The Holocaust Historiography Project

Chapter Ten: The Psychologists: David Rousset and the Universe of the Concentration Camp

Of all of the witnesses, none has matched David Rousset's ability, power of evocation, and exactness in reconstructing the general atmosphere of the camps, of which he is the acknowledged great spokesman, worldwide. Neither, has any other witness fictionalized his account more or in a better fashion.

I am afraid that history will remember his name; but mostly for his literary quality. At this level of history, properly so called, the wrapping outdoes the contents. He was, moreover, aware of this fact and attempted to forestall objections:

I have reported certain things as they took place at Buchenwald, and not as they are described in documents published subsequently…

…Especially are there contradictions in details, not only in the testimonies, but in the documents. Most of the texts published up to the present are concerned only with aspects quite outside life in the camps, or are apologies in the form of allusions which affirm principles rather than assemble facts. Such documents are valuable, but only if one is intimately acquainted with what is being said; in that case they often provide another hitherto unperceived link. I have made a special effort to bring forth the relations between the groups in their actual complexity and in their dynamics. (Les Jours de notre mort, Appendix, page 764.)

This sort of reasoning allows him totally, or nearly so, to ignore the documents, and, in view of the fact that those pertaining to the camps in the East are both very few and very poor, to state that, "Recourse to direct testimony is the only proper way to proceed." He then selects from these direct testimonies those that best illustrate his way of looking at things at the moment. "Given these conditions," he acknowledges, "it was a bold — perhaps one should say, rash — venture to want to present a panorama of the whole of the concentration camp world." (Ibid.)

One could not put it better than he does himself. But then, why describe the camps using this method in which all is based on categorical assertion?

L'Univers concentrationnaire (Pavois, 1946) had a deserved success. In the midst of the minor witnesses who howled for vengeance and death on the heels of the defeated Germans, it tried to lay the responsibilities on Nazism and, by so doing, marked a new direction.

By way of illustration of the atmosphere at the time, take Frere Birin, who penned the following warning:

The French should know and remember that the same errors will bring back the same horrors. They should be informed of the character and shortcomings of their neighbors across the Rhine, a race of dominators, and that is why No. 43,652 wrote these lines. Frenchmen, be vigilant and never forget. (16 mois de bagne, p. 117.)

And, that was the tone in all the French press, too. "Le boche" was on everybody's lips, with the snarl that goes with the word when it is pronounced correctly. In this atmosphere of hatred, pacifist France was grateful to David Rousset for having concluded with these words:

The existence of the camps is a warning. German society, both because of the strength of its economic structure, and the ruthlessness of the crisis which crushed it, has experienced a decomposition exceptional in the present situation of the world. But it would be easy to show that the traits most characteristic of S.S. mentality and the social substructures, can be found in many other areas in world society. Less pronounced, however, and certainly not to be compared with the developments we have seen in the Great Reich. But it is only a question of circumstances. One would be guilty of deception if one pretended that it is impossible for other peoples to have the same experience because it is against their nature. Germany has interpreted, with the originality peculiar to her history, the crisis which led her to the universe of concentration camps. But the existence and mechanism of this crisis derive from the economic and social bases of capitalism and imperialism. Under a new guise, analogous results could appear again tomorrow. Consequently there is a very definite battle to be conducted. (Page 187)

With the passage of time, what has happened in Algeria and in Indochina and what is today taking place between Blacks and Whites in the United States and between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, has demonstrated, more than could be expected, how justified Rousset's theory was. Moreover, what was then still going on in Russia demonstrated it no less, but at that time David Rousset was careful not to make use of that argument. On a more mundane level one could find still more justifications; take this one for example:

When several hundreds of thousands of adult "displaced persons" succeeded in getting out of the camps and in leaving for the two Americas, thousands of children remained behind, together with the old people, in the care of the I.R.O…. in the sinister barracks of Germany, Austria and Italy. But the International Refugee Organization is scheduled definitely to cease its activities in a few months, and one wonders what will be the fate of these orphans twice abandoned. Their situation is tragic right now, because in some camps they have not received more food in all than three to four hundred calories a day, and no one can say if even that inadequate ration can be kept up. The death rate under such conditions is terrible. (La Bataille, May 9, 1950.)

The paper said that there were thirteen million living like that, in a Europe that had got rid of Hitler and Mussolini. If an investigation had been made into the treatment that they were subjected to by their guardians, it would be interesting to see upon whom the responsibility would be placed.

Les Jours de notre mort (1947), which takes up the facts as given in L'Univers concentrationnaire and carries them to the limits of speculation, strays far from that profession of faith while Le Pitre ne rit pas (1948) ignores it entirely. From which it must be concluded that David Rousset's thinking went through such evolutions, under cover of going into details, that his books ended up on a note much more anti-German than anti-Nazi in the eyes of the public. This evolution was all the more noticeable in that being shaded with certain weaknesses for Communism at the start, it developed, in the end, into an anti-Communism, which one would not want to say could never turn into Russophobia pure and simple, if the cold war should reach such a point as to turn into a shooting war.

