The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Is a "Vergasungskeller" a "Gas Shelter?"
Nele Abels

In a recent article by Arthur R. Butz[1], once again the document comes under discussion, which was put forward as a piece of evidence under the reference number 4473-NO in the Nuremberg trials[2] This letter was sent from the chief of the Auschwitz construction department, Hauptsturmführer Karl Bischoff[3], to his supervisor in Berlin, SS-Brigadeführer Dr. Ing. Hans Kammler and was dated the 29. January 1943. In this letter Bischoff writes that the construction department has problems with the cold weather and will therefore not be able to finish timely the concrete works to be done in the morgue. But this would be of no great harm, since the corpses could also be stored in the "Vergasungskeller".

This term is quite incriminating for the purposes of holocaust deniers (Butz speaks of an "outstanding small problem") since there is no doubt that "vergasen" can mean "to kill with gas". The other meaning of "vergasen" is "to carburet" or "to gasify". Therefore, the only way for Holocaust deniers to escape admitting the killings with gas in Auschwitz is therefore to interpret "Vergasungskeller" in the second sense. Butz gives in his article a brief history of such "revisionist" attempts:

In The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, 1976, Butz put forward the thesis that the "Vergasungskeller" was used to create a combustible gas for the crematorium ovens, but admits himself that his theory could not be defended. In 1989, Robert Faurisson offered the idea that the cellar was a storage area for fumigation supplies. In 1992 Butz came forward with two new theories. First he pointed out "that there were many ways 'Vergasung' can come up in a sewage treatment technology" and thus concluded that the "Vergasungskeller" may have something to do with the sewage treatment plant in the camp. Even stranger is his second theory that the "Vergasungskeller" was a "facility for generating fuel gas for the camp" which he deemed more plausible nethertheless.

In Vergasungskeller Butz offers now a new explanation for the allegedly mysterious "Vergasungskeller", without giving reason why his other theories are implausible, by the way. He points out that after the first world war, the danger of gas attacks has been taken seriously and therefore shelters against chemical warfare were being developed. Such shelters had to fulfil certain requirements which could not be found everythere. Thus, they had preferably to be located under ground. Butz argues that the crematorium in Auschwitz would be an ideal location for such a shelter because if offered cellars but was only one storage high, so that after a bomb attack, the rubble of the collapsed building would not block the exit of the shelter. Therefore the "Vergasungskeller" mentioned in the letter was in fact a "gas shelter".

The central passage of Butz' argumentation is of great importance and is therefore quoted here entirely:

I have never seen the word "Vergasungskeller" in a lexicon; indeed I have seen it only in discussions of NO-4473! However I have seen two German-Russian dictionaries, one a military dictionary, that say "Gaskeller" means "gas shelter". However we should not consider ourselves bound to dictionaries on this. If one asks the question: In a World War II military context, what might "Vergasungskeller" and/or "Gaskeller" mean?, I think that "gas shelter" is the answer that comes naturally to mind, and that other meanings are somewhat strained. Of course other meanings come naturally to mind in non-military contexts.

It should be noticed that apart from free-wheeling speculations about the existence of gas shelters in concentration camps (despite of his impressive list of footnotes which make out one quarter of the article, Butz fails to offer evidence for such shelters in Auschwitz and in other camps, which would be after all the central point of his argument) the only support for his interpretation is that two dictionaries mention "Gaskeller" as translation for "gas shelter". Very strangely for an experienced author and academic he goes on without much consideration and identifies two very different words as synonyms. "Vergasungskeller" is "Gaskeller", therefore "Vergasungskeller" is "gas shelter". Full stop. No evidence needed.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. A "Gaskeller" may be a "Vergasungskeller". A "Gaskeller" may also be a "Gasschutzkeller" (the German word for "gas shelter"). But a "Vergasungskeller" may never be a "Gasschutzkeller". On the first sight, this looks like a paradoxon and therefore some elaboration on the German word formation system is needed.

