Holocaust Memorial Day Interview with Rainer Höss, Grandson of Rudolf Architect of Auschwitz

by JoHarrington

If any one man can arguably be responsible for the scale of the Holocaust, it was Rudolf Höss. Today his grandson Rainer speaks to Wizzley about his work and the family legacy.

Holocaust Memorial Day is held annually on January 27th. It commemorates that day in 1945, when Auschwitz was liberated. This year is the 70th anniversary.

For anyone visiting Auschwitz, it's a thought provoking experience. Emotions often overwhelm. The size of the complex often takes the unwary by surprise. No-one can quite prepare themselves for coming face to face with those enormous gas chambers and crematoria.

Imagine being there in the full knowledge that it was your own grandfather who built this, conceived of the apparatus of industrial slaughter, presided over its operation as commandant, then was hanged on the spot which still bears a replica gallows.

Rainer Höss doesn't need to imagine how that feels. He has to live with it.

Please note that Rainer's kindness in agreeing to a Wizzley Holocaust Memorial Day interview was complicated slightly by a language barrier. I have no German at all. He has some fluency in English, but not enough to feel comfortable conducting a whole interview in it.

We are both indebted to Wizzley's owner Chef Keem for acting as our translator.

The Auschwitz Commandant's Grandson Rainer Höss

SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss did more than simply run the death camp. He designed its gas chambers and crematoria too.

Image: Auschwitz gallows, where Rudolf Hoess was hanged on April 17th 1947.I've been an anti-death penalty campaigner for decades. But when I clapped eyes upon the gallows in Auschwitz I, I smiled.

This instrument of death, standing solitary close to the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gates, had been used to execute Rudolf Höss, instigator, designer and over-seer of all that I'd just surveyed.

It's amazing how quickly a mind can turn to violence, and even slaughter, in such surroundings. Mine too, though I thought myself so immune to such sentiments. Peace campaigner, anti-Nazi protestor, Holocaust historian and Amnesty International activist that I am. Yet for the briefest moment there, I wanted that man dead. I wanted him to have suffered.

The gallows, it turned out, was a replica of the original. Though it stood on the same spot. Little else there had been thus recreated.

I'd walked inside buildings which had witnessed scenes of incomparable deprivation, starvation, torture, human experimentation and death. I'd seen the larger gallows in the parade grounds, where dozens at a time had hanged as a warning to others to comply. I'd been in the prison block, where cruel execution methods weren't so swift. I was about to stand inside a gas chamber and see the claw marks on the wall. Then face the last standing crematorium, where hundreds could be reduced to ashes each day.

This was only Auschwitz I. A short distance away, Auschwitz II (aka Auschwitz-Birkenau) would make the former look like a holiday camp. Bigger, more industrial sized killing complexes reduced to rumble as fleeing Nazis sought unsuccessfully to destroy the evidence.

SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss - the man I'd smiled to know was killed - had done his job well. He'd come up with ideas on how to enact his orders to exterminate those deemed undesirable to the Third Reich. He'd traveled around concentration camps, gaining evidence, data and input from other officials, before delegating project teams to test his procedures for mass murder. Refining his methods; making the business of genocide ever larger, faster, more efficient.

So good at pursuing what he saw as his duty that Rudolf Höss had been made Commandant of Auschwitz, in order to put his designs into practice. His proposed operation made reality turned the ever expanding complex into the most notorious of all Nazi death camps.

Image: Rudolf Höss and his grandson Rainer
Image: Rudolf Höss and his grandson Rainer

In some ways, his grandson Rainer is just like him.

I'm not talking here about a shared family name, nor similar features etched upon their faces by the same genetic code. But about their passion in embracing perceived duties to the best of their abilities.

Only Rainer Höss isn't out to destroy anything, except the ideology which drove his grandfather. He's an anti-Nazi campaigner, taking on the Far Right wherever they'd seek to perpetuate Nazi ideals. This Höss will not be the architect of the next Holocaust. He'll be doing all he can to stop it.

And for today, on Holocaust Memorial Day - the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz - that involves being here at Wizzley, answering my questions.

JH: If you could drive your Delorean or TARDIS into the past and gain an hour's interview with your grandfather, what would you say?

RH: It's a hypothetical question, but I'll try to answer it anyway.

I think I'd first confront him with his own biography of Krakau, and describe to him the burden he'd passed on to his descendants - barbaric, perfidious, and insidiously executed crimes that weigh heavy on generations to come.

