Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Study In Hypocrisy: The "Revisionist" Treatment Of The "Soviet Gas Vans".

In their crusade against anything Nazi gas chamber-related, deniers use the hyper-skeptical approach: witnesses are right out, documents are suspect and probably forgeries, and don't even mention hearsay or "tortured" confessions.

This approach is utterly ahistorical, as has been demonstrated time and again. But the problem is not even that the deniers use approaches that no historian deems sound. It's that they use them only when they want to deny the Nazi mass murder. When they see an atrocity claim that they actually like, all "skepticism" flies out of the window.

Case in point: the deniers' treatment of the Soviet gas vans story.


The "Diesel Guru" Fritz Berg wrote in his now classic (long ago debunked) screed "Diesel Gas Chambers. Ideal for Torture — Absurd for Murder":

A television series produced during the collapse of the Soviet Union and aired in the United States in 1993, provided further insight into the Soviet origins of the gas van tale. The four-part broadcast was entitled: "Monster: A Portrait of Stalin in Blood." At one point in the second part, subtitled "Stalin's Secret Police," KGB officer Alexander Michailov claimed that the gas trucks were invented in Moscow by Isai Davidovich Berg – no relation to this author – and were already in use a few years before the war. According to Michailov, these may have served as a model for Hitler's SS and the Gestapo. Diesel engines were not mentioned. This is explained by the fact that all pre-war trucks in the Soviet Union had only gasoline engines. There were no Diesel engines since the entire transportation system in the USSR was based on earlier, western engine types such as that of Ford Motor Co. More than likely, the Soviet allegations of gas trucks are truly based on the Soviets' own mass murder technology to which they simply added Diesel engines to make them seem more sinister and, most of all, more German.
So some guy in a documentary claims without furnishing any evidence that NKVD used gas vans, and that is just good enough for Berg. Could the double standard be any more evident?

And here's another "revisionist" guru, Germar Rudolf in Lectures on the Holocaust (2nd. rev. ed., 2010, p. 256):
R: Stéphane Courtois et al. described in detail the world-wide terror unleashed by the communists since the October Revolution (Courtois et al. 1999). There was hardly a means which was not used to terrorize dissidents. It therefore is not surprising when the Soviet dissident Piotr Grigorenko re-tells a report in his Memoirs of a friend who claimed that at the end of the 1930s he observed from his prison cell how a group of prisoners entered a prisoner transporter called a “black raven.” When the van returned after approximately a quarter of an hour, the following happened (Grigorenko 1981, pp. 275f.; cf. HT no. 48, pp. 35f.):   
The attendants opened the door: Black smoke clouds and lifeless bodies issued forth, one falling over the other to the ground.”  
R: According to F.P. Berg (in Rudolf 2003a, p. 465), in the spring of 1993 in the USA, a four part television series was screened that dealt with the Soviet Union. The title read Monsters: A Portrait of Stalin in Blood. In the second part of the series, sub-titled “Stalin’s Secret Police,” former KGB officer Alexander Michailow is quoted as saying that gas trucks for killing prisoners had been invented by Isai Davidovich Berg, and the Soviet NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor organization) had used them before the Second World War in Moscow to kill dissidents.
Aside from parroting Berg's claim about what a documentary said (now there's a credible historical source!), Rudolf quotes a hearsay claim about an alleged gas van.

Did I mention that deniers are hypocrites?

Finally, here comes the latest desperate attempt to "debunk" the well-documented Nazi gas vans history, Santiago Alvarez' The Gas Vans. A Critical Investigation (2011). On pp. 107ff he writes:
As early as 1991 German political scientist Udo Walendy has pointed out that the Third Reich could not claim to be the inventor of such an evil device, even if the claims by orthodox historiography were true (Walendy 1991, pp. 35f.) – at least if one is inclined to believe the hearsay statements as published by Soviet dissident Pjotr Grigorenko. In his Memoirs he recounts what a former friend, Vasily Ivanovich Teslya, had told him (Grigorenko 1982, p. 208f.): 
[Grigorenko's hearsay story skipped] 
It goes without saying that the probative value of this story from hearsay is rather low. If put into the context of well-documented Soviet killing methods and experiments using a wide variety of poisonous gases and other substances, however (see Bobrenjow/Rjasanzwe 1993, pp. 43, 171; Baldajewa 1993; Volodarsky 2009), it seems indeed that the sick minds coming up with the idea of “gas vans” can be found within the pre-war Soviet secret services.  
In 1994 U.S. engineer Friedrich P. Berg reported about a four-part TV documentary with the title “Monster: A Portrait of Stalin in Blood” aired in the U.S. in 1993 about the collapse of the Soviet Union (Gauss 1994, p. 342). One segment of the second part of the series subtitled “Stalin’s Secret Police,” is of special interest, as it confirms what we suspect. At one point KGB officer Alexander Michailov states the following:66
“We’ve come across evidence that long before Hitler’s gas vans came into being, Isai Davidovich Berg invented secret gas vans in Moscow. It was a simple airtight van in which prisoners were delivered, and when necessary, carbon monoxide exhaust fumes were piped into the van.”
It goes without saying that the van could not have been airtight in a strict sense, if exhaust fumes were to be delivered into it. As to the type of engine used, F.P. Berg wrote (in Rudolf 2003, p. 456):