The originality, therefore, of L'Univers concentrationnaire lay in drawing a distinction between Germany and Nazism in the determination of responsibilities. But, this originality was more than matched by the sensational theory that justified the conduct of the prisoners who were in charge of running the affairs of the camps, on the basis that it was necessary to preserve, for the post-war period, the elite of the revolutionaries at the expense of all of the others. David Rousset embraced this theory by justifying the policy of saving a certain kind of prisoner, that he defined in terms of certain extra-humanitarian imperatives. As evidence of that policy, the malicious could point out that David Rousset was probably saved from death by the German Communist Kapo, Emile Kunder, who considered that he belonged to that revolutionary elite, who showed him great friendship for that reason, and who, today, disowns him.

I. The Postulate of the Theory

It is normal, when all the active forces of one class are the stake of the greatest totalitarian battle yet invented, that the enemies be put where they can do no harm, and, if necessary, be exterminated. (Page 107)

This statement is unassailable. His conclusion, set forth without transition, is much less so: "The purpose of the camps is indeed physical destruction." (Ibid.) One cannot but notice that, in the postulate itself, physical destruction is subordinate to necessity, and is envisaged only in cases where the extent of internment is not enough to prevent the individual from doing harm.

After a leap, or an off-hand deduction, of this kind, there was no reason to stop, and he could write:

The order bears the mark of the master. The commanding officer of the camp knows nothing. The Block-Fuhrer (S.S. responsible for the livelihood of a Block) knows nothing. The Lageraeltester (camp elder, prisoner selected by the S.S.) knows nothing. Those who carry out the order know nothing. But the order prescribes death and the kind of death and how much time it shall take to cause death. And in this desert of knowing nothing, that is enough. (Page 100, emphasis added.)

With this assertion he found a way both of placing the responsibility of the camps on those "high-places" of Louis Martin-Chauffier, and of allowing him to conclude in favor of a pre-established plan for the systematizing of terror, justified by a philosophy.

The enemy, in the philosophy of the S.S., is the force of evil, intellectually and physically expressed. The Communist, the socialist, the German liberal, the revolutionaries, the foreign Resistants are the active representations of evil. But the objective existence of certain races: the Jews, the Poles, the Russians, is a static expression of evil. It is not necessary for a Jew, a Pole, or a Russian to act against National Socialism; they are by birth, by predestination un-assimilable heretics, dedicated to the apocalyptic fire. Death therefore has no complete meaning. Only expiation can satisfy and appease the lords. The concentration camps are the astonishing and complex machinery of expiation. Those who are to die go to their deaths with a slowness calculated so that their physical and moral downfall, by degrees, shall finally make them conscious of thefact that they are accursed, the expressions of evil, and not men. And that priest-administrator of justice feels a sort of secret pleasure, a deep-seated sensation of delight, in ruining bodies. (Pages 108-109, emphasis added.)

From this excerpt it can be seen that, starting from concentration camps as places to put enemies where they can do no harm, one can easily make of them institutions of extermination and one can elaborate to infinity on the purpose of that extermination. From the moment that one reaches that stage, it becomes no more than an intellectual exercise where one can demonstrate his aptitude for mental constructions and his talent for writing. But, the literary effort which produces such a fine description of sadism is perfectly useless, and one need not have lived through the experience to describe it like that; one need only consult Tomas de Torquemada and copy down the arguments of the Spanish Inquisition.

I shall not waste time with a discussion of the first part of the explanation which ties the Russians and the Poles together with the Jews in the minds of the Nazi leaders; it is obvious fantasy.

II. The Labor

By labor is meant a means of punishment. Concentration camp manpower is of secondary interest, a preoccupation foreign to the nature of the concentration camp universe. Psychologically, it was connected by that sadism that forced the prisoners to strengthen the instruments of their bondage.

"It was because of the accidents of history that the camps also became public works enterprises. On the extension of the war to a world scale, calling for the total employment of everybody and everything, the lame, the deaf, the blind, and the PGs, the S.S., with lashes of the whip, enrolled the blind mob of the concentration camps for the most destructive tasks … The work of the concentration inmates did not have as its ultimate object the carrying out of specific tasks, but the keeping of the "protected prisoners" [1] in the strictest most debasing confinement. (Pages 110- 112.)

Since it has been decided that the purpose of the camps was to exterminate, it is quite obvious that the work that was performed there is hardly more than an element, negligible in itself, in the theory of the extermination mystique. Eugen Kogon, who will be considered in the following chapter, starting from the same idea but with much less refinement in form, writes regarding this issue in his L'Enfer organise.

