This post tells the story of my inquiry into the Holocaust. The Summary presents the key points.
For those who proceed beyond the Summary, this post presents observations on aspects of the Holocaust, and also on my reactions as I learned about it. Finally, the Conclusion offers perceptions that emerged while I wrote this post.
This brief summary boils down the somewhat more detailed Recap (below). That section is for those who don’t have time to read the whole post, but who do want a little more detail.
I wrote this post to document what I learned, when I set out to explore what people meant when they talked about Holocaust denial. It obviously had something to do with the question of whether the Holocaust had occurred, but I was not too clear on what, exactly, that debate might entail. So I did learn more about that.
My learning in this exploration proceeded along two levels. There was, first, the factual level, where I was trying to understand debates about gas chambers and such; and then there was the meta or reflexive level, where I paid some attention to what was happening in my own thoughts, and in the argumentative strategies used by the opposing sides.
On the factual level, it appeared that there were many interesting questions — about whether the Nazis had designed the alleged gas chambers at Auschwitz for the specific purpose of killing large numbers of people, for instance, and about apparent discrepancies in various witnesses’ testimonies. The amount of information on such matters appeared to be enormous. I was able to make only a passing effort at understanding a fraction — a key fraction, perhaps — of those materials.
On the meta level, there could likewise have been entire studies devoted to an investigator’s reactions, to the debate strategies used by disputants, and so forth; but there, again, I was able to pay only a smallish amount of attention to what was going on beneath the factual veneer. Note that, among other things, I recorded my reactions as I went along; thus, there are some imperfections and contradictions along the way.
As often happens in such inquiries, I went in a large circle and wound up approximately where I began. That was not true on the level of details: I had not previously had much of an opinion, or much knowledge, about the gas chambers or, for that matter, about the ways in which Holocaust deniers presented themselves. But it was true in the sense that, in both the past and the present, I continued to reject the tendency to misrepresent and suppress the truth. What seemed most workable, for purposes of getting along with other people and moving ahead in life, was simply to strive for fairness, acknowledge realities, push for open disclosure of relevant information, and reach sensible conclusions.
Definitions of Holocaust
What Was the Holocaust?
Becoming Curious about the Holocaust
Positioning Holocaust Denial
Finding Credible Sources
IHR on the Holocaust
Other Prominent Deniers
Holocaust Deniers: Tentative Conclusions
Truth and Fiction
Turning to Specific Issues: Auschwitz and the Leuchter Report
The Gas Chambers at Auschwitz: 66 Questions
Rudolf on the Wire Mesh Columns
Traces of Cyanide in the Gas Chambers at Auschwitz
The Exchange of Accusations
Green Replies to Rudolf
The Numbers of Victims
Recap and Further Notes
Definitions of Holocaust
When I first learned the word “holocaust,” I learned it in the first two senses suggested by the definition at Dictionary.com: “
I think I was probably mildly uncomfortable with that latter use of the word when I did discover it. I think my discomfort, such as it was, was probably related to the implication that there was only one holocaust, or that it was the worst or most important one. Although I have certainly used the term myself, I think to some extent there has been a hint of arrogance in it, like when I have referred to New York as simply “the City,” even when I am located in Indiana or Kansas or wherever. There actually is more than one City in this big land. No doubt some people who have heard me speak thus have sensed an implication of self-importance regarding my New York years. Or, as a different example, there was a time when people naively referred to World War I as the Great War, as if nothing worse could ever happen to anyone.
For various reasons, it seemed that I was not alone, in that discomfort with the use of “Holocaust” to mean exclusively the Jewish holocaust circa 1940. A Free Dictionary webpage noted that “holocaust” was established as a general term referring to “the massive destruction of humans by other humans.” It offered the example of nuclear holocaust. Evidently many sites referred to other genocides (e.g., Cambodian, Rwandan, Armenian) as holocausts. Thus, for those who wished to characterize the Jewish experience circa 1940 as a holocaust, it appeared that the more precise and less proprietary term would be, not simply “the Holocaust,” but rather “the Jewish holocaust.” That qualification might also accommodate concerns that others decimated by Nazi Germany (e.g., Roma) have often been forgotten amid the substantially Jewish appropriation of “Holocaust.”
Better still, it seemed, one might refer to the Jewish holocaust circa 1940 as the Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe). According to a Huffington Post article, Shoah had become the term preferred by Yad Vashem and other authorities. The reason stated in that article was that, as noted in the Oxford Dictionaries definition, “holocaust” historically referred to “a Jewish sacrificial offering.” That is, many Jews understandably rejected the idea that their ancestors’ massacre by the Nazis would have some possibly redemptive spiritual connotation. In the words of one person quoted in that article, “I wouldn’t want to know the God who sacrificed these people.”
The word “Holocaust,” referring specifically to the Jewish holocaust, was nonetheless well established in contemporary English usage, and so was the concept of “Holocaust denial.” While “Shoah” (or at least “Jewish holocaust circa 1940”) might have been the better term for many purposes, this post deferred to that established usage for the most part.
What Was the Holocaust?
Wikipedia defined the Holocaust as “a genocide in which approximately eleven million people, including six million Jews, were killed by the Nazi regime, under the command of Adolf Hitler, and its collaborators.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defined it as “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.” Yad Vashem defined it as “the murder by Nazi Germany of six million Jews.”
As already noted, some such definitions did emphasize the Jewish component of the Nazi genocide to the exclusion of numerous others. The specification of a relatively precise number was an additional point of interest. It appeared that such definitions deliberately prohibited historians from finding that, say, there was some other number of Jewish victims — especially but not only in countries where such findings had been made illegal. Or, putting it another way, if historians did prove that there were five or seven million Jewish victims, these definitions would compel the conclusion that there was no Holocaust, because its definition was specifically limited to the six million figure.
(As a practical matter, I assumed that few historians would make such an effort, for fear of being targeted as Holocaust deniers. In that, and elsewhere in my exploration, I experienced a disturbing concern about the possibility of thought control. For example, a friend to whom I mentioned the preparation of this post expressed concern that I would become the target of retaliation by Jewish individuals or organizations who might dislike what I would write. There was a sense of intimidation, especially after reading (below) that the Jewish Defense League had been characterized as a terrorist organization, accused of arson and death threats toward Holocaust deniers. It seemed that some — perhaps many — people may have decided not to share their knowledge about the subject, for fear of damage to their professional reputations or personal safety. Whatever the actual risks to someone in my position may have been, I wondered whether some who challenged the orthodox construction of the Holocaust were motivated by a desire to reject any possibility of such thought control.)
Those several definitions differ in another regard. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s definition specified “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder” of the Jews, while the others spoke more generally of murder by the Nazis. It appeared that the definitions just quoted would provoke disagreement by people who did not appreciate being told what to think. That is, inquiring individuals would normally want to reach their own conclusions about the questions of whether a Jewish holocaust occurred; whether such a holocaust involved a systematic Nazi effort; and how many Jews were killed. The following discussion focused especially on the first and third of those questions, with some incidental remarks on the extent to which related events comprised a systematic Nazi effort.
Becoming Curious about the Holocaust
In my teen years, I often watched episodes of a TV show called Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971). This comedy featured efforts by clever Allied prisoners of war (POWs) to circumvent the often clumsy Germans who ran their POW camp. Of course, I had also seen any number of more dramatic TV shows (e.g., Combat! 1962-67) and movies about the war. Little of this material dealt with Jews and the Holocaust.
That changed during my New York years. I became acquainted with the concept of the Holocaust and, in 1988, I took a trip to Europe. There, I visited Auschwitz and Dachau, among other things. From the photos and other things I saw there, and have seen about those places subsequently, it certainly looked to me like they had been running prison camps where they treated prisoners very poorly, resulting in large numbers of deaths. I recall seeing rooms full of shoes and other personal effects at Auschwitz, along with other displays having to do with the gas chambers. It all seemed to mesh pretty well with what I had heard about the Holocaust. (Note: this post uses “Auschwitz” to refer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau facility as a whole.)
In my New York years and thereafter, I also acquired a general sense that there was a kind of crazy person, found here and there around the American landscape, who would perversely deny that the Holocaust had ever taken place. This “Holocaust denier” kind of person went, I guess, into the general-purpose mental hopper, along with “ax murderers” and “child molesters” and various other commonly mentioned types of people whom I didn’t know, didn’t want to know, and didn’t understand. I did not know precisely what the problem was, with these Holocaust deniers, and I didn’t really care.
Indeed, even at the time of writing this post, I was not too interested in Holocaust denial. I was not Jewish, not a Holocaust denier, not a historian, and I did not plan to become a specialist in any of the above. But I did appreciate that sometimes valid perspectives are unfairly and inappropriately denigrated or disregarded — that, indeed, the Jews themselves had sometimes incurred such treatment — and so I thought I had probably better get a basic sense of whether Holocaust deniers (or, as sometimes characterized here, Holocaust skeptics) had a leg to stand on.
What curiosity I did have had recently been somewhat encouraged by the process of writing a post in which I concluded that some advocates on behalf of Jewish people (notably the organization now known as ADL) had pursued unreasonable and even malicious accusations against people who did not seem to have deserved that treatment. There was a clear impression of hype, of making things out to be far worse than they actually were.
I did not want the Holocaust deniers to be right. As noted in that other post, I had Jewish friends and great respect for positive aspects of American Jewish culture. But neither did I want to help to perpetuate a fiction, an exaggeration, or an abuse, if that’s what it was.
Positioning Holocaust Denial
The basic idea of the Holocaust, presented in definitions cited above, was that tens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of thousands of Jewish people had been systematically targeted for murder by the Nazis. As I say, that meshed with my general impressions from here and there — from my visit to Auschwitz, for example, and from assorted anti-Jewish statements by Adolf Hitler.
So from my perspective, the Holocaust seemed to be fairly well established, and the burden of proof was on the deniers. That seemed appropriate in light of the impression that the overwhelming majority of historians — including virtually anyone who could be called a real historian — had no patience for Holocaust denial.
I realized that it could be difficult to prove that something didn’t happen at all: you’d have to track down every way in which it could have happened, and prove them all wrong. No mass murders in this Polish town or in that remote Russian village in January 1942; none in February 1942; none in March 1942; and so forth. There would be no end of it. But it did seem that, if there was no Holocaust, then at least it should be possible to demonstrate that major events or places, like Auschwitz, did not happen or were not actually as portrayed. That, anyway, was going to be more or less the kind of thing that I could and would examine.
I was aware that there could be people who would have a personal motivation or mindset that would render them immune to fairness or common sense. There could be Jews like that; there could also be former Nazis, or their descendants, or their political followers, who would have a precommitment to a certain conclusion, to such an extent that there would be essentially no reasoning with them. But I did not see much use for this awareness. It seemed to amount to an ad hominem line of attack. Regardless of whether someone was manipulative, delusional, or misguided, there would still be a factual question to settle. I wasn’t that concerned with what might be wrong with someone; I just wanted to know why they believed what they did.
Finding Credible Sources
I was not sure where to start, for purposes of finding a person or organization that would present a compelling distillation of arguments against the Holocaust. A search seemed to lead predominantly to sources hostile to Holocaust deniers. Among those, for example, the Wikipedia entry treated Holocaust denial as an unequivocally incorrect mentality — characterizing it as, for instance, a “conspiracy theory” devoted to “a predetermined conclusion.” (This would prove to be the first of many Wikipedia posts that I would find to be very one-sided. It did not seem to me that Wikipedia writers were generally motivated to discuss Holocaust-related topics with the kind of academic neutrality one would expect from an encyclopedia.)
Again, I was fairly sure that the Wikipedia writers were right in those judgments, but this particular piece was not very helpful. It was devoted largely to a discussion of various Holocaust deniers. It did not provide an intelligent, point-by-point analysis of relevant arguments. To the contrary, their Examination of Claims section was quite brief. They did provide names of a few deniers’ books, but a much longer list of books and articles by critics of Holocaust denial (of which some appeared tangential if not completely irrelevant, e.g., an article, by Shermer, about Pearl Harbor). Finally, that Wikipedia article provided nine items in its list of external links, none of which had been produced by Holocaust deniers.
In a couple of my Google searches, I did come across a webpage, unexpectedly located on the website of BibleBelievers.org in Australia, within a section written by the group’s set of so-called conspiracy scholars (among whom I noticed Lyndon Laroche, Rabbi Marvin Antelman, and Phyllis Schlafly). This webpage was titled “Is the Holocaust a Hoax?” It had a great many things to say, but once again I was left without a concise, relatively neutral analysis of arguments pro and con. As with the Wikipedia piece, I had no doubt that there were many valid points to be made. Anything as large and complex as the Holocaust would doubtless generate tons of confusing and even contradictory statements and findings. But whom could I trust to light a clear path through the thickets?
Another Wikipedia article characterized the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) as “the world’s leading Holocaust denial organization.” IHR had apparently published the Journal of Historical Review. ADL said, “Once a leading voice in the international movement to deny the Holocaust and vindicate Hitler and the Nazi regime, the Institute for Historical Review has been in decline for several years.” This wording was similar to that offered on a Southern Poverty Law Center webpage. According to an article in The Jewish Chronicle Online, the situation was not that IHR had been surpassed by some other Holocaust denial entity; it was, rather, that “experts . . . capable of writing such books” regarding the history of the Holocaust era had been aging and had not been replaced. That was a bit spooky: although the authority cited in that article did not seem to have found those “experts” persuasive, that wording did raise a question of whether those skeptics might have offered legitimate, evidence-supported arguments that were not defeated by superior evidence and logic, but instead were simply being forgotten by history. (Given those remarks by the Jewish Chronicle Online, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website appeared to be misstating the case when it claimed that “Today we face an alarming rise in Holocaust denial.”)
No doubt I would have viewed the whole thing differently if I, too, had been an expert, familiar with the arguments on both sides. But that’s just it: I wasn’t. I had to rely on what I could get from others. And what I was getting was iffy: tons of rhetoric, once again to the point of counterproductivity. For instance, an article by Mark Ames examined a 1976 issue of Reason magazine. Ames found it “shocking” that an article in that Reason issue “mocked the Holocaust as ‘the Establishment’s favorite horror story’ and questioned ‘the supposed execution of 6 million Jews.'” And yet, immediately after those words, Ames provided an excerpt from that issue, where the writer supported those remarks by citing a book by a “former Buchenwald inmate” who (he felt) “seriously challenged” the received story of the Holocaust. What I wanted from Ames was not a gut reaction based on what others had told him. I wanted specific reasons by which I could understand why he rejected that inmate’s account. My impression was that Ames did not have that kind of information.
IHR on the Holocaust
Zionist groups such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League routinely smear the IHR, attacking us as a “hate group” or dismissing us as a “Holocaust denial” organization. . . .
The IHR does not “deny” the Holocaust. Indeed, the IHR as such has no “position” on any specific event or chapter of history, except to promote greater awareness and understanding, and to encourage more objective investigation. . . .
One prominent American journalist and author who has looked into the critical claims made about the IHR is John Sack, who is Jewish. He reported on a three-day IHR conference in an article published in the Feb. 2001 issue of Esquire magazine. He rejected as unfounded the often-repeated lie that the IHR and its supporters are “haters” or bigots. He described those who spoke at and attended the IHR conference as “affable, open-minded, intelligent [and] intellectual.” . . .
The Institute has been a target of authentic hate groups. It has come under repeated assault from the Jewish Defense League — identified as a terrorist group by the FBI. On July 4, 1984, the JDL destroyed the Institute’s office and warehouse in a major arson attack. Estimated property loss was more than $400,000, including tens of thousands of books, rare documents, irreplaceable files and expensive office equipment. This fire-bombing climaxed a months-long campaign by the JDL that included numerous death threats by telephone and mail, extensive property damage, five relatively minor fire bombings, one drive-by shooting and two physical assaults. . . .
Americans have been misled into one costly, destructive and needless war after another. For example, in the months leading up to the 2003 US attack against Iraq, government officials and much of the media deceived the public to justify the invasion and occupation of that country. . . .
An awareness of factual history is essential to an understanding of the great issues of our age. Especially during these troubled times, the work of the IHR in countering socially harmful historical lies, war propaganda, censorship and intellectual oppression is urgently important.
At this point, I was not familiar with the Jewish Defense League. A search led to indications that IHR had accurately characterized that particular group. Another search yielded some support for IHR’s claim about the arson attack. It tentatively appeared that IHR had accurately characterized Sack’s Esquire article.
The Wikipedia article about IHR did not seem entirely coherent. According to that article’s Holocaust Denial section, IHR agreed that “Every responsible scholar of twentieth century history acknowledges the great catastrophe that befell European Jewry during World War II.” That section also quoted IHR as acknowledging that “hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed and otherwise perished during the Second World War as a direct and indirect result of the harsh anti-Jewish policies of Germany and its allies.” And yet those remarks were immediately followed by the claim that IHR was “conducting pseudo-science aimed at proving that the Holocaust did not happen.” In the quote just given, it sounded like they admitted that it did happen.
It appeared that some confusion was being generated by the Holocaust definitions cited above. Some accusers apparently felt that, unless you accepted exactly their concept of the Holocaust, you were to be considered a Holocaust denier. The specific sticking point seemed to be the six million number; it appeared that IHR did acknowledge that “hundreds of thousands” of Jews were killed, and that their deaths were a result of “anti-Jewish policies of Germany.”
It seemed unreasonable to label someone as a Holocaust denier merely because s/he disagreed on the number of Jews killed. To illustrate this view, the Wikipedia page on the Rwandan genocide presented estimates of between 500,000 and 1 million victims, mostly from the Tutsi tribe. It would be absurd to accuse someone of denying the occurrence of what that Wikipedia page called “a genocidal mass slaughter” if s/he argued that, in fact, there were “only” 80,000 Tutsi victims. S/he might be guilty of distorting or downplaying, but not of outright denying. Obviously, there would be a tremendous difference between hundreds of thousands and millions. There might have been bad to nonexistent scholarship on one side or the other. But to accuse one side of complete denial, when in fact it was admitting the occurrence of the key event, seemed like overstatement.
That said, I had grounds to doubt IHR’s mild and intellectually oriented self-portrayal (above). An ADL webpage described IHR as a pro-Nazi organization. That description was consistent with my observations during a brief scan of IHR’s website. If IHR was truly oriented toward “the great issues of our age,” as claimed in the foregoing quote, why would it offer for sale an audio CD recounting a Nazi general’s story, “My Role in Putting Down the 1944 Attempt to Overthrow Hitler”? Was that a great issue? Not to discount its possible value for historians, but when I thought of great issues, I thought of abortion, unemployment, the rise of China. I didn’t see much along those lines on this site. No doubt I could learn things from a pro-Nazi organization. But the impression of attempted deception did not suggest that IHR was reasonable and had been unfairly criticized.
Other Prominent Deniers
In my way of thinking, the first question was whether there had been a mass murder of Jews. It appeared at this point that IHR had been identified as a leading center of Holocaust deniers, and IHR itself did not deny that a mass murder had occurred. Indeed, IHR seemed to have said that any responsible historian would admit as much.
One could probably find someone, somewhere, who would advance any viewpoint imaginable. It seemed that the voyage of views would progress seamlessly, from mainstream to atypical to fringe to delusional (or deliberately fraudulent). But Americans were not generally in the habit of persecuting crackpots. Freedom of expression. Live and let live.
I couldn’t expect to critique every person who voiced some random opinion about Nazis and Jews. The question, for me, was not whether anyone denied the occurrence of a Jewish holocaust. It was whether there was a recognizable person, organization, or movement whose denial of such a holocaust could call for a reasoned rebuttal. The contention that Barack Obama was born on Mars did not merit a serious response; the contention that he was born in Kenya did.
A search led me back to the Wikipedia page on Holocaust denial. This time, my question was more in line with the answers that page was providing, in its discussion of various Holocaust deniers. I felt I could use the page as a pointer, at least to some extent. That page, and another search, led to the Wikipedia page on David Irving. There, Michael Shermer was quoted as saying that Irving was “the most skillful preacher of Holocaust denial in the world today.” Yet in that Wikipedia account I found Irving to be all over the map, seeming to take contradictory positions and apparently motivated, like IHR, by partiality toward Hitler and Nazi Germany. There, again, I seriously doubted that so many historians had gotten Hitler and the Nazis wrong — that history was simply being rewritten by the victors — but in any case that was a separate issue. (As I proceeded in my investigation, I would pay more attention to the indication that Irving unsuccessfully sued Lipstadt in 1996, in a trial that generated a variety of documents cited by both sides in the debate.)
In my reading of the Wikipedia page, the most compelling figure was Ernst Nolte. Wikipedia included him in this list because of certain writings — which, it said, “though not denying the Holocaust appeared to flirt with Holocaust denial as a serious historical argument.” I found that remarkable. The bare fact that a historian would “flirt” with the possibility of Holocaust denial was sufficient to get him included in a Wikipedia list of Holocaust deniers. It appeared, however, that Nolte’s primary relevance might have to do with more specific matters at Auschwitz — that, in other words, he was not a leading denier per se.