[Berg quote skpped]

The revelation about Soviet gas vans was confirmed two years later by Russian writer Michael S. Voslensky, who had been a Russian interpreter during the Nuremberg Trials, but who was later exiled as a dissident. 
After the collapse of the Soviet Union he gained access to the once secret files of the former Soviet Secret service NKVD. Among other atrocities found there, he also reports the following (1995, pp. 28f.):
“And one final detail. During World War Two the people in the Soviet Union were indignant when they learned that the German security services used retrofitted vans to kill people with exhaust gases. 
In the Soviet media these gas vehicles were called ‘soul vendors.’ They really were a diabolic invention, and their inventors were criminals. 
Only this wasn’t a German but a Soviet invention. In the USSR a truck was constructed whose exhaust gases were piped into the enclosed cargo box. The inventor was a certain Berg, head of the economic department of the NKVD for Moscow and the area around Moscow. Long before the war – in 1936 – one began to use Berg’s invention. Berg himself was executed in 1939 as a participant at an alleged ‘conspiracy of NKVD members against the leadership of the State.’ Of course this plot was an invention. Nevertheless the reader will hardly be able to feel pity for Berg.”
So when war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941, the stage was set, and the Germans had no idea what was coming their way.
Let's give the guy some credit: he at least mentiones that the Grigorenko story is hearsay, but tries to contextualize it with a reference to other Soviet crimes. Of course, he would scream bloody murder if the very same argument he made were used vis a vis the Nazi gas vans. He then regurgitates Berg's sources and also quotes some useless, really junk information from Voslensky, who wasn't any kind of a witness and who didn't cite any concrete evidence. In the end, it seems that Alvarez, too, accepts the Soviet gas vans story.

So let's recap. Leading deniers accept the "Soviet gas vans" story based on rumors, hearsay, and unsourced statements of various people who don't even pretend to be witnesses.

Whereas they deny the Nazi gas vans, the historicity of which is amply supported by documentary and direct testimonial evidence. I think I see a certain pattern here...

But what of the claim about the Soviet gas vans? Is it true? Well, here things get really interesting.

The evidence on which the claim is based is reviewed in L. Golovkova (ed.) et al., Butovskij Poligon: 1937-1938. V Rodnom Kraju; Dokumenty, Svidetel'stva, Sud'by, Vol. 8, Moscow, 2004, pp. 72ff. The authors had access to all the relevant files and don't make any conclusion as to the historicity of the gas vans. I'll briefly recap the information as presented in the study.

Isaiah Berg (1905-1939) became the chief of AKhO UNKVD MO (Moscow oblast) in Oct. 1937. AKhO means an administrative-economic section and its chief was responsible for implementation of executions. Specifically Berg became responsible for executions at the infamous Butovo firing range. He worked there from Dec.'37 up until his arrest in Aug.'38.

He was interrogated for the first time on the day of his arrest by an NKVD team under the chief of the 9th section of NKVD Titelman. Up until December no interrogation protocols were being recorded because he wasn't confessing to having taken part in a counter-revolutionary organization in UNKVD MO.

Then he was put onto a "conveyor" - an almost continuous interrogation from Dec. 13th to the 29th. Titelman was soon arrested himself and Berg was now forced to confess that Titelman had been too soft on him during the investigation.

According to the former NKVD investigator Kharitonov, who took part in Dec.'38 interrogations, the new investigator of Berg's case, Safronov, used to beat up Berg with a rubber truncheon.

While there were some attempts by some of his NKVD colleagues to save him from being shot, he was sentenced to death for taking part in preparations for an armed insurrection and for participating in a counter-revolutionary organization. During the trial he took back his confessions, saying that they had been coerced through continuous beatings. He was shot on March 7, 1939.

