Lothar Gruchmann Euthanasia Essay

 Print This Post

By Wilfried Heink

The third chapter in the book “Neue Studien zu nationalsozialistischen Massentötungen durch Giftgas” (New studies on National Socialist mass murder by poisonous gas) is titled: “Die Tötungsanstalten der ‘Aktion T4’” (The T4 killing facilities).

As the title suggests, this is about the T4 action in six of the facilities, with a sort of foreword “Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens” im Nationalsozialismus: Die “Aktion T4” (Extermination of life unworthy of life under National Socialism. The Action T4), by Brigitte Kepplinger, Dr. Mag., Soziologin und Historikerin, wissenschftliche Beamtin am Institute für Gesellschafts- und Sozialpolitik der Johannes Kepler-Universität Linz.

Since Revisionists do not deny that terminally ill and severely mentally challenged patients were put to death, there is no need to spend much time on this chapter. Kepplinger writes about the early stages of this action: that it was initiated by Hitler who instructed health minister Leonardo Conti to submit a plan. Later, Philipp Bouhler of the chancellery was able to push Conti out, an action typical of the politics of rivalry (Polikratie) in the Third Reich, according to Kepplinger.

Here is what Prof. Dr. Franz Seidler has to say about what took place before the doctors’ trial in which the T4 action played a major role:

— Dr. Conti, who was supposed to be one of the accused, committed suicide in his Nürnberg jail cell;

— The substitute head of the Reich Doctors Association (Reichärztekammer), Prof. Dr. Kurt Blome, who was to be charged in his stead, had to be acquitted because he could prove German doctors refused to participate in experiments on humans without consent of the proband. He stated however that tests are necessary and the Americans in 1951 invited him to participate in experiments re. chemical warfare;

— SS Obergruppenführer Prof. Dr. Ernst Robert Grawitz, CEO of the German Red Cross, committed suicide with his family in April 1945;

— Prof. Dr. August Hirt, head of the institute of military science in Straßburg committed suicide on 2 June 1945;

— Philipp Bouhler, head of the euthanasia program, captured by the Americans but committed suicide before being brought to Dachau;

— A whole group of doctors could not be found, some of them later turned up and were taken to the US to participate in research in their field of expertise, i.e., they continued were they left off just under a differed administration. [1]

This is an unusually high number of “suicides,” with some of the doctors not found for the trial but later invited to come to America to do exactly what they had done in the Third Reich, only now it was deemed “legal.” Prof. Dr. Karl Brandt, until the end of the war head health care official, was the most prominent of the accused. He weighed 44kg (97 pounds) when brought to Nürnberg, a consequence of hardships and torture inflicted on him by the British. The main charge against him was the T4 program, with Dr. Eugene Kogon (Nationalsozialistische Massentötungen…) the chief witness, but Kogon had to admit later that what he told was hearsay. The shenanigans continued, as documents of dubious origin were submitted, but too late for the defense to refute anything. Defense lawyer Dr. Servatuis charged that this program was a domestic (internal) program that foreigners were not competent to judge. He further questioned the affidavits because they contained words like “might have been”, “possibly”, “might be”, etc., and demanded that witnesses be produced for cross-examination. But the prosecution would not allow it for fear that the charges could not be sustained; again, because of phrases in the protocols like “I believe”, I assume”, “as far as I can remember” and “possibly”. It was also pointed out that the British engaged in human experiments – this was published in a medical journal. Dr. Brandt stated that whoever showed mercy for the incurable can never be a murderer, but to no avail — he was hanged on 2 June 1948.[2]

This proves that the illegality of the program was only “established” in a show trial. In fact, discussions about the legality of euthanasia were initiated as early as 1933. During the rearranging  (Neugsataltung) of German penal law, the Prussian minister of justice, Hanns Kerrl, published a memorandum entitled “Nationalsozialistische Srafrecht” in 1933 in which he argued that euthanasia cannot be illegal if an incurable person is asking for it, or if that person is unable to do so has relatives ask on his/her stead. No person shall be prosecuted if a doctor determines that the patient cannot be cured, as confirmed by another medical doctor. The memo then mentions the mentally challenged:

Sollte der Staat etwa bei unheilbar Geisteskranken ihre Ausschaltung aus dem Leben durch amtliche Organe gesetzmäßig anordnen, so liegt in der Ausführung solcher Maßnahmen nur die Durchführung einer staatlichen Anordnung … Wohl bleibt zu betonen, daß die Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens durch eine nichtamtliche Person stets eine strafbare Handlung darstellt.“[3]

(Should the state pass a decree legalizing the ending of the life of an insane (mentally challenged) person by state officials, participation in this would only be the execution of a state order…It must be stressed however that this action, if performed by anyone other than a state official, is punishable)

This was based on an essay by the expert on penal law (Strafrechtslehrer), Prof. Karl Binding, and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche, published in Leipzig 1920 and titled “Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens – Ihr Maß und ihre Form” (The release for extermination of unworthy life – the limits and form). According to the authors, the killing of incurables and insane (Blödsinniger) should be allowed if asked for by relatives, following a thorough examination by two doctors and a legal expert. Economic reasons were given because the persons, who care for these unproductive beings (Ballastexistenzen), are not available for the greater good.[4]

The above essay was published in 1920 – a time in which starvation as a result of the criminal British blockade was still fresh in mind. Only someone who experienced anything like that can dare judge, for the world looks friendlier with a full stomach.

Churches protested, as did the medical profession and as a consequence the new penal law of 1935 did not sanction euthanasia. Later efforts to legalize euthanasia failed, but Hitler claimed that “the well being of the German populace (Volk) is above any paragraph”.[5] And as has been shown in part II of this series, Hitler issued a decree on 1 September 1939, allowing: “…that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment [menschlichem Ermessen] of their state of health, can be granted a mercy death [Gnadentod].”[6]

This was not a license to kill. Doctors had to determine if the affected were indeed incurable or mentally challenged beyond hope. Abuses probably happened, but the intent was to end the lives of those who were a burden on society, especially in wartime. But above all, Hitler, as the undisputed head of state, could pass laws, i.e. issue decrees that became de facto laws. And here we have the issue of “consciousness of doing wrong”, as August von Knieriem words it.[7]

Von Knieriem starts out with:

“Under the national legal system concerned, the majority of acts judged at Nuremberg would not have been punishable at all…”.[8]

And that is precisely the issue. A Hitler order – or decree of any kind – was law, period. The doctors examined the patients and found them to be incurable, thus by the decree Hitler had issued they followed the law and were not conscious of wrong doing. Von Knieriem puts it thus:

“This problem is generally designated as that of the “consciousness of unlawfulness” or of doing wrong, and can be expressed in the following terms: Can the guilty intent be imputed to an actor who was not conscious of doing wrong? As the act must first be un­lawful for the problem of the actor’s guilt to be raised at all, the question may also be expressed in the following way: Can anybody be punished for being guilty of intent if he was mistaken about the lawfulness of his act? This is why the problem of the consciousness of doing wrong is generally designated as that of error of law or, since unlawfulness means that the act is prohibited, as the “error of prohibition.” Irrespective of the manner in which the question is formulated, its meaning is always the same; it refers to the determination of the extent, if any, to which the actor was conscious of doing wrong.”[9]

And moral consideration, if even present, cannot make an act unlawful. Also, Dr. Brandt had stated at his trial that showing mercy to the incurable can never be considered murder. These doctors and whoever else that participated in the program were not murderers, but used their judgment to end the sufferings of those who at that time could not be cured. It is therefore folly to refer to the T4 program to make a case for alleged mass killings of Jews with poisonous gas, since the illegality of T4 has never been proven.

