Hanns Alexander: The Unknown Nazi Hunter

Hanns Alexander
Alexander Family Archive

Throughout his life, Hanns Alexander was known as a prankster. At parties and weddings in London, he usually played the clown—dressing up, making speeches, and cracking jokes. Until his funeral in 2006, though, most of his relatives had no idea that Alexander was also one of the most successful Nazi hunters in the world.

Born at the height of World War I, Alexander's childhood was spent in a handsome apartment in a wealthy Berlin neighborhood where his father, a doctor, threw ­sparkling parties attended by well-known actors, artists, and scientists, including Albert Einstein. As Adolf Hitler came to power, the music faded, finally dying out as the successful Jewish family fled to Britain in the 1930s.

As a young man, Alexander rarely mentioned his past, and most in his family were ignorant of the pivotal role he had played in bringing some of the most notorious Nazis to justice. "When I heard the eulogy, frankly, I just didn't believe it," Thomas Harding, Alexander's nephew, told Newsweek. "I asked my dad, and he didn't really believe it, either. We thought it was just another one of his stories."

Assured by a relative that his great uncle was speaking the truth, Harding, a 44-year-old journalist, set out to discover Alexander's real story. But when he talked to researchers at the Imperial War Museum in London, they just laughed off questions about a famous German Jew who traveled back to the country of his birth to hunt down Nazis.

Eventually Harding paid a visit to a tiny military-intelligence museum at an Army base in Bedfordshire, just outside London, where an old major offered tea and biscuits, and showed him a file that detailed the capture of the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, Rudolf Höss. "There on the second page. I saw my uncle's name. And I thought, wow—maybe this could be true," Harding said.

During the next six years, the journalist pieced together the life of Hanns Alexander for a book that will be published in the U.S. next month called Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz.

It charts the unlikely journey of Alexander, Nazi hunter nonpareil. On the first day of World War II, when he was only 22, he tried to join the British Army, but was sent away on account of his German background. As the conflict dragged on, the rules were relaxed, and he eventually enlisted, although he wasn't allowed to carry a gun until becoming an officer a few years later.

By the end of the war, Alexander found himself in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwestern Germany, interviewing camp guards. "He was one of the first people to hear from the perpetrators," Harding said.

Confronted by their testimony, Alexander's mind began to focus on those who had evaded justice, and in the months after the war, he began asking the British Army for permission to start searching for missing war criminals. But with no such programs in place, his request was denied. In a letter to his sister from that time, he explained that he was looking for Nazis in his spare time.

When the British government eventually set up a team to look for Nazi criminals, Alexander became one of the first investigators on the No. 1 War Crimes Investigation Team.

One of the greatest coups of his career came early on, when he tricked Höss's wife, Hedwig, into revealing where her husband was hiding. British interrogators had questioned Hedwig, but she stubbornly refused to give up her husband's whereabouts. Then it was Alexander's turn. And he had an idea. Just as a noisy old steam train drove past the prison, he burst into Hedwig's cell, telling her that her son would be placed on the train and taken to Siberia, unless she gave up her husband. He gave her a pencil before leaving the room. When he walked back in 10 minutes later, Hedwig had jotted down directions to where Höss was hiding. When the Allied forces caught up with him, the feared Nazi commander was asleep in his pajamas in a barn in Gottrupel near the Danish border. After he was captured, Höss was marched naked across a snowy square by Alexander and his men. Soon he accounted for his crimes in the dock at the Nuremberg trials.

"I commanded Auschwitz until December 1, 1943," Höss began. "[I] estimate that at least two-and-a-half million victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease."