Holocaust expert cannot explain "convergence of falsehood"
by B. Renk
An e-mail written to Christopher Browning on February 27, 1999:
Dear Dr. Browning, I have studied the evidence of the homicidal gas chambers at Auschwitz, Poland for many years. Perhaps the subject is not specifically your field of expertise, but I would very much appreciate your helpfulness in clarifying the following: At the Nuremberg Tribunal, the Report of the Soviet War Crimes Commission of May 6, 1945 (USSR-008) put forth the assertion that approximately 10,000 people were killed at Auschwitz on a daily basis, 279,000 a month, four million total.
The often-referred-to testimonies of Rudolf Höss, Filip Müller, Dr. Myklos Nyisli, the alleged report of SS-officer Franke-Gricksch, and other sources corroborate these Soviet figures. In 1989, Dr. Yehuda Bauer reported to the Jerusalem Post that more like one million people died at Auschwitz, and I understand the historical community does not contest Dr. Bauer's official revision.
My question is, if it is understood that the Soviets deliberately inflated the Auschwitz death toll, what amount of credibility should we ascribe to the testimonies which corroborate the discredited Soviet reports which impossibly reported 10,000 daily murders/deaths at Auschwitz? Jean-Claude Pressac has extensively written of the Auschwitz crematoria capacities as having been substantially lower, and more in accord with the revised death toll figures. Also, is the historical community aware that two of the Soviet Commissions' members (Burdenko and Nikolai) were also members of the Special State Commision which submitted the fabricated reports on German guilt for the Katyn massacres (USSR-054)?
In sum, where does the truth lie with regard to Auschwitz concentration camp? What reports or trial testimonies should one consult to find corroboration for the death toll as it is understood today? Pressac has written that the testimony of Nyisli must be divided by four to arrive at a true figure, for example.
Forgive me, but I would tend to think that testimonies which corroborate the discredited exaggerations of post-war Soviet intelligence do not serve well as testimonies to "what really happened and why" at Auschwitz. I understand that the history of Auschwitz concentration camp must be very delicately revised for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, shouldn't future references to the subject note the implausibility of witness claims I've mentioned? If so, how do we interpret the testimony of Rudolf Höss, for example? Can we continue to regard the May, 1943 report of Franke-Gricksch as a veracious account, despite the fact that it mentions 10,000 cremations a day and 500,000 victims at Auschwitz within two months of the Birkenau crematoria becoming functional?
I do not question [herein] the fact that millions of Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. I do believe, however, that the historical community must find a way to come to terms with the testimonies to falsehood which have been presented as representative of truth in the historical texts to date. Does it suffice to say "Oh yes, such and such gave a very accurate account of what really happened, we need only divide his or her exaggerated figures by four or five to arrive at a truer figure"? Is there a single witness testimony or deposition which corroborates the idea that one million people, mostly Jews, were murdered or died over the five year period of the Nazi concentration camp, or that the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria reduced about two thousand people a day to ashes in peak periods? I only know of the higher, discredited figures having been put forth. I look forward to your reply.
Best Regards, Brian Renk
Dr. Browning responded to this letter on April 6, 1999 with the following:
Dear Mr. Renk,
The current figure for deaths at Auschwitz was already reached by Raul Hilberg in his 1961 book by working from the documentary (not eyewitness) base of the number of Jews transported to Auschwitz and a reasonable estimate of the number of survivors. No serious historian (from Reitlinger in the 1950's and Hilberg in the 1960's to the present) has even accepted the Soviet figure of 4 million, which was based on the erroneous method of estimating maximum capacity for burning bodies and then falsely assuming that that maximum capacity was in reality realized every single day that the gas chamber/crematorium complexes were in existence.
Given the Soviet understanding of history as functional rather than truthful, once given, the estimate was never corrected or revised. Historians like Hilberg, and the newer estimates, are not based on the eyewitness estimates, because though such witnesses could accurately report that part of the procedure of killing they actually witnessed, they were not in a position to make accurate calculations concerning the overall and cumulative killing operations. The search for the single witness or single document that proves or disproves all is framing the research question wrongly. It is out of a series of documents, i.e. that different deportation lists, and a reasonable estimate for the countries (especially Poland) for which we do not have accurate lists that the process must start.
I submitted a response to Browning's letter on April 17, 1999:
Dear Dr. Browning,
Thank you for your letter of 6 April (Re: Nuremberg document USSR-008) in response to my letter of 27 February.
In your letter, you explained that "no serious historian (from Rietlinger in the 1950's and Hilberg in the 1960's to the present has even accepted the Soviet figure of 4 million [Auschwitz victims]". Concerning eyewitness acounts, you wrote: "Historians like Hilberg, and the newer estimates, are not based on the eyewitness estimates, because though such witnesses could accurately report that part of the procedure of killing they actually witnessed, they were not in a position to make accurate calculations concerning the overall and cumulative killing operations".
