Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Commandant: The Rudolph Hoess Text

The Commandant: The Rudolph Hoess Text , edited by Jurg Aman with an Afterword by Ian Burma

Rudolph Hoess was the commandant of the Auschwitz “concentration” camp who oversaw the systematic murder of more than two million people. While in prison awaiting execution for his crimes, he wrote a long and discursive memoir of his life. Jurg Amann has edited that text into a powerful and short 111-page book, distilling what Hoess wrote into a narrative that will leave the reader shaken. A chilling portrait emerges of how genocide works. It may at first seem consoling to know that it is difficult for those motivated by passion and hatred to kill so many alone. The trouble is that they always find the necessary allies. In addition to those who simply stand by and do nothing, they need men like Rudolph Hoess, a functionary who had no particular hatred of the people he was killing but who was ideologically committed to the ideals and goals of National Socialism, one who above all saw it as his duty to his country to carry out as effectively as he could the orders he received from Hitler and Himmler. If you forget for a moment what we are actually talking about here, Hoess’s account reads like a management manual, one in which a successful executive shares what he has learned. It also reeks of pride. He vindicates his actions as a commitment to duty, and demands recognition for his successful accomplishment of a task that he found at times difficult and unpleasant. Hoess speaks of his sense of “guilt” and his susceptibility to being emotionally troubled by what he commanded to be done, but this is what makes his account so disturbing, and at bottom so amoral. He seeks sympathy not for his victims but for his wounded sensibilities and, more maddening still, those sensibilities do not suggest to him anything immoral about his actions. They are simply things he must put aside; they are only the price he so willingly and selflessly pays in fulfilling his duty. One wants to believe that the soul exposed here is a fiction, that the words spoken here are beyond belief. Evil we can deal with. The prospect that frightens us is the demonstration of a world where neither good nor evil seem to exist, one in which the charateristically human quality of identifying the differences between them is no longer the work of the soul.

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