German Footage of a Homicidal Gassing with Engine Exhaust
Part 1: Provenance
Part 2: Location
Part 3: Responsibility (I)
Part 4: Responsibility (II)
Part 5: Responsibility (III)
Part 6: Forgery Allegation
The Mogilev homicidal gassing footage discussed in the previous parts has been subjected to doubts about its authenticity. Interestingly, these were not limited to the usual suspects, but included a German public prosecutor investigating Nazi atrocities and Holocaust Museum staff. In any case, the suspicion that the footage was faked by the Allies is unsubstantiated in the light of the available evidence.
A German Public Prosecutor
The West-German investigators obtained image stills of the gassing scene in Mogilev and used them in their investigations and interrogations in the 1960s. Concerns about the authenticity of the gassing footage were expressed by the Stuttgart public prosecutor Rolf Sichting, who tried to track down the perpetrators of the scene. Seemingly tired by the fruitless search for owner of the vehicles shown in the photographs, Sichting noted on 27 December 1961:
In the meantime, doubts came to my mind if the images are real or possibly staged or the result of a photo montage. The tactical signs are not known to any of the relevant inquiry offices. Also, the numbers appear hand-drawn. It would have made more sense to lead the the gas hoses on the shortest way into the room in question by placing the vehicle with its rear to the wall.(BArch B162/4340, p. 11)
In retrospect, Sichting’s reasons were not particular thrilling. The investigators had already learned that the tactical signs were simply chosen by the local unit leader. The vehicles were placed perpendicular to the building according to eyewitnesses, but they may have been moved in parallel to the wall in order to have a good shot for the footage. This kind of staging by the Germans themselves is irrelevant for the wider context.
If West-German investigators were still concerned about the authenticity of the images - there is no indication for such in the files - , this should have been vanished at latest in December 1962 when the license plate of the truck showed up on a list of vehicles of the police battalion company assigned to Einsatzkommando 8 in 1942 (see Part 3: Responsibility (I)).
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
According to the on/off Holocaust denier or semi-denier David Cole, the US Nuremberg trial movie Nuremberg: Lessons for Today, which disappeared from the scene after its release in Germany in 1948, was rediscovered by him in 1994 in the US National Archives and called to the attention of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM):
I became convinced that the footage was genuine, and I wrote to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I exchanged a series of faxes with their film archives director, Raye Farr. I wouldn’t speak with her over the phone, for fear that my incredibly unique voice might tip her off that I was Cole (Cole’s “death” was still fairly recent at that point). In several faxes, Farr told me that the experts she spoke with believed the “gassing” footage was a Soviet fake, staged to use against the Germans at the Nuremberg Trial.(Cole, Republican Party Animal, p. 99)
We do not have to take Cole’s word for it, since his story that the USHMM staff used to have doubts on the footage’s authenticity is confirmed by the following two articles of 2005 (as pointed out by someone in our comment section here):
Raye Farr, director of the Holocaust Museum's Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, says that the Schulberg films have provided the basic material for generations of documentaries about the war. Scholars, she says, still pore over the films, still question what they find in them. Using documents in the possession of Sandra Schulberg, they now know that a scene showing a gassing in Belarus is one of the few authentic depictions of the Nazis' first experiments with this new form of murder.(Philip Kennicott, Art of Justice: The Filmmakers At Nuremberg, 29 November 2005, Washington Post)
"It's been in there all along but we didn't know what it was and we didn't know if it is authentic," she says. Now they do.
Another rarely seen piece of film - distressing in the extreme - was shown to us during a research trip to the USHMM. The film purported to show an early gas van in operation. There was a certain amount of debate over this, and the questions were raised: 'was this a post-war reconstruction?'; 'what exactly was its provenance?'1 Our caption made it clear that its provenance was uncertain, but it provided a unique visual record of the steps taken towards industrial killing.(Haggith et al., Holocaust and the Moving Image: Representations in Film an Television in 1933, p. 25)
1. The film is purported to have been shot in Mogilev, Belarus. One historian at the IWM [Imperial War Museum] who is suspicious as to the authenticity of the film suggests it may have been 'mocked up' or assembled after the war by the East German state-sponsored film company DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft).
