In the spring of 1947, the Warsaw Military Court sentenced Rudolf Höss to be executed. Höss got hanged in the yard of the Auschwitz concentration camp, near former compound, where he had lived with his wife and five children.
Rainer Höss is his grandson and the opposite of grandfather. He insists on the need to fight any manifestations of fascism. His effort is valued by survivors: Eva Mozes Kor, who survived the monstrous tests carried by the camp’s Angel of Death, doctor Mengele, later adopted Rainer as her “grandchild”.
Rainer Höss established the Footsteps Foundation which doesn’t not only focus on the Holocaust studies, but rather aims to expose the rise of hate within communities and in any country. Their webpage states, ”We expose and challenge hate and intolerance, racism, homophobia, sexism and basic human rights to help build a better future by learning from the past and educating our present”. Their purpose is to encourage opposition to Nazism to prohibit repeating the history. In current history we face new manifestations of what the world came through in the 20th century.
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism, I asked Rainer Höss to tell, how he has got over his family’s past and what he would say on the opinion expressed by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who criticised attempts to revise history by shifting the blame for the break of World War II onto others than Nazi Germany. I also wanted to hear what he thinks about the situation in Ukraine, which I myself have been closely following.
Höss was happy to talk about the topics and expressed his joy over the fact that even though I am haunted by the Russian Government, I do not try to rewrite the history of the WWII, ”I thought that you are also one of those journalists persecuted by the government, who want to rebel against the partly rigid approach of the state and want to create a rethink case against the Kremlin”. He said he has Russian friends and knows the Ukrainian far right better than many other Germans.
Rainer Höss’ father lived as a child in the Auschwitz camp area. His father in one of the photos from his childhood in the camp is dressed in a metal-buttoned jacket. Rainer’s grandmother had picked it up searching for something nice for her child in a heap of clothes left from one of the doomed Jewish transports from Hungary. Rainer recognized the jacket, he had also used it (he was born in 1965). So many years after…
How did you start to question your family’s past?
After I visited Dachau with my teacher, and I saw all the posters with the name Rudolf Höss, commander in the biggest extermination camp Auschwitz, his whole career hung there in display cases. But my father denied it and said it was a spelling mistake, that “it should be Rudolf Hess – not Höss”. He had already reported it in Dachau. I should have recognized it at that moment, but I was too young and the topic of Holocaust was not really taught in schools in Germany then. Even earlier one could see that the family was hiding something, this was always the case when friends came to visit the Höss family. As soon as we children entered the room, the subject was abruptly changed.
How did you manage to keep integrity when you left home? Who helped you and who or what was your motif?
It was an emotional decision, which arises relatively quickly in young people, generated by great disappointment and anger. I was then taken in at home by my professional instructor at that time. This was a rarity at that age, as he had to commit himself to take care of me, and thus had a duty of care towards a warded subject. But I learned that he was also an injured war child. He was born in a so-called Lebensborn home in Steinhöring (breeding station of the Nazis = blue eyes, blond hair and tall), 100% Aryan according to the race doctrine of the Nazis. We remained close friends until his death in 2015 and he supported me in my work until the end. But what was more important was that I became a father relatively early, at the age of 17. This changed my whole life completely and made me what I am today! I had now founded my own family and here no lies or glorifications of a mass murderer should be lived. The red thread that runs through this family in all parts of the family was cut off and found its end. Hence the nice name for me in the Höß family “the black sheep, the traitor”.
What do you do as a job and why?
I am now an activist and advocate for human rights. I have given up my hotel job to concentrate exclusively on this new and, in my opinion, very important work. And the feedback as well as what is happening in the world proves me right for my decision. In 2014 I founded an organization called “Footsteps” together with Jessica Clark and later Simone Boersma, to be more effective and to use my name as a weapon against the new strengthening of the Neo-Nazis and the world. The Nazis do not only exist in Germany, they are organized worldwide and their number is growing daily.
What was behind your family’s denial to accept the truth of the grandfather’s “work”? How did they see it?
The driving force of denial was my grandmother. As she once said, “Auschwitz” was her paradise, so the question arises what hell looked like for my grandmother. She believed in this ideology and in the belief in the Nazis and their world domination until her suicide in 1989. We have a nice saying in Germany, “the womb is still fertile”, so it is up to the grandparents and parents who lived or grew up in this time, you can massively shape people / young people with this ideological brainwashing. If you mistreat a young person for years, he will be broken forever and ever, that is what my father and grandmother did. And therefore the denial and glorification in the Höß family, the Jews, the Poles and all the packs that spent there and especially the Allies are to blame that they lost their “Auschwitz”, their stolen luxury, her great life as the wife of the Commandant. Her husband Rudolf “only followed orders” like thousands of others, and was wrongly sentenced to death in 1947.
When did you visit camp sites for the first time? What was your feeling like. Do you know other people who manage to deal with the past, not silence it?
