Death Dealer

The Memoirs Of The Ss Kommandant At Auschwitz


By Rudolph Hoss

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SS Kommandant Rudolph Höss (1900–1947) was history’s greatest mass murderer, personally supervising the extermination of approximately two million people, mostly Jews, at the death camp in Auschwitz, Poland. Death Dealer is a new, unexpurgated translation of Höss's autobiography, written before, during, and after his trial. This edition includes rare photos, the minutes of the Wannsee Conference (where the Final Solution was decided and coordinated), original diagrams of the camps, a detailed chronology of important events at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Höss’s final letters to his family, and a new foreword by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. Death Dealer stands as one of the most important—and chilling—documents of the Holocaust.


Death Dealer
The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz
"A valuable addition to Holocaust studies, a chilling self-portrait of an all-too-typical servant of totalitarianism."
Library Journal
"[Höss's autobiography] combines a considerable amount of accurate information [with] some genuine insights into his past."
New York Review of Books
"Must reading in light of the growing activities of Holocaust deniers."
Jewish Post & Opinion
Praise for the 1960 Expurgated Edition
"[A] gruesomely fascinating book."
Phoebe Adams, The Atlantic
"This is a book of concentrated horror looked at in a cold, detached way. ... The reader can look at this important document from various angles. He can regard the book as a unique historical description of the acting out of man's barbaric horror fantasies in a so-called civilized world. Or he can take a psychological view and ask: what went on in the minds of men who coldly committed these perfidious crimes? . . . This autobiography of a deluded multi-million murderer belongs in the hands of many readers."
New York Times Book Review
"Höss's story reads like one of those trick problems in logic, in which at some point a carefully concealed false deduction has been made and the whole train of reasoning has been thrown hopelessly awry."
"To get anywhere near a true assessment of this nightmare character, you have to picture [Höss] as an unctuous little man who might, in more normal times, be one of thousands waiting daily and indistinguishably with their attaché cases on the suburban station platforms for the 7:45."
New Statesman
"This appalling book holds a compulsive fascination by reason of its very coldbloodedness; one of the most historically valuable documents to emerge from the war, it should be enforced reading for all Nazi and Fascist apologists."
"This is a great if grisly historical document, which not only includes the unforgettable self-portrait by Höss but candid pictures of some of his more spectacular and abominable fellow criminals. It is not for the squeamish, this book, but it is for the thoughtful."
Quentin Reynolds, Saturday Review
"This autobiography is of quite extraordinary interest. It shows with exactitude how ordinary little men were bewitched by the evil genius of Hitler which transformed them into mechanical instruments for a monstrous mass-murderer, robots with nothing human left but a certain pride in their degradation. It might well be claimed that this book is the best answer to the question so often asked of how the whole phenomenon of National Socialism was possible."
Times Literary Supplement
"[Death Dealer] is a reminder, never to be forgotten, of the appalling and disastrous effects of totalitarianism in men's minds."
Chicago Sunday Tribune
"This is a curious and horrifying volume, and by all odds its most horrifying feature is the way in which the author manages to describe the most ghastly details in a manner which is free of emotion and, one gathers, almost entirely free of any feeling of shame or guilt. The details are not for the squeamish. Yet they should be read."
New York Herald Tribune Book Review
"[Höss's autobiography is] not only a revealing document on the system and practice of the Third Reich's machinery of destruction, but also an impressive record of the seduction of an average man by the pseudo-moral claims of a totalitarian ideology."
Joachim C. Fest, author of The Face of the Third Reich
"Reading this book is a grisly experience . . . But such books need to be read. [Death Dealer] is valuable because it gives a remarkably candid portrait of the type of mentality and the kind of environment which can add up to atrocities like the Nazi murder camps."
Springfield Republican

To my wife Carol,
whose love and support
has made this book possible

Usually when you agree to write a foreword, you do so because you truly care about the book: it's readable, the literary quality is high, you like or at least admire the author. This book, however, is the extreme opposite. It's filled with evil, and this evil is narrated with a disturbing bureaucratic obtuseness; it has no literary quality, and reading it is agony. Furthermore, despite his efforts at defending himself, the author comes across as what he is: a coarse, stupid, arrogant, long-winded scoundrel, who sometimes blatantly lies. Yet this autobiography of the Kommandant of Auschwitz is one of the most instructive books ever published because it very accurately describes the course of a human life that was exemplary in its way. In a climate different from the one he happened to grow up in, Rudolph Höss would quite likely have wound up as some sort of drab functionary, committed to discipline and dedicated to order—at most a careerist with modest ambitions. Instead, he evolved, step by step, into one of the greatest criminals in history.