The NKVD investigator Kharitonov testified at a rehabilitation hearing in 1956 that in Dec.'38 the question of the use of gas vans came up:
When it came to Berg's participation in a conspiratorial counter-revolutionary organization, I had my doubts. But at the same time from Berg's case files and from the talks among the UNKVD MO co-workers, as well as from Berg's confessions I formed an opinion that he was one of the organizers and practical performers of the grossest violations of the socialist law [...] With his participation certain vehicles were created, the so-called dushegubki. In these vehicles the prisoners, those sentenced to death penalty, were transported to the place of execution and on the way were poisoned with gas... I think Berg himself admitted it during the investigation. 
Question to Kharitonov: What you have told about dushegubki cannot be seen in the case files. How can you explain this? 
Answer: As far as I remember, in the interrogation protocols of Berg the facts of the violation of the socialist law were represented, also recorded was his testimony about asphyxiation with gas of those sentenced to death. I remember that during one interrogation Berg admitted to having implemented the executions with the help of a car (dushegubka), explaining that he was following the orders of the UNKVD MO leadership and that without this it was impossible to implement so many shootings of prisoners who had been sentenced by three troikas at once. From the stories [that came up] during Berg's interrogations and from the talks among the UNKVD MO co-workers it was known that the execution procedure organized by Berg was ghoulish: the prisoners sentenced to death were completely undressed, tied, gagged and thrown into the car. Their property was being stolen under Berg's guidance.
Thus in 1956, during the first attempt at Berg's rehabilitation, the 1938 protocols about gas vans no longer existed. Kharitonov couldn't explain the absence of the materials.

The witnesses in 1956 contradicted each other. Witnesses Viktorov and Shinin, Berg's former underlings at Butovo, denied the gas vans claims. Witness Chesnokov, however, admitted his knowledge:
I know that special cars were made in order to transport prisoners to the place of execution. These cars were fitted with special plugs with the help of which one could let the gas into the body of the car. It was done for safety reasons during the transportation of prisoners to the place of execution, that is, in case of a riot in the car. Whether this method was used for pacification of the prisoners is not known to me.
Chesnokov also said that he did not know whether Berg had anything to do with the cars.

Berg was rehabilitated in 1962.

So, to put it simply, we have the following data:

1. A former NKVD investigator's testimony about Berg's confession during the period when torture was being applied to him (as well as about his talks with other NKVD men).

2. A former underling's statement about the existence of gas vans as a safety measure in case of a riot, without any information about actual use and connection to Berg.

Had that been everything we had to go on about the Nazi gas vans, we would never hear the end of it from the "revisionists". No documents. No direct eyewitness statements about murder. Only one hearsay report by an NKVD person about a tortured confession, as well as a vague (no real details) statement about the existence of the equipment itself.

If we wanted to look at this through the "revisionist" lens, we would claim that since the only direct information we have is post-war, it cannot be said to be independent from the Nazi gas van claims and that's where it probably originated on the wave of Khruschev's anti-Stalin activity. We would dismiss the claim as an obviously absurd, unfounded propaganda lie. And even if we accepted Kharitonov's hearsay, we would still dismiss Berg's confession as given under torture.

Of course, that's not what the deniers actually do, as we have seen. They're only too happy to swallow any hearsay and unsourced general statements when it fits their agenda.

But how should we look at the Soviet gas vans claim from the actual historiographic viewpoint?

The nature of the sources does not permit us to make "strong" conclusions. And neither can this evidence be dismissed. There was no obvious reason for Chesnokov to lie, and he didn't even claim the direct homicidal use or Berg's participation, so his claim is all the more credible. Kharitonov's claim, hearsay as it may be, also cannot be dismissed solely on this basis. There is, again, no discernible reason for him to have invented it, given the nature of the rehabilitation proceedings, which were far from any show trial and, in fact, featured various witnesses who denied the gas vans. And if Kharitonov was right about Berg in 1938 confessing to the existence of gas vans - and there is no reason not to accept this - the coerced nature of Berg's testimony also cannot be used to dismiss the claim. First of all, because he was never actually officially indicted for employing the gas vans (he was sentenced for other "crimes"), and second, the origin of the claim needs to be explained, regardless. It certainly wasn't someting that NKVD would routinely accuse their victims of. Counter-revolutionary terror, Trotskyism, food-poisoning? Sure. Using a gas van? Wut?

And don't forget about the convergence of evidence principle. Kharitonov and Chesnokov, two independent sources, corroborate each other.

So the evidence that we do have is, indeed, better explained by positing that a gas van (or several) existed. It may be that the initial function of the contraption had indeed been riot prevention, as stated by Chesnokov, and most probably the mechanism was used from time to time, at the height of the Great Terror, to get rid of many prisoners at once. This makes sense, given the descriptions of the Katyn shootings, which put quite a lot of strain on the shooters.

Needless to say, it was a one-time, local, makeshift invention, not widely used (or the Katyn killers - among whom were most notorious executioners from Moscow - surely would have used it). There is no credible evidence that its use was well-known at the time and it certainly has no relation to the well-documented Nazi gas vans.

Oh, and denier hypocrites cannot use the Soviet gas claim, given the nature of the sources on which it rests, while simultaneously denying the far better attested Nazi gas vans.

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