Looking elsewhere, IHR offered a links webpage with links to two sites that appeared potentially useful: the Zundelsite (sometimes written with an umlaut: Zündelsite) of Ernst Zündel, and the website of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH). Yet these sites likewise appeared particularly oriented toward more specific issues centering especially around Auschwitz.
Holocaust Deniers: Tentative Conclusions
I had not succeeded in finding one or more individuals who personified or led a Holocaust denial movement. There did not appear, in fact, to be any such movement. I had the general impression that there were white supremacist and/or pro- or neo-Nazi movements, consisting of individuals drawn together by shared (e.g., variously racist, contrarian, anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and/or pro-German) interests or inclinations. I got the sense that those movements would draw upon selected pieces of Holocaust denial literature, and would invite some Holocaust deniers to speak at their conferences and so forth. Despite Gentile (e.g., German and German-American) populations vastly outnumbering the world’s Jewish population, there did not seem to be a Holocaust Denial Movement possessing even a fraction of the strength of, say, the Zionist movement or the American Jewish lobby.
There did appear to be a great many references, nonetheless, to such a movement. For example, a Southern Poverty Law Center essay by Heidi Beirich said, “Holocaust denial is a political movement that is inherently anti-Semitic, meant, for the most part, to make national socialism more palatable.” This seemed like complete nonsense. By some definitions discussed above, it seemed I was on the verge of being declared a Holocaust denier myself — that I would surely have been so declared, if I had been a professional historian — merely for asking questions or entertaining possibilities about what happened to Jews in Europe circa 1940. Beirich’s implicit accusation that I was a closet Nazi (i.e., national socialist) was so bizarre as to raise the question of what would motivate a presumably intelligent person to allege such things.
Beirich’s essay provided inadvertent confirmation for my impression that, as I say, there was not much of a “movement.” For the most part, the leading deniers she mentioned seemed to date from the decades immediately following World War II. She acknowledged that, as I had already gathered (above), a large portion of Holocaust denial activity coalesced into IHR — and that, as Wikipedia had also reported, IHR had been struggling with lawsuits and internal fighting for years. In effect, IHR had a 15-year heyday, from 1979 to 1994 or so. By 2009, IHR was virtually out of the business, on its own initiative: Beirich reported on an essay, by IHR’s director Mark Weber, suggesting that (in her words) IHR’s preoccupation with the Holocaust had become “a waste of time.”
This is not to say that there did not continue to be people making money from Holocaust denial. Among others, IHR’s web store was still functioning, and another source, the Barnes Review, apparently continued to sell subscriptions to its journal on historical revisionism, involving the Holocaust among other subjects. But my impression was that claims about a Holocaust denial “movement” were largely coming from people who had something to gain by stirring up fear. In my blog post about accusations of anti-Semitism, I had highlighted ADL as an example of an organization that seemed to be cashing in by provoking a cycle of anxieties and reactions. Beirich’s essay raised a question of whether SPLC and other nonprofits might be getting similar mileage by hyping a virtually nonexistent denial “movement.”
In my own investigation, at this point, it felt like the search for a denial movement, with noteworthy and quotable contemporary leaders, had not panned out. It also seemed that there was no Holocaust denial book or website where I could find a concise, authoritative presentation of a comprehensive and believable Holocaust denial perspective. What I was finding, rather, was an increasing number of arguments about specifics, among which Auschwitz seemed to be most frequently mentioned.
Truth and Fiction
As in that separate blog post analyzing accusations of anti-Semitism, I was once again finding that some opponents of Holocaust denial adopted intelligent and reasonable approaches. That is, not everyone who attacked Holocaust deniers took the approach of trying to silence them regardless of the force of their arguments or the sincerity of their intentions. In a 2003 interview, Deborah Lipstadt said,
As an American, I’m a staunch believer in free speech. . . . [T]here is also a practical aspect to my general opposition to laws against Holocaust denial. When speech is restricted, it becomes ‘forbidden fruit’ and more interesting to people. . . .
It is very important to be able to confront all of these accusers with facts, figures and documents. . . .
My own position on the uniqueness of the Holocaust has changed somewhat in recent years. I used to be a purist, considering it unique; but I now think that one errs by arguing that stand too strongly. There are other situations with some elements similar to those of the Holocaust. . . .
When all the survivors have passed away, the only way to make the Holocaust relevant to a large group of people may well be to show how it fits in, compares to and contrasts with other genocides and outrages. Thus one will have to view the Holocaust in a much more comparative context than before.
In 2006, Lipstadt repeated, “I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don’t believe in winning battles via censorship . . . . The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth.”
It was a relief to encounter this sort of thing — to see, in other words, that not every Jewish figure would respond by exaggerating the denial “movement,” attacking and suppressing curiosity, and otherwise behaving as their own worst enemy. As Wikipedia showed, others did behave in a self-defeating manner. Two examples:
- ADL said, “Holocaust denial is a contemporary form of the classic anti-Semitic doctrine of the evil, manipulative and threatening world Jewish conspiracy.” There were many problems with that claim. Typical of ADL, it cast doubt on its own credibility by overstating the case. One did not need to believe in a “world” conspiracy in order to suspect that aspects of the Holocaust story had likewise been overstated — that, in other words, ADL was giving us an illustration of precisely the sort of deceptive speech that would underlie a Holocaust hoax — and one did not need to believe that any local or global conspiracy would necessarily be “evil.” It would be very unlikely that no Jews had ever conspired together. But even if that were the historical reality, it would not control the future: the Jewish experience during World War II could have driven a more intensive effort at self-protection, extending to the invention of portions of a Holocaust story. As I say, my own findings were not leading in that direction, but ADL’s overstatement certainly encouraged consideration of the possibility. It seemed like the sort of thing that someone would say if they were trying to distact attention away from genuine issues — if they had something to hide.
- Wikipedia quoted Walter Reich for the idea that “the primary motivation for most deniers is anti-Semitism” — that, in other words, there would be no better way to encourage anti-Semitic attitudes worldwide than to demonstrate that the Holocaust was a hoax. This might have been true. But from the perspective of an inquirer, it was logically backward. The argument from an inquirer’s perspective would be more like this: if Jews did invent the Holocaust, that was stupid, because its eventual unmasking would support anti-Jewish stereotypes. A person interested in knowing the truth had best be accommodated, not by suppressing the truth or even by giving the impression of suppressing it, but rather by focusing on it, and by encouraging others to pursue it, from the beginning.
It was vaguely unsettling to find myself in the position of having to make such obvious points. It would have been reassuring to find that, instead, the Jewish authorities on the Holocaust uniformly echoed Lipstadt’s belief in reaching truth, not suppressing it or punishing its pursuit.
Turning to Specific Issues:
Auschwitz and the Leuchter Report
As noted above, IHR’s links page pointed me toward the Zundelsite and the CODOH website, both of which seemed particularly interested in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, in Poland. I was interested in this too because, as mentioned above, I had visited Auschwitz myself in 1988. At the time, I had taken its presentation at face value. I wondered whether these websites would tell me persuasive things that I had not considered.
At first, when I saw the discussion turning to specifics, I felt that this was a sign of weakness in the denial position — that the deniers lacked a strong overall argument, and had been reduced to sniping at details. Later, it occurred to me that there was another way to see it — that a successful attack on some key element of the Holocaust story could compel radical reconsideration of the entire concept. I figured that the deniers were probably going to lose this one, else their movement (such as it was) would not be dying. People would long since have seen the significance and plausibility of their case, and the discussion would have gone the other way. Still, I was curious.
I didn’t have a year to spend on this; I didn’t plan to explore endless details to see if maybe I had missed something. The question in my mind was, do we have a major issue on which there is reasonable doubt? If there did appear to be a significant hole in the Holocaust story, then maybe I would dig further.
Along the way, I had encountered repeated references to one particular aspect of the Auschwitz camp. The basic story, as detailed by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, was that Jews were processed into the camp, were killed in the gas chambers, and were then cremated. But the Leuchter Report, prepared by Fred Leuchter, reportedly a specialist in the design of execution hardware, reached this conclusion:
[T]he author finds no evidence that any of the facilities normally alleged to be execution gas chambers were ever used as such, and finds, further, that because of the design and fabrication of these facilities, they could not have been utilized for execution gas chambers.
Leuchter claimed to have examined, among other things, bricks and mortar that were returned to a lab in the U.S. for analysis. I expected to see, in his report, an extensive analysis of the amount of cyanide, or related chemicals, remaining in the samples of bricks and mortar taken from various locations. The concept seemed to be that the buildings in question could not have been used as gas chambers because there was little if any trace of cyanide in them. Maybe I missed something, or maybe I was looking at the wrong version of Leuchter’s report, but my brief review did not reveal any discussion of such matters within Leuchter’s report. Later, I did come across other information about the lab results (below). At this point, all I found was a graph contrasting residual cyanide in brick and mortar samples from the alleged gas chambers against residual cyanide from a chamber used for delousing (i.e., killing lice and other pests on clothing and other items).
Leuchter’s report evidently had quite an impact, at least among Holocaust deniers. For example, David Irving reportedly said, “[T]here is no significant residue of cyanide in the brickwork [at Auschwitz]. That’s what converted me. When I read that in the report in the courtroom in Toronto, I became a hard-core disbeliever.” Zundel similarly described the Leuchter Report as “one of those rare and most precious documents” with “the potential to shatter such a major historical myth and legend as that of the Jewish ‘Holocaust.'”
The concept here was that the Holocaust was a hoax — that there, in Auschwitz, at the very core of the alleged systematic process for killing Jews, the essential equipment could not do what it was supposed to do. In Wikipedia‘s phrasing, reminiscent of ADL, deniers used the Leuchter Report to support the view that “a vast Zionist/Allied/Soviet conspiracy faked the Holocaust.”
It appeared that one of the most persuasive replies to Leuchter was that of Ken McVay, reportedly a former U.S. Marine and retired service station manager who devoted 20 years to the Nizkor Project, where he collected and examined documents and composed responses to various questions and issues related to the Holocaust. McVay’s approach was to oppose efforts at censorship, preferring instead an open and fact-based style. For this, the Simon Wiesenthal Center attacked McVay as “a quirky loose cannon whose usefulness is almost over.” In reply to that, McVay reportedly told the Wiesenthal representative that he was “scarier than [Holocaust denier Ernst] Zundel.” Coming on the heels of my separate review of accusations of anti-Semitism, that exchange did contribute to my growing impression that there had been a sustained (and, in the long run, counterproductive) tendency, by entitles like ADL and the Wiesenthal Center, to distort and suppress evidence inconsistent with such entities’ preferred views.
Such behavior also provoked another thought. Clemenceau had been quoted for the famous adage, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” It seemed to me that America had long been in the grip of a mentality in which the only people entitled to talk about a given group — women, blacks, gays, Jews — were members of that group themselves. This, I felt, had the drawback of fostering insularity, leading to extremism and other potentially self-defeating ideas and attitudes. Not to deny that there would be instances in which one would prefer to interact with others of one’s own kind, but perhaps it was just as well that the Nizkor Project had been in the hands of a Gentile. Perhaps greater consultation with sympathetic Gentiles (or dissident Jews, for that matter) would have beneficially leavened some of the excesses of ADL and others.
Be that as it may, McVay’s site certainly offered some interesting materials. There was, for example, an excerpt from Lipstadt’s (1993) book Denying the Holocaust, establishing that Leuchter had only a B.A. in history, was not an engineer, was not a toxicologist, had no experience with cyanide or with Zyklon (German for “cyclone”) poison gas, and was not acquainted with essential information regarding the equipment at Auschwitz. Elsewhere, Nizkor offered an extensive critique of Leuchter’s report. Neither the Zundelsite webpage housing the Leuchter Report nor a search of the Zundelsite seemed to lead to a rebuttal of Nizkor’s critique. Similarly with a search of the CODOH website. I may have overlooked something — I didn’t open every hit appearing in those searches — but it looked like Zundel and CODOH were only offering forum discussions and webpages addressing more discrete issues, not defending the Leuchter Report as a whole.
Initially, I had received news of the Leuchter Report with great curiosity. It had seemed to promise a serious rebuttal of key Holocaust claims. Now, however, I concluded that it was something of a sideshow. It probably had some valid things to say, but overall it did not seem likely to be on the cutting edge.
The Gas Chambers at Auschwitz: 66 Questions
Unlike the Leuchter Report, there did appear to have been a debate about an IHR pamphlet titled “66 Questions and Answers About the Holocaust” (66 Q&As). A search led to no such document on the IHR website. Another search did lead to a Zundelsite reproduction. I had seen that Nizkor offered a detailed rebuttal, and that Zundel had produced a list of replies to Nizkor. Superficially, Nizkor seemed to be ahead of the game: Zundelsite apparently lacked an organizing page, and according to Nizkor Zundel also refused to provide cross-links so that readers could easily compare the two sides on a given Q&A. Nonetheless, it did appear, here, that I would at last find something specific, about Auschwitz, that would not require endless reading and expert knowledge.
Nizkor had divided the 66 Q&As into categories: three “General” groups, Trivializing the Holocaust/Blaming the Jews, The Fate of the Jews, Conspiracies, Zyklon-B, Cremation, Trivializing Anti-Jewish Laws, and About Revisionism. These appeared to be Nizkor’s attempt to impose a structure on IHR’s 66 questions, keeping them in their original order. I did not find this innovation particularly helpful. For instance, Nizkor put Q&A 13, “What nation is credited with being the first to practice mass civilian bombing?” under its Trivializing the Holocaust/Blaming the Jews category.
Given a particular interest in the extermination machinery at Auschwitz, involving especially the gas chambers, it seemed I should focus on certain particularly relevant Q&As. These included Q&As 5, 14, 27-33, 37, 48, and 51. The debates on some of these were rather extensive. I read them, but here I could only write up my key conclusions. In each Nizkor entry, there was a quote from the original IHR pamphlet (of which I did not have a copy), a quote from the apparently revised version of the pamphlet now appearing on Zundelsite, and then Nizkor’s rebuttal.
Q&A 5. Auschwitz was in Poland, not Germany. Is there any proof that gas chambers for the purpose of killing human beings existed at or in Auschwitz?
Nizkor said that originally IHR asserted that a $50,000 reward had been offered for such proof, and that nobody had ever come up with credible proof. A judge awarded the $50,000 to Mel Mermelstein, an Auschwitz survivor. Nizkor did not specify what Mermelstein’s proof was. Wikipedia said he “submitted a notarized account of his internment at Auschwitz and how he witnessed Nazi guards ushering his mother and two sisters and others towards (as he learned later) gas chamber number five.”
Wikipedia quoted the judge as saying, “This court does take judicial notice of the fact that Jews were gassed to death at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland during the summer of 1944. It is not reasonably subject to dispute.” That seemed odd. Mermelstein claimed to see people sent toward something that he later learned was a gas chamber. My question was, how did he know it was a gas chamber? The judge evidently did not seek proof of that, seemingly the core question, but simply decided that it was in fact a gas chamber. There may have been more detail on that in the court proceedings, which I did not review, but it was still strange that Wikipedia’s writers did not address that core question. Small wonder that IHR would later complain that truth had been suppressed in that court battle, due in part to hostile media and gross mismatch in funding and legal resources. IHR said that Mermelstein’s testimony contradicted itself, originally claiming that people were heading toward the alleged gas chamber through a tunnel, when apparently there was no tunnel. Zundel’s reply stated similar concerns about the judge’s action.
Nizkor offered that information about Mermelstein in response to the question in focus, regarding proof that gas chambers existed. To my surprise, Nizkor did not provide much other evidence. I expected to see large amounts of material in support. Nizkor claimed, “[T]he American court system is not meant to be a place for people to try to prove crackpot theories.” That was not true, especially not where there were monetary claims at issue. With limited exceptions, the American court system was meant for people to try to prove their views on whatever they were fighting about. Yes, there were judges who would arbitrarily dismiss potentially valid claims, as this one evidently did. But in a case involving significant historical issues and, apparently, media attention, my impression was that a good judge would have been cautious, so as to leave minimal opportunity for post-game critique. In my brief review, it appeared that IHR had declined to appeal. That impression, if correct, was puzzling. If IHR felt it had a case, it should have sought something more than what it evidently perceived as a moral victory. But perhaps its lawyers quoted a high fee. Zundel did offer additional commentary supporting his view, with a not entirely persuasive response to Michael Shermer’s offer to provide evidence.
I guessed that Nizkor would go into more detail relevant to this question about the gas chambers later, in its responses to other questions. But within the scope of the debate on this specific Q&A, I felt that Zundel had provided the more persuasive account. The judge’s action reeked of prejudice and fact-avoidance. Plainly there were buildings of some sort, but it did not seem to me that Nizkor had provided good proof of the existence of actual gas chambers.
Q&A 14. How many gas chambers to kill people were there at Auschwitz?
Nizkor said there were five. Nizkor offered only a few sentences of explanation, and pointed me toward Gutman’s Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (pp. 157-245). Zundel cited the Leuchter Report, which I felt only weakened his case, although here I encountered, on the other hand, the claim that the lab analysis in that report was done, not by Leuchter, but by someone from Princeton.
Zundel also referred to a report by Walter Lueftl (also spelled Luftl or Lüftl), available on IHR and Nizkor webpages and in the Journal of Historical Review (JHR). According to JHR and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Lueftl was an engineer, head of a large engineering firm, chair of the Austrian chamber of engineering, and expert witness in court. I did not see material relevant to Q&A 14 in the Lueftl Report, and therefore deferred discussion of that report until later. (Ultimately, I came back to the Luftl Report (in the VHO version) only when I was in the process of wrapping up this post, and therefore inserted a few additional Luftl comments here and there as seemed appropriate, rather than create another section devoted to a separate discussion of that report. At that point, it appeared that other notes in this post had already addressed many of his contentions, and also that he was talking largely about camps other than Auschwitz, and issues other than the gas chambers.)
Zundel also cited the Rudolf Report. That report claimed to provide an “expert report on chemical and technical aspects of the ‘gas chambers’ of Auschwitz,” by Germar Rudolf, who claimed to be a certified chemist and summa cum laude graduate of the University of Bonn (1993, p. 421). (That report incidentally provided, at pp. 297ff, a somewhat interesting account of Rudolf’s political development.)
I was surprised that Nizkor did not appear to offer a page (never mind a section) devoted to the Rudolf Report, as had been devoted to the Leuchter Report. Rudolf’s report, at 455 pages, appeared likely to offer a detailed and comprehensive analysis. Nizkor did, however, provide a page confirming that Rudolf had been working on a PhD at the prestigious Max Planck Institute of Solid State Physics when he was fired for doing Holocaust denial research.
For purposes of Q&A 14, the situation seemed to be that Nizkor et al. claimed there were five gas chambers, and Zundel et al. may have admitted the existence of five buildings in approximately the locations claimed by Nizkor et al., but Zundel et al. doubted that those buildings were used for gassing people. Like Nizkor, Zundel did not seem to offer a detailed English-language analysis of Rudolf’s report.
My inquiry was narrowing down, within the general topic of gas chambers, to the specific question of whether there were persuasive traces of cyanide in the bricks and mortar, and on that question Rudolf was unequivocal: “On physical-chemical grounds, the mass gassings with hydrogen cyanide (Zyklon B) in the supposed ‘gas chambers’ of Auschwitz claimed by witnesses did not take place” (1993, p. 289). Rudolf also concluded that the physical arrangement was not conducive to use as a gas chamber, but in a desperate attempt to keep this post to an arguably reasonable length, I did not pursue that issue at this point.
Unfortunately, it now developed that there was another wrinkle. The Nizkor page cited above conveyed the text of an article from Nature by Alison Abbott. An image of that article seemed to confirm the veracity of that text. Abbott’s article raised the question of whether Rudolf’s research, finding little trace of cyanide, had mistakenly depended on
whether or not the chosen chamber was one of the many known to have been rebuilt before the allied troops entered the camp, or whether residues in the delousing chamber could have remained because much higher concentrations of cyanide were used to kill lice.
It seemed, in other words, that Q&A 14 raised a more complex question than first appeared. My browsing had yielded a vague impression that there were several buildings, allegedly used as gas chambers and thus amenable to the kind of analysis done by Leuchter and Rudolf. Now it seemed that such analysis could be mistaken because at some point the buildings in question had been rebuilt for some reason; possibly the rebuilding would have removed any bricks and mortar previously steeped in cyanide.
In that case, Q&A 14 apparently should have been worded differently, more like, “What was the history of the alleged gas chambers at Auschwitz?” It seemed that this question might be answered by Q&A 48 or 51 (below), so I deferred further investigation of this issue of rebuilding.