…It was decided that the camps should have a secondary purpose, a little more realistic, a little more practical and more immediate; thanks to them, they were going to collect and make use of a manpower composed of slaves, belonging to the S.S., who, for as long as they were permitted to live, should live only to serve their masters … But, what were called the secondary aims (keeping the population in fear, the use of slave manpower, keeping the camps up as training and experimental stations for the S.S.) these aims little by little rose to the first level, insofar as they were the true reasons for consignment to the camps, until the day when, the war, unleashed by Hitler, envisaged and prepared by him and the S.S., in an ever more systematic way, brought about the enormous expansion of the camps. (Pages 27-28, emphasis added.)

By setting these two passages side by side it appears that for the first it was the historic accident of the war, and then only at the moment that it became world wide, which made the use of the prisoners as manpower the important purpose of the camps, while for the second, this result had been achieved before the war, and the war only emphasized it.

I choose the second interpretation for the following reason: the division of the camps into these categories — i.e., Konzentrationslager (concentration camp), Arbeitslager (work camp), and Straflager (punishment camp, where the labor and living conditions were harder) — was an accomplished fact when the war broke out in 1939..The operation of internment, before and during the war, was accomplished in two stages: the prisoners were concentrated in a central camp that was planned for or already was organized for labor, and which served, in addition, as a sorting station; from there the prisoners were sent on to other camps, according to the demands for manpower. There was a third stage for those who had committed offenses during the process of being interned; assignment as punishment to a camp generally still in construction, which was considered a punitive camp (Straflager), but which, from the moment that construction was completed, became in its turn an ordinary camp (Konzentrationslager).

I shall add that, in my opinion, the use of prisoner labor had always been anticipated. This is part of the universal code of repression: in almost all countries of the world, the State makes those that it imprisons sweat for their livelihood by laboring for the State; there are a few exceptions — e.g., fallen government officials in the democratic nations and distinguished deportees in dictatorships. The contrary practice is inconceivable. It would be nonsense for a State to support those who break its laws and undermine its foundations. It is only the conditions of labor that vary, depending upon whether one is free or interned, and the margin of benefits to be earned.

For Germany, there was an added factor which needs to be noted: the camps had to be built under the imperatives of a total war. During the war, one could only think that the sole purpose of the camps was to kill people off and one was quite inclined to think so even afterwards. The erroneousness of this impression was all the less obvious since, as the war made necessary an even greater number of camps, the construction period never came to an end, and the two circumstances, superimposed in their effects, led to a generalized continuation of the Straflager stage, seemingly deliberate.

III. The Haeftlingsfuehrung

We know that the S.S. delegated to the prisoners the direction and administration of the camps and that this practice of self-administration was called Haeftlingsfuehrung. There were, for example, Kapos (who headed Kommandos), Blockaeltester (Block supervisors), Lagerschutz (prisoner police), Lageraeltester (camp supervisors) along with other prisoners who composed a whole concentration camp bureaucracy which in fact wielded all of the authority in the camp. This practice also follows a pattern that is part of the code of regression all over the world. If the prisoners to whom fell all of those administrative posts had the slightest notion of solidarity with the common prison population, they would have worked everywhere to alleviate the hardships for everyone. Unhappily that is never the case. Everywhere, on taking over the post that is placed in his command, the designated prisoner (often called a "trusty") changes his outlook. It is a phenomenon too well known to dwell on and too universal to impute solely to the Germans or the Nazis. David Rousset's error was to believe that it could be any other way in a concentration camp and that, in fact, it had been otherwise — i.e., that the political prisoners were beings superior to the common mass of prisoners and that the laws they obeyed were nobler than the laws of the individual struggle for life.

This error led him to lay down as a principle that the prisoner bureaucracy of the concentration camps, not being able to save large numbers of men, deserved credit for saving the "best" of the prisoners: "With the close collaboration of a Kapo one could make life much easier, even in the Hell." (Page 166.) But he does not tell how one could get the close collaboration of a Kapo. Nor that this collaboration, except when the Kapo was a political prisoner, ever went beyond the kind of relationship that one would expect to exist between a patrician and his dependent. In any case, he fails to mention that only a tiny number of prisoners could hope to achieve this relationship, regardless of its precise nature.

