Evil is endlessly fascinating, and the Nazis provide ample scope to satisfy this fascination. The book is part biographies of Rudolf Hoess, Kommandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp and Hanns Alexander, and émigré German Jew enrolled in the British Army, and the hunt for Hoess and other war criminals. The story, bookended by Hanns Alexander’s funeral and a visit to Auschwitz, is told in alternating chapters comparing and contrasting the live and experiences of Hanns and Rudolf, which is how they are usually referred to in the prose.
Hanns was born in Berlin into a prosperous upper middle class Jewish family during WWI and through the good fortune of his father’s profession as a medical doctor avoided the worst of the economic woes afflicting interwar Germany. Rudolf was born in Baden-Baden 16 years earlier to a merchant with military past. Rudolf certainly had more of the adventurer’s life than Hanns, including running away from home to join the war, being in the Freikorps, and as a farm inspector for the Artamen League (a right wing, back-to-the-land movement), before being convinced by Himmler to become a concentration camp officer in pre-war Nazi Germany.
The chapters alternate between Rudolf and Hanns, with Rudolf leading until the stories become entwined at the end of the war. The chronology for the most part is concurrent. This device works, preventing the reader from becoming saturated with information about just the one man and his family. And family is important, as both men were married, had siblings (Hanns a twin, Paul) and the families of both feature in their lives as much as their work as Kommandant or Nazi hunter. That Hanns is Harding’s uncle is never overplayed. A set of photographs help illustrate the story.
Harding explores the strengths and weaknesses of both men: neither is a saint, nor is Rudolf a devil incarnate. His is the story of a weak character and an improper sense of duty. Hanns has more joie de vivre and a propensity to play practical jokes. Unfortunately, the setting reveals that practical jokes are often cruelty disguised. But this is not a study in human nature but the tale of how Rudolf, the Kommandant of Auschwitz was brought to trial. And that is a fascinating story in itself and forms the latter half of the book.
The book has a few one word endorsements on the back cover: “Thrilling”, “Electrifying”, and “Exhilarating”. These are a step too far. “Fascinating” is much closer to the mark, although John Le Carre’ sums it up best: “A gripping thriller, an unspeakable crime, an essential history.” Read it.
Supplied by Random House New Zealand
Reviewed by Steve