The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes

7. The Nuremberg Trials


THE ORIGINS of the Nuremberg Trials lay in the desire of the Allies as far back as 1943 to take revenge on the Nazi leadership, and punish the German people.248 It is clear that part of the desire was to ensure that there would be no more wars with Germany: hence at this early date one frequently encounters statements of simply executing tens of thousands of the leadership cadre in Germany, or even sterilizing the total German population.249

A general aspect of this hostile attitude was one of paranoia, evinced in conspiracy thinking about the Germans or at least about their leadership. The roots of such paranoia could be variously explained. For one thing, wars always generate suspicions and anxieties that frequently go over the top: one thinks of the English Army, confused and disoriented by the German offensive of May, 1940, finding secret messages in the plowings of Belgian farmers.250 Another contributing factor is the death and destruction of the war: history provides many instances where terrible misfortunes have been attributed to the secret plotting of others. Jews, for example, were frequently scapegoats in times of plague and disease.251 In the context of war-hatred against Germans, such attributions were a natural extension: during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, an American official attributed this terrible outbreak to a German submarine which had brought the disease to America under the Kaiser's order.252

Still another contributing factor to such paranoia is the extent to which war hysteria attributes malevolent "fifth column" tendencies to specific minority groups. The internment by the Allies of the Japanese and other European nationals, the Soviet deportations of the Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars, as well as the German deportations of the Jews, all seem to have been influenced by this kind of thinking to at least some degree.

To a certain extent such conspiratorial thinking is probably a throwback to shamanistic thinking; the idea that misfortune has a direct cause that can be traced back to a specific malevolent agent: one thinks of the various witchhunts that have cropped up here and there in European history.253 As it applied to the Germans in the 20th Century, such conspiratorial thinking about German motives and German conduct clearly preceded World War Two: one thinks of the Reichstag fire and even more sinister theories traced back hundreds of years.254  

In the context of the postwar period this simply meant that the Allies were not inclined to trust the German people and least of all their former leadership.255 The Allies were convinced, on the basis of the Canonical Holocaust, that the German people, or at least the SS, had engaged in the most barbaric crimes and they would not be dissuaded by denials.256 Down to the common soldier, one finds that whenever any German denied knowledge of "what was going on in the camps" the usual conclusion drawn was that he was simply lying.257 A final contributing element to this Allied paranoia involved the fact that they were essentially occupying with relatively small numbers a nation of 80 million people; history again shows that when such a small group attempts to impose its will on the majority, conspiracy thinking is a natural result.258

Simply put, a profound gulf existed between occupier and occupied. Allied paranoia created the certainty of German conspiracies, of which the mass gassing program was merely one. The Germans were not to be trusted to tell the Allies what had happened and why, they were merely expected to confirm what they were told. The source of the information for what had happened was, after all, available in reports that had been authoritatively issued by the Soviet and later Polish communist governments, as well as by confessions and affidavits that simply restated what everyone had known all along. In this atmosphere of assumed guilt and conspiracy, it was unfortunate that the presentation for the mass gassing and extermination claims at Nuremberg fell almost entirely to the Soviet Union, which already had long experience with conspiracies, paranoia, and show trials.

What transpired at Nuremberg cannot be fully grasped without some understanding of the psychology of Soviet judicial procedure under Stalin. In the 1930's, the Soviets conducted several trials, mostly involving prominent communists but also "saboteurs" who, it was said, were attempting to destroy the Soviet Union.259 It is generally granted that the accusations made in these trials were false, an extract from one confessor's affidavit, who was charged with sabotaging Soviet agriculture as part of a German plot, is very revealing:

The chief task assigned to me by the German intelligence service at that time was to arrange to spoil grain within the country. This involved delaying the construction of storehouses and elevators, so as to create a discrepancy between the growing size of the grain collections and the available storage space. In this way [the German agent] said, two things would be achieved: firstly, the grain itself would be spoiled; and secondly, the indignation of the peasants would be aroused, which was inevitable when they saw that grain was perishing. I was also asked to arrange for the wholesale contamination of storehouses by pests, especially by corn-beetle ... The German intelligence service made a special point of the organization of wrecking activities in the sphere of horsebreeding in order .. not to provide horses for the Red Army. As regards seed, we included in our program muddling up seed affairs, mixing up sorted seed and thus lowering the harvest yield in the country. As regards crop rotation, the idea was to plan the crop area incorrectly and thus place the collective farm peasants in such a position that they would be virtually unable to practice proper crop rotation and would be obliged to plough up meadows and pastures for crop growing. This would reduce the size of the harvests in the country and at the same time arouse the indignation of the peasants, who would be unable to understand why they were being forced to plough up meadows and pastures when the collective farms wanted to develop stock-breeding and required fodder for the purpose. As regards the machine tractor stations, the aim was to put tractors, harvester combines and agricultural machines out of commission, to muddle the financial affairs of the machine and tractor stations, and for this purpose to place at the machine and tractor stations useless people, people with bad records, and above all members of our Right organization. As regards stock-breeding, the aim was to kill off pedigree breed stock and to strive for a high cattle mortality ... to prevent the development of fodder resources and especially to infect cattle artificially with various kinds of bacteria in order to increase their mortality ... I instructed [the head of the veterinary department] and Boyarshinov, Chief of the Bacteriological Department, to artificially infect pigs with erysipelas in the Leningrad region and with plague in the Voronezh region and the Azov-Black Sea Territory. I chose these two bacteria because the pigs are inoculated not with dead microbes, but with live ones, only of a reduced virulence. It was therefore quite simple from the technical standpoint to organize artificial infection ... For this purpose three factories were selected at my suggestion ... In these factories serums were made with virulent bacteria and given special serial numbers. Boyarshinov was informed of these serial numbers and he transmitted them to the chiefs of the veterinary departments in the localities who could be relied on in this matter, and they in turn transmitted them to veterinary surgeons who had anti-Soviet feelings and who in case of a heavy cattle mortality would not raise a big fuss.260

The detached reader notes first of all the tremendous scope of the secret conspiracy alleged as well as the fact that every conceivable shortcoming of Soviet agriculture is being attributed to it. A natural conclusion is that the Soviet government had orchestrated a tremendous hoax. But that is probably too radical an interpretation. It is hard to believe that any rational government, intent above all on simply suppressing its enemies,261 would devise such a lunatic indictment. Rather it suggests that, probably with some rational and deliberate coaxing from above, the concept of sabotage took on a life of its own in the minds of the security apparatus, the interrogators, and probably even among many of the defendants as well. In other words, we are looking at an instance of mass hysteria in which Soviet society had been taken over by rumors of secret "wreckers" whose secret agenda was so skillfully masked that no hard evidence existed, and whose works comprised all of the misfortunes of the process of collectivization and de-kulakization. To say that it was wholly deliberate is to go against the weight of analysis from history: as Malise Ruthven pointedly notes, histories of the witchcraft mania never suggest that the inquisitors were perpetrating a fraud.262

A similar hysterical atmosphere of endlessly ramifying atrocity appears to have prevailed at Nuremberg. The Americans had found half a dozen strips of human flesh at Buchenwald ornamented with tattoos.263 At Nuremberg, this freak discovery became a veritable cottage industry in the concentration camps: according to Dr. Blaha, the Germans made riding breeches, gloves, and ladies' handbags from human flesh at Dachau,264 while the witness Balachowsky assured the court in his testimony that it was used to bind books.265 The Soviets then produced samples of what they claimed was tanned human skin along with a few exhibits that were purportedly human soap.266 It need hardly be said that none of these claims have ever been verified; the Soviet samples have disappeared.267

The prosecution's case at the Trial consisted mostly of reading into the record miscellaneous atrocity claims from affiants who never appeared to testify.268 (The defense was allowed half a day to summarize 300,000 affidavits in rebuttal.)269 With regards to the gas extermination claim, an important document was an affidavit from Höttl, who subsequently evaded prosecution, which explained that secret orders from Himmler had established the extermination program, and that four million had been killed at Auschwitz, six million Jews in all.270 Later testimony by Wisliceny repeated Höttl's claim, and put the blame for the events on the missing and presumed dead Adolf Eichmann.271 No documents, then or now, have ever been advanced that point to the planning, budgeting, or ordering of a gas extermination program.

