Response to J. McCarthy on NO-365, The Wetzel-Lohse Correspondence

Published: 1999-02-07

February 7, 1999


Thank you for forwarding to me the response to my analysis of the Wetzel-Lohse correspondence in "The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes" as found on The Holocaust-History Project. I would make the following comments.

The author of the piece accuses me of many errors, and furthermore, claims that these are not mistakes but rather "examples of intellectual dishonesty." I note in passing the remarkable need for the author to spice his writing with ad hominems.

The text itself contains four errors that my analysis is supposed to contain. I will discuss each of these in turn, but first I would like to recapitulate what I wrote:

"One example concerns a draft memo, the so-called Wetzel-Lohse correspondence, concerning conditions around Riga, and entered into the Nuremberg Military Tribunal as NO-365. The draft letter mentions putting large numbers of Jews into the Labor service, and discusses the need for building the necessary "Unterkünfte" with the appropriate "Vergasungsapparate". In the context of the disinfection literature, this is clearly a reference to a Labor Service hut that would be equipped with the standard Entwesungskammern for delousing clothing. Yet this same document has been occasionally put forth as evidence of a homicidal gassing program, even though there is no material or documentary support for that interpretation, and even though there never were any gas chambers in Riga."

There are three judgments of fact in the above paragraph.

  1. First, that in the context of the disinfection literature, this draft memo is about delousing chambers in labor service huts.
  2. Second, that there is no material or documentary support for the interpretation that this document is about gas exterminations.
  3. Third, that there were no homicidal gas chambers in Riga.

The author questions the first and second judgments of fact, but does not contest the third. I maintain that the first and second judgments remain secure, and that there is nothing in his critique to confound them.

Now to deal with the claims seriatim.

Claim #1

The author's first claim is that I am wrong in asserting that the "Vergasungsapparate" discussed in the text are delousing chambers. He writes "He [Crowell] simply has no evidence for this assertion." He then goes on to challenge, "If the word has an ordinary meaning, it should not be hard to find in ordinary documents."

In response to this I can only say that the author apparently did not read the earlier sections of my essay, where the terminology of disinfection is clearly described.

I would point out however first of all that the "Unterkünfte" and the "Vergasungsapparate" are discussed in tandem, and in subsequent sentences there are at least two more references to "Apparate". Now what might these words mean, based on contemporary documents or other sources? And, in terms of my explicit argument, what might they mean in a disinfection context?

As Section 3 of my essay makes clear, "vergasen" is a common verb used for fumigation at least since 1914, "Apparate" is the standard term for delousing chambers or fumigation vaults, and there are even "Vergasungsapparaturen" specifically discussed in an article on railway tunnel delousings dated to 1931.

Therefore, the judgment that "Vergasungspparate" is a reference to delousing chambers is well supported by contemporary documents, the context of the disinfection literature, and even by the history of German disinfection procedures.

In contrast, there is no documentary reference to "Vergasungsapparate" either before or during the war which characterizes "Vergasungsapparate" as "gas vans."

On balance, therefore, I would continue to maintain that Vergasungsapparate is a reference to delousing chambers, and so far I have only covered the meaning of the word itself, saving the wider context of the word's use for a bit later. Furthermore, there is no question that my original judgment that "In the context of the disinfection literature, this is clearly a reference to a Labor Service hut that would be equipped with the standard Entwesungskammern for delousing clothing." remains a perfectly acceptable conclusion, provided, of course, that one knows something about the disinfection literature.

Claim #2

The author then claims that I have ignored the person of Viktor Brack. The reponse to this is simple. I have not ignored Viktor Brack, I have not mentioned him because he is not relevant to what we are discussing, which is whether the "Unterkünfte" and "Vergasungsapparate" in this document refer to delousing chambers or "gas vans."

Perhaps what the author has in mind is the fact that the Germans had a euthanasia program, also known as T-4, that it was administered by Brack, that some of the persons involved in T-4 also became involved in the East (although they had other duties as well), and that it seems likely – because of this and other documents – that there was an intention to euthanize (that is, put to death) Jews who were of no labor utility to the Reich during the war.

