Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.

A Review
Published: 2000-01-01

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a film by Errol Morris.

With its premier at the Toronto Film Festival in 1999, presaged by a degree of consternation and controversy,[1] Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., is now circulating among various independent film houses. While the stance of these film houses may be anything but Revisionist, such enclaves are nevertheless helping to move audiences closer to an understanding of the nature of controversy surrounding "the Holocaust," albeit via a canned package.

Never mind that Leuchter's findings are 12 years old or that everything encompassed by Errol Morris' documentary might have been undertaken some eight years ago. Like the incident at Ruby Ridge, it sometimes takes the media several years to come to terms with matters that do not fit the fabric weaved over time by their fellow medians.

As to the content of the film, roughly the first 30-40 minutes cover Fred Leuchter's younger years, his experiences working at a Massachusetts prison alongside his father and also his nascent career as a budding technician. Most of the film is constructed either by using previously existing amateur footage (some of it obviously Fred's) or through interviews carried out by Morris. However, there are other instances where a double is used for certain re-enactments. We have, for example, both at the beginning of the film and at its conclusion, a view of Fred's double entering an exotic window-paned elevator, with electric discharges eddying to and fro, lending both the aura of the mysterious and the comical. One imagines this might have been done to entertain science-fiction enthusiasts, or was possibly just an ill-advised mélange of the theatrical with the documentary. Then too, it might have been Morris' way of suggesting Leuchter's efforts were science-fiction.

We get this impression from other such juxtapositions. For example, Morris provides Leuchter an opportunity to express genuine concerns for humane means of carrying out the death sentence, citing his preference for electrocution over what then prevailed at Tennessee State Penitentiary. However, accompanying these comments is footage from an 1898 film showing a full-grown elephant being electrocuted by Thomas A. Edison. Whether Morris wanted a curiously gripping demonstration or was countering with a statement on the ultimate barbarity of electrocution is up for grabs.

But now after the warm-up we come to the crux of the matter: "The Trial of Ernst Zündel." We are shown Zündel the activist, then a Zündel who is rather well-dressed and comfortable. The interview is non-confrontational and strictly informational. Zündel points out for instance, that Leuchter was his only hope, that he was the only known expert on execution by poison gas. Of course earlier, during the preliminary part of the film, we were given the impression Leuchter got involved with gas only by accident, merely on the strength of his credibility in other execution-related work. We learn that it was not coincidental that Fred Leuchter was an American, for America, curiously, was the only country in the world which still dispatched persons by these means. Nevertheless, it was no easy matter finding a gas expert, for as Zündel poignantly makes clear: you don't just look one up in the phone book! Those who know the full story will probably be disappointed that there is no mention of Robert Faurisson's role in identifying Leuchter through the recommendation of Missouri State Penitentiary warden Bill Armontrout. There is undoubtedly a reason for this, and we shouldn't automatically suspect it is because Morris didn't want to add to his burdens too many Revisionists.

With a motive established, Fred and company, including his new wife Carolynn,[2] travel to Poland. Morris, however, in another theatrical twist, inserts black and white footage as if we are looking out an aircraft window on what possibly is a view of the city of Krakow, occupied Krakow that is, with swastika flags billowing from its rooftops.

Morris shows us Leuchter's work at Auschwitz-Birkenau by means of out-takes from the latter's own amateur video (is Morris paying royalties?). One sees, for example, Fred taking samples from the walls of Krema I at Auschwitz proper, and if one pays close attention, you can discern that a potentially valid criticism leveled by chemist James Roth later in the film is thereby somewhat mitigated. This is done not in words but in deeds by capturing the nature of samples Fred took from this protected site: broad rather than deep. Remember that: broad rather than deep. This cogent fact becomes rather crucial.

