Historians universally accept that Heinrich Himmler visited extermination camp Birkenau in July of 1942, and personally witnessed the gassing of the Jews in the gas chambers of Bunker 2. Danuta Czech, Raul Hilberg, Franciszek Piper, Jean-Claude Pressac, Robert Jan van Pelt, Laurence Rees and many others have accepted this only on the basis of testimony of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess.
However, in 1999 Peter Witte et al. published Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 - Himmler's diary/appointment book. It mentions Himmler's presence in Auschwitz complex on July 17 and 18 (in accordance with Hoess' testimony), but, strangely, it lacks any mention of his supposed visit to Birkenau.
Here's how the entries for these dates look like in translation.
12:00 trip, Friedrichsruh airport, Loetzen18 July:
12:45 takeoff Loetzen
RFSS, Prof. Wuest, Kersten, Grothmann, Kiermeier
15:15 landing, Kattowitz
Pick up Gauleiter Bracht, O’Gruf. Schmauser
and Stubaf. Hoess
Trip to Auschwitz
Tea in the Commandant’s quarters
Talk with Stubaf. Caesar and O'Stubaf. Vogel,
Inspection of the agricultural operations
Inspection of the prisoners’ camp and of the FKL
Dining in the Commandant’s quarters
to the residence of
Evening with Gauleiter Bracht
09:00 breakfast with Gauleiter Bracht and wifeOn the first day Himmler visited the prisoners' camp and women's camp (FKL). At that time FKL was in the main camp, not in Birkenau (cf. D. Czech, Auschwitz Chronicle, p. 211). Birkenau was not a prisoners' camp, but POW camp (KGL, Kriegsgefangenenlager).
Trip to Auschwitz
Talk with O'Gruf. Schmauser
" Stubaf. Caesar
" the Commandant of the FKL
Inspection of the factory grounds of the Buna
13:00 flight, Kattowitz-Krakow-Lublin
15:15 landing, Lublin
Pick up O'Gruf. Krueger and
Brigf. Globocnik. tea with Globocnik
Talk with Staf. Schellenberg
Trip to the Jastrow fruit concern
21:00 talk at Globocnik’s with SS O’Gruf. Krueger, SS O’Gruf.
Pohl, SS Brigf. Globocnik, SS O’Stuf. Stier.
Given that the entries are detailed, it is fair to conclude that the probability that Himmler did not visit Birkenau on his second visit is high. Some argue that Himmler wouldn't mention the gassing because of secrecy concern. The point is that he doesn't even mention a trip to Birkenau, which wouldn't be a secret. Besides, the diary does contain some pretty incriminating stuff concerning the "Final Solution".
(Note: there are many photos of Himmler's visit to Buna-Monowitz sub-camp, but there are no photos of his visit to Birkenau (or to the main camp, for that matter). There seem to be no testimonies mentioning Himmler's visit to Birkenau on the relevant dates, except Hoess'. At least I haven't been able to find any in the records of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial or in other sources accessible to me.)
Here's Hoess' long account from his autobiography written in Polish prison (Death Dealer, pp. 286ff):
The next meeting was in the summer of 1942, when Himmler visited Auschwitz for the second and last time. The inspection lasted two days and Himmler looked at everything very thoroughly. Also present at this inspection were District Leader Bracht, SS General Schmauser, Dr. Kammler, and others. The first thing after their arrival was a meeting in the officers’ club. With the help of maps and diagrams, I had to show the present condition of the camp. After that we went to the construction headquarters, where Kammler, using maps, blueprints, and models explained the planned or already progressing construction. He did not, however, keep quiet about the difficulties that existed which hindered the construction. He also pointed out those projects which were impossible not only to start, but to finish. Himmler listened with great interest, asked about some of the technical details, and agreed with the overall planning. Himmler did not utter a single word about Kammler’s repeated references to the many difficulties. Afterwards there was a trip through the whole area of concern: first the farms and soil enrichment projects, the dam-building site, the laboratories and plant cultivation in Raisko, the cattle-raising farms and the orchards. Then we visited Birkenau, the Russian camp, the Gypsy camp, and a Jewish camp. Standing at the entrance, he asked for a situation report on the layout of the swamp reclamation and the water projects. He also wanted a report on the intended expansion projects. He watched the prisoners at work, inspected the housing, the kitchens, and the sick bays. I constantly pointed out the shortcomings and the bad conditions. I am positive he noticed them. He saw the emaciated victims of epidemics. The doctors explained things without mincing words. He saw the overcrowded sick bays, and the child mortality in the Gypsy camp and he also witnessed the terrible childhood disease called noma (a gangrenous mouth disease in children weakened by disease and malnutrition). Himmler also saw the overcrowded barracks, the primitive and totally inadequate toilet and wash facilities. He was told about the high rate of illness and the death rate by the doctors and their causes. He had everything explained to him in the greatest detail. He saw everything in stark reality. Yet he said absolutely nothing. He really gave me a tongue lashing in Birkenau, when I went on and on about the terrible conditions. He screamed, ‘I don’t want to hear anymore about any existing difficulties! For an SS officer there are no difficulties. His task is always to immediately overcome any difficulty by himself! As to how? That’s your headache, not mine!’ Kammler and Bischoff got the same answers. After inspecting Birkenau, Himmler witnessed the complete extermination process of a transport of Jews which had just arrived. He also looked on for a while during a selection of those who would work and those who would die without any complaint on his part. Himmler made no comment about the extermination process. He just looked on in total silence. I noticed that he very quietly watched the officers, the NCOs and me several times during the process. The inspection continued to the Buna Works, where he inspected the plant as thoroughly as he had done with the prisoner workers and how they did their jobs. [...] From the Buna Works we went to the sewer gas installations. There was no program at all because the materials were not available. This was one of the sorest points at Auschwitz and was everyone’s main concern. The almost untreated sewage from the main camp was draining directly into the Sola River. Because of the continuing epidemics raging in the camp, the surrounding civilian population was constantly exposed to the danger of epidemic infections. The district leader quite clearly described these conditions and begged Weise to remedy this situation. Himmler answered that Kammler would work on the matter with all his energy.So Hoess gives a vivid and detailed description of the supposed visit, upon which Himmler's diary casts serious doubt. Now, does that mean that Hoess lied, was tortured, etc.? "Revisionists" will undoubtedly say "yes".
Himmler was much more interested in the next part of the inspection, the natural rubber plantations Koc-Sagys. [...]
On the evening of the first day of the inspection tour, all the guests and camp officers of Auschwitz were present at a dinner.
After dinner the district leader invited Himmler, Schmauser, Kammler, Caesar, and me to his house near Katowice. Himmler was also supposed to stay there because on the following day he had to settle some important questions concerning the local population and resettlement with the district leader. [...]
On the second day Schmauser and I picked him up at the district leader’s house, and the inspection continued. He looked at the original camp, the kitchen, and the women’s camp. At that time the women were located in the first row of barracks, numbers 1 to 11, then next to the SS Headquarters building. Then he inspected the stables, the workshops, Canada, and the DAW (German armaments factories), the butcher shop, the bakery, the construction units, and the planning board for the troops. He examined everything thoroughly and saw the prisoners, asked about their reasons for being there, and wanted an accurate count. He did not allow us to lead him around. Instead he demanded to see the things he wanted to see. He saw the overcrowding in the women’s camp, the inadequate toilet facilities, and the lack of water. He demanded to see the inventory of clothing from the quartermaster, and saw that everywhere there was a lack of everything. He asked about the food rations and extra rations given for strenuous labor down to the smallest detail. In the women’s camp he wanted to observe the corporal punishment of a woman who was a professional criminal and a prostitute. She had been repeatedly stealing whatever she could lay her hands on He was mainly interested in the results corporal punishment had on her. He personally reserved the decision about corporal punishment for women. Some of the women who were introduced to’ him and who had been imprisoned for a minor infraction he pardoned. They were allowed to leave the camp. He discussed the fanatical beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with some of the female members. After the inspection we went to my office for a final discussion.
This is how Himmler finished his important inspection of Auschwitz. He saw everything and understood all the consequences. I wonder if his ‘I am unable to help you’ statement was intentional? After our meeting and discussion in my office, he made an inspection of my home and its furnishings. He was very enthusiastic about it and talked at length with my wife and the children. He was excited and in high spirits. I drove him to the airport; we exchanged brief goodbyes, and he flew back to Berlin."
And here's where the difference lies between the real historical methodology and Holocaust denial. In Special treatment in Auschwitz [large PDF] Holocaust denier Carlo Mattogno argues at length that Himmler did not attend the gassing in Birkenau, using both Himmler's diary and some supplemental arguments, which, according to him, show that even if Himmler did visit Birkenau, he could not have witnessed any gassing. He leaves it at that, without trying to find an explanation of the paradox. And why should he? After all, "revisionists" have long ago dismissed Hoess' autobiography and other testimonies as product of coercion and fantasy - by the British captors, by the Nuremberg "thugs", by the "Polish Communists".
Now, whatever can be said about Hoess' treatment in the hands of all of his captors, his testimonies in Polish captivity (the essays he wrote for judge Jan Sehn, his autobiography, his trial testimony) are hardly compatible with coercion. He described how he was brutally mistreated by the British. He described initial mistreatment in Polish prison. He renounced his previous testimony about partial Auschwitz death toll (3 million dead, about 2.5 million of them gassed), providing far lower figures, completely incompatible with the Polish figure of 4 million (or even with 2.5 million). He called survivors' exaggerated estimates figments of their own imagination. Some coercion!