Just briefly to the numbers of the T4 action, and we seem to have the same “discrepancies” here as with Shoah numbers. Kogon et al claim 70,273 killed, based on some accounting sheets found.[10] The Kogon book was published in 1983, but only in the years following German unification were a number of the pertinent documents discovered in East German archives. But, the discovery raised more questions as were answered, according to Peter Sandner.[11] Sandner then tells us that for a long time it was assumed that 70,000 had been killed; this number was based on the so-called “Hartheim-Dokument”.[12] But newer research has shown that at most (allenfalls) 25,000 to 30,000 files are on hand, about a third of the total. The questions are, so Sandner: where are the rest of the files, and how did those files end up in the DDR (East Germany)?[13] Sandner then tells us that most of the Hartheim files have been destroyed; he doesn’t say how we know that. In an IfZ essay of 2003, we learn that 30,000 files have since been located, but that the rest were destroyed.[14] And even though it seems that only 30,000 deaths can be confirmed, Sandner hangs on to the 70,000 number, admitting only that the files found in East Germany must be evaluated and that this is happening now.[15]

In conclusion, the illegality of the T4 action was never established and there seem to be some other questions – i.e., the numbers. The many authors of the book under discussion are unable to make a case for mass gassings, and therefore need to try to make their case via T4: quite the admittance. Therefore there’s no need to waste time on this chapter, which offers no evidence at all for the alleged Shoah.



  1. Franz W. Seidler, Das Recht in Siegerhand. Die 13 Nürnberger Prozesse 1945-1949, Pour le Mérite-Verlag für Militärgeschichte, Selen Austria 2007, pp.212/13
  2. Ibid, pp.213-217
  3. Lothar Gruchmann, Euthanasie und Justiz im Dritten Reich, IfZ Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 1972, Heft 3, p.235; (Nationalsozialistisches Strafrecht, Denkschrift des Preußischen Justizministers, Berlin 1933, pp.86/87)
  4. Ibid, pp.235/36
  5. Ibid, p.239
  6. Ibid, p.241
  7. August von Knieriem, The Nuremberg Trials, Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, Illinois 1959, pp.217ff
  8. Ibid, p.217
  9. Ibid, pp.218/19
  10. Eugen Kogon et al, Nationalsozialistische Massentötungen durch Giftgas, S. Fischer Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1983, pp. 60-62
  11. Peter Sander, Die “Euthanasie” Akten im Bundesarchiv, IfZ Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 1999, Heft 3, p.385
  12. Ibid, p.386. The document stored in the National Archives, Washington, with a film-copy in the Federal Archive, Koblenz.
  13. Ibid, pp.386/87
  14. Peter Sandner, Schlüsseldokumente zur Überlieferungsgeschichte der NS “Euthanasie” Akten gefunden, IfZ Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 2003, Heft 2, p.285
  15. Ibid. p.290



Chapter four is titled “Giftgas als Mittel zum Völkermord in Gaswagen und Vernichtungslager” (Poisonous gas as means to commit mass murder in gas wagons and extermination camps).

With this we finally seem to be getting to the nitty-gritty of the subject, and we are almost half-way through the book. The first essay is by Mathias Beer, “Gaswagen. Von der “Euthanasie” zum Genozid” (Gas wagons. From euthanasia to genocide). Dr. phil. Mathias Beer is a historian, the head of research into contemporary history and head of the Donau-Swabian institute of history in Tübingen.

Most, if not all, authors place the word “euthanasia” in quotation marks, suggesting that this is the wrong term and that mass murder would be the correct definition. This is then additional evidence that the reader must be conditioned and that a solid Shoah case cannot be made.

Before I address the article by Mr. Beer, allow me to state a few generalities. It appears that gas wagons did exist; called Black Ravens [1]. They were the invention of Isaj Davidovich Berg, a Jew, and were used by the Soviets.[2]

Voslensky writes that the inventor of the gas vans was a certain (gewisser) Berg, the exhaust gasses were routed through the interior of the box (Wagenkasten) and that the vans were already in use in 1936.[3] Solzhenitsyn provides a few more details: Berg had been manager of the economic administration (AchO) of the NKVD in the Moscow district and was ordered to put into practice the decisions made by the “Troika”, a semi judicial body. He did so by having the condemned transported to the place where they were shot (Er transportierte Leute zu Erschiessungen). But with three “Troikas” operating at the same time, the shooting commandos could not handle the load and Berg invented the gas vans. The victims were undressed and thrown into a closed truck, camouflaged as a bread delivery truck. The exhaust gasses were rerouted through the box and by the time the truck arrived at the place of execution, the victims had been dealt with (erledigt). Berg himself was shot in 1939, but not because of that crime. In 1956 he was rehabilitated, and that even though his invention, the gas vans, are recorded in his file and remained there until discovered by journalists.[4]

Now to the German gas vans alleged to have existed. In the summer of 1942, the Germans found evidence of the Katyn massacre, the killing of 27,500 Polish citizens in Katyn and the surrounding area.[5] On 2 November 1942, the Soviets announced the creation of the “Extraordinary State Commission” (ESC)[6] and on 19 April 1943 issued a decree. Mr. Alexander Victor Prusin [7] provides some details:

The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet signed a decree stipulating public execution or heavy prison sentences for Axis personnel and their accomplices found guilty of crimes [End Page 3] against civilians and POWs. The decree provided no legal definition of war crimes—it used the all-encompassing terms “atrocities” or “evil deeds” (zverstva or zlodeianiia)—but it stated that while the Axis powers and their accomplices had committed horrible crimes against Soviet citizens, “to date the punishment meted out to these criminals and their local hirelings is clearly inadequate to the crimes they have committed.”[…] While some scholars have suggested that the decree was a direct Soviet response to the German discovery of the mass graves of Polish POWs in the Katyn Forest in April 1943, the fact that [End Page 4] the Soviets never published the decree confirms that it was intended for internal purposes[…]”[8]

The Germans had actually discovered the Katyn crime scene in the summer of 1942 [9], but the investigations were not undertaken ‘till the spring of 1943, for obvious reasons — a war was on. Try as Mr. Prusin might, the issuing of the above Soviet decree and the discovery by the Germans of the Katyn crime are just too closely related to dismiss them as coincidence. Also, publishing decisions made by Soviet officials was not common practice, Voslensky goes into detail, see footnote 2. Consequently, and this gets us back to the gas vans, the Krasnodar/Kharkov show trials were conducted by the Soviets in July/December 1943.[10] Gas vans play a large role in those trials, not surprisingly since the Soviets seemed to have been experts on how they worked. As for how the evidence was collected by the Soviets, see the Prusin article. What is of interest is that the experts in both trials established that the vans were diesel powered. From the Krasnodar trial:

On the basis of the thorough medical, chemical and spectroscopic investigation which was carried out, a Committee of Experts consisting of Dr. V. I. Prozorovsky, Chief Medico-Legal Export of the Commissariat of Public Health of the U.S.S.R.; V. M. Smolyaninov, Chief Medico-Legal Export of the People’s Commissariat of Public Health of the R.S.F.S.R.; Professor M. I. Avdeyev, D. M. Sc., Chief Medico-Legal Expert of the Red Army; Dr. P. S. Semenovsky, Consulting Physician of the Moscow City Medico-Legal Department; and S. M. Sokolov, court chemist, arrived at the conclusion that the cause of death in 523 of the cases examined was carbon monoxide poisoning, and that in 100 cases death was due to firearm wounds inflicted, in the majority of cases, in the head.

In their report the Committee of Experts stated that the carbon monoxide could undoubtedly have had lethal effect if the waste gases from the diesel engine penetrated the closed van”.[11]

And from the Kharkov trial:

As established by the investigation similar “gas lorries,” which were nicknamed “murder vans,” were used by the Germans for murdering peaceful Soviet citizens not only in Krasnodar but also in Kharkov.

These vans, as testified by the German defendants in the present case and also by witnesses who witnessed the crimes committed by the Germans, are large closed trucks of dark grey colour, driven by diesel engines.