The doubts expressed by the staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the British Imperial War Museum until 2005/2006 could be understood to some extent if they knew next to nothing about the footage and its historical context. The issue was certainly poorly researched by the Museum’s staff. As a matter of fact, some essential information was already available at the time, if one just looked for it.
The provenance of the footage was mentioned in 1953 by the Historian Gerald Reitlinger in his standard work on the Holocaust:
Wirth may, however, have played a lesser part in the evolution of engine-gassing. As a Kriminalkommissar he was a subordinate of Arthur Nebe, who was commissioned by Himmler during his visit to Minsk in July or August 1941, to find a humane way of dealing with mass executions...This story of von dem Bach-Zelewski's finds some confirmation in the discovery in 1949 in Nebe's former Berlin apartment of an amateur film, showing a gas chamber operated by the exhausts of a car and a lorry.(Reitlinger, The Final Solution, p. 130 & 603)
 Letter to the author and photographs from Mr. Joseph Zigman, Information Services Division, Office of the US High Commissioner, Germany.
The positive identification of the truck as vehicle used by the police battalion assigned to Einsatzkommando 8 in Mogilev in discussed in Mathias Beer's article on German gas vans from 1987 (Beer, Die Entwicklung der Gaswagen beim Mord an den Juden, Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 1987, 3, p. 408; English translation here).
The provenance revealed by Reitlinger is confirmed by the letter of Stuart Schulberg to Rudolph Goldschmidt of 18 June 1947 (summarized as "footage found in your house depicts gas chamber, vital evidence", partly quoted in Sandra Schulberg, Filmmakers for the Prosecution: The Making of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, p. 21). According to the Washington Post article above, it must have been the find of this document in 2005 or earlier, which made Raye Farr dismissing her suspicion and accept the footage "as one of the few authentic depictions of the Nazis' first experiments with this new form of murder".
In 2013, Klaus Schwensen published an article in the Holocaust denial journal "Inconvenient History" dealing with the gassing footage in some detail. He is not a full blown denier, but more like a semi-denier. He does accept the German Euthanasia with carbon monoxide gas as well as the experimental gassing carried out by Albert Widmann in Mogilev, subjects that will be fought tooth and nail by most Revisionists. They will, however, be likely eager to accept his claim that the Mogilev gassing footage is a Soviet forgery.
Since the pictures were taken at close range, the photographer must have been authorized to document the scene. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that taking pictures of a secret operation was strictly forbidden.(Schwensen, The Three Photographs of an Alleged Gas Van)
Even if it were true - for the sake of argument - that it was forbidden to take pictures of secret operations, this would only mean that somebody did not care too much about such regulation. It is far-fetched to suppose that German paramilitary and military personnel would have never or barely done so in the East. Numerous private, compromising photographs found among German soldiers attest the opposite, e.g. shown here German soldiers posing next to corpses (from Reifarth & Schmidt-Linsenhoff, Die Kamera der Henker):
It is further absurd to presume that taking official pictures of secret operations was always strictly forbidden. To the contrary, it is obvious that there had to be one leader, who could authorize taking pictures of any operation. The only question is how far this had to go up in a specific case, to a commando leader, group leader, Heydrich or Himmler.
For example, the SS and police were given permission to take pictures of executions for official reasons. In Himmler's order to the Higher SS and Police Leaders of 12 November 1941 (Národní archiv sg.109-8/6, p.42, online at badatelna.eu), he approved taking pictures in the case this is "officially ordered" and that film and copies are stored in the archive of the corresponding office. The details on how to proceed in such case are written down in a follow up regulation of Heydrich to the SS and police offices of 16 April 1942 (Národní archiv sg.109-8/6, p.36, online at badatelna.eu). According to this, "pictures of executions for official reasons have normally to be ordered by the leaders of the Einsatz- and Sonderkommandos". Hence, an authorization on the level of the commando leaders was sufficient to take photographs of executions.
