by Albrecht Kolthoff
[translation courtesy of Roberto Muehlenkamp]
With the end of the Third Reich several sites of National Socialist mass murder became synonyms of organized barbarism. From the beginning Auschwitz had an outstanding position; in this camp civilian prisoners and prisoners of war from Poland and the Soviet Union as well as Gypsies from a number of countries were interned, Jews as the greatest group were deported there from the whole area of influence of the Third Reich, and from this concentration - and extermination camp reports about the ongoing mass murder emerged and reached the Allies still during the war.
Since the liberation of the camp at the beginning of 1945 it has been repeatedly attempted to establish the number of victims. Records of the camp direction or the SS were not available, so other, indirect evidence had to be sought. The latest status of research was published in German in 1993 with the study Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz ("The Number of Victims of Auschwitz") by Franciszek Piper1. Piper, who since 1965 has worked with and is now the director of the historical research department at the Auschwitz State Museum, concluded that in Auschwitz out of a total of 1.3 million deportees at least 1.1 million were murdered or killed by hunger, mistreatment and disease; about 960,000 of these victims were Jews.
Also for Holocaust deniers Auschwitz has been a focal point of their efforts to deny or minimize the destruction of the European Jews and to declare the victims to have been the consequence of deplorable, but unintended failures (for instance the bad sanitary conditions). Notwithstanding the fact that Auschwitz has been investigated like no other extermination camp, that at a number of trials in Poland and Germany members of the camp personnel confessed to the murder deeds, that the mass murder is proven by many hundreds of documents and witness testimonials, the "Revisionists" in a multitude of pseudo-scientific publications deny that at Auschwitz-Birkenau organized mass murder with gas chambers was carried out.
Before this background there appeared in May 2002, in the German academic publication Osteuropa, an article by Fritjof Meyer2 which claimed to be an essential contribution towards establishing the number of victims; the corresponding discussion in past years had "so far produced no results" (Meyer, page 639). Meyer reached the conclusion that in Auschwitz "half a million people were murdered, thereof about 356,000 by gas" (as above). Meyer, a leading editor of the news magazine Der Spiegel for many years, had according to his own statement in a letter to the Auschwitz Museum originally intended to publish the article in Spiegel, where it had however been rejected; obviously Meyer thereafter managed to place the article, in a form complying with the formal criteria of an academic publication, in the academic magazine Osteuropa, whose editor Meyer himself had been for years and to which he has been linked as an author for decades.
The article didn't find any resonance worth mentioning with either the general or the academic public; in the daily Die Welt there appeared a review by Sven-Felix Kellerhoff3, wherein Mayer was called a "new key witness" for "Holocaust deniers and those trying to play down Auschwitz"; Kellerhof nevertheless certified that Meyer was an "honorable man" who had unintentionally given the finger to "Historical Revisionists" of the extreme right. Indeed Meyer's article subsequently became a popular propaganda tool of this group; some of these Holocaust deniers of the extreme right even for propagandistic reasons placed criminal denunciations against Meyer on charge of incitement of popular hatred. The intention behind this was to obtain a blank check for the playing down of Auschwitz in the name of right-wing extremism through the rejection of such denunciations.
Given the absence of public resonance in research there had been no analysis of the contents of Meyer's theses so far. This gap has now been closed by Franciszek Piper with an important article, which appeared on the web site of the Auschwitz Museum.4
The following summary of Piper's essential arguments (which in some places were expanded by additional considerations) will show that Kellerhof's assessment was correct insofar as it called Meyer's article water on the mills of extreme-right Holocaust deniers; the question as to the intellectual honesty of the Osteuropa - author, however, must be asked anew after reading Piper's article.
The first estimate of the number of victims was made by a Soviet investigation commission, which took up its work immediately after the liberation of Auschwitz camp; the results were then already introduced at the Nuremberg Trial before the International Military Tribunal.