Another question: Why the change of attitude toward Jews between WW1 and WW2? 

During the former he defended Jews against their enemies, during the latter he became a willing executor within the nazi regime.

Rudolf Höss Memoirs and Autobiographies

Whilst in prison awaiting trial and execution, Rainer's grandfather wrote out his full confession and story. Those pages have since been published.

JH: How do you handle the legacy of the Holocaust, both as a German and as a direct descendant of someone so infamous?

RH: It's not always easy to face the past, and to agitate against one's family, especially when that family was so deeply involved in crimes. But as a citizen of this country I consider it my duty to contribute to clarity about Auschwitz, so that these events may never happen again.

One should not suppress the past, one should face it - even if it can be very painful, at times.

JH: What's it like walking into Auschwitz-Birkenau knowing your grandfather was its architect and commandant?  How does someone even begin to psychologically grasp that?

RH: I felt deeply ashamed toward those hurt or killed by my family. It's a burden one can truly experience at this location.

Processing does not happen overnight. It may take years of persistent work. 

Image: Höss family villa (white building) viewed from Auschwitz I
Image: Höss family villa (white building) viewed from Auschwitz I
Photography by Jo Harrington

Rainer Höss and Neo-Nazism Today

Nazi ideology didn't die with Hitler. It's currently enjoying a surge of support unprecedented since the Holocaust.

Image: Rudolf Höss's childrenIn the murky world of Far Right extremism, a surname like Höss can go a long way. There are individuals and groups who revere Rudolf Höss as a hero, and who would welcome his grandson like a prince in their midst.

The wealthier would pay for the prestige of being near him. Flying him out to grace their meetings, functions and parties. Privy to family secrets and possessions, any Höss might gain untold riches selling to the highest bidder.

From that perspective, it might be easier for Rainer to embrace his grandfather's ideology. His own father certainly did, as have many other relatives.

It's actually much harder to align with the other side - those expecting guilt and endless apologies for something which occurred before Rainer was even born. It's only conscience which calls that way. Here there are commentators acting distrustful at best, examining all that he does or says for an ulterior motive, initiating denouncements or outright smears if they perceive the slightest breach.

Therein lies a deeper danger too, as Neo-Nazis aren't known for their compassion over differences of ideological viewpoints.

When it's a Höss opposing them, it looks like betrayal.

Image: The four Höss children photographed in their villa at Auschwitz. Rainer's father Hans is the youngest boy.

JH: I understand that Neo-Nazis today absolutely detest you. That you're accused of betraying your family name. What kind of experiences have you had with modern day Fascists?

RH: Today's Neo-Nazis aren't stupid, they've learned from the mistakes of their predecessors.

Furthermore, today it's much easier to agitate anonymously. Modern communication, the web and social media, are useful and effective helpers. Surveillance is more difficult, and it's easier to manipulate and recruit young people into the service of ideologues.

JH: Is it true that, in your youth, you were a member of a Neo-Nazi group yourself?  And if so, what changed your ideology so drastically?

RH: No, that's a lie. I'm a patriot, and I abhor such groups. Just as it is a lie that I have tattoos of the swastika and the rune symbol. I've already presented proof of this here: Spiegel Online, "Mischlinge", by Erwin Babej.

JH: The same place where I read that - YNet News - also accused you of profiteering with family artifacts; showing no interest in the Holocaust beyond what would mitigate your grandfather's reputation; and visiting Auschwitz only to bask in your family's villa, whilst disdaining a look beyond the fence at the barracks of Birkenau. None of this chimes with all else that I know about you.

Would you like to take this opportunity to answer those allegations?

An inquiry turned into an offer, which I took but later apologized for. Moving on, I'd prefer to talk about my work instead of such things.

Rainer Höss in Hitler's Children (Documentary)

This was one segment in a full documentary detailing the lives of children and grandchildren of high-ranking Nazi officials.

Rainer Höss as an Anti-Nazi Campaigner

Rainer is a good man to ask about the rise of Far Right extremism in Europe today, as he's out there on the front line campaigning against it.

Image: Rainer HössMost interviews with Rudolf Höss's grandson focus upon the Nazi policies of the past and his grandad's role in it. From a historian's point of view, this is fabulous. Snippets may emerge which would inform Holocaust Studies tremendously. I have to admit that I was tempted to follow suit.

Yet equally pertinent is the issue of Nazism today.

Holocaust Memorial Day behoves us to remember the past, not merely to pay our respects to its victims, but to learn from it. To apply its lessons to our present, that the future not see another Auschwitz rise due to neglectful ignorance, nor the tides of social blame end in genocide.

We've already failed several times. We can only hope our successes continue too, until no mass murder could even be considered as a viable political strategy.

The importance of Rainer Höss's work in this field saw me devoting most of this Wizzley interview to queries about it.

JH: You travel around Europe as an anti-Nazi campaigner. What kind of things do you do?

RH: I was part of an interesting and unique project of the Swedish Young Democrats, an ad campaign ("Never Forget to Vote") targeted at young people who never voted before.

I visit schools and describe my grandfather's work, as well as the dangerous rise of extreme right wing groups in Germany and Europe. I'm engaged with various organizations against racism, antisemitism, and the exclusion of people with migration backgrounds.

JH: What's been your reception?  Do you feel like there's pressure on you to act, think or feel in certain ways because of your genealogy?

RH: My experiences have been primarily positive, especially in conversations with survivors and their families. Even in Israel, my reception was nothing but cordial.

I've never felt any pressure. It's been my free-will decision to engage and gain clarity.

Never Forget. To Vote - A Nazi-free Europe, featuring Rainer Höss

JH: Do you have an answer to those who consider the Holocaust to be ancient history and no longer relevant in the world today?

RH: In my opinion, antisemitism still has a large part in our society. Some nations even commit genocide.

We use the same ideology as the Nazis to create new enemy images, for instance the Muslims. Not every Muslim is a terrorist, and not every German is a Nazi. We must learn to differentiate.

If we take a closer look at this, we must reach the same conclusions. We must remember the Holocaust because it was the basis for a systematic industrial destruction of people. Countless examples (Rwanda, Syria, Afghanistan, etc.) show that nothing has changed.

JH: How about those who deny the Holocaust ever happened in the first place?

RH: I try to convince those people by showing them historic documents. It doesn't always work. Most of those people are far removed from reality.

One of their tricks is to cite only partial facts without the proper context. One example: In my grandfather's memoirs is one sentence - "alcohol and whippings were too much for me" - from which they deduct that he wrote under duress. However, if you read the whole section it becomes clear that he has not been tortured (to get a confession).

JH: What do you see as the future in the fight against Neo-Nazism and the rise of the Far Right?

RH: Today's youth gives me hope. They're not as easy to manipulate as back then. I've a positive feeling for the future.

But one thing is certain: It's a daily struggle. Human rights are not guaranteed unless we stand up daily and fight for them. Said a French journalist: "I'd rather die standing than living on my knees."

More Wizzley Articles about the Holocaust

What do you do about a Holocaust denier in your midst? Is this a time for confrontation or not feeding the troll? A Holocaust historian informs the debate.
The Jewish Ghetto in Krakow was the last stop before transportation to a concentration camp. Its final clearance was immortalized in 'Schindler's List'.
Corrie ten Boom and her family are known for helping Jewish people during WWII. She survived the notorious Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, she is loved by many...here's why.
Updated: 01/27/2015, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


jarodhk on 01/20/2016

very informative interview and touching

AnnHunt on 07/14/2015

A truly wonderful article!

BrendaReeves on 07/08/2015

I've always thought the deniers weren't deniers at all. They say it to piss off the Jews.

Sheri_Oz on 07/05/2015

I am glad to learn that Rainer Hoss had a cordial reception in Israel. I hope you (RH) are right that today's youth are not as easily manipulated as in the past; I am not sure if I agree with you on that point - I think today's youth are not well enough informed or interested enough in the complexities of life and history to protect themselves against the manipulations of those who set out to pollute their minds.

anugogwekar on 07/05/2015

nice article!

curiousengineer on 06/29/2015

Nice interview. Especially when it was with someone who is likely to have first-hand facts.

JoHarrington on 03/06/2015

Frank - Thank you very much! Joined up thinking isn't the strong point of these people.

JoHarrington on 03/06/2015

Rainer - Thank you for commenting, and yes, I agree wholeheartedly that this is an indicator that nothing has really changed. Just the scale. We have to be vigilant to ensure that nothing scales up so high again, and we actually scale it down.

JoHarrington on 03/06/2015

Ember - Thank you very much. :)

frankbeswick on 02/03/2015

If holocaust deniers deny that the crimes occurred, then they are in no position to blame the victims of events that they say did not happen? How about some joined up thinking, Neo-Nazis?

This article thoroughly deserves an editor's choice. Congratulations.

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