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Is it OK to feel even a little sympathy for a top-level Nazi commander? That's the question at the heart of the new book Hanns and Rudolf, in which author Thomas Harding tracks down the story of his Nazi-hunting great uncle at the end of World War II.

The suspenseful tale follows the crossing paths of Lieutenant Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who fled to Britain during the war, as he searches for and finds Rudolf Hoss, the Kommandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp where over a million Jews were killed. Harding insists on calling the two by their first names, Hanns and Rudolf, a technique that intentionally tries to humanize the characters. And that's where the sympathy issues come to play.

hanns and rudolf hoss thomas hardingRudolf (right) is captured and set to be tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. But not before Hanns takes justice into his own hands. Before turning Rudolf over to officials, Hanns lets his revenge-thirsty men beat the Nazi commander with axe handles to within an inch of his life in an Inglourious Basterds-type moment. It's a testament to Harding's writing that the vengeful scene elicited a strange empathic feeling for the Nazi criminal, as Harding and a group of his close friends told The Atlantic Wire at a book release party last night.

"It's not a pleasurable moment," Caroline Batzdorf, a long-time friend of Harding's who has helped organize some of his publicity events, said of Hoss's beating. "It's not a 'Thank goodness, he gets his due' moment because frankly nothing would be. It's sort of a mixed feeling. There's a certain gratification in knowing that he was caught, but I was actually appalled to hear had been treated so horrendously as well."

Not so for Harding himself, who wasn't quite so conflicted.

"I was delighted. I think he had it coming," Harding said with a smile. "I think my uncle made a decision which I think is an extraordinary decision, which is 'Yeah, you can have at him, you can beat him up, but you can't kill him, because we need to put him on trial, because his testimony is vital, his evidence for the Holocaust.' And I think that's an extraordinary decision from him."

The humanization of the characters was especially personal for Harding, who initially heard of his great uncle Hanns's compelling history at his eulogy. It was a revelation that shocked the family, and spurred Harding's interest in the tale. He began researching for the book with just Hanns and Hoss in mind, keeping the Nazi commander at an arm's length. But he soon nixed that idea.

"But the more that I got to know [Rudolf Hoss] and his family, I actually realized it was more interesting but also much more terrifying to treat him like a human being," Harding said. That deep dive into Hoss's family history eventually led him to Rudolf's daughter, retired and living quietly in Northern Virginia. She has kept her father's story secret from her grandchildren to protect them from any retribution. But truth rarely stays hidden for long.

(Photo of Harding: Poetstone via Wikimedia Commons; Photo of Hoss: AP.)

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