hurled themselves against both the doors. But the doors held. They were opened several hours later, so that the place might be aired. It was then that I saw, for the first time, gassed bodies in the mass.
The killing of these Russian prisoners-of-war did not cause me much concern at the time. The order had been given, and I had to carry it out. 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 how these mass killings were to be carried out.
In the spring of 1942 the first transports of Jews, all earmarked for extermination, arrived from Upper Silesia.
It was most important that the whole business of arriving and undressing should take place in an atmosphere of the greatest possible calm. People reluctant to take off their clothes had to be helped by those of their companions who had already undressed, or by men of the Special Detachment.
Many of the women hid their babies among the piles of clothing. The men of the Special Detachment were particularly on the look-out for this, and would speak words of encouragement to the woman until they had persuaded her to take the child with her.
I noticed that women who either guessed or knew what awaited them nevertheless found the courage to joke with the children to encourage them, despite the mortal terror visible in their own eyes.
One woman approached me as she walked past and, pointing to her four children who were manfully helping the smallest ones over the rough ground, whispered: "How can you bring yourself to kill such beautiful, darling children? Have you no heart at all?"
One old man, as he passed me, hissed: "Germany will pay a heavy penance for this mass murder of the Jews." His eyes glowed with hatred as he said this. Nevertheless he walked calmly into the gas-chamber.
I commanded Auschwitz up to 1st December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were killed and disposed of there by gassing and burning; at least a further half million died of starvation and illness, which makes a total of 3,000,000 dead. The number represents about 70 or 80 per cent of all the people who were sent to Auschwitz as prisoners. Very young children, being incapable of working, were killed as a matter of principle. Often, women tried to hide their children under their clothes, but when they were found they were at once sent to their deaths.
This mass extermination, with all its attendant circumstances, did not, as I know, fail to affect those who took part in it. With very few exceptions, nearly all those detailed to do this monstrous "work," and who, like myself, have given sufficient thought to the matter, have been deeply marked by these events.
Many of the men involved approached me as I went my rounds through the extermination buildings, and poured out their anxieties and impressions to me, in the hope that I could allay them.
Again and again during these confidential conversations I was asked; is it necessary that we do this? Is it necessary that hundreds of thousands of women and children be destroyed? And I, who in my innermost being had on countless occasions asked myself exactly this question, could only fob them off and attempt to console them by repeating that it was done on Hitler's order. I had to tell them that this extermination of Jews had to be, so that Germany and our posterity might be freed for ever from their relentless adversaries.
There was no doubt in the mind of any of us that Hitler's order had to be obeyed regardless, and that it was the duty of the SS to carry it out. Nevertheless we were all tormented by secret doubts.