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The Holocaust History Project.
The Holocaust History Project.

"Unbelievable, not imaginable"

How the murder of the Jews becomes an issue of faith

By Albrecht Kolthoff

[translation by Roberto Muehlenkamp]

In the controversy about Fritjof Meyer's "Osteuropa" article an academic answer by Franciszek Piper had after some time rectified the "Spiegel" - redactor's theses. Only a few days passed until Meyer issued a voluminous reply.

Unfortunately this reply shows certain hurry in drafting; the renunciation to sources is also a serious defect, which in many places makes it impossible to properly address the many detail claims. The nonchalant remark that footnotes were done without because "the sources are known anyway" reduces the reply's chances to be noticed as part of a scientific debate and relegates it to a gray zone which, unfortunately, borders on a clearly noticeable brown zone, in which Meyer's theses are received with enthusiasm.

This is not Fritjof Meyer's fault, as it seems; no one is immune to applause from unwanted quarters. Nevertheless it is also worthwhile to have a closer look at the circumstances of the debate, but first the contents will take center stage.

The Essential Questions

The whole controversy suffers from a somewhat unstructured presentation of what is at issue and how it is to be demonstrated. Meyer brought up a series of aspects, which, while spread across several pages, fail to show a stringent and structured argumentation. The impression arises that an arsenal of details was opened, each of which is meant to be a drop of a stream which is to contribute to eroding the boulder of "historical research", which, on the one hand, has a "status of research" (which Meyer is attacking) while on the other hand it did "not accept the topic of Auschwitz as an object of research"[1] and therefore must now be kept on the move by outsiders (like Jean-Claude Pressac, who died last year, and Meyer). From the Hamburg redaction came the promise that, for the first time, it was now possible "to calculate more precisely how many people were murdered at Auschwitz."[2].

At this place it will not be attempted to address every detail of Meyer's "reply"; a number of further aspects of this "reply" will be handled in detail in a separate article. First it seems important to work out the essential lines of argumentation, which threaten to drown in the volume of the flood of facts.

In his original article Meyer arrived at the following conclusions:

  • The number of victims of Auschwitz was about 500,000 (instead of about one million, as corresponds to the status of research);
  • They were primarily murdered in the converted peasant houses called Bunker I and II, but not in the gas chambers of the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

When attempting to identify the essential issues in the stream of details, two complexes emerge as the central guidelines of argumentation:

  • The capacity of the crematoria had not been sufficient to remove the victims in the numbers established by research, and
  • neither had enough victims been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau to reach the numbers of victims established by research (or then a significant part had been transported on from Auschwitz to other camps).

Both complexes Piper had addressed in detail; furthermore he had pronounced himself on a number of the details brought up by Meyer. Unfortunately, however, on must verify that in his reply Meyer doesn't address Piper's central documentation; by letting his arsenal of details sparkle, he avoids the confrontation with the essential issues.

The Capacity of the Crematoria

Franciszek Piper had unmistakably made clear that the approach via the crematorium capacity must lead to error. Significantly Piper criticized the use of this methodology by several sides where "the method that the Soviet commission used in arriving at its estimate still finds approval today, both among those who would maintain or even raise that estimate, and among those who would lower it"[3].

Piper adduces two central arguments for the unreliability of the capacity method [4]:

  • "Attempts are still made at times, in line with the methods used by the Soviet commission investigating the crimes committed in Auschwitz, to define the number of victims on the basis of the capacity of the crematoria and the length of time they were in operation. Such calculations are erroneous, since there are no credible sources making it possible to establish either the amount of time that the crematoria were actually in operation, nor the extent to which their capacity was used."
  • "The functioning of the open-air pyres and pits where corpses were burned in addition to the crematoria in Auschwitz Concentration Camp makes all discussion about the limited capacity for the cremation of corpses, and therefore any calculation of the number of victims on the basis of crematorium capacity, entirely irrelevant."

Now, Meyer should have addressed these two arguments; he should have demonstrated

  • to what extent there are sufficiently complete documents and other evidence for using the method of calculating the capacity of the crematoria in such a way as to obtain at least more or less reliable data;
  • why the corpse burnings in the open, with their technically not limited capacity, should be taken into consideration only marginally or not at all.