Q&A 27. What kind of gas was used by the Nazis in concentration camps?
This seemed like a dumb question for IHR to ask itself, in its pamphlet. IHR didn’t believe there was any gassing, so its answer would be that no such gas was used. But no, Nizkor reported that, at least in its revised version, the pamphlet correctly said, “Hydrocyanic gas from ‘Zyklon B,’ a commercial pesticide that was widely used throughout Europe.” Nizkor did not comment further.
Zundel did have more to say on the matter. He stated that “the exterminationists” had claimed “for years” that different gases were used to kill prisoners in different camps — Zyklon-B in some places (e.g., Auschwitz), carbon monoxide in others. A search yielded confirmation that some websites did make such claims about carbon monoxide. It appeared that, at least in this regard, Nizkor was not doing a perfect job of presenting the pro-Holocaust perspective.
Q&A 28. For what purpose was, and is, this gas manufactured?
Here, Nizkor reminded me of something I had seen previously. To clarify, Zyklon-B was not the actual poison; it was a pesticide combining hydrogen cyanide (HCN, a/k/a prussic acid or hydrocyanic acid), a stabilizer, a warning odorant, and an adsorbent. Nizkor said that HCN was the gas released by Zyklon-B. Evidently Zyklon-B came in solid form. One paper provided by Nizkor said that the solid form of Zyklon-B would be poured into a room, and it would evaporate (i.e., be converted entirely to poison gas) in perhaps 12 minutes at room temperature. That source expressed uncertainty on the question, “How fast HCN would actually evaporate?” [sic]. That raised questions about the mechanics of the process. I figured those questions would probably be answered by other Q&As (below), so I deferred inquiry on that for the time being.
Zundel claimed that the U.S. had invented the use of poison gas to execute convicted criminals, and that the process of doing so in the U.S. proved “elaborate, cumbersome, expensive, and dangerous,” leading to the elimination of that method of execution in the 1960s. Zundel added a statement that there had been no soil or tissue analyses or other hard evidence demonstrating that people were gassed in Nazi concentration camps. Here again, oddly, Zundel glorified the Leuchter Report rather than the Rudolf Report.
Q&A 29. Why did they use this instead of a gas more suitable for mass extermination?
Nizkor claimed that Zyklon-B was “extremely efficient at killing people”; that it was easy to pack, store, and transport; that it was still “used today to execute condemned people in the United States”; and that it was already in wide use in the camps. Nizkor was right, and Zundel (above) was wrong, on the question of whether gassing continued to be used for execution in at least a few states, according to Wikipedia and others. Those sources also indicated that Nizkor was correct in stating that hydrogen cyanide was the gas most commonly used for this purpose.
I was interested in Nizkor’s statement that “probably over 90% of the Zyklon used at Auschwitz was used for delousing purposes.” It seemed that would imply a terrific amount of delousing. So far, it sounded like only one Auschwitz building was used for delousing. Elsewhere, Nizkor said that the directors of Tesch/Stabenow, a Zyklon-B manufacturer, were hanged for selling their product to the Nazis, knowing that “they sold [Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess] enough to annihilate two million people.” I was not sure what had prompted Nizkor to make that speculation. But if that speculation was correct, the better statement would seemingly be that they sold Hoess enough Zyklon-B to annihilate 20 million people, of which two million (i.e., 10%) was actually used for that purpose. I did not pursue further discussion or clarification of this point, however. (Later, I noticed that Pressac said “less than 5 percent [elsewhere only 2-3%] had been used for homicidal gassings.”)
To Q&A 29, Zundel offered a relatively abstract response, apparently provided by Rudolf. Rudolf stated, first, that it was not possible to provide a scientific answer to the question of which gas would have been best suited to the purpose, because (as I read him) there had been no experimentation on that question. It seemed to me that the Nazis would have conducted such experimentation; then again, I had seen indications that the SS had destroyed many records related to the Holocaust, so perhaps there was just no surviving record of such experimentation. Rudolf then proceeded in what he called the “intellectual exercise” of comparing various possible gases. He indicated that, at least at Auschwitz, for reasons of cost, convenience, and/or safety to camp guards, Zyklon-B would have been inferior to nitrogen gas, gasoline engine exhaust, producer gas, coke gas, and process gas. Rudolf further stated that Zyklon-B was in demand for combating civilian and military epidemics, was in short supply later in the war, was dangerous to use in the envisioned gas chamber context, and could be legally handled only by licensed handlers who had received special training.
Nizkor’s page had apparently been revised to address some of these issues. In particular, Nizkor said that the Nazis had tried carbon monoxide at some camps, but that Hoess had concluded it was less efficient than Zyklon-B. Nizkor agreed, with Rudolf, that carbon dioxide would not have been effective for the purpose.
I felt that Rudolf had made valid points. But I had reservations. Regarding gasoline engine exhaust, I thought I had seen an indication somewhere that that solution would have been expensive. Here, again, I was generally unsure how the process would work: how long would it take and/or how many engines would be required to fill a large chamber with enough of the specified gas? The difficulties of handling Zyklon-B looked likely to be addressed in the following Q&As, so I deferred that issue. The present-day use of HCN for executions did suggest that Nizkor was right in considering it efficient. I was not sure what might be entailed in that judgment; for example, I could imagine that some gases might cause nausea, creating a difficult cleanup situation when dealing with masses of victims. I figured that the requirement of a specialist would not be prohibitive; surely Germany could spare a few licensed Zyklon-B handlers for what the pro-Holocaust people characterized as a directive from the top leadership. If a small amount of Zyklon-B could kill a large number of people, then it would seem relatively efficient and affordable for the purpose. On balance, I felt that Nizkor had offered the more persuasive account on this point.
Q&A 30. How long does it take to ventilate fully an area fumigated by Zyklon-B?
Nizkor rejected IHR’s original claim that ventilation would normally take about 20 hours. According to Nizkor, that estimate could apply to a residential or commercial building possessing limited systems for forced ventilation and various fixtures (e.g., carpets) that would hold the gas. By contrast, Nizkor said, it would take only five minutes to air out the Nazis’ empty, concrete, forced-ventilation gas chambers. Nizkor stated that, in those gas chambers lacking forced ventilation, workers used gas masks when carrying out the bodies. While that may not have been fully consistent with civilian safety standards, Nizkor stated that this was wartime (not to mention a concentration camp), when such standards would be predictably abridged, and that in any case they used prisoners to carry out the bodies. Finally, Nizkor pointed out that corpses of criminals executed in U.S. gas chambers were not left in those chambers for 20 hours after their deaths.
Zundel objected to several of those claims. In the U.S., he said, elaborate precautions were necessary for the relatively efficient processing of just one victim, never mind thousands. He offered photos of various features of the gas chamber at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (e.g., ammonia injection system, airtight construction). He also challenged the idea that the Nazis would have wanted to have to keep training new “Gasmeisters.” By that, he apparently meant, not the prisoners who carried out the corpses, but rather those who would handle the gassing process and maintain its facilities. I was waiting, until Q&A 33 (below), to learn more about who these people were and how that process might work. Zundel quoted Rudolf for the claim that the alleged Auschwitz gas chambers had poor to nonexistent ventilation systems, and few if any vents, and would have been filled with heaps of corpses, and moreover that HCN would have strongly adhered to the corpses’ ears, mouths, and nostrils, requiring at least two hours of venting before corpses could have been removed by prisoners wearing gas masks with special filters. Rudolf also mentioned the temperature. I had gathered that heat would have been helpful to the process. It was not clear to me how this would work in winter. Zundel rejected what he apparently considered implausible “Eyewitness accounts, which tell us about immediate emptying of the chambers or of the absence of gas masks.”
It appeared that the following Q&As were going to involve further detail on some of these matters. Tentatively, at this point, I felt that the comparison against U.S. prison procedures was unpersuasive. The amount of media attention, concern for the safety of staff, legal dimensions, and other factors in the U.S. required an enormously complex, expensive, and controversial process that bore little relation to the latitude enjoyed by a concentration camp commander.
On the other hand, my own visit, and a glance at images of the Auschwitz gas chambers, suggested that these were not sophisticated facilities with powerful ventilation systems, nor did they enjoy good natural ventilation. Nizkor’s earlier argument about the concentrated efficiency of Zyklon-B seemed to work against it here: it seemed to me that this was a potent poison, bringing swift death to workers who were unprotected or exposed too soon. There probably had been (or would have been — pardon my indecisive phrasing) instances when the Nazis got too hasty, saw their workers fall down dead, and had to quickly recruit replacements to clean up the mess. For purposes of efficiency, that sort of experience would probably tend toward allowance of a fair amount of time between gassing and clearing. I assumed enough good gas masks were available for whatever number of workers they needed to haul out the bodies. Pending further information, I guessed that a systematic process, from admission through complete removal of a set of victims, with an allowance for unexpected problems, would call for a scheduled space of at least three to four hours.
Q&A 31. Auschwitz commandant Hoss said that his men would enter the gas chamber ten minutes after the Jews had died and remove them. How do you explain this?
(Note: in reproducing this Q&A and elsewhere, Nizkor misspelled the name of commandant Höss: in English (i.e., without the umlaut), it was Hoess, and was so rendered on the Zundelsite copy.)
Nizkor cited Guzman (p. 232) for the proposition that the Nazis installed “ventilation systems that could completely recycle the air in under five minutes” as well as “wire-mesh devices to remove the Zyklon-B from the chambers.” Nizkor stated that this approach was used in “the largest gas chambers” and that, in chambers without ventilation systems, the first people entering after the gassing did have to wear gas masks.
Zundel offered two points in reply. First, he said, “It did not happen that way.” In support of this claim, he referred to a book, Did Six Million Really Die? and specifically to its Kenneth Wilson chapter and to its page 353. Second, he said, there was no physical evidence of such ventilation units.
On the first point, I was not initially sure which book he was referring to. His direct link failed. A search of his website led to a version by that title written by Richard Harwood, with neither a Kenneth Wilson chapter nor any page numbers, and to another version, also by Harwood, that did provide a link to a webpage naming Kenneth Wilson. Using the latter, it seemed the point of the book was to present a record of the 1988 trial in which Zundel was reportedly charged with, and convicted of, spreading false news likely to cause racial and social intolerance.
The Kenneth Wilson chapter seemed to present information about aerial photographs of Auschwitz taken by the Allies in 1944. I gathered that the idea was to corroborate Zundel’s second point, that there was no physical evidence of ventilation units. I decided to defer exploration of those topics to Q&A 48 (below).
I was not sure, and from Nizkor’s account I could not tell, what those “wire-mesh devices” would have been like. Zundel dismissed the claim with an opaque statement that “there are still today no holes in the roof through which a wire-mesh device could have been placed and removed.”
Zundel’s own remarks worked against him, insofar as he emphasized the variety of defenses that the jury in his case found unpersuasive. He gave an impression of himself as a person who could not understand, and who felt wronged by, the factfinder’s seeming stubbornness or ignorance in overlooking (or perhaps lacking curiosity about) evidence that some might consider exonerating. Such reactions could be especially understandable in a criminal trial offering a presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
In short, the debate on this Q&A was particularly unhelpful. I supposed that there was probably a great deal of information on such matters, in all those books that I had no intention of reading. My conclusion here was that the information offered on Q&A 31 simply failed to provide a lot of additional insight.
Q&A 32. Hoss said in his confession that his men would smoke cigarettes as they pulled the dead Jews out of the gas chambers ten minutes after gassing. Isn’t Zyklon-B explosive?
Nizkor stated that it would take at least 56,000 parts per million to cause an explosion, whereas 300 parts per million was sufficient to kill people. Nizkor also suggested that the Zyklon-B would have dissipated to below an explosive level in any case, after ten minutes of ventilation. As Nizkor pointed out, smoking would require removal of a gas mask. This seemed to suggest either that Hoess’s statement was false or that the air was safe after ten minutes. Resolution of that question seemed to require resolution of the ventilation question (below).
Nizkor referred to Document No. NI-9912, available at IHR (as Appendix 3 to the Leuchter Report) and elsewhere. This was apparently an English translation of a German document outlining the characteristics of Zyklon-B, produced for the Office of Chief Counsel for War Crimes in connection with the Nuremberg Trials. Nizkor noted the document’s statement that Zyklon-B was “not explosive.” I found the document interesting for its statement that Zyklon-B had “Extraordinarily Great Penetrative Powers.” The document further confirmed that special gas mask filters were required and that Zyklon-B could be absorbed through the skin as well as by breathing. There was an indication that Zyklon-B was dangerous to people in the vicinity of the building being fumigated. It said that, after fumigation, “The airing should continue for at least 20 hours.” It did not specify different time periods for different kinds of rooms or buildings. It referred to a “gas detector,” evidently involving a paper strip that would turn blue. The document stated that mattresses, pillows, and upholstered furniture should be “shaken or beaten for at least one hour in the open air.” It said that “final release” of a fumigated building should be granted “Under no circumstances less than 21 hours after airing was started.”
Zundel claimed that Hoess was tortured and was thus willing to provide whatever testimony his interrogators requested. Zundel stated that Zyklon-B would have been explosive only “in the neighborhood of the carrier,” by which I assumed he meant, in effect, that it would be explosive straight out of the can, but not otherwise. It appeared, then, that while my review of Document No. NI-9912 had been interesting, Q&A 32 had been a blind alley for IHR.
Q&A 33. What was the exact procedure the Nazis allegedly used to exterminate Jews?
Nizkor said that, at Auschwitz, Zyklon-B was dropped through holes in the ceiling into the gas chambers. Nizkor referred to eyewitness claims that other means of extermination had been used as well. These included, for example, reports of nonexistent “steam chambers” and “electrocution machinery.” Nizkor construed these false eyewitness reports as proof that the Nuremberg prosecution had been appropriate: the prosecutors had shown that they could detect and reject such nonsensical reports.
Zundel interpreted those eyewitness reports in a different light. There was, he said, testimony that the alleged gas chambers, too, were a fiction. For example, he quoted Michel de Bouard, Dean of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Caen and former inmate at the Mauthausen concentration camp, for the proposition that he realized he had not detected any gas chamber at Mauthausen during his time there, but that it had rather become a part of his visualization of the camp after the war. Zundel’s point seemed to be that prosecutors had failed or refused to consider testimony of that sort, refuting the claims that there had been gas chambers.
In further support, Zundel contended that the defendants at Nuremberg were able to view only those records designated by the prosecution: apparently they were kept from viewing other potentially relevant documents that would have challenged the existence of gas chambers among other things. Zundel claimed that no evidence of genocidal gassings was introduced at the Nuremberg trials and that “THERE IS NO DOCUMENTED EVIDENCE” of such gassings.
On Q&A 33, my impression was that Zundel did a better job than Nizkor. On this Q&A more than most, however, it appeared that a real resolution would require immersion in alleged eyewitness testimony and other material that could chew up an enormous amount of time and might nonetheless leave me with some uncertainty. I was more inclined to rely on some other expert to go through that stuff, assuming I could find an expert I trusted. Even better, I hoped that my exploration of the remaining Q&As would lead to a relatively solid conclusion without the need for any of that.
Q&A 37. How did [the Jews in the concentration camps] die?
Nizkor said that the causes of death varied. Overall, gassing and shooting were most responsible. At Auschwitz, which was both an extermination camp and a work camp, weaker prisoners were gassed; hence, fewer would die of exhaustion. Few British or American soldiers, but more than three million Soviet prisoners of war, reportedly died of starvation.
Zundel argued that those piles of corpses in war-end photos were due especially to typhus — that Zyklon-B was used precisely to kill disease-carrying lice, in order to save lives, including Jewish lives as much as any others. Other causes of death included starvation, bombing, lack of shelter, and other diseases. As an example, Zundel cited a typhus epidemic at Auschwitz in summer 1942.
I was not fully prepared for Zundel’s claim that Jews received the same treatment as Gentiles at the hands of the Nazis. Nonetheless, I realized that, in the spirit of neutrality, a decision on this Q&A should depend on a decision on the larger question of whether the account of gassing at Auschwitz was persuasive.
Q&A 48. Do Allied wartime photos of Auschwitz (during the period when the “gas chambers” and crematoria were supposed to be in full operation) reveal gas chambers?
Nizkor quoted IHR for the view that such photos “do not even reveal a trace of the enormous amounts of smoke which were supposedly constantly over the camp” — due to cremation, apparently — or of “the ‘open pits’ in which bodies were allegedly burned.” Nizkor replied that there were few such photos; therefore, the ability to “capture gassing operations in progress was a matter of chance.” Nizkor further stated that one photo did show “the gas chambers, including very obvious roof vents used to insert Zyklon-B.” Nizkor stated that Zyklon-B would not be used in a morgue, “as that poison has no effect on bacteria,” and that — consistent with the gassing narrative — such vents were visible on the alleged gas chamber but not on the alleged undressing room. Nizkor said that, in one photo, there was in fact a pit, dug behind one of the alleged gas chambers. Nizkor admitted that no photos showed smoke coming from the alleged crematories, and said, “At the moment, we’re researching this matter further,” but also pointed out that there were only a few days’ photos altogether, such that it would not be surprising if the few existing photos failed to capture everything that went on.
Zundel replied that the objects on the roof, which Nizkor identified as roof vents, did not remain in one place. For example, he said, in the photos taken on May 31, 1944, they were in one place on the roof of one of the alleged gas chambers; and then, in photos taken on August 25, 1944, they were in a different place; and on September 13, 1944, they had disappeared. Zundel concluded that these were not vents at all, but were rather movable objects. Zundel also seemed to say that the roof in question collapsed in later years, and its ruins were inspected in 1993. That inspection revealed that the roof was cement, six inches thick, and that it had two holes that were demonstrably not present in the 1944 photos. Quoting John C. Ball, whom he described as an “Air Photo Expert,” and pointing to his website (http://www.air-photo.com), Zundel concluded that “there were NO VENTS HOLES IN ROOFS OF EITHER CREMA 2 OR 3 ALLEGED ‘GAS CHAMBERS’ that would have been necessary to drop cyanide gas pellets.” Finally, Zundel attacked Nizkor’s explanation that perhaps there was no smoke because “corpses were not being burned on those particular days”; Zundel said that this was inconsistent with claims of “around-the-clock gassings and cremations.”
Generally, I found Zundel’s arguments on Q&A 48 quite interesting. But it seemed that I really should look at the photos myself. At this writing, unfortunately, Ball’s website no longer appeared to be working. Nizkor reported unsuccessful attempts to contact Ball. A search led to a book written by Ball titled Air Photo Evidence (1992, 116 pp.) (my copy was downloaded in two parts). That book provided aerial photographs of several concentration camps and other locations. One of its principal arguments regarding Auschwitz (p. 46) appeared to be that the photos had been retouched to corroborate Holocaust claims. Nizkor cited Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (p. 233ff) for the proposition that someone at Caltech analyzed the photos and found that they had not been retouched. (This was apparently not a formal study, however, but rather just an informal examination of the photos with the aid of digital enhancement.) The other principal argument seemed to involve the cremation of bodies, especially that bodies burned in open pits would have been visible to farmers and villagers passing on the road outside the camp, and that the rate of alleged burning could not have kept up with the alleged supply of corpses. I could not tell whether the photos in this book might have been the ones that Zundel was citing, in his claim about moving objects on the roof. Since Zundel was quoting Ball on that, it seemed relevant to consider a discussion of a trial in which Ball was found unsuited as an expert on aerial photography.
As I reviewed these materials, I noticed my curiosity growing. I liked to investigate things; it was naturally interesting to learn more about these various arguments. I noticed that I was particularly interested in the skeptics’ perspective. It was probably how many people felt when they heard any good spy story, ghost story, or conspiracy story: it could be exciting to get that feeling that, whoa, there is something secret and important being discovered here. It wasn’t so much that I wanted it to be true or false, beyond my original tendency to root for the underdog; it was just that the possibility of a scheme or hoax made it more intriguing. It was probably something like what I had felt when I first discovered the Holocaust: it was surprising and, I think like most Americans, when that story first dawned on me, I treated it as the underdog, the heterodox account of what was really going on behind the scenes of all those old war movies I’d seen as a kid.
Unfortunately, the crematories and burning pits were beyond the scope of my focus on the gas chambers. It also appeared that it could take a substantial amount of time to learn how to interpret air photos generally, and these photos specifically, with the attendant details about the history of each gas chamber. My patience was running in the opposite direction of my curiosity. The essential issue, I felt, was that, once again, I was not finding good presentations of the two sides of the argument. An attempt to assemble an understanding for myself now appeared likely to require extensive analysis of primary sources. I had not intended to invest that kind of time in this project. My impatience was also fueled by the recent discovery of other sources that seemed potentially more informative than what I was getting from Nizkor and Zundel. For the time being, I was not positioned to reach a good working conclusion on Q&A 48.
