The real history behind The Zone of Interest: Did Rudolf Höss really live next door to Auschwitz?
As Nazi-next-door thriller The Zone of Interest arrives in cinemas, we explore the life of Rudolf Höss – the Auschwitz commandant who set up a family home just beyond the walls of the infamous concentration camp
Höss is the subject of a new film written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, The Zone of Interest, in which his peculiar home life is examined.
The Höss family lived in a luxurious villa directly next door to the gas chambers and crematoria of the camp.
There, Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), constructed an apparent idyll for their children, despite the horrors taking place just beyond the garden wall.
The film is derived from Martin Amis’s novel of the same name, though the plot is slightly different, telling the story of a Nazi officer who becomes infatuated with the wife of Auschwitz’s commandant; the commandant, Paul Doll – a fictionalised version of Rudolf Höss.
Who was Rudolf Höss?
Rudolf Höss was the commandant of Auschwitz between May 1940 and November 1943, and returned to the camp between May 1944 and January 1945 to supervise the extermination of Hungarian Jews.
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He was from a military family, and at the age 14 joined the German army to fight in the First World War. By the time he was 17, he was already a non-commissioned officer. He was awarded both the Iron Crescent and the Iron Cross.
After evading capture at the end of the war, Höss joined a number of nationalist paramilitary groups. He became a member of the Nazi Party in 1922 and, two years later, was convicted of the murder of a local schoolteacher believed to be supplying intelligence to the French occupational authorities.
Sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, he served four. Within a year of his release, he married Hedwig Hensel, with whom he started a family.
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Rudolf Höss in WW2
In 1934, Höss joined the SS and was swiftly appointed as block leader at the Dachau concentration camp, a facility designed to incarcerate Adolf Hitler’s political enemies.
Four years later, and by now an SS captain, he moved to the Sachsenhausen camp. After the Second World War broke out, Höss was commissioned to establish a concentration camp in occupied western Poland.
He recommended adapting a disused army barracks, which became Auschwitz.
Under his direction, the camp rapidly expanded and many Russian and Polish prisoners-of-war would meet their premature deaths there, whether by execution or starvation.
Rudolf Höss and the Holocaust
In June 1941, Höss received direct instructions from the chief architect of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler, to use Auschwitz as the main crucible of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ – the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population.
Höss experimented with various methods of mass murder, particularly those involving gassing huge numbers of people.
By the start of his return to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944, nearly 10,000 Jews were being murdered at Auschwitz every day. The number who lost their lives there was around one million.
What was the Zone of Interest?
By the end of 1940, to further distance and isolate the horrors of Auschwitz from public scrutiny, the SS commandeered all the land surrounding the camp to create a 40-square-kilometre exclusion zone, to be patrolled by both themselves and the Gestapo. This was the ‘Zone of Interest’ or Interessengebiet.
The Höss family home sat inside this zone – largely in the shadow of the camp, in fact.
A handsome villa with generous gardens and a swimming pool, it would provide the Hösses with a perversely ‘idyllic’ lifestyle, if the smoke from the crematoria chimneys, and the noise of frequently arriving trains full of the condemned, could be ignored.
The children played happily with their pet dog in the garden, while Hedwig Höss dedicated herself to keeping the plants and bushes looking spruce.
She kept herself spruce, too. As well as wearing fur coats confiscated from those heading to their deaths, she called upon the design and sewing skills of a couple of dozen female prisoners, as revealed in Lucy Adlington’s book The Dressmakers of Auschwitz.
Saved from the gas chambers, the group – known as the Upper Tailoring Studio – designed and produced high-end clothing for the wives of the camp’s officers and guards.
Did Rudolf Höss's wife Hedwig know what happened in Auschwitz?
Hedwig Höss apparently never visited the camp that was on her doorstep, nor did her husband tell her exactly what went on behind its high walls.
But it is scarcely believable that, such were the vast numbers of daily arrivals at the camp by train, she would be unaware of the heinous acts being carried out under Höss’s instructions.
Indeed, Höss himself said as much once he was captured after the war – that both Hedwig and their teenage son Klaus knew full well what was occurring just beyond their well-tended garden. “The smell of the burning bodies could leave no-one in any doubt.”
What was Operation Höss?
The reason for Höss’s return to Auschwitz in May 1944 was to oversee what became known as Operation Höss, where almost 400,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to the camp in a period shorter than two months.
So vast were the numbers arriving that they exceeded the capacity of both the gas chambers and the multiple crematoria. Instead, they were led into fire pits, fatally shot and their bodies burnt.
What happened to Rudolf Höss and his family after WW2?
As the Third Reich fell, Höss went on the run and became a target for British army personnel hunting down escaped Nazis.
In March 1946, these hunters tracked down Hedwig Höss and her children to the small town of Sankt Michaelisdonn in northern Germany, nearly 1,000 kilometres north-west of Auschwitz. Here, she had taken employment in a local sugar factory.
Hedwig told the hunters that she last saw her husband in the April of the previous year and that he had subsequently died. Suspicious that they were being misled, the investigators subjected her to six days of interrogation, at which point she cracked and revealed the truth: her husband was alive and living in a remote farmhouse near the Danish border.
The investigators swiftly made their way there, surrounding the farmhouse and taking Höss by surprise; he greeted them in his pyjamas. Initially claiming to be a farm worker called Franz Lang, Höss soon confessed to his actual identity.
Höss was passed on to the unit responsible for investigating war crimes. He supplied a written confession while in custody: “I personally arranged, on orders received from Himmler in March 1941, the gassing of two million persons between June/July 1941 and the end of 1943, during which time I was commandant of Auschwitz.”
He then offered testimony at the Nuremberg trials, implicating certain SS officers who had denied the heinous events at Auschwitz and other camps. He stood trial in Warsaw before the Polish Supreme National Tribunal and was sentenced to death three weeks later. Symbolically, Höss was hanged at the Auschwitz site, little more than a few dozen yards from his family’s former home.
Hedwig Höss died while visiting her daughter in the United States, in Washington, DC in 1989 at the age of 81. Her son Klaus had also emigrated: he died in New South Wales three years before his mother as a result of chronic alcohol abuse.
The Zone of Interest is in UK cinemas from 2 Febraury 2024
A journalist for more than 30 years, Nige is also a prolific author, his latest book being a history of the national stadium – Field Of Dreams: 100 Years Of Wembley In 100 Matches (Simon & Schuster). Nige has written extensively for the BBC History portfolio for many years, covering a range of subjects and eras – from the fall of the Incas and the art of the zncient Greeks to the Harlem Renaissance and the Cuban Revolution.