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‘The Zone of Interest’ in Forgiveness

‘The Zone of Interest’ in Forgiveness

The Zone of Interest won two Oscars this year. It is a highly stylized dissection of the character of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz.

In his cozy home, with a wall separating his family from the horrors of the extermination camp, Höss was the kindly father of five children. On the other side, he was responsible for the deaths of three million people, mostly Jews and Poles.

The film ends after he discovers that he is going to be responsible for exterminating 430,000 Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz. Himmler has even named this logistical challenge after him –“Operation Höss”. Höss is honoured. The news puts a spring in his step – although something deep within him is revolted and he vomits as he fades out of the film.

If anyone was evil, it was Rudolph Höss. He was a monster. What he did was unspeakable and unforgivable.

But we can learn more from Höss’s life than man’s capacity for surrendering to the darkest forms of evil. That’s a lesson that we all need to learn by heart.

But the real-life story is also, amazingly, a lesson in mercy.

Höss was raised in a stern Catholic family, but he drifted away from religion in his teens. In 1922 he formally abjured his Catholic faith and ended up as a Nazi fanatic. He became an expert at running concentration camps, not only Auschwitz, but also the hellish prisons of Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrück. At the end of the war, he disappeared into the chaos and found work as a gardener. He was eventually tracked down by the British. They handed him over to the Poles, because the worst of his crimes had been committed on Polish territory. He was tried in a Polish court and sentenced to death.

Höss was almost unique amongst the upper echelons of the Nazis. With some equivocation, he admitted that he was responsible for killing three million people. As he awaited execution he wrote an autobiography in which he expresses his remorse.

He wrote a letter to the state prosecutor four days before his execution in which he said:

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.

I ask the Polish people for forgiveness. In Polish prisons I experienced for the first time what human kindness is. Despite all that has happened I have experienced humane treatment which I could never have expected, and which has deeply shamed me. May the facts which are now coming out about the horrible crimes against humanity make the repetition of such cruel acts impossible for all time.

A week or so before his execution, Höss insisted on seeing a priest. The authorities had some difficulty in finding one who could speak German. Eventually the head of the Jesuits in Poland, who spoke it fluently, came see him. They spoke for several hours. Höss formally returned to the faith of his childhood and made his confession. The next day, he received the sacrament of Holy Communion.

He was hanged at Auschwitz on April 16, 1947.

There’s something disturbing about a God who could forgive Rudolph Höss. He was the worst of monsters – a sane monster who knew what he was doing was evil, but immersed himself in it, embraced it, luxuriated in it. His cold-blooded, rational brutality is terrifying.

Yet Christians believe that God was ready to forgive him if he repented. Of all of Christianity’s unsettling beliefs, this may be the hardest to accept. It seems unjust that a man who killed three million people could be embraced as a prodigal son.

Of course, forgiveness is only extended to those who are truly repentant. Sceptics might object that Höss was feigning contrition as a balm for his wounded self-esteem, or that he was sorry that the Nazis lost, or that he was sorry that he had been caught. They might even be right. But the Christian God would forgive him if he repented. Along with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all the other bywords for evil in our history. We don’t know, of course, if they repented.

If Höss did escape hell, Catholics believe that he would have expiate his monstrous deeds in Purgatory, perhaps suffering there until the end of the world. But eventually he would be admitted to heaven.

The Zone of Interest won its Oscars in the middle of Lent, when Christians prepare to commemorate the death of Jesus on Good Friday. Pastors of all Christian denominations are probably preparing sermons about the incredible mercy, the “amazing grace” of the Redeemer. Is there anyone who illustrates this shocking doctrine better than Rudolph Höss?

This article was originally published on Mercator under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Image credit: YouTube


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  • Avatar
    March 20, 2024, 4:20 pm

    This article is poorly written, and it illustrates two weaknesses of the author:
    1. He doesn't understand Christianity, and
    2. He doesn't know the meaning of the word "prodigal."

    Please do better

    • Avatar
      April 4, 2024, 8:45 am

      1. Yes, he does understand the faith.
      2. "Prodigal" in this context refers to the biblical story in which a son wastes his inheritance by seeking his own pleasure, rather than embracing what it means to be a son of God, that is, enjoying and living in a covenantal relationship with the Father. Hoess certainly was a prodigal son.

    • Avatar
      Patti Siegel@
      April 4, 2024, 10:12 am

      You could also do better with your comment. Please give examples of things the author has written that show he "doesn't understand Christianity" and "doesn't know the meaning of the word 'prodigal.'" Your comment as it stands is nothing but unsupported assertions that frankly, make no sense.

  • Avatar
    March 20, 2024, 5:02 pm

    The following are quotes from a review of a book — Breaking the Spell, The Holocaust: Myth and Reality, by Dr. Nicholas Kollerstrom — for which the author was "ethically damned" by The Usual Suspects: "…. the Auschwitz Museum itself released a statement in 1989 downgrading the ‘four million’ supposedly killed at Auschwitz to ‘one million’, but which revelation was never factored even then into the official count. Later, as we shall see, the Soviet ‘Death Books’ for Auschwitz became available following the fall of the Soviet Union showing that only some seventy thousand people (approximately half of them Jews) had died at Auschwitz – almost all from typhus – a number which, just happens to coincide with the numbers in the Arolsen Archives. *** But what about all the ‘pictures’? The iconic pictures of piles of corpses shown de rigueur in every textbook are from Bergen-Belsen and are known to be victims of typhus, i.e., they were not victims of ‘gas chambers’ – but which photos continue to be paraded to this day as ‘gassing’ victims despite this transparent and matter-of-public-record falsification of documented fact. What are also never shown are the many extant photographs of hail and hearty inmates taken when the camps were liberated by Soviet and Allied forces."

    Thus if the Museum states that only "one million" were supposedly killed, how can Rudolf "admit" to having killed "three million"? Neither science nor genuine historical research nor common sense support these continuing deceptions.

  • Avatar
    Alifa Saadya
    March 21, 2024, 10:11 am

    When Jews learn of someone's death, they say a ritual phrase: "Baruch Dayan HaEmet" — it means Blessed is the True Judge. I stood by the spot in Auschwitz where Hoess was hanged. Only later did I find that he had confessed and received absolution. Truly, I do not know what to make of it, since a number of my colleagues and friends were incarcerated in Auschwitz, and many more of my acquaintances had family members who were murdered there. I also stood in the room where the first experiment in murdering people with poison gas was carried out on Russian prisoners of war. It was not a quick death. I personally do not know if I could forgive; but I do understand that G-d is the True Judge. I have not seen the film.

    • Avatar
      Katarzyna Jaskiewicz@Alifa Saadya
      April 4, 2024, 10:05 am

      Thank you for your comment, especially in the light (or should I say darkness? ) of the previous one. My family members perished in Auschwitz in its gas chambers. Do I have it in my heart to forgive? God, you are the way, the light and the mercy.

  • Avatar
    Tessie Cicarelli
    April 4, 2024, 1:24 pm

    Did the priest absolve him of his sins? If so, let God be God and it is up to Him.

  • Avatar
    April 8, 2024, 5:13 pm

    The Bible says, 1 John 1:9 KJV
    "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
    Romans 6:23 KJV
    "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
    Romans 3:23 KJV
    "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."
    John 1:29 KJV
    "The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world."
    In the OT, the repentant sinner brought an unblemished Lamb to the courtyard of the sanctuary, confessed his sins onto the head of the Lamb, and then slit the lamb's throat. This fore-shadowed the Lamb who would take the place of the sinner in dying an eternal death,
    that Jesus the Lamb bore our sins on the cross,
    that our sins killed Jesus, and that His blood "cleanses us from all sin." 1 John 1:7. Jesus, the ladder of Jacob's dream, comes all the way down to the lowest point of the greatest sinner.
    Hoss was justly put to death for his civil crimes.
    But Hoss had also committed great sin. For this he and God had to deal with. A public sin demands a public confession, which Hoss made. The height and depth of God's love, compassion, and mercy, no man can perceive, or limit. Hoss should have confessed his sin directly to God, but God knows how much light we have. His case is in God's merciful hands. Only He knows our heart, and when the record books of our lives are finally examined by all the universe, may we be there to say,
    Revelation 16:5 KJV
    "Thou art righteous, O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be, because thou hast judged thus."


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