The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes
9. Interpreting Documents and the Postwar Literature
A DISCUSSION of Höß' various confessions, and particularly those in the spring of 1946, leads naturally to the quality and context of the documentary evidence offered at the Nuremberg Trials.302 Thousands of documents were submitted; but the documents were selected and submitted with a view to convict, not to understand. This was recognized by AJP Taylor years ago.303
It is advisable therefore to pause momentarily and look at some of the documents that were presented as proof of exterminations, and particularly gas exterminations.
It is surprising to note that it appears no documents referencing gas chambers were entered into the record of the International Military Tribunal, if we exclude affidavits and testimony.304 Most of the few documents that we have were recorded by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, an American court that ran from 1946 to 1949, and which comprised 12 cases against the Nazi leadership. The most important of these, in terms of the gassing claim, was Case #4, the "Concentration Camp Case" which occupied most of 1947. Of the seven hundred documents entered by the prosecution, only four can be interpreted as referencing gas chambers: NO-4473, the so-called "Vergasungskeller" letter, NO-4465, a letter referencing "three gas chambers" specified as "gasdichte Türme", and NO-4344 and 4345, which references the construction of "extermination chambers" specified as "Entwesungskammern" at the concentration camp of Gross-Rosen.305
Two of these documents are definite mistranslations, and the third is quite possibly so. As we have seen, "Entwesungskammern" were standard delousing and disinfestation chambers, and had nothing to do with extermination gas chambers. Similarly, "gasdichte Türme" are better translated as "gastight turrets" or "towers" but in any case cannot be associated with "gas chambers." Finally, as we have seen, "vergasen" (to gas) was widely used as a synonym for "begasen" (to fumigate) -- even in Auschwitz documents306 -- and has no necessary relationship to extermination gassing. The fact that at least two of these documents were clearly misused goes far to prove the argument that in the immediate postwar period the gassing claim was buttressed by the ignorant misuse of German documents taken completely out of context.
Probably for this reason, present day arguments in favor of the mass gassing claim rarely depend on such obvious mistakes, but rather on a second order of documentation that suggests, without directly attesting, to the existence of mass gassing.307
One example concerns a draft memo, the so-called Wetzel-Lohse correspondence, concerning conditions around Riga, and entered into the Nuremberg Military Tribunal as NO-365. The draft letter mentions putting large numbers of Jews into the Labor service, and discusses the need for building the necessary "Unterkünfte" with the appropriate "vergasungsapparate".308 In the context of the disinfection literature, this is clearly a reference to a Labor Service hut that would be equipped with the standard Entwesungskammern for delousing clothing.309 Yet this same document has been occasionally put forth as evidence of a homicidal gassing program, even though there is no material or documentary support for that interpretation, and even though there never were any gas chambers in Riga.310
Another example concerns the Diary of Dr. Kremer, who arrived at Auschwitz at the beginning of September, 1942.311 The Diary makes one reference to Zyklon B, in the unambiguous context of a barracks fumigation ("vergasungs eines Blocks") and then goes on to record the arrival of convoy after convoy of Western Jews arriving at the camp at a time when typhus is ravaging the camp and killing thousands. Yet this document, unambiguous on its face, is constantly advanced as proof of a mass gas extermination campaign. Two quotes are usually given:312
It is conceivable that Kremer is describing here selections for hospitalization, disinfection, or even euthanasia.313 But it is extremely unlikely that a gassing process is being described. For example, the Sonderaktionen (special actions) appear to be taking place outside, and there is a rush of SS men who wish to participate for extra rations. Yet, according to Pery Broad's writing, this is precisely the description of the rewards given to the SS men for helping in the processing of a new transport, not mass murder and not gas exterminations.314 Moreover, gassings would not take place outside nor would they require large participation -- the role of the SS in the gassings was supposed to have been limited to one or two individuals throwing the cans of Zyklon down some kind of chute.315
Nor are the terrified Dutch women determinative of mass murder. We know that Thomas Mann had broadcast rumors of gassings (specifically, train gassings) on the 27th of September.316 We further know that Anne Frank was aware of such gassing rumors from the "English radio" in Holland on the 9th of October.317 Other European Jews, recalling the war years, also regularly listened to the BBC.318 So we have every reason to believe that many of these Dutch deportees were at least aware of these kinds of rumors, and, regardless of the eventual fate of these people, since the Dutch Jews lost many lives in the camp system, there is a valid reason for suspecting that the reaction of the Dutch women was, in this particular instance, one of panic and hysteria. This is further borne out by the fact that Dr. Kremer told his interrogators where the diary was after the war was over, believing that its contents would exonerate him.319
Such examples as these could be multiplied many times over, although not that many times, because the documentary basis for the gassing claim is so slender. The simple fact remains that most of the documents generated at Nuremberg that were said to apply to mass gas extermination are simple references to known German delousing and disinfection procedures, or else documents that are benign onto which a gassing interpretation has been placed. It is noteworthy that those who use these documents as a means of proving the mass gassing claim tend to give short shrift either to the disinfection use of Zyklon B, German disinfection procedures in general, or the rampant epidemics that probably killed hundreds of thousands in the camps.320
The same situation pertains to documents that claim to prove the extermination program per se. The vast majority of these involve the substitution of terms. In other words, the Germans had a policy of deporting Jews to Eastern Europe (Evakuierung zu dem Ost, umsiedlung), drawing off the able-bodied for labor, or the unfit for concentration in ghettoes through special actions (Sonderaktionen) where selections (Selektionen) were made, by way of achieving a final solution (Endlösung) to the Jewish problem in Europe.321 But according to the gas extermination interpretation, following on the assertions of Höttl and Wisliceny, all of these terms were simply code words for gas extermination.