Neither of both Meyer did in his reply; he left the central arguments without an answer.

The Number of Deportees

Meyer had mainly two groups of Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in mind, for which he wanted to prove that the numbers have been overstated in research:

  • the Jews deported from Hungary (research mentions about 430,000, Meyer speaks of 180,000), and
  • the Jews deported from Poland (status of research: 300,000; Meyer: no clear statement).

Meyer essentially based his reduced numbers on the "Calendarium"[5] of Danuta Czech, where in the form of a chronicle data about the transports arriving at Auschwitz are provided, while he dismissed other sources for deportation figures.

Piper's essential arguments were the following:

  • for certain phases the "Calendarium" could provide no complete data: "During the time when the Jews of Hungary and Lódz were being exterminated, this practice changed completely because of the backup of transports and the arrival of several trains per day."[6],
  • much more reliable data about the deportation figures in the phases in question are available - especially in regard to Hungary - in the form of corresponding documents from the areas from which they were deported.

Both arguments Meyer did not address in his reply.

Furthermore Meyer had stated a significantly higher number of deportees who were taken to Auschwitz but from there were transferred to other camps and must therefore be deducted from the number of deportees when establishing the number of victims. Research had mentioned numbers between 210,000 and 225,000[7]; Meyer, on the other hand, added another 110,000 Hungarian Jews who were transferred to other camps.

Piper demonstrated that the Hungarian Jews transferred to other camps (the number of which, 110,000, he furthermore considers several times too high) were already included in the number first mentioned; Meyer accordingly counted 110,000 survivors too many in his "balance". This Meyer also failed to address in his reply; he simply insists that "225,000 inmates and 110,000 from Hungary were transferred to other camps", without even attempting to provide evidence for this.

Selective Sources

It is noticeable throughout that Meyer uses his sources with great selectivity: he uses such data that fit his preconceived image, whereas data which would disturb this picture are dismissed as inaccurate without further arguments, or simply ignored or omitted.

Thus he wrongly uses the "Calendarium" as an exhaustive source in what concerns the numbers of delivered deportees, as became clear with the example of the Hungary action; the objection that the respective data of the "Calendarium" could not be used as a definitive source Meyer did not address in his reply.

Meyer's dishonest handling of sources becomes even clearer regarding the issue of the Hungarian deportees. The total number of about 430,000 deportees known by research, which becomes apparent from a number of Hungarian and German documents, he had in his "Osteuropa" - Article simply dismissed at "presumably exaggerated reports of the Hungarian police"[8]. The number of deportation trains he gives a 60, on hand of a counting based on the "Calendarium", while the number of about 140 trains known from Hungarian and German documents was pushed aside as "coming from a dubious document"[9].

Also in his "reply" Meyer stayed with the unsuitable attempt to establish the number of deportation trains (and thus of deportees) on hand of the "Calendarium": "I refer [...] simply to the arrival of transports as noted by Czech."[10] Without any further evidence Meyer then claims: "The numbers of German diplomat Veesenmayer, which are about twice as high, come from the Hungarian police, who had their reasons for exaggerations."

The remark about the "dubious document" deserves a closer examination.

Meyer was referring to a document which Götz Aly and Christian Gerlach, in their book about the Hungarian Action[11], had quoted and used as a basis of argumentation on several occasions. It is a list with the designation "Compilation of the transports arriving at concentration camp Auschwitz II Birkenau in the time from 16.V. to 20.9. 1944/men/", which however was available only as a copy made in August 1945 (i.e. after the end of the war). Aly and Gerlach themselves admitted that this list, found by Gerlach in the Yad Vashem archives, had a "dubious history"[12], but nevertheless considered the document to be authentic and the data contained therein to be reliable, because they coincided with other documents already known.

Leaving open the results of a future criticism of sources, the document at any rate shows several things. On the one hand it contains a total number of deportations (deportation trains), on the other Gerlach and Aly read from it the number of those Hungarian deportees who were not immediately killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau but selected for work. (This conclusion also requires further discussion; for the purpose of assessing Meyer, however, it shall not be further questioned for the time being.)

Gerlach/Aly on several occasions write - with reference to the mentioned document - of "about 430,000" Hungarian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz[13], of "a total of 141" deportation trains in the time from 16 May to 11 July 1944[14].