The vans are lined inside with galvanized iron and have air-tight folding doors at the back. The floor is equipped with a wooden grating under which passes a pipe with apertures. This pipe is connected to the exhaust pipe of the engine. The exhaust gases of the diesel engine, containing highly concentrated carbon monoxide, enter the body of the van, causing rapid poisoning and asphyxiation of the people locked up in the van.”[12]

Thus, Achim Trunk is wrong when he writes that reports about murder by gas vans talk of gasoline engines explicitly.[13] Also, in a letter of 16. 5. 42, Walter Rauff (details about him later) is informed that the Saurer truck, allegedly one of the gas vans, had brake problems during the transfer from Simferopol to Taganrog. Now, Taganrog is a little over 200km north of Krasnodar and the Soviets had determined that in Krasnodar the trucks were powered by diesel engines. This then suggests that some Saurer trucks were diesel powered, adding to the confusion. Beer of course never mentions any of this, he starts out by referring to a letter by Greiser to Himmler in which the former praises the Sonderkommando Lange who had served well in Kulmhof (Chelmno). It is not my intention to concentrate on specific camps or locations in which gas vans were allegedly used, as others have done that (for Chelmno see the essay by Ingrid Weckert)[14]; I understand that Carlo Mattogno will publish a book on Chelmno.[15] Also, Ingrid Weckert and Friedrich Berg published a study on the gas vans dealing with most of the issues.[16] I will therefore just make a few general comments on the vans themselves: what is known about them; do we have a precise description of them; could they have been used as testified, etc. – on this too we only have eyewitness testimony. Not one of those vans has ever been found, though we have a picture of a Magirus truck alleged to be a gas van, but the Magirus factory in Ulm only produced trucks with diesel engines.

Back to Herr Beer, who of course ignores Weckert and Berg, and begins with T4 instead, the title of his first sub-chapter: “Kaisers Kaffee Geschäft”: Töten auf Rädern mit reinem CO im Rahmen der „Euthanasie“(Kaisers coffee shop. Killing with pure CO during “euthanasia”) (Beer had already published an essay on the gas vans for the Institute für Zeitgeschichte [Institute for contemporary history] in 1987).[17] Beer writes that the criminological-technical institute of the security police (KTI) had been told to look for a quick and painless method for killing the mentally challenged. It was decided that killing with CO would be the most humane way and some successful tests in the “euthanasia” facility in Brandenburg an der Havel were undertaken, with Dr. Widmann opening the valve and controlling the gas amount. Then some gassings were tried in the concentration camp Fort VII Posen: Untersturmführer Herbert Lange was in charge and the latter were the first killings of persons deemed unfit (unwertes Leben) in the territories of west and north Poland annexed by the Reich. From this two methods evolved: the stationary gas chambers for the T4 action, and the second a prototype of a gas van built with “Sonderkommando Lange” in control. And even though it is not possible to prove the genesis of this killing method for lack of sources, we know that the SS and Police (HSSPF), the RSHA, the KTI, as well as Widmann, were involved.

This first gas van, Beer continues, operated under the same principal as the gas chambers in the “euthanasia” facilities, except that it was a mobile gas chamber. The deadly gasses were routed into an air-tight trailer pulled by a vehicle; thus, the victims did not have to be transported to the killing facilities. As camouflage the trailers had “Kaiser’s Kaffee Geschäft” painted on their sides and from January 1940 to July 1941 the “Sonderkommando Lange” killed several thousand patients in the Warthegau. This was so successful that the gas vans were lent to East Prussia on 21 May to 8 June 1940, and in the transit camp Soldau alone 1,500 were killed by the “Sonderkommando Lange” and their “Kaiser’s Kaffee Geschäft” wagons. This then was the first generation of gas vans: the systematic murder of persons unfit to live, which was later expanded in late fall of 194 to Jewish genocide.[18]

Comments: The “Kaiser Kaffee” story stretches credulity to the breaking point. We are to believe that the “Nazis” first took the patients for a scenic tour, then unloaded their corpses in a room close to a crematoria instead of simply killing them right there? Beer admits that nothing has been found linking the Kaiser Kaffee Company to the gas trailers and provides no real evidence for the existence of those trailers. In his 1987 publication (see footnote 17), Beer tells us that eyewitnesses testified that in 1939/1940 trailers were used in Poland for the transportation of mentally challenged. The trailers had the inscription “Kaisers-Kaffee-Geschäft” painted on their sides and it is alleged that in those trailers the sick were killed with CO (Im Anhänger sollen Kranke mit aus Stahlflaschen eingeleitetem reinen Kohlenmonoxid (CO) getötet worden sein). This does not prevent Beer from repeating this story in this newest publication, needing it to confabulate a link to the killings of the mentally ill to the alleged killing of Jews. Such is the “evidence” for the Shoah.

Beer then continues with the coffee wagon story, writing that the Sonderkommando Lange used them in the Warthegau, and that Lange was very busy. Then, Arthur Nebe, chief of Einsatzgruppe(EG) B, had Dr. Widmann from the KTI meet him to discuss killing methods. Widmann was to bring 400kg of explosives as well as some metal hoses. As a first test some mentally ill were locked into a bunker and the bunker was blown up with explosives, but that didn’t work too well. Then the Widmann metal hoses were put to use, connected to the exhaust of a car or truck with the exhaust directed via the hose into a closed room filled with patients. From this experiment it was learned that killing with exhaust would be the solution, but since the EG did not have buildings at the ready, the killing facilities had to be mobile.

Thus, on instructions from Heydrich, Walter Rauff of group II D 3 (technical matters) ordered that “closed in vehicles” (geschlossenen Kraftfahrzeuge) were to be put at the disposal of the EG. They were to be 3.5 ton vehicles at minimum, powered by gasoline engines and fitted with an airtight box. The exhaust was to be routed via a metal hose into that box.

Comments: First a little about Arthur Nebe. Already in 1938 he was a member of a group of traitors: Canaris, von Witzleben, Gisevius and Count Helldorf: influential people with excellent contacts abroad.[19] Nebe was later shot because of his involvement in the assassination attempt of Hitler in 1944. The traitors were desperately looking for something to discredit Hitler, to turn the German population against him. Why did Nebe not provide Gisevius – or Canaris who was head of military intelligence – with details of the gas vans and all the killings allegedly happening? Why did the gas van story only emerge after the war?

Now to Walter Rauff, the inventor of the “gas vans”.

“In the late 1940s, Walther (Walter) Rauff, an SS officer who was responsible for the murder of at least 100,000 people and was wanted by the Allies as a war criminal, was employed by the Israeli secret service. Instead of bringing him to justice it paid him for his services and helped him escape to South America… compared to Rauff, who was a criminal on the same scale as Eichmann… Klarsfeld wrote in an e-mail. “I doubt that it could have been possible, because Rauff was well-known in the Jewish world for his role in the gassing program by trucks[…]”[20]

Jews knew about Rauff, but the Mossad hired and paid him, and in 1984 he died of cancer in Chile. In the documentary “Nazi Hunters. The Real Story” it is claimed that Chile refused to extradite Rauff. If so, what prevented the Mossad from kidnapping him as they had done to Eichmann? This story also lacks credibility, leaving one to suspect that the gas van story was concocted later. In fact, the documents presented to support the gas van story suggest just that.

As for Widmann and the experiments, this reads like a Keystone Cops operation. First, the Germans, who were so far advanced in weapons technology that to this day the victors are looking for links as to why this was so[21], but these same Germans then had to experiment with killing methods by sticking people into a bunker and blowing it up to see if it worked? Heaven help us! The rest of the story is not much better; surely the Germans were aware of the fact that carbon monoxide is a dangerous killer.

Also, gasoline engines are not explicitly mentioned, only some eyewitnesses refer to them.

Beer continues to insult our intelligence, but there’s no need to suffer any further; thus, to the gas vans. First, what do we know about them, i.e., how were they described? Beer tells us that they were 3.5 ton trucks with an airtight box in which a group of people were loaded and killed with the exhaust produced by a petrol powered engine, the exhaust led into the box via metal hoses. The judges in the Bonn Chelmno trial of 1965 tell us that the trucks were big, painted grey, of foreign manufacture and had a closed-in box in the back. The double doors in the back of the box were sealed with rubber gaskets and the exhaust entered the box via a hose, which could be attached to the exhaust pipe.[22] The judges of the 1966 Hannover trial have it as a special truck with a high, air-tight, box in the back in which 40 – 50 persons could be killed within 10 to 15 minutes.

