The Holocaust Historiography Project

Rudolf Höss: Pillar of the Holocaust extermination thesis

In recent years, the focal point of claims of mass extermination of Jews and others by poison gas by the Nazis during the Second World War has been two camps in what is now Poland: the Auschwitz main camp and Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau.

One of the main reasons for this focus is the post-war testimony of one man: Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss. Höss served as Commandant at Auschwitz from its inception until his transfer in December 1943, although he returned briefly in 1944.

In the quasi-official Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, editor Yisrael Gutman, Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Chairman of Yad Vashem's Academic Committee, highlights the role played by Höss in establishing the current view of the gas chamber:

The critical importance of the Höss testimony stems not just from Höss's unique knowledge of the details and overall picture of the camp. His testimony is crucial mainly because Höss answers the question not only of who carried out the mass murders, but also when and how, who ordered the conversion of Auschwitz into a death camp, and who backed this order with the necessary authority.

In a later chapter that deals exclusively with Höss, contributing author Dr. Aleksander Lasik of the College of Pedagogy in Bydgoszcz (Poland) writes:

More than any other Nazi concentration camp commandant, Rudolf Höss has been sharply etched in history. The man who founded and commanded Auschwitz appears in the index of virtually every book dealing with the fate of European Jews during the Second World War. His personality has been studied by psychologists and sociologists, and his autobiography has served as the basis for a novel.

Telford Taylor recollected the profound impact of Höss' testimony at the International Military Tribunal war crimes trial at Nuremberg (IMT), where he served as prosecutor and later American chief counsel:

The awful scale of the Nazi terror [inferred from Höss' testimony] - produced by a Führer to whom the defendants had pledged and given their allegiance, and by Himmler, Heydrich, Pohl, Mueller, and other leaders of the Nazi government - cast a pall of shame over the defendants and their counsel. No wonder Dr. [Viktor] von der Lippe described the effect of the Höss testimony as "crushing" (niederschmetternd).

Steven Paskuly, editor of a recent edition of Höss' memoirs, states:

Rudolf Höss's memoirs are perhaps the most important document attesting to the Holocaust, because they are the only candid, detailed, and essentially honest description of the plan of mass annihilation from a high-ranking SS officer intimately involved in carrying out of Hitler's and Himmler's plan.

Paskuly later informs the reader that, "Höss was one of the few who could, and also would give precise information about every aspect of the mass killings. In fact, he answered everything asked of him."

Höss confesses

On March 11, 1946, the British took Höss into custody and immediately began questioning him. Höss signed a statement under oath in German (later given document number NO-1210 by the IMT) on March 14 (March 15?) at 2:30 in the morning. Two days later on March 16, Höss signed a statement under oath in English:

I personally arranged on orders received from Himmler in May 1941 the gassing of two million persons between June/July 1941 and the end of 1943 during which time I was commandant of Auschwitz.

Höss later signed an affidavit that was quoted extensively at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. It was this affidavit that laid the foundation for and later validated the extermination story of Auschwitz. The affidavit, in English, dated April 5, 1946, read in part:

I, RUDOLF FRANZ FERDINAND HOESS, being first duly sworn, depose and say as follows: 2. I commanded Auschwitz until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about 3,000,000. This figure represents about 70% or 80% of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries. Included among the executed and burnt were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of Prisoner of War cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens, mostly Jewish from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone in the summer of 1944.

Ten days later on April 15, 1946, when Höss testified at the Nuremberg trial, portions of the affidavit were read to him, and he reaffirmed their accuracy:

On April 18, 1946, revelations by Höss of all-but-unimaginable crimes convinced defendant Hans Frank, who had served as Governor General of occupied Poland, to accept a portion of the guilt for the mass murder described by Höss.

DR. SEIDL: Did you ever participate in the annihilation of Jews?

FRANK: I say "yes;" and the reason why I say "yes" is because, having lived through the 5 months of this trial, and particularly after having heard the testimony of the witness Höss, my conscience does not allow me to throw the responsibility solely on these minor people.

