by Serge Thion
Considerable attention has been devoted during the past year to a book on "The Crematories of Auschwitz" by French pharmacist Jean-Claude Pressac. Published in September 1993, it has been widely praised for providing definitive proof that the "Holocaust deniers" are wrong. For example, The New Yorker (Nov. 15, p. 73) commented that Pressac has provided "incontrovertible evidence" of the existence of a wartime German "industrial-style process" for killing Jews. Similarly, Newsweek magazine (Dec. 20) praised the new Pressac book as a "dramatic rebuttal" of revisionist views. "Holocaust experts have hailed his work as definitive," the influential weekly added. (A brief, preliminary critique of Pressac's new book appeared in the January-February 1994 Journal.)
While a German edition of Pressac's book has been issued, an English-language edition apparently is not forthcoming. Instead, an abridged portion of it is included in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, a 528-page work recently published in association with the taxpayer-funded United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Pressac's writings -- including his much-discussed 1989 book -- and the considerable discussion they have generated, confirm that a genuine debate about the supposed extermination gas chambers is underway. In the following review essay, French scholar Serge Thion contributes to the welcome discussion with a detailed and highly critical look at Pressac's new book. Incidentally, Thion's title for this essay is a play on the title of a 1955 French Holocaust movie, "Night and Fog," that is obligatorily shown in school classrooms throughout France.
"Historian by night," writes the Paris daily newspaper Le Monde in its presentation of the new work of an "amateur" who happens to be a pharmacist by day.1 While for the last twelve years revisionists have been reproached as being merely "amateurish historians," suddenly this term is presented as a quality that guarantees the worth of the new thesis being promoted by the media as the definitive response to the revisionists. I shall not be so cruel as to recall that this one joins a long list of "definitive responses" that have figured on various lists, since the big trials of 1980-1982, and including masterworks such as Filip Müller's Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers, or Claude Lanzmann's cinematographic production, "Shoah."2
Jean-Claude Pressac, the author of this miraculous new book, Les crematoires d'Auschwitz ("The Crematories of Auschwitz"),3 has already been presented several times as the ultimate champion, the man who will finally terminate Professor Robert Faurisson. He showed up during a colloquium at the Sorbonne in 1982 that was supposed to have already settled the question. His patron at that time was the Great Moral Conscience of our age, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the White Knight in the struggle against revisionism. Because the discussion dealt mainly with material and technical questions, which were way beyond Vidal-Naquet's competence as a specialist of Greek history, he had palmed Pressac off onto another archenemy of revisionism, Georges Wellers, a little-known chemist who happened also to be the editor of the journal of the Jewish documentation center in Paris.
After a long period of hesitation, Wellers published a paper by Pressac in his holy and irreproachable journal, Le Monde Juif (July-September 1982). In that paper Pressac developed his theory of "little gassings," abandoning altogether the canonical version that had ruled until then. He replaced it with the view that, of course, gassings had taken place, but on a smaller scale than previously thought, and that all figures must now be revised downwards. The impact of Pressac's new theory was negligible. Other means were needed to make use of Pressac in the struggle against revisionism. The Klarsfeld clan, with its strong community and media ties, was ready to intervene.
With their help, Pressac produced an enormous hodgepodge. In his research in the Auschwitz archives, he was not able to find any definitive proof that the Nazis had set up a murder factory there. Instead, he found a number of circumstantial traces that he thought might lead to some kind of presumption of extermination. It was couched in language reminiscent of a weak court case.
His 1989 book, Auschwitz: Technique and Operations of the Gas Chambers, included hundreds of plans, blueprints, photographs and documents from the Auschwitz camp's technical departments, which were, of course, part of the SS administration. In an effort to make this massive and disorganized dossier more convincing, the Klarsfeld organized its non-dissemination. Reports of its existence were considered more effective than its actual distribution in bookstores. Translated into English (no French-language edition was ever made available), and published in New York, it was not publicly sold, and was sent to few of those who ordered it. It was given merely to "responsible community leaders" and "opinion makers." Through its impalpable existence, it was supposed to promote the idea that there now existed, finally, The Response to revisionism.
Revisionists quickly managed to get hold of copies of this work, which neither Vidal-Naquet nor Klarsfeld obviously had ever read closely. Otherwise they would have caught a certain number of oddities and inconsistencies that would have caused them to doubt if they'd picked the right horse.
Pressac was trotted out again to battle against Fred Leuchter, the American expert of gas chamber construction who had carried out on-site examinations of, and took wall scrapings from, the supposed gas chambers, and who concluded that massive and repeated gassings would have been physically impossible.
Now we are presented for the fourth time with what the press calls the definitive argument. This time Pressac has another patron, an official historian by the name of François Bedarida who has been for quite some time head of the so-called "Institute of the Modern Age." He once distinguished himself by taking part, along with some shadowy political figures, in a phony academic "jury" that decreed, without reading it, that Henri Roques' thesis on the "confessions" of Kurt Gerstein was completely worthless. Having thus styled himself a master, Bedarida, whose works on English history are deservedly almost unknown, also wrote a thin booklet, in the form of a catechism, about the so-called Holocaust. It has been distributed free of cost to every history teacher in France in order to provide them with guidelines on how to stuff their pupils' heads with sanitized notions about Second World War events. Emboldened by such mass distribution, Bedarida felt brave enough to write an article in Le Monde (July 22-23, 1990) in which he revised the Auschwitz death toll downwards. It did not occur to him to explain why this revision was necessary, or the basis for his view that not four million, but rather 1.1 million people supposedly died in Auschwitz. Obviously still not entirely confident of himself, he added that the archives have still not been explored. He would not elaborate to explain why 45 years have not been enough time. Here's where Pressac came in.
Along with a few minor satellites, this luminary of historical thought, Bedarida, now serves as Pressac's patron. This patronage is not negligible, because Pressac's new book is published by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). In order to obtain this prestigious label, the book was submitted to an ad hoc committee of specialists. There must have also been an official evaluation of some kind, which we would be delighted to read.
What does Pressac's book really say? It presents incontrovertible evidence that the Germans built crematories. Of course, only journalists believe, or pretend to believe, that the revisionists deny the existence of the crematories or of the concentration camps. These concentration camp crematories are well-known and have been documented since 1945. The issue has been whether they disguised secret facilities for carrying out mass killing.
Pressac, who combed through tens of thousands of documents left behind by the Auschwitz Bauleitung (construction office), states categorically that these installations, as planned from the outset, show no sign of lethal or homicidal intent whatsoever, and that they were specifically designed and built to contend with the health problems caused by a rather high mortality rate in the camps, above all after the beginning of the war. These problems, he shows, were linked with the raging epidemics that could (and did) wreak havoc not only among the camp inmates, but also among the Germans in the camps as well as the outside population. In this context, crematories had no ethical import, but were conceived as facilities to maintain public health, of the inmates as well as others.
Having carried out a detailed study of the correspondence between the Auschwitz construction office and the outside private civilian firms that contracted for specific jobs, Pressac is able to provide us with a thorough -- and quite tedious -- history of the different phases in the construction of the various crematories, including the numerous changes in plans by the chiefs of the SS construction office. Evidently lacking anything like a long-term perspective, these officials depended closely on their superiors, who envisioned grand projects without bothering much about the budgetary and procurement problems that those poor subordinates would have to solve on the spot.
Among these thousands of documents, where there are no secrets, where the SS "politicians" scarcely interfere; documents which after the war were divided among Germany, Poland, and Moscow; documents that remained intact at the end of the war, the department head having "neglected" to destroy them: among all these documents, there is not a single one that states clearly that these facilities were ever used for mass killing. Not one.
Pressac offers no explanation whatever of this strange fact. To be sure, following others, he states that the references found in certain documents to "special actions" refer in coded form to the existence of that monstrous crime. But the documents oblige him also to state "special actions" could and did designate all sorts of "other," quite banal activities, and that the term "special" (in German, "Sonder-") was very widely used in the German military and non-military administration during that period.
The great value of Pressac's work would therefore lie in its almost complete sifting through of the documents dealing with the construction of the crematories, the presumed site and instrument of the alleged crime. As in his previous writings, he picks out "traces" of criminal intent. Many of these, incidentally, he's had to leave by the wayside. A number of "traces" he presented in his 1989 book are conspicuously missing from the 1993 work.
He notes, for example, that the SS wanted to install ventilation systems in the underground morgues of the crematories. He considers that this shows an intent to use these rooms for criminal purposes. Pressac is so convinced of this that he doesn't even bother to consider alternative explanations that would occur to less prejudiced souls, such as, for example, the need to disinfest, during typhus epidemics, the morgues with Zyklon B (used throughout the camp for disinfesting clothes, barracks, and so forth).
He thinks he's found a criminal "trace" in the fact that a wooden fan was requested in the ventilating system, because wood is more resistant to corrosion by hydrocyanic acid than metal. Yet, several days later, the engineer in charge had the wooden fan replaced by a metal one!
Pressac also states that the "definitive proof" of the existence of a homicidal gas chamber in crematory facility (Krema) II is found in a document dated March 1943 (cited on p. 72, doc. 28), which shows that the Auschwitz services were looking for gas detectors capable of detecting traces of prussic acid (hydrocyanic acid). But because he has explained earlier that these services used "tons" of Zyklon B for disinfestation, this "proof" is not particularly probative.
Eighty thousand documents. That's the number Pressac cites in his interview with the Nouvel Observateur. (note 4) These 80,000 documents, which he says he consulted in a matter of some days in Moscow, concern exclusively, if I'm not mistaken, the SS construction office at Auschwitz. One office among many others, therefore, but the one that would have been responsible for designing and constructing the infamous "industrial slaughterhouses." One might be astonished to learn that such installations are entrusted to the same low-level functionaries who dealt with the barracks, the bakeries, the roadworks, and so forth. No secret, no particular precautions were taken, as these same low-level officials didn't hesitate to subcontract with private firms, from which no particular discretion was requested. This is explained, as Pressac abundantly demonstrates, by the fact that these facilities were not designed or planned for a lethal purpose, but, quite to the contrary, as means of local public health control.
It's very clear: of these 80,000 documents, only a fraction of which concern the crematories, not a single one deals explicitly with an installation for killing. Otherwise, this document would have long since been brandished triumphantly to the public. Until Pressac, one could surmise that there were hidden or inaccessible archives, harboring such a document. But Pressac tells us that these archives (concerning the Auschwitz construction office) are now complete, and that the chief of this office, evidently believing they contained nothing incriminating, took no measure to destroy them at the end of the war.
In short, it must be acknowledged that among this mass of documents, which are supposed to clarify this issue, there are only a few that raise any suspicion. Where logically we should have found 1,000 or 10,000 incriminating documents -- considering, as Pressac concedes, there was no code language, that no documents were destroyed, and that everything was done according to superior orders -- one finds only a few minor elements, the interpretation of which remains open.
These "traces" might conceivably support the charge if we could reconstruct a context in which only one interpretation is possible. Or, if several interpretations were possible, a historian should discuss the various ones before choosing his answer. This is not Pressac's practice. He dares not entertain the possibility of alternative interpretations of the documents. For if he were to give up calling these "the beginnings of proofs" (indeed, in a recent France-Inter radio interview he protested only feebly when a hasty journalist treated his "beginnings of proofs" as well-established proofs), Pressac would have to concede that all his work had been in vain. He would have to concede that he had rigorously demonstrated that German officials and engineers conceived and planned, in a rather disorderly way, crematory facilities that, as a matter of fact, did not work very well. No. This no one has ever doubted. He would have to admit that he had spent ten years of his life pushing on an open door, a door whose plan, conception, and stages of construction he describes in meticulous detail. What is truly interesting here is precisely that he found nothing obvious, in spite of exhaustive research.
What does Pressac do to salvage what he can of the extermination thesis? Injections. The basic text of his book, that is, the product of his own research, is a careful chronicle of the planning and construction of the crematories. He refers here to the archives. The reference notes provide sources: they follow each other with abbreviations to archives (abbreviated as ACM, ARO, AEK, and so forth), according to the key given on page VIII. However, if one turns to check the reference notes that are grouped together on pages 97-109 -- and disregarding the rare bibliographic references or the occasional bits of factual information ("Pohl was Oberzahlmeister [chief paymaster]") -- one finds that the series of archival references is interrupted here by non-archival references, either to the official Polish Kalendarium (or Auschwitz Chronicle -- more about this later) or to the supposed postwar "memoirs" of Auschwitz commandant Höss. These non-archival references, we find, are the sources cited by Pressac for the passages in the main text dealing with homicidal gassings.
For example, on page 34 he abandons the archives to write about a "first gassing," and, in the same paragraph, he writes of the cremation "in one or two weeks of intensive work" of 550 to 850 corpses, leading to the deterioration of an oven. There exists no obvious or necessary link between the first "fact," based on the Kalendarium5 and Höss, and the second -- an oven's deterioration -- the factuality of which is established from archival documents. This link is a merely a supposition that is dishonestly presented here as a fact.
This rigorous scholar then tells us that "it is estimated today that very few homicidal gassings took place in this crematorium, but they have been exaggerated because they impressed direct or indirect witnesses." We know that Pressac is a poor writer, but just what is an "indirect witness"? And what does it mean to "exaggerate" a gassing? We need to decode here, I think. What Pressac means to say in this tortured sentence, I suppose, is more or less this: sure, there has been a lot of talk about gassings in crematory building (Krema) I, in the Auschwitz I (main) camp. Genocidal gassings are supposed to have begun there. However, because the revisionists have pointed out so many inconsistencies, Pressac ("it is estimated") has chosen to give ground ("they have been exaggerated"), attempting to explain inconsistencies by claiming that witnesses were "impressed," even if they were not actually present, but who nonetheless are regarded as "indirect" witnesses. Not a single source, not a single document is cited by Pressac to justify this climb-down.
Pressac knows full well that the "classical" view cannot be defended, but in order to salvage something of it he must make concessions, without being able to justify them either. "It is estimated today . . . ," and presto! -- the trick is done. What follows is of the same nature. He writes (p. 35):
As gassing forced the total isolation of the area of the crematorium [not a single witness has ever made such a statement, but this point is a result of revisionist criticism], and since it was impossible to carry them [gassings] out while construction was in progress [same comment], it will be decided at the end of April to transfer this sort of activity to Birkenau [Auschwitz II camp].
There is a pure invention, a supposition asserted as a fact by Pressac so that he can land on his feet and rejoin Establishment history.
The amusing paradox in all this is that Pressac respects the Establishment history only with regard to gassings. As for the rest, he joyously tramples dogmas underfoot. The famous "Wannsee Conference" of January 20, 1942, which so many thoroughly dedicated historians have designated as the time and place of the decision to exterminate, is swept aside in a mere six lines (p. 35). Pressac does what revisionists do: he reads the text of the Wannsee conference protocol, which speaks of the evacuation of the Jews to the East, and says nothing of industrial-scale liquidation. He confirms not a single specific instruction was sent to the Auschwitz construction office as a result of this high-level conference. The fog surrounding the supposed genocide decision becomes thicker and thicker.
On page 39 we come to the two little farmhouses near Birkenau that are supposed to have been the next sites of gassing extermination. In the middle of the information culled from the archives, one finds a new injection from the Kalendarium. On page 41 Pressac reports that Himmler informed Höss "of the choice of his camp as the center for the massive annihilation of the Jews." As Pressac himself tells us, Höss' account contains enormous implausibilities and cannot be trusted at all (footnote 132). It's a rotten branch, but it's the only one left for Pressac to cling to, because he's done no research whatsoever in the realm of policy. That's a job for historians, and thus one far beyond the abilities of our pharmacist. At the same time, though, there is a need to suppose that someone, at some time, made the decision to initiate this vast homicidal enterprise, which was then carried out by low-level functionaries. Himmler might have made the decision, but because Pressac can't find anything to support that supposition, he relies on Höss' admittedly dubious account. Better something than nothing.
When Pressac comments on the work of the inmates' Sonderkommando teams "dragging the bodies from the gas chambers" (p. 43), the source he cites (note 141) is once again the Kalendarium. Third injection.
Later, on page 47, Pressac tells us that large quantities of Zyklon B were deemed necessary to combat the typhus epidemic that raged in the camp, and that they had been requested from higher authorities on account of a "special action" -- which obviously was to disinfest buildings. (One SS man was even poisoned, as the previous page confirms.) Further on this same page, Pressac adds that Bauleitung officials gave consideration to building a new crematorium "because of the situation created by the 'special actions'" -- an obvious reference to the measures taken in an effort to halt the epidemics. How Pressac manages to conclude from this information that Auschwitz had been chosen "as the site of [the] massive annihilation of the Jews" remains a profound intellectual mystery.
Here was an administration that struggled to contain an epidemic that may have killed 20,000 people (according to Pressac),6 which had learned from higher authorities that the camp would again be considerably expanded (to accommodate tens of thousands of new deportees from the East, who were considered particularly "lousy"), and which was trying to gather the weapons to combat typhus: tons of Zyklon B and crematories. (Recall that at the Bergen-Belsen camp the British were unable to contain the epidemic that was raging there when they arrived. Some of the most "incriminating" photographs of horrific scenes from the camps were taken at Bergen-Belsen when it was under British administration.)
Pressac then launches his own personal theory (p. 47), which only makes sense if he is attempting to conform to an already established explanation pattern:
This stupefying cremation facility [nevertheless obviously in strict accord with the needs dictated by the situation there] could not but attract the attention of the SS officials in Berlin [obviously, since they authorized the expenditures] who afterward associated it with the "final solution" of the Jewish problem.
This assertion has no basis in the documents found in the archives.
Ever eager to protect his rear, Pressac believes that these "special actions" (a term that covered anything and everything in the military-administrative jargon of the period) were used as a pretext to obtain authorization from Berlin to construct crematory facility (Krema) III, which he determines actually had a "public health function." In using this "special action" term, then, the sneaky SS men of Auschwitz sought to make Berlin believe that their crematory requirements were linked to the extermination of the Jews, whereas in reality they concerned only the real, normal needs of the camp. This is a good example of Pressac's acrobatic abilities.
I shall not dwell on the issue of open pit incinerations, which provide Pressac with an opportunity (p. 58) to severely criticize Höss' account, except to point out that he invents a figure of 50,000 corpses, burned in two months, based on a calculation of alleged killings that is derived, without actually quoting it, from the Kalendarium. Pressac pays no attention to the 100,000 cubic meters of wood (at a minimum) that would have been required, and of which there seems to be no trace in the archives.
Pressac has himself confessed that he first got involved with Auschwitz because he wanted to write a novel, several scenes of which would be set there. We know that many people have had a similar itch. This compelling urge re-emerges from time to time, for instance on page 65, when he simply conjures up, out of the blue, relations between the director and the engineers of the Topf company (which built the ovens for the crematories). The three following pages -- in which Pressac, the suburban pharmacist, impersonates the terrible SS as they look for ways to rationally organize gassings -- are probably also taken from a novel we'll never read. The welcome details are not derived from the archives, but rather from a testimony dear to Pressac, that of a person named Tauber (footnote 203).
When he evokes the first alleged gassing in crematory facility (Krema) II -- supposedly the real industrial killing plant -- and which was probably finished in March 1943, Pressac does not cite archival sources, but rather the secondary source Kalendarium and Tauber's testimony (pp. 73-74). The second alleged gassing is also based on the Kalendarium.
There is no point in going on. Pressac's injection technique is now quite clear. The reader must keep his eye riveted to the footnotes in order to detect the changes in the story line. All this would be quite acceptable if the sources used were of comparable value. But for some time now historians have learned to refer to Danuta Czech's official Kalendarium only with the utmost caution. Of this work, Pressac himself writes (note 107, p. 101):
Danuta Czech has produced a work that is vulnerable to criticism because, without explanation, it retains some testimonies while dropping others, and because it favors testimonies above documents. This peculiar historical orientation persists in the latest, third, edition, now published in Polish ... which makes no room for the Bauleitung documents of the Central Archives in Moscow. This greatly lessens the veracity of this fundamental work, which unfortunately was composed with a vision a little too skewed in the strained political atmosphere of the 1960's [in Poland].
What Pressac is really trying to say here, God only knows. For many people, though, this is a work that comes straight from the Polish government's Auschwitz State Museum, and thus from the exploitation of Auschwitz by Russian and Polish Stalinism as an instrument to encourage anti-fascist sentiments in the West during the Cold War. We know well the real value of the "testimonies" that were mass produced at that time. If Pressac were really confident of sources of this kind, it would be logical for him to use them. But he shows the greatest mistrust. Nevertheless, his account of homicidal gassings comes exclusively from such sources, the value of which he himself acknowledges to be severely limited. These stories have already been published a thousand times. It was their internal weakness that moved Paul Rassinier to criticize them, and launch the movement now known as Holocaust revisionism. In continuing to use them, with only slight cosmetic adjustments, Pressac seems to make a fool of himself.
But the most extraordinary thing about Pressac's book is the pretense that it dispenses entirely with testimony to make its case. That is what Pressac claims to journalists. They swallow this lie because they more easily trust commentary than the text itself. By burying in the depth of his footnotes his use of the most hackneyed products of the Polish Stalinist dossier, Pressac thus appears to respond to the revisionists on their own ground, that of verifiable fact, as long as one accepts that the physical laws of nature are as valid today as in 1944-1945.
In chronicling Pressac's inconsistencies, I have refrained from referring to Pressac's earlier writings, comparing them with his most recent book. But others might be less indulgent and could be naughty enough to point out variations, reversals, and other shifts of position that such a reading would obviously disclose.
I shall also spare the reader a crucial facet of the discussion of basic facts, the capacity of the crematories in terms of their actual output (an appropriate term when speaking of an industrial facility). To be sure, Pressac clearly realizes that there is a difference between the outputs claimed by Topf company salesmen and the reality of operation, hampered by breakdowns and design and manufacture flaws. But Pressac goes no further to establish the actual figures, and when he provides an estimate of 1,000 cremations per day for Kremas II and III, one sees clearly that he takes his readers for chumps. In the most modern crematory facilities, the limit is four bodies a day per oven. In the largest Auschwitz crematory facility, Krema II (at Birkenau), with its 15 ovens, one might envision tripling or even quadrupling the rate. In that case a peak figure of 300 bodies per day could be attained (but at the risk of wearing out everything very quickly). Pressac carefully avoids venturing into this technical area. Elsewhere, he says that the "ideal" figures provided by the SS to Berlin are propaganda lies, but that they are nevertheless to be trusted (p. 80). In his latest book, Pressac carefully refrains from citing the figures for coal provisioning of the crematories, which appeared in his 1989 work.7 In the light of those figures, it is all the more difficult to believe that two or three kilograms of coal would have been enough to burn a single corpse. If he had found in Moscow additional invoices to make his estimates less improbable, he certainly would have let us know about them.
In the main body of his new book, this macabre accounting is only marginally important. It becomes important only in Appendix Two, "The Number of Deaths at KL Auschwitz-Birkenau" (pp. 144-148), where Pressac uses his estimates of cremation capabilities to revise downwards the numbers given in the "testimonies" found in the Kalendarium, to simply decree that there were fewer trains, and that they carried fewer persons. He writes as if the arrival of the trains was pre-determined by the efficiency of the crematories. This is obviously absurd.
Other discrepancies occur in his calculations that I will pass over here. Regarding the deportation of Jews from Hungary (about which Rassinier had already noticed the impossibilities of the estimates of official Polish sources), Pressac rejects out of hand the estimates of Georges Wellers, telling us in passing that the Israeli Yad Vashem center holds documents showing that 50,000 Jewish women from Hungary were transported onwards from Auschwitz to Stutthof, near Gdansk/Danzig. (Because these Jews had not been registered upon their arrival at Auschwitz, they are normally considered to have been "gassed.") Pressac believes that there is a need for further research. With regard to the number of Polish Jews who were deported, he mentions "the uncertainties of this question, due to an absence of documents."
To return to the question of the Jews deported from Hungary, Pressac places himself in untenable positions. For example, he accepts the stories about cremation pits, which have been completely disproved by the aerial reconnaissance photographs of Auschwitz taken by Allied aircraft at precisely that period. He does so because it is necessary to increase the theoretical cremation capacity in order to account for a theoretical total of 438,000 Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz from Hungary. (This would have been twice the total population of Auschwitz at that time.) His abstract calculation (p. 148) is that the SS could have annihilated 300,000 persons in 70 days. But this raises a question: where could these 300,000 persons, dead or alive, have been herded or stockpiled during the two months it would have been necessary to burn them all? And why do we find no sign of them in the aerial reconnaissance photos?
Pressac arrives at a figure of 630,000 people who were supposedly gassed at Auschwitz. Several years ago, the Poles lowered their official figures of Auschwitz "gassing" victims. Raul Hilberg in the United States, Fraçois Bedarida in France, and Yehuda Bauer in Israel have each lowered his figures. Pressac lowers them still further. Now, just how and why were these figures lowered? Has some new information come to light? Not at all. The calculations are being fudged in other ways. Pressac, who is certainly foxy but also a bit naive, shows how to do the trick.
Because most of the figures of deportees are merely guesswork estimates, they are subject to change. Wellers "loaded" the rail convoys with 5,000 deportees each. Hilberg disagrees, finding that 5,000 persons per rail convoy is too many. So he simply says to hell with it, and decides on 2,000. If one calculates on the basis of 120 train convoys, this makes a big difference (240,000 compared with 600,000). Along comes Pressac, who is not happy with either of these -- not on the basis of rail convoy capacity, but rather crematory capacity. Accordingly, he lowers (pp. 146-7) the figure of rail convoy capacity to 1,000-1,500. The day he realizes that his estimates of crematory capacities are illusory, and that cremation pits would have been visible from the air, he will have to lower them again. None of these calculators have gone to look in the archives. They've done it off the cuff. Thus, if the figures change, it's not because the documents demand it, but rather on the basis of the prevailing fashion and these calculators' hunches.
As has consistently been the case throughout the 15 years that this gas chamber controversy has been public, the most interesting aspect has been the behavior of the press. Its role in molding public opinion is crucial. Anyone who wants a clear understanding of the historical background and context of the so-called Holocaust must do a great deal of research precisely because the problems have not yet been fully clarified. In this, the journalists, and the experts whom they quote, are thus in a position to separate truth from falsehood and, for the public at large, to differentiate between the Good and the Evil. In two books,8 I have attempted to chronicle this media agitation, of which the large-scale worldwide publicity for Pressac's book is the latest chapter.
It must be said that the Pressac media campaign has been carried out in fine style. Pressac, who had been rather quietly working in the shadows, so to speak, was launched into public awareness as if a public relations expert had masterminded the operation. L'Express, a leading French news magazine, was first to open fire, with a Depardon cover photo and a big headline: "Auschwitz: The Truth."9
Soon follows the Nouvel Observateur10 with a weekend at Auschwitz with Pressac, along with the heavy artillery of the "leading specialists." Liberation, a Paris daily, joins in with two pages and more photographs and documents.11 Le Monde, another Paris daily, then appears with a half-page article from the pen of Laurent Greilsamer, who has followed the Faurisson affair in the courts for a long time. Then came a barrage of television and radio publicity. La Ville-du-Bois, the little town south of Paris where Pressac sells his drugs, hasn't known such uproar since the Hundred Years War.
"A work that will serve as a reference for historians of the whole world," said L'Express. Thanks to the Soviet archives "the first synthesis of knowledge of one of the most important events of the 20th century has been accomplished," L'Express went on to remark. This commentary is provided by someone named Conan and another chap called Peschanski, a research fellow who owes obedience to Bedarida.12 The distinguished commentators affirm that both the decision for and the execution of the "Judeocide" (a new term that has yet to gain wide acceptance) were shrouded in "absolute secrecy," of which we might say that it still hasn't been pierced.
But why did the archives lie dormant? "Because an important current of Jewish memory refused any rational approach to the Final Solution, which was deemed an 'unspeakable' and 'unthinkable' event." One would prefer, of course, a more straightforward denunciation, naming names and citing references, but at L'Express prudence prevails. The idyllic situation at the archives was disturbed by the "literature of denial," which set about picking out the errors "logically numerous in witness testimonies or in the postwar Soviet texts that made Auschwitz a theme of ideological propaganda." The fine sleuths at L'Express haven't noticed that every single assertion by Pressac regarding homicidal gas chambers is based directly on these very Soviet and Polish texts. But then one can't demand too much of journalists. It is Pressac who is supposed have personally discovered that "the technological history of the Final Solution still remains to be written." It is impossible for a well-bred journalist, as they prefer them at L'Express, to recognize that the father of this brilliant "discovery" (in France) is none other than Professor Robert Faurisson. After all, it wouldn't do to acknowledge that from that discovery on, every advance in this area owes something to him.
In his 1989 book -- published in New York by the Klarsfelds -- Pressac boasted that, on the basis of his work in the archives in Poland and Germany (50,000 documents), he was solving the riddle in its entirety. Now, he says, the 80,000 documents from the Soviets will tell us more. However, the 1989 work -- of 564 large-size pages -- was far more comprehensive, and dealt with many more subjects. Had the journalists done their homework, they would have recognized that Pressac's 1993 book is much more limited in scope, and is much more circumspect, indeed diffident, in its assertions than the 1989 work.
After having explained the book's stupefying discovery -- that the administration administered, that the construction office made plans and requested estimates and invoices -- the subtle analysts of L'Express assert that Pressac "found proof of the organization of the killing." There's the trick. Pressac swims in a sea of ambiguities. He does not positively state that he has found "proofs," but rather traces, or clues, which are almost as good as proof. Journalists can't afford to indulge in such subtlety, and Pressac makes no protest against their distortions. As in a child's game, he seems to say: "I didn't say it. He did." Pressac is always able, faced with real criticism, to take refuge in this infantile position. These "proofs," he writes (p. 82), are "precise indications" that "betray the rules of secrecy." This secret is so secret that it may not exist, Pressac himself having explained that there was no coding in the documents.
In the list of clues magically transformed into proof, the most ridiculous is not in his book but in what he told the press: "In a real morgue, there is a need to use disinfectants, like chlorinated water or cresol, but not a product for killing lice."13 The pharmacist who sells drugs to his everyday customers obviously has no idea of the scale of the problems arising from a full-scale typhus epidemic. The crematories were built to deal with a situation in which 250 to 300 corpses, swarming with disease-bearing lice, were delivered every day.14 Can one imagine heaping them up in the morgues without further ado? Sending in a team to wash them in chlorinated water, while in all the other facilities, including the barracks, yklon B was used to kill lice?
If these morgues had not been treated in an efficient way, they would have been great reservoirs of infection -- biological bombs. Pressac, with his bottle of chlorinated water, is a public menace. He should lose his license as a pharmacist for daring to say such things. Why such an idiotic remark? To persuade the reader to believe that the morgues would have been the only place in the camp where the use of Zyklon would not have been normal. Because the SS knew about chlorinated water,15 they had no need to disinfest the morgues with Zyklon. The logic here is ridiculous. But this reasoning has a hidden corollary: If the SS had used Zyklon in the morgues to protect the crematory personnel (themselves included), they could have done it only once in long periods. Without ventilation, the lethal gas would have stagnated. Consequently, they needed a ventilation system for these semi-underground rooms. This would explain why they requested the installation of such a system there.
Pressac rightly provides considerable detail about this. But because he has already concluded in advance -- and without the least support from the 130,000 documents available to him -- that the very existence of a ventilation system is a "clue" providing evidence of a homicidal plan, he must discard in advance any possible alternative interpretation. That is why the two L'Express journalists dutifully accepted, like holy water, this role of chlorinated water. Holy water for journalistic holy writ.
Similarly, the journalists have no problem forgetting about the January 1942 Wannsee Conference. They swallow Pressac's currently fashionable view as avidly as they swallowed, five or ten years ago, other authors who said just the opposite. Nothing else was to be expected. Journalists now easily accept the notion that, by late May or early June 1942, an anonymous "political will," of unidentified origin, "found [by some kind of chance] in the technical innovations [although, says Pressac, the oven technique is quite elementary and somewhat archaic] implemented at Auschwitz (thanks to engineer Prüfer) the means for an industrial-scale extermination." To put it in a nutshell, thanks to this obscure little engineer, a salesman of crematory ovens who receives a percentage cut from sales he makes for Topf company, the highest-level officials of Nazi Germany (who? Himmler himself?) would have said to themselves: "What a windfall! Hurray for Prüfer! Now we can really kill Jews!" Without wishing to seem overly critical, it is difficult to believe that a "genocide" of that alleged magnitude could have been decided in such a manner. For journalists turned historians, though, this latest revelation is as much revealed truth as the old one, and an act of faith costs nothing.
In the same way, these journalists have no trouble accepting without a murmur the numerical hocus-pocus that Pressac presents as "calculations." Without knowing why, we come down from 5.5 million deaths at Auschwitz (the Soviet figure in 1945) to 800,000. The L'Express journalists even predict that these figures, as well as estimates of deaths in the other camps and in the ghettos will be similarly revised downward in the future. It appears to be a general trend, and readers should be ready for it. (Do they already have new figures in mind?) But, basically, none of this is very important, they add in closing, because "the nature of the Final Solution remains unchanged." Personally, I take the view that only religious dogmas never change. (And sometimes even they change.)
L'Express also published an article by Bedarida, sponsor of Pressac's work. The bedarida is a little known species of squid. It swims in the cultural soup and propels itself rapidly toward all directors' chairs, to which it adheres with strong suckers. Always on the defensive, it emits jets of ink to cloud its surroundings. Author of a thin but definitive booklet on "the Nazi Extermination Policy," Bedarida courageously acknowledged that he did not have "all the necessary knowledge" on this subject. He sees in Pressac a case of biological mutation (he "transformed himself into a historian"), and believes that this pharmacist has become "an incontestable, if not unique, expert." Contested he is, however, and not only by revisionists. Unique, perhaps, if one considers only Establishment history, produced by all sorts of bedaridas, and the effects of the anti-revisionist laws. When he adds that Pressac has subjected the documents to a "pitiless critique," he looks like a fool to the astute reader. He regards as "terrifying" a work devoted to the study of construction plans, ventilation problems, overheating and other matters that are the daily concern of every civil engineer. This characterization seems to me to show, among the squid, a tendency toward bombast. When he adds the words "an irrefutable terrifying work," he is hallucinating. There are answers. Bad luck for the squids.
How is it possible, asks the sucker,16 that no one had looked into these questions before this? He could have told the plain truth: that it's because nobody knew how to respond to Professor Faurisson. (For years it was fashionable to say that he didn't even deserve a response.) No, Bedarida prefers to claim that in those days people instead emphasized the "perpetrators and the victims." And how to justify this late date -- 15 years after Faurisson raised the matter? Bedarida's explanation -- the opening of the Moscow archives -- is pure eyewash. Pressac's wretched hodgepodge that supposedly "settled everything" was published in 1989 -- before the opening of the Moscow archives. The only new thing culled from the 80,000 documents found in Moscow is the story of an apparatus produced by the Siemens company to kill lice with short waves. It seems that some experimental use was made of this machine at Auschwitz near the end of the war.17 This was new for Pressac and for most of us. Should this machine be added to the long list of mythical industrial-scale installations, including the Jewish soap factories, the electrified swimming pools, the vacuum and steam chambers, the heated iron plates, the trains of quicklime cars, and so forth, which, although described in numerous and precise testimonies, have sunk into oblivion from whence they could be revived only through the immense talent of a Claude Lanzmann? Because it does not seem that this Siemens machine could kill people, it's been ignored. This is the big novelty from Moscow, suppressed for 45 years by the KGB!
