Book review: Hanns and Rudolf, By Thomas Harding

A refugee soldier captured the man who ran Auschwitz. This act of homage follows the chase

At 11am on 11 March 1946, British field police led by Hanns Alexander, a former German-Jewish refugee, arrested Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz. Höss was hiding on a farm at Gottrupel, a village close to the Danish border and near Flensburg, where he had parked his family when the Third Reich collapsed. This proximity was his undoing. Alexander tracked them down and tricked Rudolf's wife into giving him up.

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It was a crucial breakthrough in the investigation of Nazi war crimes. Captain Alexander let the policemen beat up Höss for ten minutes, then delivered him to Colonel Gerald Draper for interrogation. Draper was able to tease out of Höss the first comprehensive account of Auschwitz, its role in the Nazi terror and the genocide against Europe's Jews.

Höss was passed on to the Nuremberg Tribunal where he testified against Ernst Kaltunbrunner, chief of the SS Main Office. His evidence gave the world its first insight into Auschwitz and the staggering number of its victims. Thomas Harding heard this story at the funeral of Hanns Alexander, his great-uncle. He then devoted six years to fleshing it out.

Hanns was born into a well-off, assimilated German Jewish family in Berlin in 1917. Although his father, a doctor, was unbothered about the Nazis even after they assumed power, he was persuaded to leave Germany. By 1936 the family had emigrated to Britain with most of their possessions (including the family Torah scroll), if little of their wealth.

At the outbreak of war Hanns volunteered for the RAF, but as an "enemy alien" was obliged to serve in the Pioneer Corps. He found more satisfying employment handling German PoWs in Normandy after D-Day. In April 1945, he was recruited into a small unit investigating war crimes. He tracked down the former Gauleiter of occupied Luxembourg and, on his own initiative, went after Höss.

Unfortunately, when Harding tells us about Höss he relies uncritically on the self-pitying prison memoir Höss composed in Poland while awaiting trial. Yet historians have pointed out numerous instances where Höss jumbled things, not to mention his deliberate efforts to shift blame.

For psychological insight he draws on the observations by Gustav Gilbert and Leon Goldensohn, who briefly examined Höss in Nuremberg. But their conclusions were predetermined by their methodologies and hardly took account of the ideological formation, training and socialisation of the SS.

Since I have perpetrated my share of howlers I hesitate to carp, but Hanns and Rudolf is marred by sloppiness. Dachau was not "the first Nazi concentration camp". It became the first purpose-built camp and served as a model for the rest. Oswieçim (Auschwitz) was not just "firmly under the Reich's military control", but a part of Poland annexed to it. Auschwitz was a busy town next to a major rail junction, hardly a case of "rural isolation".

Harding describes Zyklon-B as an "insecticide" employed to kill rats when it was designed and used for exterminating lice in clothing. He states that the poison gas "poured out of false shower heads" when it emanated from pellets poured into a metal grill tube or onto the chamber floor through an opening.

He states that three purpose-built gas-chamber units were constructed at Auschwitz-Birkenau when there were four, and muddles the difference between the IG Farben plant and the Monowitz-Buna camp that held its slave labour force. His description of how prisoners selected to work there were processed is garbled because he confuses the "sauna", where they were disinfected, with the "Canada" compound where the belongings of the murdered were stored. He is right that there was a brothel in Auschwitz, but wrong in suggesting it was used by SS guards.

Harding thanks his "amazing" editors but who let slip the phrase that Alexander wore "a green khaki uniform"? Didn't anyone think it slightly odd that Höss's wife stopped having sex with him in mid-1942, but bore his fifth child in September 1943? It gives no pleasure to point out these solecisms. Let's hope that Harding's publishers will give him the opportunity to iron out the glitches so that the book is a better tribute to the great-uncle he so rightly admired.

David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London