Then they write - again with reference to the mentioned document - that "the total number of those provisionally exempted from murder is likely to have been about 110,000 people"[15]; a speculative conclusion which certainly requires further critical discussion but which, considering the cautious wording of the statement, may be seen as daring but not as inadmissible.

Fritjof Meyer knows the book by Gerlach and Aly, for he quotes from it on several occasions and in doing so also refers to the mentioned document. How does Meyer handle this document?

One can only call it schizophrenia. When the total number of deportations mentioned in the document - 141 - is at issue, Meyer sees it as a "dubious document"[16]; insofar as the number of those exempted from murder (110.000) is concerned, however, the same document is knighted to the status of an unquestionable source and cited as part of a publication with the "first thorough description of the labor use"[17].

Also in his "reply" Meyer sticks to this: "In what concerns the transfer of 110,000 Jews from Hungary I mention principally Gerlach/Aly as a source", in doing which Meyer further misses the detail that Gerlach/Aly did not write of people "transferred" (to other camps), but of such who had been "provisionally exempted from murder".

However this schizophrenic handling of sources came into being, whether it was the selective perception of an intellect tuned to a certain conclusion goal or simple sloppiness, the result is a historical revisionism which not only errs when evaluating the facts but already fails in the presentation thereof.

Historical Revisionism and Holocaust Denial

One cannot but address the author Meyer's relationship with historical revisionism and Holocaust denial. It is beyond question that Meyer holds revisionist theses meant to question and revise essential parts of the status of research; besides the question of the number of victims of Auschwitz Meyer in his "reply" also announced that he was in conditions to publish "a separate examination of the deportees from Hungary" in which he could demonstrate that the number of about 430,000 deported Hungarian Jews was actually only about half as big.

Furthermore Meyer - as the detailed examination of his "reply" makes clear - undertakes a fundamental re-evaluation of the facts when he maintains that the extermination of the Jews did not occur due to race hatred but only targeted Jews unable to work and thus resulted from "economic interests". The extermination of the Jews was not essentially different from the murder of mental patients or handicapped, prisoners of war, heavily wounded soldiers or bombing victims; after all Hitler had even intended to let the German people perish, just like the Jews unable to work.

Historical revisionism may not be the daily bread but is a standard and legitimate undertaking of historians. New discoveries lead to the revision of old certainties. Without revisionism there would be no progress of knowledge.

A different matter is the Holocaust deniers, who without any justification claim the term "Revisionists" for themselves. Long years of assessment of Holocaust denial have shown that its representatives are throughout driven by an ideological motivation, which in its core seeks to rehabilitate historical National Socialism and establish it as an acceptable political alternative.

In fact Holocaust deniers are a totalitarian sect following a supreme principle of faith, which forges their world-view and marks the lives of the members of the sect; in this they are similar to UFO-Believers or Scientologists. In accordance with their striving for the whitewashing of National Socialism, Holocaust deniers are characterized by an underlying anti-Semitism, which shows in an obsessive concern with Jewry and it own guilt for the extermination (which the deniers claim never occurred).

Faith alone is not enough, however, at least for the most intelligent among them, and thus they - like UFO-researchers and Scientologists - erect a whole pseudo-scientific building in which at first glance the same tools are used as in scientific research. Publications, journals, essays, footnotes - they perform a mimicry that carries a certain schizophrenia in itself: after all they fight the very science which, according to the sect members' beliefs, is "bought and paid for", "corrupt" or operated by "Zionist agents"; at the same time, however, they try to ape that science and put themselves in its place.

Fritjof Meyer obviously has another view: for him the Holocaust deniers are "unworthy tools", but they nevertheless "have busily collected details"[18]. For Meyer this was obviously reason enough to not only quote the products of Holocaust deniers and thus introduce them as a contribution to scientific knowledge, but to also enter a dialogue with Holocaust deniers and accept them as conversation partners of a research debate. Thus, according to Germar Rudolf, a "Leading Theoretician" of the Holocaust denier community sentenced for incitement of popular hatred in the German Federal Republic, Meyer had an exchange of ideas with Rudolf about Meyer's article and Rudolf's assessment thereof.[19].

