Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, by Rudolf Höss. Steven Paskuly, ed., Andrew Pollinger, trans., with a foreward by Primo Levi. Da Capo Press, New York. 1996. Softcover. 390 pages. Notes. $15.95.
Reviewed by Richard Widmann
This volume of the memoirs of Rudolf Höß is flawed by the editor's refusal to objectively present the material. Death Dealer was assembled for the sole purpose of refuting or combating holocaust revisionism. Truth is suffocated in this type of presentation. The errors and implausiblilites of Höß' memoirs are often whitewashed in an effort to render this document as sacrosanct.
Steven Paskuly, writes in his "Introduction,"
"There are fanatical groups in the United States, France, and even Australia who call themselves 'The Revisionist Historians.' They actually propose that Höß never wrote these documents - that they are a fraud. They also state that even if the documents were written by Höß, they were obviously done under duress from the 'Communist authorities' in Poland. The 'research' and the conclusions of these 'historians' are absolute rubbish." (p.21)
Paskuly concludes his introduction by writing,
"...no serious argument can be made that Höß concocted the gassing stories to help the Allies find the major Nazi war criminals guilty, as some claim." (p.22)
Paskuly has joined forces for this presentation with Andrew Pollinger. Pollinger, a Dachau survivor, admits in his "Translator's Note,"
"...Steve [Paskuly] and I tried to find a modern American equivalent to the Nazi jargon used by Höß in order to fulfill our main purpose: to present Höß' words and thoughts in a readable form that today's young Americans could easily understand. This was a labor of love to help refute the claim that these horrors did not really happen." (p. 17)
The degree to which Höß' words were altered for sake of indoctrination of American youth can not easily be ascertained.
The team is rounded out by Primo Levi, author of, The Periodic Table, and other volumes of Holocaust lore who provides the foreward. Levi offers the following reason for publishing a work such as that of Rudolf Höß. His answer is but another attack on revisionism.
"Several years ago, an insidious trend was launched when people began affirming that the number of victims of the Nazi era was far less than stated by 'official history,' and that no poison gas was used to kill human beings in the camps. In regard to both these points Rudolph Höß' testimony is complete and explicit, nor would he have formulated it in such a precise and articulate manner, and with so many details confirmed by survivors and by material evidence, if he had been acting under coercion, as the 'revisionists' allege." (p.8)
As we shall see, although "survivors" may have confirmed many of Höß' statements, objective historical inquiry renders many of Höß' details invalid.
The memoirs themselves are an extremely valuable document. Paskuly refers to them as "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 the carrying out of Hitler's and Himmler's plan." (p.11) Included in this volume are 16 pages of pictures. Unfortunately some of these are not really relevant. One example of this is the inclusion of a picture of the crematorium from the Stuffhof camp. Paskuly also chooses to throw in an Epilogue as well as three lengthy Appendixes which feature, for one thing, the Wannsee Conference Minutes. Unfortunately, Paskuly has chosen not to include Höß' Nuremberg affadavit or his statements made at the Nuremberg trials. These would clearly have rounded out this volume on Höß.
The exclusion of these documents is all the more strange and irritating because of the inclusion of the unrelated Wannsee Conference minutes. The fact that the Nuremberg affadavit makes various absurd or contradictory claims appears to be its reason for exclusion.
Paskuly's agenda become evident based on his commentary regarding Höß' comments in the section of the memoirs entitled, "The Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Concentration Camp Auschwitz." Höß writes that in the "summer of 1941" he is called to Himmler's office in Berlin. There Himmler tells him,
"The Fuehrer has ordered the Final Solution of the Jewish question. We the SS have to carry out this order. The existing extermination sites in the East are not in a position to carry out these intended operations on a large scale. I have, therefore, chosen Auschwitz for this purpose."