But none of this is disputed by me, indeed I specifically grant the existence of this euthanasia program. Of course, it is also said that there were "gas chambers" in the euthanasia program, so one might conceive a "clang association" in that respect. But I have discussed that lack of evidence elsewhere. There is a rather clear reference to euthanasia in the second paragraph of the letter, but that has no necessary relationship to these "Vergasungsapparate", as we shall see.

Claim #4

The author's fourth "error" (I will return to the third one momentarily) holds that I "dishonestly" ignored the references to Brack that I have just discussed here, that I told an "outrageous lie" in claiming that there is no material or documentary evidence in support of the interpretation of this document as a document of a mass gassing program.

The refutation of my claim consists largely of personal attacks, which are irrelevant, as well as a typical obiter dictum "There can be no denying this ...."

As just noted, I did not discuss Brack, nor even this document in great detail, but my omissions here are not germane to the topic at hand. It is clear that there was a euthanasia program, administered by Brack. It is clear that Jews who were incapable of working were envisioned as being euthanized. But it is not clear that the discussion of "Vergasungsapparate" in this document has anything to do with either one or the other.

In this respect, the author quotes a phrase from the second paragraph, to the effect that it is suggested in this draft letter that Jews unable to work will be "done away with by means of Brack's gassing apparatus." However the German text does not say this, describing instead "mit den Brackschen Hilfmitteln beseitigt." My interpretation of this reference is that it is being proposed that Jews who cannot work will be disposed of by use of "Brack's method, means, remedy, or expedient" – that is, I am assuming that "Brackschen Hilfsmitteln" is a euphemism for euthanasia, which itself is a euphemism for putting to death.

Now in my essay I many times reference the fact that the Germans persecuted, and killed, Jews. But the point of my essay is not to contest that matter. The point of my essay is to evaluate the evidence that Jewish people were systematically killed using poison gas. The evidence for this, by my analysis, is wanting, and the evidence for such mass gas killings is not helped by insisting that "Hilfsmittel" is a code-word for "gassing apparatus." Not only do I consider this a mistranslation, in the sense that a "Hilfsmittel" is not usually an object, but also because the first paragraph of the letter provides a perfectly fine word for describing these "Vergasungsapparate", namely, "Apparate"! In other words, I contend that the first and second paragraphs of this letter are not the same paragraph, and that "Vergasungsapparat" and "Hilfsmittel" are not the same thing, either.

Claim #3

The analysis comprising the third "error" is the longest so I have saved it for last. In this part of his refutation the author now turns to the subject of gas vans. Here, he wishes to prove that there were gas vans in Riga, and since this letter discusses constructing "Vergasungsapparate" in Riga, they must be the same thing. That at least is the "reasoning" here.

The evidence adduced for this claim comprises affidavits and testimonies from around 1960, the words of a witness at a Soviet show trial in late 1944, and a collection of documents introduced at the International Military Tribunal known as "PS-501" which contains at least some material from Soviet show trial provenance.

I do not find this evidence for "gas vans" convincing, but again, that is not the point, because the point is that the "gas vans" are not "Vergasungsapparate" and that transformation does not take place no matter how many eyewitness testimonies one cites about the existence of gas vans.

It follows therefore that the author has still failed to provide any material evidence (that is, the ruins of a gas chamber in Riga) or documentary evidence (that is, documents – not affidavits or testimony) that describe the use of "Vergasungsapparate" as "gas vans", and therefore my judgment of fact concerning the absence of such evidence remains intact.


To summarize the points of this refutation in their proper order:

  1. "Vergasungsapparate" can only mean "gassing devices" for homicidal gassing,
    • but as I have pointed out the linguistic and literary basis for seeing these "Apparate" as delousing chambers is much stronger than the basis for the "gas vans" interpretation.
  2. I have ignored Viktor Brack, who headed the euthanasia campaign,
    • but there is no reason to mention him, since there are no documents that link Brack's euthanasia campaign with "Vergasungsapparate" or "gas vans",
  3. I have ingored the evidence for gas vans,
    • but the evidence for gas vans has nothing to do with "Vergasungsapparate" nor is there any evidence that specifically links them with this letter,
  4. I have ignored the final paragraph, which arguably discusses euthanasia,
    • but again that is a topic that bears no obvious relationship with the "Vergasungsapparate" in this letter.