There’s nothing really of substance and all other descriptions are much the same. Pierre Marais writes that it would be relatively easy to construct a gas van, but that it is strange that no detailed plans have survived, given the Germans penchant for exactness and paperwork. Also, the box needs to be constructed to withstand pressure. A square box was not ideal for that purpose: the pressure issue a “conditio sine qua non” – without which it could not be.[23] Any type of container which has to withstand pressure from within has rounded corners, cylindrical in shape. A square box as described would have been ill-suited to handle the pressure even if vents were provided to allow the air in the box to escape when the exhaust entered, thus allowing the exhaust to vent during operation. If the vents were too small, either the engine would stall or the box would explode. But we have no mention of any calculations concerning this issue, and the square boxes are evidence to the contrary — i.e. they are proof that no pressure could have been applied.

What we have is the letter of June 5 (the date handwritten) 1942, which starts with:

“Seit Dezember 1941 wurden beispielsweise so mit 3 eingesetzten Wagen 97,000 verarbeitet”.

(For instance, since December 1941, 97,000 were processed in this manner)

This is nonsense, for no German starts a letter with “for instance” when no context is provided referring to what instance is meant. The letter then states that to prevent the possible build-up of excess pressure, two slots of 10 x 1 cm are to be added to the back of the box, covered with tin plates on hinges. More nonsense because excess pressure is a certainty, not a possibility, and those two slots, amounting to a 4 inch cut with a saw blade and covered with hinged tin, would not have prevented this. Also, how were the 97,000 “processed” without those slots? In the next letter of 23 June 1942 (handwritten) we learn that the openings in the back door, covered by sliders, were to be eliminated and replaced by the slots: No mention of how big those openings were, but having replaced them with those saw cuts is ridiculous. In both letters the date is added by hand, curious to say the least. Also, the first letter has “Einzigste Ausfertigung” at the top, but “Einzigste” is not a German word.

Back to those openings in the back. Pradl, in his testimony at the Hannover trial stated that a hole of 58-60mm diameter, the size of the exhaust pipe, was drilled into the floor.[24] Thus we have an intake opening of 28 square cm and outflow openings of 20 square cm in total, smaller by almost one third: no go, as the pressure would have built up and blown the box apart or stalled the engine. Then we have the exhaust temperature, not mentioned by any of the witnesses. Marais writes that exhaust exits the engine at 600 to 800 degrees Celsius. He continues by saying that even if we allow for the exhaust to cool down to 200 degrees C by the time it enters the box — unlikely that it would have cooled down that much — the temperature added to the pressure would surely have blown the box apart.[25] At the end of May 1942 an explosion occurred at Chelmno, and it is alleged that this was as a result of excess pressure in a gas van and that consequently the problem was dealt with. Not so. The explosion occurred in the basement of the castle and circumstances remain unknown. [26] And even if this explosion was truck related, as suggested in the letter of 5 June, the 4 inch slots would not have fixed the problem. Also, we have nothing about Jews being cooked; not one witness I am aware of mentions death via temperature.

Final comments: The aforementioned letters contain many oddities, Ingrid Weckert addresses them in her essay (footnote 16). Marais contacted Beer to ask him about the pressure, Beer wrote back that the authorities were aware of it and solved the problem by adding the two 10cm x 1cm slots in the back, which is not so. No gas van has ever been found, although Beer wrote back to Marais that one has survived, displayed at Konin, Poland. Not so, the city authorities wrote back that no such van exists.[27] Smirnov submitted what he deemed to be gas van evidence at the IMT:

“On the floor of the van, under the grating, were two metal pipes. These pipes were connected with a transverse pipe of equal diameter… These pipes had frequent holes a half centimeter in width. From the transverse pipe down through a hole in the galvanized iron floor went a rubber hose with a hexagonal screw at the end, threaded so as to fit the thread on the end of the engine exhaust pipe…which says that in the Stavropol region the murder vans were used for the killing of 660 people who were ill in the local hospital. Further I draw the attention of the Tribunal to the report of the Extraordinary State Commission regarding the Crimes of the German fascist criminals in Krasnodar[…]”[28]

No diameter of the exhaust pipe given, but we learn that a rubber hose was attached to the exhaust pipe: complete nonsense, as the rubber would have gone up in flames. We also have the reference to the Krasnodar trial, and there it was determined that the trucks were powered by diesel engines. Also, the gas vans only came into prominence at the IMT, but partisans were everywhere. A page in an East German atlas shows the location of partisan operations in the east. Some areas around Minsk, for instance, where gas vans were allegedly in operation were controlled by partisans for periods of time. The same is true for Kharkov and other areas[29], and with that many partisans around, why don’t we have any pictures of those gas vans?

Did trucks of this kind even exist? More than likely, but they could not have been used to gas people as described, and all we have are witness testimonies: no genuine shop drawings; just letter that only confuses the issue. Rauff was questioned in Chile, but the whole Rauff story presents more questions than answers. The West German trials established nothing; they never asked for any details as to how the gas vans were operated; no experts were called; just witness testimony was submitted. In an “Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung” article of 29 April 1966, we read, concerning the trial vs. Pradl and Wentritt, that classical witnesses are not available (Es fehlt an klassischen Zeugen). One of the witnesses, name withheld, a member of EG B from June 1941 to June 1942, stated that they had no gas vans and that he never heard of them. Another witness testified that he saw a gas van, but when asked what he was told about it he stated that it was to be used for delousing.[30]   And it matters not if alleged perpetrators admitted to anything. Without expert testimony to prove that the vans could have been used to gas people as described, the testimony is worthless.

Beer provides no solid evidence. His “Kaffee-Wagen” story is amusing, but in general he just believes they existed. Once again we are no further along in proving that Jews were killed with poisonous gas of any kind.




  1. The Barnes Review, Volume XIV Number 5, September/October 2008, p.49; also Udo Walendy, Historische Tatsachen Nr.48, Verlag für Volkstum und Zeitgeschichtsforschung, Vlotho 1991, pp.35/36; Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin, The Black Book of Communism, Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, London, England 1999, picture section following p.202, seventh page
  2. Michael S. Voslensky, Das Geheimnis wird offenbar, Moskauer Archive erzählen 1917-1991, Langen Müller 1995, F.A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, München, pp.28/29; also Alexander Solschenizyn, Zweihundert Jahre zusammen, Die Juden in der Sowjetunion, F.A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, München 2007, pp.309/10
  3. Voslensky, Das Geheimnis…, pp.28/29 in “Argumenty i fakty”, Nr.17, 1993
  4. Solschenizyn, Zweihundert Jahre…, pp.309/10, in Komsomol’skaja Pravda of 28 October 1990, p.2
  5. Voslensky, Das Geheimnis…, pp.29ff
  6. For an evaluation of the reports issued by the ESC see: People and Procedures. Toward a History of the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in the USSR, by Marina Sorokina. The article is no longer available on-line, reference to it here http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/kritika/v006/6.4sorokina.pdf
  7. Alexander Victor Prusin, “Fascist Criminals to the Gallows!”: The Holocaust and Soviet War Crimes Trials, December 1945-February 1946, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/holocaust_and_genocide_studies/v017/17.1prusin.html
  8. Ibid.
  9. http://www.revblog.codoh.com/2009/09/katyn/#more-408
  10. The People’s Verdict. A full Report of the Proceedings at the Krasnodar and Kharkov German Atrocity Trials, Hutchinson and Co., Ltd.; London, New York: 1944
  11. Ibid, p.14
  12. Ibid. p.50
  13. Günter Morsch et al, Neue Studien zu Nationalsozialistischen Massentötungen durch Giftgas, p.36
  14. http://vho.org/tr/2003/4/Weckert400-412.html
  15. http://www.revblog.codoh.com/2011/02/facing-a-new-decade/#more-1416
  16. http://vho.org/D/gzz/9.html
  17. Mathias Beer, Die Entwicklung der Gaswagen beim Mord an den Juden, Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte (VfZ), 1987, Heft 3, pp.403-417
  18. Morsch et al, Neue Studien…, pp.155-158
  19. Annelies von Ribbentrop, Deutsch-Englische Geheimverbindungen, Verlag der Deutschen Hochschullehrer-Zeitung, 1967, p.130
  20. http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/magazine/in-the-service-of-the-jewish-state-1.216923.htm
  21. Edgar Mayer/Thomas Mehner, Die Lügen der Alliierten und die deutschen Wunderwaffen, Kopp Verlag 2010; Friedrich Georg, Verrat in der Normandie, Grabert-Verlag, Thüringen 2008
  22. Pierre Marais, “Die Gaswagen”, a translation by Jürgen Graf from the original “Les Camions à gaz en question. Polémiques”, Peter Hammer Verlag, Turin, 2008, p.220
  23. Ibid, pp.24/25
  24. Eugene Kogon et al, Nationalsozialistische Massentötungen durch Giftgas, S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 1983, p.83
  25. Marais, Die Gaswagen, pp.117/18
  26. Ibid, p.223
  27. Ibid, p.264
  28. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/02-19-46.asp , pp.572/73
  29. Atlas zur geschichte, Band 2, VEB Hermann Haack, Geographisch-Kartographische Anstalt Gotha/Leipzig 1975, p.46
  30. A copy of this article is in my possession.