The Mogilev test gassing was not only attended by the commando leader Otto Bradfisch but also by his superior, the group leader Arthur Nebe. It is entirely possible that the documentation of the gassing Nebe had to report to Himmler/Heydrich was considered sufficiently approved according to the practice at the time.
So while shooting the film could have been easily legal, this was hardly the case anymore when Nebe stored it at his home. Here we go: Nebe did something illegal. So what? He was executed in March 1945 for his involvement in the 20 July 1944 plot against Hitler. Keeping footage of gassing at home was chicken feed compared to treason.
According to Schwensen, the stills are the "work of professionals" and were taken in the evening or at night with "professional lighting". Schwensen does not explain why the lighting cannot be the result of a low standing sun, though. Anyway, even if there was artificial lighting involved here, nothing speaks against the assumption that Einsatzkommando 8 employed floodlight at the site if the sun was already down. In this context, it is interesting to note that Nebe had experience with filming according to his staff member Andreas von Amburger:
"...as already mentioned, he liked to film..."(interrogation of von Amburger of 27 December 1945, BArch B162/21555, p. 1330).
"It is all but certain that the Gestapo thoroughly searched his house after the events of 20 July 1944, and they would surely have found and confiscated the film, had Nebe indeed kept it at home."(Schwensen, The Three Photographs of an Alleged Gas Van)
Nebe was not a clear suspect for some time after the 20 July 1944 plot. According to the account of Bernhard Wehner, head of the RSHA office V B 1 and initially in charge of the search for Nebe after he disappeared, Himmler still expressed the possibility that Nebe may have been just insane (Wehner, "Das Spiel ist aus - Arthur Nebe", Der Spiegel, 30 March 1950). The first team that looked for Nebe consisted exclusively of men of his own Criminal Police. The Gestapo men took the lead as the involvement of Nebe and the Criminal Police became more likely. The latter had little interest in finding Nebe and many Gestapo men were likewise old colleagues of him. Wehner recollects that the Gestapo man leading the manhunt "did nothing" himself to find Nebe and that none of the officials of the Criminal Police "showed any desire to seriously find their boss" (Wehner, "Das Spiel ist aus - Arthur Nebe", Der Spiegel, 13 April 1950). Wehner suggests that the police would have "forgotten" about Nebe if he did not ask for attention with another fake suicide attempt (Wehner, "Das Spiel ist aus - Arthur Nebe", Der Spiegel, 30 March 1950).
According to Wehner, the housing of Nebe's wife in Joachimsthal was "mildly" searched by the Criminal Police and later "harsher" by the Gestapo (Wehner, "Das Spiel ist aus - Arthur Nebe", Der Spiegel, 6 April 1950). Based on eyewitness accounts obtained after the war, Wehner reconstructs that how in November 1944 the Gestapo searched Nebe's actual whereabouts in Motzen (after the Criminal Police had no success earlier). The house search was done "superficially" and "listlessly" within 15 minutes and the garden with Nebe's hide-out was not even looked at (Wehner, "Das Spiel ist aus - Arthur Nebe", Der Spiegel, 13 April 1950). So much on the Gestapo's "thorough search" in the case.
Given these circumstances, it seems possible that Nebe's own house was not thoroughly searched. There is no indication that the police or the Gestapo confiscated anything from Nebe's house or waded through his private stuff. Or that they were bothered about Nebe's film archive. Or were interested in some shots from his time in the East unrelated to the 20 July 1944 plot. Furthermore, it is not clear if the film roll with the Mogilev scenes was placed on a shelve or had been hidden - in the latter case it seems not unlikely that the rather superficial and listless Gestapo would not found it, whereas Goldschmidt could have stumbled across the hideout, for example, during renovation work of his new house.
As pointed out in the previous part, the KTI/RKPA members Albert Widmann, Hans Schmidt and Alfred Bauer, who carried out the experimental gassing in Mogilev together with Nebe's staff and Einsatzkommando 8, did not recognize the stills of the footage as "their" test run. Schwensen checked out Widmann's and Schmidt's interrogations of 18 April 1962 (cited from Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg) and 4 May 1962 (cited from BArch B162/1604) respectively. He missed that Bauer had initiated the chorus on 9 December 1961 (in BArch B162/4340). Schwensen argues that Widmann and Schmidt's testimonies give the "final blow to this photograph". While the testimonies raise doubts that the test gassing is shown in the footage, they are far from enough for proving this.
