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Gas Chambers and the Zyklon alphabet


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Cans of Zyklon BAuthor: Michael Mills

December 1, 1999

On 26 November, I. Bokor wrote:

"Zyklon gas was already in use. The batches intended for use in the gas chambers had a different coding. If I recall correctly, there were variants Zyklon-B and Zyklon-C, and possibly even colour-coding of the tins containing them".

These statements contain a number of errors. In the first place, "Zyklon" is not the name of a gas. The gas itself is Hydrocyanic gas, HCN. "Zyklon" is the name of a commercial product, namely a preparation of HCN specifically for delousing purposes.

The reference to variants and colour-coding of the containers repeats the claim by [Raul] Hilberg that a number of variants of Zyklon, graded A to F, was produced, with the letters referring to different strengths. According to Hilberg, the variant Zyklon-B was designed specifically for killing human beings.

However, Hilberg was in error. There were only two variants of the commercial product Zyklon, A and B, and the variation was in the method of delivery of the HCN gas.

Zyklon-A consisted of HCN in liquid form, and was designed for spraying onto fruit trees to kill insect pests. For this purpose each tree was enclosed in a tent, to maintain the concentration of HCN in the air surrounding the tree for a sufficient time to kill the pests.

Zyklon-B consisted of HCN adsorbed into a carrier, typically a form of gravel, or a round piece of cardboard, which released the gas when exposed to the air. It was designed for delousing the inside of buildings, and its main advantage was that it released the HCN gradually, thereby reducing the risk to the handlers.

So far as I know, there was no difference in strength between the two variants.

Zyklon-B was the main delousing agent used by the German armed forces, and was also employed extensively in the concentration-camp system, where the prevalence of lice created an enormous health risk.[1] Only an infinitesimal proportion of the Zyklon-B produced and delivered to the various German authorities was ever used for homicidal purposes. Pressac for example has estimated that only 5% of the Zyklon-B delivered to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was used for killing humans; his calculation is borne out by the fact that deliveries to Auschwitz were not markedly different in quantity from those to Sachsenhausen, where no mass-gassing program was carried out.

[Rudolf] Hoess in various confessions stated that the homicidal potential of Zyklon-B was discovered by accident, when an incautious Desinfekteur was overcome by a pocket of HCN gas that had remained in a recently deloused building. It was then used in the autumn of 1941 to kill "dangerous" Soviet POWs who had been sent to Auschwitz for extermination, as an alternative to shooting, the method employed until then. The description by Hoess of the gassing of the POWs indicates that the methodology used was the same as the standard use of Zyklon-B for delousing buildings; the pellets were poured onto the floor of the room where the POWs were confined, the building was sealed and left for 24 hours or more, the doors were opened and the building left to air. The bodies were removed once the HCN gas had dissipated by natural ventilation.

The claim is sometimes made that a specific variant of Zyklon-B was produced for homicidal purposes, identifiable by the omission of the warning agent, an irritant included to alert handlers to the presence of HCN. However, the fact is that at a certain point in 1942, all Zyklon-B began to be produced without the warning agent because of wartime shortages. This is proved by the warning notices that were sent out to users of the product for delousing, drawing their attention to the fact that the warning agent was now present in smaller doses or absent altogether, and a higher degree of care in use was required due to the increased risk.

The claim about this special variant was first made by [Kurt] Gerstein, who claimed to have ordered the removal of the warning agent because it caused suffering to the victims being gassed. However, his claim was entirely specious.

The Zyklon-B used for killing humans did not differ in any way from the standard product for delousing purposes. it was not identified in any special way, and there is logically no reason why it should have been.

Michael Mills
Canberra, Australia

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[1] Mr Irving adds:

NOT only the Germans used Zyklon-B. A British television film series on the World at War about five years ago showed British municipal workmen fumigating council-housing in estates (housing projects) in South London in 1936, and they were seen carrying cans clearly labelled as Zyklon B into the buildings.

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