Written by Wilfried Heink in: Gas Chambers,Genocide,Holocaust | Tags: Wilfried Heink


In the United States as well as in many other countries, early reports of industrialized mass murder perpetrated by the Germans during the Second World War were connected not with the Holocaust but—beginning in early 1941—with crimes committed as part of the German “euthanasia” program. The writings and reports of journalist and popular radio personality William L. Shirer in particular shaped public perception of the murder of disabled people. The author of this article traces Shirer's German and American sources, drawing possible connections to journalists, State Department officials, and members of the German resistance.

The earliest reports of industrial-scale murder perpetrated by the Germans appeared in the United States and other countries in early 1941, and were related not to the Holocaust but to the “euthanasia” crimes that touched off the National Socialist genocide.1 The concept of the gas chamber was likewise first mentioned in connection with euthanasia.2 Perhaps more than any other public figure, journalist and radio reporter William L. Shirer (1904–1993) shaped public perceptions of National Socialism, and more specifically of Nazi euthanasia policy, in the United States and other countries. His bestselling Berlin Diary (1941), and to an even greater extent his Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), exerted a strong influence for years after their publication.

Like many of his contemporaries, Shirer had dreamed of a literary life in Paris. At the age of 21, soon after finishing college in 1925, he fled the provincial-seeming United States for the French capital. The Chicago Tribune provided him with his first major employment: in 1930 and 1931 he reported for the paper from India, with special focus on Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, as well as from Afghanistan. Shirer took a year-long break from journalism to write a novel about India, spending the time with his wife Theresa (Tess), an Austrian photographer, in the idyllic Catalan fishing village Lloret de Mar. He moved to Nationalist Socialist Germany in 1934. His break as a journalist came in 1937, when he became the voice of CBS, reporting to millions of Americans from the capital of the Reich and other central European hotspots. Because of the sharpening political situation and increasing censorship in Germany, Shirer—like many of his colleagues—returned to the United States in late 1940. Back in his home country, he published three articles addressing Nazi euthanasia.3 Their impact was so great that the author was credited with bringing the crimes to light.4 The significance of the reports stemmed above all from Shirer's popularity and his perceived trustworthiness and authenticity as an eyewitness, but also in part from their sensational nature. This article presents these key texts and explores their reception outside Germany; it then reconstructs the American and German sources in order to integrate them into the history of the National Socialist genocide.

The implementation of the Nazi euthanasia policy—a program that took the lives of between 200,000 and 300,000 people—can be divided into distinct phases according to timing, victim groups, decision-makers, and methods of murder. The so-called “Aktion T4” in particular had a relatively clear organizational structure: large groups of adult patients were transferred from psychiatric institutions to one of six facilities located in central Germany or in former Austrian lands, and were murdered there in gas chambers.

The comparative visibility of these events meant that Aktion T4, which strictly speaking was carried out from January 1940 through August 1941, received a certain amount of public attention; international reports about Nazi euthanasia dealt almost exclusively with this particular program. Perhaps due to its medical façade, the “child euthanasia” program initiated at the beginning of the war received much less attention. The same was true of the decentralized phase of the euthanasia program, which began with Hitler's termination of Aktion T4 in August 1941 and continued through the end of the war.5 Murders committed in late 1939 and after at institutions in the occupied Polish territories were subsumed under German crimes against the Poles, and not described as an element of the euthanasia program.6 By the summer of 1940, many inmates had been murdered based only on the grounds of their having been identified as Jews. Yet, the special treatment of “Jewish” inmates in institutions in Germany received scant attention.

“Authentic” Reports from a Contemporary Witness

Like many of his colleagues, Shirer published a report on the National Socialist state soon after returning to the United States from Germany. In just nine lines in the second part of his detailed February 1941 report “Inside Wartime Germany,” he informed readers of Life magazine about the “fantastic ‘mercy killings’” by the Gestapo.7 Citing these lines of Shirer's text in full, the author Francis Hackett noted in his monograph about Hitler's Mein Kampf:

No reporter from Germany is more guarded in his statements than William L. Shirer. In Life, at the beginning of 1941, he described “Inside Germany” for millions of Americans, and few will have forgotten this: Never related before in this country and known to few people in Germany itself, has been the execution of tens of thousands of the mentally deficient throughout the Reich. Few details of these fantastic “mercy killings” are known, but it has been established that the Gestapo is now carrying out the systematic murder of thousands of mental misfits dragged from both private and state sanitariums. Only Hitler and a few men at the top—and of course the relatives who are told to fetch the ashes—know of it yet.8

In mid-March 1941, shortly after the report appeared in print, Shirer's friend Joseph C. Harsch (1901–1998)—an equally popular and trustworthy journalist recently returned from Berlin—published a similar report in the Christian Science Monitor.9 The first article exclusively on Nazi euthanasia appeared in the May 5 edition of the New Republic, a left-leaning intellectual magazine with a small circulation.10 In “Germany Executes Her Unfit,” 24-year-old author Michael W. Straight did not question the reality of the crimes; he focused, however, on Christians’ resistance to the euthanasia program. Among the large daily papers, only the Washington Post reprinted Straight's article, and it relativized the murders in its adaptation by pointing to the supposedly far more criminal Soviet dictatorship.11

Shirer managed to report on the thorny subject again in a mass publication: his article “Mercy Deaths” ran to several pages in the June issue of Readers Digest, a magazine that described itself as having the largest circulation in the English language.12 With this article, a publication as conservative and anti-Communist as Life—and therefore above suspicion—confirmed the “fantastic reports.” That a hitherto isolationist publication would publish such revelations shows that Shirer’ accounts were so persuasive, and his popularity so great, that they disrupted firmly entrenched political paradigms. The publication was delayed several weeks, however, because DeWitt Wallace, the publisher of the Reader's Digest, had doubts about the veracity of the report. When other former Germany correspondents were questioned, they confirmed the existence of the Nazi euthanasia programs and supplemented Shirer's text.13

Shirer included an expanded version of the article in Berlin Diary, which appeared on June 20 and would become the best-selling nonfiction book of 1941; it was declared a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club before it was released.14 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reported her impressions of the work in her widely published daily column.15 Shirer's book presented a subjective story by a contemporary witness rather than a systematic analysis; thus Berlin Diary, which begins its coverage in 1934, barely mentioned the pervasive antisemitism, political persecutions, or concentration camps. The author raised these subjects only when he observed events in the course of his daily life—for example, the persecution of Jews that accompanied the German march into Vienna in 1938. But these entries, as the texts of the diary make clear, are not unfiltered evidence. Shirer sometimes revised his texts extensively before publication. Appropriately, he described his book to a colleague as “a little pseudo-literary work.”16 He revised those passages that, from the critical distance of 1941, revealed an earlier political ambivalence about Nazi Germany and Hitler.17

In both publications, Shirer was able to report on carefully guarded details of Aktion T4—for instance on the contents of the secret authorizing document issued by Hitler.