We survivors of the Nazi concentration camps are often asked a symptomatic question, especially by young people: who were the people "on the other side" and what were they like? Is it possible that all of them were wicked, that no glint of humanity ever shone in their eyes? These questions are thoroughly answered by Höss's book, which shows how readily evil can replace good, besieging it and finally submerging it—yet allowing it to persist in tiny, grotesque islets: an orderly family life, love of nature, Victorian morality.
Precisely because the author is uneducated, he cannot be suspected of deliberately perpetrating a colossal falsification of history: he would have been incapable of that. His pages teem with mechanical rehashes of Nazi rhetoric, white lies and black lies, attempts at self-justification, at embellishment. Yet these are all so ingenuous and transparent that the most unprepared reader will have no trouble seeing through all these things—they stick out from the texture of the narrative like flies in milk.
This book is substantially truthful: it is the autobiography of a man who was not a monster and who never became one, even at the height of his career in Auschwitz, when at his orders thousands of innocent people were murdered daily. What I mean is that we can believe him when he claims that he never enjoyed inflicting pain or killing: he was no sadist, he had nothing of the satanist. By contrast, satanic features can be found in Höss's portrait of his peer and friend, Adolf Eichmann; however, Eichmann was far more intelligent than Höss, and we are left with the impression that Höss took some of Eichmann's bragging at face value, even though it doesn't hold up under serious analysis.
Rudolph Höss may have been one of the worst criminals of all time, but his makeup was not dissimilar from that of any citizen of any country. His guilt, which was not inscribed in his genes or in his German birth, lay entirely in the fact that he was unable to resist the pressure exerted on him by a violent environment, even before Hitler's takeover.
To be fair, we have to admit that the young boy got off to a bad start. His father, a businessman, was a "fanatic Catholic." (But be careful: for Höss, as in the overall Nazi vocabulary, the adjective "fanatic" always has a positive ring.) The father wanted his son to be a priest, yet he simultaneously subjected him to a rigid, militaristic upbringing, while totally ignoring the boy's inclinations and aptitudes. Understandably the son felt no affection for his parents and became taciturn and introverted. Soon orphaned, he suffered a religious crisis, and when the Great War broke out, he did not hesitate. His moral universe was now reduced to a single constellation: Duty, Fatherland, Comradeship, Courage. After enlisting in the army, the seventeen-year-old was shipped to the savage Iraqi front. He killed, was wounded, and felt he had become a man—that is, a soldier: for him the two words were synonymous.
War was the worst school—war anywhere, but especially in a defeated and humiliated Germany. Yet Rudolph Höss did not try to reintegrate himself into normal life. Amid the terrible conditions of postwar Germany he joined one of the Freikorps, the volunteer corps, with their basically repressive aims. After participating in a political assassination, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. Life behind bars was hard, but it suited him. He was no rebel, he liked discipline and order, he even liked expiating—he was a model prisoner. His heart was in the right place: he had accepted the violence of war because it was ordered by Authority, but he was disgusted at the violence committed by his fellow inmates because their acts were spontaneous. That was to become one of his leitmotifs: order is necessary in everything; directives have to come from higher up, they are good by definition, and they are to be carried out conscientiously and without discussion; personal initiative is permissible only if it fosters a more efficient execution of orders. Höss was suspicious of friendship, love, and sex; he was a loner.
After six years he was amnestied and he then found work in a farming community. He got married, but admits that he never succeeded in communicating intimately with his wife—either then or later on, when he needed even more to do so. It was at this point that the pitfall opened before him: he was invited to join the SS and he accepted, drawn as he was by the promise of a "quick promotion" and "all the financial advantages connected with it." And it is also at this point that he lies to the reader for the first time: "When Himmler made the call to join the SS, to enter the guard troop of a concentration camp, I had no thought at all about the concentration camps which were mentioned in the postscript.... We had hardly heard about concentration camps." Come now, Kommandant Höss. Lying requires a lot more mental agility. That was the year 1934; Hitler was already in power and had never pulled any punches. The term "concentration camp" was already well-known in its new meaning: few people knew what went on in the camps, but everyone knew that these were places of terror and horror—and enough was known about them in the world of the SS. The concept was anything but unknown; it was already being cynically utilized in the regime's propaganda. "If you don't behave, you'll end up in a Lager [concentration camp]" had become an almost proverbial turn of phrase.