In 1979 I rhetorically asked "how" before "why."18 In 1993 the squid is still looking for "how and why." It's not historical research work that has made real progress in those years, but rather that a number of obstacles meant to prevent such research have been removed. The road is still not clear, but one day it certainly will be.
Journalist Claude Weill must have access to secret information because in the Nouvel Observateur he writes "that the existence of the gas chambers and the reality of the Jewish extermination policy have been overwhelmingly demonstrated. The evidence is available to anyone who can read and who is willing to open his eyes." I pray Mr. Weill to open my eyes, to make this evidence public so that Mr. Pressac's labors would become quite useless and thereby permitting him to concentrate on his work as a druggist.
Weill tells his own little story. He visits Auschwitz where he follows Pressac around, listening to his technical arguments. But after a while, he breaks down. These discussions are odious, and he asks Pressac to get to the point. The learned pharmacist responds: those who refuse to do scholarly and technical work "are making Faurisson's bed for him." This throws the journalist for a loop. Overwhelmed, he sadly faces the fact that history will win in the end, that the good times are over, and that "the Shoah will not escape the historians' cruel scrutiny." I didn't know that historians have a cruel look. Cruel for whom? This sentence says a lot, I think. But then the journalist can be pretty cruel himself: he cites figures of total deaths at Auschwitz provided by several earlier authorities, and crudely calls them "lies." The Pope, Willy Brandt, and many other important visitors to Auschwitz have bowed down before the memorial plaque there bearing these "lies." Considering how these official figures were arrived at, there's no reason why the latest figures supplied by Pressac won't one day also be called "lies."
In concluding his article, Weill expresses some skepticism. He finds some of Pressac's conclusions "hasty," the throwing overboard of the Wannsee Conference "not entirely convincing," the lowering of the number of victims "a bit imprudent." Pressac "has not closed the debate."
Not being fully convinced, this journalist needs to cover himself. So the Grand Masters of the Official Truth are permitted to speak. The first is Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who introduced Pressac to the Establishment. The first thing he shows us is that, as usual, he can't read: Vidal-Naquet believes that the "point" made by Pressac about the precise date of the "first gassings" is derived from the Moscow archives. This is clearly wrong.19 This "point" is actually the result of an argument typical of Pressac: he sees in the archives records that the buildings were not usually completed by the dates given by "authorities" (based on "memory"). Pressac then searches for the dates on which construction of the crematories were completed, then refers back to the Kalendarium (which is also largely based on "memory," and which even Pressac himself calls dubious) to determine what gassings took place that day. Evidently the Moscow archives make no mention of any homicidal gassings. As for Pressac's calculations, Vidal-Naquet finds them a bit hasty, too much based on assumption, it's "not so simple," "probably". . . The man who earned the Legion d'Honneur by dint of his anti-revisionist efforts prefers Hilberg's figures, which he calls "rather solid." Vidal-Naquet hesitates more than usual. He seems to be having second thoughts about his wisdom in launching Pressac, who has become the satellite of others and who threatens to crash land.
Then comes Raul Hilberg. After being grilled on the stand during the first Zündel trial at Toronto, in 1985, this professor of political science has learned to be more cautious.20 He laments that Pressac isn't really a historian, that his is not the "the last word on the subject." He complains that "important research is still necessary," that "considerable research is still needed," that "the German sources should be studied further," and that there is still a lot of work to do. One wonders what this fellow's been up to since he began his study of this subject in 1948.
But Hilberg says something very embarrassing: an extermination order by Hitler has already been missing; now an extermination order by Himmler is likewise nowhere to be found. Höss and Himmler did not even meet "during the crucial period." What now? Is it Höss who decided everything by himself? Or was he in the dark as well? An extermination order by Höss to his subordinates cannot be found either. Another mystery. Perhaps we should ask Vidal-Naquet.
But the best, as usual, comes from Claude Lanz-mann. He's a raw fundamentalist, dazed, totally inaccessible to the least reasoning, but with an animal's intuition. He showed this intuition in making the movie "Shoah," in which he abandoned all (or nearly all) reference to the documents. He knows the documents. He doesn't know what they really mean, but he has a photographic memory and rightly says that all the documents cited by Pressac were already known. Lanzmann defends his work as a movie maker in almost Celinian terms: art should create emotions, nothing else. ("I prefer the tears of the Treblinka barber to Pressac's document on the gas detectors"). Lanzmann is very modern; he likes to hit below the belt, crying to avoid thinking, toying with the macabre. Pressac's material "drives out emotion, suffering, death," he says. Lanzmann tramples on Vidal-Naquet, who licked his boots for years: "The sad thing is that a historian, his being doubtless threatened by the truth, the force, the evidence of the testimonies, does not hesitate to endorse this perversity [Pressac's book]. A historian abdicates before a pharmacist ..."
Lanzmann smells a rat in Pressac. He understands much better than the media and academic crowd, which rushed to embrace Pressac in the hope of finishing off revisionism, that
Faurisson is the only one this convert wants to talk to. To be listened to by him [Faurisson], he [Pressac] must speak his language, make his thought processes his own, accept his methodology, produce the crucial evidence, the ultima ratio, that will convince his former master ... In order to refute the revisionists' arguments, one must give them legitimacy, and they thus became the central point of reference. The revisionists occupy the whole terrain.