The problem is that this interpretation is undercut by many other documents, for example, by the following extract from the summer of 1942, when the "Final Solution" had been in effect for almost a year:
As well as by Hitler's own words in the fall of 1941:
Hitler's interlocutors at this particular table-talk were Himmler and Heydrich: therefore, to read this text as something other than what it says one would have Hitler dissembling to the two main architects of his anti-Jewish policy.323 It is also worth pointing out that the "marshy parts of Russia" is a reference to Byelorussia (Belarus).
Finally the interpretation of Final Solution as a mass murder policy is undercut by a document shown by David Irving in his most recent book on Nuremberg, in which Staatsekretär Franz Schlegelberg wrote, in the spring of 1942, that Dr. Hans Lammers had phoned him, telling him that Hitler had repeatedly said that the Final Solution was to be postponed until after the war. The document was missing for many years.324
Therefore, to maintain that these documents pertain to an extermination plan, one must argue that sometimes these words meant extermination, and sometimes they did not. The reader is left to ponder how the German bureaucracy would ever have been able to function under such conditions, if such was the case.
Beginning in 1946, and therefore concurrent with the introduction of these documents at the International Military Tribunal, a number of personal eyewitness accounts were published for mass circulation. These included, among others, Olga Lengyel's I Survived Hitler's Ovens, and Miklos Nyiszli's Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account.325
It seems clear when reviewing this literature that it was written in a deliberately sensational style meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator in reading tastes. Lengyel's book, for example, is full of lurid gossip about Irma Grese, her supposed affair with the notorious Dr. Mengerle (sic!), grotesque medical experiments, and lesbian affairs among the women inmates.326 Nyiszli is an endless series of hard to believe mass murders, by various means.327 On the other hand, Nyiszli is considered an important source for all Holocaust historians, even though, by the time his book achieved prominence in the West in 1953, he was already dead and therefore incapable of being cross-examined. 328
The books, which, incidentally, were both written by Hungarian physicians, are clearly derivative of the Soviet Special Commission on Auschwitz. This is made clear not only by the number of victims (4 million),329 but also by the general arrangement of gas chambers and crematoria, the precise arrangement of the burning pits,330 and the numerous descriptions of medical experiments. In fact, when read in conjunction with the Soviet report these two books read almost like novelizations of that document. But it is precisely where the Soviets are silent in their report, that is, on the actual layout and carrying out of the gassing process, that Drs. Lengyel and Nyiszli make mistakes. Thus Dr. Nyiszli makes a number of observations about the size of the crematoria and gas chambers that are clearly wrong,331 while Dr. Lengyel writes that the gas crystals were introduced from a trapdoor on top of the chamber, and that a glass porthole had been fitted into the trap for observing the operation, which contradicts the current version.332
Such sensational and inaccurate studies are doubtless the most popular medium whereby knowledge of the mass gassing claim has been disseminated. But as we have seen these treatments are heavily indebted to, if they are not completely derived from, the Canonical Holocaust of the Soviet Special Commissions on Auschwitz and other camps. That decreases their historical value greatly.
But in fact what has happened over time is that the exaggerated claims in these sensationalist efforts have multiplied and acquired an authority almost equal to that of the Nuremberg court itself, for the simple reason that, having accepted the claim of mass gassing without adequate documentary or material support, we are in no position to deny the claim of streams of melted human fat gathered from the runoff of burning corpses, which is then either made into soap or ladled back onto the pyre to expedite the burning.333
In the fall of 1946, the International Military Tribunal gave its final verdict, and endorsed both the gassing claim and the soap making claim.334 Having thus officially passed into the historical record, any further proof would have been considered superfluous. But the problem, as we have seen so far, is that little in the way of proof was offered at Nuremberg.
The most troubling aspect of the mass gassing claim is not that it was made on the basis of slender or non-existent evidence. It is rather that nothing has been produced over the past 50 years that supports the claim. In the past several years numerous archives have been opened to study, and the British government has released many of its ULTRA decrypts for scholarly use along with the transcripts of conversations among detained Germans that were secretly recorded.335 The tapes and decrypts indicate a knowledge of mass shootings as far back as the summer of 1941, as well as the confessions of SS officers who took part in such procedures, as well as secret concentration camp radio traffic, including that of Auschwitz, but there is nothing in any of these materials about gassing.
This should represent a serious problem for historians. To maintain the gas extermination claim, purely on the basis of the documentation at Nuremberg, is to also maintain that it was carried out with such stealth and cunning that no record was ever made, not even in secret radio traffic or eavesdropped conversations. Because of the broad currency of the gassing claim, it is sometimes said that to deny it is to accuse the Jewish people of a grand conspiracy to create it. But the truth would seem to be the other way around: given the lack of evidence, it is those who assert that mass gassings took place who are in the position of having to explain why the evidence does not exist. They are the ones who end up asserting the existence of a grand conspiracy.