Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Manfred Deselaers – The Conscience of a Perpetrator

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Manfred Deselaers

The conscience of a Perpetrator –
Rudolf Höss, Commander of Auschwitz1

Preliminary Remark

It is difficult for us to turn to a mass murderer wanting to understand him and believing that God loves all people, including him. Why is there something in us instinctively resisting?
I suppose there are two main reasons: Above all, it is the fear of forgetting the victims, not taking them seriously enough or even betraying them, and thus sacrificing them once more by trying to understand the perpetrator. We would then be complicit in betraying justice.
And there is the fear that the offender could get too close to us if we begin to understand a lot. He would then no longer be in another world which we have nothing to do with, which we could simply condemn and separate from ours. He would suddenly be one of us, like us, and that scares.
But there are two important reasons why we must venture this turn towards the culprit. The perpetrators, not the victims, were responsible for the catastrophe. We must ask ourselves, where similar things can happen in our lives. Only then can we learn something about our own responsibility, if we do not want to become perpetrators ourselves.
And if we take our own faith seriously, we have to ask, "Where was God in Auschwitz?", because today we live in a culture "after Auschwitz". If God was not in Auschwitz, where should he be today? Therefore, we must also ask "Where was God in the life of the Commander of Auschwitz?"


Theology, speech about God, is always the fruit of an encounter between faith and life. Faith illuminates life, life asks questions of faith. If we look at the biography of a criminal, questions arise as to whether he also is made in "the image of God" (cf Gen. 1:27), whether God loves him (see Matthew 5: 44-48)?
The following reflections ask about God and Evil with regard to the biography of Rudolf Höß, the commander of Auschwitz.2 His autobiography “My Psyche: Development, Life and Experience3 written from his prison in Cracow in February 1947, concluded with the words:
May the public continue to see in me the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions – for the majority of people would not be able to imagine the Commander of Auschwitz in any other way. The broad mass of people will never understand that he also had a heart, that he wasn’t evil.4
Here lies precisely the problem: Höß was not an animal without any conscience, no “bloodthirsty beast”. Höß was not a sick person, unable to assume responsibility; he was no “cruel sadist”. But he was nevertheless the “murderer of millions”. It is because he “had a heart” that he was responsible. For this very reason we are entitled to ask whether he was “evil”.
The heart is the place in the human being where decisions are made about being open or being closed, where relationships to others and the desire for God are born and directed. The question concerning the heart therefore is the primary key for evaluation. The question of God and evil in the life of Rudolf Höß is the question of love in his life.
Where does the relationship of God have its place in life? And what do we really mean when we speak of God? The National Socialist worldview was anti-Jewish and anti-Christian, but not atheistic in its self-image; the leaders of the SS described themselves as "god-believers". The true relationship with God, however, is the relationship to the mystery of love, which absolutely affirms and at the same time calls for a responsibility before other people. Because relationship to God and love are inseparable from each other, it is necessary to distinguish what is expressed as God's relationship, but in reality is idolistic, that is, far from love, selfish, and therefore in truth atheistic. It is only a so-called "God" relationship. This does not differ fundamentally from attitudes that consciously reject God. On the other hand, attitudes that are distant from God but radically trust love are "anonymous" relationships with God. That's why we look for love when we ask about God.

Love Requires Love

Rudolf Höß, like every human being, naturally had a living relationship with God. In the deepest interior of his identity, every human being is an Addressed and an Answerer, a creature of God. This is also the foundation of the dignity in the human person that is Rudolf Höß. This dignity means on the one hand infinite affirmation, on the other hand infinite vocation.
Affirmation: God wants the life of Rudolf Höß. He should be himself, he is liberated by God. A human being is not a function of God, but a personal counterpart. God's affirmation of the free person does not stop even if he decides against God.
Vocation: Love calls to love. Like every human being, Rudolf Höß is someone who realizes his humanity by responding to love with love and taking responsibility.
This natural God relationship is mediated in a human way. Through people, Rudolf Höß learns that he is wanted and affirmed in this world. Through people, he is called to responsibility for the world.
Rudolf Höß, born in 1901, experienced such affirmation in his early life. This is especially true for the relationship with his mother, whom he described as "cordial, infinitely good (too good)"5. This good memory sounds as if Höß  at the end of his life regretted how little he had responded to this love: "Motherly love and affection is the most beautiful and the most precious thing on earth. I recognized this only when it was too late and I repented of it during my entire life."6
The warm light of the mother unfortunately stood in the cold shadow of the father, who did not convey such affirmation. The father was not an unpredictable despot, but " balanced, very straightforward, with unusually strict ethical principles."7 But the strictness of the upbringing was without love. His value world worked like a totalitarian system. If he wanted to belong, he only had the opportunity to act like a cog in a machine. A cog may be very important, because everything depends on its functioning. In this sense, the conscience of Rudolf Höß was trained. Recognition from the father could only be earned by the fulfilment of his demands - and they were "militarily strict" and "fanatically religious". The religious relationship was completely drawn into the authoritarian father relationship. The most extreme example is evident when the father made a religious vow that his son would become a priest. Rudolf Höß had not been asked. He wrote about his father:
His manner in making me feel that I had committed a personal wrong against him for which he was responsible before God, since I was intellectually beneath him, made me very stubborn and probably led me later to become very reserved and reclusive toward other people. I could only pray to atone for my sins. My father was a kind of higher being which I could never approach. […] I believe that it was this bigoted education which was responsible for my total withdrawal from others. 8
The father lied to the son when he communicated that he had worth only in the value system of the father. He was not taught that regardless of his role, he is loved by God who is willing to forgive mistakes. The religiosity of the father was in truth atheistic, God-less, because it was without love. This made a true relationship with God very difficult. This is the impression that results from the memoirs of Rudolf Höß.
So it is understandable that Rudolf Höß withdraws from the sphere of influence of his father and closes himself off. Throughout his life he had no friends. He felt most comfortable alone in the great outdoors. This inner closing off makes it difficult to trust others; the desire to be recognized by authorities; the attitude of demanding strict subordination from others - these are defining traits in the life of Rudolf Höß.
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