Only a minor part of the German words are simplicia, e.g. words which are "undividable". The major part of the German words are compounds, formed in one or the other way. This is one of the marking features of the German language. Because it is possible to form "new" words on the spot - which are nethertheless perfectly understandable to a speaker of German - most words will not appear in dictionaries. One third of the words used in an average newspaper article cannot by found in a dictionary.[4] In the case of rarely used technical terms, this quota is of course much higher, which means that it is hardly surprising that Butz has not been able to trace "Vergasungskeller" in a dictionary. Dictionaries can do little more than to give the parts of the language which the user has to put together with the background of his own knowledge in order to achieve the desired result. The foreword of the Wahrig dictionary puts it this way:

The word epxlanations have therefore always the sense to give the user a help which allows him to use language elements already known by him to deduce other, unknown ones. Their sense is not, as it was mentioned above, to give scientifically and logically sound definitions. This would be the task of the specific scientific branches.[5]

Therefore Butz' complaints that the Wahrig dictionary does not mention the use of "Gaskammern" in the fumigation field is completely unjustified. In nowadays German language, the meaning of "Gaskammer" is first and foremost connected to the national socialist extermination camps. This has nothing to do with Orwell or "politicized" dictionaries. Holocaust deniers may like it or not, but very few native speakers of German would be aware that "Gaskammern" could be found in delousing facilities etc. The Wahrig dictionary thus describes the language at it is used, it is not its task to question whether a minor fringe of political extremists deny historical commonplaces or not.

To come back to the "Vergasungskeller" problem, what Butz has done is obviously to take the particles "gas" and "keller" which can be found in both words, "Gaskeller" and "Vergasungskeller", and to conclude that the meaning of both words must therefore be identical. But the language elements which are mentioned above as the required background knowledge are not only the knowledge about the meaning of the words, semantics, but in this case also the knowledge about the "mechanics" of puttig the words together, morphology. This would e.g. be the knowledge that the particle "-ung" changes a verb to a noun. A matter of morphology is also the fact that when two nouns are put together, the first noun influences the meaning of the second and not the other way round. A "washing room" is a room where washing is done (It works the same in German). The meaning of "washing" and the meaning of "room" alone would be insufficient to explain "washing room", morphological knowledge is also needed.[6] It is no different with "Gas" and "Keller" and their derivatives.

A further morphological phenomenon is that in certain cases parts of compound nouns may fall away without harm. Again, this is relevant to the word "Gaskeller". In its meaning of "gas shelter" it was constructed in the first place as "Gas-Schutz-Keller" (gas-protection-cellar). As a first step the compound "Gas-Schutz" is formed (protection against gas) and with this new noun another compound is formed: a cellar for the protection against gas. Since "Gasschutzkeller" is rather longish, another tendency of human language comes into play, the habit of shortening and simplifying language elements. The Duden grammar calls this "language economy"[7], but we could call it more plainly natural human laziness. Thus the middle part falls away and the shorter form "Gas-Keller" remains. In the German grammar, this ellipsis, e.g. short form, is called a "bracket form"[8] An equivalent form would be "Gasmaske" (gas mask) which is derived from "Gasschutzmaske". Since this word is used much more commonly than "Gaskeller" it can be found in dictionaries.

Butz is entirely correct when he assumes that in a military context, in which people are confronted every day with protective rooms against gas attacks, this meaning of "Gaskeller" could come naturally to their mind. But Bischoff did not write "Gaskeller", he wrote "Vergasungs- keller". Yet, "Gaskeller" may also mean "Vergasungskeller", because this word needs not necessarily to be the outcome of the ellipsis described above. German compounds may be formed very vaguely out of two nouns to express a modification but not necessarily the precise nature of the modification.[9] An example for this is "Sauerstoffmaske" (oxygen mask). It could be imaginable that analogous to a "Gasmaske" a "Sauerstoffmaske" provides protection against oxygen, which is obviously not true. On the other hand, no information is included in "Sauerstoffmaske" which hints at that it is a device to introduce oxygen into the human organism. Therefore we could deduct from the compound "Gaskeller" only that it describes a cellar where something happens which has to do with gas, which can of course also be what "vergasen" means: the killing of people with gas or the creation of gas.