The KTI/RKPA witnesses did provide contradictory and uncertain descriptions themselves, which should be taken into account when judging their observational accuracy and ability to match the footage with memory.
For example, on the very same page cited by Schwensen, Schmidt also stated that he does not know anymore if the building was made of wood or stone nor did he remember the second introduction port and hose described by Widmann (interrogation of Schmidt of 4 May 1962, B162/1604, p. 496). Evidently, Schmidt did not have a photographic memory of the scene more than 20 years after the event.
Widmann was arguably more confident in his testimony, which does not rule out that he might have had a slip of memory on more than one occasion. For instance, he may have confused the inside view through the glass window into the gas chamber with the outside view when he recalled that the "bricked window looked terrible...next to the white plastered building wall" (interrogation of Widmann 8 April 1962, BArch, B162/1604, p. 493).
And then there is yet another explanation for the dissonance between the testimonies and the footage. There had been way more than just one homicidal gassing in the Mogilev area. In fact, the majority of inmates in the central Mogilev asylum, where the footage was taken, was killed with engine exhaust in September/October 1941 (see Part 5: Responsibility (III), something Schwensen obviously did not know, although he could have read about it in Winkler et al., Krieg und Psychiatrie 1914-1950, 2010, p. 93, cf. Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde, p. 648. So even if Widmann’s experimental gassing is not identical to the footage, the next nearest explanation would be that it shows the main gassing in the Mogilev asylum (with Widmann's test gassing then being a separate action). There is no need to resort to a forgery claim, which comes along with a weird conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy Theory I
Instead of snapshots of a German atrocity, Schwensen’s considers the footage as a Soviet "fake" by the Extraordinary State Commission "to fabricate propaganda material against the ‘fascists’". There is no evidence whatsoever to support this hypothesis nor does it make any sense.
The Soviets learned about the gassings in the Mogilev asylum from its Russian doctors and through them, Schwensen writes, "must have known some details, but overlooked others". However, the footage includes details of the experimental gassing according to Widmann et al., which were lacking in the testimony of the former asylum staff: the use of a cabriolet Adler car and a truck for the gassing and the transport of the mentally ill with a horse-drawn cart. The Russian doctor Aleksandr Stepanov did not identify the kind of vehicles employed (interrogation of A. Stepanov of 20 July 1944, in Istoriya mogilyovskogo evrejstva. Dokumenty i lyudi, book 2, part 2 (2nd. edn.), 2010, p. 194). So by chance the Soviet film crew is supposed to have picked exactly the right vehicles (the Adler, a police truck and horse-drawn cart) for the scene. Lucky guys!
The next problem, why? "To fabricate propaganda material against the 'fascists'", says Schwensen. But why a Mogilev asylum gassing? Among all German atrocities the Soviets came across upon their advance into German occupied territories and during their investigations, the Euthanasia killing of mentally ill people by setting them to "sleep" with engine exhaust in an Belorussian town was one of the least suitable to exploit for propagandistic purposes. The Soviets supposedly went all the way to fake German atrocities on film on an original site, but instead of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Maly Trostinez, Babi Jar, Charkov & Krasnodar etc. pp., all they come up is the local gassing of mentally ill people in Mogilev in collaboration with Russian asylum staff!
On top of that, the footage would have been staged in one of the least suitable ways for their propaganda purposes. Instead of Germans, we see Russian asylum staff helping the victims from the horse-drawn cart to the gas chamber. Instead of mistreating and beaten the victims, they are cared for and helped down and wrapped into a blanket. Instead of being threatened to death, we see calm Russian asylum staff. Instead of grim German fascists threatening the asylum staff, a relaxed German soldier stands in the background acting more like a bystander than a perpetrator. Instead of terrified victims, they smile and greet the camera man. All of this makes no sense from a Soviet propagandist point of view and already refutes the notion that the footage has been fabricated by the Soviets. The scenes were shot pretty much how it was done by the Germans - or at least how German propaganda would have liked to display how it was done.
Next problem, after placing so much care in the fabrication of the footage even going back and reconstructing the original gassing site in Mogilev, what do the Soviets do with such trophy and precious propaganda material? It was not submitted as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. In May 1947, the Soviets released their own movie on the Nuremberg trial Sud narodov. But it does not feature the Mogilev gassing scenes. Not that it makes any more sense that the Soviets would have "faked" the footage as late as mid 1947 instead of during or right after the war, but even if - for the sake of argument - they were suddenly hit by the idea to fake an Euthanasia gassing after their release of Sud narodov, there was nothing that prevented them from using this propaganda film by themselves instead of donating it to some Rudolf Goldschmidt.
Conspiracy Theory II
A variant of the forgery allegation has been proposed by a Holocaust denier in the comments of this blog (see here). According to him, Rudolf Goldschmidt, who acquired Nebe’s former house, got the idea to fake some atrocity footage he would "find" there and paid some Soviet movie-makers to do so. Just as with the Schwensen story above, this one is not supported by any evidence and is made up from scratch. Moreover, the theory does not make much sense. It is implausible that Goldschmidt would have spent a small fortune on the research, the travel, the actors (including emaciated people as mentally ill), the props (like the Adler cabriolet with license plate registered to the Security Police - see Andreas Herzfeld, Handbuch Deutsche Kfz-Kennzeichen, Band 1, p. 252, cf. online here - and the truck with proper license plate assigned to Einsatzkommando 8), the permissions - for none of which there is any evidence that they were launched, done, acquired, obtained - just because the new owner of Nebe house "came up with the idea" to fabricate some footage, which did not even contain any exaggerated, propagandistic element. Or that they had to shoot the footage at the original historical site in Mogilev instead of simply using more readily available options, including shooting on set. Or that some Western guy, even with some ties to the Soviets, could just pay for a film to be made at a Nazi atrocity site in the Soviet Union in Stalin's time and would even be allowed to tamper with it.
This variant of the theory that the footage was faked by Westerners avoids the issue as to why it had not been used by the Soviets. However, if the Soviet authorities were not even involved in the forgery, it just raises the next unresolved issue, how Goldschmidt was even aware of the Mogilev gassing and how it was conducted according to the Soviet investigations. But he even had to go beyond what the Soviets learnt from the asylum staff in 1944. Where from did he know about the Adler? About the truck? About the license plate of a truck employed for Einsatzkommando 8 in 1941/42?
Not knowing the provenance and full range of evidence, some public prosecutor in West-Germany and staff of the USHMM and the IWM used to have concerns about the authenticity of the footage. With all the facts laid down, they are as unsubstantiated these days. Except to Holocaust deniers and their affiliates of course, who continue to advance an implausible allegation with unfounded arguments not backed up by any evidence.
There are good reasons to regard the Mogilev gassing footage as authentic German material. The footage was reportedly found in the former house of Arthur Nebe. Nebe was the head of Einsatzgruppe B with its headquarter in Smolensk and Einsatzkommando 8 stationed in Mogilev. The footage was shot at the central Mogilev asylum, which was indeed cleared in 1941 according to contemporary documents. The scenes and setup are very similar to what is known from testimonial evidence how the gassing of mentally ill people with engine exhaust were carried out in general and specifically at this place. The truck with its license plate POL 51628 shown on the gassing scene belonged to the police battalion assigned to Einsatzkommando 8 in Mogilev. The Adler cabriolet with the license plate POL 28545 was registered to the Security Police. Nebe is known to have "liked to film" (interrogation of von Amburger cited above) and was present for the first gassing. The action is displayed how it was likely carried out by the Germans or at least how they preferred it to look like.
The only issue here is that Widmann, Bauer and Schmidt did not recognize the stills as the first test gassing. The contradiction can be resolved either by considering them to have been wrong or by supposing that the test gassing and the large scale gassing of the central asylum in Mogilev were separate in time and place and that the footage captured the latter one.
last edited: 20.9.2018