Why Rudolf Hoess Is Ruining My Theological Life
Currently I am taking a survey class on the Holocaust (or, more aptly referred to as the Shoah). In preparation for our first test, I was studying the lives of Nazi leaders more in depth as I tried to sort them all out, a practice which felt
very strange. It was as if I were reducing the lives of people who killed the families of my Jewish friends into mere flashcards so I could make a decent grade. I digress, but as I was researching these Nazi leaders, I came across some interesting information on Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz.
Hoess was raised in a strict Catholic home and his father wanted him to become a priest. Hoess was against this, and began pulling away from the church. He formally left the Roman Catholic Church in 1922, the same year that he joined the Nazi Party. (One report said that Hoess decided to leave the church following an incident where a priest broke confidence and informed Rudolf’s father about something Rudolf had told the priest in confession.) Hoess went on to be a militant Nazi, even murdering dissidents. He joined the SS and went onto horrific fame as the commandant of Auschwitz, the largest and most deadly camp. He pushed the limits of the camp to hold more than 100,000 prisoners and estimates today state that Hoess oversaw the murder of around three million people.
After the fall of the Nazis, Hoess was eventually captured and tried, sentenced to die by hanging. It seems that during his trial he began to internally repent of the deeds he had done in the previous twenty years. Some psychologists disagreed and said that he was utterly unrepentant:
In all of the discussions, Höss is quite matter-of-fact and apathetic, shows some belated interest in the enormity of his crime, but gives the impression that it never would have occurred to him if somebody hadn’t asked him. There is too much apathy to leave any suggestion of remorse and even the prospect of hanging does not unduly stress him. One gets the general impression of a man who is intellectually normal, but with the schizoid apathy, insensitivity and lack of empathy that could hardly be more extreme in a frank psychotic. (Gustave Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary, p. 260)
However, days before his execution, Hoess made this statement:
My conscience compels me to make the following declaration. In the solitude of my prison cell I have come to the bitter recognition that I have sinned gravely against humanity. As Commandant of Auschwitz I was responsible for carrying out part of the cruel plans of the ‘Third Reich’ for human destruction. In so doing I have inflicted terrible wounds on humanity. I caused unspeakable suffering for the Polish people in particular. I am to pay for this with my life. May the Lord God forgive one day what I have done. (John Jay Hughes, “A Mass Murderer Repents: The Case of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz”, 1998)
Another quote reads:
Since I was Commandant of the extermination camp Auschwitz I was totally responsible for everything that happened there, whether I knew about it or not. Most of the terrible and horrible things that took place there 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. It is tragic that, although I was by nature gentle, good-natured, and very helpful, I became the greatest destroyer of human beings who carried out every order to exterminate people no matter what. (Steven Paskuly, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, 1992)
The story of Hoess ends with reports that he converted back to the Roman Catholic faith days before his execution. He received penance, communion, and Last Rites. A special gallows was built for Hoess at Auschwitz, where he was hanged.
Rudolf Hoess is ruining my theological life.
As someone who is an avid opponent of the death penalty for any reason and as a person of faith, I am really pissed off at Rudolf Hoess. Why?
As much as I am an abolitionist and a believer in the endless grace of God, it troubles me that Rudolf Hoess can spend the majority of his life brutally and relentlessly murdering millions of people with hand-picked gasses, carefully designed subhuman conditions, a diet of minimal calories a day in rotten food, and bottomless pitts of melting, burning bodies…
…and then say a few scripted prayers, partake of the Eucharist, say confessions, maybe even cry a little, and then be granted eternal life with God and Christ in the hereafter.
What does that say about a God who does that? What kind of grace is that?
I tried to think about what would have needed to happen for me to not be so furious at Rudolf Hoess–and my conclusion was, I wish they wouldn’t have executed him. If they had not executed him, maybe any repentance he actually had could have been lived out inside of whatever prison they had him in. Maybe he could have spent the rest of his days spiritually and physically repenting, making up in whatever way he could for the atrocities he had committed. I’m not talking about what he deserves–I mean that maybe if he had had more time to actually mean that repentance, I wouldn’t be so mad at him right now for participating in what seems to me like cheap-ass grace.
I don’t necessarily think that we atone for our own sins by righteous action. Ideas of atonement, sin, and salvation are just not my forte. And I definitely don’t really think there is much anybody could ever do to atone for the sin of murdering millions of people. But I do wish that they hadn’t executed Rudolf Hoess. And I wish he hadn’t have executed anybody else. The idea that somebody like Hoess could be forgiven that easily seems an affront to the victims of Auschwitz. I would have rather seen Hoess live out his life actually repenting for his evils, having to live with the knowledge of what he did, and deciding to make something different of himself. I am a strong believer that we are not the worst things we have ever done. Giving Rudolf Hoess the death penalty was giving him the easy way out and didn’t create justice for anybody in my opinion. Perhaps if he had lived, he would have taught about the evils of biological racism and have repented in that sphere of his life; perhaps if he had lived, he would have sunk deeper into his own evil and the world would have seen the results of true hatred; perhaps if he had lived, we would have seen a man consumed with his own guilt. Maybe the world would have learned something from the life of Rudolf Hoess. Either way, the death of one man has been equated with bringing justice to the deaths of 3,000,000 other lives–and I find that devastating.
What do grace and justice look like in the midst of Auschwitz? I have no idea.