I was in Auschwitz for the first time in 2009, together with my mother and the nephew Thomas Harding of the German-English officer (Hans Alexander FSS 92), who arrested my grandfather in 1946 in the operation “Haystack” in Gotruppeln. As long as Poland was still under Russian and Communist influence and under occupation, I was not allowed to enter Poland or Auschwitz as a member of the Höß family. I have visited the Auschwitz camp 32 times, together with survivors and students from all over the world. Of course I also know descendants of other perpetrators, for example Niklas Frank (son of the governor general Hans Frank) or Bettina Göring, niece of Hermann Göring. They are all, like me, for coming to terms with the past and against the strengthening of the Neo-Nazis or their former ideologies. Niklas Frank is very active! Of course we are all the unloved ones when it comes to this topic, the traitors of the fatherland!
What is the overall attitude of the German society towards that page in history? Why do you think Heiko Maas warned right now against shifting responsibility onto other states?
Anyone who wants to draw a line under this part of German history today is not only mocking the victims. It robs German politics of its credibility. National Socialism is part of German identity, as are the crimes of that regime, and the past 75 years have not changed that, nor will the next 75 years. It remains the stain and the black spot on the vest of the Germans. The sooner we accept and take this to heart, the more efficient our coming to terms with and the fight against the new Nazis in our society will be, because self-criticism and self-confidence are mutually dependent. This applies to no country more than it does to ours, and at the same time it should serve as a warning that it can happen again in any other part or society of the world, which we all have to prevent together.
What your reaction would be if anyone who just hears your name dares to justify the Nazi crimes in your presence?
Oh, he would be at the right place with me, denying the crimes committed by the Nazis or my grandfather. I would of course try to convince him of the opposite, if it is possible. But unfortunately there is a high level of educational resistance in all countries. Poor education or the wrong approach in his environment. Education is not everyone’s cup of tea… although you can get education for free if you want it.
Talking to Rainer Höss, we also dealt with issues connected to Ukraine, in its past and now. Rainer Höss wrote in one of the messages, ”Some Ukrainians were already in the IIWW a willing part of the German Reich, also in terms of the quick adoption of ideology and behavioral structure towards the Jews”.
What I did was to offer people in Ukraine to ask Rainer their own questions. Then I sent those to him to respond.
As the introduction to his responses, Rainer wrote, ”These are remarkable questions, politically but also enormously important for a country that feels attracted to the European Union. But on the other hand also frightening that such fascists with neo-Nazi ideas have even made it into the highest circles of politics and society highrolers to the chagrin of the population. Normally countries are not allowed to enter the EU as long as they trample human rights underfoot or even knowingly and intentionally circumvent them”.
What is your take on attempts to attribute the liberation of the Auschwitz to the US army which occurred this year or effort to downgrade the fact that it was the Red Army which liberated remaining survivors?
It is clear that the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz. I personally think it is very presumptuous to hear such statements from America. America is not always the Great World Liberator, there are others that create less wars than America. And as far as right-wing extremism in this country is concerned, he is also very far ahead, despite the traffic jam of the allied forces!
In Ukraine monuments reminding of the role of the Soviet army are being destroyed. What might be the consequences of such destruction?
I think these are already the consequences of the extreme right and its crude ideology. And of course the mistrust in the country and its government even on the part of society.
What would you personally tell those Ukrainians who cherish the memory of ancestors who joined the ranks of Third Reich military units?
They should not pay homage to a false ideology and enter these monuments and create meaningful monuments that remember the victims and not the perpetrators.
Please, ask Rainer to publicly address the president of Ukraine to warn them against the rise of extreme far-right.
I will try to comply with the wish of the author of this commentary. I can’t promise it’ll do any good.
Do you have an opinion on new Ukrainian nationalists? What is the difference between extreme nationalists and neo-Nazi? Where is the edge?
There is no difference except the word of the name. But all groups are fascist and oriented, they put the value of all in this right-wing group above the value of a single one. Not unlike the Nazi state at the time. And one can also recognize them by the high degree of violence and xenophobia.
Therefore, I detest a lot more those who are just power-favourites who weekly launch new monuments to the killers of Jews, Poles and Russians in the Western Ukraine.
Of course, in Germany as in other countries I am not popular with such groups who belong to the National Socialism, but that does not bother me either. Because those who can handle me are in the majority.
In Auschwitz Heinrich Haas was murdered. He was one of my granddad’s brothers. I express my gratitude to Rainer Hoess for his stance against neo-Nazi.
I am personally very sorry for the writer of this commentary that something like this has happened in his family.
Please, tell him that a Russian Orthodox priest will be praying for him (Zaporozhye)
This touches me very much and shows that the work and that of my team is important and valuable in the memory of all those who suffered under the Nazi yoke and still suffer today. Many thanks to the priest and I appreciate it!
Do you follow lives of descendants of other Nazi functionaries? Are there those among them who worship their grandfathers and maybe share their anti-humanity views? In Russia Molotov’s grandson idolizes his grandfather, the one who signed the pact with Ribbentrop.
Surely this is also the case with the descendants of the German perpetrators, but I don’t know any and would be the last person they would talk to, simply because of my attitude and the risk that they would take in an open conversation with me. I would make this conversation public with all names and facts. But all those who approve of such a thing are not quite right in the head anyway, how can you glorify mass murderers?
He must be a strong-willed person. Tell him that a granddaughter of a Soviet (Russian) soldier who was killed in Germany in 1945 is telling him, “thank you”.
Thank you for writing to me! Thank you very much back!