The poor man is right. He must feel quite lonely with his useless reels. He had to first delay, and then completely reorganize his movie because of Faurisson's work. In fact the terrain is not occupied by the revisionists -- who are persecuted everywhere -- but by the remnants of an imploded belief. Lanzmann, late in life, has become the epic poet, the cantor, of this belief. It's not just the revisionists' questions that caused the implosion. Time destroys myths: fugit irreparabile tempus, irreparable time flies.
The Liberation article is quite cautious. The journalist who wrote it sticks to Vidal-Naquet's 1979 phrase: "It [gas chamber killing] was technically possible because it occurred." (note 21) (The author of that phrase has been having regrets.) (note 22) The Liberation journalist effortlessly swallows the fantastic element of Pressac's book: the technicians, the foremen of the private firms who took part in the construction of the crematories, "saw." It is an interesting use of the word. "They saw." These two words say it all: the entire story and its refutation. But it's pure speculation. Nothing in the documents indicates that "they saw" anything implied by this lapidary formulation. In his interview with Liberation, Pressac is less than hinting broadly when he says calmly: "I was close to Faurisson, who trained me rather well in deniers' theory in the late '70s." And, further on, he returns to one of the most amusing arguments in his book: the only members of the Bauleitung who were ever tried, Dejaco and Ertl, in Austria in 1972, were acquitted because (he says) the Austrian judges couldn't read a blueprint or a technical description. Nevertheless, the court had access to documents from the Moscow archives. The Austrians, therefore, were cretins who awaited, without knowing it, the light emanating from Pressac's pharmacy. But it seems that Pressac himself did not inquire into the trial of Prüfer, the Topf company engineer who designed the crematory ovens, which took place before a Soviet court in April 1948. The transcripts of the Prüfer interrogations must certainly be somewhere in the Russian archives. The Soviets of 1948, doubtless as stupid as the Austrians in 1972, did not believe that Prüfer was the prime mover of extermination (as Pressac argues). Well then, whose turn is it to go to the Moscow archives now?
I have kept the article in Le Monde for dessert.23 Its author, Laurent Greilsamer, has long followed the judicial saga of Professor Faurisson, toward whom he has always shown the same hatred. That's why it's amusing to note that he praises Pressac exactly for what he found so blameworthy in Faurisson: for being an amateur historian, for starting with an examination of the weapon used in the crime, for being a pioneer, for being curious about everything, and for deliberately turning his back on the survivor testimonies to interest himself in the ruins and the documents. "Elementary," he says. This "elementary" weighs several tons of court papers! But there is more. Pressac's conclusions, writes Greilsamer, "revise, in the noble meaning of the term, that which the community of historians believed was established." How beautifully inspired is this revision "in the noble meaning of the term"! No camouflage, no coded language, everyone understands, we are in full clarity.
Why then, this journalist wonders with hypocritical anguish, hadn't anyone said these things earlier? "Fear of provoking a scandal," he writes. Pressac adds: "Because people weren't mature enough. The subject was too sensitive and the Berlin Wall hadn't yet come down. Don't forget that the history of Auschwitz was written in Poland by the Communists and that, even in France, the Gayssot law forbids free expression." (note 24) Revisions therefore had to be administered "in homeopathic doses." We have seen that Dr. Pressac, however, has used the opposite technique: a large dose of revision, coupled with intravenous injections of the Polish Kalendarium to sedate memory sufferings caused by amputation of illusions. The journalist is not sufficiently alert to ask what Pressac would write if there were no Gayssot law.
Pressac is happy to talk to Le Monde. An amateur, he can easily dismiss the intellectual establishment: "The researchers have kept quiet in order to hold onto their precious positions. There has been cowardice in the universities, and the revisionists have taken advantage of this for denial. Personally, I am doing the basic work. Anyone with common sense could do it." I love it.
He is more careful with the false "eyewitness" testimonies: "We shouldn't say they lied. We must take into account a factor of personal emotionalism." This is outrageous. Pressac knows full well that there have been deliberate, organized, profitable lies, which have nothing to do with "factors of personal emotionalism" (which may exist, surely, as in every testimony of whatever nature).
Lanzmann is right. Without Faurisson, there would be no Pressac. Pressac is 90 percent Faurisson, with the rest coming from easily identifiable and discredited sources. The media simply falls into line. One wonders who's more hypocritical: Pressac, who half saws away, in his notes from Höss and the Kalendarium, the branch on which he's sitting, or the journalists, who accept with joy and recognition from Pressac everything they rejected when it came from Faurisson?
There is, perhaps, a way out of this tangle. It is indicated in a remark by Bedarida (in L'Express). He says that Pressac was first attracted to revisionism but later refused to follow this group "on the road of denial." On the other hand, the Italian writer Umberto Eco said to Le Monde that revisionism is all right, that it's natural; it is possible to calmly discuss the documents, but one mustn't fall into "denial," which, he says, consists of denying that anything bad was done to the Jews during the Second World War.
I wonder if a new line is being drawn here. It makes a distinction between, on the one hand, revisionism, once again beautiful and good, exemplified by Pressac and his patrons and followers, who are obliged to adopt the revisionist method because it is the normal method of historical research, and, on the other hand, "denial," banished to the outer limits of taboo, including those who doubt the gas chambers, as well as (non-existent) deniers of the concentration camps, the rail deportations, and so forth. The consequence of this new view would be that revisionism, recognized at last, would demonstrate (in the style of Pressac, that is, sloppily) the existence of homicidal gas chambers, but in a way that they would lose their diabolical character. The death figures could be dropped much lower without infringing the nature of the Shoah. Faurisson and his associates would lose the use of their rational armament, captured by their enemies, and would be banished to the void by the Gayssot law. This might offer the best opportunity for the restored squids to pursue and enhance their brilliant careers.
Original French version published in: Sur
Pressac. Histoire de la nuit ou du brouillard ?, La Gazette du Golfe et des
banlieues, n° 8, novembre 1993, pp. 5-13.
In English published in The Journal for Historical Review
Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, 14(4) (1994), pp. 28-39 (PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA. Domestic subscriptions $40 per year; foreign subscriptions $50 per year.)