On the other hand Meyer sees the "massive [..] murder by gas in the crematorium cellars" as nothing other than "propaganda [...] of Soviet observance"[20]. This, now, is a good sentence for one to introduce oneself to Holocaust deniers as a conversation partner for an exchange of ideas; it is completely unsuitable, however, as a starting point for a scientific dealing with the subject.

Meyer makes clear in his "reply" that he is obviously quite familiar with the literature of Holocaust deniers. What is more: at several places he takes over their argumentation.

Thus, for instance, he creates a "sequence" of events which in the course of a gassing action in the gas chambers of the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau must necessarily have taken place, and divides it into three steps which could be watched by witnesses:

  • Pouring in the poison
  • Entry into the undressing cellar
  • Finding corpses in the corpse cellar.

If a witness, says Meyer, could watch only one of these three steps, there could in each case be found an explanation not pointing to mass murder by poison gas. Thus the pouring-in of poison could have served "a disinfesting of clothes, or also of spotted-fever dead".[21].

Now, these attempts to explain the harmlessness of the gas chambers are well known from the literature of Holocaust denial. That they have no factual basis but are mere speculation, and that they are also rather nonsensical (what for should "spotted fever dead" be freed of vermin in a corpse cellar?), doesn't seem to have bothered Meyer when taking over these pretexts of Holocaust deniers. (The delousing of disease dead had already been invoked by Irving at his trial, without success.)

Also in what concerns the "entry into the undressing cellar" Meyer, like several Holocaust deniers, sees a harmless variant: one "could think of a disinfecting", because "real showers and disinfecting ovens were installed in the crematoria".

Of this, now, nothing is correct. In the gas chambers there were fake showerheads; what Meyer means by "disinfecting ovens" is not clear. In the gas chambers, at any rate, there were no ovens.

Meyer will have to decide on one of the two alternatives: were they showering while from above SS-men poured in poison to delouse clothes and/or corpses?

Both explanation attempts for the gas chambers are known from Holocaust deniers; in addition there are the "air raid shelters" invoked by Meyer. The problem is that for these brainchildren there is no proof whatsoever (other than in the own fantasy) and that one quickly gets caught in contradictions with them.

The objection that only the complete and gapless observation of all occurrences connected to a gassing action could be considered a credible eyewitness report is also well known. It nevertheless remains absurd nonsense, because complex processes, of which homicidal gassing at Auschwitz-Birkenau was one, are characterized by a division of works - especially when this very division of works is meant to avoid overall knowledge. The troops accompanying a transport had to leave the camp after they had driven their trains up to the ramp; the SS men at the ramp handed the victims after selection to a transport detachment; at the crematoria they were taken over by core detachments.

According to this scheme on could pronounce the manufacture of automobiles to be impossible, for there is hardly a witness who has followed all steps and events of this complex process without a gap.

An explanation for the numerous witness reports about the gas murder in the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and for the missing depositions about showers, delousing of corpses and air raid shelters can only be constructed if one assumes witness conspiracy and extortion of confessions on a gigantic scale. This step, however, Meyer still has to take.

In Meyer's "reply" there are also formulations which may provide insight into the motivations of author Meyer to oppose what he sees as continuing Soviet war propaganda: when the "horrendous figure" (the original four million figure of the Soviet investigation commission) is condemned as a "'club' (Walser) against the German perpetrator people", when the murder of the Jews committed out of race hatred becomes "an unimaginable, not provable phantom", when even the present-day status of research is called an "irritatingly unbelievable figure of millions", it becomes clear that the "past that won't pass" (to paraphrase Ernst Nolte, whom Meyer calls a "respectable historical philosopher") has become an issue of faith for Fritjof Meyer.

Nobody is forced to be able to imagine the genocide committed out of race hatred or to believe certain dimensions of the genocide, but historical research is not an issue of imagining or believing. For Meyer, on the other hand, a negative belief becomes the starting point of his re-interpretation of history; as has been shown, however, such a revision of history means not only a re-evaluation of the facts, but requires a falsification of the facts themselves. What becomes apparent are the will and the intention to explain away the facts, to bend reality until it fits into the system of one's own belief or disbelief.

