Hitler’s Poison Gas


The story of Nazi Germany’s development and stockpiling of poison gas began in December 1936 when Dr Gerhard Schrader, an IG Farben research chemist working on insecticides, discovered a highly lethal substance that attacks the human nervous system. It came to be known as ‘tabun’, which is in the range of organic phosphorus compounds. Tabun disrupts a neurotransmitter, a natural chemical in the human body, known as cholinesterase, which reacts with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine to allow normal muscular movement. When acetylcholine collects uninhibitedly in the central nervous system, it causes severe contractions and rigor, especially in the respiratory system. The victim literally chokes to death.

Schrader was ordered to army headquarters in Berlin, where he demonstrated the power of the new agent on dogs and monkeys, which died within twenty minutes of exposure. The substance became a top secret potential ‘weapon’. The head of army poison gas strategy, Colonel Rudriger, commissioned Schrader to continue refining his discovery at a factory at Elberfeld in the Ruhr, and put in hand plans for a special poison gas plant at Spandau.

The following year, however, Schrader came up with a second discovery in the form of isopropyl methylphosphorofluoridate, which proved even more lethal in animal tests than tabun. It came to be known as ‘sarin’. In September 1939, a decision was taken by IG Farben to build a plant for the production of tabun and sarin in Silesia, at a place called Dyherfurth. Funding ultimately came from the army, but the chief facilitator of the programme was Otto Ambros of IG Farben. Dyherfurth would eventually expand into a vast factory more than a mile and a half in length and half a mile wide, with underground facilities, employing 3,000 workers under conditions of the highest secrecy and security. Work at the plant was psychologically oppressive, because of its remoteness, as well as the extreme danger of handling toxic substances. Workers lived in special enclosed barracks. Despite protective clothing, operatives were regularly affected and at least ten died after accidental contamination.

In the meantime, at other plants around Germany, alternative forms of gas warfare, of the World War I variety, were being developed, including phosgene, chlorine and mustard gas. Animals were widely used in experiments, and so were human guinea pigs within the concentration camps, as we have seen. Baron Georg von Schnitzler, a director of IG Farben, testified after the war that Ambros knew of experiments on human beings.

In addition to many tens of thousands of tons of stockpiled mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene, an estimated 12,000 tons of tabun were discovered at the end of the war. A number of delivery systems had been developed including types of personnel mines, hand grenades, hand sprays and poison bullets delivered by machine gun.

Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler tours the Monowitz-Buna building site in the company of SS officers and IG Farben engineers

Auschwitz, Poland, Himmler Visiting The Site Of IG Farben Auschwitz.

The Fall and Rise of Farben

IG Farben’s exploitation of forced and slave labour in its synthetic fuel and rubber plants throughout Germany would rise from 9 per cent of the labour force in 1941 to 30 per cent by the end of the war. There would be some fifty sub-camps in the Auschwitz area. Auschwitz III was the largest, serving the vast Buna plant designed mainly for the production of synthetic rubber. Primo Levi described the plant as ‘as big as a city’. It covered 12 square miles.10 Some 300,000 concentration camp inmates were involved in the slave labour programme by 1944 and some 30,000 of them died, although, as with the synthetic rubber production, not a drop of synthetic material, except methanol, ever left the plants.

Germany’s vast effort in producing synthetic fuel, fibres, rubber and other products involved clusters of interrelated plants that eventually became vulnerable to aerial bombing as the Luftwaffe lost control of the skies. Nitrogen, methanol (which many inmates drank, with fatal results), ammonia and calcium carbide were all crucial for the war effort along with a variety of other products. Nitric acid, made from ammonia, was essential for explosives and propellants. Calcium carbide (made from lime and coke in electric furnaces) was the basis of acetylene, which was in turn the basis of butadiene, from which synthetic rubber was made. The process required small proportions of natural rubber, which were brought to Germany via submarine from Japan.

The production of these materials depended on availability of types of coal, coke, coal tar, power generation and transportation. There were six principal complexes (excluding the Auschwitz plant), two of which, Leuna and Ludwigshafen, turned out enormous quantities of crucial chemical products in addition to synthetic fuel and rubber. Leuna, in addition to making some 46 per cent of Germany’s synthetic rubber, was producing heavy water for the Nazi atomic programme.

After the war an indictment was filed against twenty-four members of the board of IG Farben on 3 May 1947 on behalf of the United States; among them was Otto Ambros. The charges included waging war, plunder and spoliation, but the crucial crime was ‘slavery and mass murder’.

The precise language of the slavery and murder charge was as follows:

Farben, in complete defiance of all decency and human considerations, abused its slave workers by subjecting them, among other things, to excessively long, arduous, and exhausting work, utterly disregarding their health or physical condition. The sole criterion of the right to live or die was the production efficiency of the said inmates.

The trial, which opened on 27 August 1947 at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, began in the style of an anti-trust suit, with many hours of organizational exposition. It was not until the slavery and murder charges were introduced that the court began to hear eye-witness accounts of former inmates. Typical of the testimonies was this by Rudolf Vitek, a physician and inmate: ‘The prisoners were pushed in their work by the kapos, foremen, and overseers of the IG in an inhuman way. No mercy was shown. Thrashings, ill-treatment of the worst kind, even direct killings were the fashion.’ One after another of the witnesses spoke of IG Farben’s participation in selections that would mean death for those not selected, of company workers witnessing the hanging of prisoners, of Farben people being aware of the gassing and cremation of inmates in other parts of Auschwitz.

At least one of the judges, Paul M. Herbert, wanted to draw an equivalence between IG Farben’s production drive of buna and the deaths of workers as a direct result of the lethal pace of labour. Herbert declared:

It was Farben’s drive for speed in the construction of Auschwitz which resulted indirectly in thousands of inmates being selected for extermination by the SS when they were rendered unfit for work. The proof establishes that fear of extermination was used to spur the inmates to greater efforts and that they undertook tasks beyond their physical strength as a result of such fear.

The majority view of the Nuremberg tribunal of judges was that the cruelty and inhumanity at Buna was the responsibility not of the corporate people at Farben but of the Third Reich regime which had imposed the regulations that led to those crimes.

The sentences handed down by the court to the twelve IG Farben executives ranged from eight years (for Otto Ambros) to one and a half years. Only five of the twelve were found guilty of slavery and mass murder (and all received sentences ranging from six to eight years). The chief prosecutor, Josiah Du Bois, remarked that the sentences were ‘light enough to please a chicken thief’. He declared that he would write a book to tell the world of the evidence that had been produced in the court. Within four years he made good his promise with his grim account of German industry and the Third Reich, called The Devil’s Chemists.

Judge Herbert commented on the trial: ‘It is important not only to pass judgment upon the guilt or innocence of the accused, but also to set forth an accurate record of the more essential facts established by the proof.’

Primo Levi, for whom the telling of the ‘essential facts’ became a consuming purpose, wrote after the war: ‘one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness… to survive we must force ourselves to save at least

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