At the behest of Polish officials, Rudolf Hoess composed his autobiography in the weeks between his trial for the role he played in the atrocities of the Holocaust and his eventual execution. Commandant of Auschwitz is Hoess’ account of his life growing up in rural Germany, his service in the Germany military, and his various positions of authority in the Nazi government’s administration of concentration camps. Although lacking in prose and form, Hoess’ autobiography leaves readers with an intimate look at the mind of one of the Holocaust’s most notorious criminals.
Rudolf Hoess had a seemingly idyllic childhood in Germany. Hoess’ father, Franz Xavier Hoess, raised Hoess on rigid military principles and in a deeply religious Catholic environment. Hoess asserts that his father taught that the highest duty was to help those in need. Given the religious atmosphere and strong awareness of duty, Hoess was groomed to become a member of the clergy upon his maturation. However, two events occurred that would alter this plan: the death of Hoess’ father and the betrayal of a confessor.
With the outbreak of World War I, Hoess’ life in the German military began. He first joined the Red Cross, and, later served in the same regiment that his father and grandfather had served. While a member of a German volunteer corps, Hoess was complicit in a murder. He was convicted and sentenced to ten years of hard labor in a Prussian prison. After serving six years in prison, Hoess eventually answered Himmler’s call to join the active ranks of the SS. Hoess was trained to become a member of the unit associated with guarding concentration camps.  Thus, Hoess’ fate as one of the Holocaust’s most infamous murderers was sealed.
Commandant of Auschwitz elucidates several scenes from Hoess’ life that help readers better understand the inner-workings of the Commandant’s mind. The first involved a confessor’s betrayal and a shattering of Hoess’ religious views. According to Hoess, childhood horseplay in a stairway resulted in a classmate’s broken ankle. Hoess made a full confession of the event to a priest and resolved to explain the incident to his father later. However, the confessor related the event to Hoess’ father that very night. Hoess claims that this event alone destroyed his faith in the sacred priesthood. This event is the first that demonstrates how Hoess places the blame on others for his own actions.
The next significant event of Hoess’ life is the murder in which he played a part, the following trial, and his subsequent prisoner experience. This event, too, shows how Hoess again refuses to accept full responsibility for his decisions and actions. Hoess glosses over an in-depth description of the brutal murder of a man who was a supposed Communist spy. Hoess admits to being present, but denies being the ringleader nor the person chiefly concerned. Admittedly, Hoess was dumbfounded at his conviction and sentence to ten years of hard labor. Hoess writes that as he left the courtroom for the prison that he and his comrades were “in a boisterous mood, shouting and singing our old songs of battle and defiance.” What Hoess seems unable to understand is that he was punished for this murder, when many murders of the same sort were perpetrated but the murderers were not pursued or prosecuted. Other murderers were able to get away with their crimes, but he is punished. Here, Hoess implies that the rules should be different for him. He truly believes that he did not deserve punishment.
Hoess’ propensity to blame others manifests itself while he was serving as Commandant of Auschwitz. The fate of millions of Jews, Polish prisoners of war, gypsies, and other prisoners of Auschwitz is well-known and documented. Hoess shirks the blame for the horrid and inhumane conditions of concentration camp life and the immediate extermination of countless Jews by blaming his superiors and those working underneath him. He claims that he was given too many duties to be able to adequately administer at Auschwitz. “I could not keep step with the rapid expansion of the camp or the constant increase in the numbers of prisoners.” He states that he was constantly being pulled away from Auschwitz on endeavors that did not involve the administration of camp life at Auschwitz. Hoess says that the guards did not obey his wishes, that they were intellectually limited, obstinate, and malicious. He admonishes other officials as being inefficient. In all, Hoess attempts to show that his hands were basically tied and that he did the very best he could given his limited circumstances at Auschwitz.
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Commandant of Auschwitz and Hoess’ life is his personal experience of prison life. Hoess devotes quite a bit of space to the description of his time served in the Prussian prison. He describes prison guards who did not care for the physical and emotional well-being of prisoners. He admits to countless occasions where prisoners complained of the lack of administrative support over prisoners’ worries and anxieties. Hoess’ description of being bullied by three guards seems petty and frivolous, especially in light of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz. Hoess seems to have a complete disconnect between his experiences of prison life and of that of the prisoners at Auschwitz under his command. He is able to distance himself perfectly from the plight and sufferings of millions, but shows disdain that prison guards in Prussia did not show him more humanity.
Hoess is an avid proponent of work in concentration camp life. He argues that work can serve to make the existence of prison life more bearable. He portrays his own experience with work in prison as a cathartic exercise that spared him hours of useless and enervating self-pity. It is here that readers get close to observing Hoess appreciating an understanding of the inhumane working conditions at Auschwitz. He maintains that work is essential for imprisonment, encourages discipline in prisoners, and makes them better able to withstand the demoralizing effect of confinement. He admits that this work philosophy “only applies where the conditions are normal.”  Hoess justifies his administration at Auschwitz by arguing that he made decisions with the prisoner in mind.
Hoess is able to reconcile his actions by maintaining that he merely followed orders, and generally, those were the orders of Theodor Eicke, a high-ranking SS official. Hoess states that at times he felt that camp life was too severe, but that Eicke demanded even greater harshness. Hoess also blames Eicke for giving form to concentration camps and serving as a model for the construction and administration of the extermination camps. Hoess criticizes Eicke for being narrow-minded and unable to see sufficiently far ahead to better construct and administrate the concentration camps.
Commandant of Auschwitz is beautifully juxtaposed with the introduction by Primo Levi. Levi humbly states that had Hoess grown up in a different age the his life and the lives of millions of Holocaust victims would have been different. Levi quickly asserts that Hoess’ autobiography is filled with white and black lies, and language that attempts to paint Hoess as the greatest victim. It is easy to imagine the heartbreak Levi experienced as he read Commandant of Auschwitz. Despite the horror, Levi finds Hoess’ account a necessary part of History, calling the work “complete and explicit.” Hoess mirthlessly describes the manner in which so many victims were gassed, and provides at least a baseline for totaling the amount of victims. Levi’s notes and comments throughout Commandant of Auschwitz point out Hoess’ clear biases, distortions, and omissions. While Levi finds Hoess’ account necessary, I find Levi’s short introduction and notes indispensably invaluable.
Part of what makes Commandant of Auschwitz so horrifying is the believability of the author’s testimony. While not under strict duress during the writing, Hoess expressed appreciation for the task. He admits to enjoying the work that writing provided. While any event of his life or the descriptions of his fellow perpetrators have to be taken at face value, the perpetration Hoess describes is accurate. I believe he honestly recounts the machinations of concentration camp life from the viewpoint of the Commandant.
Hoess, Rudolf. The Commandant of Auschwitz. Intro. Primo Levi. London: Phoenix Press, 1995.
 Rudolf Hoess, The Commandant of Auschwitz Intro. By Primo Levi (London: Phoenix Press, 1995), 31.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 64.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 45.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 205.
 Ibid., 111.
 Ibid., 108.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 86.
 Ibid., 240.
 Ibid., 25.