In 1913, the 12-year-old Rudolf learns from his fanatically religious father what plans the latter had for Rudolf’s future. He was to become a priest. But almost three decades later Rudolf is not a priest. He is SS-Obersturmbannführer and as commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp responsible for the industrial murder of 2.8 million people (according to the Nuremberg Trials in 1947), mainly Polish Jews.
In 1940, his superior and mentor Heinrich Himmler ordered him to develop a plan for the comprehensive elimination of the ever-growing masses of prisoners in the Auschwitz concentration camp as part of the extermination of the Jews, which in Himmler’s view was necessary. Although the extent to which this order was carried out is well known, the description from the perpetrator’s point of view makes your blood run cold.
In the end, a mass murderer is on trial, who does not seem to understand the guilt of what he did until the end.
Inspired by the diaries of Rudolf Höß, Robert Merle has his main character Rudolf Lang portray his life and the abysses from the first to the last page in a stirring book. In doing so, the author adheres to the biographical and historical facts, but Höß’s involvement in some of the front operations abroad and fighting at home between 1915 and 1917, which he himself recorded in his diaries, was later refuted – apparently Höß had freely invented them.
The author himself describes the stories of Rudolf Lang’s life in the first part of the book as a “literary recreation” of the life of Rudolf Höß, based on the résumé of the American psychologist Gilbert, who had interviewed Höß in his cell at the time. R. Merle describes the events and occurrences described in the second part of the book based on the documents of the Nuremberg Trial of Höß and his accomplices.
The historical and biographical facts form the framework for a literary psychoanalysis that is as profound as it is ruthless.
Robert Merle provides the reader with an insight into the world of a man who is apparently capable of blindly carrying out the cruellest orders without any emotion. The novel does not leave behind the image of a perpetrator as one would secretly wish. It does not describe a sadistic beast acting out of pure murderous lust and psychopathic insanity. This is exactly what makes this book so uncomfortable. At the same time, it also makes it one of the most important literary works on the subject.
A work of great importance
R. Merle’s novel neither corresponded to the spirit of the times nor did it fit into the political picture when it was first published in 1957. Today, however, it is gaining new attention. We see how National Socialism is repeatedly played down, and how the rising glorification of National Socialism is not opposed consistently enough. It is time we asked ourselves what we need to do for society as a whole to reduce our vulnerability to such blind fanaticism.
This must not be a matter of justifications or even excuses, but of sober enlightenment. Enlightenment, which is necessary to understand how structures that preceded the Nazi regime paved the way in people’s minds and how they automatically influenced the post-war generations.
Nobody of our generation is to blame for what happened back then, but we bear the responsibility for an honest reappraisal. In order to prevent history from repeating itself, we must be able to understand it – this makes a confrontation with the identity of the perpetrator unavoidable.
I agree with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which wrote: “A cruel book that must be read.”