To insure a fitting counterbalance to Fred Leuchter's engineering approach, Errol Morris integrates the viewpoints of, not another engineer, but historian Robert Jan van Pelt. Van Pelt starts the ball rolling by telling us how "holocaust denial is so revolting," a polemic which announces that for him this is not so much a matter he wishes to address as an academic as someone with a suitable moral perspective. But let us be kind here. Mr. van Pelt is probably taking chances appearing on the same celluloid with Leuchter, so touchy are the Holocaust megalomaniacs, that daring to talk about his work, even after this preface, is a coup de braveur. And once we do accord leniency here, we are certainly rewarded. For van Pelt warns us we are the victims of the myth of Sherlock Holmes, even though Fred Leuchter "is no Sherlock Holmes." Why? Because he does not have the necessary training. For instance, he has no expertise in looking at ruined buildings or mass gassing operations. Alas, Fred's only contact with gassing facilities has been his interaction with Missouri State Penitentiary (since severed, it will later be mentioned, because certain holocaustians like Beate Klarsfeld did not like even this much involvement). This begs to ask: who does have this expertise? Certainly not van Pelt or any of the holocaustians. Would this training matter as far as identifying whether there was a ventilation system in the "as-built" versus planned version of the alleged gas chambers? Fred already knew how to read blueprints and was shown using them in his work. Did he look for the blueprints on Kremas I - V? If he didn't, this is not a matter of training but oversight. But as to what actually got built and installed (and then possibly removed again, leaving scars), the proof is in seeing - or not seeing - and for that the only training Fred needed is what any modern scientists learns and that is the technique of empiricism - simple observation. This gets us away from hieroglyphics or the Catholic Mass said in Latin. With it, any competent observer can go and see for him or herself just what Leuchter saw: whether gas seals were used in doorways, whether there are concentric holes in any of the remaining roof sections, whether drainage systems are inter-connected, etc. Why, even the holocaustians can do this, if they care to. But what about the choice of HCN-impregnated mortar samples? Does this require training? We see Leuchter, for instance, taking a sample from a structural support column inside the remains of Krema III. Was this a good choice? That depends on how much we think Leuchter should have trusted the museum itself. The simple answer is "yes," because this is a location a museum schematic identifies as a "gas chamber" and the pillar was obviously an exposed surface inside that chamber. Furthermore, Fred's sample is broad, not deep. Was he trained for that? Possibly not. It was merely being reasonable. So in the end, it is van Pelt's complaint that is not reasonable and in fact he goes beyond reason to merely decry Fred did not earn a diploma from the van Pelt Holocaust School of Dilapidated Gassing Building Analysis.

Robert van Pelt's bias comes into its true glory, however, when he says, not that Fred came to Auschwitz unprepared, but that he trespassed upon the shrine of the "holiest of holies"! We understand from this that Fred might have been forgiven any lack of preparation had he merely derived the "right" conclusion. But van Pelt also emphasizes that Leuchter's findings are wrong because "everything has changed three or four times" over the past 50 years and that the structures Fred examined and the samples he took, "were exposed to the elements." Mr. van Pelt, in fact, stresses that what is missing is what Auschwitz-Birkenau was like during the war. Has Krema I at Auschwitz proper changed three to four times? Have the ruins of Kremas II – V at Birkenau changed three to four times? If van Pelt is saying this there is no need to also mention "exposure to the elements," since there would be no residue to expose. But van Pelt's glib description does not stand up to one basic fact: that Leuchter's samples in many instances had at least trace amounts of HCN residue. If "everything" changed even so much as once (this seems reminiscent of the Revisionist's own idea that Krema I is an "Attrappen"), there would be no residues, period. Furthermore, the idea of "holy" for the Krema sites Fred entered goes out the window as well. So when van Pelt makes a case for the allegation that all the bricks from the original gassing facilities eventually found their way into nearby homes, he is up against it: he is up against very significant evidence which more than suggests, i.e., proves, otherwise.

Mr. van Pelt presumes Fred Leuchter did not refer to any building plans or engineering plans before or during his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. If he had done so, says van Pelt, he would have seen evidence for (intended) gas ventilation equipment. It is at this point, if not earlier, that the viewer of Morris' documentary becomes aware that Leuchter, for all he is allowed to say about what he did, is decidedly at a disadvantage regarding his detractors since they are privy to his work, while he is unaware of theirs, i.e., they are permitted whatever manner of erroneous criticism, while he is not given the benefit of addressing those criticisms. Leuchter, given the chance, might have easily responded to van Pelt's erroneous statements about lack of reference to building plans and gas ventilators. He might have challenged van Pelt on whether Krema I's door reveals evidence of being designed to prevent gas leakage (as opposed to being for a bomb shelter), and why there would be a bill of lading for gas detectors and an 8 mm. thick piece of glass for a sight hole. It is interesting that where van Pelt cites these elements of circumstantial evidence from bills of lading or other documentary evidence, he is obliged to do an intellectual somersault when identifying such citations as "Vergassungskeller," by saying, far from identifying any morbid purpose, the Nazis had become "the first holocaust deniers."

At this point Ernst Zündel is permitted to state what for the holocaust side stands in contradistinction to van Pelt's reference to "plans": the absence of gas-tight doors, doors with peep-holes, gas detectors, etc. Says Zündel : "It was what Fred didn't find which convinced me."

Footage of Fred exiting Krema II allows van Pelt to make a rather bold statement: that this facility was by itself responsible for more that 500,000 deaths, making it "the epicenter of world atrocity." This statement is extraordinary in that until now, only Krema I has had its total victim count speculated upon. Neither the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. nor Auschwitz chief curator, Dr. Franciszek Piper, has heretofore offered mortality figures for any of the Birkenau gas chambers. So the obvious question is: from what source does van Pelt come up with this previously unmentioned number?

The infamous conclusion of the "Leuchter Report" is spelled out in Fred's own voice. But there is an unanticipated bomb-blast in terms of statements by James Roth, chief chemist for Alpha Analytic Labs in Malden, Massachusetts, the firm which analyzed Fred's samples. Roth, who likely suffered serious professional repercussions for his original courtroom testimony, comes across in his interview with Morris as someone trying to redeem himself.[3] What he has to say is terribly interesting. First, he specifies that at the time he received the samples, he had no idea where they came from. All he was told was that the test results were to be used in a court action relative to an industrial incident. Second, because of not knowing the purpose of the tests, they were not conducted as effectively as they might (they were not the right tests for the true purposes). Thirdly, the samples were of various shapes and sizes and Roth had no idea which surfaces represented the exposed surfaces. As a matter of technical interest, he pointed out that HCN gas would have penetrated to only some ten microns relative to the exposed surface. Anything other than this would not be worth testing and indeed, misleading.

The Roth arguments, I believe, are quite important and I think we should pause to look at them more closely. The first point about not knowing where the samples came from is irrelevant (except that we understand Mr. Roth is attempting to distance himself from any imputation of complicity). Argument number two, however, is more important. Here he is suggesting he might have achieved better precision in determining trace amounts of cyano-cyanate compounds had he employed some other technique, possibly Mossbauer spectography, rather than mere chemical tests with H2SO4. Admittedly, detection levels would have been more precise (i.e., of greater accuracy than 1 milligram per kilogram sample) but not of higher value. It is in argument three, however, where Roth has truly touched upon something critical. Roth is on the mark when he expresses concern for having possibly tested bulk samples where there was appreciably more benign sample than trace residue. True, properly identifying the exposed surface for each of the samples Fred submitted would have allowed shaping these samples before test to remove non-critical material and also to normalize them, surface-to-mass, one to another. By so doing, the reported milligram per kilogram levels might have indeed been higher if not also more readily comparable. The real problem touched on by Mr. Roth is the varying sample size, particularly in regard to the ratio of surface area to depth. The truth of the matter which Roth so correctly points out is that all cyano-cyanate residue would be at or just below (within 10 microns of) the HCN exposure surface, hence samples with little such surface but appreciable depth would necessarily evidence, all else being equal, smaller milligram quantities of CN- per kilogram sample. That is why it is important to realize that Leuchter's samples, at least in some cases, are, as described earlier, "broad rather than deep." Because we know this applies even to one sample and yet no samples illicit more than trace amounts of ferro-ferric cyanide, the Alpha Analytic Lab findings still suggest the earlier supposition: we are seeing evidence of infrequent exposure to HCN: a case of fumigation rather than extermination.