The Soviet commission based itself mainly on a calculation of the capacity of the crematoria5 and their operation time; after a percentage reduction for downtime it concluded on a capacity of the crematoria of 4 million corpses. This capacity was then equated with the actual number of cremated corpses. The number of four million would then - although not clearly confirmed at either the Nuremberg Trial or the Warsaw trial against Höß - be used as binding information for decades in Poland and other East Block states; Western research, on the other hand, arrived at far lower figures at an early stage, just like Rudolf Höß, in his "Autobiographical Notes" written in prison at Cracow, made a far lower estimate (1.13 million).6
The crematorium capacity was also the basis for Jean-Claude Pressac, who had thoroughly researched and assessed documents about the construction planning and details of the crematoria; this work of Pressac's with the construction documents is also acknowledged by Piper. In his publications Pressac concluded on a total of 631,000 to 711,000 dead7, for which he also referred to other aspects than the crematorium capacity, and therewith contradicted the already mentioned study by Piper (Number of Victims, 1993).
Pressac, in turn, is repeatedly referred to by Meyer in his article in Osteuropa. Like the Soviet investigation commission and Pressac, he took the way of trying to establish the total number of dead by determining the crematorium capacity and the time of operation.
As late as 1993 there appeared in Poland a publication (Trochanowski), which also used this method, thereby returning to the long overruled data of the Soviet investigation commission and concluding on a total of 4,351,000 dead.
Piper, however, demonstrates in his article that this way is bound to lead to wrong conclusions.
The capacity of the crematoria was never a limiting factor for the number of those who perished at Auschwitz, for at various times corpses were burned in huge numbers on pyres or in pits in the open. Also the actually reached operation time or the actually reached utilization of the crematoria cannot be invoked as a limiting factor, because there are no reliable data in this respect.
For this reason already the approach of investigations like those of the Soviet commission or Meyer is completely unsuitable for reaching reliable results. Piper, on the other hand, bases his assessment on the available documents about the deportations to or internments in Auschwitz and the changes of the number of inmates, i.e. the gains and losses, either through death or due to transfer to other camps; for lack of a better term one may use the otherwise rather inadequate expression "population statistics" of the camp. This method of establishing the number of victims avoids the methodical sources of error that emerge when the crematorium capacity and the time of operation of the crematoria are placed in the foreground.
Furthermore Piper can prove that the capacity of the crematoria was certainly huge enough to technically handle the number of victims established through the population statistics.
Thus Meyer's considerations must be considered irrelevant already under the fundamental aspect of method. Besides this, however, a further analysis of Meyer's article reveals other very grievous mistakes, unfounded claims and plain and simple inventions.
For decades research about Auschwitz could base itself on thousands of documents, reports, witness accounts and other materials. Meyer's article - which, after all, announces an essential revision of existing research - amazingly bases itself on just two sources, due to which - in connection with allegedly "largely unnoticed documents about those interned in this camp" - he now thinks to be able to "calculate more exactly" the number of those murdered at Auschwitz.
These alleged "key documents" were cited in a book by Robert Jan van Pelt, written in the aftermath of the Irving trial in London8. "Revisionist" David Irving had initiated a libel suit against American historian Deborah Lipstadt and her editor Penguin on account of some pointed statements about Irving in a book of Lipstadt's about Holocaust deniers. For the defense of Lipstadt and Penguin van Pelt prepared a voluminous report, which he later published in an extended form as a book. Irving lost the lawsuit; the judge in his judgment reached the conclusion that "no objective, fair-minded historian would have serious cause to doubt that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz and that they were operated on a substantial scale to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews"9.
Meyer referred on the one hand to a letter by the company Topf & S:ouml;hne of Erfurt, which had built the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau, to the SS Central Construction Office in Auschwitz, on the other to a statement by former camp commandant Rudolf Höß from the trial before the Warsaw Court in 1947. Both sources, however, are in no way apt to force a revision of the state of research about the number of victims of Auschwitz, as Piper can convincingly demonstrate.
The letter by Topf & Söhne, written by the engineer Kurt Prüfer, refers to the capacity of the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The deposition of Höß refers to another parameter, the average daily operation time of the crematoria.