In Berlin Diary he identified Philipp Bouhler as the person principally responsible.18 The authorization euphemistically allowed for the “mercy death” of the “incurably ill,” but in reality was a legitimization of the mass murder of people with mental illness or psychological disabilities. This is the only surviving written “instruction” by Hitler that, however obliquely, refers to a crime of such dimensions. Shirer dated the text, as well as the beginning of the Nazi euthanasia program, to the summer of 1940 (and not, more accurately, to the fall of 1939). He pointed to Himmler as the initiator of the crime, and placed the responsibility clearly with the Gestapo and the SS. According to Shirer, these institutions did not limit themselves to the specific instruction to murder the mentally ill and psychologically disabled, but significantly enlarged the circle of victims. Shirer ascribed to Hitler a rather limited role in the initiation of the murder of the sick. For the first time, the names of the extermination institutions of Aktion T4 appeared in print: Grafeneck (which had been described by other authors, but not given a name), Sonnenstein, and Hartheim. Shirer could provide concrete details only for Grafeneck: the SS closed off the isolated castle and posted signs warning of epidemics. At night, trucks stopped at the castle. Shirer did not know precisely what happened there or in the other Aktion T4 centers—as in all other descriptions, they remained a “black box.” Shirer did mention, however, that rumors were circulating about experiments with gas. According to those rumors, the number of victims was as high as 100,000, but he thought that estimate too high; he put the number at several thousand dead. The much lower number may reflect the author's abundant caution, and is a figure that the skeptical news services would be less likely to dismiss as propaganda.

Shirer also reports on Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh's protest against impending transfers of patients from his institutions. The pastor, German sources told Shirer, made an appeal to a famous Berlin surgeon (probably Ferdinand Sauerbruch) who was personally acquainted with Hitler. The surgeon “rushed to the Chancellery,” where Hitler told him that “nothing could be done.”19 Bodelschwingh and the surgeon subsequently visited Reich Justice Minister Franz Gürtner. The minister appeared to be more concerned about the extralegality of the killings than about their inhumanity, yet he promised to raise an objection with Hitler. Although there is no record of a meeting between the surgeon and Hitler, the described meeting with Gürtner did in fact take place at the minister's home in Berlin Grunewald on July 12, 1940. It included another representative of the German Protestant Church—Paul Gerhard Braune—whom Shirer did not mention, however. The two pastors provided the apparently uninformed Gürtner with abundant evidence of the murder of the sick and the disabled.20 Bodelschwingh continued to delay the transfers, but because of his popularity the local authorities refused to arrest him. Shirer wrote of the September 18 bombing of the asylum: “Now I understand why a few people wondered as to who dropped the bombs.”21

Berlin Diary received significant attention in newspapers and magazines in the United States, yet most of the reviews paid little or no attention to the institutional murders. The low level of resonance probably was the result of a mixture of incredulity, lack of interest, and the simple desire for the story not to be true. Even so, no one dared to voice explicit doubt about the veracity of Shirer's presentation. Berlin Diary was widely read outside the United States as well—where military and political conditions allowed its publication. Like the American public, the British public learned of the crimes from William Shirer—though not until the fall of 1941. Excerpts from Berlin Diary appeared in a four-part series in the Daily Express. The last part, published on September 25, dealt exclusively with the Nazi euthanasia program. The series appeared in book form on October 3, and by the end of the year the British edition was in its fifth printing.22 Noting that everything of importance had been described by Shirer, the British Foreign Office made diplomatic reports about the institutional murders available to the public.23 Kingsley Martin, publisher of the leftist New Statesman and Nation, remarked (pseudonymously as Tom Paine) in a review of the Berlin Diary that the British public was interested primarily in Shirer's reports on the murders of the handicapped and the sick. The reviewer for the conservative Spectator called Shirer's work a sensational revelation.24 For both of these writers the Nazi euthanasia program was something new, even at this late point. Berlin Diary was published in Portuguese in 1941 and in Spanish in 1942. The translations appeared in Brazil and Mexico, but not in Europe. Shirer's presentation of Nazi euthanasia attracted attention even in Germany: in the beginning of 1941, his article “Mercy Deaths” reached the chancellery of the Nazi Party.25 A few weeks later Hitler unexpectedly cancelled the program that had become known as Aktion T4. There is no way to prove that Shirer's report and the international attention it drew to the Nazi euthanasia program influenced its sudden halt: those directly involved in the decision-making committed suicide at the end of the war and left no written documents. In any case, the coincidence of the timing is baffling.26

Shirer's Sources

What sources did Shirer use, and who may have provided him with the explosive information? When Shirer left Germany in late 1940, the existence of the authorizing document (Ermächtigungsschreiben), was known only to a few people inside the National Socialist power elite. Since the CBS correspondent did not have the contacts necessary to acquire such exclusive information directly, we may assume that he was positioned at the end of one or more chains of information. In what follows, I reconstruct these chains to the extent possible.

Shirer's records leave few concrete references to his sources. In Shirer's small notebook containing handwritten notes from the 1930s and 1940s (the “Blue Notebook”), the entry for November 25, 1940 is titled “article Berlin M.J.”—possibly a reference to Shirer's colleague Max Jordan (1895–1977). Under the same date in Berlin Diary, Shirer describes the key details of the Nazi euthanasia program. While in Germany, he did not record any observations critical of the regime. He instead committed them to memory, writing them down only after he was beyond the borders of the Reich. Even in the significantly revised version of the diary, one finds no reference under the date in question. However, the records contain disordered and undated notes, on pieces of paper of varying size, containing barely legible references to the murders of the sick.27 These annotations leave the impression that Shirer received the information orally, and because of the regime's monitoring, very likely when he was outside Germany. The notes also show that the correspondent learned more than he published—for instance, the significance of Hitler's tasking Karl Brandt with organizing the mass crimes.

Fellow Journalists

The rise of the “Third Reich” attracted numerous reporters from foreign countries. In the early war years, some 200 foreign correspondents reported from Berlin, operating in a sequestered, highly-structured world of hotels, clubs for foreigners, and Propaganda Ministry and Foreign Office venues. Press conferences were held in rapid succession, and often in competition with each other.28 Given the political significance of the United States, the German regime for many years treated American correspondents with particular esteem. Especially after Roosevelt was re-elected in November 1940, however, American journalists’ working conditions worsened to the point that many decided to leave Germany. By fall 1940 some correspondents had become aware of the murder of people with disabilities or illnesses, but most of these viewed the claim as unsubstantiated.29 Among American correspondents, five appear to have had a more extensive knowledge than their colleagues. In addition to Shirer, these included the above-mentioned Joseph C. Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor; Max Jordan of NBC; Sigrid Schultz of the Chicago Tribune; and Wallace R. Deuel, correspondent for both the Chicago Daily News and the New York Post. Schultz and Jordan, both of whom had spent much of their lives in Germany and planned to return to Berlin, initially refrained from publishing on the Nazi euthanasia program; they did, however, share their knowledge with colleagues.30

Max Jordan

On January 18, 1941, an employee of the monitoring service of the Reich Ministry for People's Enlightenment (Volksaufklärung) and Propaganda transcribed a BBC German-language transmission of a report on the institutional murders. In the report, an unidentified “Geneva representative of the National Catholic Welfare Conference [Genfer Vertreter des nationalen katholischen Wohlfahrtsausschusses]” commented directly on the issue:

The Germans murder their mentally ill.… Further details are now becoming known about the murder of about 100,000 German inmates of asylums. This order came at the behest of the National Socialist authorities, who wanted in this way to free the German national community [deutsche Volksgemeinschaft] of fellow citizens whom they consider a useless burden. The Geneva representative of the National Catholic Welfare Committee reports how this came to happen. The first of these so called “experiments” were carried out in a city [in the region] of Württemberg. The inmates were taken from asylums and carried away in buses whose windows were darkened so that people on the street could not see what was happening. [The inmates] were herded together into wooden sheds and then exposed to poisonous gases. Similar experiments were also carried out in other parts of Germany.31

According to a separate report by the British Political Intelligence Department (PID), also called the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), the same person had reported from Geneva on December 9, 1940 that the Nazis had killed 100,000 mentally ill individuals.32 It is noteworthy that in these early statements the subject was discussed openly and without reservation by an authoritative source. (It took some courage to speak openly in Switzerland, surrounded as it was by Germany and its allies, about the murders.) The source was NBC's Max Jordan, a resident of Basel. Beginning in 1931, Jordan had also worked as the Europe correspondent for the news service of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) headquartered in Washington.33

Jordan's reporting and commentary on the rise of National Socialism had brought him a great deal of international attention. His reporting frequently revealed an insufficient reportorial distance from the regime, so that some saw him as a conveyor of National Socialist propaganda.34 NBC, the largest American broadcasting company, rarely reported critically on Nazi Germany. Sensitive to what might influence American public opinion, the German regime therefore treated the network as privileged through the late 1930s. With the aid of foreign media, and under the cover of supposedly neutral reporting, it hoped to garner support for the “New Germany.”35 Jordan was always on the lookout for scoops: in 1936 he reported exclusively from the Hindenburg, the world's largest dirigible, on its first commercial flight to the United States. In March 1938 he was the first American journalist to report from Vienna on the entry of German troops, and in the same year he reported exclusively—just a few minutes after the signing—on the Munich agreement, which opened the way to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Jordan's reports often masked German brutality, presenting events as unproblematic National Socialist successes. But if Jordan initially sympathized with some aspects of Nazi policy, by the start of the war he strongly disapproved. Increasingly, he lived a double life, working to establish contacts between the British government and German opposition groups such as the circle around Robert Bosch and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler.36 The British Foreign Office rejected his efforts, however, and, recalling his reporting for NBC, labeled him a “cheap journalist” and “primarily and essentially a News Hawk of the worst kind.”37

Yet Jordan's influence on reporting of the Nazi euthanasia program was not limited to the denominational press. In 1940, he brought the crimes to the attention of his colleague—and perhaps his greatest competitor in Berlin—William Shirer.38 Visiting Shirer in his room at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, Jordan described Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh's resistance to the transfer of the inmates from his institution and the subsequent damage to a wing of his building during a bombing raid. Jordan presumably told Shirer also about Sauerbruch's (fictitious) meeting with Hitler.39 Later, back in the United States, Jordan advised Shirer not to mention Bodelschwingh's name in print.40 Although Shirer failed to heed Jordan, Bodelschwingh apparently suffered no consequences.

Wallace R. Deuel

Wallace Deuel (1905–1974) arrived in Germany in 1934 at the age of 29 to manage the Berlin office of the Chicago Daily News and the New York Post. Here he befriended William Shirer, and in December 1940 returned with him to the United States. A few weeks later Deuel looked over Shirer's article for the Reader's Digest and provided some knowledgeable commentaries about the context of the crimes. Shirer incorporated many of the remarks, without edits, into his text. He significantly changed one remark regarding the possible circle of victims, however. Deuel wrote:

It is a fact, however, that a good many of the patients in institutions are there because of temporary derangements or breakdowns which nobody claims are hopeless—women suffering from mental difficulties accompanying the menopause, for example. What guarantee there is that the persons executed are really hopelessly and incurably defective, and to what degree, even in the light of present knowledge, I do not know. Other implications of the policy are too obvious to require comment from me.41

Shirer modified Deuel's careful commentary to read as follows:

Many of them were suffering only from temporary derangement or from plain nervous breakdown. The Gestapo had been killing them too, though Hitler had specified only persons “suffering from incurable mental or nervous diseases.” (Reader's Digest)

X, a German, … says the Gestapo is doing to death persons who are merely suffering temporary derangement or just plain nervous breakdown. (Berlin Diary)

The circle of victims was now no longer limited to society's “others”—the mentally ill or disabled. The Reader's Digest quotation also makes clear that Shirer had bought into the carefully developed, propagandistic Hitler-myth that depicted the Führer as a political moderate and a tamer of radical forces inside National Socialism.

Sigrid Schultz

Upon his return to the United States, Deuel and his family settled in Westport, Connecticut. His friend and colleague, Sigrid Schultz (1893–1980), lived in the neighborhood. While serving as the Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Schultz had been the best-informed American journalist in the city, according to William Shirer.42 She had arrived with her parents in Berlin at the age of 21, just before the start of World War I, and because of her knowledge of German and her roots in Berlin society, she was able to make many valuable contacts. Her exceptionally detailed knowledge is perhaps best demonstrated in a text she prepared in 1942 for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Here she could bring to bear her knowledge without the fear of endangering her German sources.43 Schultz identified the Columbushaus on the Potsdamer Platz as the location of the euthanasia program's central administration; it had in fact operated at this address beginning in December 1939, but in April 1940 occupied in addition an “Aryanized” villa a few meters away at Tiergartenstrasse 4 (hence the name “Aktion T4”). She alone named the central figures of the murder organization and established their respective responsibilities. She reported that, in an informal letter, Hitler had granted broad authority over the organization to Philipp Bouhler, his personal physician Karl Brandt, and (though this was incorrect) Heinrich Himmler. Herbert Linden and (Viktor) Brack were entrusted with the actual running of the organization. The original letter, Schultz had heard—and this was entirely plausible—remained in Bouhler's possession.44 Shirer was the only other reporter to name Bouhler at this time, as far as I can tell. Whether Schultz conveyed this knowledge to her colleagues remains unclear.

As early as February 1941, during her return voyage to the U.S., Schultz suggested to her publisher, Robert McCormick, that she should share her information on the Nazi euthanasia program with other journalists working for him so that they could report on the story. She did not want to publish it herself because she was planning to return soon to Germany.45 No reply from “the Colonel,” as McCormick was called, has been preserved; nor was I able to locate any evidence that any of her colleagues received or followed up on her suggestion to publish the information.46 But Joseph C. Harsch, a friend and colleague of both Shirer and Schultz from their time in Berlin, used information he received from them in his 1941 book Pattern of Conquest. Harsch's monograph was far less successful than Berlin Diary, however.47

Diplomatic Reports

Because the United States remained neutral after the war broke out in Europe, American diplomats and reporters remained in the Reich during the time of Aktion T4.48 Only the German order to close American consulates in July 1941, and the closure of the embassy following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war in December of that year, forced their ouster. In 1940, the United States had five consulates-general and six consulates in Germany and annexed Austria. Despite the dangers, many Germans secretly contacted American officials or journalists to pass along information and to express their revulsion at the murder of those with disabilities. The State Department received a total of ten reports through its diplomatic missions in Germany between March 1940 and March 1941.49 Shirer almost certainly drew on two of the diplomatic reports—one from Leipzig dated October 16, 1940, the other from Berlin dated December 20, 1940—in his publications.

American consulate in Leipzig, report dated October 16, 1940

On October 9, 1940, a German acquaintance directed the attention of Vice Consul Charles Hulick to conspicuous death notices in the local newspapers.50 Each notice listed one of the three murder centers operating at that time—Sonnenstein, Hartheim, and Grafeneck—as the place of death, and, as was customary at that time, took note if the deceased had been a decorated World War I veteran. Hulick's German acquaintance relayed in great detail what he had learned about Grafeneck from a doctor, and about Hartheim from a young woman whose mother had recently been murdered there. It was clear that the SS was killing patients, but precisely what was happening in the institutions “remain[ed] a deep and dark secret,” according to an eight-page report compiled by Paul Dutko, Hulick's superior officer, in mid-October. Dutko sent the report, together with twenty-two death notices translated into English, directly to Washington and to the embassy in Berlin. Shirer published English-language translations of some of the notices from the Leipziger Tagespresse: three in the Reader's Digest and five in Berlin Diary. Since these translations are similar to those accompanying Dutko's report, we may conclude that Shirer had seen the consular documents.