Obviously, the positions within the Haeftlingsfuehrung were eagerly sought after, since to hold one improved the relative conditions that one faced in the camp. David Rousset writes that:

The holding of those posts was therefore a prime interest, and the life and death of many men depended on it. (Page 134)

Then trying to link everything together, Rousset asserts that those who held those posts organized, and most of those who organized were Communists: then they worked out regular political plots against the S.S.: then they drew up programs for action after the war:

At Buchenwald the secret central committee of the Communist faction was composed of Germans, Czechs, a Russian and a Frenchman. (Page 166)

From 1944 on they were preoccupied with the conditions that would be created by the end of the war. They were greatly afraid that the S.S. would kill them all before that. And it was not an imaginary fear. (Page 170)

At Buchenwald, besides the Communist organization that without doubt achieved there a degree of perfection and efficiency unique in the annals of the camps, meetings took place more or less regularly among the political elements, from the socialists to the extreme right, which ended in setting up a program of joint activity for when they returned to France. (Page 81 )

All of this activity is a possibility, but it is factually questionable that such organization ever occurred. Certainly, in all of the camps, the prisoners gathered together in numerous and unobtrusive and informal group alignments for various reasons: to better endure their common fate; to promote their self-interest; to get appointed to the Haeftlingsfuehrung and, once appointed, to hold that position. But, these prisoner alliances were a far cry from the picture that Rousset paints.

After the liberation, as David Rousset corroborates, the Communists were able to make people believe that the bond of their association was their doctrine, to which their acts conformed. In reality, the bond was the material advantages that were to be gained by those in the association. In the two camps which I knew, the general view was that, political or not, Communist or not, all of the so-called "Committees" were first of all associations of food thieves regardless of whatever form they took. Nothing has been uncovered to change this view. On the contrary everything has confirmed it: the small groups of Communists affronting each other over the various spoils of the system e.g., the composition of the clique which held power; the manner in which the spoils of pillage were to be divided up; the distribution of camp assignments, etc., etc… For example, during the few weeks that I spent at Buchenwald in Block 48, at the suggestion of the Blockaeltester, or with his authorization, a group of prisoners, new arrivals, had decided to bolster the group morale. Little by little they acquired a certain degree of authority. In particular, contact between the Blockaeltester and ourselves in the end could only be made through them. The group regulated life in the Block, organized discussions, assigned the duties, and divided up the food, among other things. It was pitiful to see the toadyism toward the omnipotent Blockaeltester that developed among them. One day, the principal mover in this group was caught in the act of dividing up with another the potatoes that he had stolen from the common ration …

Eugen Kogon relates that the French at Buchenwald, who were about the only ones to receive parcels from the Red Cross, had decided to share them equally with the whole camp:

When our French comrades said they were going to share a large part of them with the entire camp, this act of fellowship was received with gratitude. But the distribution was organized in a scandalous manner for weeks; there was in effect only one parcel for every ten Frenchmen… while their compatriots in charge of the distribution, having at their head the chief of the French communist group in the camp [2], reserved for themselves piles of parcels, or used them for the benefit of their friends of the same stamp. (L'Enfer organise, Page 120.)

David Rousset sees a harmful aspect in this state of things, if not a principal cause of the horror, when he writes:

The bureaucracy does not serve only in the management of the camps; it is, at the top, all involved in the deals of the S.S. Berlin sends cases of cigarettes and tobacco to pay the men. Truckloads of food arrive at the camps. Every week the men are to be paid; they get paid every two weeks or every month; the number of cigarettes is reduced and lists are made of bad workers who get nothing. The men are dying for want of a smoke. What does that matter: The cigarettes go into the black market. Meat? Butter? Sugar? Honey? Jam? A bigger portion of red cabbage, beets, rutabagas, touched up with a little carrot, that will do well enough. It is even pure kindness… Milk. Lots of whitened water, that will do perfectly. And all the rest: meat, butter, sugar, honey, jam, milk, potatoes, on the market for the German civilians who pay and are proper citizens. The people in Berlin will be satisfied to learn that everything arrived all right. It is enough that the records are in order and the bookkeeping verifiable … Flour? Of course, the bread ration will be reduced. Without even covering it up. The portions will be a little less carefully cut. The records are not concerned with such things. And the S.S. masters will be on excellent terms with the tradesmen of the area. (Pages 145-146-147)

Here, support is given, at least as far as the food is concerned, to the legend that a plan was drawn up "in high places" to starve the prisoners. Berlin supplied everything that was needed to provide the prisoners with adequate rations, in conformity with the reports that were written to the families, but, without the knowledge of the officials, it was not distributed to the mass of prisoners. And, why not? Who does the stealing? The prisoners who were in charge of the distribution. David Rousset tells us that such theft was done under the orders of the S.S. to whom was turned over the proceeds. No, the prisoner trustees stole for themselves first, and took all that they required. Then, they paid some of it to the S.S. to purchase their complicity.

Incidentally, the same phenomenon was brought to light in May 1950 during the trial instituted against the "Oeuvre des meres et des enfants" at Versailles, whose ring leader was headmistress Pallu. Preliminary investigation revealed that:

The children were badly clothed, left in a repulsive state of filth, in a room crawling with vermin. The straw mattresses were foul with excrement and urine, crawling sometimes with maggots. There was but one sheet, one blanket. All the toilets were stopped up. The children relieved themselves just where they were. They were covered with impetigo and lice. That was the setting. There 13 children died of hunger. And yet they were supposed to have received, in addition to their normal rations, supplementary allocations. The children saw nothing of this: the milk was half watered.

