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.


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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.

Isn't there 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. How could he possibly deserve forgiveness? 

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? 

Have you seen "The Zone of Interest"? Were you impressed by its message? Leave a comment below. 

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator. 

Image credit: poster for "The Zone of Interest" 


Showing 9 reactions

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  • Francine Pirola
    commented 2024-04-15 10:01:19 +1000
    I haven’t seen the film, but I find reflecting on these biographical stories confronting – although we like to think in terms of good and bad people, there are really just people who do good or bad things. Even people like Hoss are God’s beloved children, and Christ suffered and died for him just like he did for me.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-21 02:40:16 +1100
    They were swearing allegiance to Adolph Hitler. Not to God.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-03-19 18:40:38 +1100
    I hardly think there’s a difference between swearing “by god” and swearing “to god.” You’re splitting hairs.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-19 17:04:36 +1100
    Paul, this is the oath that the German military was required to say after the death of Hindenburg in 1934; “I swear by God this holy oath, that I will render to Adolf Hitler, Führer of the German Reich and People, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, unconditional obedience, and that I am ready, as a brave soldier, to risk my life at any time for this oath.” Hardly an oath to God.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-03-18 10:00:29 +1100
    Michael seems to be implying that had Rudolf Hoss not lapsed from Catholcism, he would not have murdered so many people.

    I find this argument specious. Religion doesn’t prevent anyone from being a monster, especially if they think they’ll be forgiven for their actions.

    Hitler’s army was required to swear an oath to God, and wore belts with “God is with us” emblazoned on their buckles.
  • Richard Lennon
    commented 2024-03-18 08:53:59 +1100
    Beautiful article Michael, thank you.
    I have hears that Hoss actually imprisoned some Jesuits nut let go the one who later heard his confession.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-17 11:29:41 +1100
    I am reminded of the words to a country song, “God may forgive you but I won’t”.
  • Richard Stith
    commented 2024-03-16 15:23:55 +1100
    Zone of Interest certainly strikes home in terms of people going about their ordinary lives despite their closeness to the abortion holocaust. But I found the nuanced inhumanity of the Nazi leaders even better expressed in the decades-old film Conspiracy, about the Wannsee conference. For example, when an apparently likable boyish figure turns out to be an SS leader and speaks casually of just having slaughtered 30,000, one is just dumbfounded. I highly recommend that film.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2024-03-15 22:48:02 +1100