The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes
10. Retrofitting the Euthanasia Campaign
SO FAR WE HAVE SEEN that through the spring of 1946 the gassing claim continued to develop, acquiring weight from authoritative reports and the judicial notice of the court, and acquiring immediacy and broad acceptance through the medium of popular paperbacks, graphic photos and newsreel footage. After two years, the claim had fastened on the now-familiar shower-gas-burning sequence, and beginning in the summer of 1944 that claim was imposed upon the physical facts of the camps. By the summer of 1946, the mass gassing claim, as a "fact of common knowledge" had been saturating popular consciousness for four years, even though up to this point, as we have seen, no direct material or documentary evidence had been offered in its support. The next development, starting in July, 1946, was remarkable: the gassing claim, and specifically the shower-gas-burning sequence, was now extended to the time period before the spring of 1942, and in particular to the National Socialist euthanasia program.
That there was a euthanasia campaign, beginning in the fall of 1939, is not in dispute.336 The program, never publicly discussed in Germany, was meant to provide for the mercy killing of the insane, and others who suffered severe mental and physical handicaps, or were near death. The program also provided for the euthanizing of children with severe disabilities.337 The severe mental and/or physical limitations of the victims is something that should be kept in mind, because of the euthanasia scenarios that would emerge in the fall of 1946.338
The euthanasia program generated many rumors which indicated the strong opposition of the German people. In December, 1941, Thomas Mann claimed over the BBC that 10,000 individuals had already been killed in the euthanasia program with poison gas.339 Before that, there had been widespread rumors in 1941, that elicited strong comments objecting to the program by Catholic clerics. The most famous of these was the sermon by Cardinal Count von Galen of Munster, on August 3, 1941, which explicitly discussed the claims that the mentally handicapped were being put to death and which vigorously condemned them.340 No method of execution was discussed; but what had registered in the minds of the people was the fact that the deceased were in all cases cremated: this alone gave rise to suspicions.341
Ten days later the Bishop of Limberg wrote a letter to the Reich Minister of Justice which demonstrated the extent to which the rumors had now filtered down even to children at play, once again emphasizing the extent to which cremation was the source of rumors:
It should be noted in passing that the references to the stench and smoke from the cremations are inaccurate exaggerations, but we will have more to say about cremation shortly.343
What we have then, as early as 1941, are rumors concerning the euthanasia program which have fastened on the cremation or burning element of the usual sequence. Going even farther back, we find rumors from 1940 that help to round out the picture. William Shirer's Berlin Diary was published in June of 1941, and, as a note for November 25, 1940, we find the following entry:
Therefore no later than the fall of 1940 we have a full range of speculative rumor concerning the euthanasia program. There are associations with cremation, which is considered incriminating, the association with cremation has in turn led to rumors about death administered by poison gas and death rays which disfigure the victims. There are associations with disease control: first, the justification given by the government for the rapid cremations, and second, the quarantine signs that Shirer reports. So already we have in this period identified the burning element of the familiar sequence, which has in turn generated the gassing element. What we appear to be missing is the showering element, although we do have an association with the dread of disease and disease control measures.
Beginning with the affidavits of Konrad Morgen in July of 1946, which were intended to absolve the SS of responsibility for the mass extermination gassings, we have an attempt to link the latter procedures to the prior rumors of euthanasia gassings.345 The proof offered then, and which has been considered sufficient since, consisted not of direct material or physical evidence, but rather post-war testimonies.346
The remarkable thing about this testimony, generated in 1946 or thereafter, is that it so closely parallels the kind of procedure said to have taken place according to the Canonical Holocaust. Hence, we have the arrival of a bus or train of people. They are separated by sex. They are led to undressing rooms where their belongings are sorted and registered. Then they are led into a shower, where they are gassed. Finally, they are burned. The other remarkable thing about this testimony is that its physical description strongly suggests the disinfection chamber arrangement at Majdanek: the steel doors with peepholes, the small pipe that leads to nowhere, but which is here explained as connected by rubber tubing to carbon monoxide in tanks,347 the two steel doors with peepholes to the gas chamber, one of which leads to the outside, but for no apparent reason, and the brick facing on the concreted structure.
There are two fundamental problems with such testimony: one is that it simply repeats the by-then universally known shower-gas-burning sequence. Second, the concept behind the extermination procedure makes no logical sense.
Let's just assume for the moment that the shower-gas-burning sequence had actually been developed for the extermination of people being deported to the East. There would be some logic to the procedure, but only to this extent: some means would have been needed to deceive the victims so that they could be concentrated into a small enclosed space, and the regulation delousing procedure might theoretically provide cover for this deception.348 But such a procedure would have been purposeless for the euthanasia victims, since many were incapable of any rational thinking and would hardly require such subterfuge, let alone the fact that many could probably not even stand, to say nothing of standing in a camouflaged shower room waiting to be gassed.
There is a confusion of deceptions here: the deception to get people into the gas chambers is not the same as the deception whereby people are gassed with carbon monoxide so that they die painlessly and without premonition.349 The trappings of a shower would be irrelevant to bring about the deceptive death by CO to a euthanasia victim. Moreover, there has never been any testimony that the extermination gassing victims did not know that they were being killed.
As a result the euthanasia eyewitnesses contradict each other: on the one hand we are told that the victims would go into the shower facility, and then within a few moments would go lie down on the benches where they would pass into a lethal sleep unawares,350 while others assure us that the death agony would take 10 minutes or more and would be accompanied by horrible scenes.351 And this leads to another confusion: euthanasia victims in Germany were not passing through zones where diseases were endemic, indeed, in most cases they were simply being transported from asylums or sanitariums. A delousing procedure would not be necessary, so, apparently for this and for other reasons the showers were now to be equipped with benches: in other words, in the testimonial descriptions, the shower rooms were transformed into steam baths. But what is the purpose of showerheads in a steambath?
Nevertheless, to the Allies prosecuting the Doctor's Trial it must have made sense. After all, it was known by virtue of the International Military Tribunal's judicial notice that millions of people in Eastern Europe had been exterminated by the shower-gas-burning sequence, and it was further alleged that thousands had been gassed and burned in the euthanasia program. Therefore it must have seemed obvious to the Allies that the euthanasia program would have employed the shower element and all that was necessary was to get the defendants -- on trial for their lives -- to confess to these facts. This led to one of the strangest exchanges in the Nuremberg Trials, during the questioning of Dr. Viktor Brack:
Given the chronological order of these testimonies and the context of the evolution of the shower-gas-burning sequence it seems clear that these descriptions of euthanasia shower-gassings represent a clear case of concept transference: that is, the shower element from the camps has been retrofitted onto another situation, with a correspondingly poor fit.
A similar case occurred in World War One propaganda. At that time, the legend arose that German soldiers were cutting off the hands of Belgian children.353 The claim was of course false, and furthermore no logical reason was ever advanced for the procedure. However, if we go back to the turn of the century we can find the likely source of the story. In 1903, Roger Casement published an expose of the brutal treatment which King Leopold's concessionaires were carrying out in the Belgian Congo.354 This included the use of bounty hunters, who were supposed to provide proof of their kills. The proof consisted in the hand of the victim. Hence, the claims of sacks of hands, taken as bounty, figured prominently in this scandal. The practice, as grotesque as it was, makes some sense in the context in which it is said to have occurred. It seems likely that this claim was simply transposed from the Belgian Congo to Belgium proper in 1914 and the identities of the malefactors were changed, but in the process of transference the concept acquired a certain telltale illogic.
Since there was a euthanasia program, and since it antedated the mass gassing program, the acceptance of the shower-gas-burning sequence for the euthanasia program provides strong support for the chronologically later, but earlier reported, claim of mass gassing.355 Yet the description of the sequence for the euthanasia program comes after, and is clearly influenced by, the establishment of the canonical shower-gas-burning sequence, and furthermore has no material, documentary, or physical support.356
There are, however, elements in the euthanasia rumors which may have influenced subsequent developments. The stench and smoke from the crematoria, and the "murder wagons" are two such elements.357 It is significant that within days of Bishop von Galen's protestations about the euthanasia program, rumors of gassings were alleged in Poland, both of these followed Shirer's gassing rumor, published in June.358 There is also the possibility that the disease control measures supposedly invoked to conceal the operations of the euthanasia program, as well as to justify its cremations, inspired rumors analogous to the disinfection rumors from the turn of the century.359 But, here again, it is clear that the invocation of disease control for the sake of secrecy and cremation would have been applied to the outside world: there would have been no reason to continue such an elaborate charade for the victims of the program itself. The presence of the showering element in the euthanasia program thus makes no sense.
This observation leads us back to the presence of the gassing element in the euthanasia program. We know that gassing had been alleged as far back as the fall of 1940 because it was conceived as causing disfiguration, which would then require cremation to hide the traces. Gassing is not being claimed for any other reasons, or based on any other evidence. This simply means that the suspicion of cremation, and fear of disfiguration caused by poison gas, were the real source of the gassing claim at that time. Therefore we most now turn and consider the social and cultural attitudes about cremation and poison gas in the 1930's.