Q&A 51. What did the International Red Cross have to report with regard to the “Holocaust” question?
Nizkor quoted the IHR as saying that a Red Cross visit to Auschwitz in September 1944 resulted in a report that “rumors of gas chambers could not be verified.” They could not be verified, Nizkor said, because the visitors were not allowed to visit the Krema (i.e., cremation complexes, each consisting of gas chamber plus crematory). The Red Cross report writer evidently treated testimony by Allied POWs in Auschwitz as “rumors,” as distinct from eyewitness observation of, I guess, an actual mass gassing. Evidently the Red Cross visit did not entail a thorough camp review, but rather just a visit to “show blocks” where prisoners’ bunks “had sheets on them, and well-functioning washrooms.”
Zundel replied in somewhat incoherent fashion. The meat I found in his rambling remarks was this: the Red Cross was sitting on a mountain of documents that they refused to open to researchers like himself, because doing so would demonstrate the organization’s “partiality and dismal failure when it comes to investigating and, above all, publishing the crimes of Stalin and of the Western Allies.”
It was plausible, to me, that the Red Cross had, and refused to disclose, documents that would shed much interesting light on that Auschwitz visit. It was also quite possible that the Red Cross would long since have shredded those documents, particularly if they carried the risk of self-incrimination posited by Zundel. A typical executive director might not prefer to keep that kind of landmine in the files. But for present purposes, it seemed that IHR must have presented Q&A 51 for its naive indication that the Red Cross, at least, had not been able to confirm the existence of gas chambers. Nizkor seemed to have provided a credible response to that.
(Later, I saw that, according to Pressac (p. 206), “Dr Ernst Robert Grawitz, Head of the German Red Cross, made a thorough inspection of the camp on 25th September . He saw the sick quarters overflowing, corpse storage, the temporary water treatment installations, the extermination of the Jews and the incineration of corpses in open air ditches.” If that happened, evidently it constituted another instance when Red Cross officials failed to act effectively.)
Review of “66 Questions”
This section has discussed certain items, from IHR’s “66 Questions” pamphlet, regarding the alleged gas chambers at Auschwitz. Some of the selected Q&As turned out to be unhelpful on that topic. Here, I summarize my impressions from the ones I found informative.
First, regarding Q&A 5, I was very aware that judges could railroad parties in a legal proceeding. Mermelstein got the money, but the question of whether there were gas chambers at Auschwitz remained unresolved, and the judge’s handling of the case suggested an unethical attempt to shut down debate on the core issue.
Q&A 14 raised questions that my review, in this section, did not resolve. One was Rudolf’s question of whether the physical layout of the buildings in question supported their use as gas chambers. I did not pursue that question, intending instead to focus only on the chemical question of whether the buildings’ residual traces of cyanide were too low to support a claim of gassing. Unfortunately, I did not resolve that question either, and at the same time I did get drawn to some extent into matters beyond that chemical question. The waters were further muddied by a report that the alleged gas chambers had been “rebuilt before the allied troops entered the camp.”
Q&A 29 seemed to lead toward the conclusions that the Nazis could indeed have used gases other than Zyklon-B, but that it was not unreasonable to use Zyklon-B. There were arguments in favor of various alternatives, but none seemed so compelling as to force the conclusion that it would have been irrational or even unwise to use Zyklon-B.
Q&As 30-32 had to do with the gassing process, including especially the amount of time needed for ventilation after gassing, before workers could remove corpses without becoming corpses themselves. It seemed clear that Zyklon-B was powerful and lingering — that its manufacturer had recommended allowing many hours of venting before a fumigated room could be re-entered. I appreciated that the time could be significantly reduced when the room in question had no furnishings, and when the amount of gas used was far below that required to kill insects. At the same time, it was not clear to me that the alleged gas chambers had good forced-air ventilation systems. In retrospect, I probably should have explored the question of ventilation systems in more detail at this point, because the anticipated resolution in Q&A 48 did not pan out. For now, it seemed that a Zyklon-B gassing could require several hours of airing.
Q&A 33 provoked curiosity about evidence at the Nuremberg trials, especially with respect to Zundel’s claims that defendants were allowed to see only those items that prosecutors had selected, from the sea of documents and other evidence that might have been relevant to a case. Zundel’s own concern in that regard seemed to have been informed by loyalty to Germany and/or compassion for German defendants. My own interest had more to do with the possibility that evidence would have been selected for its conformity to a Holocaust story line. With or without a Holocaust conspiracy, it seemed that legal personnel, interested in keeping the argument simple, might suppress evidence that would complicate the picture. I guessed that the prosecutors and judges were operating with a sense that the Nuremberg trials could not be allowed to drag on indefinitely. I did wonder whether claims about the overwhelming bulk of evidence proving the Holocaust were to some extent facilitated by decisions to promote or suppress certain documents and witnesses at Nuremberg.
The aerial photography discussed in Q&A 48 raised questions about the alleged ongoing cremations at Auschwitz, but did not seem to provide conclusive evidence pertaining to the gas chambers. Ball lacked clear expertise to support his interpretations of certain photos. That is not to say his interpretations were wrong; the problem for me was, rather, that I could not simply rely on him as a credible advocate of things that I, myself, could not see in those photos. It appeared that Ball’s photo-retouching argument — itself apparently depending on a degree of conspiracy speculation — did not have technical support. I remained curious about Zundel’s claim that supposed vents on gas chamber roofs were, instead, movable objects, but I did not seem to have access to the photos he was citing.
In net terms, my comparison of responses to the Q&As had been instructive; it had raised some interesting questions, and had resolved some unknowns for me; but it did not settle larger questions. It was disappointing that the advocates on the opposed sides seem to break down into Allies (and Jews) vs. Germans; that breakdown suggested that I might just be getting washed around in a river of prejudices and fears. It would have been enormously refreshing, at this point, to encounter someone who was interested in finding the truth in all its complexity and (in some cases) apparent self-contradiction, rather than having to listen to people attempt to dismiss or suppress everything that did not lead to their preferred conclusion.
While comparing the arguments of Nizkor and Zundel (above), I encountered a number of additional items that seemed likely to inform the discussion. I did not attempt to analyze all of those additional materials immediately upon discovering them, but instead postponed them in order to keep the discussion of the Q&As relatively brief. At this point, however, I wanted to review those additional items, to see how they might refine my understanding. I did feel somewhat adrift in the process — it seemed I was no longer in control of the flood of materials, but rather was merely riding along on it — but I hoped at least that a relatively brief review of these additional materials would help to clarify some things.
First, in an undated analysis found in the pro-Holocaust HolocaustHistory.org website, Green and McCarthy made several statements, in rebuttal of Rudolf, that I found interesting:
- “There is not a clear consensus on how much Zyklon B was actually used in the gas chambers, but most sources seem to put that number in the same order of magnitude as was used for delousing.” Hence my prior understanding (above) was mistaken: the Nazis were apparently using a lot of gas to kill quickly, with the apparent consequence of requiring more time for ventilation.
- A paper quoting German-language documentation by Gerhard Peters of Degesh (the maker of Zyklon-B) indicated that, normally, nearly all of the Zyklon-B pellets would have evaporated (i.e., been converted to HCN gas) within 30 minutes. But in an unheated room with a winter temperature of -18°C (0°F), up to one-fourth of the Zyklon-B would not have evaporated within two hours. At 15°C (59°F), by contrast, only about 4% would remain unevaporated after two hours. I saw speculations that the rooms would be “preheated by human body heat,” implying the victims would be in there for a while before the poison was added.
- Another page cited by Green and McCarthy said that, after early experiments, the Zyklon-B would not have been simply dumped into the room; instead, it was dropped, by SS men wearing gas masks, through a hole in the roof into a wire mesh basket, which would then be lowered into a wire mesh column running from the roof to the floor. Once the victims had died, the basket would be raised back to the roof, and the remainder of the Zyklon-B would evaporate there.
- Carlo Mattogno’s Auschwitz: The End of a Legend (1994, pp. 59-63) acknowledged the existence of ventilation systems in crematories but understated their capacity. Thanks to these systems, Sonderkommando (i.e., prisoners assigned to remove the corpses) would be able to enter within ten to twenty minutes after the Zyklon-B had been removed. Apparently there was relatively compatible eyewitness testimony stating that Sonderkommando were able to enter safely after 20-30 minutes.
- The roof of the gas chamber was covered with dirt and grass. From the outside, the hole in the roof was a “short concrete pipe.” It sounded like the roof must be more or less at ground level. (Later, I would see that Pressac said, at least in some cases, “an SS man climbed a small ladder to reach the introduction windows in the gas chambers.” Pressac also quoted Sonderkommando Alter Fajnzylberg to this effect.)
- Gas chambers II and III were cut in half at the end of 1943, each half allowing for “the killing of 1,000 new arrivals (unfit for work) in 24 hours. . . . One thousand people could be killed in five to fifteen minutes. To cremate their bodies, the Sonderkommando would work the better part of a day.”
- The possibility of poisoning through the skin “would not have been a serious danger for the Sonderkommando” and “can be ignored.”
These points reflected a level of analysis, and some specific points of fact, that seemed far from Zundel’s arguments (above). It was particularly irritating to find that some deniers’ arguments against ventilation did not even mention Mattogno’s book. At this point, it seemed that it would have been more effective if Zundel, or someone like him, had marshaled all of the available sources, acknowledging disagreements and attempting in any case to raise honest questions, rather than leave readers to wallow around at random. My guess, as I glanced through his book, was that Mattogno admitted more than some deniers would prefer.
Mattogno’s book was designed as a specific rebuttal of Jean-Claude Pressac’s Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers (1989). It discussed five crematory complexes (i.e., gas chamber plus crematorium), sometimes referred to as simply crematories or, in German, Krema. Mattogno (p. 11) said, “The first cremation occcured on 15 August 1940.” Apparently that was not when the first gassing occurred. Nizkor cited Buszko’s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (apparently not an accurate citation, but accord Pressac) for the statement that the first Zyklon-B gassing occurred on September 3, 1941. Nizkor concurred that Crematory I “was used for gassing for a short time, and then converted into an air-raid shelter; after the war, it was reconstructed to look as it did when it was used for gassing,” and that this reconstruction was done “on the direct order of Stalin.” Nizkor then said the conversion into an air-raid shelter occurred in May 1944. (Later, I would see Pressac’s indication that the first raid on Auschwitz was on September 13, 1944.). It was not clear why Nizkor seemed to describe that period, 1940-1944, as “a short time.”
Nizkor quoted Pressac (p. 157) for the claim that “the SS abandoned Krematorium I in January 1945.” Later, I would find this statement by Pressac: Crematorium I “has been restructured and the installations connected with its cremation and gassing activities have been reconstructed and reconstituted.” Also, in that reconstruction, the size was increased from 78 to 98 square meters. And the gas chamber “was used sporadically from the end of 1941 to 1942, but precise dates are not known,” and the installation was “abandoned in 1943.” From these spotty and sometimes inconsistent remarks, it appeared that much remained unsettled about the histories of the five Auschwitz crematorium facilities.
Upon further review, it appeared that Mattogno’s book was not designed to be understood clearly without a copy of Pressac’s book in hand. I did not plan to buy Pressac’s book. Instead, I looked elsewhere. One source said that construction of Crematories II through V was commenced in summer 1942, and that Crematory II began operation in March 1943. (Accord Pressac pp. 183 & 227: March 14.) This source also said that SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the gassings stopped and the crematories dismantled in December 1944. (Pressac: Crematories II and III operated until November 27, 1944; Crematory III began operation on June 25, 1943.) A History Place webpage stated that the SS used explosives to destroy Crematories II and III on January 20, 1945, and Crematory V on January 26, 1945. That webpage said that inmates destroyed Crematory IV during a revolt on October 7, 1944.
It was befuddling to compare the foregoing remarks about the crematories and their ventilation systems against these statements by Zundel:
Researchers who have climbed all over the Auschwitz ruins have not discovered any studs, bolts or any mountings that can be seen for these alleged “exhauster units” in any of these camps. Aereal [sic] photographs taken by the US and South African Air Force during the war don’t reveal the tell-tale tall exhaust stacks, such as can be found in US gassing installations. . . .
Additionally, even the allegation that in the alleged gas chambers of Krema II and III “. . . wire-mesh devices to remove the Zyklon-B from the chambers, improving the efficiency of the ventilation process”, had been installed, is frankly invented, since there are still today no holes in the roof through which a wire mesh device could have been placed and removed . . . .
Bizarrely, Zundel then said, “I will concede that other researchers feel that the question is extraneous to the argument of whether or not gassings took place,” and proceeded to claim to quote Rudolf (from a webpage that no longer exists, in a source that 1 2 3 4 5 searches failed to locate):
There is simply no possibility to check if in the former buildings there have been “studs, bolts or mountings” . . . which would have to include a complete excavation of the crematoria ruins and a massive research for such devices or their remainders in them. The drawings of the buildings give us no clue, but this may be simply due to the fact that such small and very special devices would probably not have been drawn into them.
A quick look into the ruins of Krema II and III, such as Felderer, Faurisson, Mattogno, Leuchter and I did, is absolutely not enough to settle this question. And the reconstruction of Krema I and the nearly completely disappeared Kremas IV and V are not “researchable”.
I think that Robert Faurisson is exaggerating the danger which would have arisen from the alleged mass gassings. Fact is that in a couple of delousing facilities in Birkenau a massive daily use of Zyklon B didn’t affect the security of either the prisoners or the guards – WITHOUT any tall airing/exhauster stacks. . .
Despite that alleged quote, surely ventilation through the ceiling would have required holes, and surely those holes would have been in the blueprints, or visible in air photos, or evident on the surviving roof that Leuchter et al. examined. The tentative conclusion here appeared to be that the ventilation drew air into the ceiling but then out, laterally, through the ends of the building rather than going up through the roof. Presumably the space between ceiling and roof was sealed, so as to not accumulate HCN that could inadvertently leak and kill the wrong person.
In another weird contrast against the foregoing remarks by Green and McCarthy, I considered this statement by Hans Stark, registrar of new arrivals at Auschwitz:
At another, later gassing — also in autumn 1941 — Grabner ordered me to pour Zyklon B into the opening because only one medical orderly had shown up. During a gassing Zyklon B had to be poured through both openings of the gas-chamber room at the same time. This gassing was also a transport of 200-250 Jews, once again men, women and children. As the Zyklon B — as already mentioned — was in granular form, it trickled down over the people as it was being poured in. They then started to cry out terribly for they now knew what was happening to them. I did not look through the opening because it had to be closed as soon as the Zyklon B had been poured in. After a few minutes there was silence. After some time had passed, it may have been ten to fifteen minutes, the gas chamber was opened. The dead lay higgledy-piggedly all over the place. It was a dreadful sight.
An autumn 1941 gassing would mean Crematorium I, which in my understanding was not constructed with ventilation suitable for gassing, and in which Stark indicated there was no wire mesh basket for adding and removing the Zyklon-B. It appeared extremely unlikely that the chamber would have been opened in 10-15 minutes. Stark did seem to remember the scene vividly. It was unlikely that, actually, a period of hours had passed, and he was merely mistaken. Evidently enough Zyklon-B had been used to yield death within minutes. It seemed that either Stark’s testimony was bogus or there was something missing in my understanding of the use of Zyklon-B. Here, again, I suspected that I might encounter endless complexity if I began to look carefully at the testimony and credibility of specific witnesses.
In my discussion of the Q&As (above), I had neglected to explore the testimony of Kenneth Wilson at Zundel’s trial. Zundel described Wilson as “an expert in photogrammetry, specializing in aerial triangulation, digital mapping and rectification of photographs,” with an M.S.in Photogrammetric Engineering from the University of Toronto and membership in, among other things, the Canadian Institute of Surveying and Mapping. Zundel’s interest in Wilson’s testimony appeared to relate to Wilson’s conclusion that aerial photos showed no chimneys or exhaust stacks on the roofs of the gas chambers.
Later, I became aware that Pressac’s book was available online at HolocaustHistory.org. Pressac described, among other things, what he considered his conversion from Holocaust skeptic to believer. Pressac offered a number of observations, speculations, and raw materials, some of which I have cited above; others are listed here:
- P. 16: Hoess and others were wrong in stating that the ventilation was not turned on until 25 to 40 minutes after introduction of the Zyklon-B. Ventilation was turned on within 10 minutes after introduction of Zyklon-B and was left running for another 20-30 minutes before the door was opened.
- P. 127: Hoess offered the “unlikely” claims that 900 Russian POWs were squeezed into a Crematorium I gas chamber measuring 78 square meters, and that there was then a “rapid” drilling of holes through a concrete roof 4-6 inches thick in order to pour the Zyklon-B through.
- P. 128: “Involuntary errors” were found “throughout [Hoess’s] autobiography.” Also, the testimony of Pery Broad was probably “reworked by the Poles.”
- P. 131: At some point, “at least three openings” were drilled or cut through the roof of Crematorium I, to permit the “pouring” in of Zyklon-B.
- P. 133: When Crematorium I was reconstructed, beginning “immediately after the liberation,” it was unfortunately done before anyone took photos of its previous condition. “Four openings supposedly for pouring Zyklon B were made in the roof, which was covered with roofing felt, thus hiding the traces of the original opening.” (Why “traces”?) Leuchter’s cyanide findings from the floor of Crematorium I confirm that Zyklon-B was used in it.
- P. 187: A document requesting “an estimate for air extraction installations for the two corpse cellars” (i.e., alleged gas chambers). Also, p. 214, referring to “ventilation and air extraction systems for the corpse cellars.”
- P. 201: A special order from Hoess: “A case of indisposition with slight symptoms of poisoning by hydrocyanic gas which occured today makes it necessary to warn all those participating in the gassings and all other SS members that in particular on opening rooms used for gassing SS not wearing masks must wait at least five hours and keep at a distance of at least 15 meters from the chamber. In addition, particular attention should he paid to the wind direction.”
- P. 211: A letter referring to “the gassing cellar.”
- P. 218: The air extractor fan was installed in Leichenkeller I (i.e., “the future gas chamber” for Crematory II). Also, there was an order for gas detectors for Crematory II.
- P. 221: A statement that Leichenkeller I (supposedly a morgue or “corpse cellar”) would be preheated, apparently with air from the crematory (which might seem odd for a morgue). Also, a request for “an additional quotation for the modification of the air extraction installation in the undressing room” of Crematory II.
- P. 223: The air extraction system for Leichenkeller II (i.e., “the future undressing room”) would use an eight-inch tube running the length of the room. The ventilation system of Leichenkeller I was brought into service on March 7, 1943. (P. 224: it was not actually ready until March 13.) The plan for using furnace heat to warm the gas chamber was abandoned.
- P. 224: By SS decision, the Leichenkeller I air extraction system was not constructed as one might expect, with the warm poisoned air being drawn out at the top, but the opposite: fresh air would be forced in at the top and would exit near the floor. The gas detectors (above) were ordered to verify that this was working. It appeared the door could be opened after 20-30 minutes of ventilation.
- Pp. 228-229: Photos of square and round manholes, with concrete lids, leading to sewer and climbing tubes (the latter with ladder), in roof of Leichenkeller I, “next to the remains of an opening . . . through which Zyklon B was poured.” (That opening was not evident to me in the photo.)
- P. 230: Cast-iron blower would replace wooden blower for Leichenkeller I air extraction system.
- P. 231: Leichenkeller I was equipped with “gas tight door.” (Similar indications seen elsewhere.) Document 52, a “basement inventory” specifying four “wire mesh introduction devices” with wooden covers attributes these to Leichenkeller II rather than I.
At this point, I suspended my review of Pressac’s book. From what I had seen to this point, there appeared to be documentation, evidently accepted by multiple researchers, indicating the essential elements of a gas chamber in Crematory II as described by various sources. Pressac’s documentation to this point did not demonstrate that the chamber was actually used to gas people, but I suspected further review of Pressac’s book would eventually address that issue as well. Skeptics’ statements (above) that there was “no evidence” of gassing appeared implausible. I certainly wasn’t seeing comparable evidence to the contrary in their materials.
Rudolf on the Wire Mesh Columns
I felt that I had begun to see light at the end of this tunnel. There remained one major area of uncertainty. Early on (above), I had become curious about evidence of cyanide in the bricks and mortar at Auschwitz. I had not achieved resolution of that issue. Thus, I decided to explore a document I had found, prepared by Rudolf for the Irving lawsuit. In that document, he stated that Irving decided not to present Rudolf as an expert witness, and had lost his suit as a result. This document, dated “January-April 2000,” responded primarily not to Pressac’s 1989 book (above), but rather to testimony offered in that litigation by Robert Jan van Pelt.
