Zyklon B – the murderous Nazi chemical

This month, thoughts turn to the Nazi Holocaust. Watching one of many TV documentaries last night was intensely depressing. It still never fails to shock. How a government in Europe set about the mass murder of millions of people. Even more appalling are the experiments conducted by Nazi scientists perfecting the means to kill a huge number of people. It’s the story of how Zyklon B – an insecticide – came to be used in the concentration camp gas chambers to such devastating effect.

What is grimly fascinating is how the Nazis almost stumbled into the idea of the Holocaust. Mass murders by shooting of both Jews and Communists in seized Soviet territory proved to the Nazis that wiping out entire Jewish populations was feasible.

But shooting was too close up and, believe it or not, the Nazis fretted about the psychological impact it would have on the executioners. The fate of the executed was not taken into consideration! So, they set about experimenting with different techniques of murder. Preferably a method that could be out of sight and kill the maximum number of people in a short space of time.

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British soldiers discover the truth about Zylon B

When British forces reached Hamburg in the closing days of World War Two, they discovered incriminating files at the headquarters of a chemicals firm, Tesch & Stabenow. What they read in those files and the testimonies of employees led to the firm’s founder, Bruno Tesch, and his chief assistant, Karl Weinbacher, being hanged following a trial by a British military court.

It was unusual for industrialists who had supported Hitler to be executed. But in this case, it was beyond any reasonable doubt that Tesch and Weinbacher were completely aware of the planned use of Zyklon B to commit murder on an unheard of scale. They colluded with the Nazi authorities and concentration camps to test the practical application of Zyklon B with pellets dropped into an enclosed space full of victims releasing toxic gas.

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The corporate machine behind Zylon B – the Nazi death agent

Tesch and others initially developed Zylon B as a fumigating agent creating a process where hydrogen cyanide could be manufactured and deployed in solid form. The patent was assigned to a company called Degesch, which was a subsidiary of the German chemicals giant, I.G. Farben.

Contemporary news reports after the war argued that I.G. Farben took the decision to develop Zyklon B through Degesch to keep its complicity in genocide at arms length. In reality, Farben brains were running the show and Degesch was at least 42% owned by I.G. Farben.

The question for prosecutors after the war was whether Tesch knew that Zyklon B was being manufactured specifically to kill millions of people. In addition, were the directors of I.G. Farben complicit. The testimony from witnesses revealed that Tesch returned from meetings with Nazi leaders in Berlin having been told that the manner in which Jews were being slaughtered in eastern Europe was “unhygienic”.

Tesch believed he had the answer. Zylon B pellets were tested on a group of Russian officers at Auschwitz in 1941 with fatal results. The quantities subsequently delivered to Auschwitz had the potential to kill 19 million people if used economically by the SS guards. Another upside was that these guards wouldn’t have to view the actual deaths. They would just listen outside the locked chamber. When the screams stopped, the job had been done.

The court had heard enough. Tesch was found guilty and hanged.

I.G. Farben was described in press reports as a “man eating spider” or a “state within a state” during the Nazi period. It had clearly expected to have a chemicals monopoly in a Nazi-run Europe. Its own PR messaging regarding Zylon B was that the company thought the pellets were being used to fumigate the living quarters of inmates. To kill lice in other words.

And it came as a complete surprise to discover the SS had extended that to slaughtering the inmates en masse. Few people then and since have bought this argument. Especially as those inmates were working for I.G. Farben within spitting distance of the camps where they were being killed.

I.G. Farben directors escape the noose

Germany had been the global centre of the chemicals industry in the 19th and early 20th century. I.G. Farben was the biggest firm – a vast conglomerate founded in 1925. It made extensive use of concentration camp labour siting factories near to the notorious Auschwitz camp. But again, this was done at arm’s length so that ultimately the camp’s management could be blamed for the forced labour.

In the trials of Nazis following Hitler’s defeat, private sector firms that had supported Hitler portrayed themselves as politically neutral and unable to shape events that occurred during the Third Reich. Not exactly true.

I.G. Farben financially supported Hitler and the Nazis before they took power. The firm then adapted swiftly to the Nazi takeover in 1933 firing its Jewish employees and militarising production. But worst of all by 1943, half its employees were those working next to concentration camps, despite the firm’s attempts to hide the fact.

It developed poison gas fully expecting it to be used in combat conditions as it had been on the battlefields of Europe during World War One. But the Second World War was fought on different terms and gas came to be used in the civilian area – the concentration camps – on a horrific scale. But I.G. Farben maintained it knew nothing about this Nazi use of Zyklon B.

The trials of 24 I.G. Farben executives at Nuremberg was a very drawn out affair, finally concluding in 1948. They were cleared of planning to help the Nazi war effort, which seems ludicrous in retrospect. But found guilty of seizing private property in countries invaded by the Third Reich.

Astonishingly they were cleared of complicity in the mass murders and medical experiments conducted in the concentration camps. Instead, the managers of I.G. Auschwitz were deemed to have acted alone and not directed from above by I.G. Farben.

Did I.G. Farben know about the Nazi use of Zyklon B?

After the war, I.G. Farben was split up. The main successor companies were Agfa, BASF, Bayer, and Sanofi. Today on the BASF website, there is the following statement:

After the war (1945) and especially during the Nuremberg trials, the question is raised whether the representatives of I.G. Farben knew that Zyklon B was used for the mass murder of people from September 1941. A definitive answer has yet to be found.

It is also denied that Degesch was controlled by I.G. Farben:

Furthermore, new research concludes that even after the participation of other companies (1930), Degesch “[remained] an integral part of the Degussa enterprise and not I.G. Farben, as it was falsely assumed during the trials against the board of directors for war crimes between 1947 and 1948, and is still commonly believed today.”

It’s also stated that, “more and more people were housed in camps so it was to be expected that the demand would rise for pediculicides and other special pesticides. Moreover, the actual sales of Zyklon B were not significantly higher after the mass executions at Auschwitz begin in September 1941 than they were before“.

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