Just like Meyer rhetorically uses Walser and Hohmann, a detailed analysis of Meyer's theses (see the separate article about this) shows that they are not very original: for his alternative explanations to the mass murder in the gas chambers of the crematoria he mainly uses the repertoire of Holocaust deniers.

Meyer is not a Holocaust denier, for he doesn't dispute that many Jews were killed by the Nazis - he just uses the pseudo-arguments of Holocaust deniers. He issue is also not just Auschwitz, as becomes apparent from his announcement to revise the Hungarian deportations thereafter. What gets lost with Fritjof Meyer, however, is the National Socialists' intention and attempt to completely exterminate the Jews of Europe because they were Jews; according to him the Jews were murdered "according to Action 14f13". Anti-Semitism and racism no longer appear as a driving force.

How much perspectives and measures are thus made unrecognizable becomes clear when the murder of the European Jews is made by Meyer into the murder of a group of people unable to work among many other groups of people unable to work, and finally even into an intermediate stage on the way to the wiping out of the German people, which the mad dictator is supposed to have intended at the end. This wiping out of course did not take place; instead the German people long suffered from the "club", and now it must be allowed to counter the enemy propaganda, and be it by inventing "stop orders"

Sven Felix Kellerhoff had written in his article in the "Welt" that Meyer had given the Holocaust deniers the little finger[22]. Now they have him in their hands, for through the choice of his arguments he went there himself. That in this discourse between the gray and the brown zone some Holocaust deniers make one or the other little concession, which Meyer praises in his "reply", is due to tactical considerations: you need bacon to catch mice.


  1. Fritjof Meyer: Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz. Neue Erkenntnisse durch neue Archivfunde. In: Osteuropa. 52. Jg., 5/2002, page 631-641. Address:http://www.holocaust-history.org/auschwitz/fritjof-meyer/meyer-osteuropa.shtml

  2. Fritjof Meyer. Replik auf Piper. Dezember 2003. Address: http://www.holocaust-history.org/auschwitz/fritjof-meyer/meyer-replik-auf-piper.shtml

  3. Franciszek Piper: Fritjof Meyer, Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz. Neue Erkenntnisse durch neue Archivfunde. Rezensionsbeitrag. Address: http://www.auschwitz.org.pl/html/de/aktualnosci/news_big.php?id=569 English version under http://www.auschwitz.org.pl/html/eng/aktualnosci/news_big.php?id=563

  4. Piper, Rezensionsbeitrag, op. cit.

  5. Danuta Czech: Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau 1939-1945. Reinbek 1989

  6. Piper, Rezensionsbeitrag, op. cit.

  7. Franciszek Piper: Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz. Oswiecim 1993, page 201, mentioned 210,000-220,000; Franciszek Piper: The Number of Victims, in: Yisrael Gutman/Michael Berenbaum (editors): Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Bloomington / Indiana 1994, page 76, note 75, quotes a listing by St. Iwaszko with 225,000.

  8. Meyer, Zahl der Opfer, page 638, footnote 35

  9. Meyer, Zahl der Opfer, page 638, footnote 34

  10. Meyer, Replik, op. cit.

  11. Christian Gerlach, Götz Aly: Das letzte Kapitel. Realpolitik, Ideologie und der Mord an den ungarischen Juden 1944/1945. Munich 2002

  12. Gerlach/Aly, page 286, footnote 195

  13. Gerlach/Aly, page 274

  14. Gerlach/Aly, page 275

  15. Gerlach/Aly, page 296

  16. Meyer, Zahl der Opfer, page 638, footnote 34

  17. Meyer, Zahl der Opfer, page 638, footnote 35

  18. Meyer, Zahl der Opfer, page 635, footnote 19

  19. after: Germar Rudolf: Vorsichtiger Spiegel-Revisionimus. Address: http://www.vho.org/VffG/2002/4/Rudolf371-378.html

  20. Meyer, Zahl der Opfer, page 635, Fn.19

  21. Meyer, Replik, a.a.O.

  22. Sven Felix Kellerhoff: Linksliberaler Kronzeuge für Holocaust-Leugner, in Die Welt, 28.8.2002. Address: http://www.holocaust-history.org/auschwitz/fritjof-meyer/meyer-kellerhoff-1.shtml

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