Rudolph Höss's promotion was indeed quick. His prison experience was not useless; his superiors, who rightfully viewed him as a specialist, turned down his feeble requests to return to the troops. Both forms of service were equally valid: after all, the enemy was ubiquitous—at the borders and on the inside. Höss had no reason to feel slighted. He accepted. If it was his duty to be a jailer, then a jailer he would be with all possible diligence. "I must now admit, I conscientiously and attentively performed my duty to everyone's satisfaction. I didn't let the prisoners get away with anything. I was firm and often harsh." No one doubts that he was harsh, but the statement that his "stone mask" concealed an aching heart is not only an indecent but also a childish lie.
Still, he is not lying when he repeatedly maintains that once he entered the Nazi machine it was difficult to get out. He would certainly not have been risking death, or even a severe punishment, but leaving would indeed have been difficult. Life in the SS involved a skillful and intense "reeducation" that fed the ambitions of the recruits, who, mostly uneducated and frustrated outcasts, felt their self-esteem thus boosted and exalted. The uniform was elegant, the pay good, the power virtually unlimited, and impunity guaranteed. Today they were the masters of Germany and tomorrow—ac—cording to one of their anthems—the entire world.
At the outbreak of World War II, Rudolph Höss was already the Schutzhaftlagerführer (leader of the protective-custody camp) at Sachsenhausen, which was no small position. But he deserved a promotion. And when, to his surprise and delight, he was named Kommandant of a new camp, he accepted. The camp, still under construction, was located far from Germany near a small Polish town named Oswiecim or, in German, Auschwitz.
He was truly—as he puts it without irony—an expert. At this juncture his text becomes agitated: the Höss who is writing this has already been condemned to death by a Polish tribunal. Since this sentence has been handed down by an Authority, he fully accepts it, but this is no reason for him not to describe his finest hour. He pontificates, supplying us with a veritable treatise on city planning. His knowledge must not be lost, nor his patrimony scattered. He teaches us how to plan, build, and run a concentration camp so it will function smoothly, reibungslos (without friction), despite the ineptness of subordinates and the blindness and internal conflicts of superiors, who sent him more trainloads than the camp could handle. And what about him, the Kommandant? Well, he makes do as best he can. Here, Höss becomes downright heroic: he asks for the reader's praise, admiration, even commiseration. He was a highly competent and zealous functionary, sacrificing everything to his camp: his days, his nights of rest, his feelings for his family. But the inspectorate had no understanding for him and sent him no provisions, so that he, the model bureaucrat, squeezed between the upper and lower jaws of Authority, "had to steal the urgently needed barbed wire from various places.... After all, I was supposed to help myself."
He's less convincing when setting himself up as a pundit for the sociology of the Lager. With righteous disgust he bemoans the infighting among the prisoners. What riffraff! They know neither honor nor solidarity, the great virtues of the German people. But several lines later he nevertheless admits that "the rivalries were passionately maintained and constantly fanned by the camp administration"—that is, Rudolph Höss. With professional hauteur he describes the various categories of inmates, mingling his old-fashioned scorn with jarring cries of post facto hypocritical piety. The political prisoners were better than the common criminals, the Gypsies ("my favorite prisoners") were better than the homosexuals, the Russian POWs were animals, and he never liked the Jews.
In regard to the Jews his false notes become more strident. He feels no conflict, his Nazi indoctrination never collides with a new and more humane vision of the world. Quite simply, Höss has understood nothing, he has not transcended his past, he is not cured. When he says (and quite frequently at that), "Now I realize . . . Now I understand . . . ," he is brazenly lying—as do today's political "penitents" and all those who express their remorse in words rather than deeds. Why does he lie? Perhaps in order to leave us with a better image of himself, or perhaps only because his judges, who are his new superiors, have told him that the correct opinions are no longer the earlier ones but are now entirely different ones.
The theme of Jews shows us how heavily Goebbels's propaganda weighed on Germany and how hard it is to wipe out the effects it had—even on a pliant individual like Höss. He admits that the Jews were "harrassed and persecuted" in Germany, but then he quickly points out that their mass presence had a pernicious impact on the moral level of the camps: the Jews, as is well-known, are rich, and money can corrupt anybody, even the highly ethical officials of the SS. But the puritan Höss (who had an affair with an Auschwitz prisoner and extricated himself by sending her to her death) does not agree with the pornographic anti-Semitism of Streicher's Der Stürmer: his newspaper "did a lot of damage and has never been of any use to serious scientific anti-Semitism." But this is not surprising since, as Höss ad-libs, "a Jew edited this newspaper." It was the Jews who spread (Höss doesn't dare say "invented") the atrocity stories about Germany, and for that reason the Jews deserved to be punished. However, Höss the righteous disagreed with his superior Eicke, who wanted to stop the leaking of information by applying the intelligent system of collective punishment. The campaign about atrocities "would have continued even if hundreds or thousands were shot" (the stress on even, a gem of Nazi logic, is mine).
In the summer of 1941 Himmler "personally" notified Rudolph Höss that Auschwitz would be something different from a place of affliction; it had to be "the largest human killing center in all of history," and Höss and his colleagues would have to come up with the best technology. Höss didn't bat an eye; it was an order like any other, and orders are not to be questioned. Experiments had been conducted in other camps, but mass machinegunnings and toxic injections were inconvenient; something faster and more reliable was needed. Above all, the Germans had to avoid "bloodbaths," because they had a demoralizing effect on the executioners. After the bloodiest actions, several SS men killed themselves, and others got methodically drunk. What they needed was something aseptic, impersonal, to safeguard the mental health of the soldiers. Collective gassing set off by motors was a step in the right direction, but it had to be perfected. Höss and his assistant got the brilliant idea of resorting to Cyclon-B, a poison used on rats and cockroaches, and it was all for the best. After testing it on 900 Russian prisoners, Höss felt "at ease": the mass killing had gone well both quantitatively and qualitatively, with no blood and no trauma. It's one thing machine-gunning a bunch of naked people on the edge of a pit that they themselves have dug, but inserting a container of poison through an air conduit is fundamentally different. Rudolph Höss's highest aspiration was reached: his professionalism had been demonstrated; he was the finest technician of mass slaughter. His envious colleagues were clobbered.
The most repugnant pages of this autobiography are those on which Höss is quick to describe the brutality and indifference of those Jews who were assigned to get rid of the corpses. These passages contain a loathsome charge, an accusation of complicity, as if these unfortunates (weren't they too "carrying out orders"?) could assume the guilt of the people who had created and delegated them. The crux of the book, and its least credible lie, then appears on page 162: in regard to killing children, Höss says that he felt such immense pity that he wanted to vanish from the face of the earth, but "I was not allowed to show the slightest emotion." Who would have prevented him from vanishing? Not Himmler, his supreme superior, who, despite Höss's great esteem, comes across as both a demiurge and a pedantic, incoherent, and intractable idiot.
In the final section, which takes on the tone of a spiritual testament, Höss again fails to gauge the horror of what he has done or to find a touch of sincerity. "Today I realize that the extermination of the Jews was wrong, absolutely wrong" (but "wrong" in what way?). "The cause of anti-Semitism was not served by this act at all, in fact, just the opposite. The Jews have come much closer to their final goal." A short time later, Höss says he felt "cold shudders" upon learning "of the horrible tortures . . . that took place in Auschwitz and in other camps." If we recall that the man writing those words is about to be hanged, we are stunned by his obstinacy in lying until his very last breath. There is only one possible explanation: Höss, like all of his ilk (not only Germans; I'm thinking of the confessions of terrorists who have repented or dissociated themselves), spent all his life assimilating lies from the very air he breathed and therefore lying to himself.
We can wonder—and someone will certainly ask himself or others—if it makes any sense bringing this book out again today, forty years after the end of the war and thirty-eight years after the execution of its author. To my mind there are at least two good reasons for doing so.