In this letter by the crematorium manufacturer to the SS Central Construction Office in Auschwitz, engineer Prüfer mentioned the capacity of the four crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau. According to this 800 corpses a day should be burned in each of the two bigger crematoria I and II and 400 a day in each of the two smaller crematoria III and IV, i.e. a total of 2,400 corpses per day.
This letter, however, stands against another letter by the SS Central Construction Office at Auschwitz, signed by its director Bischoff, to the Central Economic Administration Department (WVHA) of the SS, wherein other numbers are clearly mentioned. This document stated 1,440 corpses for each of crematoria I and II and 768 corpses per day for each of crematoria III and IV. How do both these documents fit together, and which data are accurate?
Meyer had a clear answer to this: For him Prüfer's letter with the lower figures was more reliable. The key argument he invoked was that this letter had, after all, been written "nine weeks after Bischoff's letter and after completion of the crematoria, and thus on grounds of the first operation results"10.
Prüfer's letter, however, is dated 8 September 1942, while Bischoff's is from 28 June 1943. Actually Prüfer's letter came into being about nine months before Bischoff's letter (not "nine weeks after" the same, as Meyer claims), and it was Prüfer's letter which was written before the completion of the crematoria, whereas Bischoff's letter came into being after completion and thus on grounds of first operation results.
Meyer simply confounded the numbers of the years, although he printed them correctly in the essay; apparently he had only "June" and "September" in mind and overlooked that Prüfer's letter had been written the year before.
This, of course, also topples his argumentation that the lower capacity of the crematoria mentioned in Prüfer's letter is to be considered more accurate because it had been established "on grounds of the first operation results".
Franciszek Piper can furthermore demonstrate in detail that the capacity mentioned in Bischoff's letter could actually be reached.
Another error Meyer committed when referring the capacities mentioned by Prüfer to a daily operation time of 24 hours. Actually the company Topf & Söhne had in their calculations referred to an operation time of 12 hours, as Piper can demonstrate. Thus Meyer reaches a halving of the crematorium capacity which is not covered by the documents.
Former camp commandant Rudolf Höß's statement at the Warsaw trial, to which Meyer referred, had the following wording:
"After eight or ten hours of operation the crematoria were useless for further operation. It was impossible to operate them on a continuous basis."
On the basis of this Meyer assumed an average daily operation time of nine hours and down-calculated the daily capacity - which he assumed as being Prüfer's incorrect estimate mentioned above - accordingly.
Actually, however, as Piper can demonstrate, the crematoria were at certain times operated around the clock if necessary. This was especially the case during the two great extermination actions against the Hungarian Jews and the Jews of Lodz (Poland) in 1944. Evidence for this can be found in the listings of the workforce used at the crematoria, which were operated by "stokers" and "wood un-loaders" in day- and night shift ("stokers" were the prisoners from the Jewish special detachments who worked at the crematorium ovens, "wood-un-loaders" were used at crematorium IV, where in addition to the crematoria corpses were burned in open pits)11.
Höß himself, invoked by Meyer as proof for a nine hour daily operation time of the crematoria, stated at an interrogation in 1947 before the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw that at certain times the crematoria were operated around the clock. "
They were always in operation day and night when such actions were being carried out. During such actions, which always lasted 4, 6 or 8 weeks, the crematoria were in operation uninterruptedly. Individual crematoria which had to be repaired, however, were however put to rest several times."12
Thus Meyer's assumption of a constant nine hour operation day is unsustainable and cannot be introduced as a limiting factor into a capacity calculation.
In his article Meyer also used other assumptions that would limit the capacity of the crematoria. Thus, for instance, he indicated given total numbers of days during which the individual crematoria were in operation (for instance, Crematorium I: 509 days, Crematorium III: 50 days).
Piper can demonstrate - also on hand of work force listings - that these assumptions of Meyer's are unfounded. At times during which, according to Meyer, the crematoria were not being used, there were considerable numbers of "stokers" in operation.
Actually Meyer did not demonstrate these days of crematorium operation himself, but simply took them from an essay by Holocaust deniers Mattogno and Deana13. This essay appeared in an anthology edited by one "Ernst Gauss"; in fact "Ernst Gauss" is a pseudonym of Germar Rudolf, convicted in Germany for incitement of popular hatred.