Höss' sworn testimony figured prominently in the decision of the Tribunal. In their Opinion and Judgment, the judges declared:

With regard to Auschwitz, the Tribunal heard the evidence of Höss, the commandant of the camp from May 1, 1940 to December 1, 1943. He estimated that in the camp of Auschwitz alone in that time 2.5 million persons were exterminated, and that a further 500000 died from disease and starvation. Höss described the screening for extermination by stating in evidence -

"We had two SS doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. The prisoners would be marched by one of the doctors who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit for work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under their clothes, but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated."

He described the actual killing by stating:

"It took from three to fifteen minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. We usually waited about one half-hour before we opened the doors and removed the bodies. After the bodies were removed our special commandos took off the rings and extracted the gold from the teeth of the corpses."

Höss also elaborated on his earlier statement concerning his victims, in a hand-written note signed and dated May 14, 1946, that explicitly stated the numbers of Jewish deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau:

I declare herewith under oath that in the years 1941 to 1943, during my tenure in office as commandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp, 2 million Jews were put to death by gassing and ½ million by other means.

This document has been on display at the taxpayer-funded U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC (see below). The April 1993 US Holocaust Memorial Museum Newsletter, page eight refers to this statement as "stark evidence of the magnitude of the killing operation."

On May 8, 1945, the Soviet "Extraordinary State Commission" issued its estimate that the number of victims at Auschwitz and Birkenau had been four million. The subsequent Polish Commission investigation into the numbers of victims, which ran from 1945 to 1946, agreed with the Soviet report. In 1947, the Supreme National Tribunal in Poland condemned Höss in part for the deaths of between three and four million people. Later, Höss attempted to reduce his estimate of the Auschwitz death toll to 1.13 million, but it did him no good. On the basis of this verdict, Polish authorities executed Höss at Auschwitz. In 1991, Kazimierz Smolen, long-time director of the State Auschwitz Museum, declared, "In my view, no one can deny the number of 4 million."

Höss' memoirs, written between October 1946 and April 1947 while Höss was in a Polish prison, have been translated into many languages.

Imperfect witness

Given the magnitude of the crime, and Höss' position as one of the leaders of the alleged perpetrators, it is not surprising that historians have made widespread use of Höss' testimonies. Raul Hilberg, who had relied on Höss extensively in the first edition of his book, The Destruction of the European Jews, testified under oath at the 1985 trial of Ernst Zündel:

He [Höss] was credible in some respects. In fact, in most respects, under most circumstances in which he made statements.

Gutman concurs:

Despite some inaccuracies due to tricks of memory, the general reliability of his testimony remains beyond doubt.

It is noteworthy that many prominent historians find fault with Höss as a witness, yet continue to use him, and allow him to continue to be used by others.

Authors who paraphrase documents can more easily skip Höss' embarrassingly inaccurate passages. Authors who quote Höss directly, however, have been forced either to quote him out of context, or to attempt to reconcile the differences between Höss' version and the facts. Others have been more cautious in their support of Höss the witness. In 1992, author István Deák, Professor of History at Columbia University, wrote: "Like many other Nazi leaders, Höss had little sense of statistical reality "

Specific examples abound of attempts at reconciliation between Höss' testimony and known facts. Editor Stephen Paskuly "corrects" Höss' memoirs a number of times, for such things as the existence of extermination sites in the USSR (p. 27). Höss' claim that Eichmann gave orders to kill the Sonderkommando (work detail) after each large extermination action (p. 31), the numbering of the crematory buildings at Auschwitz/Birkenau (p. 32), various dates (pp 33, 34, and 36), crematory capacity (p. 45), and the numbers of Jews who escaped gassing because of logistical problems arising from the war (p. 47).

Paskuly's edition of Höss' memoirs contains a passage that is not included in previous published editions:

Jews who were taken to the camp by order of Eichmann's office - RSHA IV B4 - were designated as "Transport-Juden." The reports that announced the arrival had the following notice: "This transport is to be included in the given orders and is subject to special treatment [Sonderbehandlung]." The Jews previous to this, i.e., before the orders for extermination were issued, were labelled "Shutzhaft" [protective custody], or Jews who belonged to one of the other categories of prisoners.

