Rudolf Hoess on Aktion Reinhard camps: Did he have a clue about what he was saying?
It is common knowledge that Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, was initially beaten heavily in giving his initial statements to the British. However, it is usually assumed that he was beaten into telling things that he already knew. In fact, there are a couple of indications that suggest he was signing off on information that his interrogators were supplying him.
This is most obviously the case when he deals with the Aktion Reinhardt camps. He states he visited Treblinka sometime after being given his commission by Himmler in the summer of 1941 to turn Auschwitz into an extermination camp – yet Treblinka II (the death camp) didn’t open until July 1942. NO-1210:
I visited TREBLINKA in Spring 1942 to inform myself about the conditions. The following method was used in the process of extermination. Small chambers were used equiped with pipes to induce the exhaust gas from car engines. This method was unreliable as the engines, coming from old captured transport vehicles and tanks, very often failed to work. Because of that the intakes could not be dealt with according to the plan, which meant to clear the Warsaw Ghetto. According to the Camp Commandant of Treblinka 80000 people have been gassed in the course of half a year.
Half a year after the opening of Treblinka would be December 1942 – in fact supposedly Treblinka had killed 700000 in its first half year and about 300 000 in the first six weeks of operation – a far greater alleged through-put than Auschwitz is ever alleged to have achieved. Elsewhere in his “memoirs’ he states this trip was on the same when he visited Globocnik in Lublin to pick up some machinery – again repeating the date of spring 1942. This suggests he has no knowledge of Treblinka’s location as being in the locality of Warsaw, it is very far from Globocnik’s empire around Lublin. Were a camp to have been visited during this trip (once we ignore the wrong date), surely Belzec or Sobibor would have been a more likely choice? The reason, of course, was that in 1946 Treblinka was the only camp with a public profile.
In his interview with psychologist Leon Goldensohn (The Nuremberg Inteviews) he gave a different version, but this time he seems to now remember Majdanek
How many concentration camps in Germany or outside of it had gas chambers? “Mauthausen, Dachau, Auschwitz, and in the east, Treblinka; in Russia, they used gas wagons.” What about Majdanek? “They had temporary gas chambers but that camp came under the Security Police – the Einsatzkommando and Police. In Lublin there was a concentration camp which came under our inspection and supervision but it was not an extermination camp. Majdanek was near the city of Lublin and was an extermination camp under the direction of Lieutenant General Globocnik, who was the SS and political leader of Lublin.”
It is rather touching in deference to his now American interrogator to see him mention Dachau and Mauthausen as having gas chambers*, but issues arise when he makes a distinction between KL Lublin and Majdanek. German documents never (or almost never) refer to KL Lublin as Majdanek. Majdanek as a name was popularised by the Russians when they first started showing journalists around in August 1944, but was not used by Germans prior to that. Hence, at this stage Hoess is not aware that Majdanek was in fact supposed to be the same as KL Lublin. To him it is a name to recite, nothing more. Hoess learnt this name from his interrogators (or possibly from newsreels or newspapers), not from his pre-1945 personal experience.
The final issue is the subject of Wolzek, today generally referred to as Sobibor. Hoess gave a number of listings of the AR camps:
On April 1 1946 in Nuremberg he gave this statement:
Q What were these extermination camps? Where were they, and what were their names?
A There were three camps: first,Treblinka , Belzak <sic> near Lemberg and the third one was about 40 kilometers in the direction of Kulm. It was past Kulm in an easterly direction.
Whereas on 14 March he said this:
I was ordered to see HIMMLER in Berlin in June 1941 and he told me, approximately, the following:- The Fuhrer ordered the solution of the Jewish question in Europe. A few so called Vernichtungslager are existing in the general government (BELZEK near RAVA RUSKA East Poland, Tublinka [sic] near MALINA on the river Bug, and WOLZEK near LUBLIN). These camps are not very efficient and can not be enlarged
As we already have seen it would have been impossible for Himmler to said any such thing in June 1941 as the only camp then in existence was Belzec as a transit/work camp which had been used for Jews who wished to cross into the Soviet Union before the invasion. But the appearance of Wolzek has led to the suggestion that Hoess under torture was just saying things at random. But that appears not to be true. The most likely explanation is that Wolzek is a reference to Wolczyn; a town equidistant between Sobibor train station (and associated camp) and Sobibor town.
What was suggested with Majdanek, is clear with Wolczyn. This is a name that was never used by the Germans (after all the camp was right on Sobibor train station). Both towns are tiny places and would have no meaning to a Camp Commandant 100s of kilometers away. The only conceivable way such as name could have entered Hoess’s mouth on that night of March 13/14 was if it had been written as an intelligence briefing on the notepad of the interrogators assigned to extract a confession from him. The issue is not that Hoess was tortured into confessing, but he was confessing to facts (small localties near alleged death camps) that would only have been known to his interrogators. Had Hoess genuinely known of Sobibor, Sobibor was the only name he would have used.
By the time he got around to writing his “memoirs”, his memory seemed to have improved again and he could remember all five names of the AR camps
In addition to Auschwitz there existed, so far as I am aware, the following extermination centers for Jews:
Culenhof, near Litzmannstadt — Engine exhaust gases
Treblinka on the Bug — Engine exhaust gases
Sobibor near Lublin — Engine exhaust gases
Belzec near Lemberg — Engine exhaust gases
Lublin (Maidenek) — Cyclon B
I myself have only seen Culenhof and Treblinka. Culenhof had ceased to be used, but in Treblinka I saw the whole operation.
Chelmno had now entered into the picture as the Polish Communists now wanted to use an alleged visit to Litzmannstadt and Blobel’s experiments with body disposal using explosives as a crucial stage in the “hide all traces of crime” and Blobel’s remarkably successful mission to remove all traces of Babi Yar. For what its worth, Hoess is supposed to have visited Chelmno in the middle of September 1942. 16 000 Jews from Litzmannstadt were deported between 5th -12th of September with regular further deportations through the month. Of course, in terms of the point of his visit there would be no point in visiting if there were no transports/gassings producing dead bodies to be disposed of – but it just underlines the point that most times Hoess doesn’t have a clue to what he is supposed to be saying. Hoess, of course, never mentioned Chelmno before he was handed over to the Poles. Further, of course, Culenhof is a fairly poor rendition of Kulmhof.
It is not hard to fathom Hoess’s motivation through all this – he was quite open with the American psychiatrist, Leon Goldensohn, in April 1946:
Of your five children, who is your favorite? “There is no difference, all five are alike.” Do you love them? “Of course, my only concern now is not my own fate, because I know I shall hang, but in the welfare of my wife and children.” The latter expression of concern was made with the same apathetic appearance and lack of expression as previously.
[* Depressingly, having looked at all the other statements Hoess made and the interests of his then interrogators which had nothing to do with Mauthausen and Dachau, I have come to the conclusion that the most likely explanation is Goldensohn’s notes were altered by his editor (Goldensohn having died many years before) prior to publication. Most likely sensitive to the “Wolzek” issue, the editor (or whoever supplied him the papers) removed a reference to Wolzek, which Hoess repeatedly referred to in other affidavits, and inserted as replacement Dachau and Mauthausen. Yet another example of the extreme cynicism academics show for their sources. It is depressing because, unlike court testimony or filed interrogations, it leaves one unsure about how much weight can be placed in other useful passages in this book.]