Critique of the A.R. Butz article "Gas Detectors in Auschwitz Crematorium II"

Published: 1998-01-01

In the September-October 1997 issue of The Journal of Historical Review appeared an article by Arthur Butz entitled: "Gas Detectors in Auschwitz Crematory II" (pp. 24-30) which deserves to be examined. Concerning "gasprüfer" at Auschwitz, Dr. Arthur Butz has devised an indisputably original hypothesis which he summarizes as follows :

  • It is certain the Topf letter has nothing to do with Zyklon.
  • It is almost certain that the HCN danger referred to arose from the waste incinerator. I would be astonished if it were shown that such was not the case.
  • It is probable that the HCN detectors were wanted because of a potential danger of HCN development in the incineration of fabrics, particularly rayons treated with flame retardants. However I am far from certain on this, and I will not be astonished if other materials, consumed in the waste incinerator, were shown to have been suspected by the Auschwitz management as potential sources of HCN development.

A hypothesis, if it is not to be a sterile dialectic exercise, must have an objective counterpart in reality or in documents, whereas the Butz hypothesis is based upon two fundamental presumptions framed in a series of linked secondary presumptions which have no grounds in the documentation or history. The fundamental presumptions, which alone suffice to invalidate the Butz hypothesis, are as follows:

  • the commercial connection of the Topf firm with HCN and
  • the existence in 1943 of a "gas detector" for HCN different from the standard Gasrestnachweisgerät operating according to the Pertusi and Gastaldi process.

To amply clarify, I shall critique the Butz presumptions in their logical order:

Regarding combustion of nylon and wool, forming hydrocyanic acid, "a fact that has been known since the Thirties": This assertion is undocumented. The fact remains, however, that in the classic work by Flury and Zernik on poisonous gas published in Berlin in 1931, among the "Vergiftungsmöglichkeiten" caused by HCN, there appears no reference to "Müllverbrennungsöfen"; the only reference to combustion relates to "Celluloidbränden",[1] but this risk is associated with fire in and of itself, not with combustion in an incinerator.
"The burning of rayon can generate HCN gas if the rayon is impregnated with, but not chemically bound to, compounds of ammonia, which supply the necessary nitrogen. This was established some years ago by T. Mirikawa, who conducted experiments which established that ammonia and its compounds, combined with "cellulosic materials", can indeed result in the evolution of HCN when burned".
"In fact Germany relied heavily on the manufacture of rayon, and during the war army uniforms contained as much as 65% rayon. One must assume concentration camp uniforms, and other fabrics used in the camps, had high rayon content".
"While I do not have a document that says so, I consider it very plausible that many concentration camp fabrics were treated with flame retardants for security reasons, i.e. to limit the effects of fires started by inmates".

My objections to these assertions are as follows:

2a) The fact that combustion of rayon impregnated with a "flame retardant" substance (diammonium phosphate) generates HCN was discovered only 10 or so years ago. A.R. Butz refers to technical studies published between 1977 and 1987; T. Morikawa published the results of his experiments in August 1978. It is therefore obvious that the Germans could not have had concerns about this in 1943.

2b) and 2c) The two hypotheses are not supported by a single piece of evidence.

"While a concern for HCN release in combustion is routine today, it would have been novel in 1943, a fact that could explain the novelty, for Prüfer, of the desire for an HCN detector".
"Another thing that could account for this novelty is that the waste incinerator design was itself novel".
"I have no expertise in the field but, intuitively, I would think that a waste incinerator design sharing a chimney with other equipment, at which people are working, is dangerous".

Assertion 3a) contradicts assertion 1): if the thing was known in the late 1930's, it could not be a novelty in 1943.