During the course of the film, Morris brings in several persons to reflect on the character and actions of Fred Leuchter. He gives us, for example, Shelly Shapiro, who offers at her wittiest that Leuchter is a "hate-monger," one who has "handed his life over to hate-mongers" and who, in case we're still unimpressed, has "made a pact with the devil." As I recall, the audience involuntarily laughed at this quip. Then there is Suzanne Tabasky. Ms. Tabasky, a spokesperson for some manner of Holocaust Task Force (?), laments over what kind of reflection Fred has made on society, thinking too that he "really dug" all the attention he was getting. Fit the pieces together and even the ingénue can see just what she means: Leuchter losing his business contracts, losing his wife, losing his home and car (we see him stranded out on the highway) and facing prosecution from the State of Massachusetts for practicing engineering without a license. More likely, we realize he "dug" his own grave. Tabasky also tells us in her most humane manner that she pities Fred because by April 1988 there was still time to redeem himself. Instead, he chose to be stubborn. Van Pelt weighs in one last time by stating Leuchter is a study in vanity, that, similar to Tabasky's analysis, his main purpose was to be noticed. We are told in this regard of Fred's attendance at three or four Institute for Historical Review conferences. To back this up, Morris includes amateur footage of the 1992 IHR conference, the one and only Leuchter actually attended. Not to be insufficient, however, certain European conferences are also shown.

With three strikes registered, Morris again introduces Fred's wife, a female Judas, who tells us how she wanted a divorce and asked her husband to move out of his own home. She explains ever so delicately: "If I never saw him again that would be fine" (with wives like these…!). We begin to think the deck is stacked at this point when along comes David Irving. Irving was given a 30 second shot earlier in Morris' documentary to say he felt Leuchter was innocent of any charges of malevolence because he was, in essence, "a simpleton" (but that Leuchter's findings nevertheless allowed him to become a hardcore disbeliever). Now one hopes his second utterance will somehow help redress the balance. Instead, Irving says (or at least what Morris uses of what Irving said is) that Leuchter "had no idea what he was blundering into;" that "he came from nowhere and went back to nowhere." Strike five!

If the foregoing seems stilted and damning, Fred is given three points in the final sequence which recoup his image somewhat: first, he is allowed to state he is not an "anti-Semite" and bears no ill-will towards Jews in general but only those who expressed an intent to destroy him; second, Fred tells the camera he did everything he could to substantiate the existence of the gas chambers and yet was simply unable; lastly, Fred tells us a rather odd but humane tale about children allowed to visit the prison where his father worked and sit in the electric chair, there being a positive outcome which Fred applies to his own situation in the aftermath of his ordeal. Indeed, metaphorically at least, Fred was placed in the "hot seat" and given the jolt of his life and yet survived though his life was thereafter ruined. And that's enough to teach any attention seeker.


Notes

[1]
According to a telecon with Edinburgh Filmhouse Director Ken Ingles, on or about 14 January 2000.
[2]
I recall there were only two instances during the film where the mostly student audience laughed: once was when Leuchter's wife Carolynn explained she met her husband-to-be during the time he frequented her coffee shop on his way to the gun club.
[3]
The author recalls attempts to call Alpha Analytic back in 1995 and finding the phone no longer in service. Similarly, a letter mailed to Mr. Roth at his company's address was returned as "undeliverable."

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Author(s) Daniel D. Desjardins
Title Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., A Review
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Dates published: 2000-01-01, first posted on CODOH: June 29, 2000, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
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