The first reason is a contingent one. Several years ago, an insidious trend was launched when people began affirming that the number of victims of the Nazi era was far less than stated by "official history," and that no poison gas was used to kill human beings in the camps. In regard to both these points Rudolph Höss's testimony is complete and explicit, nor would he have formulated it in such a precise and articulate manner, and with so many details confirmed by survivors and by material evidence, if he had been acting under coercion, as the "revisionists" allege. Höss often lies to justify himself but never about facts; indeed, he seems proud of his organizational work. He and his supposed instigators would have had to be very shrewd to concoct such a coherent and plausible story out of thin air. The confessions extorted by the Inquisition, the Moscow Trials of the 1930's, or the witch hunts had an entirely different tone.
The second reason for republishing Höss's book is an essential one with permanent validity. At present, when many tears are being shed over the end of ideologies, it strikes me that this text reveals in an exemplary fashion how far an ideology can go when it is accepted as radically as by Hitler's Germans, indeed by extremists in general. Ideologies can be good or bad; it is good to know them, confront them, and attempt to evaluate them; but it is always bad to espouse them, even if they are cloaked with respectable words such as "Country" and "Duty." The ultimate consequences of blindly accepted Duty—that is, Nazi Germany's Führerprinzip, the principle of unquestioning devotion to a Great Leader—are demonstrated by the story of Rudolph Höss.
March 1985
Translated from the Italian
by Joachim Neugroschel

In these decades of peace in the West it is often difficult for younger generations to understand the forces that drove the Nazi SS to systematically murder millions of men, women, and children without feeling and without conscience. Yet Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, did leave us something that helps us to understand that horrible period in history: his memoirs and his testimony.
The memoirs of Kommandant Rudolf Höss were written between October 1946 and April 1947. At the suggestion of psychologist Professor Stanislaw Batawia and Professor Jan Sehn, the prosecuting attorney for the Polish War Crimes Commission in Warsaw, Rudolf Höss wrote explanations of how the camp developed, his impressions of the various personalities with whom he dealt, and even about the destruction of the millions of human beings in the gas chambers. The memoirs were written to help Höss remember the details of what he was charged with, to help clarify the court's understanding, and to put people and events in proper perspective.
Rudolf Höss's memoirs are perhaps the most important document attesting to the Holocaust, because they are the only candid, detailed, and essentially honest description of the plan of mass annihilation from a high-ranking SS officer intimately involved in the carrying out of Hitler's and Himmler's plan. In a straightforward manner, with the cold objectivity of a Mafia hit man, Höss describes the order and manner in which the murder of Poles, Russians, Jews, and Gypsies took place. He portrays his fellow SS members as considerably less than the supermen they are normally pictured as being, and he gives an overview of the machinations of a death factory designed to strip the humanity from every individual and finally to exterminate him.
Höss's memoirs allow us to see Auschwitz-Birkenau through the Kommandant's eyes and through his experiences. The reader is easily able to wade through Höss's shallow rationalizations as he tries to balance his deeds with his thoughts and feelings. Yet Höss, like many others in the SS, still succeeded in sublimating his conscience and his humanity in order to carry out his orders. In his mind's eye, morality had nothing to do with orders. He was the perfect robot; Himmler commands, Höss obeys without question. He stares at the horror but does not react. He plans, issues orders, yet he does not think of the consequences. He allows conditions in the camp to reduce human beings to walking skeletons, then labels them as subhuman, fit only to die, or he rationalizes that women and even children are enemies of the state, bent on destroying the New Order of the Fuhrer—Adolf Hitler. Despite his whining complaints regarding incompetent staff and insufficient supplies, there was much that he could have done to improve conditions at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In the Western world, especially in the United States, Höss has hidden in the shadows of history. In recent decades the Western press has focused more on the victims and the survivors, or has been more interested in the living, uncaptured war criminals than those long covered by the dust of time. In addition, the close similarity of Rudolf Höss's name to that of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's Deputy Führer, who flew to England in 1941, further compounds the confusion among the general public. The Deputy Führer—Hess—spent the remainder of his life in prison, first in England, then in Spandau prison in Berlin, after being found guilty of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg. In an unguarded moment the ninety-three-year-old Deputy Führer hanged himself on August 17, 1987, with an electrical extension cord left in a cottage on the prison grounds where he was the only remaining Nazi war criminal. The confusion of names is further compounded when the acceptable English spelling of O-E is used when the ö is unavailable in print. Then Höss comes to be spelled as H-O-E-S-S.


On Sale
Mar 22, 1996
Page Count
414 pages
Da Capo Press