This means that "Gaskeller" is highly ambiguous and would indeed be defined only by its context. But again, Bischoff did not write "Gaskeller" but "Vergasungskeller". And this word, being derived from the verb "vergasen" by a morphological process, is unambiguous and can be looked up in a dictionary, as Butz himself states:

The primary meaning of "Vergasung" is gas generation or carbureation [...] A secondary meaning is application of a gas as in fumigation or in gas warfare.[10]

By no means has "vergasen" the meaning of "to protect against" gas. Such a claim is unsupportable as it would be to claim that "Gasschutz" means "gassing". We have seen that the connection between "Gaskeller", "Vergasungskeller" and "Gasschutzkeller" can be understood in a fashion similar to a tree. The two latter words branch from the general form but are distinct in their meaning. To assume that they are synonyms because the have a common generalization is a logical fallacy which is indeed extremely astonishing when uttered by a doctor of science and lecturer at a renowned university.[11]

Butz is closer to the truth than he probably would like when he says:

Why would the author of NO-4473 not refer to a Leichenkeller as a Leichenkeller? I don't think a slip is involved. We normally do no consider ourselves bound to use only formal designations. More commonly, we refer to things according to their function or in any case to the function that happens to be in mind at that time. [...]

Bischoff had indeed "Vergasungen" in mind. Since evidence for gasification devices can neither be produced in contemporary documents, nor in testimonies nor in archeological research, it is clear beyond doubt that the Bauleiter meant killings by gas. But already on linguistic grounds, Butz' theory is simply wrong and therefore worthless.

28. September 1996


[1] Butz, Arthur R.: Vergasungskeller, August 1996, In the following, quotations without reference are taken from this article.
[2] Nuremberg document 4473-NO, National Museum Auschwitz BW30/34, chapter 100, quoted in Nationalsozialistische Massentötungen durch Giftgas: eine Dokumentation, eds. Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, Adalbert Rückerl et al., Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 1989, p. 230.
[3] For the position of Bischoff cp. Pressac, Jean-Claude: Die Krematorien von Auschwitz: die Technik des Massenmordes, München, Zürich: Piper, 1993, p. 176. It can quite well be assumed that the building site supervisor, who had an SS rank equivalent to army captain, was informed about the purpose of the buildings and would use "Vergasungskeller" only when it was appropriate.
[4] Duden Grammatik der deutschen Gegenwartssprache, 4th edition, eds. Günter Drosdowski et al., Mannheim etc.: Dudenverlag, 1984, p.386.
[5] Wahrig, Gerhard: Deutsches Wörterbuch, Gütersloh, Berlin: Bertelsmann, 1977, p. 23. The passage reads in German: "Bei den Worterklärungen handelt es sich also immer darum, Hilfen zu geben, die es dem Benutzer ermöglichen, durch ihm bereits bekannte sprachliche Elemente andere, ihm unbekannte zu erschließen, und nicht darum - wie oben gesagt - wissenschaftlich und logisch hieb- und stichfeste Definitionen zu geben. Das ist die Sache der
[6] One has to keep in mind that there are two "sorts" of language knowledge. The linguist knows the terms and is able to explain the linguistic phenomena. The native speaker of a language simply knows "that it is right this way and that it is wrong the other way." Both sorts of knowledge serve as background in the way described above. The linguistic explanations given in this essay are self-evident to every native speaker of German, even if they should not know the terms "semantics" or "morphology". We all know that a "washing room" is not a washing that takes place in a room, don't we?
[7] Duden Grammatik, p. 392.
[8] Ibid. p. 394.
[9] For general remarks on such compounds, cp. ibid. p. 408.
[10] Butz doesn't give a source, but this is the definition which can also be found in the Wahrig dictionary.
[11] Cp. Lipstadt, Deborah E.: Betrifft: Leugnen des Holocaust, Zürich: Rio Verlag, 1994, p.154.

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