On This Day: Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess captured by British troops

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess captured by British troops

MARCH 11, 1946: Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss was captured by British troops, led by a German Jew, on this day in 1946 – and put on trial for the murder of 1.1million people.

The Holocaust’s biggest killer, who had turned his concentration camp into the Nazi regime’s most formidable death factory, was found hiding in northern Germany.

Höss, who was disguised as a farmer called Franz Lang, confessed his real identity after being interrogated by Captain Hanns Alexander, a Jew who fled Berlin in 1936.

Captain Alexander rumbled the SS fiend after discovering his wedding ring was inscribed inside with the names ‘Rudolf’ and ‘Hedwig’, Höss’s wife.

The British Army officer’s 12-stong team of Nazi hunters threatened to cut the fugitive’s finger off before he agreed remove it.


It later emerged that the soldiers, who included other German-speaking Jews who had fled to Britain, had found the war criminal just in time.

Höss, who masterminded using Zyklon B gas to kill his mainly Jewish prisoners, had planned to join other some of the other architects of genocide in South America.

Instead Captain Alexander, who had earlier captured mother-of-five Mrs Höss and threatened to deport her 13-year-old son Klaus to Siberia if she did not reveal her husband’s whereabouts, sent one of history’s biggest mass murderers to Poland.

There – where Auschwitz was located and where most of the six million Holocaust victims came from – he was tried by the Supreme National Tribunal, shown in a British Pathé newsreel.

He was convicted of murder and in April 1947 was hanged on the grounds of the former death camp after taking responsibility for three million deaths.

















 

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This figure was a Soviet estimate and later found to be a gross exaggeration.

Yet Höss, who admitted being ‘the greatest destroyer of human beings’ in history, still constructed a killing machine capable of murdering 2,000 people an hour.

By the end of the war, 960,000 Jews, 75,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 gypsies, 15,000 Soviet POWs and 15,000 others had died there, according to official figures.

Notably, 438,000 Hungarians – representing almost the entire country’s Jewish population – were killed over 56 days during the summer of 1944.


So many were gassed to death during this period that the huge network of crematoria built by Höss could not cope with all the corpses.

Staff and prisoners burned thousands of bodies in open pits as the Nazis accelerated their ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish Question’ amid a Soviet military advance.

Most were murdered shortly after arrival. Others were worked to death – or gassed when they were too weak to carry on.

And hundreds were killed in sickening medical experiments by ‘Angel of Death’ Dr Josef Mengele, who later fled to South America along with Adolf Eichmann, who organised the mass transportation of Jews there.













 

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Höss, whose family lived in luxury in a house beside the camp, was made commandant of Auschwitz in May 1940.

The 20,000-acre site near the Polish town of Oswiecim, whose German name was Auschwitz, was initially a prisoner and slave labour camp.

But in June 1941 it was selected by SS chief Heinrich Himmler as the Nazi’s main extermination centre after German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered genocide.

Höss was determined to make Auschwitz II Birkenau – one of the three main camps at Auschwitz - deadlier than Treblinka, which he visited in September 1941.

As well as making his gas chambers ten times larger, he developed the idea of fooling victims into thinking they were taking showers.

‘You could dispose of 2,000 heads in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time,’ he later told investigators.

‘The killing was easy; you didn't even need guards to drive them into the chambers; they just went in expecting to take showers and, instead of water, we turned on poison gas. The whole thing went very quickly.’











 

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Höss was replaced as commandant in November 1943 after being promoted to deputy inspector of camps.

But he returned in May 1944 to oversee the Hungarian Action, which began after almost all of Poland’s three million Jewish populations had been killed.

Exterminations at Auschwitz ceased in November 1944 when, amid the Red Army’s advance, staff were ordered to destroy evidence of the mass killings.


In January, the 58,000 prisoners were sent on a death march – with only 20,000 surviving the journey west.

Around 7,500 inmates – those who were too sick or weak to walk – were left behind and eventually liberated by the Soviets on January 27, 1945.








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The soldiers also found hundreds of thousands of items of clothing, bags and 8.5 tons human hair – as visible reminder of the camp’s grim purpose.

Today, Auschwitz remains the most potent symbol of the Nazi’s crimes and the date of its liberation is marked annually as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.