"The children were getting too much," said a sister. "The headmistress had a liter and a half of milk delivered to her every day, chocolate, rice, meat — and of the best quality."

"The headmistress, a little brunette, sent twenty-kilo packages to her family, out of her personal reserves. All those people were well nourished, and did not wonder at that choice food during times when the daily rutabaga was the rule. And the children? Oh! that was so easy, they didn't ask for anything…" (Le Populaire, May 16, 1950.)

This account is in a class with the best accounts covering the German concentration camps. The drama took place in France, and neither the public nor even those in the administration of "L'oeuvre des meres et des enfants" knew anything about it, The children died there like inmates of a concentration camp, under the same conditions and for the same reasons… and in a democratic country, to boot!

So, to return to the subject at hand, these famous "revolutionary committees" never defended the interests of the common prisoners or prepared political plans for use after the war, the Communists were able to delude the public on these points. Rather, they existed merely to promote the well-being of their members. I shall add that those persons who succeeded in forming them, kept alive a spirit of subservience vis-a-vis the S.S., a kind of collaboration, without which the camps could not have operated.

Regarding the discussions organized in Block 48, and to which reference has been made, David Rousset has this to say:

So I organized a first discussion; a Russian Stubendienst twenty-two or twenty-three years old, worker in the Marty Factory at Leningrad, gave us a long exposition of the condition of labor in the U.S.S.R. The discussion which followed lasted for two afternoons. The second talk was given by a Kolkhosian on Soviet agricultural organization. I myself, gave a little later a talk on "The Soviet Union, from Revolution to War"… (Page 77)

I was present at that talk; it was a masterpiece of Bolshephilism, rather unexpected for one familiar with David Rousset's earlier Trotskyite activities. But Erich, our Blockaeltester, was a Communist and was in very good standing with the "cell" which exercised the preponderant influence in the Haeftlingsfuehrung at the moment. It was artful to get his attention and to predispose him for the day when he would have favors to dispense. "Three months later," continues Rousset, "I would certainly not have begun this endeavor again. The game was played out. But at the time we were all still very ignorant. Erich, our Block chief, grumbled, but didn't oppose the business …" (Page 77) To be sure. Furthermore, three months later, it was Kapo Emil Kunder on whom siege had to be laid. The time of the talks was over, and the emphasis was on the Red Cross packages from France. If I have correctly understood Les Jours de notre mort, Rousset used these packages to his advantage, and I do not reproach him for it; I myself owe my return to France to them, and I never made any secret of it.

It could be, and perhaps it will be, maintained that it was not important to establish the fact that the Haeftlingsfuehrung made the common prisoners suffer a treatment that was substantially more horrible than that which had been planned for them by the higher circles of Nazism and that nothing forced the Haeftlingsfuehrung to do it. If such a contention were made, I would then observe that it has seemed to me to be indispensable to determine exactly the causes of the concentration camp hell in all their aspects, if only to place the contentions of the Haeftlingsfuehrung apologists in the proper context, and to orient a little more toward the true nature of things the inquiry of the reader in whose mind this problem remains unresolved.

IV. Objectivity

Birkenau, the largest city of death. The selections on arrival; the trappings of civilization set out like caricatures to deceive and subdue. Regular selections in the camp, every Sunday. The inevitable destructions in Block 7 long drawn out. The Sonderkommando (special Kommando assigned to the Crematory) totally isolated from the world, condemned to live every second of its eternity with tortured and burned bodies. Terror breaks the nerves so decisively that the death agonies know all the humiliations, all the betrayals. And when, ineluctably, the strong odors of the gas chamber close, everyone rushes forward, crushing each other in a frenzy to keep alive, so that, when they are opened the bodies inextricably tangled fall forward in cascades onto the rails. (Page 51)

In such a fictionalized panorama as Les Jours de notre mort, this passage will cause no shock. But, in L'Univers concentrationnaire, which has in so many aspects the character of a true story, it would be out of place. David Rousset was not, actually, ever present at this scene of torture of which he gives so exact and so gripping a description.

In 1950, it was still too soon to pronounce a definite judgment on the existence of gas chambers in the camps; documents were wanting and those that existed were incomplete, inexact, and obviously apocryphal or falsified. But, the historian has no right to bring forth gratuitous hypotheses. Therefore, I limited myself to pointing out obvious anomalies. For example, Eugen Kogon, who in his L'Enfer organise, said that "a very small number of camps had their own gas chambers," (Page 154), was careful not to say which ones. Or again, concerning those which allegedly were installed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kogon told how the Germans effected the extermination by this method, according to the testimony:

…of a young Jew from Brno, Janda Weiss, who belonged in 1944 with the Sonderkommando (crematory and gas chambers) from whom come the following details, confirmed, moreover, by others. (Page 155)

To my knowledge, this Janda Weiss was the only person in the whole of the concentration camp literature who was said to have been present at such exterminations and whose exact address was given. Unfortunately, by an unhappy chance, he was in the Russian zone and only Eugen Kogon has profited by his statements. Given the historical and moral significance of the use of gas chambers as a method of repression, further steps could possibly have been taken to acquaint the public with his precise testimony, other than through a third party, and at the same time to extend its length to a little more than that of a paragraph that appeared to have been incidentally included in Kogon's comprehensive study.