American embassy in Berlin, report dated December 20, 1940

Two months after Dutko sent his report from Leipzig, the chargé d'affaires of the United States diplomatic mission in Germany, Leland B. Morris (1886–1950), forwarded a five-page, typewritten letter on the murders of the disabled and the mentally ill to the State Department in Washington. The letters GFK at the end of the missive indicate that in all likelihood, this remarkable document was prepared not by Morris himself, but by First Secretary George F. Kennan (1904–2005).51 According to the report, the murders occurred in what was “believed to be a concentration camp near Hartheim” and in “Samaritenstift Grafeneck, a lonely castle near Muensinger.”52 In regard to the attitude of the German population, the author concluded that it was not the crimes per se, but the secrecy surrounding them that led many to dread these operations. Like other diplomats—and like Shirer—he was circumspect in reporting on the alleged method of killing. The figure he provided for the number of victims was identical to that reported by the CBS correspondents. The relatives of the victims, according to the report from Berlin, had lodged a protest with Reich Justice Minister Franz Gürtner. The minister limited his assistance to pointing out, within the state bureaucracy, the lack of a legal foundation for the killings.53 Equally fruitless, according to Kennan, was an effort led by the famous surgeon “Professor Sauerbrueck” with his colleagues’ support. The letter did not provide specifics about the actions of the minister or the professor of medicine. Kennan reported, as did Shirer later, on resistance by “Kurt v. Bodelschwingl” (Friedrich von Bodelschwingh) against the planned deportation of his patients. The German pastor, in all likelihood protected by his popularity, was not arrested. Kennan conveyed the darkly sarcastic view circulating at the time that the British bombing of the institution in Westphalia had been a stroke of luck for the Germans: now they did not have to kill the children themselves. From a historical perspective, the most highly charged detail of Kennan's report was that Hitler himself had initiated the murders. But the Reich Chancellor had decided against establishing a statutory basis for them and instead empowered “Gauleiter Bouhler” to organize and carry out the plan.54

The letter from the Berlin embassy wended its way through official channels in the State Department, stamped as received in the Division of Communication and Records on January 15, the Division of European Affairs on January 17, the Division of Commercial Affairs on January 23, and finally the Archives on February 27. This document, like other references to the murder of the disabled and the mentally ill, was not forwarded to top State Department officials—a practice that was to be repeated later with information about the Holocaust.55

Shirer's reports and those of the embassy had common features. All referred to Grafeneck as a “lonely castle.” In his manuscript, Shirer—like Kennan—called the small town close to the killing center “Muensinger,” but he later rendered it “Muenzingen” (Reader's Digest) or “Münzingen” (Berlin Diary). In a later version he added Gürtner's given name—Franz—which had been omitted from the diplomatic reports, and he demonstrated the same uncertainty about the spelling of Friedrich von Bodelschwingh's name.56Berlin Diary and the embassy report both mention Bouhler's central role and use similar expressions: “a simple letter,” “the ‘coup de grace [Gnadenstoss]’ in certain instances,” in Kennan's report; in Shirer's text, “simply wrote a letter”; “Gnadenstoss (coup de grace) in certain instances.” The activities of Bodelschwingh, Sauerbruch, and Gürtner occupied a relatively large portion of all the documents, but they were described differently. Whether Shirer's descriptions of these three men were based solely on Jordan's information, or on other sources as well, remains an open question. The texts also differ significantly in their assessments of Hitler's role. Kennan charged the German leader with authorship of the crimes, and did not consider the “radical National Socialists” to be the driving force. Despite these differences, it seems likely that the diplomatic report was a key source for Shirer.

There is no written record of any contact between Shirer and an American diplomat in early 1941. Shirer was acquainted with Kennan, the presumed author of the despatch dated December 20, 1940, and was on friendly terms with Jacob D. Beam, who served as third secretary in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin between December 1934 and August 1940.57 In recent treatments of U.S. foreign policy during the war, Beam is known for his illuminating reports criticizing the National Socialists.58 In his memoirs, Shirer mentioned that an embassy official had smuggled some of his notes across the border.59 It is possible that he was referring here to Beam, who returned to the United States shortly before Shirer did, or to Kennan, who returned shortly after. Beam was the only official who, according to archival sources, is known to have pressed for a State Department reaction to the Nazi euthanasia killings.

In the early days of 1941, Wallace Deuel paid Beam a visit and raised the subject.60 Having ascertained that the Department had yet to react, Beam may have conveyed the information to Shirer.61 The fact that Shirer sent his article to Reader's Digest in mid-March, and not earlier, supports the conclusion that he learned of the documents only after he had been back in the U.S. for several weeks.62

German Sources for the Embassy Report

Which individuals in the Nazi regime knew, in late 1940, the sensational details of the Nazi euthanasia program? And which of these were ready to commit treason to pass on this information to Americans? Only a person who was both morally outraged about the institutional murders and fundamentally opposed to National Socialism could take such a step. That person must also have had contacts within the Confessing Church and the American community in Berlin, as well as a connection to the Reich Justice Minister.63 Since no single individual, to my knowledge, meets all these criteria, it seems likely that information about euthanasia was conveyed by more than one person (see illustration below).

Gürtner conveyed some of the information, probably without knowing it. By the fall of 1940 he knew the names of the people in charge of the program and was aware of Hitler's rejection of the idea of a law; he had received a copy of Hitler's authorization from Bouhler on August 27, 1940. Gürtner in turn was in close contact with Hans von Dohnanyi, an anti-Nazi who since the beginning of the war had served in the Abwehr (the intelligence service of the armed forces).64 Dohnanyi had worked as a personal consultant to the minister of justice until 1938. After his criticism of the Nazi regime became known, he was transferred to the Supreme Court of Leipzig to serve as a judge there. He was active in the anti-Nazi resistance, and participated in a February 1943 attempt to assassinate Hitler. On April 6, 1945, a “drumhead” military court, finding that he was the “spiritual leader” of the July 20, 1944 assassination plot, sentenced Dohnanyi to death; he was hanged three days later.65

Dohnanyi probably learned of the T4 program from Gürtner in the autumn of 1940.66 On November 13, Dohnanyi took part in a meeting between Gürtner and Brandenburg court judge Lothar Kreyssig regarding the murder of the disabled and the sick. Gürtner dismissed Kreyssig's objections to the extralegality of the actions, showing him a copy of Hitler's authorizing letter. Dohnanyi thus clearly knew the important details of the T4 program as of that time.

Moreover, Dohnanyi was in contact with pastors Friedrich von Bodelschwingh and Paul Gerhard Braune over the matter of the institutional murders. As the head of the Bodelschwingh Institute in Lobetal near Berlin, and as a vice president of the Central Committee of the Inner Mission, Braune occupied a high position in the hierarchy of the Evangelical Church. In the summer of 1940, he vigorously protested the euthanasia program, collecting information about the deportations from Church facilities throughout the Reich and meeting, often together with Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, government officials in Berlin.

Copy of September 1, 1939 letter signed by Adolf Hitler authorizing the T4 euthanasia program. USHMM, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. The text reads: “Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr. med. Brandt are charged with the responsibility of enlarging the competence of certain physicians, designated by name, so that patients who, on the basis of human judgment, are considered incurable, can be granted mercy death after a discerning diagnosis.”

Copy of September 1, 1939 letter signed by Adolf Hitler authorizing the T4 euthanasia program. USHMM, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. The text reads: “Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr. med. Brandt are charged with the responsibility of enlarging the competence of certain physicians, designated by name, so that patients who, on the basis of human judgment, are considered incurable, can be granted mercy death after a discerning diagnosis.”

CBS correspondent William L. Shirer in Compiègne, France, reporting on the signing of the armistice between Germany and France. June 22, 1940. Wikimedia Commons.

CBS correspondent William L. Shirer in Compiègne, France, reporting on the signing of the armistice between Germany and France. June 22, 1940. Wikimedia Commons.

One thought on “Lothar Gruchmann Euthanasia Essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *