A gas van is a large-capacity truck or van allegedly used to murder passengers in the rear cargo hold via engine exhaust gas.
Soviet Gas Vans
In the mid-1930s, Isai Davidovich Berg – a Russian Jew and head of the economic department of the NKVD for the Moscow region – had the idea of using prisoner-transfer vans to kill inmates locked inside by piping the engine exhaust gases into the enclosed coachwork box. These vans were powered by a gasoline engine produced in the Soviet Union under a licensed from the Ford Company, so their exhaust gas was highly lethal. This invention was in fact built, and from 1936, these vans were used to murder prisoners during transit without them even suspecting it. (Grigorenko 1981, pp. 275f.; Monster: A Portrait of Stalin in Blood, Part 2: “Stalin’s Secret Police,” https://youtu.be/itPPRxy_AQ4, starting at 3 min, 21 sec.; Voslensky 1995, pp. 28f.). This fits well into the framework of the Soviet Union’s (and Russia’s) secret services’ long tradition of using poison to kill dissidents and anyone it considered an obstacle to their ambitions, as has been amply documented (Volodarsky 2009).
The first mention of mobile gas chambers in the context of World War II occurred in 1942. The British newspaper Daily Telegraph – which, back in World War I, spread the atrocity lie that Austrian forces had murdered 700,000 Serbians by gassing them (22 March 1916, p. 7) – resurrected the same atrocity lie once more, when announcing on 25 June 1942 (p. 5) that the Germans had murdered 700,000 Jews in “Travelling Gas Chambers” in Poland.
The Soviets – actual inventors of the homicidal gas van – leveled the same charge against Germany during their Krasnodar Show Trial, which was staged in July of 1943 against Soviet citizens accused of having collaborated with their German liberators. (See Bourtman 2008 for an assessment of this trial.) During the trial and in its portrayal in Soviet mass media, “Hitler’s murder vans” were a prominent topic, although the defendants were not accused of having partaken in their use. These vans were said to have killed using the exhaust gases produced by their diesel engines which supposedly “contained a high concentration of carbon monoxide,” “causing the rapid poisoning and death from asphyxiation of the prisoners.” The German word and concept of diesel engines evidently was meant to instill particularly anti-German horrors and disgust – except that it backfired, because diesel exhaust gas is notably unsuited for the claimed purpose, due to its low toxicity, contrary to the court’s and its experts’ mendacious claims.
This travesty of justice was repeated a few months later, when the Soviets staged a show trial in Kharkov mainly against captured German soldiers who were accused, among other things, of having operated these diesel-driven gas vans, although the Soviets never claimed that Jews were the victims.
No material traces of such a gas van were ever presented. On some occasions, mis-captioned photos showing irrelevant vehicles were at times erroneously or mendaciously presented as evidence for their existence. (See the entry on the Ostrowski Company for more details.)
Gas-van claims played only a minor role during the International Military Tribunal after the war. Whenever they were mentioned, these claims were based on allegations made by the Soviet prosecutors, who used the same kind of “evidence” to prove their claim as had been presented during the Krasnodar and Kharkov show trials. Attempts by the defense to have this propaganda material rejected as impermissible was denied by the court, since the IMT’s statute clearly stated that any records and findings of any court of the Allied nations, including the Soviet Union, were considered admissible, self-evident and true. This way, the claims made during Stalinist travesties of justice became legally binding “truths” for all Allied and (later) German courts.
Witness testimonies by German officials regarding these vans are characterized either by their lack of any concrete knowledge about them, if their existence was admitted, or by an outright denial that such devices ever existed. The IMT protocols mention at least 63 affidavits affirming that no such vans ever existed in German units. None of these affidavits submitted to the IMT seem to have survived.
Documents produced in preparation of the IMT aiming at substantiating gas-van claims – not all of which were submitted as evidence – exhibit clear hallmarks of crude manipulations and forgeries.
While East-German, communist show trials – where gas-van accusations played a role – faithfully followed in Stalinist propagandist footsteps, West-German trials also used the results of Allied post-war trials as a starting point and dogmatic basis for their proceedings. None of the German trials ever questioned whether gas vans really existed in the first place. None of the usual requirements for a murder trial was ever requested – neither by the prosecution, nor by the judges, nor by the defense: namely, traces of the murder weapon or of the murder victims.
