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Rudolf Höss: Utilitarian or “Dirty Hands?”

September 29, 2010

The feelings of a group are always very simple and very exaggerated. So that a group knows neither doubt nor uncertainty. It goes directly to extremes; if a suspicion is expressed, it is instantly changed into an incontrovertible certainty, a trace of antipathy is turned into furious hatred. -Sigmund Freud

Ruldolf Höss is most known for the systematic way with which he executed orders to murder, either by starvation and disease or by gassing and burning, three million victims. While this act is detestable and I would not wish it to be repeated at any point within the future, I propose that although we may want to paint Höss as a utilitarian by removing any sense of personal moral conflict he is, in fact, only guilty of having “dirty hands.”

It may be difficult for many of you to understand, but having served in the military I have a different view of what Höss must have experienced. As a soldier, questioning of orders, whether they be moral or not, is not permitted and in some cases punishable by execution. Höss expresses some of this conflict in his autobiography by saying “I have to confess openly that after such conversations…these human emotions seemed almost like treason against the Führer. There was no escaping this conflict as far as I was concerned” (163). But then how was this man convinced that by overcoming this conflict he end at what Walzer refers to as good consequences when such an atrocity could not possibly be considered good.

It is obvious that a soldier takes his superior, that is in fact, the leader of the army, as his ideal-Sigmund Freud

In later years, Freud would come to call this “ideal” a person’s super-ego. This super-ego, in brief terms, is the part of our unconscious that we aim to be like due to an identification with that individual or idea. For Höss this person was Adolf Hitler and his ideal of “the final solution” for the Jewish problem.

Therefore, I feel that because of his position under the charismatic authority of Adolf Hitler and his self admitted guilt over the killings of millions of innocent people, Rudolf Höss falls into the category of “dirty hands” and in fact was not a utilitarian sociopath at all. In addition, if forced to choose one of the three models to associate with Höss’ situation I would choose the Machiavellian model due to the failure of the Third Reich leading to the blame against Höss.

One Comment
  1. dbwein permalink
    October 3, 2010 10:36 PM

    I think it is absurd to say that Hoss did everything he did because he felt that his “human emotions seemed almost like treason against the Fuhrer”, and thus was peer pressured into MURDERING millions of people. It is important that we notice that he only came admitted this internal guilt after the fact, after he was caught. This ‘regret’ seems to me more of an attempt at trying to make himself appear more like a victim than the murderous villain he truly is. It is a high school peer pressure excuse to get himself off the hook.

    Also, I think it unfair to equate a soldiers internal moral conflict over a commanders orders to Hoss’ following the orders of Hirler. In a war or battlefield the fighting is generally aimed at the soldiers of the enemy, not ordinary citizens. And in war there are rules against torture and mutilation, unlike during the Holocaust when millions of people were locked up in concentration camps starved, mutilated, humiliated, and gassed, and cremated.

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