Paskuly chooses to believe that,
"Himmler was most likely referring to the special squads (called Einsatzgruppen) who were killing civilians in the Soviet Union, since there were no exterminaton centers in the East..." (p.27)
Therefore, Paskuly argues that Höß is correct when he writes of 1941. Paskuly neglects to mention Höß' statement at Nuremberg which sheds some light on this issue.
The Höß Nuremberg affadavit reads as follows:
"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 visited Treblinka to find out how they carried out their exterminations. The camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one-half year."
Höß speaks of three other extermination sites in existence during the summer of 1941. The problem with Höß' affadavit and memoirs is that the camp at Belzek only began to function in March of 1942. Treblinka, which Höß claims was in operation for at least six months by June of 1941, only began operations on July 23, 1942. As for the Wolzek camp, it never existed at all.
Paskuly claims to have refuted the thesis that Höß' affadavit and memoirs are in error over this important date. He mentions, however, only the writings of Richard Brietman which argue that Höß' meeting with Himmler could not have been earlier than summer of 1942. (Architect of Genocide, Knopf, New York, 1991). Paskuly actually declares, "Breitman is wrong." (p.27) Paskuly chooses to neglect all the other authors who have similarly pointed out this important error. J.C. Pressac for one, explained that the "June 1941" date is impossible. Pressac writes,
"The evidence that we have studied suggests that Höß retrospectively confused 1941 with 1942." (Y. Gutman, M. Berenbaum, Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, AADC, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994, p. 213. )
This error of Höß is troubling since as I pointed out in my article, "Auschwitz: A Re-evaluation,"
"These dates should have been clear in Höß' mind. Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the attack on the U.S.S.R. in June of 1941. This was one of the most important dates in the entire history of the Third Reich. Similarly, Höß was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in July 1942. Each of these events should have stood out in Höß' memory."
Paskuly makes totally unreasonable assertions regarding Höß' infamous comment about 2.5 million Jews transferred to Auschwitz for extermination. Paskuly actually chooses to argue that the real number of victims was higher. He writes:
"The Soviet government has stated that the total number of victims is near four million, while the Auschwitz Museum, undre the auspices of the Polish government, officially states the four million figure. Museum historians privately estimate that there were between 2.8 and 3.5 million victims." (p.38)
The assertion is made to convince readers that the actual number of victims exceeds Höß' 2.5 million number. This is clearly untrue. Even considering that the first edition of Death Dealer was published in 1992, Franciszek Piper who heads the department of historical research at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum undertook a study of the number of victims in 1980. The first draft was completed in 1986. Piper's findings were first published in Yad Vashem Studies in 1991. Piper writes that the number of Jewish deportees to Auschwitz was 1,095,190. (AADC p. 68) Piper's total estimate of the number of victims ranges from 1.1 million to 1.5 million. (AADC p. 71-2).
Other authors including Gerald Reitlinger wrote as early as 1952 that,
"...the figure of four millions has become ridiculous. Unfortunately Russian arithmetic has blurred the stark and inescapable facts that little less than a million human beings perished in Auschwitz." (The Final Solution, Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale, N.J., 1987, p. 460)
Falsifications and oversights like these verify the extremely biased presentation in this volume.
Other obvious falsifications in the memoirs include Höß' comments regarding Adolf Eichmann. Höß writes of the Sonderkommando,
"These Jews were housed separately from the other prisoners and, according to Eichmann's orders, they themselves were to be killed after each large extermination action." (p.31)
Here Paskuly half-heartedly acknowledges the impossibility of Eichmann having issued such orders. He notes,
"It is unlikely that Eichmann could or would give such orders since he was not in charge of the camps. The camp Kommandants were not answerable to Eichmann, but only to Himmler and Camp Administration and Supply. Eichmann stated to Israeli interrogators after his capture that he was never in a position to give such orders. He claimed that Höß lied in his memoirs about his role in the Final Solution." (p.31)
Paskuly does, interestingly, admit to the fact of Höß' torture by the Allies while in captivity. Paskuly writes,
"Just after his capture in 1946, the British Security Police were able to extract a statement from Höß by beating him and filling him with liquor." (p.20)
Höß himself writes,
"During the first interrogation [the British Field Security Police] 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." (p.179)
Höß continues to describe the events after being turned over to the Polish authorities:
"If the prosecutors office had not intervened, they would have finished me off, most of all mentally and emotionally. They almost had me at the breaking point. This was not feeble hysteria. I was almost totally finished at that time, and I can stand quite a bit. Life had often enough been hard for me, but the psychological torture of these three satans was too much." (p.181)
Even with these entries, Paskuly refuses to consider that Höß' testimony or his memoirs may be more what the interrogators wanted to hear rather than complete truth. In an American court of law these statements would not be admissable. (For a more complete analysis of the torture of Höß, please see: Robert Faurisson "How the British Obtained the Confessions of Rudolf Höß," The Journal of Historical Review, JHR 7(4) (1986) pp. 389-403).
The memoirs are very interesting in and of themselves. The reader finds Höß swaggering back and forth between descriptions of terrible atrocities to more reasonable, but totally contradictory passages, such as:
"I firmly maintain that the death rate of most of the Jews was caused not only by the unaccustomed work, or the inadequate food, or the overcrowded living conditions and all the other unpleasantness and poor conditions of the camp, but mainly and most importantly because of their psychological condition. The death rate of the Jews was not much lower in other places of work in other camps under much more favorable conditions." (p. 142-43)
Similarly Höß writes:
"...I was never cruel, nor did I let myself get carried away to the point of mistreating prisoners. A great deal happened in Auschwitz presumably in my name, on my direction, on my orders, about which I neither knew, nor would have tolerated, nor approved of." (p.184)
Paskuly, not unlike the revisionists, recognizes that passages such as these are very difficult to reconcile with the more frequently quoted passages. While these passages have caused a number of revisionist authors to wonder if the more horrific lines were inserted by another author, (See Wilhelm Staeglich, Auschwitz: A Judge looks at the Evidence, Institute for Historical Review, USA , 1990, pp. 196-216). Paskuly finds it necessary to comment,
"Höß fails to recall that hundreds of thousands of Jews were gassed in the chambers or simply executed. He also fails to mention that the work system was designed to work prisoners to death." (p.143)
The reader should note that the memoirs were written during the short period of time from October 1946 to April 1947.
Paskuly does address the question of forgery by noting that he carefully reviewed the actual handwritten documents. He describes the handwritten pages which were written in pencil in detail in his introduction. Unfortunately Paskuly has chosen not to include any of the original German text nor photos or reproductions of any of the handwritten pages. This omission is all the more strange by the inclusion of photos of 2 pages of the Wannsee Conference minutes and three pages of letters written by Höß! It is also of interest to note that Martin Broszat in his 1961 version of the memoirs, Kommandant in Auschwitz did reproduce the first 2 pages but was criticized because the pages shown were written in ink rather than pencil as all agree the memoirs were written.
Paskuly has provided a service by including the final letters of Rudolf Höß. Here in a personal letter to his wife and child he writes:
"Most of the terrible and horrible things that took place [at Auschwitz] I learned only during this investigation and during the trial itself. I cannot describe how I was deceived, how my directives were twisted, and all the things they had carried out supposedly under my orders. I certainly hope that the guilty will not escape justice." (p.189)
This is strangely at odds with the more widely quoted statements from Höß' memoirs and at Nuremberg.
Höß' writings are important documents on the history of the Holocaust. It is unfortunate that the editors of this particular volume refused to give this material a more objective presentation. As with most exterminationist productions, the volume is flawed by the editor's imposition of his pre-established beliefs and personal convictions. An objective academic-style analysis of the complete writings and testimony of Rudolph Höß has yet to be compiled. Death Dealer could have, and should have been this volume, instead it is merely another attempt to support a monolithic statue whose feet are made of clay.