There was another doubtful element in Eugen Kogon's thesis regarding the gas chambers, and it lay in this:

In 1941, Berlin sent to the camps the first orders for the formation of special transports for gas extermination. The first ones chosen were prisoners in for breaches of the common law, prisoners sentenced for immoral behaviour, and certain political figures in bad odor with the S.S.

These transports left for an unknown destination. In the case of Buchenwald one could see being returned the next day, clothing, including the contents of the pockets, dentures, etc… Through an under-officer of the escort it was learned that these transports had arrived at Pirna and at Hohenstein and that the men who made up the transports had been subjected to tests of a new gas and had perished.

During the winter of 1942-1943, all the Jews had been examined with regard to their capacity for work. Instead of the above-mentioned transports, it was then those Jews, who, in groups of 90 men, took the same road, but ended up at Bernburg near Kothen. The doctor-in-chief of the nursing home of the district, a certain Doctor Eberl, was the docile tool of the S.S. In the files of the S.S. this operation bore the reference "14F. 13." It seems to have been carried out simultaneously with the annihilation of all the sick in the nursing homes, which little by little became the general practice in Germany under National-Socialism. (Pages 225-226)

Now, I had already studied the matter enough to know that the extermination orders to which he alludes stem from a program of euthanasia, not of extermination. The two documents that he quoted in support of his contention — and he was careful not to reproduce the orders themselves — amply proved the point. They consisted of a couple of pieces of correspondence between the camp officials at Buchenwald and the directors of a nursing home at Bernburg. In his letter dated February 2, 1942, Dr. Hoven, the camp physician states, with regard to Jewish prisoners who are unfit for work in the camp:

Referring to our personal conversation, I send you, attached, in copy, and to be used for all purposes, a list of those Jews sick and unable to work, now in the camp at Buchenwald.

At this point, it must be noted that the list which is mentioned is not published. The second document is a letter from the nursing home at Bernburg, dated March 5, 1942, in which the writer refers to a letter of March 3, 1942. The text of this letter is as follows:

Subject 36 prisoners, list no. 12 of February 2, 1942.

In our letter of the 3rd current, we asked you to make available to us the last 36 prisoners of the last transport, March 18, 1942.

Because of the absence of our physician-in-chief who is to examine medically these prisoners, we request you not to send them to us on March 18, 1942, but to add them to the March 11, 1942, transport, together with their papers which will be returned to you March 11, 1942.

One must agree that the meaning of the text has to be strangely distorted to deduce from this exchange of correspondence that extermination by means of gas chambers was involved.

These two documents, moreover, call for comment, since they apparently refer to the practice of euthanasia, and since they bear the dates of February 2 and March 5, 1942. Here is the story of operation Gnadentod:

On September 1, 1939, Hitler signed the Gnadentod order, the text of which is given as follows:

Reichleiter Bouhler and Doctor Brandt are instructed, on their own responsibility, to extend the authority of physicians to designate by name, after a critical examination of their condition, those sick persons who can humanely be called incurable, so that a merciful death may be assured.

When this decree — which was not restrictive — was signed, the installation of crematoriums was begun in six sanitariums: that of Hadamar near Limbourg, that of Grafeneck in Wurttemberg, that of Hartheim near Linz, and the homes for the aged at Pirna, Bernberg and Brandenburg. After January, 1940, the transfer of the terminally ill to these establishments began.

During July, 1941, the rumor began to spread in German Catholic circles that some 30,000 ill persons had been subjected to euthanasia contrary to Church doctrine. The priests were aroused, and on July 6, 1941, a pastoral letter of the bishops was read aloud in all of the Catholic churches of Germany, dated June 26, 1941, of which the essential passages are the following:

Most certainly there are commands which do not call for action on our parts if their execution would involve too many difficulties or dangers. But there are also duties of conscience from which no one can free us and which we must carry out, even at the cost of our lives. Never, in any circumstances outside of war and legitimate self defense may an innocent man be killed!

When this pastoral letter which he had energetically promoted had no effect, and the removal of the terminally ill was renewed in his diocese, Monseigneur von Galen, Bishop of Munster, lodged a complaint on July 28, 1941, with the public prosecutor of the Munster Court, invoking articles 139 and 211 of the code which put an obligation on everyone to denounce murder and to oppose it. When this complaint had no effect, Monseigneur von Galen ascended the pulpit on August 3, 1941, in his church Saint-Lambert of Munster, and delivered a ringing sermon.