Still, what are we to make of the contradiction between Hoess' testimony and documentary evidence?
When I began to think about this issue seriously, I kept in mind that human memory is such, that different events can become confused or even blended in it. Hoess' memory was not ideal. He frequently misdated events, thus, claiming that Himmler ordered the conversion of Auschwitz into death camp in summer of 1941, mentioning that other camps in the east (meaning Aktion Reinhard(t) camps) were not up to the task for the anticipated large actions. The problem, of course, is that with exception of Belzec, these camps did not exist in 1941 (construction of Belzec began in November of 1941), and their operation began in 1942. Historian Karin Orth cites several more examples, and convincingly argues that Hoess regularly "telescoped" 1942 events into 1941 ("Rudolf Höß und die "Endlösung der Judenfrage". Drei Argumente gegen deren Datierung auf den Sommer 1941", in Werkstatt Geschichte, Heft 18, 6 (1997), S. 45-57). Hoess also misremembered the name of the death camp Sobibor, calling it "Wolzek" (one possible explanation is that he remembered for some reason the name of the village Wolczyn, which was even closer the the camp Sobibor than the village of Sobibor itself; interestingly, deniers who use this mistake as an argument for coercion cannot give any reason for the "torturers" to feed Hoess this misinformation).
So the possible explanation was to look for another notable visit, which happened close to the period in question, and see if Hoess could have blended the details of two visits.
I knew that WVHA chief Oswald Pohl visited Auschwitz on September 23, 1942 (Czech, op. cit., p. 243). I also knew that according to Pohl's itinerary for that day he was supposed to visit "Station 2 der Aktion Reinhardt", which historians Bertrand Perz and Thomas Sandkuehler interpreted as the gas chamber "Bunker 2" - i.e., the same gas chamber, the gassing in which Himmler' was supposed to have witnessed, according to Hoess ("Auschwitz und die "Aktion Reinhard" 1942-45. Judenmord und Raubpraxis in neuer Sicht", Zeitgeschichte 5, 26. Jg., 1999, S. 283-316). Although their conclusion was mostly based on the hunch (they exclude Kanada II in an endnote, as not constructed yet, so they conclude that it was Bunker 2).
Thus I proposed that Hoess could have mixed the details of the two visits in his narrative. It was a wild guess, frankly. When I proposed this hypothesis, I had not yet analyzed Pohl's itinerary closely. But then something caught my eye. Both Hoess and Pohl's itinerary mentioned visiting DAW (Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke, German armament works). I began to compare further, and, to my surprise, I found a whole slew of "coincidences". They're summarized in a table below.
Corresponding item in Pohl's itinerary
After that we went to the construction headquarters, where Kammler, using maps, blueprints, and models explained the planned or already progressing construction.
Anschließend ging es zur Bauleitung, wo Kammler an Hand von Karten, Bauplänen und Modellen die beabsichtigten oder im Bau befindlichen Bauvorhaben erklärte...
Discussion of the construction projects of the KL Auschwitz in the construction headquarters.
Besprechung der Bauvorhaben des KL Auschwitz in der Bauleitung
Afterwards there was a trip through the whole area of concern: first the farms and soil enrichment projects, the dam-building site ...
Hiernach Fahrt durchs ganze Interessen-Gebiet. Zuerst die landwirtschaftlichen Höfe und Meliorationsarbeiten, den Dammbau...
Dam-building site at Vistula
Dammbau an der Weichsel
... the laboratories and plant cultivation in Raisko ...
... die Laboratorien und die Pflanzenzucht in Raisko ...
Standing at the entrance [tower], he asked for a situation report on the layout of the swamp reclamation and the water projects.
Vom Eingangsturm aus ließ er sich die Lage-Einteilung und die im Bau befindlichen Be- und Entwässerungsanlagen erklären, ebenso die beabsichtigten Erweiterungen.
Inspection of the whole area from the tower of HWL.
Besichtigung des gesamten Gelaendes vom Turm des HWL
After inspecting Birkenau, Himmler witnessed the complete extermination process of a transport of Jews which had just arrived.
(From an earlier testimony: "During his visit in the summer of 1942, Himmler very carefully observed the entire process of annihilation. He began with the unloading at the ramps and completed the inspection as Bunker II was being cleared of the bodies.")
Nach der Besichtigung in Birkenau sah er sich den gesamten Vorgang der Vernichtung eines gerade eingetroffenen Juden-Transportes an.
("Der Reichsführer SS sah sich anläßlich seines Besuches im Sommer 1942 den gesamten Vorgang der Vernichtung genau an, angefangen von der Ausladung bis zur Räumung des Bunkers II.")