Although Höss attached no date to this shift in policy, it clearly contradicts his characterization of a supposedly secret meeting in Berlin with Heinrich Himmler in the summer of 1941. At this meeting, Himmler allegedly assigned Höss a key role in the forthcoming mass extermination of the Jews, with more details soon to come from Adolf Eichmann, at that time an SS Major of the Reich Security Police (RSHA), in charge of the office dealing with Jewish affairs. Höss claimed that Eichmann visited him at Auschwitz a short time later, and the two of them spoke of the approximate numbers of Jews to be exterminated, how to carry out the extermination, and where the first exterminations were to be performed (a building that is now referred to as Bunker 1). Höss further claimed that the first transports of Jews to be exterminated arrived sometime between September 1941 and January 1942, and were immediately gassed. This discrepancy may explain the omission of the passage from other editions of the memoirs. Paskuly offered no explanation for why this passage was excised in previous editions, or what Höss must have meant by writing this.

Under cross-examination in 1985, Hilberg was forced to admit that he, too, edited out portions of Höss' testimony that he considered ridiculous, without informing the reader of the omissions.

Other parts of Höss' testimony have created similar problems for those attempting to support Holocaust extermination claims. When questioned in Minden, on March 14, 1946, three days after his capture, Höss stated, "It was only in 1942 that the new crematoria were completed." Professor Eugen Kogon, author of works on National Socialism and the Nazi concentration camps, wrote, "In reality, as we have seen, it was only the following year [1943]. While the later date is correct, Kogon offers no reason why Höss would be so far off on a date of such major importance.

Frenchman Jean-Claude Pressac, a pharmacist-turned-investigator into extermination claims at Auschwitz-Birkenau, compared Höss to other accounts and contemporaneous documents, and found Höss wanting. Pressac takes issue with Höss on the capacity of the gas chamber at Auschwitz I, on how long it took to make the holes in the roof of the alleged gas chamber at Auschwitz I, and the capacity of Bunker I. Without being specific, Pressac also alludes to "the involuntary errors found throughout his [Höss'] autobiography."

Faced with the choice of either discarding Höss' testimony or "interpreting" it in such a way as to make it appear that it supports any given version of the Holocaust extermination thesis, when in fact it does not, most traditional historians have chosen to "interpret" Höss, in order to avoid losing an SS witness to the alleged mass gassings. Franciszek Piper, head of the department of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, notes that:

Estimates based on Höss's testimony vary widely: [Raul] Hilberg and [E.] Crankshaw — one million; [Leon] Poliakoff, [Lucy] Dawidowicz, [Martin] Gilbert, and [J.] Billig, - two million; [Yehuda] Bauer — 2.5 million; Encyclopaedia Judaica — one to 2.5 million; and [A.] Weiss — 1.2 to 2.5 million. One exception is [Eugen] Kogon, who put the number of victims of Auschwitz at 3.5 to 4.5 million.

Although Piper's analysis is flawed by his failure to distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish victims, his point is well taken: not all of these estimates can be correct.

Part of the discrepancy among death tolls can be ascribed to the fact that there were two other commandants at Auschwitz between the time of Höss' transfer in December 1943, and January 1945 when the camp fell into the hands of Soviet troops. If there was a policy of mass extermination of Jews, it wouldn't have ended with Höss' departure. Höss himself testified that mass executions continued under subsequent camp commanders. This would mean that to Höss' figures must be added the numbers of alleged victims in 1944 and early 1945. This problem has become even more acute as increasing numbers of Holocaust scholars lower the estimates of murder victims at Auschwitz to around one million, although some such as Gerald Reitlinger and Pressac go even lower. Recently released death books from Auschwitz, though incomplete, indicate a total death toll of around 150,000 people.

Other discrepancies are just as damaging. For example, on April 5 Höss swore under oath:

The "final solution" of the Jewish question meant the complete extermination of all Jews in Europe. I was ordered to establish extermination facilities at Auschwitz in June 1941. At that time, there were already in the general government three other extermination camps; BELZEK, TREBLINKA, and WOLZEK I used Cyclon B, which was crystallized Prussic Acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening

This short quote shows several examples why historians have had to "interpret" Höss before making use of him as one of the key witnesses to the Holocaust.

