Many of those who played an active part in World War Two refused to talk about their exploits which may be lost or come to light only after their death. One such is Hanns Alexander, the man who brought one of the most infamous war criminals to justice.
Alexander and his twin brother Paul were born in Germany in 1917. Their father was a doctor and the family lived in a splendid apartment in one of Berlin’s wealthy suburbs where they threw parties attended by well-known actors, artists and scientists, including Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich.
The twins had a privileged upbringing and were unaware of the increasing anti-Semitism and the family almost left it too late when they decided to flee Germany in 1936 when they travelled to England.
When war broke out, Alexander joined the British army and had a relatively uneventful war until the final days of the Reich when he came upon the shocking scene of the liberated Belsen concentration camp. Helping to bury the bodies of the victims, he was ‘gripped by a barely controllable rage’ and despite having no experience, no support and no clues, he became a self-appointed Nazi-hunter.
Alexander’s target was Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp who had created the largest installation for the continuous annihilation of human beings ever known through the introduction of Zyklon-B and the gas chamber.
There was no organised programme to identify war criminals and Alexander was doing his detective work in his spare time until he became one of the first investigators appointed to the No. 1 War Crimes Investigation Team.
Alexander tracked down Höss’s wife Hedwig to a disused factory outside Berlin. She refused to reveal where her husband was hiding until he demonstrated his ruthlessness by threatening to put her son on a one-way trip to Russia if she didn’t talk. This broke her silence and she told him of the farm in Gottrupel where Höss was hiding disguised as a gardener and calling himself Franz Lang.
Höss refused to identify himself but was unmasked because the wedding ring he wore was inscribed with the names Rudolf and Hedwig. Alexander arrested him but only after leaving him for ten minutes with guards armed with axe handles for a summary beating.
Höss was handed over to Polish authorities and tried for murder. During his trial he was accused of murdering three and a half million people and was sentenced to death by hanging which was carried out on 16 April 1947 next to the crematorium of the former Auschwitz I concentration camp.
Alexander’s role in bringing Höss to justice only came to light at his funeral in 2006 when reference was made to it in his eulogy. His great-nephew Thomas Harding had always thought of his uncle as a joker and prankster but otherwise unremarkable. Hearing of his previously unknown exploits, he investigated further and in 2013 published Hanns and Rudolf, the remarkable story of one man’s mission to bring those guilty of the most hideous crimes to justice.