Station 2 of operation Reinhardt
Station 2 der Aktion Reinhardt
From the Buna Works we went to the sewer gas installations.
Vom Buna-Werk ging es zur Faulgas-Anlage...
Sewer gas installations
Then he inspected the workshops, the stables ...
... die Werkstätten, die Ställe ...
... Canada ...
... "Kanada" ...
Disinfestation and effects chamber /operation Reinhard/
Entwesung u. Effektenkammer /Aktion Reinhard/
... and the DAW (German armaments factories) ...
... und DAW ...
... the butcher shop ...
... Fleischerei ...
Inspection of the butcher shop
Besichtigung der Fleischerei
... the bakery, the construction units ...
... und Bäckerei, Bauhof ...
... and the planning board [?] for the troops.
... und Truppenwirtschaftslager.
Troops' camp at Birkenau
There may be more coincidences, less obvious ones, but even from these 12 we can make a simple conclusion: Hoess' memory played a trick on him. He blended the two events - Himmler's and Pohl's visits to Birkenau.
Given this, there is no problem at all with stating that Himmler did not visit Birkenau on July 17 or 18 and that he did not witness a gassing in Bunker 2 at that time. It was Pohl who visited Bunker 2 and probably saw a gassing. Thus, we have solved the problem without abandoning the general veracity of Hoess' memoir (although once again confirming that it should not be used uncritically), established that "Station 2 der Aktion Reinhardt" was "Bunker 2" (thus also confirming the link between Auschwitz and Aktion Reinhard(t), posited by several researchers) and corrected a serious mistake in mainstream Auschwitz historiography.
Interestingly, Mattogno, who knows and quotes Pohl's itinerary, and who is allegedly an "accomplished linguist, researcher, and is a specialist in textual analysis", did not think of this simple solution.
There remains a question of whether Himmler was present at any Auschwitz gassing at all. This is possible. The same Mattogno quotes early testimony of Filip Mueller in the book Auschwitz: Crematorium I and the Alleged Homicidal Gassings [large PDF]:
It may have been June [an obvious mistake for July - SR] 17 or 18, 1942. On that fine sunny day everything was hastily cleaned, ‘general cleaning’ was the order of the day. We watched the excited SS people and realized that something was going on, but we did not know what, we could only surmise that some visitor was expected. Around ten o’clock, a high-ranking SS officer appeared in the door, wearing a white uniform, accompanied by two SS men - it was Himmler himself. He inspected everything meticulously. He saw us in the room, in which the clothes and underclothes of those executed were stored. When he saw those blood-stained clothes, he was surprised and asked our SS bosses why there was this blood. Not satified with their answer, he became angry and said sharply: ‘We need the clothes of these dirty dogs for our German people! It is a waste to gas those people with their clothes on!’Did Himmler also witness a gassing in crematorium I? We don't know, but further research may help to answer this question.
I should also note that there is a third narrative mixed in Hoess' testimony. He describes Himmler visiting the Gypsy camp, but the Gypsies began to arrive en masse only in 1943 (Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, p. 446). Was that a disputed Himmler's third visit to Auschwitz, for which there are only a handful of contradictory testimonies? This also remains to be seen.
I wish to conclude with the quote from Prof. van Pelt's expert report in the Irving vs. Lipstadt trial:
So what can we learn from the archive. First of all, the archive contains some copies of paperwork that was in general circulation among the various departments in the camp, and which more than hint at the possibility that Auschwitz was not a normal concentration camp. One such document is a copy of a pep-talk given by Oswald Pohl, the business administrator of the SS, to senior SS personnel during his visit to Auschwitz on September 23, 1942.During today’s observations I have silently noticed that you have an ideal inner relation to the issue at stake and an ideal attitude towards the tasks at hand. This conclusion is especially necessary in relation with the issues and the special tasks, about which we do not have to speak words—issues that belong however to your responsibilities. I observe that you do your duty from an inner obligation and this is the precondition for results.In what way was Auschwitz vastly different from other concentration camps? In what way could the job of a concentration guard be compared to that of a soldier in the field? It is obvious that Pohl referred to the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” that, shortly before, had become an official part of the operation of Auschwitz.
There remains a very large field of action ahead, on which we may create furthermore great values. In this respect you have ahead of you a wide and vast terrain.
In the last months I have made many of these inspections, and I am pleased to state here that Auschwitz significantly transcends everything else. I have noted a very good relationship between men, NCO’s and officers, and I call upon you to remain conscious of your responsibility in this matter.
I would like to remind you about the importance about the tasks set by the Reichsführer-SS, tasks that will be very important for the time when we will have achieved the final victory. Even when you are not with the fighting troops, your tasks do not demand less from you, tasks the importance of which will only be recognized in the time after the victory. It are those tasks that on the other hand put great pressure on each individual, pressures that are equal to those faced by the fighting troops on the front.