First, it is utterly incorrect to define the Nazi "Final Solution" (of the Jewish question) with a policy of mass murder. As Mark Weber has written:

At the end of the Second World War, the Allies confiscated a tremendous quantity of German documents dealing with Germany's wartime Jewish policy, which was sometimes officially referred to as the "final solution." But not a single German document has ever been found which even refers to an extermination program. To the contrary, the documents clearly show that the German "final solution" policy was one of emigration and deportation, not extermination.

While it might be argued that Höss was not aware of Nazi policy, or that for him extermination was the "Final Solution", it is more to the point that historians such as Reitlinger quote Höss on this matter apparently in an attempt to discount the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Second, according to the traditional version of the Holocaust, Belzec did not begin exterminations until March 1942, and Treblinka was not ready until July 1942. It would have been impossible for Höss to know of the existence of Treblinka as an already-functioning death camp in 1941.

Third, there never was a camp by the name of "Wolzek." It is a complete fabrication. Under cross-examination at the 1988 trial of German-Canadian Ernst Zündel, prominent Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning, appearing for the prosecution, acknowledged, "There is no such camp that I know of. I don't think that that testimony is accurate. I don't think it's compatible with other testimony we have."

Last but not least, Zyklon B is not crystallized Prussic acid. It is Prussic acid (hydrocyanic acid) that has been absorbed into an inert, porous material such as wood pulp or diatomaceous earth. It is also worth noting that none of the structures currently put forward as having been used as Nazi gas chambers has only one opening for the introduction of the Zyklon B, and Höss seems to be saying that there was only one "gas chamber."

Time problems

Arbitrarily "correcting" dates contained in Höss' testimony to support the standard version of Holocaust extermination claims creates new problems. In 1940, Höss was made Commandant of the then-new Auschwitz facility. In March 1941, Himmler made his first inspection, and three months later Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In 1942, construction started on the crematories at Birkenau, and Höss was promoted to Lt. Colonel after a second two-day inspection visit by Himmler.

Each of these events must have stood out in Höss' memory as landmarks, and it would have been very difficult for him to err in recounting his alleged visit to Treblinka as having taken place in 1941, as he did numerous times in different testimonies.

Motivation

We now know that Höss was beaten almost to death by Jewish members of the British Field Police upon capture. His captors threatened to deport Höss' wife and children to Siberia, and Höss himself was badly mistreated until he gave his "affidavit" and "testimony."

Clarke yelled: "What is your name?"

With each answer of "Franz Lang," Clarke's hand crashed into the face of his prisoner. The fourth time that happened, Höss broke and admitted who he was.

The admission suddenly unleashed the loathing of the Jewish sergeants in the arresting party whose parents had died in Auschwitz following an order signed by Höss.

The prisoner was torn from the top bunk, the pyjamas ripped from his body. He was then dragged naked to one of the slaughter tables, where it seemed to Clarke the blows and screams were endless. Eventually, the Medical Officer urged the Captain: "Call them off, unless you want to take back a corpse."

The party arrived back at Heide around three in the morning. The snow was swirling still, but the blanket was torn from Höss and he was made to walk completely nude through the prison yard to his cell.

It took three days to get a coherent statement out of him. But once he started talking, there was no holding him.

One of Höss' torturers told what happened during those three days:

We sat in the cell with him, night and day, armed with axe handles. Our job was to prod him every time he fell asleep to help break down his resistance," said Mr. Jones. When Höss was taken out for exercise, he was made to wear only jeans and a thin cotton shire in the bitter cold. After three days and nights without sleep, Höss finally broke down and made a full confession to the authorities.

He also spoke of his mistreatment in his memoir:

I was treated terribly by the [British] Field Security Police. I was dragged to Heide and, of all places, to the same military barracks from which I had been released eight months before by the British. During the first interrogation they beat me to obtain evidence. I do not know what was in the transcript, or what I said, even though I signed it, because they gave me liquor and beat me with a whip. It was too much even for me to bear. The whip was my own. By chance it had found its way into my wife's luggage. My horse had hardly ever been touched by it, much less the prisoners. Somehow one of the interrogators probably thought that I had used it to constantly whip the prisoners.

After a few days I was taken to Minden on the Weser River, which was the main interrogation center in the British zone. There they treated me even more roughly, especially the first British prosecutor, who was a major. The conditions in the jail reflected the attitude of the first prosecutor.