Assertion 3b) is historically false: the "Müllverbrennungsofen MV" installed in Crematorium II was not in fact "novel", but was an experimental model which had already been on the market for several years. This is described in a Topf brochure (undated, but undoubtedly from 1940) entitled "Topf Abfall-Vernichtungs-Ofen" together with other models (Abfall-Vernichtungsofen AV1, Abfall-Vernichtungs-Ofen AV2, Sputum-Vernichtungsofen SV, as well as Kabel-Abbrennofen, Kranz-Verbrennungsofen and Matratzen-Verbrennungsofen). In this brochure there is not the slightest reference to a danger of HCN developing from combustion of refuse (which were of various types) and to the need for a "gas detector" for safety of the personnel. On the last page there is a long list of Topf clients in this field with the names of about eighty public institutes. The brochure also has a photograph of a worker assigned to a "Topf-Matratzen-Verbrennungsofen der Städtischen Müllbeseitigung, Berlin" showing a worker setting about without any particular precaution, loading a wool mattress into the oven.[2]

In the field of every type of refuse destruction, the company which held the commercial record in Germany was the H. Kori company of Berlin, which by 1937 had sold 3,500 "Verbrennungsöfen", as can be ascertained from a brochure of that year.[3] Topf's "Müllverbrennungsofen MV" was clearly inspired by the Kori company's "Ofen mit doppelten Verbrennungskammern". Nowhere in this brochure does there appear the slightest reference to danger of HCN formation from the combustion of special refuse.

Assertion 3c) is methodologically astonishing: what if someone, while admitting that he was not an expert on gas chambers and gassings, maintained "intuitively" that Leichenkeller 1 to Crematorium II was a homicidal gas chamber? Later I shall address the validity of the presumed danger.

"The waste incinerator was also supplied by Topf, and it could have been Prüfer's responsibility to take into account any HCN danger arising from it. Also, a gas detector differing from that used in the Zyklon delousing operations would seem fitting; perhaps a detector generating an audible alarm was desired".

This is one of the fundamental presumptions upon which the Butz hypothesis rests and is also its weakest point: A "gas detector" such as this one has never existed, and as far as I know, does not exist even today. Proper for the essential importance of this point, A.R. Butz cannot simply make an arbitrary and groundless assertion: he cannot be satisfied with saying that a "gas detector" such as this one could have existed; he has to show that in fact it did exist.

"The author gives no sources but I think the claim of such Topf involvement with HCN, presumably via Zyklon, is quite plausible".

This is the other fundamental Butz presumption. The source of this information was "an anti-revisionist, Pressac-supporting book published in France in early 1997". The author of the book asserts (with no source reference) that Topf, during the 1920's made grain silos, and that "in the after-sale services and maintenance for these silos, Topf also involved itself in HCN disinfection and furnished all necessary material". In this regard, I should point out first of all that if the source is not indicated the information is worthless. On the one hand Pressac knows nothing of the involvement of Topf in the use of HCN, and I myself who has accumulated a vast documentation on this company, have found no reference to this. On the other hand, if the assertion of the book's author were true, it could only be concluded that the Topf company had something to do with Zyklon B for disinfestation purposes and consequently with the "Gasrestnachweisgerät für Zyklon", but Butz will not allow that the 02 March 1943 Topf letter referred to Zyklon B. In reality, the assertion as to construction of silos, although it already appeared in Pressac; there too without source reference[4] is dubious at the very least. In the early 1920's, other than combustion equipment of various types, Topf was producing only "Mälzerei-Einrichtungen"[5] [malting/brewery equipment]; moreover, the construction of silos is not mentioned in the description of the Topf "Arbeitsgebiet" [fields of work] which appear in the various Topf "Kosten-Anschläge" during the 1940's.[6] I should add that for the disinfection of silos, HCN was not used, but rather Areginal (Alkylformiat) and Cartox (against the "grain weevil", a fearsome grain pest).[7]

"However I am far from certain on this, and I will not be astonished if other materials, consumed in the waste incinerator, were shown to have been suspected by the Auschwitz management as potential sources of HCN development".

As I pointed out, generally, A.R. Butz does not demonstrate knowledge of this danger relative to German nylon and wool during the late 1930's, while the danger resulting from combustion of rayon soaked in "diammonium phosphate" was only discovered in the 1970's.