I agree that the Holocaust historians have based their estimates for the number of victims on empirical data such as train deportation lists and, more recently, the declassified documents of the Auschwitz Zentralbauleitung in Moscow [note- i.e. coke consumption and cremation theory]. I would also agree that "the search for the single witness or single document that proves or disproves all is framing the research question wrongly" and that conclusions have been drawn from a confluence of data. I do not question the validity of the historical methodology in the absence of direct proof, and would not expect you or a colleague to refer to a single document or testimony to "prove or disprove all".
In the Report of the Soviet War Crimes Commission of 6 May, 1945, the following is written:
"The Germans killed and burned between 10,000 and 12,000 human beings daily [at Auschwitz-Birkenau]". The Soviet report refers to the testimonies of witnesses Dragon and Tauber ("who worked in a special commando servicing the gas chambers") as ratification for the estimated number of daily victims, based on "theoretical" crematory throughput.
Of Tauber's testimony, Jean-Claude Pressac wrote in his 1989 study (p. 494): "Here we find the famous multiplication factor of four, of which Dr. Myklos Nyisli made such abundant and lamentable use in his book that his credibility was long contested...we do arrive at the [standard] figure of four million victims in all. This type of imposed falsehood has to be excused, I would stress, because of the political climate of the period 1945-1950".
Pressac is correct to stress the minimum fourfold exaggerations of Tauber, Nyisli, and Dragon (p. 171). As members of the Sondercommando, these direct witnesses would certainly have been "in a position to make accurate [or "ballpark"] calculations concerning the overall and cumulative killing operations".
Filip Müller, whose book was published in 1979, also referred to "the incineration of up to 10,000 corpses in 24 hours" in the crematoria (p. 97), and SS-officer Franke-Gricksch is alleged to have written in a report for Himmler in May, 1943:
"Current capacity of the "resettlement action" ovens: 10,000 in 24 hours" (Pressac, p. 239).
My question remains: what credibility can we ascribe to these testimonies which can only have served to "validate" Soviet post-war falsehoods as to crematory capacities and actual numbers of victims? What reports or testimonies should one consult to find corroboration for the death toll as it is understood today?
The aforementioned "imposed falsehood" (Pressac) cannot be excused as resulting from the post-war political climate, because Müller's account was published in 1979 and Franke-Gricksch's account dates from 1943. There appears to be a convergence of evidence to Soviet falsehood and no testimonies or contemporaneous documents I would consider as representative of a death toll of one million, excluding the revised confession of Rudolf Höss, which was not based on documentary sources. This would encompass the bodies of evidence I have mentioned.
Should it not be the subject of a future colloquy to address this element of falsehood within such texts? British historian Gerald Fleming, in assessing the Franke-Gricksch text, wrote:
"The account of the SS officer and the former concentration camp prisoner [Mueller] concur on one fact: that the cremation capacity of the camp reached up to 10,000 corpses per twenty four hours" (from "Hitler and the Final Solution"  p. 145). It is the citation of such figures as valid which needs redress. Pressac alluded to a "famous multiplier" (pp. 171, 483, 494) which has never been discussed in historical accounts to my knowledge. If the Holocaust historians have always disregarded the Soviet claim of four million, why have the testimonies cited above been regarded as accurate representations of the number of victims?
The Soviets broke the four million figure down to a monthly rate of 279,000 average, and a daily rate of 10,000-12,000.
Professor Browning tried to answer this letter with a very interesting response on April 20:
Dear Brian Renk,
I think the 10,000 per day figure testified to by Mueller and others was the maximum reached during the Hungarian deportations, with the use of open pit burning as well as crematoria. The Soviet report then took this figure and treated it as a daily average over the whole period of the camp gassings, when this figure was a maximum reached only on occassion at the height of the Hungarian deportations. Thus an eyewiteness report that claims that 10,000 Jews were killed at Auschwitz in one day is not a confirmation of the Soviet figure of 4 million.
Very appreciative of Professor Browning's willingness to address this matter, I wrote again on April 23, requesting a response to the specific arguments I had made:
Dear Dr. Browning,
Thank you very much for your letters of April 6 and April 20.
In your letter of April 20, 1999, you wrote:
"I think the 10,000 per day figure testified to by Müller and others was the maximum reached during the Hungarian deportations, with the use of open-pit burning as well as cremations. The Soviet report then took this figure and treated it as a daily average over the whole period of the camp gassings, when this figure was a maximum reached only on occasion at the height of the Hungarian deportations".
The Soviet report of 1945 specifically refers to "the total capacity of all five crematoria" as "279,000 bodies per month. Since the Germans also burned great numbers of bodies on pyres, the capacity of the installations for the extermination of human beings in Auschwitz must be considered to be much higher in fact than this figure would suggest".
At the conclusion of the report, the capacity of the ovens themselves as 10,000 per day is augmented by a given monthly capacity for each cremation facility and in the independent reference to the open-air cremations as having occurred prior to the Birkenau crematoria constructs of 1943, when the combined death toll "far exceeded the capacity of the crematory ovens" [of the main camp, which was 340 per day]. The Soviets mention shut downs and repairs to the Birkenau crematoria in connexion with the open-air incinerations at later dates.
The exaggerated figures compiled by the Soviet commission are not, as you suggested, in themselves a problem for the historian-- they are regarded as false. The problem lies in the corroborative witness testimony.
The Soviet commission's "interrogation" of Genrich (Henryk) Tauber elicited the following statement: "All the crematoria incinerated 10-12,000 bodies per day". Pressac correctly states that Tauber's figures are "connected with the [Soviet] propaganda of the immediate post-war period" (1989, p.494).
The witness S. Dragon was also "following the tendency to exaggerate which seems to have been the general rule at the time of the liberation and which is what gave rise to the figure of four million victims for the K.L. Auschwitz, a figure now considered to be pure propaganda. It should be divided by four to get close to reality [p.171]".
Myklos Nyisli also expressly referred to the crematorium capacity in itself: "In all up to 10,000 men could be brought from the gas chambers into the crematory ovens every day".
Filip Müller wrote in 1979:
"The increase in the number of ovens by nearly eight times in comparison to those of the Auschwitz [main camp] crematorium...enabled the incineration of up to 10,000 corpses in 24 hours".
Alfred Franke-Gricksch is alleged to have "reported" in May, 1943 (when only Kremas II and IV were operative): "Current capacity of the "resettlement action" ovens: 10,000 in 24 hours".
Your hypothesis, namely that "the 10,000 figure testified by Müller and others was the maximum reached during the Hungarian deportations, with the use of open-pit burning as well as crematoria" does not correlate to the specific reference to crematory oven capacity as 10,000/day in each of the testimonies cited. Tauber and Dragon were "interrogated" by the Soviet commission and confirmed the Soviet exaggerations verbatim. Franke-Gricksch is alleged to have given the figure as "jetzige kapazität" (current capacity) when two Birkenau crematoria were not even completed and the main camp facility retired (May 1943). Mueller's statement was published in 1979, and was reiterated in the film "Shoah", where he says that up to 3,000 people were gassed and cremated in 3-4 hours, and that this was repeated several times in a single day.
In your letter of April 20, you wrote that "an eyewitness report that claims that 10,000 Jews were killed at Auschwitz in one day is not a confirmation of the Soviet figure of 4 million". The reports mentioned directly refer to unrealistic crematory capacities in themselves and, in this regard, represent a convergence of evidence to a deliberate falsehood.
The minimum fourfold exaggeration of overall deaths could not have existed without a correspondingly exaggerated average daily figure. I would welcome evidence to the contrary.
Browning seems to have been reluctant to respond to this last letter, in which I clarified what it was that I wished for him to address. After having awaited his response for one month, I wrote again, attaching the letter of April 23 to which he had not responded:
Dear Dr. Browning,
I have not yet received your response to my letter of 23 April (attached).
Do you disagree with Jean-Claude Pressac's analyses of the testimonies cited as corroboration of the Soviet exaggerations as your previous letter suggests? The US Army air photos of 1944 do not show evidence of thousands of bodies being cremated in open-air incinerations on any of the known dates and Pressac states (p. 239) that the combined crematoria capacity was about 3,000 per day max.
I think the 10,000 figure should be regarded as an exaggeration regardless of circumstance. Once again, is Pressac wrong or not? If so, why?
Browning was, evidently, not prepared to carry this correspondence any further. On May 18, 1999 he wrote what would be his final e-mail in this exchange:
Dear Mr. Renk,
The tone of our correspondence seems to have changed from exchange to interrogation, in which you feel entitled to demand answers at your convenience to an unending series of questions. Now it is my turn to pose some questions. Who are you? What is your agenda?
I did not respond to Browning's final letter. I had respectfully asked very specific questions, and he was clearly not prepared to answer them. I don't think my "agenda" is relevant. I was asking a question about the significance of a specifically false reference in the witness testimony. It's a very interesting exchange. I asked simple questions and received simple answers. However, when it was unequivocally spelled out that Dr. Browning's answers failed to address the subject I was specifically interested in, he did not wish to continue the correspondence. Typical.