Rudolf stated that he was responding specifically to chapter IX of van Pelt’s report. This appeared to be a chapter discussing the Leuchter Report. It would soon develop that, in his reply, Rudolf addressed not only the issue of cyanide traces, but also the topic of the alleged wire mesh columns through which Zyklon-B was supposedly introduced into the gas chambers. I decided to review both such topics. This section looks at the wire mesh column controversy.
Rudolf’s first point was that there was no need for the blueprints of Crematories IV and V to specify that the alleged gas chambers should be “explosion-proof,” if Zyklon-B was being used only in a concentration sufficient to kill people (i.e., far below the explosive level). Moreover, Rudolf said, there was no such explosion-proof designation for the basement rooms of Crematories II and III, suggesting that those rooms were being used merely as morgues, as stated in their blueprints.
This line of argument seemed at least potentially self-contradictory. Rudolf could not have it both ways. If Zyklon-B was being used in low concentrations, then it was sensible not to require explosion-proofing in the first industrial gas chambers (i.e., at Crematories II and III). The explosion-proof requirement allegedly specified on the blueprints of Crematories IV and V would make sense if the SS began with lower levels of Zyklon-B, at Crematories II and III, and then decided to assume a higher dosage in the construction of Crematories IV and V. Green and McCarthy (above) concluded that, under regular operation, a relatively high dosage was being used. It is true that, as noted above, the manufacturer had rated Zyklon-B as non-explosive. Rudolf’s suggestion that the rooms were intended as “delousing chambers” (with much higher concentrations of Zyklon-B) was plausible in this regard, for Crematories IV and V, but not for Crematories II and III. Then again, Rudolf cited a case in the U.S. in 1947 where a house being fumigated with Zyklon-B did explode.
Rudolf stated that van Pelt relied primarily on two witnesses for the claim that wire mesh columns were used to introduce Zyklon-B into the alleged gas chambers in Crematories II and III. My review of van Pelt’s chapter IX confirmed that he quoted two inmates who claimed to have observed and to have constructed, respectively, those wire mesh columns.
Returning to Pressac’s book (p. 232), I found that the “basement inventory” specifying the “wire mesh introduction devices” also specified a lavatory pan, urinal, and electric pump. It was not clear what kind of “inventory” would mix these items together. In any case, van Pelt indicated that one of those inmates did construct the wire mesh devices. It was not clear to me why such a crucial element would not have been supplied by the engineers, other than a possible naive effort to remain at least somewhat distant from the actual gassing equipment. Van Pelt’s explanation was that Crematoriums II and III were not originally designed with gassing in mind, but that did not seem consistent with what I had seen in Pressac’s book (above).
Rudolf questioned the credibility of both of van Pelt’s witnesses. The witness who claimed to see the wire mesh columns being used, he contended, had a history of tending “to exaggerate and invent certain stories.” Rudolf illustrated this with several examples.
Rudolf attacked the other witness, who claimed to have constructed the wire mesh column, on several points. First, he contrasted another witness’s claim that, actually, these columns were made of sheet metal, not mesh, and that they contained a spiral, not a basket. (Rudolf cited additional witnesses who likewise spoke of sheet metal.) Rudolf also cited a witness who claimed that the Zyklon-B was dropped directly on the prisoners being gassed. That point was not telling, if the witness was talking about Crematorium I, where apparently that was the method used, at least at the start.
Rudolf was somewhat more compelling with his attacks on other alleged witnesses. He mocked a quote from a witness who claimed that “especially trained SS units threw hydrogen cyanide bombs through the ventilation vents.” But I did wonder whether that would be an unreasonable interpretation from someone who had seen something of the sort (and who had presumably heard that hydrogen cyanide was involved). Rudolf cited another witness implausibly claimed that the opening through which the Zyklon-B was poured “was covered with glass.”
Having criticized those witnesses, Rudolf turned to the construction of the wire mesh devices allegedly used to lower Zyklon-B into the gas chambers through holes in the roof. He argued that a fragile wire mesh column would have been damaged if not destroyed by hundreds of people jammed into a room, panicking when they discovered they were being gassed. Apparently wiring and ventilation equipment had been damaged in some such setting. In this regard, Rudolf was somewhat persuasive. The construction described by the witness who had supposedly constructed these devices included an outer layer of relatively thick wire mesh (i.e., 3mm wire forming 45mm squares, wrapped around four iron corner posts, each measuring 50mm x 10mm — which may have meant 50×50 angle iron 10mm thick — though at least one witness spoke of four iron pipes rather than posts). The posts, thus wrapped, formed a column measuring 70cm square. This did not sound like an abuse-proof setup. Rudolf added further critiques of this witness’s credibility.
Looking at van Pelt’s chapter IX, I saw that Bakon, a witness who had been 14 at the time, testified that the wire mesh columns measured only 40cm square. Van Pelt’s account also speculated that the four wire mesh columns were attached to four of the seven structural columns supporting the roof, and cited witnesses who claimed that the tops of the columns were entered by small holes in the concrete ceiling, leading on up to small chimneys, rising a short way above the dirt and grass on the roof, covered at the top by two-handled concrete covers.
That description did not seem consistent with the photos I had seen in Pressac’s book (above). Rudolf’s argument seemed to be that, first of all, it was inappropriate for van Pelt, an architect, to discount the absence of the wire mesh columns from the blueprints, or to contend that “they had no structural function in the building,” when (a) the photos show significant and apparently pre-planned holes in the roof (leading, it seemed, to manholes, not to wire mesh columns) covered by heavy pieces of concrete and (b) those four holes in the ceiling were not raised above the roof (at least in Pressac’s photos) and thus “needed to be made waterproof against the surrounding two feet of soil” (Rudolf).
I was not sure what the blueprints showed, with respect to the manholes and the ladder descending from one of them. Rudolf said that the blueprints showed “every electric cable, every water pipe, every gully.” It did seem that the blueprints would logically have shown the manholes, the climbing tubes or wire mesh (or sheet metal) columns descending from them, and the short chimneys, raised above the roof, providing the waterproofing that Rudolf suggested. Absent that, with Pressac’s photos, it seemed that those manholes were at ground level and were not weather-sealed simply because they were just manholes, presumably leading underground, unlike openings into a room that would presumably be sealed airtight, as the doors supposedly were.
Rudolf further quoted a fairly remarkable admission from van Pelt:
Today, these four small holes that connected the wire-mesh columns and the chimneys cannot be observed in the ruined remains of the concrete slab. Yet does this mean they were never there? . . . While there is not certainty in this particular matter, it would have been logical to attach at the location where the columns had been some formwork at the bottom of the gas chamber ceiling, and pour some concrete in the holes, and thus restore the slab.
To clarify, the nonexistent holes were precisely the ones through which Zyklon-B was allegedly poured. No blueprints showing wire mesh columns; no holes through the roof leading into those columns; no short chimneys above the roof to cover those holes and protect them from rainflow at ground level: this picture was not adding up in van Pelt’s favor. His account did not explain his claim that, later, it would have been “logical” for the Nazis to pour concrete, in winter, to fill holes in the roof of a facility that they had ceased using. Perhaps the idea was that they would want to eliminate evidence, there in December 1944 or January 1945; but in that case they would presumably not have left living witnesses at Auschwitz when they abandoned it. Rudolf noted that, of course, the filled holes would be plainly visible — and that van Pelt would know this, if he were in fact a competent architect. (Van Pelt’s doctorate was in the history of ideas, with “the Dutch equivalent of a Master’s degree in this history of architecture,” in van Pelt’s words — as distinct from a degree in architectural practice.) Rudolf also made a somewhat confusing argument, pointing out that the Nazis actually did destroy the roof of the non-incriminating “undressing room,” without explaining why they would have done that.
Rudolf advanced other arguments, not reprised in detail here. These included the following:
- An analysis of aerial photos á la Ball, but without Ball’s speculation as to their retouching by the CIA;
- Discussion of the plan to heat the morgue cum gas chamber — which, Rudolf said, was recommended in expert morgue-related literature to prevent frost;
- An argument that the ventilation system in the undressing room was actually a bit more powerful than the one in the supposed gas chamber, and was actually much less powerful than those recommended for delousing chambers;
- An argument that the intake and output vents of the ventilation system in the alleged gas chamber were on the same wall, and were only two meters apart, significantly reducing the system’s efficiency in flushing the air from a room stacked with corpses;
- A claim that the double doors could not have been made gas-tight or “sufficiently reinforced against hundreds of panicking victims”; and
- An indication that van Pelt failed to cite any technical literature, or to check witness allegations against (unspecified) technical data, and apparently did not understand what would qualify as “a gas tight coating” for walls.
On the subject of ventilation, I had seen references to “air exchanges.” This term referred to “the rate at which outside air replaces indoor air in a building,” commonly measured in these discussions in terms of “air changes per hour.” Safeopedia said, “An air exchange rate of 6 means that the complete volume of air filling a room is completely changed 6 times in one hour.” It did not appear that people would commonly verify that the air in every closet and cranny would in fact have been changed that number of times; rather, there was evidently an assumption that, say, a space of 100 cubic meters would have a rate of 2 air changes per hour (ACH) if its ventilation system operated at a rate of 200 cubic meters per hour. The relative weakness of the gas chamber ventilation alleged by Rudolf did seem surprising, given the rough impressions (above) of a preexisting intention to create a homicidal gas chamber in Crematorium II and the probable use of high amounts of Zyklon-B to kill quickly. Rudolf argued that the supposed “powerful ventilation system,” alleged by van Pelt in two different places, was “nothing but a fiction.” Luftl said that no traces of the requisite ventilation systems had ever been found, even at those alleged extermination camps that were liberated intact.
On this basis, I was inclined to agree with Rudolf: David Irving should have called him as a witness. Rudolf seemed to have some good arguments — good, anyway, against van Pelt for purposes of that particular trial. This was not to say that these arguments were unimpeachable. For example, McCarthy and Van Alstine offered a helpful analysis and sketch of the hypothesized wire-mesh column, seemingly adequate to rebut some of Rudolf’s arguments and yet also raising further questions (in e.g., their closing promise to address, “later this year,” the question of why there was no clear evidence of holes in the roof through which Zyklon-B would have been lowered. That promise was made in 1999.
No doubt there were other weaknesses in Rudolf’s arguments. I was about to look at some, on the specific issue of cyanide traces. But after just seeing my head get turned around by the unexpected Rudolf challenges just described, I was beginning to see what I might have to conclude about this whole debate — and it was not what I would have expected at the beginning.
(Later, I found an article in which Keren et al. did claim to have found the requisite holes in the roof of the gas chamber. See the Green Replies to Rudolf section, below.)
Traces of Cyanide in the Gas Chambers at Auschwitz
Rudolf’s critique of van Pelt included a discussion of cyanide residues in various walls at Auschwitz. I had considered this a potentially important line of inquiry: it had a possibility of being nailed down in fairly precise, scientific terms, unlike many of the other issues swirling around Auschwitz, and it seemed to be relatively limited, such that I, a non-expert, might be able to get my arms around it. I had taken quite a tour, in the process of learning about things that could affect this chemical analysis (e.g., the amounts and durations of Zyklon-B exposure that those walls would have seen), but now it seemed I might be able to home in on something relatively specific.
As noted above, Rudolf’s critique dated from early 2000. As such, it appeared to be more recent than some of the other materials and studies that addressed the topic of the cyanide in the walls. Leuchter’s report was prepared in 1988; van Pelt’s trial testimony had been given between January 25 and February 1, 2000; Green had apparently first posted his “Leuchter, Rudolf and the Iron Blues” article (since revised) in 1997; the McCarthy and Green article (see bullet points, above) apparently dated from 1999; and a search, looking for material posted since 2010, seemed to be going back to those 1990s-era materials. Having seen that Rudolf appeared to raise some legitimate and apparently unresolved questions regarding the wire-mesh devices (above), it seemed appropriate to continue, here, with his relatively recent critique of van Pelt on the specific issue of the cyanide residues.
A core issue addressed in the Leuchter Report had to do with the amount of Prussian blue remaining in the walls at Auschwitz. Prussian blue (what some called Iron Blue) was apparently the informal name of what van Pelt described as the harmless ferro-ferri cyanide pigment produced when HCN combined with iron. Such combination would apparently occur, with the help of a little moisture (at least normal atmospheric humidity), when, for example, HCN would come into contact with small amounts of iron found in bricks and mortar.
Rudolf’s critique began with van Pelt’s claim that “contrary to Leuchter’s belief, ferro-ferri-cyanide is not stable under all conditions, but tends to slowly dissolve in an acidic environment.” Rudolf said that, actually, “The relevant literature [to which Rudolf offered citations] consistently describes Iron Blue as an extremely stable pigment. It is insoluble in water, resistant to acid rain, and also surprisingly resistant to sunlight.” Rudolf cited several examples (e.g., a test in which Prussian blue showed “barely noticeable” changes even after 20 years’ exposure to the air of an industrial area near London). Perhaps the most telling example: “The outside walls of the delousing building in Birkenau, which are stained blue by Iron Blue, have lost none of their color despite 50 years of exposure.”
Rudolf also criticized van Pelt for accepting the suggestion that “cyanide will react on the surface of brick or plaster, penetrating the material not more than 10 microns, or 0.01 mm, or one tenth the thickness of a human hair.” Rudolf contended, rather, that Prussian blue will form at some depth within porous materials like bricks and mortar. Rudolf offered his own samples from brick and plaster walls at Auschwitz to support this. I was not sure how to read those samples. Specifically, his two brick samples were evidently both taken from outer walls; their depths apparently ranged from 0 to 7 mm (leaving me uncertain how much of the sampled material did lie below the surface); and only small percentages of their iron content had been converted to Prussian blue. Rudolf offered a citation to a source presumably concurring that HCN “can easily diffuse into deep layers of porous materials like walls,” not clarifying whether that would include brick as well as plaster walls. Rudolf further contended that the “blue discolorations of the outer walls of the delousing facilities in Birkenau, Majdanek, and Stutthof are an obvious and convincing proof for how easily HCN and its compounds can penetrate such walls.” Finally, Rudolf quoted Roth, whom van Pelt was citing as support, for his admission on another occasion: “In porous materials such as brick and mortar, the Prussian blue could go fairly deep as long as the surface stayed open, but as the Prussian blue formed, it was possible that it would seal the porous material and stop the penetration.” The point there seemed to be that Roth admitted Prussian blue could go deep, circumstances permitting.
Rudolf claimed that the cyanide residues in Auschwitz samples taken by Leuchter and by him were actually less potent than the residues he found in samples from an unspecified Bavarian farmhouse. I guessed that perhaps this house had recently been fumigated. It was not clear to me how the cyanide levels were connected with the amounts of Prussian blue. I would have guessed that cyanide (unlike Prussian blue) would dissipate over time, but evidently not: Rudolf offered two samples from the Auschwitz delousing facility in which cyanide levels exceeded 1400 milligrams of cyanide per kilogram of sample material (mg/kg). Apparently cyanide not bonding with iron could linger on (or in) some surfaces. Aside from those two delousing samples, all of the other Leuchter and Rudolf samples cited by Rudolf had cyanide levels of less than 10 mg/kg. Rudolf suggested that such minimal values may have been due to “environmental influences,” possibly including contamination in “a laboratory dealing with dusty samples full of cyanides.” Rudolf also seemed to suggest the possible imprecision of tests when dealing with very high or low amounts of cyanide.
Rudolf commented on a study by Markiewicz et al. of the Jan Sehn Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow, Poland. According to van Pelt, in 1990 the Institute produced a report that said researchers had “corroborated [Leuchter’s] conclusions.” Apparently this report attracted a lot of attention. In 1994, Markiewicz decided to do another study, this time drawing on Pressac’s book. This study found HCN in samples of brick, concrete, plaster, and mortar taken from alleged gas chambers; no HCN was found in samples taken from dwellings.
As excerpted by van Pelt, the 1994 Markiewicz study said, “It is hard to imagine . . . [what] could have led to the formation of Prussian blue” on the outer walls of the delousing facility because brick, “especially old brick,” was very unlikely to absorb HCN: “it sometimes does not even absorb it at all.” Markiewicz supported this view with laboratory experiments involving HCN and various sample materials, including brick. Markiewicz speculated that perhaps the Prussian blue on the delousing facility’s external walls was due to paint. Markiewicz observed that, in addition, the cyanide concentrations varied greatly among samples taken from the same room: samples from locations closer to the ceiling (given that HCN is lighter than air) or from the floor where Zyklon-B might have been dropped apparently contained much more cyanide. Markiewicz’s remarks appeared to be more oriented toward preservation of cyanide, in something like its original state, than toward formation of Prussian blue. Some of those remarks appeared to drive toward the point that the survival of raw cyanide was remarkable in places that had been aired and in some cases washed by rainfall for 45 years: it appeared that mere fumigation (as in e.g., tested dwellings) would not explain the cyanide persisting in Crematorium II and in the ruins of other crematoria. This seemed also to be what van Pelt (and Green, below) made of the Markiewicz study.
In these remarks, I had focused on brick. There were also tests and comments regarding plaster walls. I had assumed that a facility ostensibly used for showering (or, alternately, containing hundreds of panicking people) would not have plaster walls. I now saw, however, that Rudolf said that the walls of the alleged gas chamber in Crematorium II consisted of “a plaster of cement mortar.” It appeared that I could have added further comments, above, on samples taken from “plaster,” although doing so would require clarity on whether various writers were referring to “mortar plaster” or the kind of dusty, easily damaged “plaster” commonly meant by contemporary use of the term in the U.S. — or, perhaps, the “cheap lime mortar” that Rudolf said was used in some facilities at Auschwitz. Having seen mortar cracking when used as a plaster, I wondered how well a cheap mortar, presumably lining the interior side of a brick wall, would stand up under the conditions of the alleged gas chamber.
Rudolf appeared not to understand the puzzlement expressed by Markiewicz et al. (whom he called the Polish Chemists) regarding the presence of Prussian blue on the outdoor brick walls of the delousing facility. What had been called the reconstruction of that facility apparently meant internal renovation; evidently the bricks of the outer walls had remained in their original positions. Given their findings, it was not surprising that the Poles were puzzled about Prussian blue on exterior brick walls, or that they would consider paint as a possible explanation. Rudolf pointed toward his own writings, “refuting claims that Prussian blue could stem from any sort of paint.” I was not sure whether those writings, in German, addressed both the possibility that paint would transfer Prussian blue into brick and also that residual paint (if any) would be tinted with Prussian blue (if such tinting was possible).
Rudolf indicated that he had tried, without success, to persuade Markiewicz et al. to test his claims about Prussian blue in brick at Auschwitz: he said they “chose not to solve it because this could have falsified their theory.” Rudolf stated that Markiewicz et al. stated a political goal of refuting Holocaust deniers and preventing a whitewash of Hitler and the Nazis, as distinct from a scientific goal of finding the truth. Rudolf claimed that Markiewicz expressed this political agenda in both their article and in a private letter. I could not speak to the letter, but what I saw in the article was an unsympathetic description of Holocaust deniers’ efforts. Given the contradiction with their previous study, it did appear that there was probably a political motivation behind Markiewicz’s conclusions.
Regarding the Markiewicz study, van Pelt said, “It is a pity that the report does not mention the thickness of the samples, again the knowledge that cyanide only reacts on the surface of brick remains an important fact of consideration. Therefore I would not like to assign more than relative significance to the Polish measurements.” This appeared to lend some credence to Rudolf’s general contention that the Polish study was not done well. In that vein, he offered several additional criticisms: that the ages of the “new/old” samples were not specified, for example, nor was the amount of moisture used in the “wet” tests; that (as I understood it) Markiewicz found more cyanide in the mortar in the alleged gas chambers than in the delousing facility, while arguing that the latter had been subjected to much longer and higher amounts of Zyklon-B. (Although Rudolf claimed his own report had photos, I did not see any of merit in the PDF version; instead, I decided to insert, here, a link to a Google search for potentially relevant images. One source indicated that the person shown in some of these photos was none other than Rudolf himself.)
Toward the end of his article, Rudolf offered various air exchange scenarios, varying according to the emptiness of the room and the efficiency of the ventilation system. His calculations also drew on various remarks about humidity and temperature, among other variables. I thought he probably intended some clear conclusion from that discussion; if so, it eluded me. Possibly his point was simply that, as he stated near the end of his piece, for various reasons “the samples taken from the alleged ‘gas chamber’ still don’t yield any result that could be interpreted” — that, in other words, there were too many variables to reach any solid conclusions. Rudolf’s closing remarks:
I don’t claim to have solved all problems connected with the formation and detectability of Iron Blue in the so-called ‘gas chambers’ of Auschwitz, Birkenau or elsewhere, nor do I claim of having understood the meaning of every document concerning the concentration camp Auschwitz and Birkenau. But I do know that referring to or relying on Jean-Claude Pressac’s flawed works[see critique in note 6], as Prof. van Pelt does, and on the paper published by the Polish authors discussed here either proves his ignorance of the current state of the discussion or of a deliberate attempt of deception.
The Exchange of Accusations
While Rudolf’s article (above) appeared to be one of the most recent major works in the debate, I did plan to take at least a brief look at whether and how his arguments might have been challenged by Holocaust believers. Before that, however, I wanted to address accusations like the one made in the immediately preceding quote, where Rudolf suggested that van Pelt was either ignorant or lying.
I found it interesting that Luftl had quoted words that came, he said, from Schopenhauer:
Nothing is more galling
Than to fight with facts and arguments
Against an adversary
In the belief
That one is dealing with his understanding,
When in reality
One is dealing with the will,
Which obdurately closes its mind to the truth.
One must understand that reason
Applied against the will
Is like seed sown on bare rock
Like light arrows against armor,
Like the stormwind against a beam of light.
What Luftl and others on both sides seemed not to recognize was that each perceived the other that way. Both sides found the other inscrutable. And in treating the other as ridiculous, both positioned themselves in the modern mind as the stereotypical religious or political adversaries, both lost in the arcane details of their positions and their arguments, neither realizing that they were thereby losing the battle against the dominant culture’s larger apathy toward such battles.
As an example, Green had written an article titled Deceit & Misrepresentation: The Techniques of Holocaust Denial. The first accusation in that article was that the work by Leuchter and Rudolf was “pseudoscientific.” Definitions suggested that pseudoscience included “any of various methods, theories, or systems, as astrology, psychokinesis, or clairvoyance, considered as having no scientific basis” or “A theory, methodology, or practice that is considered to be without scientific foundation.”
It seemed ridiculous for Green to make such an accusation, given that he had written, with McCarthy, a piece that went into considerable scientific detail, on a level not readily comprehensible by a lay reader, in order to refute Rudolf’s arguments. In that piece, Green and McCarthy admitted, “Rudolf is far too clever to make such a ludicrous argument” (regarding the effects of using excessive HCN in a gas chamber) and “There are, in fact, people (among whom Rudolf does not number) who deny the Final Solution out of mental illness” and “Deniers less sophisticated than Rudolf have argued that hydrogen cyanide cannot kill at temperatures below its boiling point.” My own feeling was that Rudolf had brought some sophistication to the debate — that, after my frustration with some of the things said by some other skeptics, it was refreshing to see that Rudolf was able to present a number of plausible points in fairly concise terms.
On balance, it did not appear that Green really believed Rudolf was guilty of pseudoscience. It appeared, rather, that Rudolf was advancing science-based arguments. Green may have been correct, or not, in arguing that Rudolf was biased, deceptive, or simply mistaken. That sort of thing is not uncommon in science. Green himself may have been guilty of it. People do become passionately attached to their viewpoints, even on issues of far less personal emotional meaning than the Holocaust (and its consequences for Germany and for world Jewry) appeared to be for Green and Rudolf.
In that sense, it appeared that arguments about the Holocaust might suffer from an unfortunate dynamic, in which the people most motivated to research and write on various issues would also be those most deliberately or inadvertently inclined to emphasize arguments in their favor and to discount evidence to the contrary. Such behavior could readily be seen as deliberate deception by an adversary, when it might simply reflect the limits of what one could consider reasonable. It appeared, in other words, that disputes in science, like disputes in other areas of life, might benefit from the existence of impartial panels, resembling trial and appellate courts of law, in which disputes could be addressed with appropriate caution and neutrality.
In the case of a historical claim as massive as that of the Holocaust, it certainly appeared that it would have been more affordable and accurate, for purposes of the public interest, if a relatively impartial panel had been appointed to reach provisional conclusions, subject to reopening upon accumulation of a suitable mass of countervailing evidence, rather than to let such matters drag on indefinitely in an arguably unfinished state. An ethic of openness to further information would be essential; the point would be, not to make arbitrary judicial decisions just in order to settle things, as often happens in law, but rather to establish a style and, to a reasonable extent, an understanding conducive to semi-established conclusions.
The concern behind that suggestion was not merely that one would like to have supposedly ironclad historical claims (regarding e.g., the Holocaust) established for purposes of general public discussion. It was also that the semi-anarchic style of ongoing academic debate (not only in this area, but also in others involving e.g., creation/evolution and vaccines) tended to leave the door open for enormous real-world political consequences. Here, again, it appeared that attempts, by some Holocaust believers, to control what people were allowed to say (and, if possible, even what they would think) might be ineffective if not counterproductive in the longer run. I noticed, for example, that Emma Green (2014) contended, “Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, two-thirds of the world’s population don’t know the Holocaust happened—or they deny it.” Green suggested that not much more than half of the populations of the Americas and Eastern Europe were aware of the Holocaust and believed that it had been accurately described by the historians. Here, as elsewhere, it did appear that a war of ideas was underway, and that it was too important to be left to the generals.
This was not to say that nobody lies in such arguments. Probably my exasperation with various writers would have grown as I became more expert in various matters. Nonetheless, it did seem important to avoid ad hominem attacks — to avoid, that is, the logical error of confusing personalities with facts. A person could be a pathological liar and might nonetheless be speaking the truth on some specific point. An objective of a disinterested, scientifically literate panel oriented toward resolution of scientific disputes would be to identify truths without regard to personalities. Such a panel might not only achieve demonstrably reasonable conclusions over time; it might also set a standard of scientific reasonableness exerting beneficial influence on many of today’s acrimonious scientific debates.
Green Replies to Rudolf
It appeared that the aforementioned Green article, “Deceit & Misrepresentation: The Techniques of Holocaust Denial: Leuchter, Rudolf, and the Iron Blues,” had reached its current form (v. 6.0N) in August 2000. If so, it was presumably a response to the foregoing remarks by Rudolph. It was not as long a document as the earlier Green and McCarthy article, and did not seem to contain as much chemical analysis that I did not understand. I guessed that it might provide a succinct rebuttal of key Rudolph claims, thus representing a step toward reducing if not eliminating the areas of disagreement or uncertainty.
Judging from his abstract, Green’s key point seemed to be that Rudolph claimed there would have been Prussian blue in the alleged gas chambers if cyanide had been frequently in those chambers, and in Green’s view it was up to Rudolph to demonstrate the accuracy of that claim. According to Green, “It is unlikely that Prussian blue would have formed in the gas chambers under the conditions under which they were operated,” though that probability could improve with relatively small changes in those conditions, and that was probably why Prussian blue did form at other locations where HCN was used.
Green cited Markiewicz’s finding that cyanide levels were significantly higher in the alleged gas chambers, as well as the fact that not all known delousing chambers did display Prussian blue staining. Green observed that “iron blues” (of which Prussian blue was one variety) were often used as paint pigments; nonetheless, Green shared Rudolf’s doubt that blue staining at Auschwitz would have caused by paint: there seemed to be no evidence that any such paint was actually purchased and applied.
Green’s accusation of pseudoscience appeared to be based on the view that Rudolf’s measurements regarding Prussian blue did not actually say anything more than anyone could see with simple observation: it was present in some places, and not in others. In this, Green mischaracterized Rudolf’s work. Among other things, as noted above, Rudolf claimed to have taken samples of varying thicknesses, and to have measured the penetration of cyanide into varying depths of brick and plaster, below the level of a layperson’s visual examination. That seemed to be a legitimate way to proceed; my understanding was Markiewicz had done something similar. Rudolf had also contrasted high levels of cyanide in the delousing facilities against low levels in the alleged gas chambers. Green said that Rudolf’s work was merely “an exercise in fooling the public,” but I felt that, if people like me were being fooled, it was not because we were mere tourists, glancing superficially through such materials. It seemed reasonable to expect that a real scientist should have been able to expose the alleged pseudoscience in terms that would persuade a moderately diligent inquirer.
Green stated that the interpretation offered by Rudolf and Leuchter was in error because “by not discriminating against Prussian blue they have introduced a bias into using the delousing chambers as a control.” I was not sure what this meant. I guessed that it meant that Rudolf should have taken samples at the delousing chambers from places that were not stained blue — that, in other words, Rudolf had deliberately selected the most extremely tainted spots at the delousing facility, and would have gotten much lower readings if he had included samples from elsewhere within the delousing facility. The idea appeared to be that, although Crematorium I had been reconstructed after liberation, it was still possible to identify walls that would have been exposed to intensive use of Zyklon-B and yet had not been stained blue. That was possible, but not entirely convincing; among other things, I did not have much of a sense of what had been reconstructed. In this regard, I felt that both sides could have benefited from a much more lucid explanation, with diagrams and photos, indicating where samples were taken, and where they should or should not have been taken. For example, was it possible that the now-exterior walls of the delousing facility, stained blue, had once been interior walls?
(Later, I discovered a report by Keren et al. (2004) regarding the roof holes that would have been needed to drop Zyklon-B into the gas chambers (above). When I discovered that report, unfortunately, I no longer had time or motivation to examine it in detail. It did appear, however, to provide the sorts of photos and diagrams suggested here. On the basis of a brief overview, it also seemed to provide a good response to the “No Holes, No Holocaust” adage.)
Rudolf’s argument about Prussian blue “proves nothing,” Green said, “if it cannot be shown that conditions in the gas chambers were such as to produce Prussian blue.” Green appeared to acknowledge that Rudolf was probably right, regarding the persistence of Prussian blue once formed; the problem was rather that Prussian blue can be difficult to form in the first place. For one thing, he said, it “only forms with very high concentrations” of HCN. Green said, “Most importantly one must recall that the gas chambers were hosed down with water after gassings to clean up blood and excrement.” That was a commonsense observation. (Luftl said that there would have been “a huge pile of excrement, vomit, and similar material, thoroughly contaminated” with HCN.) I was not sure whether anyone had looked into, for example, the question of whether the blueprints showed water hose or drainage arrangements that would be unusual for a basement morgue. Green said that such “dilution would have been trivial.” I did not understand that. Maybe he meant to say, “would not have been trivial.” He thought that the watering-down “may actually be the explanation for the presence/absence of Prussian blue in the delousing/homicidal gas chambers, but some further research will be necessary to support this supposition conclusively.” I was not sure whether he had gone on to do that research.
Green argued that “Very small effects could tip the balance between whether Prussian blue forms or not.” One effect, in particular, was that of pH balance: for example, carbon dioxide from many breathing people would lower the pH in the chamber and could thus inhibit the chemical reaction necessary to form Prussian blue. On the other hand, Green said, the use of limewash (evidently a variety of whitewash coating on the walls) would increase the pH. I was not sure whether he was saying that limewash was in fact used on those particular walls; I was also not sure whether any wall coating might have impaired the formation of Prussian blue within brick or mortar. Green also made a few comments that I did not understand regarding interactions between cyanide ions and different forms of iron. Green said that experiments by both Rudolf and Markiewicz had shown that “Prussian blue formation is not a necessity with the presence of HCN and construction materials.” He concluded that “it would be premature to claim that I have explained why Prussian blue is present in the delousing chambers and not in the gas chambers” but that the factors summarized here did raise serious questions and that, in any case, the Holocaust deniers had failed to show that Prussian blue would necessarily form in conditions like those of the gas chambers.
In closing, Green accused Rudolf of “willful distortion of the evidence.” Again, based on the materials I had seen, that accusation seemed excessive. It did appear that Green had identified problems with some of Rudolf’s arguments. But it did not seem that Rudolf had made nonsensical claims. Green seemed more on target with his reference to the larger picture, including witness testimonies, perpetrator admissions, and massive disappearances suggesting a Holocaust. After reading Green’s remarks, I might have said of Rudolf, not that he was distorting evidence, but rather that he was grasping at straws.
The Numbers of Victims
In the foregoing investigation, I had acquired some knowledge about Holocaust belief and denial. There was one other thing I had been curious about. As noted at the outset, certain definitions of the Jewish holocaust contained an odd insistence that it had to be exactly six million deaths — that a historical calculation of any other number of victims would be dismissed as Holocaust denial. I wanted to acquire at least an introductory sense of what that was all about.
Victims at Auschwitz
For my purposes, there seemed to be two issues. One was the total count: how did we know that six million was the right number? The other was the count at Auschwitz in particular. Luftl said, “The Nuremberg tribunal ‘established’ that four million people (Jews and non-Jews) had been killed (by all means) at Auschwitz.” Zundel showed a photo of a plaque reading, “Four million people suffered and died here at the hands of the Nazi murderers between the years 1940 and 1945”; claimed that this plaque had been located at Auschwitz; and said,
Under duress, after the Zundel trial they reduced that number to 1.6 million, and they were still lying. Pressac decided it was 800,000, and he, too, was lying. The count now stands at 74,000 dead – registered meticulously in the Auschwitz Death Books released by Gorbachev to the International Red Cross.
Zundel’s number was corroborated by others. A New York Times article stated that the number of about 70,000 represented only those who had died in Auschwitz’s infirmary, however, not in its gas chambers.
I have already criticized such accusations of “lying” when the people in question may have had reasons for their conclusions. Beyond that, as Luftl said, “Of course, such a reduction [in the number of victims] does not lessen the (gravity of the) crime in any way. . . . The author . . . does not wish to minimize or glorify anything. To use a currently fashionable phrase, he wishes only to ‘inquire into’ the ‘Auschwitz myth.'”
Nizkor said, “[T]he number of casualties at each [concentration] camp . . . are also available . . . . The SS kept rather accurate records, and many of the documents survived, reinforced by eyewitness accounts.” In the case of Auschwitz, however, records were sparse. According to Piper (2002) of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum,
When the Soviet army entered the camp on January 27, 1945, they did not find any German documents there giving the number of victims, or any that could be used as a basis for calculating this number. Such documents (transport lists, notifications of the arrival of transports, reports about the outcome of selection) had been destroyed before liberation. For this reason, the Soviet commission investigating the crimes committed in Auschwitz Concentration Camp had to make estimates.
Nizkor quoted Foner for this statement:
Previous to 1992, anyone who publicly doubted the 4.1 million”gassing” deaths at Auschwitz was labeled an anti-Semite, neo-nazi skinhead (at the very least). Quietly, because of revisionist findings, the official figure was lowered to 1.1 million. No mention of that missing 3 million.
Nizkor then said,
On May 12th, 1945, a few months after the liberation of Auschwitz, a Soviet State Commission reported that not less than four million people were murdered there. This number was displayed at the Auschwitz State Museum until 1991, when it was lowered to 1.1 million. The total death toll for Jews in the Holocaust, however, stayed at about six million. Mainstream historians, it seemed, were caught in a bind. Had three million fewer people died in the Holocaust? And if so, why hadn’t historians reevaluated their own figures?
I’d had a bit of personal experience in this regard that came back to mind as I was writing these words. After visiting Auschwitz in 1988, I returned to New York. At some point, I was telling several people about what I had seen. I mentioned that the Auschwitz memorial had provided displays of a room full of hair, a room full of shoes, and so forth. The message I got was that this was all that was left of some enormous number of people who had been murdered. But one of the people I was talking to laughed when I said this. “A room full of shoes?” At the time, I thought he was being an idiot. He seemed to be implying that this was an ineffective way of communicating the enormity of the Holocaust. I am not certain it ever occurred to me that perhaps he doubted that there had been any Holocaust, and thus interpreted that room full of shoes as a pathetic or absurd way of depicting the disappearance of alleged victims. I say this in passing, and in puzzlement, because it seemed that even the Holocaust deniers agreed that many thousands of people had died at Auschwitz.
Anyway, Nizkor responded to that change in the Auschwitz death toll by claiming that the four-million figure had never been widely accepted (likewise Gordon McFee at HolocaustHistory.org). That claim seemed unpersuasive. It was apparently accepted enough to plant a bronze (?) plaque specifying that number in the ground at Auschwitz, where it apparently remained for about 45 years, until the collapse of Soviet control circa 1990. It was the figure cited in New York Times articles on January 28 and April 28, 1985. Jacob Bronowski apparently used the four-million figure in his BBC/Time-Life Ascent of Man series in 1973. In a seemingly marginal publication (1975, p. 7), Jean Raspall stated that the number of victims at Auschwitz was “three to four million according to Jewish sources.” That seemed consistent with the claim by Jacob Hennenberg, in a brochure published by the Kol Israel Foundation of Cleveland (1977, p. 9), that “perhaps four million Jews and thousands of other nationality” died at Auschwitz. A search turned up several other old newspaper reports to that effect. (Bear in mind that most records and publications before the 21st century were not digitized and made available for online search.)
IHR argued that the four million figure “was uncritically accepted for many years, and often appeared in major American newspapers and magazines.” Unfortunately, IHR did not support that claim with citations to major newspapers and magazines. Instead, IHR cited two New York Times articles (not the ones I just cited) and certain documents from the Nuremberg war crimes trials, specifically “Nuremberg document 008-USSR. International Military Tribunal (IMT) ‘blue series,’ Vol. 39, pp. 241, 261, and Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression (NC&A), ‘red series,’ vol. 1, p. 35.” To find these documents, I went into the Blue Series and Red Series collections offered by the Library of Congress.
Within the PDF for Blue Series volume 39 (i.e., Roman numeral XXXIX), I went to PDF page 239 to find document page 241. There, I saw DOCUMENT 008-USSR, with a footnote. The footnote said, “Ed. Note: Documents presented by the Soviet prosecution which were not provided with document numbers (PS, C, etc.) are reproduced here under their ‘USSR’ exhibit numbers.” The top of this document carried a paragraph in English, apparently summarizing the text of the document, which was in German. The English paragraph said this:
REPORT BY THE SOVIET WAR CRIMES COMMISSION, 6 MAY 1945: THERE WERE USUALLY 200,000 INMATES AT ONE TIME IN THE EXTERMINATION CAMP OF AUSCHWITZ. OVER 4 MILLION PEOPLE FROM THE COUNTRIES OCCUPIED BY GERMANY WERE KILLED IN AUSCHWITZ, IN MOST CASES BY GAS IMMEDIATELY AFTER THEIR ARRIVAL; THE REMAINDER WERE FIRST USED FOR LABOR OR FOR MEDICAL EXPERIMENTS AND LATER KILLED IN VARIOUS WAYS (INJECTIONS, ILL-TREATMENT ETC.); DETAILS RELATING TO THE CAMP AND THE PERSONS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CRIMES
That paragraph appeared to be a summary of the German text (document pages 241-261). My limited German reading ability (and the ability to detect numbers) yielded the tentative impression that the document did claim “over four million” victims. I was not sure why the Soviet War Crimes Commission would have produced a report in German. Not to say they didn’t, or that there was no good reason; the point is rather that the details of the Nuremberg proceedings, and of evidence offered in evidence there, were well beyond me. But it did at least appear that a Soviet source had advanced a figure of four million victims.
Within the PDF for Red Series volume 1 (i.e., Roman numeral I), I went to PDF page 54 to find document page 35. That put me in the middle of Chapter III of “International Military Tribunal Indictment Number 1.” This appeared to be a charge by the Allied governments (i.e., U.S., USSR, France, and Britain) against named individuals and groups (e.g., the SS). On page 35, I seemed to be in Count Three: War Crimes, section (A), Murder and Illtreatment of Civilian Populations of or in Occupied Territory and on the High Seas, part 2, which specified territories including the USSR and eastern Europe. The specific statement on page 35 was that the defendants were being accused of murder and ill-treatment including this: “About 1,500,000 persons were exterminated in Maidanek and about 4,000,000 persons were exterminated in Auschwitz.” This document did not seem to present a source for that Auschwitz number. I guessed that this charge was based on the number presented in Document 008-USSR.
Multiple sources (e.g., Wikipedia, Mattogno, IHR) agreed that the four million number originated in a Soviet exaggeration. Mattogno provided details on the calculations underlying that exaggeration. It appeared that this sort of exaggeration or distortion was not unheard-of; Mark Weber of IHR cited other examples and statements regarding fraudulent Holocaust-related documents. The idea appeared to be that the Soviets cooked up the four million number, the Allies did not investigate it (and as far as I could tell did not feel the need to investigate it: any number of murders would have sufficed for purposes of prosecution), and it was taken at face value for some time.
Again, then, IHR had not supported its claim that the four million figure often appeared in major news outlets. That said, repeated references by at least a few mainstream sources (e.g., Bronowski; the New York Times) did seem to indicate that it was in some sense a mainstream estimate.
Nizkor said that only two of 19 modern historical sources had used the four million figure, and that most others had ranged from 1.0 to 2.5 million. This did not seem to provide an accurate summary of those sources, as listed in Nizkor’s appendix. Two of the five studies Nizkor attributed to Soviet-controlled sources actually appeared to come from West Germany, with estimates of 2.5 to 4.0 million deaths at Auschwitz. Five other sources on Nizkor’s list (i.e., Bauer, Friedman, Gilbert, Lane, Kogon) estimated potential deaths at or above 3.0 million — a far cry from what Nizkor called the “more reliable estimates” of 1.0 to 2.5 million. Those sources also rebutted Nizkor on another claim, that the higher estimates were made shortly after the war, “before more reliable estimates were available”: several of those high estimates dated from the 1970s and 1980s. It appeared that Nizkor was slanting the data. Hence, I suspected that a thorough review of academic sources would have yielded a different story. This suspicion appeared reasonable. For example, a quick search led directly to an interesting letter to the editor of the Jewish Quarterly (1971) citing an estimate of 3.8 million in a book by Kraus and Kulka (1966) published by Pergamon Press (not cited by Nizkor). Weber cited other claims that as many as nine million died at Auschwitz (see also Faurisson).
I was not sure what to make of the apparent absence of discussion on the websites of ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center: their references to the “four million” claim appeared to be limited to denunciations of people as “anti-Semitic” for calling the four-million figure “a blatant lie.” Not having reviewed Mattogno’s analysis (above) in any detail, I was tentatively inclined to agree that it was more in the third category of lies identified by Mark Twain: statistics. Searches of the Yad Vashem and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum websites likewise did not seem to lead to discussion of the four-million claim.
It seemed, in other words, that prominent Jewish commentators had accepted and had used the four-million figure in various arguments for many years, and that several prominent Holocaust believer websites were now declining to talk about that. This apparent silence raised the question of whether the organizations behind such websites could not or would not admit that mistakes had been made, or that deliberate distortions had taken place, or could not otherwise present a straightforward discussion of the error, but instead opted in some cases to try to distract attention with seemingly disingenuous accusations of anti-Semitism. I could see that this was not the exact situation described by Nizkor with these words, but I found Nizkor’s words ironic nonetheless:
Another issue is the denier notion that anyone who dared to stray from the “Four Million” was labeled an anti-Semite and then hounded into submission by some mainstream historians, the media, or Jews. This soon becomes a laughable idea once one sees the wide-ranging estimates in the mainstream literature.
The irony in this case was that people were being labeled in exactly that way for calling the four-million figure a lie. It did appear possible that the exaggeration could have been useful for purposes of extracting political or economic concessions from Germany in particular, and from other nations as well, and that those who would dare to say so would be denounced. Again, it did not seem prudent for leading Holocaust believer organizations to leave the discussion of such matters in the hands of their critics.
Note, incidentally, that the emphasis here was upon the potential for game-playing by Jewish organizations, as distinct from Jews as a whole. As in other matters, there did not appear to be Jewish unanimity on the four-million claim. For example, that 1971 letter to the editor did refer to lower figures, and it appeared that Jewish scholars’ names were also among the lower estimates on Nizkor’s list.
Another line of argument appeared on Wikipedia’s Auschwitz page in 2006. Consistent with what I had perceived as Wikipedia’s consistent Holocaust-believer bias, that page said this:
For many years, a memorial plaque placed at the camp by the Soviet authorities and the Polish communist government stated that 4 million people had been murdered at Auschwitz. This number was never taken seriously by Western historians, and was never used in any of the calculations of the death toll at Auschwitz (which have generally remained consistently around 1-1.5 million for the last sixty years) or for the total deaths in the Holocaust as a whole.
That Wikipedia page continued with the following quotation from Nizkor’s webpage of relevant date:
Deniers often use the ‘Four Million Variant’ as a stepping stone to leap from an apparent contradiction to the idea that the Holocaust was a hoax, again perpetrated by a conspiracy. They hope to discredit historians by making them seem inconsistent. If they can’t keep their numbers straight, their reasoning goes, how can we say that their evidence for the Holocaust is credible? One must wonder which historians they speak of, as most have been remarkably consistent in their estimates of a million or so dead.
Similar self-contradictory verbiage appeared on the present version of Nizkor’s webpage. The “remarkably consistent” claim no longer appeared on the present version of Wikipedia’s Auschwitz page, however. Wikipedia’s former claim that the 4 million figure had never been taken seriously now seemed to have been discarded.
It appeared that the prevailing estimate, at present, was that approximately a million people had died at Auschwitz. But I had seen far smaller estimates. Nizkor referred me to Fritjof Meyer, who estimated 510,000 victims. Weber said that Pressac had estimated 631,000 to 711,000 deaths.
(See also Dalton’s (2014) discussion of the estimate of six million total victims, which I found too late to include in this discussion.)
Holocaust Victims Overall: Skeptics’ Arguments
Since the estimate at Auschwitz had dropped by roughly three million (from four to one), there seemed to be two questions for the overall count of Holocaust victims. First, should the oft-cited estimate of a total of six million Holocaust victims be reduced by three million as well? And whatever the total, should one be suspicious that it might prove to be as unreliable as the four-million estimate had been?
Nizkor said that the total should not be reduced by three million, reflecting vast shrinkage in the estimate at Auschwitz, because the estimate of a total of six million Holocaust victims was not based on the Auschwitz figure. This remark — indeed, both of the questions just posed — seemed to call for an affirmative statement of how the six million had been calculated. Yet on a webpage dedicated to the question of “What proof exists that the Nazis practiced genocide or deliberately killed six million Jews?” Nizkor offered only a list of the number of Jewish victims calculated by country, according to “the Anglo-American committee who studied the issue,” without specific citation to that committee’s work. Nizkor further said, “Some estimates are lower, some are higher, but this [i.e., around six million] is the magnitude in question. . . . Other historians claim not much over five million.”
On another page, Nizkor quoted a Usenet post by Greg Raven, which said this:
Should someone be considered a “Holocaust denier” because he does not believe . . . that six million Jews were killed during World War II? This figure was cited by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945-1946. . . . Yet if that is so, then several of the most prominent Holocaust historians could be regarded as “deniers.” Professor Raul Hilberg, author of the standard reference work, The Destruction of the European Jews, does not accept that six million Jews died. He puts the total of deaths (from all causes) at 5.1 million. Gerald Reitlinger, author of The Final Solution, likewise did not accept the six million figure. He estimated the figure of Jewish wartime dead might be as high as 4.6 million, but admitted that this was conjectural due to a lack of reliable information.
Raven cited the Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal (IMT “blue series”), Vol. 22, p. 496. I retrieved that Blue Series document and went to PDF page 502 to view document page 496. That page (dated Sept. 30, 1946) quoted Adolf Eichmann, but no other source, for an estimate that six million Jews were killed. Yet it was not clear that Eichmann’s view would be reliable. For instance, Cesarani (2004, p. 282) said, “Eichmann lied systematically.” (See also Grubach, 2009.)
I was not certain what “Anglo-American committee” Nizkor was referring to. Searches led to a Library of Congress entry for the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Jewish Problems in Palestine and Europe. A search of the Yale Law website pertaining to that committee led to numerous documents (e.g., Chapter XII) claiming that four millions Jews had been killed in concentration camps and two million elsewhere, primarily being shot by specially designated groups. But I did not see a specific calculation. Nizkor had cited specific numbers, country by country, so I tried another search on that basis. Sites resulting from that search led to the Anglo-American Committee’s Appendix III. That appendix compared the Estimated Jewish Population of Europe on a country-by-country basis in 1939 and 1946. Unfortunately, I was having difficulty understanding that Appendix:
- Table B listed 13.6 million Jews in the USSR in 1939, along with about 0.4 million in other countries. Yet the total for table B in 1939 was listed at only 3.9 million.
- The Jewish population in the USSR was reported to drop from 13.6 million to 2.7 million between 1939 and 1945. This seemed to mean that about half to two-thirds — 11 million of the USSR’s estimated 18 to 24 million World War II deaths — were Jews. Wikipedia reported, meanwhile, that only about two million Soviet Jews were believed to have died during the Holocaust.
- Appendix III did not include emigration to countries beyond Europe.
Nachmani (2005, pp. 6-7) presented numbers suggesting that, as of this writing, the Yale website had inserted a typographical error — that the Soviet figure in 1939 should have been just about 3 million, not 13 million. Nachmani also stated, however, that
in the confusion and general homelessness which pervaded Europe after the war [i.e., in the 1946 count], the accuracy of all statistics must be somewhat suspect. It was not uncommon to discover statistical errors to the order of 100,000 persons, and there were known to be Displaced Persons Centres of which even the local military authorities had never heard.
Aside from the Anglo-American Committee, Nizkor cited another source, The World Almanac, for a decrease of 5.4 million in the estimated world Jewish population from 1938 to 1947. I saw statements, but could not easily verify, that the Almanac‘s estimates each year were supplied by the American Jewish Committee. Nizkor’s presentation in this regard was not very clear. In at least one place, it gave inconsistent values. As far as I could tell from Nizkor, the Almanac’s estimates for world Jewish population were as follows:
Apparently the World Almanac had held the 1938-1947 values more or less constant up through the 1948 issue, and then the 1949 issue made at least two controversial revisions. First, the 1949 issue adjusted the 1947 value downward by about 4.4 million. Second, the 1949 issue increased the 1939 value by about 0.9 million.
The 4.4 million downward adjustment seemed controversial primarily because of its timing. The Holocaust would have been obvious to Jewish sources well before the war’s end in 1945. As shown above, the six-million figure had been cited in the Nuremberg trials in 1946. It did not seem likely that it would have taken until 1948 (for the 1949 Almanac) to report a major reduction in world Jewish population. The belated change did seem likely to feed suspicions of a gradual development of a hoax built upon the apparent public acceptance of the Nuremberg estimates.
The increase of nearly a million in 1939 could give the impression of padding. It did not seem likely that the world’s Jewish population would have increased by 6% in a single year. A Stormfront forum post cited multiple sources that seemed to agree that the world Jewish population circa 1939 was around 15.5 million, give or take a couple hundred thousand. Nizkor speculated that perhaps the bump up to 16.6 million was “based on the Nazi estimates made in 1942 for the Wannsee Conference.” It seemed unlikely that Jewish statisticians in 1948 would have relied on Nazi estimates in 1942 to alter values for 1939; it also seemed that a statistically plausible alteration for 1939 would have entailed an adjustment for 1938 as well.
The American Jewish Year Book (1948-1949, vol. 50, p. 692, Statistics of Jews, PDF p. 43) estimated that the world Jewish population was 16.6 million at the end of 1939 and 11.4 million in 1948, for a drop of 5.2 million. Within those figures, the Year Book estimated 5.5 million Jews in the Americas in 1939 (of which about 5.0 million were in the U.S.) and 5.8 million Jews in the Americas in 1948. This seemed to imply net Jewish immigration to North and South America of only 0.3 million Jews throughout the entire 1939-1948 period. That seemed consistent with reports of American restrictions on Jewish immigration throughout that period. Bald and Karolides (2006, p. 215) claimed that the Jewish Statistical Bureau stated an estimate of only 1.8 million Jews in the U.S. in 1937, but did not seem to provide a source for that claim.
It was interesting that the 1948-49 Year Book had estimated about 5.0 million Jews in the U.S. in 1939. An earlier Year Book (1941-42, p. 656) had provided a “corrected” statement of 4.8 million Jews in the U.S. in 1937. It seemed, in other words, that the Year Book reported nearly as many Jewish immigrants to the U.S. in 1937-39 as during the entire 1939-48 period. This comparison seemed interesting in light of the statement, by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, that U.S. immigration policy applicable to Jews was “highly restrictive” throughout the 1930s.
No doubt it was very difficult for Jews to get out of German-occupied territories as the Holocaust intensified, but that particular constraint did not cover the whole 1939-48 period. A Stormfront post, read in light of a document by Klinger (p. 4), contended that U.S. Asssistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long claimed, in 1943, that there had been 580,000 illegal Jewish immigrants since 1933. Klinger contended that this figure was exaggerated and that it included Gentiles. Klinger did not appear to offer a more accurate figure, however. There was, in short, some prospect that the Year Book may have understated Jewish immigration (including illegal immigration) into the U.S. (and perhaps also into other countries in the Americas).
The probability of undercounting was more obvious elsewhere. Most notably, for some years the Year Book apparently continued to report an obviously very rough estimate of “2,000,000” Jews in the Soviet Union. The 1959 Year Book (World Population section, p. 121, PDF p. 1) indicated, however, that “Some observers estimated the Soviet Jewish population as being closer to 3,000,000 than to 2,000,000.” A search did not indicate whether or how that uncertainty might have been resolved. The Stormfront post argued that well over a million Jews had been driven eastward into the USSR in the early years of the war, and that as many as 3.4 million Jews had been killed by the USSR during the war or thrown into the Soviet gulags.
It did seem that the figure of two million Jews in the postwar USSR may have been an understatement. Wikipedia stated that only 4,000 people emigrated from the USSR in the years 1960-1970. That seemed at least vaguely consistent with remarks by Ro’i (2003, p. 6) regarding “the desperation of Soviet Jewry” in 1970 and the opening for emigration that followed. The American Jewish Year Book (1970, p. 539, World Jewish Population section, PDF p. 3) put the Jewish population in the USSR in 1969 at 2.6 million. I was not sure how to relate that figure to the estimates of two to three million Jews in the USSR immediately after the war. In the U.S., there was a Baby Boom after the war; but my impression was that Jewish birthrates had been notoriously stable, at or below the replacement rate, for many years — that, in other words, the 2.6 million figure in 1969 might have been close to the Jewish population figure in the USSR in 1946.
The Stormfront post presented other arguments that I did not examine in detail:
- The German Ministry of Finance confirmed in 1985 that it had received, from Israel alone, a total of six to seven million applications for the survivor pensions that West Germany apparently offered to surviving Jews in partial compensation for the murder of Jews during the war. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed that five million Holocaust survivors qualified for such compensation. The argument appeared to be that there were far more Jewish survivors, applying in or through Israel, than Holocaust believers had claimed.
- A Holocaust Historiography Project offered remarks that I found unpersuasive in passing. Perhaps a closer look would have helped me to understand its importance for skeptics.
- Working backward with actuarial calculations based on the numbers of Jews surviving years later, there must have been far more survivors, immediately after the war, than would be possible if the six-million figure were accurate.
- Not a single gassed corpse had been recovered. There were no mass graves. Thousands of tons of human ashes, and millions of teeth, remained unaccounted for — if, indeed, there had been millions of victims. Research showed that the ground around the camps remained undisturbed. Generally, there was “virtually nothing” by way of forensic evidence sufficient to support six million deaths.
- The International Red Cross still refused to disclose 40 million documents that would cast great light on these matters.
- The reported counts of alleged victims from concentration camps added up to about three million, leading to the impossible conclusion that another three million were murdered outside of the camps.
- There were not six million Jews under German jurisdiction in the first place.
- Healthy Dutch and German soldiers died of disease and other causes at alarming rates in German and Soviet POW and concentration camps without being targeted by extermination policies.
Some of those Stormfront arguments seemed more compelling than others. In net terms, however, the foregoing collection of questions and problems related to the six million number did give some credibility to the Stormfront claim that the December 24, 1948 edition of “the New York Jewish paper Aufbau” would say that the six-million-Jewish-victims claim was “a pure fabrication.” It appeared that neither Nizkor nor other Holocaust believer websites offered the text of that Aufbau article or any discussion of it.
Holocaust Victims Overall: Believers’ Calculations
At this point, I had only worked through the Nizkor arguments in support of the six-million number. It appeared likely that some of the more established Holocaust believer websites cited above would offer explanations that would rebut some of the foregoing skeptical contentions. Therefore, I ran basic, narrow searches on the websites of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Yad Vashem, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and ADL, as well as a more general search. These searches yielded a set of webpages whose brief Google search blurbs offered some promise of explaining where the six-million number came from.
I began with a Haaretz article (Aug. 11, 2013, cited by Wikipedia) that asked, “Considering the amount of original research that has been done in recent decades, is this number still considered accurate by scholars of the subject?” The article traced the six-million number back to the Nuremberg testimony of Wilhelm Hoettl, regarding a claim to that effect by Eichmann. The article stated that Yad Vashem’s website said that various estimates “by a variety of different scholars have fallen between five and six million,” and that such estimates were based on comparisons of pre- and postwar census and population estimates. As examples, the article referred to detailed calculations in books by Raul Hilberg (1961), Lucy Davidowicz (1975), and Wolfgang Benz (unspecified). The article closed with this statement:
“Six million” is not, and was never intended to be, a precise accounting. But the number, which has now been part of the public consciousness for more than 50 years, would never have continued to be cited if it did not mirror the scholarly tallies that have followed in the succeeding decades, and confirmed that rough figure.
It seemed odd to state that the six million figure was not intended to be precise, when definitions of “Holocaust” quoted at the start of this post specified exactly that figure.
A HolocaustHistory.org webpage agreed that the six-million figure was based on counts of Jews before and after the war. The webpage noted that this technique would have the drawback of making Holocaust victims of a Jewish soldier who died in battle, or a Jewish lady who died quietly in her sleep at home. The webpage stated that Hilberg’s calculation had included only those who were captured by the Nazis and died under their control. Yet even that approach would include, within the concept of a systematic plan of murder, those who died of disease while in captivity. Lacking a copy of Hilberg’s book, I could not say whether his estimate (5.2 million) was based on an assumption of millions of victims at Auschwitz (above). The webpage emphasized, “These numbers are still estimates. . . . So it is not at all surprising or unusual that the estimates of Holocaust victims range from 4.2 to 7 million.”
That HolocaustHistory.org webpage said that, “Since the Nazis themselves explicitly reported shooting about a million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union before creating the concentration camp system, a number below 1,000,000 (as some Holocaust deniers try to claim) is not credible.” It seemed, however, that doubts the lower limit of 1,000,000 would be questionable if one could cast serious doubt on those Nazi reports of shooting a million victims. The point of that remark was not that such doubt might be possible; it was, rather, that the one-million line did not seem final and absolute. The one-million line did call to mind other remarks I had encountered, however, probably on both sides of the debate, to the effect that deniers and believers might differ by “an order of magnitude”: that, in other words, some people were talking about 6,000,000 victims while others were talking about only 600,000 or thereabouts.
At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum webpage, my brief inquiry found a reference to “the original statistical estimate of six million murdered Jews,” without elaboration. I also found a 175-page PDF containing a reference to “between 4.5 and six million victims” in an article by Dan Michman (2005, p. 69).
At Yad Vashem, I found a copy of Yad Washem Bulletin (1961, p. 3) that offered calculations that “do not pretend to be absolutely accurate.” The figures were rounded to the nearest thousand. The calculations resulted in a total of 5.957 million victims. The numbers appeared to be inconsistent with other numbers reviewed above. For example, the USSR Jewish population was put at 2.1 million before the war, and 1.5 million were said to have been killed.
That Yad Washem article said that the six million figure “is also mentioned in the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.” I was not sure which document that statement was referring to. It appeared that the Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel (May 14, 1948) maintained on the website of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred more vaguely to “the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe.” This was the document that Wikipedia cited as the “Official text.” A search did not lead to immediate clarification. It appeared that the Yad Washem Bulletin article had misrepresented the Israeli Declaration.
Another Yad Vashem document, by Michael R. Marrus (n.d., p. 14), suggested that the six-million number had been “seemingly rounded off from 5.7 million.” This was approximately supported by an ADL assertion that the Nuremberg trial estimate of 5.7 million (which I had not located) was joined by statistical, census, and demographic studies, presumably meaning the sources discussed above, and that “Newly released information from Soviet archives suggests that the death count should be revised upward by perhaps 250,000 additional Jewish victims.” ADL did not provide a link to further information about that newly released information. The webpage dated from 2001.
For nearly 60 years — since 1955 — Yad Vashem had been attempting to collect the names of all Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Some viewers, it seemed, would be impressed by the fact that their list now contained 4.3 million names. I did not investigate this effort. A brief glance and assorted comments encountered while pursuing other matters suggested that skeptics would doubt that this effort would yield a legitimate number of victims. The site itself warned, “The Names Database is a work in progress and may contain errors that will be corrected in the future.” I did not investigate whether scholars would be able to download the site’s contents, so as to run checks on its names, details of alleged identities, use of one person’s photo for more than one alleged identity, and so forth. Yad Vashem’s precommitment to a finding of six million victims, evident in its definition of the Holocaust (above), suggested an eagerness to add names outweighing any determination to flag potential duplicates. There was the additional fact that, after all this effort, and with operations that had begun not long after the end of the war — operations that had probably become widely known throughout Ashkenazi Jewry — Yad Vashem was still less than 75% of the way toward that six-million target.
The last of the Holocaust believer websites turned up by my searches was an FAQ provided by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. This webpage said,
The Anglo-American Commission of Enquiry, meeting in April 1946, put the total Jewish Holocaust losses at 5,721,500. On the basis of wartime statistical reports on ghettos, concentration camps and mass murder operations carried out by the Nazis, historian and international jurist, Jacob Robinson, arrived at a figure of 5,820,960. German historian, Helmut Krausnick, put the number of Jewish losses nearer to seven million. While the exact figure will never be known, scholars of the Holocaust find the rounded-off figure of six million to be in line with all the evidence.
That statement, according credibility to “wartime statistical reports,” appeared to be at odds with the emphasis, in the HolocaustHistory.org webpage, that census-taking in such areas “was not nearly as comprehensive as it is in the United States.”
Holocaust Victims Overall: Tentative Impressions
This section’s inquiry into the numbers of Holocaust victims began with a discussion of Auschwitz. There, it appeared that an initial estimate of four million victims had been wildly exaggerated. It had nonetheless endured for decades since its introduction in the Nuremberg trials. It had been toward the upper end of the spectrum of possibilities considered by various researchers. It now appeared that the better figure was somewhere around one million, though estimates ranged from 0.5 million (or less) to 1.5 million (or more).
Auschwitz aside, this section looked at the total number of Holocaust victims. In the immediately preceding paragraphs, I had reviewed some webpages from widely recognized Holocaust believer sources. What I had seen there had surprised me. I had previously searched for Holocaust believer materials, and had wound up at the Nizkor site as a result; yet it had seemed to me that surely these mainstream Jewish organizations would have developed an extensive, solid, and coherent presentation, going down into details as far as I would ever care to go and beyond, leading to the conclusion that the six-million figure was virtually bulletproof. Why else would such organizations define the Holocaust as precisely the belief that six million were killed (above)? Not to mention the establishment of laws in numerous countries making it a crime even to question the number.
What I was getting, from these materials, was that efforts like Nizkor’s were the exception rather than the rule — that, indeed, mainstream Holocaust believer organizations no longer seemed to find it necessary to take the skeptics seriously. The situation seemed to be that the six-million figure had become widely accepted as fact, and it could actually be counterproductive to grant any credibility to the skeptics (even if they deserved it) by arguing details with them. Why rock the boat, when much of Europe and North America is willing to accept the six-million figure and, in some cases, to prosecute those who challenge it? Just convey the impression that skeptics are on the “lunatic fringe,” maybe grant a little slippage away from the six-million figure, and leave it more or less at that. I did see webpages expressing concern, not about the truth, but rather about granting any respectability to deniers by debating facts with them. Whatever the actual intentions at such organizations, their actions generated, in me, the net impression that they were unwilling to engage in a thorough review of relevant facts, and that this was why I was not seeing any open and comprehensive discussion of the facts from any of those organizations.
Among those mainstream Holocaust believer organizations, there seemed to be a slight difference in approach. One approach was to treat the six-million figure more or less as gospel — to point out that it had become publicly accepted and to claim that knowledgeable people had substantially agreed on it for the past fifty years or more. The other was to grant a little slippage if necessary. In this option, it sounded like estimates as low as 4.2 or at least 5.1 million tended, now, to be considered more or less orthodox. Mentions of figures higher than six million had been rare, in the materials I had seen: Krausnick seemed to be virtually alone there. It largely appeared that, as at Auschwitz, Holocaust believers had begun with a count of total victims based on a Nuremberg estimate positioned toward the upper end of the range of probability.
The six-million figure appeared to be based on statements by Eichmann, Nuremberg estimates not obviously supported by detailed investigation, and before-and-after comparisons of demographic data. Neither prewar nor postwar estimates were based on rigorous censuses of the numbers of Jews in various countries. Estimates presented by Jewish authorities in the World Almanac had included an apparent retroactive exaggeration of the number of Jews in Europe in 1939 and a belated claim of a sharp drop in that number after the war. It appeared that emigration to the U.S. and elsewhere may have been underestimated, reducing the number of Jews unaccounted for after the war. It also appeared likely that the number of Jews fleeing to, and murdered or imprisoned in, the USSR had been understated in the Nuremberg six-million estimate. It appeared plausible, in short, that a Jewish newspaper in 1948 would have asserted that the six-million claim was false.
It was not possible, in this post, to offer original research into the total number of Holocaust deaths. The best I could do was to form a working conclusion based upon the materials reviewed. I found the Yad Vashem count of 4.3 million names particularly impressive. A review of Yad Vashem’s methods, with an audit of (or at least a study of a representative sample from) those names, would be necessary (given Yad Vashem’s definitional bias, above, insisting on a total of six million) to get a better sense of how many of them might involve direct duplicates, double-counts of people with two different (e.g., given and nickname; maiden and married) names or locations, or overly credible acceptance of names provided by sources inclined to exaggerate. From my relatively uninformed lay perspective, however, it appeared improbable that the true total of Jews killed in the Holocaust would be less than 3.5 to 4.0 million. On the other hand, one would need to learn whether the Yad Vashem count could somehow have overlooked large numbers of missing Jews. At this point, it tentatively appeared that, after more than a half-century of officially supported searches for the names of those lost, the official total declared at some future date would almost surely not be above 4.5 to 5.0 million. For purposes of general discussion, a loose estimate of 4.2 million seemed relatively safe.
Recap and Further Notes
At this point, I felt that my investigation into the Holocaust was coming to an end. I decided to recapitulate the main points covered in the preceding sections, with additional comments as appropriate. It seemed that a review and summary might lead naturally into a set of conclusions and recommendations. For further information on the brief remarks presented here, click on the following headings to see the longer discussion in the relevant section (above).
Definitions of Holocaust. “Holocaust” means great destruction, especially by fire. It is often used to refer to genocides (e.g., the Cambodian holocaust). It has become commonly associated with the Jewish holocaust at the hands of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. For that holocaust, some Jews prefer the Hebrew term “Shoah” (catastrophe), which does not have the same implication of ancient biblical sacrifice by fire: they prefer not to imply that the Nazi murders were in any sense a form of religious sacrifice. This post uses Holocaust to refer to the Shoah.
What Was the Holocaust? Leading Holocaust memorial organizations define the Holocaust as murder by Nazi Germany of six million Jews. Not all of those definitions mention that other groups (e.g., gays, gypsies) were also specifically targeted by the Nazis. The specification of six million Jewish victims implies that those who calculate a different total should be lumped together as “Holocaust deniers.” As I progressed through the development of this post, I tended instead toward the term “Holocaust skeptics,” to include Holocaust deniers as well as those who acknowledged a Holocaust but disagreed about its specifics, such as the numbers of victims at specific places (e.g., Auschwitz) and overall. There was a genuine fear of retaliation for merely talking about Holocaust-related matters, not only by violent Jewish individuals and organizations (e.g., JDL) but also by governments enforcing laws prohibiting such discussion.
Becoming Curious about the Holocaust. When I moved to New York in 1977, I began to learn about the Holocaust. That resulted in a trip to the Nazi prison camps at Auschwitz and Dachau in 1988. Along the way, I acquired the impression that people who would deny the Holocaust were part of the lunatic fringe. I accepted the general public impression of the Holocaust displayed in various movies (e.g., “Schindler’s List”). I decided to write this post after writing a companion post in which I concluded that the accusation of anti-Semitism was being overused and hyped, sometimes at the expense of people who had not actually said anything wrong. It seemed that such accusations were being made for the private benefit of Jewish organizations like ADL, possibly at the expense of Jewish people generally. I wondered whether claims about the Holocaust were being exaggerated to similar ends.
Positioning Holocaust Denial. I appreciated that it could be difficult to prove a negative – to prove, that is, that there was no Holocaust anywhere. But I did think that Holocaust deniers should be able at least to show that something major, like Auschwitz, was not what the Holocaust believers claimed. Though it seemed difficult for all parties, myself included, I felt that it would be helpful to minimize the ad hominem attacks and to focus instead on facts, not personalities or their assumed sinister motivations.
Finding Credible Sources. I found Wikipedia highly slanted and not highly useful in my attempt to learn about belief in and denial of the Holocaust. It sounded like IHR used to be a leading Holocaust denial organization, but that the deniers who had known Holocaust history well enough to advance convincing arguments had mostly faded into the past. It appeared I would have to start with IHR and see what developed.
IHR on the Holocaust. IHR claimed to have been targeted for arson and death threats by JDL. The FBI apparently considered JDL a terrorist organization. IHR seemed to acknowledge that there had been a Holocaust, but to deny that it had been the result of a deliberate attempt at genocide. IHR seemed to think that there were hundreds of thousands, but not millions, of Jewish victims of harsh German policies during the war. IHR’s claim to be an intellectually oriented organization interested in great issues seemed inconsistent with indicia of a pro-Hitler orientation. I was not presently interested in that kind of orientation.
Other Prominent Deniers. Among the Holocaust deniers named by Wikipedia, David Irving, Ernst Nolte, Ernst Zundel, and CODOH seemed most likely to be useful for my purposes. (This list would change as I progressed; I would not ultimately explore all four of those potential sources. CODOH’s website, in particular, appeared to have shed much of the material it formerly held; I repeatedly followed links to CODOH pages that were no longer there.)
Holocaust Deniers: Tentative Conclusions. There appeared to be a lot of hype about a Holocaust denial movement, coming especially from nonprofits (e.g., ADL, Southern Poverty Law Center) that had something to gain from that hype. There did not appear to be any such movement in fact. Rather, I had the general impression that there were white supremacist and/or pro- or neo-Nazi movements that would draw for their purposes on the works of relatively isolated Holocaust skeptics.
Truth and Fiction. I found it refreshing that Deborah Lipstadt seemed to disagree with the self-defeating approach (of e.g., ADL and Walter Reich) of exaggerating, accusing, and otherwise personalizing the debate between Holocaust believers and skeptics. For Lipstad, historical fact was the best tool for defeating Holocaust denial.
I had hoped not to get drawn into a long and complicated analysis. But at a certain point, I became more familiar with some of the things that were being said, more able to think about and critique them, and also more curious. It also seemed that a detailed investigation was going to be necessary to achieve even a ghost of a resolution, if only in my own mind, regarding some of the issues I was encountering. Hence, the large majority of my words in this post appeared under the following headings. The following recap of those topics is very brief.
The following headings addressed two principal areas of interest. One was the gas chambers at Auschwitz. There were many other areas of dispute, between Holocaust believers and skeptics. Examples included the disposal of bodies (via cremation or otherwise) at Auschwitz as well as the entire situation at other concentration camps. But it seemed to me that a relatively focused look at the gas chambers would give me some idea of what the Holocaust debates were all about. The other area of interest, addressed in the last section, had to do with disputes about the numbers of victims. It seemed that these two topics would yield insight into the definitions of the Holocaust quoted at the start of this post.
Turning to Specific Issues: Auschwitz and the Leuchter Report. Fred Leuchter examined the alleged gas chambers at Auschwitz and concluded that they could not have been used for gassing large numbers of people. His analysis included measurements of cyanide or related chemicals in samples of brick and mortar taken from those chambers. Holocaust deniers found this report convincing and important. Ken McVay’s Nizkor Project assembled materials critical of Leuchter – citing, for example, his lack of training for such work.
The Gas Chambers at Auschwitz: 66 Questions. Zundel and Rudolf engaged in an online debate with Nizkor, regarding an IHR pamphlet presenting 66 questions about the Holocaust. From those 66, I selected a dozen questions that seemed especially relevant to the Auschwitz gas chambers. My analysis of the debate on those twelve questions was inconclusive. It seemed that each side had some good points. For one thing, it certainly appeared that the judge in the Mermelstein lawsuit had arbitrarily decided the question at issue without even bothering to consider evidence. There also appeared to be unresolved questions regarding the levels of residual cyanide, ventilation, and the use of wire mesh devices to introduce poison gas into the alleged gas chambers. Zundel also raised interesting questions about the suppression of relevant evidence at the Nuremberg trials. I expressed frustration with the continual harping on favorite beliefs on both sides, as distinct from some person or organization that would have displayed openness to the truth, however contradictory or unpleasant it might seem.
Additional Materials. Materials by Green and McCarthy, Rudolf and Zundel, and Pressac added to my understanding of the situation, especially with respect to the several unresolved areas just mentioned. Among other tentative impressions, it appeared that the Nazis probably used high levels of Zyklon-B poison gas; that this would have increased the levels of residual cyanide in the walls as well as the amount of time needed to ventilate the chambers so that corpses could be removed without killing those who removed them; that industrial-strength ventilation systems appropriate for killing chambers were not installed; that documents did indicate an intention of using the so-called morgue in Crematorium II for purposes of gassing people; that the crematory complexes were generally in use for approximately a year and a half; that statements by witnesses (including Commandant Rudolf Hoess) presented many contradictions and other difficulties; and that it was difficult to figure these things out because the crematoriums had been variously damaged, destroyed, and/or reconstructed by people who did not necessarily know what they were doing. In net terms, especially because of the original documents offered in Pressac’s book, I came away with an impression that there had indeed been an intention to kill people with poison gas in Crematorium II, and that further review of that book probably would have shown documentation indicating that such gassing had actually taken place. There would of course still be questions as to the sources of those documents, the choices of which documents to exclude, and so forth.
Rudolf on the Wire Mesh Columns. The Zyklon-B gas pellets were supposedly lowered into Crematorium II (and elsewhere) in a wire-mesh basket, dropping within a wire-mesh column. The gas pellets could thus be drawn back up through the ceiling when the victims were dead; it would not be necessary to wait until the pellets had all turned to HCN gas and the gas had all been inhaled or ventilated. But there were no traces of the wire-mesh columns. Most notably, they did not appear in the blueprints, which otherwise reportedly showed every building detail; and there were no holes in the 4” to 6” concrete roof through which the baskets could have been lowered. Here, again, there were problems with the testimonies of inmates who claimed to have seen and, in one case, to have constructed those wire mesh assemblies. Rudolf also said that neither the wire mesh apparatus nor the double doors to the alleged gas chamber would have been able to withstand damage by hundreds of panicking victims. Later, I did find an article in which researchers claimed to have found the holes in the roof needed for the wire-mesh baskets.
Traces of Cyanide in the Gas Chambers at Auschwitz. There were two lines of argument here. Holocaust skeptics emphasized that there were no traces, in the alleged gas chambers, of the Prussian blue pigment formed by interaction of the HCN poison gas with trace amounts of iron in the brick and mortar of the walls. Holocaust believers contended that Prussian blue would not always form wherever HCN was used – that its formation would depend upon multiple factors – and that, with or without Prussian blue, there were still traces of cyanide in those walls, and that Rudolf and Leuchter had failed to find those traces because they had not taken samples from appropriate locations.
The Exchange of Accusations. I took a moment to protest against the endless accusations of lying and distortion on both sides. I had encountered situations, in this review, when I myself saw no legitimate excuse for certain things that people were saying. I did not find that these debates were free of deception. But too often, I felt, people were making accusations of bad faith in situations where there did seem to be legitimate reasons for what their opponents were saying. As an example, I pointed out that Green did not seem justified in characterizing Rudolf’s work as pseudoscience.
Green Replies to Rudolf. The summary of the “Traces of Cyanide” section (two paragraphs before this one) has already addressed some of this section’s contents. I added that both sides could have done a better job of making their technical arguments more understandable for lay readers, with the aid of photos and diagrams among other things.
The Numbers of Victims. A plaque at Auschwitz had informed visitors, for 45 years, that four million people had been murdered there. That claim was greatly exaggerated, and ultimately that plaque was removed. The more accurate figure appeared to be around one million, although some skeptics put the true Auschwitz tally in the tens of thousands. The definitions quoted at the beginning of this post required people to accept a figure of six million Jewish Holocaust victims in total, and it appeared that that, too, was an overstatement. Jewish and Gentile scholars alike had offered figures down into the four million range. Skeptics seemed to think that a total of less than one million was more likely. Both of those apparently exaggerated figures – four million at Auschwitz and six million overall – appeared to derive from estimates prepared for the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1946. It did not appear that those estimates had been based on careful investigation. There were also signs that figures had been manipulated – in, for example, the World Almanac estimates of the world Jewish population in various years (e.g., 1939, 1948). It appeared that such total counts, apparently comprising the foundation of most scholarly attempts to calculate the number of Jewish victims, had probably undercounted the numbers of Jews who had not been killed, but who rather had escaped, often in an undocumented capacity – as prisoners in the USSR, for example, and as illegal immigrants into the U.S. In this inquiry, it appeared that mainstream Jewish organizations were no longer willing to debate specifics – that they believed themselves to be winning the argument, and had thus found it advantageous to ignore skeptics, so as to deny their legitimacy, rather than provide an open and comprehensive discussion of the issues. As described above, my own working surmise, consistent with Yad Vashem’s count and with some recognized scholarly studies, was that the total number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was somewhere around four million — probably not less than 3.5 million, and probably not more than 4.5 million.
Readers looking for a summary of this post, in somewhat more detail than that provided in the Summary appearing at the start of this post, may want to review the preceding section. This Conclusion will not rehash the review provided there.
What needs to be said here is, rather, that perspective seems important. For one thing, World War II was not about the Jews, any more than the American Civil War was about black people. As noted in my separate post, Abraham Lincoln likely would have left the blacks in slavery for some years longer, if that would have avoided that war; similarly, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin might have wished the Jews good luck if Hitler had focused on a long-term mission of extermination, without compelling so many nations to fight him.
Jews accounted for less than 10% (possibly less than 5%) of the total deaths worldwide during the World War II period. Those Jewish deaths were obviously of enormous importance for world Jewry; less so for the world at large. The postwar order was not constructed primarily for Jewish benefit. Like the American blacks discussed in that other post, European Jews found themselves rootless in an unwelcoming environment and subject to aftershocks that would continue to pose existential threats for many years to come. As with any traumatized individual, it was somewhat benighted to expect them to come to dinner with a smile and a delicate sensibility, displaying loyalty to an established order that still didn’t look like it was really on their side.
So we have had overreactions. Some such overreactions seem to be perpetuated in old-guard Jewish organizations like ADL and various Holocaust memorials. A particular overreaction challenged in this post has to do with the apparent mistake of defining the Jewish holocaust as an event that necessarily involved exactly six million deaths, of which every one is to be considered a deliberate murder. It is obvious that not every death in wartime is a murder – that even civilians whom Hitler would have liked to kill were capable of fallling off ladders, catching pneumonia, and otherwise dying without his assistance.
Though I began this post with sympathy for what I perceived as the underdog – that is, for the skeptical position – I did not think that the skeptics would ultimately persevere in the debates reviewed here. In some regards, I was surprised: there did seem to be legitimate disagreements that legal authorities in various countries should not have suppressed with laws against honest inquiry. It seemed that I would have encountered more such surprises if I had investigated other topics, such as the alleged discrepancy between the flood of corpses coming out of the Auschwitz gas chambers and the limited capacity of the crematory ovens.
Overall, I felt that those who denied the Holocaust had terribly much to explain, and had not done a very good job of it. Some of that was due, no doubt, to political repression: it would be difficult to find capable people willing to jeopardize their academic positions, never mind risking conviction and imprisonment, in order to engage in academic debates aimed toward resolving unsettled issues about the Holocaust. It was obvious that the laws imposing those criminal penalties had not been enacted against the will of influential Jewish entities. Contrary to the preferences of Lipstadt among others, it did appear that world Jewry was becoming increasingly associated with the silencing of dissent.
This is not to say that the deniers were heroes. I did not mind the view that Germans had been mischaracterized, and some falsely accused, in the postwar era. But expressions of support for Hitler were beyond the pale for me. No doubt I had things to learn about Hitler and the Nazi regime. Be that as it may, confusion of that with Holocaust denial was sure to turn off people who simply wanted to know whether the orthodox account of the Holocaust was entirely accurate.
What disappointed me most, however, was the evidence of manipulation, concealment, and distortion on the part of mainstream Jewish organizations. It seemed, in other words, that the postwar overreaction against the Holocaust had brought us to a place where many Jews and Jewish organizations rejected core Jewish values. My companion post on the accusation of anti-Semitism had noted the plaintive question, raised by Jews, of whether Jews can still pride themselves on their love of genuine debate. Forcible silencing of dissidents was obviously incompatible with that.
My efforts to work through disagreements about Holocaust-related issues led to the conclusion that perhaps the single greatest need, from knowledgeable Jewish individuals and organizations, was for a reasonable, comprehensive source – a wiki, perhaps – that would afford a hearing for every viewpoint that can be backed with evidence, so that the public can decide for itself whether, and where, there might still be unknowns about the Holocaust.
At this writing, unfortunately, it appeared that such organizations were still preferring a strategy of refusing to talk with their critics, so as to deny their legitimacy. That strategy seemed to be working among the aging white audiences that had been granting them inordinate latitude since 1945. It was not clear whether it would continue to work with younger generations. As Lipstadt noted (above), times change. In any case, studies cited in the text (above) noted that large portions of the world’s population doubted the orthodox Holocaust narrative. Under such conditions, it did appear timely to urge reconsideration of the approach taken toward issues such as the Holocaust.
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