After recalling earlier protestations of the bishops, and also of his own, and after denouncing a recent removal of one thousand six hundred sick persons from the homes for the aged at Marienthal and Warstein, the Bishop of Munster stated:

Why should these poor defenseless sick people die? Simply because according to the verdict of some doctor or commission they belong in the category of the "unfit to live." It is stated that they can no longer be productive. They are like an old machine that no longer works, an old paralyzed horse, a cow that no longer gives milk! What becomes of an old machine: it is put on the scrap heap. What is done with a paralyzed horse? Unproductive cattle? … But it is not a question of old machines, horses or cows. It is a question of men like us, our brothers and our sisters. Woe to man! Woe to our German people if the sacred Commandment: 'Thou shalt not kill' which our Creator engraved from the beginning in the minds of men, is transgressed, and if this transgression is tolerated and goes unpunished…

This sermon had a profound echo all over Germany and started a movement before which Hitler retreated.

Less than a month afterwards, August 20, 1941, Hitler gave the order to suspend operation "Gnadentod." All the historians, even the most anti-Nazi, are today agreed on this version of the affair. Even Mr. Gerhard Jaeckel, a specialist on Nazi atrocities and war crimes, in the illustrated Munich weekly Quick (June 25, 1961), has confirmed it in every detail as it is reproduced above. And, in Paris, the newspaper Le Monde (May 3, 1963) has also accepted the story as it is set forth in the preceding paragraphs.

Now, the two documents that are produced by Eugen Kogon bear the dates of February 2 and of March 5, 1942, when operation "Gnadentod" had been terminated for more than six months. A third document that was published by Eugen Kogon in support of these two letters, which is a report from Dr. Hoven, but which has no date, has this to say, according to Kogon:

The obligations of the contracting physicians and the negotiations with the burial services have often led to insurmountable difficulties … This is why I am at once getting in touch with Doctor Infried-Eberl, head physician of the nursing home of Bernburg-sur-Saale, Post Box 252, telephone 3.169. This is the same physician who carried out operation "14 F 13." Doctor Eberl has shown the greatest kindness. AU the bodies of the prisoners deceased at Schoneberg-Wernigerode will be transported to Doctor Eberl at Bernburg and will be cremated, even without a death certificate. (Page 227)

The least one can say is that this report does not excuse one from the obligation of verifying the authenticity of the three documents … if only to find out if, in the Germany of 1942, it was possible to contravene the orders of the Führer to this extent.

A procedure called the "Selektion", which was periodically performed in all the camps, contributed in no small measure to the dissemination of the notion that executions were common occurrences in the camps. What actually happened was this:

Periodically, the health services of the camps received the order to make up a list of all sick persons who were considered to be unfit for fairly sustained work or for any work at all, and to gather them in a special Block. Then, trucks arrived — or a line of railway cars — and they were put in, and they departed for an unknown destination. The rumor in the concentration camps had it that they were taken directly to the gas chambers; as a consequence, with a sort of cruel sense of humor, these assemblings were called Himmelskommandos, meaning that they were composed of persons bound for heaven. Naturally all of those who were sick tried to escape the Himmelskommando.

I saw two or three "Selektions" carried out at Dora; I even escaped being included in one of them. Dora was a small camp. Although the numbers of unfit sick were always greater than the means available to care for them, those numbers only very rarely reached proportions so large as to interfere with the operation or the administration of the camp. Auschwitz-Birkenau, which David Rousset speaks about in the quotation in question, was different. That camp was very large, a human ant-heap, so to speak. The number of unfit was considerable. The "Selektions", instead of being made through the health services, often were made on the spot whenever the trucks or rail cars arrived. They took place at a rate of about one a week, and decisions as to who was to be included were made just on appearances. Between the S.S. guards and the concentration camp bureaucracy on the one hand and the mass of prisoners trying to escape selection on the other, one can imagine the confusion of what amounted to manhunts in an atmosphere of universal panic. After each "Selektion" ' those who were left behind felt that they had for the time being escaped the gas chamber.

But, there is nothing to prove conclusively that any of the unfit, or those so designated as unfit, who were selected in this way, either at Dora or at Birkenau, were sent to gas chambers. In support of this statement I want to record a personal experience. In the "Selektion" which I escaped at Dora was included one of my comrades who did not have the same luck. I saw him depart, and I was sorry for him. In 1946 I still believed that he was dead and that he had been asphyxiated together with the entire convoy of which he was a part. In September of the same year, to my astonishment, he showed up at my house to invite me to attend some official demonstration. When I told him what my fears for him had been all this time, he told me that the convoy in question had been sent to Bergen-Belsen, a convalescent center for the sick deportees from all the camps. This story is verified by a former deportee, a fellow named Mullin who is now an employee at the Besancon railway station. After a trip that was made under appalling conditions, he arrived at Bergen-Belsen, to which had converged convoys of the unfit from all over Germany. There were so many Prisoners that the camp administration didn't know where to Put them or how to feed them. He spent many horrible days there and was finally sent back to work. At Buchenwald, moreover, I had already encountered in Block 48 a Czech who had returned to Birkenau from Bergen-Belsen in the same way.

My view on the gas chambers? Some probably did exist; but not as many as is believed. Moreover, there probably were exterminations by gas, but not as many as has been claimed. The number, of course, does not in the least diminish the nature of the horror, but the fact that the practice might have been a measure that was decreed by a State order in the name of a political doctrine would singularly add to the horrible nature of it. Was that the case? The statement of Dr. Aryeh Kubovy, Director of the Center of Jewish Documentation at Tel-Aviv, which is discussed in Chapter 13, Note 8, concerning the nonexistence of orders for the extermination of the Jews has definitely settled the question in the negative.

Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that there appears to have been no official Nazi policy of gas exterminations, the factor that has played the greatest role in promoting the contrary belief, seems to have been the "Selektion" practice about which there is not a deportee who cannot speak as a witness in one way or another, and who does so, mainly, in terms of all that he feared at the moment.

Two other documents that are quoted by David Rousset in Le Pitre ne rit pas (1949) in support of the existence of mass exterminations by gas do not strike me as any more convincing than those of Eugen Kogon. The first is a deposition of a certain Wolfgang Grosch at Nuremberg and is about the construction of gas chambers, but not their use. The second, concerning trucks that had been fitted with asphyxiating mechanisms which were to have been used in Russia, bears the signature of a second-Lieutenant and is addressed to a Lieutenant. Neither one of them allows one to accuse the leaders of the Nazi regime of having given orders for the extermination by gas. The text of both documents will be found in Appendix C at the end of this book.

Speaking of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Eugen Kogon had said that toward the end of 1942 the Third Reich was contemplating the installation of a branch of I.G. Farben Industries at the camp, in which the use of chemical gasses would be indispensable, and I suggest that from this fact might have sprung the accusation that the Reich had decided to exterminate Jews in this way. [3] Of course, it is only a supposition. But in history as in the sciences, have not most discoveries stemmed, if not from supposition, at least from doubt?

It may be objected that there is nothing to be gained in exonerating National-Socialism in this way, whose misdeeds in other respects are definitely established. In response, I believe that there is nothing more to be gained in supporting a doctrine or an interpretation, perhaps correct, but which rests on falsities. All of the great principles of democracy die, not because of their substance, but from being too exposed in details considered as insignificant in their scope as in their substance, and dictatorships generally only triumph to the extent that insufficiently studied arguments are brandished against them. In this connection, David Rousset gives an example which in a masterly manner illustrates this way of looking at things:

I was talking with a German physician … He was obviously not a Nazi. He was fed up with the war and did not know where his wife and four children were. Dresden, which had been his home, had been cruelly bombed, "Look here," he said to me, "did we go to war for Danzig?" I answered no. "All right then, Hitler's policy in the concentration camps was frightful (I bowed); but, for the rest, he was right." (Page 170)

So, by this little detail, because it was felt to be wrong to be told that they were going to war for Danzig, and that that turned out to be false, this doctor pronounced judgment on Hitler's entire policy and approved of it. I wonder in fear what he thinks of that policy now, now that he has had a chance to read David Rousset and Eugen Kogon.

V. Traduttore, Traditore

This small detail is without great significance; David Rousset sets forth his opinion as to the etymology of the word "Kapo" as follows:

The expression Kapo is probably of Italian origin and means the head: there are two other possible explanations: Kapo, abbreviation of Kaporal, or a contraction of the phrase Kamerad Polizei, used during the first months of Buchenwald. (Page 131)

Eugen Kogon on the other hand is more positive:

Kapo: Il capo, the head, the chief … (L'Enfer organise, page 59)

I suggest another explanation: the word is derived from the phrase Konzentrationslager Arbeit Polizei, using the initials of each word, just as Schupo comes from Schutz Polizei and Gestapo from Geheim Staat Polizei. The haste of David Rousset and Eugen Kogon to interpret, rather than analyze, prevented them from thinking of it.


  1. In German, the camps were called Schutzhalflager, camps for prisoners being protected (against the people's fury.)
  2. He was given this title by the Ruling Clique; his name was Marcel Paul.
  3. [Auschwitz and its satellite camps became, by the end of the war, a huge industrial complex where both prisoner and free labor worked in a variety of industrial enterprises, among which were extensive chemical works which manufactured from the coal of the region synthetic gasoline and "Buna" (synthetic rubber.) For a detailed discussion, see Arthur R. Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century (Richmond,Surrey: Historical Review Press, [1976] ), pages 47-52.]