Rudolf Hoess (1901-1947) was an SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) who from July 1940 to November 1943 was the commandant of Auschwitz – both a concentration and death camp – where it is estimated that more than a million people were murdered.
He was born in Baden-Baden into a strictly observant Christian family. When World War I broke out he volunteered for the army even though he was only 14 years old. After Germany’s surrender, he joined nationalist paramilitary units that emerged in the post-war chaos, first in the East Prussian Volunteer Corps and then the Freikcorps in the Baltic region, Silesia and the Ruhr. Hoess participated in guerrilla attacks against Polish people during the Silesian Uprisings of 1919.
In 1922, he joined the Nazi Party (NSDAP). In 1928 he joined the völkisch Artamanen-Gesellschaft (Artaman League), an ultra-nationalist, back-to-the-land movement that promoted clean living and a farm-based life. One of its leaders was Heinrich Himmler. Hoess joined the SS in 1934, in response to Himmler’s call to enlarge the ranks of the organisation. In the same year he moved to the SS-Totenkopfverbände (“Death’s-Head Units” responsible for administering the Concentration Camps), and shortly thereafter was assigned to the Dachau concentration camp, where he held the position of Blockführer (Block leader) from 1934-1938. Here he trained to run a concentration camp under the camp commandant, Theodore Eicke.
In 1940 Hoess was transferred to Auschwitz and made commandant of the new camp. He played a significant role in its organisation and establishment. In 1941, on Himmler’s orders, he established a new related camp, Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenau, in close proximity to Auschwitz I. Hoess began preparing the camp as a mass extermination facility. According to Hoess’s testimony after the war at his war crimes trial, Himmler advised Hoess that Hitler had ordered the Final Solution to the Jewish Question ((extermination of European Jewry), and that the SS would be responsible for its implementation. Himmler had selected Auschwitz for this purpose, due to its location (being a major railway hub but isolated sufficiently from the outside world).
After visiting the Treblinka extermination camp, to study its methods of human extermination Hoess, beginning September 1941, tested and perfected techniques of mass murder that made Auschwitz the most efficient and notorious instrument of the Final Solution.
From 1941 to1943 Hoess presided over the murder of Jews from all corners of Europe — including Jews from Germany, Poland, France, Netherlands, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Belgium, Austria, the former Yugoslavia, Italy, Norway and Greece. He left Auschwitz at the end of 1943 but returned to supervise — Aktion Hoess, the extermination of 430,000 Hungarian Jews, transported to the camp and murdered in 56 days between May and July 1944. He was responsible for the murder of over two and a half million people.
After the war, Hoess escaped and assumed a false identity. He evaded arrest for nearly a year, but was captured by British personnel in 1946. The Supreme Court in Warsaw sentenced him to death. He was hanged in Auschwitz, the scene of his worst crimes, in April 1947.