In the end it turns out that this "correction" of my "errors" and exposure of my "intellectual dishonesty" consists almost entirely of blaming me for not emphasizing connections that are important to the author, but not a single one of which demonstrates any explicit connection of "Vergasungsapparate" either with a mass gassing program or "gassing vans."

In this respect I must record my amusement that the author of this piece comes so close to agreeing with me, as he, in the closing sentences of his enumeration of my third "error", implies that "Vergasungsapparate" may well have been part of the "Unterkünfte" in question, in which case they could not have been gas vans. Every author should wish for such "refutations"!

Actually, the author would have done better to pursue this line of thought, that is, that the document is about stationary gas chambers. After all, that was the position of the prosecution at the Nuremberg Military Tribunal in Case 1, "The Doctors Case":

The proof has shown that Brack himself advanced plans for the mass extermination of the Jews. In the beginning of 10/1941, Brack had a conference with Eichmann from the Reich Security Main Office of the SS and Wetzel of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Territories on the "solution of the Jewish question". (No-997, Pros. Ex. 506.) Brack declared himself ready to collaborate in the manufacture of the necessary gas chambers and gassing apparatus for the extermination of all Jews who were unit to work. Since the manufacture of this apparatus was easier to accomplish in the East, Brack agreed to send some of his collaborators, and especially his chemist, Kallmeyer, there for this purpose. Brack proposed outright termination of all Jews who were unable to work. Since Eichmann, whom Hitler had charged with the solution of the Jewish question, was in agreement with Brack's proposals, no objection was voiced against the extermination of those Jews who were unable to work with the "Brack remedy". (No-365, Pros. Ex. 507.) Kallmeyer was the technical expert on operation of the gas chambers in the euthanasia station. (Tr. p. 7743.)

Nevertheless there are still problems with the "stationary gas chamber" approach. There were no stationary homicidal gas chambers in Riga, although Brack testified under oath that there were gas chambers, and that Kallmeyer was in charge of them. But since no one argues that such stationary gas chambers for homicidal purposes ever existed in Riga, if one argues that this letter is about them, that is tantamount to admitting that this memo is about absolutely nothing at all..

In addition, shifting the interpretation of this document to one of stationary gas chambers does not help the conventional interpretation, since the weight of corroborative evidence, that is, contemporary texts, continues to weigh heavily on the side of a disinfection interpretation.

The core issue with this letter is simple. The first paragraph makes references to "Unterkuenfte" and "Vergasungsapparate" (later referenced twice in the same paragraph as "Apparate"). So far, two meanings have been suggested: "gas vans" and "delousing chambers". (The third intepretation, "stationary gas chambers" is no longer advanced, and can be ignored.) It is my continued judgment that "Vergasungsapparate" is a reference to delousing chambers. My reasoning is as follows:

  • The words "Vergasungsapparate" and particularly "Apparate" are common in a disinfection context,
  • Such "Apparate" in such "Unterkuenfte" were common in the German Labor Service,
  • The first paragraph of this letter is specifically about impressing Jews into the labor service in Riga and Minsk, and therefore the Germans would have had to construct delousing huts for them,

and I consider it a reasonable inference that the discussion of these "Vergasungsapparate" is in fact about the construction of these huts, along with their associated delousing chambers.

  1. The letter specifies that such "Apparate" are in short supply in Berlin, and that they must be constructed on site in Riga,
  2. A disinfection interpretation is supported in context by testimony at the Tesch Weinbacher trial that indicate that Bruno Tesch was in Riga in the late fall of 1941 specifically to give training to disinfectors in the construction of such huts and their proper use,
  3. On the other hand, a "gas van" interpretation is contradicted in context by the very eyewitness testimony quoted, which specifies that the vans were driven from Berlin to Riga, and not constructed on site,

and therefore I consider it a reasonable inference that the reference to the "Apparate" that are to be constructed on site is more likely a reference to delousing chambers than gas vans.

  1. The letter suggests that Dr. Kallmeyer should travel to Riga to ensure that the "Apparate" to be built are safe,
  2. The use of Zyklon B for delousing was notoriously unsafe, and care had to be taken with its use, on the other hand, the carbon monoxide from gas vans – and a fortiori diesel vans – would scarcely be dangerous to someone outside of it,

Therefore my judgment is that the most logical conclusion is that Dr. Kallmeyer was sent for to assist in the construction of "Apparate" that would use a more dangerous gas than carbon monoxide, and that would be the hydrocyanic acid contained in Zyklon B.