Surprisingly, after three weeks I was shaved, my hair was cut, and I was allowed to wash myself. My handcuffs had not been opened since my arrest. The next day [March 31-April 1, 1946] I was taken by car to Nuremberg together with a prisoner of war who had been brought over from London as a witness in Fritzche's defense.

That prisoner of war was Moritz von Schirmeister, the personal press attaché of Joseph Goebbels. During their journey together to Nuremberg, Von Schirmeister asked Höss about his confession, to which Höss replied:

Certainly, I signed [a statement] that I killed two and a half million Jews. But I could just as well have signed that it was five million Jews. After all, there are certain methods by which any confession can be obtained, whether it is true or not.

Skepticism

Few historians have been willing to examine the implications of Höss' torture. Raul Hilberg, who quotes Höss 42 times in the first edition of his book, The Destruction of European Jews, testified when cross-examined by Doug Christie in the 1985 trial of Ernst Zündel that he failed to mention the fact that Höss had been tortured in his 800-page book with 3,000 footnotes, because:

I did not consider relevant the question of torture in any matter, if it was torture. All we have is his [Höss'] statement, his allegation. That's all we have.

In the Zündel trial of 1988, Christopher Browning testified that he thought he had read that Höss was tortured, but did not know if the allegation was true. It is remarkable that two leading Holocaust historians would feign ignorance of or disinterest in Höss' claims of torture, on the basis that such claims were uncorraborated, and that they would do so under oath, after the 1983 publication of Legions of Death and a1986 article in the Wrexham Leader, which provide corroboration.

Some historians are finally admitting that Höss' liabilities as a witness are so great that they can no longer be ignored. The figures of dead he gave for Auschwitz were totally false, and today, death estimates range downward from the current "official" figure of 1.5 million. With the growing impact of Holocaust revisionism, more people have been willing to look critically at Holocaust claims, many for the first time. Leftist British writer Christopher Hitchens is one such person. After learning that there were questions about Höss' testimony, Hitchens wrote:

The revisionists sent me an article by a Frenchman named Robert Faurisson, which claimed that Rudolf Höss, one of the commandants of Auschwitz, had been tortured by the British into confessing to a fantastic and unbelievable number of murders This statement, specially mounted and reproduced, is an important exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial. I then got in touch with [Deborah] Lipstadt and [Christopher] Browning for their responses, which were surprising: "Höss was always a very weak and confused witness," said Browning, who has been an expert witness at trials involving Auschwitz. "The revisionists use him all the time for this reason, in order to try and discredit the memory of Auschwitz as a whole." And Professor Lipstadt directed me to page 188 of her book [Denying the Holocaust], which is quite a page. It says that the stories about the Nazis making Jews into soap are entirely untrue, and it also says that while the memorial stone at Auschwitz itself lists the number of victims - Jews and non-Jews - at four million, the truer figure is somewhere between 1.5 and two million. Since Höss was the commandant of the place for only part of its existence, this means that - according to the counter-revisionists - an important piece of evidence in the Holocaust Memorial is not reliable. A vertiginous sensation if you like.

Browning's attempt to link Höss' prominence to revisionist scholarship is a transparent misrepresentation of the facts, especially in light of Browning's own use of Höss testimony, which he knew to be flawed. It is through the efforts of revisionist scholars, questioning testimony such as that of Rudolf Höss, that we have begun to understand the true value of Höss' statements.

Changing story

The lack of care with which many historians approach Holocaust sources such as the Höss affidavit shows the intensity of the ideological forces promoting Holocaust extermination claims — right or wrong.

For more than 30 years, Rudolf Höss has been the best witness to Auschwitz gassing claims. In many ways, the entire weight of claims of mass gassing rests on his testimony; with Höss removed from the chain of evidence, there is no link among various scattered documents and testimonies that combine to provide the "proof" of Nazi gassings.

Even so, there is little doubt that historians will continue to refer to Rudolf Höss when speaking of Auschwitz, whether out of sloth and ignorance of the truth, or out of a desperate attempt to prop up the Auschwitz extermination legend in the absence of real evidence.