AUSCHWITZ: TECHNIQUE AND OPERATION OF THE GAS CHAMBERS by Jean-Claude Pressac. Preface by Beate and Serge Klarsfeld. New York: Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, 1989. 564 pages, paperbound, $100.
Reviewed by Mark Weber
This useful and enlightening work by French pharmacist Jean-Claude Pressac is an ambitious defense of the Auschwitz extermination story against growing criticism from Holocaust Revisionists. The author and the publishers - "Nazi hunters" Beate and Serge Klarsfeld - realize very clearly that Holocaust Revisionism is not some temporary or frivolous phenomenon, but is a serious and formidable challenge that has already found many thoughtful adherents.
This book is being promoted by the publishers as "a scientific rebuttal of those who deny the gas chambers." An article about it in The New York Times (Dec. 18, 1989) appeared under the heading "A New Book Is Said to Refute Revisionist View of the Holocaust" or (in other editions) "Auschwitz: A Doubter Verifies the Horror."
Printed on 564 oversize pages of 17½ by 11½ inches, Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers includes hundreds of good-quality reproductions of original German architectural plans and diagrams, photographs taken both during and after the war, and many documents, with translations. About half of the one thousand copies that were printed have been donated to major libraries and research centers around the world. Remaining conies are being sold for $100 each, in the hope that they will be donated to smaller libraries.
Pressac presents two kinds of evidence for mass extermination of Jews in gas chambers:
Pressac's book actually strengthens the Revisionist view of the Auschwitz extermination story and, by extension, of the entire Holocaust legend. For one thing, in presenting his central thesis, Pressac is obliged to make many significant concessions to the Revisionist position. Both explicitly and implicitly, he discredits countless Holocaust claims, "testimonies" and interpretations.
Of his book and its relation to the "orthodox" extermination story, Pressac writes:
This study already demonstrates the complete bankruptcy of the traditional ["Holocaust"] history … a history based for the most part on testimonies, assembled according to the need of the moment, truncated to fit an arbitrary truth and sprinkled with a few German documents of uneven value and without any connection with one another. (p. 264)
Pressac thus implicitly rejects the work of Holocaust historians such as Raul Hilberg, Lucy Dawidowicz and Nora Levin as "bankrupt." Indeed, one may regard Pressac and the Klarsfelds as comparable to hard-pressed military commanders who have decided to respond to the relentless Revisionist advance by abandoning vast but untenable lowlands of the orthodox Holocaust story, and retreating to a small but seemingly more defensible fortress.
Among Pressac's many specific concessions to truth are these:
Birkenau's four crematory buildings (Kremas II-V) are the core of the Auschwitz extermination story. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were allegedly gassed in these buildings between March 1943 and November 1944. However, the documentary evidence presented in this book simply cannot be reconciled with any kind of organized, systematic extermination plan or policy.
As the German records clearly show, these four buildings were constructed in late 1942 and early 1943, and were completed between March and late June 1943. Pressac believes that a "plan" to systematically exterminate Jews at Birkenau therefore must have been decided upon between June and August 1942, and was first implemented between March and June 1943. (pp. 212-213, 246, 348.)
This is a radical departure from the "standard" extermination story. Most Holocaust historians have maintained that a decision to exterminate Europe's Jews was made between mid-1941 and early 1942. For example, the Berlin "Wannsee Conference," where German officials coordinated the "final solution" policy, was held on January 20, 1942. And according to the widely cited postwar "testimony" of former Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoss, "mass executions by gassing" began at Auschwitz in the summer of 1941.Based on the copious documentary evidence presented in this book, Pressac properly concludes that crematory buildings (Kremas) II and III in Birkenau were designed and built as ordinary crematories. The alleged "gas chambers" there were designed and built as normal morgues ("Leichenkeller"), just as indicated on the architectural diagrams and as specified in numerous documents. These "corpse cellars" were built partially underground so that the bodies stored there would remain cold thus retarding decomposition. (pp. 284-285.) Only later, Pressac contends, were these buildings improvisationally modified or transformed into extermination facilities. (pp. 184, 224, 264, 285, 289, 415, 429.)
But this contention is highly improbable on the face of it. Hydrocyanic acid (from Zykon B) naturally adhered to moist surfaces, and the dampness of these underground morgues would have insured that the deadly gas would cling to the walls and floors, and thus endanger the lives of anyone trying to remove gas-drenched corpses.
In the case of Birkenau crematory buildings (Kremas) IV and V, Pressac has a slightly different theory. The decision to build these two additional crematories was apparently made in August 1942, Pressac concludes, almost certainly in response to the devastating epidemic that was raging in the camp. These buildings were not "conceived" as extermination facilities, he writes. (pp. 384, 392, 398.) But Pressac illogically contends that these two buildings - unlike Kremas II and III-were constructed as extermination facilities, even though all four buildings were under construction at the same time. (p. 448.)In spite of this, the technique whereby Jews were supposedly gassed in Kremas IV and V was illogical and absurdly awkward. Pressac describes the alleged gassing procedure this way:
Although the operating sequence looks simple enough, it had become [?] irrational andridiculous. It was irrational to have victims going from the central room to the gas chambers, [and] then being brought back, thus destroying the linear logic of the initial design. It was ridiculous to have an SS man in a gas mask balancing on his short ladder with a one kg can of Zyklon B in his left hand while he opened and then closed the 30 by 40 cm shutter through which he introduced the pellets with his right hand. This performance was to be repeated six times … A few steps installed beneath each opening would have avoided all this performance. (pp. 384, 386.)
As it turned out, completion of Krema buildings IV and V had to be delayed several weeks, and they were not finished until May and late ApriL respectively. (pp. 348, 349, 384.) They were also so hastily and poorly constructed that Krema IV was soon shut down for good, and Krema V could be used only intermittently. (pp. 413, 420.)
Even though they were supposedly built as extermination facilities, the "gas chamber" rooms of crematory buildings IV and V had no ventilators, Pressac concedes. But this fact alone means that these rooms would have been absolutely unsuited for gassing people. Without powerful fans to remove the deadly poison, many hours of "natural" airing would have been necessary before anyone, even with gas masks, could have safely entered the gas-saturated rooms. Pressac is aware that this awkward fact poses some difficulty for his basic thesis, but lamely mentions only that "ventilation of the premises was a serious problem." (pp. 386, 416, 498.)
(The supposed "gas chamber" rooms of Kremas II and III did have ventilation systems, Pressac writes, but concedes that these were clearly "designed for a cool morgue, not for a warm gas chamber." pp. 224, 285, 289.)
The danger of Zyklon, and its importance in Auschwitz, is underscored in an important "special order" by commandant Hoss dated August 12, 1942. (p. 201.) Forty copies were distributed to officials throughout the camp:
Today there was a case of illness due to slight symptoms of poisoning with hydrocyanic acid [Zyklon]. This makes it necessary to warn all those involved with gassings, as well as all other SS personnel, that especially when opening gassed rooms, SS personnel not wearing gas masks must wait at least five hours and keep a distance of at least 15 meters from the chamber. In this regard, particular attention should be paid to the wind direction.
Outside civilian workers were brought in to help construct Birkenau's four crematory buildings, which would have been astonishing if they had actually been built as top secret mass extermination facilities. For example, workers from nine outside civilian firms helped construct Kremas IV and V. (pp. 350, 384.) There also does not seem to have been any abnormal urgency to finish these four facilities, because all work on them was halted between Dec. 23, 1942, and Jan. 4, 1943, so that the civilian workers could go home to spend Christmas and New Year's with their families. (pp. 210, 213.)
At no time were any of Birkenau's four crematory buildings ever hidden, concealed or "camouflaged." They were in plain view of everyone, including newly arriving Jews. Krema buildings II and III were especially visible. (pp. 247, 250, 251, 464, 556.) On this point alone the Auschwitz extermination story defies belief. It is simply incredible to suppose that the authorities would not have tried to hide or conceal their alleged mass extermination facilities.
Pressac is sometimes surprisingly ignorant. For example, he attributes six photos that show humane conditions in the Auschwitz-Monowitz camp to an unspecified "Revisionist source." (pp. 506-507.) Actually, they are from the Dürrfeld file in the records of Nuremberg trial No. 6, in the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Pressac briefly mentions the important report of American engineer Fred Leuchter, who carried out the first forensic investigation of the "gas chambers" of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdanek. But he misrepresents the report, and ignores Leuchter's categorical conclusion that none of the alleged "gas chambers" could have been used for homicidal gassings. (p. 133.)
Pressac's book is not easy to read. His writing is disorganized, needlessly convoluted and frequently unclear. It is often necessary to consult passages from widely divergent pages to understand this or that point he is trying to make. But perhaps we should be grateful for this confusion, because if Pressac were a clear and logical writer, the Klarsfelds might well have refused to publish his book.
Pressac does not seem to be a psychologically sound person. For example, he confesses that he "nearly" killed himself in the Auschwitz main camp in October 1979. (p. 537.) His relationship with Dr. Faurisson and French Revisionist publisher Pierre Guillaume - to which he devotes several pages - changed from a kind of admiration to bitter personal animosity. He cites nothing about Faurisson's treatment of him that would justify such visceral enmity, even granting the intensity of his disagreement about the Holocaust issue. The emotional and even vicious nature of Pressac's furious hostility towards Faurisson suggests an insecure and unstable personality.
In spite of its defects, Pressac's book is an important and enlightening work, even if not for the reasons intended by either the author or the publishers.
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 231-237.
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