  1. Adolf Eichmann is referenced specifically as in agreement with "this process", i.e., the construction of these "Apparate",
  2. this in the context of Eichmann's information that labor camps for Jews are to be established in Riga and Minsk,
  3. the Jews who will thus be victimized will come from the west, via Lodz (also in the west), to Riga and Minsk, in the east,

In other words, it seems clear from the context that whatever is being constructed in Riga is being constructed for the purpose of facilitating the entry of western Jews into the German (forced) labor program in Riga, in the east (or Minsk, which is even farther east.)

As a matter of fact, the document suggests that what happened in Vilnius was this: a trainload of Jews were sent to Vilnius, they were deemed unsuited for labor, and they were shot. The letter is about arranging measures so that

  1. such shooting incidents no longer occur,
  2. only labor capable Jews are sent to Riga,
  3. labor capable Jews are entered into the labor service.

I assume – and I might be wrong on this – that the reference to "beseitigen" the Jews who cannot work is a reference to killing them, however, this draft letter by itself does not even support the contention that the Jews incapable of work would be sent to Riga at all! Which means that they would be "beseitigen" somewhere else.

Confronted with a document that speaks of "Vergasungsapparate" we seek a secure interpretation that does not overly depend on the vagaries of court testimony and which is based as strongly as possible within a wider context of documentary literatures. I contend that for this document, the meaning of "Vergasungsapparate" is clear, it is a reference to building delousing huts for Jews who will be impressed into the labor service, and that these huts will be equipped with cyanide gas delousing chambers. Under the circumstances, I consider this the simplest and least contorted explanation.


The critic who promised to expose my "errors", my "outrageous lie", and my "intellectual dishonesty", has done no such thing. What he has done is to offer his own interpretation of "Vergasungsapparate" and "Bracksche Hilfsmitteln" with the condition that anyone who disagrees with his interpretation is committing "errors", telling an "outrageous lie" and engaging in "intellectual dishonesty".

This "touch me not" strategy is wholly unsuited for scholarly debate and the author is not helped by the fact that he displays what can only be described as a lack of knowledge concerning German disinfection procedures, the language of German disinfection, the activities of German disinfection in the Baltics, the Nuremberg Trials, and other sundry matters. Morevoer, the author demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about the purpose of my main work.

The point of my essay is not to argue that there were no gassings, or mass gassings, although I don't believe these took place. The point was to investigate the evolution of the gassing claims, coupled with an analysis of the quality of the evidence used to support the claim. One of the two main conclusions of my essay is that

There is no unambiguous material or documentary basis for the gassing claims: what has been put forward as indirect evidence of mass gassings turns out, in context, to overwhelmingly pertain either to German disinfection procedures or German civil air defense measures.

It would be obtuse to argue that a disinfection interpretation of Vergasungsapparatecannot be offered, and that simply means that this document is ambiguous. Moreover, since the consensus of historians on this subject is that there were no homicidal gas chambers in Riga, it follows that the disinfection interpretation acquires preponderant weight. A homicidal interpretation in the gassing sense can only be salvaged by insisting that Vergasungsapparate means "gas chambers", an interpretation with no documentary or material support, and by insisting that Bracksche Hilfsmitteln is about these "gas chambers", an interpretation that likewise has no support. Neither of these interpretations is self-evident and both require question begging to be fact, since they are not buttressed by any literatures or documents external to this one. Moreover, in traversing these materials we have had a glimpse of the prosecutorial perspicacity and the unreliability of witnesses at the trial where this document was introduced.

If the author of this attempted "refutation" wishes to be more persuasive in the future, he would be better advised to follow a strategy which is generous to the other side in its assessments, which makes no claims to either omniscience, clairvoyance, or absolute authority, which demonstrates an effort to become educated in collateral matters, and which offers its conclusions with some humility. I would recommend, in short, that he read "The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes" with greater care than he has demonstrated here.

Very Respectfully,

Samuel Crowell

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Samuel Crowell
Title: Response to J. McCarthy on NO-365, The Wetzel-Lohse Correspondence
Published: 1999-02-07
First posted on CODOH: Feb. 5, 1999, 6 p.m.
Last revision:
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