Biography 24.3 (2001) 553-569
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Autobiography From the Other Side:
The Reading of Nazi Memoirs and Confessional Ambiguity
Usually when you agree to write a foreword, you do so because you truly care about the book: it's readable, the literary quality is high, you like or at least admire the author. This book, however, is the extreme opposite.
--Primo Levi, Foreword to Rudolf Hoess's "My Soul"
Great autobiographers have generally been heroes, personalities whose memoirs are justified by exemplary lives. To be sure, the stories these exemplary figures tell are not without taint. Augustine, Rousseau, and Mary McCarthy, for example, all implicate themselves in theft, and thereby show themselves to be deeply fallible. The transgressions which they recount, however, chafe against their overall moral decency. Indeed, this decency is one of the factors which encourages a sympathetic reading of their autobiographies.
In contrast, autobiography from "the other side" deals with lives, and thus narratives, characterized by a profound indecency--narratives written by those culpable of capital crimes, and even of crimes against humanity. Where the first group is famous for the contributions they have made to society, the second group is infamous. Consequently, one turns with some hesitation to the autobiographies of this second group, unsure whether the destruction of which the authors are capable may find its way into the narratives they compose, and apprehensive lest these criminals convince the reader they are less evil than universally assumed.
At the very least, criminality seems to undermine credibility--and the greater the crime, the greater the challenge to credibility. According to Carl Lovitt, autobiographical narratives written by murderers face a radically incredulous reader: "Confronting greater resistance than any other category [End Page 553] of writers, the confessing murderer must overcome a complete lack of credibility before his assertions can be taken seriously" (24). Lovitt, who is interested in the rhetoric used in the confessions of murderers, does not spell out exactly what poses the radical threat to credibility. Yet his analysis presumes that writers who deliberately flout social conventions will also lead the reader to suspect the transgression of literary or autobiographical conventions.
The hesitation of the reader may even be greater when confronting Nazi memoirs, since Nazis are not only viewed as perpetrators of evil but are linked with the demonic, the monstrous. 1 Their attempts at autobiography are bound to face a similar aversion. Indeed, reviewing the nature of political memoirs in general, George Egerton notes the particular "moral revulsion induced by Nazi memoirs of exculpation and evasion" (234). And yet, at least some of the writers of such memoirs show themselves aware of their image. "Let the public continue to regard me as the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist and the mass murderer," writes Rudolf Hoess, "for the masses could never imagine the commandant of Auschwitz in any other light" (Commandant 181). 2 Hoess, the "commandant of Auschwitz" from 1940-1943, who penned his memoir as he awaited execution in a Polish prison in 1947, was aware of the emotional impact of these associations on his reader, and tried in his memoir to both confirm and undermine them.
This essay will explore the status of Nazi memoirs, focusing on how the strategies of author and reader are shaped by the unusual antipathy which governs their relationship. I will take as a test case Hoess's memoir, an autobiography that, because of the notorious position of its author, and because of the apparent transparency of its confessional narrative, has drawn a substantial scholarly and lay readership. I will suggest however that this memoir is hardly transparent, and that in fact, examining its confessional transparency--specifically, the scenes of confession which are at the heart of the memoir--reveals the complex nature (and the questionable power) of the work. Because the force of confession within the memoir has choreographed several important responses to it, I will conclude by reviewing two contrasting interpretations--one by Tzvetan Todorov, the other by Ladislaus Kluz --both of which unwittingly attest to the calculated hold...