Furthermore Meyer assumed a cremation time of one and a half hours per corpse in order to arrive at his capacity data; he writes himself in this respect that the time "was conceived for the dignified cremation of a corpse to obtain exclusively its ashes"14. This very condition of "dignified cremation", however, was not fulfilled at Auschwitz. The corpses - as is proven by several depositions - were not burned completely; the remaining unburned remains of bones had to be crushed by member of the special detachments.
Thus the cremation time (at a simultaneous loading of three corpses per cremation muffle) was only 30 minutes, as becomes apparent from the depositions of special detachment members Tauber (he indicated half an hour) and Dragon (15 to 20 minutes) and of camp commandant Höß (20 minutes). These depositions were known to Meyer as sources, but he preferred to ignore these data and thus arrived at a capacity that was only a third of the actually achieved capacity.
Thus in several steps Meyer systematically calculated down the capacity of the crematoria:
This overview does not even consider the reductions due to the unfounded limitation of the total running time of the crematoria (number of days of operation).
Further reductions of the total number of cremated corpses Meyer undertook by
For the base camp Meyer gives a number of 12,000 and invokes Pressac, Die Krematorien von Auschwitz (page 195). At the indicated place there is no such statement, however. This number was invented by Meyer. Actually about three times as many corpses were burned in the main camp crematorium, according to Piper.
The number of corpses incinerated on pyres Meyer simply reduced to 50,000, invoking Pressac (page 73). Here the reference to Pressac is accurate, but this author cannot offer a single argument for such a reduction, making this statement completely arbitrary.
In his summary Piper reaches a devastating verdict about Meyer's statement regarding crematorium capacities. The data about the days of operation of the crematoria are completely speculative; at several places Meyer's claims are in no way covered by the sources; he draws conclusions at odds with the facts (as in the case of Prüfer's letter).
Besides claiming that due to the limited cremation capacity a maximum of half the number of victims established by research would have been possible, Meyer also undertakes a reduction of the number of those deported to Auschwitz. This reduction refers mainly to
Regarding the "Hungary Action" Meyer writes: "The fate of deportees from Hungary requires an examination of its own"15. Such an examination exists as a standard work since forty years16. As this work by Braham is regularly used also in the literature cited by Meyer, he must at least have known of its existence. Meyer obviously either held it to be irrelevant or didn't consider it necessary to explain why he didn't use it.
Instead Meyer largely based himself on the "Calendarium" by Danuta Czech17. In this work, arrivals, transfers and murders at Auschwitz, among other occurrences, are listed on a chronological basis.
Meyer's use of this work suffers from a flaw, however: Czech cannot and does not make the claim to completely record all essential data. The author wrote in her introduction:
"For the new edition here presented the author was able to considerably expand the "Calendarium". Due to the systematic destruction of documents by the SS in the final phase of the camp the author is conscious, however, that it was not possible to reconstruct all occurrences at Auschwitz concentration camp. In fact it cannot be excluded that in the future further sources become available, which make it possible to clarify further issues of the camp's history."18
Therefore using numbers based on an addition of entries in the "Calendarium" cannot lead to reliable results.
Invoking Czech, Meyer concludes on a total of 60 deportation trains from Hungary which arrived at Auschwitz.19. Each train transported 3,000 deportees, leading Meyer to arrive at a total number of 180,000 deportees.
Meyer here confounds the number of entries in the Calendarium (the number of days on which deportation trains arrived) with the number of trains (an error that Pressac had already committed before him). In the Calendarium there are entries for 60 days; actually, however, up to four trains per day from Hungary arrived at Auschwitz, as had been decided weeks before at a "timetable conference" between the SS and representatives of the Reich's railways.
A total of 141 trains went from Hungary to Auschwitz; these data Meyer dismisses without any explanation as "dubious", although they are evidenced by various documents, as becomes apparent also from the literature used by Meyer. Existing documents - thus mainly the telegrams of the German ambassador in Budapest, Veesenmayer - expressly mention the number of deportees. Thus Veesenmayer on 11 July 1944 reported about 437,402 deportees. Very similar figures from the Hungarian police Meyer presented without further explanation as "probably exaggerated[...]".