The Soviet show-trial claims, puffed up by numerous “witness” claims along the same line, and hence of very dubious provenance, were simply taken as historical dogma. While several defendants still insisted in earlier trials that they had no knowledge of gas vans, the same defendants “remembered” increasingly more about them the more often they were dragged into court over the years, either as defendants or as witnesses. Thus, by way of constant bombardment with “self-evident” propaganda “facts,” false memories were created even among the defendants.
Gas vans are said to have been developed mainly to aid the Einsatzgruppen in Russia mass-murdering Jews behind the German-Russian front line. The documentation about the activities of the Einsatzgruppen is vast, but among the hundreds of documents, not a single one mentions the use of gas vans for any murderous activities. Not even the Soviet show trials mentioned them in the context of mass-murdering Jews.
Laqueur and Baumel-Schwartz (2001, p. 231) claim that as many as 350,000 Jews were killed in vans by the Einsatzgruppen; this is the highest mainstream estimate.
Since no documents exist giving any indication as to how, when, where or by whom the gas vans were conceived, developed, produced, deployed, maintained and then made to disappear without a trace, historians have developed a unique narrative in this regard. It is full of inconsistent, implausible and at times outright absurd claims, supported by similar claims made by defendants during post-war proceedings. These are the same defendants who faced the alternative of either endorsing the unchallengeable dogma or being mercilessly persecuted, prosecuted and punished.
The current orthodox narrative has it that the invention of gas vans was initiated by Himmler, upon allegedly witnessing a mass execution in mid-August 1941 together with Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, after which Himmler supposedly ordered a more-humane method to be developed. Rumors (!) have it that the idea to use engine exhaust to kill people in vehicles presumably occurred to Arthur Nebe when he accidentally gassed himself in a car. Other historians claim that initially bottled carbon monoxide (CO) was used, an idea allegedly copied from the euthanasia centers. This gas was presumably pumped into a trailer pulled by a tractor, but that idea was later abandoned, not because of Nebe’s accidental drunk-gassing event, but because CO steel bottles were allegedly difficult to obtain outside of Germany, and also difficult to transport. Once engine-exhaust gases had been “discovered” as the better source of toxic fumes, some vehicles were then allegedly developed and tested by the Germans, and then eventually deployed, first at the Chełmno Camp, and then later also behind the Eastern front – and in one case even in occupied Serbia. None of this is documented.
Gas vans at Chełmno remain significant to the overall Holocaust narrative, however, due to their alleged large number of fatalities. Chełmno vans supposedly killed up to 350,000 Jews (Laqueur/Baumel-Schwartz 2001, p. 231). This, combined with the 350,000 allegedly killed in vans by the Einsatzgruppen, puts the van total at 700,000 (ibid.; also Gutman 1990, p. 544; Rozett/Spector 2000, p. 230) – a substantial portion of the “6 million.”
Mainstream historians tend to interpret German wartime documents containing terms such as “special (sonder-) vehicles” or simply “S-vehicles” as references to homicidal gas vans, when in fact every vehicle produced for the military was called a “special vehicle,” including every type of Panzer. Some of these special vehicles were, indeed, veritable gas vans – mobile fumigation vehicles used behind the front lines to disinfest soldiers’ clothes of lice.
Furthermore, due to Germany’s lack of reliable supplies of liquid fuels during the war, German authorities mandated that Germany’s entire rolling transportation fleet be switched gradually to producer gas as a fuel source. Vans and trucks equipped with such producer-gas devices were truly lethal gas vans that could easily kill its operators, if they weren’t careful, because producer gas consists of 18-30% of highly flammable and toxic carbon monoxide. These poison-gas generators were known to every vehicle engineer in Germany, were mass-produced by the tens of thousands, and were easy to fuel and operate. Yet, amazingly, not a single source or witness has ever claimed that they were used to commit mass murder, although they would have been the logical and indeed ideal choice of any aspiring mass murderer.