The Soviet presentation, covering most of February, 1946, was considered excessive by some: after presenting an affidavit that a German commandant had taken Jewish children, thrown them in the air, and then shot them for the entertainment of his small daughter, Justice Parker of the United States would be heard to privately comment: "They have gone too far!"272 When Mesdames Vaillant Couturier and Shmegelovskaya presented fantastic testimonies of the mass gassings at Auschwitz, Justice Biddle of the United States would note privately "I doubt this"273 and Justice Birkett of the United Kingdom would express private misgivings.274 But it points to the hysterical atmosphere of the time that neither they, nor anyone else, had the courage to publicly dissent and inject some rationality into the proceedings.275

In the summer of 1946, Soviet hubris finally overreached itself when they submitted a 56 page octavo pamphlet that claimed that the Germans had murdered 11,000 Polish officers and had buried them in the Katyn Forest in order to discredit the Soviet Union: under the rules of the Court, the mere submission of such a report would normally be enough to establish it as "fact of common knowledge."276 The depressing thing about the Soviet Katyn report is that it is in fact longer and more substantial than either the Majdanek or Auschwitz reports.277 It is also completely false, since it has been reasonably well known since 1952 and was admitted by the Soviet Union in 1989 that Katyn was a Soviet atrocity.278 The Germans, who finally had evidence to contradict a Soviet claim, tested the assumption, and finally, after some conflict, were able to present their own witnesses to the affair.279 The court made no mention of Katyn in its final judgment, making it very clear that at this trial justice and morality had to defer to political expediency.280

At the end of the Soviet prosecution case, the defense phase of the trial began. About a week after that, Winston Churchill, borrowing a phrase from Joseph Goebbels, spoke of an Iron Curtain descending over the continent of Europe.281 Almost simultaneously, a week long trial was held in the Hamburg Curio House against the principals of the firm Tesch and Stabenow, which sold Zyklon B to the Auschwitz camp. That trial, which yielded two death sentences, brought to the fore a number of witnesses -- Bendel, Broad, and Bimko -- whose narratives had already been before the public eye. Just days after the conclusion of that trial, and not far away, the British Field Police seized the former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höß.


  1. This is widely attested, see especially Morgenthau, op. cit. Tusa, Ann and John, The Nuremberg Trial, Atheneum, NY:1983, pp. 21-28, Irving, Nuremberg, discusses the matter extensively in chapter 2, "Lynch Law".

  2. The widespread fascination with castrating Germans elicited comments from none other than President Roosevelt himself; see Morgenthau, op. cit., Butz, op. cit., cites Clifton Fadiman and Ernest Hemingway, Irving traces the concept back to a book written by an embittered American Jew, in Goebbels, p. 369, 372-373

  3. Deighton, Len, Blood, Tears and Folly, Harper, NY:1994, pp.194-195

  4. Cohn, Norman, Warrant for Genocide, Serif, London:1996, a study on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, recapitulates much of this material, and also shows the composite roots of that document. Unfortunately, Cohn takes an uncritical and erroneous view of statements derived from the Gerstein statement, cf. p. 236. The reader will have perhaps already noted that the concept of the National Socialist mass gas extermination program is an inversion of the Protocols concept which many, including many National Socialists, held about Jewish people. Therefore, in this sense, Cohn's choice of quotes is apt: the Gerstein Statement is the mirror image of the Protocols. Further, the reader would note that the wide-spread popularity of the Protocols concept (which nowadays embraces most conspiracy theories) is fundamentally a mythic reaction to certain aspects of modernity; in other words, just like our subject.

  5. Collins, Richard, The Plague of the Spanish Lady, Atheneum, NY: 1974, p. 83.

  6. Cohn, Norman, The Pursuit of the Millenium, also Ruthven, op. cit., Both authors (indeed, most modern authors) trace the witch hunts to social and hence ideological stress.

  7. The Reichstag Fire is a classic instance of paranoia striking in both directions; the National Socialists were convinced that the communists had set the blaze, most everyone outside of Germany was convinced of German guilt. Fritz Tobias' study eventually showed that van der Lubbe set the fire by himself; thus the Law of Parsimony eventually gets rid of conspiracy theories, see Tobias, Fritz, The Reichstag Fire, Secker and Warburg, London:1962. Because Hitler benefited from the fire, in the sense that it facilitated the Enabling Acts, it was long considered another Nazi plot, cf. Shirer, Rise and Fall. xxxxx

  8. One theme that is not pursued here but certainly deserves fuller treatment involves the allied desire to pacify Germany; this meant not only the demilitarizing of the nation by also the discrediting of its military and political elite. Lucius Clay, in his memoirs, Decision in Germany, discussed with frankness the result of the Nuremberg Trials: the National Socialist party was thoroughly discredited. [Doubleday, NY:1950, pp. 250-252] At the same time, Clay noted that the attempt to discredit the military leadership was less successful. [Ibid.] Therefore the reader should understand that one of the reasons that the atrocity charges (including the gassing claim) were pursued with such abandon, and were allowed to be pursued, and have been allowed to propagate unchecked, is because very quickly they became narrowed in function to the simple discrediting of National Socialism. However, just because these charges have been allowed to stand because they discredit National Socialism, it does not follow that to question these charges is the same thing as an endorsement of National Socialism.

