Auschwitz: the men behind the mass murder

Laurence Rees - who has interviewed war criminals from German, Russian and Japanese camps - explains why many of the former Nazi soldiers he met had a different mentality from the others...

A photograph of Rudolph Hoess during his trial in Warsaw in 1947. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

What sort of man was capable of creating the site of the largest recorded mass murder in history, where acts of atrocity were everyday occurrences? Perhaps someone like Amon Göth, commandant of Plaszow labour camp in Poland (memorably portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List), an irrational, sadistic monster utterly different from the people you encounter in everyday life.

But if you imagined such a person was commandant of Auschwitz, then you’re wrong. According to his interrogator at the Nuremberg war trials, Whitney Harris, Rudolf Höss appeared “normal”, “like a grocery clerk”. Prisoners who came across him at Auschwitz confirmed this view, adding that Höss always appeared calm and collected. There is no record of him ever personally hitting – let alone killing – anyone at the camp.

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