Rudolf Höss presided over the death of millions in the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Could his soul be saved?
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One can be forgiven for believing that conscience had died in Nazi Germany. The crimes against humanity, including the Holocaust of the Jews, were to such an extent that those who conceived, planned, and carried them out must have been demons, not men.
And yet, the story of Rudolf Höss shows that even amid the frenzy of devotion to the ideals of the Aryan Race and blind obedience to orders, a flicker of a conscience persisted, holding out the hope of salvation for at least one of Hitler’s henchmen.
Sadly, though, much damage had already been done by the time Rudolf Höss recognized the light of his conscience. He had built the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau and served as its commandant. One in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at Auschwitz.
After being condemned to death by the Supreme National Tribunal in Poland, Höss was hanged on April 16, 1947. Justice had been carried out, according to man’s law. Whatever further justice Höss faced in the afterlife – and God is a just judge – he showed repentance at the end of his life and died in the hope that he would taste of God’s mercy.
A life of obedience
Born into a devout Catholic family in the German spa town of Baden-Baden on November 25, 1901, Höss was baptized as an infant. He got to see the Church up close as he was growing up. Priests were frequent guests in the Höss household, and Rudolf’s father took the boy to Lourdes and other European shrines. Rudolf frequently went to Confession, and his father hoped that his son would someday become a priest.
But a childhood experience left him with a deep suspicion of priests and eventually led to his leaving the Church.
“As he hurried downstairs at school with his classmates on a Saturday morning he accidently pushed another boy, causing him to break his ankle,” historian Fr. John Jay Hughes said in a lecture at Seton Hall University in 1998. “Rudolf was punished with two hours’ detention. Conscientious as always, he mentioned his transgression in his weekly confession the same day. He did not report the incident at home, however, not wishing ‘to spoil Sunday for my parents,’ as he wrote.
“The same evening, his confessor, a good friend of his father, visited the family,” Fr. Hughes continued. “The following morning, Rudolf’s father scolded and punished him for not reporting the pushing incident right away. Since the family telephone was out of order, there had been no other visitors, and none of his classmates lived in their neighborhood, Rudolf concluded that the priest must have broken the seal of the confessional. ‘My faith in the holy profession of priesthood was smashed, and doubts began to stir within me,’ Höss wrote. ‘After this incident I could no longer trust any priest.’ He changed confessors and soon stopped going to confession altogether.”
Rather than continue to set his sights on the seminary, Höss joined the military and served during World War I. In 1922, he joined the Nazi party after he heard Hitler speak in Munich. A dozen years later, Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, invited Höss to join its ranks. Höss revered Himmler and considered whatever he said to be “gospel.”
Höss’ name, by the way, is pronounced somewhat like “hearse,” without the r sound, but he is not to be confused with another prominent Nazi with a similar name, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Führer.
Rising through the ranks, Höss developed a “confidence in the rightness of the [Nazi] cause and an ice-cold exterior despite inner doubts,” Fr. Hughes said. He served at the concentration camps at Dachau and Sachsen-hausen, and in 1940 he was tasked with building a new camp at Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland. Hughes believes that Höss acted on the basis of Nazi ideology but was repelled by the cruel way in which prisoners were treated. Nevertheless, he carried out orders from his superiors and gave orders to subordinates to execute Hitler’s vision.
“I had to appear cold and heartless during these events which tear the heart apart in anyone who had any kind of human feelings,” he wrote later in his prison memoirs. “Coldly, I had to stand and watch as the mothers went into the gas chambers with their laughing or crying children. … I was never happy at Auschwitz once the mass annihilation began.”
“Did you never have qualms of conscience?” the Polish prosecutor asked Höss at his trial.
“Yes, later,” Höss replied, “when the mass transports arrived – especially when we had to exterminate women daily. Everyone involved had the same unspoken question: Was this necessary? They came to me a number of times and spoke about this. All I could do was tell them that we had to carry out orders without permitting ourselves any human feelings.”
He had also told the Polish prison psychiatrist that all during his concentration camp years he felt that “something was not right.” Even though he continued to believe in the ideology of National Socialism, he said, “I do recognize with certainty … that the abandonment of morality was wrong, and also the crimes, the terror, the spreading of hatred. I always felt that.”
He also said, “Today I realize that the extermination of the Jews was wrong, absolutely wrong.”
Crossing paths with Karol Wojtyla
After Germany’s defeat, Höss worked on a farm and evaded capture for a while, but on March 11, 1946, British military police arrested him, and he was put on trial along with other former Nazi leaders. He acknowledged his “full responsibility as camp commandant” for everything that had happened there. On April 2, 1947, the Supreme National Tribunal of Poland found him guilty and issued a death sentence. Höss was transferred to the prison in Wadowice, about 19 miles from Auschwitz. As those familiar with the life of Pope St. John Paul II know, Wadowicw is the Polish town where, in 1920, Karol Wojtyla was born.
The day he arrived in the prison, Höss asked to see a priest. A nearby Carmelite monastery provided pastoral care for prisoners, but none of the friars had any fluency in German, and Höss did not speak Polish. The Carmelites asked the local pastor for help, and he in turn contacted Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, Archbishop of Krakow. Sapieha, who had just months earlier ordained the young Karol Wojtyla to the priesthood, arranged for the Jesuit Provincial from Krakow, Fr. Władysław Lohn, a close confidante of his, to go to Wadowice. Fr. Lohn visited Höss on April 10.
Fr. Lohn had served as Provincial of the South Polish province of the Society of Jesus since 1935. During the war, 27 Jesuits had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. Twelve of them died there. Fr. Lohn visited the imprisoned Jesuits on September 4, 1940. The pass is still in the possession of the Jesuits in Krakow. Lohn and Höss might have met at that point.
Years later, on his visit to the Wadowice prison, Fr. Lohn spent several hours with Höss, who made a formal profession of Catholic faith, returning to the Church he had left a quarter-century before. And, importantly, he made a sacramental confession. Fr. Lohn returned the next day to give Communion to Höss, who, Fr. Hughes said, “knelt in the middle of his cell, weeping.”
Höss was hanged on April 16, 1947 – in the concentration camp he had built. He left behind a wife and five children, to whom he could only leave some parting advice. In a letter to his children from the cell in which he awaited his execution, he wrote, “The biggest mistake of my life was that I believed everything faithfully which came from the top, and I didn’t dare to have the least bit of doubt about the truth of that which was presented to me.”
Höss had ignored his conscience. He urged his children not to, concluding his letter, “In all your undertakings, don’t just let your mind speak, but listen above all to the voice in your heart.”