  9. The interrogation of Dr. Pfannenstiehl, who Gerstein mentioned in his statement, is characteristic. See Roques, op. cit., pp. 299-308

  10. cf. Life Magazine, May 8, 1945, provides some examples, but this is a very common sentiment expressed in GI memoirs and the press.

  11. This is the central thesis of Ruthven's book, op. cit., interestingly the notion is recapitulated by the conspiracy of Hitler's resurrection, cf. Life, issue cited above, cf., New Yorker, article cited below, as well as the generalized paranoia about "Werewolves" and the "Alpine Redoubt."

  12. Tucker, Richard, The Great Terror, is the standard reference, but see also Ruthven, op. cit., pp. 218-278. 

  13. quoted in Ruthven, op. cit., pp. 245-246

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ruthven, op. cit., p. 265

  16. Butz, op. cit., p. 238, provides a photograph of the Buchenwald exhibition that the German people were forced to view, again, as proof of the moral bankruptcy of the National Socialist regime. The photograph featured various anatomical exhibits, two shrunken heads, and half a dozen strips of human skin, most with tattoos, one of almost the complete frontal torso. Over on the far right of the photo one can see a lampshade on a stand, this was also claimed to have been made of human skin although basic visual inspection indicates that it is of a different order of material than the others. This lampshade appears to have been made of goatskin, and is the root of all of the rest of the "human skin" stories. Cf. Aroneanu, op. cit., p. 106, quoting Supreme AEF report on Buchenwald. As far as is known, neither that lampshade nor any of the other materials discussed in the text has ever been positively identified, many, not even seen; it is doubtful that such materials would be unavailable for testing even today if they had ever existed, since it is known that the United States government retains human skulls gathered by Americans soldiers and sailors in the South Pacific, Iserson, Kenneth, Death to Dust, Tucson, AZ, 1995.

  17. cited in Porter, Holocaust, the reader is reminded that Porter's text simply involves captioned pages from the trial record that have been photographed and presented in legible format whole, i.e., his book does not comprise interpretation of these affidavits and testimony, other than, of course, in his selections.

  18. cited in Porter, Holocaust

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Taylor, Telford, Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials, Back Bay, NY: 1992, p. 315

  22. cited in Porter, op. cit.

  23. discussed in Irving, Nuremberg

  24. Irving, Nuremberg, and see also Harris, Tyranny

  25. Tusas, op. cit., p. 198

  26. Irving, in both Goering and Nuremberg, makes references that are keyed to Biddle's private papers, the first gives the impression that it was Shmegelovskaya who was doubted, the second, Vaillant-Couturier. Perhaps Biddle doubted both.

  27. quoted in Taylor, op. cit., p.315

  28. This ties directly to the judges and lawyers at Nuremberg, and the community of historians, who have failed to oppose censorship today. It is of course one thing for historians to avoid investigating contentious matters. That is not praiseworthy but it is understandable; although we should keep in mind that tenure was not designed to cover minor personal peccadilloes but rather to protect scholars when pursuing difficult questions. It must be said that Dr. Butz, regardless of the merits of his book or his arguments, is the only American academician to have used tenure for the purpose for which it was designed. On the silence of historians in the face of censorship, that is another affair. On the other hand, we are bound to record the statements of professors emeritus Raul Hilberg and Gordon Craig, who have both publicly denounced both censorship and taboo on this subject.

  29. Taylor, op. cit., p. 313, reference to Article 21 of the London Charter.

  30. The Majdanek report comes in at 26 pages, the Auschwitz report would be estimated at about 35, the brochure of Katyn introduced in evidence was 56 pages long.

  31. Paul, op. cit.

  32. Harris, Tyranny, summarizes the German counter, as well as the 1952 Congressional Hearings.

  33. No mention in judgment, cf. Taylor, op. cit., Generally speaking it seems odd that historians continue to use Nuremberg testimony, especially unattested Soviet-generated testimony, as proof of German atrocities. The Soviet Katyn testimony, that described how the Germans dug up the bodies of the 11,000 Polish officers, transported them to Katyn, went through their pockets and planted papers, then reburied them, and then dug them up again, as part of a plot to discredit the Soviet Union, is just as detailed, cogent, and realistic as that provided by the Soviet Union for the extermination camps.

  34. Churchill's speech, 6 March 1946, Fulton, Missouri, first stated by Goebbels, [date], Irving, Goebbels, p. xxxxx

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