These numbers long known to research were simply ignored by Meyer; thus he reduced the number of Jews deported from Hungary to Auschwitz by about 265,000.
Under this assumption Meyer then first arrived at the statement that 110,000 Hungarian Jews had thereafter been sent from Auschwitz to other camps. Among other sources he based himself on Andrzej Strzelecki20. As Piper demonstrates, however, this number of Strzelecki's referred to all Jewish prisoners and not only to the Hungarian Jews. Furthermore Strzelecki's expression "went … through the Birkenau camp" does not mean that these inmates had left the camp but that they had been selected as able to work and therefore were in the camp instead of having been sent directly to the gas chambers. According to Piper a number of these inmates were indeed sent to other camps, but the majority died in the camp or were murdered.
In the following Meyer stated that "according to Czech [...] probably 40,564 people were killed by gas in October 1944 alone" (he refers to Hungarian Jews). There is no such indication in Czech's book, however. This number is an invention of Meyer's.
Thus, according to Meyer, only about a quarter of the number of Hungarian deportees claimed by him, or one tenth of the actual number of deportees from Hungary, would have died in the gas chambers. Yet in the very source used by Meyer for his "calculation" of the number of trains, the "Calendarium", it is constantly mentioned that the murder in the gas chambers after selection of those able to work was the rule ("The remaining people were killed in the gas chambers").
This mass murder has long been known and proven by countless witness testimonials. Meyer passes over this evidence by ignoring it.
The number of Jews deported from Poland had earlier been put at 300,000 by Piper21; Meyer calls this figure "probably far too high" without any explanation22. Also here Piper can demonstrate that Meyer simply failed to consider some deportation transports.
In addition to the above Piper points out a number of mistakes and misconceptions in Meyer's article, which allow for no impression other than Meyer's being everything other than familiar with the subject of the extermination of the Jews in general and Auschwitz in particular. Thus, for instance, he mixes up the "Action 14f13", which was a continuation of the "Euthanasia Action" in the concentration camps, with the murder of Jews at the extermination camps of Aktion Reinhard (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka).
So far it could already be shown that Meyer worked sloppily, omitted facts he didn't like, made unproven and not provable claims, indulged in speculations and in several cases invented data.
Acknowledged standard literature (Wellers, Hilberg, Braham) Meyer ignored without a comment, instead in several places he based himself on literature denying the Holocaust.
Piper writes about Meyer's procedure: "Such attempts have often been made by revisionist historians. And this is by no means a coincidence."
Thus Piper remains barely below the border of adding Meyer himself to this group of falsifiers of history. Sometimes, however, confessions hide in footnotes.
In a footnote Meyer made clear his point of view and assessment of the mass murder at Auschwitz in a way that places him next to Holocaust deniers like David Irving:
"As historical research has for understandable but inadmissible reasons not accepted Auschwitz as an object of research, propaganda took over the untilled field; that of Soviet observance still dominates public opinion, for instance with a death toll of four million, the murder of more than 400,000 deportees from Hungary or the massive gas murder in the crematorium cellars."23
The death toll figure of four million is an issue long resolved in historical research; if Meyer brings it up as a current problem in "public opinion", this can have nothing to do with research, but at most with how it is conveyed. If, on the other hand, Meyer portrays the murder of the Hungarian Jews and the fact of the massive gas murder as "propaganda of Soviet observance", this cannot be explained by any disagreement among researchers or misinterpretation of sources whatsoever. Apparently Meyer's intention was to denounce the existing research on Auschwitz - except for the "results" of those he acknowledges as guarantors of detailed data providing "food for thought", the Auschwitz deniers - as useless "Soviet propaganda".
The Spiegel had done well to reject this production of its leading editor for publication; whether Meyer's current journalistic activity for the Spiegel is also subject to such checking may be left open. If after its rejection by Spiegel (where it would certainly have appeared in a much more journalistically dressed-up version) the article was published in a respectable academic newspaper, this will certainly bring no laurels to that publication.