But I want to get into another important point: what is meant by "Auschwitz management" and what was its decision-making power? The prevention of accidental poisonings from chemical substances was the mission of the Amtsgruppe DIII - Sanitätswesen of the WVHA. The mission of Amtsgruppe CIII - Technische Fachgebiete - did not fall within the infrastructure intended for preservation of these substances. In this regard there is a specific directive concerning "Luftschutz von Lagerbehältern für brennbare oder giftige Flüssigkeiten und Gase" (including Blausäure) dating from early December 1942.[8]

The possible danger associated with "Müllverbrennungsöfen" (development of HCN) in the concentration camps would therefore have been indicated with an appropriate directive from the WVHA; moreover, from the administrative point of view, Zentralbauleitung could not have taken the initiative to prevent a random hazard which had not been ordered by appropriate WVHA directive. But there is not the slightest trace of any mention of this hazard in any known document; so until proven otherwise, this was not known by the WVHA and Auschwitz Zentralbauleitung, therefore they could not have ordered equipment from Topf to prevent a risk of which they were not aware.

From a technical viewpoint the Butz hypothesis is unsustainable because:

  1. The Butz hypothesis does not specify the number of "Gasprüfer" required: perhaps 10?
  2. Where would the "Gasprüfer" have been located? - not inside the "Müllverbrennungsofen", otherwise they would have been burned; not in the smoke conduit because there they would have been useless; which brings me to the Butz hypothesis of the "intuitive" dangerousness of a "Müllverbrennungsofen" connected to "a chimney with other equipment, at which people are working". Since HCN is combustible, Butz distinguishes "static" and "dynamic" combustion of HCN and specifies that the latter takes place "when there is forced air blowing and the HCN is swept away from the hot zone before it can itself be decomposed in any way".

Now, even granting that HCN could have been formed in the "Müllverbrennungsofen" and did not burn completely in the combustion chamber (which was vertical and very large with a smoke discharging opening at the top part), the noncombusted residues would have passed into the smoke conduit and would have left the equipment with the smoke from the chimney 16 meters from ground level: so how could these possible HCN residues have been dangerous? It is obvious that installation of a "Gasprüfer" in the smoke conduit (as was done for the real "Gasprüfer" to check the efficiency of combustion in the civilian crematory ovens) would have been absolutely useless. Equally useless would be the location of "gasprüfer" outside the facility in the"Müllverbrennungsraum", because the draught of the chimney impedes the emission of gas and fumes from the combustion chamber; an opening would cause air to enter the oven, not fumes to exit the oven.

As for "HCN can be released in the smoldering residue after a fire has been extinguished" (discovered in the 1970's), this goes back to the above point: the noncombusted HCN would have left from the chimney with no danger to anyone. If this "smoldering" had in fact been dangerous, the "smoldering" of the crematory ovens would have been even more dangerous due to formation of large amounts of CO.

But Zentralbauleitung never ordered a "Gasprüfer" for CO to avert this hazard!


Translated by Russ Granata, 1998

1. F. Flury, F. Zernik, Schädliche Gase, Dämpfe, Nebel, Rauch- und Staubarten. Verlag von Julius Springer, Berlin 1931, p. 400.
2. TCIDK, 502-1-327, pp. 161-165.
3. H. Kori "Verbrennungsöfen für Abfälle alle Art". APMM, sygn. VI-9a, vol. I.
4. J.C. Pressac, Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers. The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, New York 1989, p. 432.
5. Deutschlands Städtebau. Erfurt. Bearbeitet im Auftrage des Magistrats von Stadtbaurat Boegl, Erfurt. "Dari", Deutscher Architektur- und Industrie-Verlag. Berlin-Halensee 1922 (without page numbering).
6. For example, 13 November 1940 for the second Auschwitz crematory oven. TCIDK, 502-1-327, p. 168.
7. H.W. Frickhinger, Schädlingsbekämpfung für Jedermann. Helingsche Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig 1942, p. 204; G. Peters, Die hochwirksamen Gase und Dämpfe in der Schädlingsbekämpfung. In: "Sammlung chemischer und chemisch-technischer Vorträge", Verlag von Ferdinand Enke in Stuttgart, 1942, pp. 37-38 and 55-57.
8. WVHA, Amt CIII, "Nachtrag zur Richtlinie Nr. 31". TCIDK, 502-1-9, pp. 58-59.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Carlo Mattogno
Title: Critique of the A.R. Butz article "Gas Detectors in Auschwitz Crematorium II"
Published: 1998-01-01
First posted on CODOH: Sept. 15, 2000, 7 p.m.
Last revision:
Appears In: