Typhus and Cholera, Nazis and Jews

  • Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890-1945 by Paul Weindling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Hardcover. 463 pages. Index, illustrations.

Reviewed by Samuel Crowell

There is a certain class of history books that are interesting and valuable in spite of a lack of original insight or creativity on the part of the author. Richard Evans's massive tome on the nineteenth century outbreaks of cholera in North Germany, Death in Hamburg, is one such. Paul Weindling's Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe is another. Weindling's book, however, contains elements of Jewish apologetics and consistent anti-German condemnation that are exceptional even in today's climate, and are perhaps the book's most striking feature.

For the most part, the book is a highly detailed and commendably researched description of the development of medical procedures developed for combating epidemic diseases in Eastern Europe from the mid-nineteenth century through the end of the Second World War. In this respect it provides a useful supplement to Fritz Berg's pioneering English language studies in this area. The book also raises themes discussed in my own work: it would not be too much to say that Weindling provides an enormously expanded treatment of the history of disinfection summarized in chapter three of The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes, an essay which sought to demonstrate the reasonableness of revisionist doubt in the face of threats of censorship. Weindling's book is, after all, based on many of the same sources.

It would wrong, however, to suggest that Weindling argues from a revisionist perspective, or that he gives due credit to revisionist contributions. On the contrary, the main thesis of his book is that the Germans developed the techniques of disinfection -- showers, poison gas, and cremation -- and then, working from an evolving perception of Jews as vermin to be eradicated, employed these techniques during the war as part of a "lethal trinity" for genocidal purposes. For example, Weindling writes that "the medical techniques of disinfestation, fumigation, and disinfection ... were unleashed by the Nazis for genocide" (p. 400), a thesis which is dropped into the text dozens of times, but nowhere really argued, let alone proved. Similarly, his notion of a developed concept of associating Jews with vermin, and thus requiring extermination, rests entirely on a series of vaguely anti-Jewish remarks culled from almost a hundred years of German medical literature on the typhus problem in Eastern Europe.

Which brings us to the larger issue of Weindling's extreme apologetic tendencies. That Eastern European Jews -- like virtually any other Eastern Europeans -- were vectors of typhus and other diseases endemic to the region is a simple fact. Similarly, the aversion of Eastern Europeans to disinfection measures, such as head-shaving and showering, is also universally attested by commentators, and indeed by many of the sources Weindling quotes. Yet any expression of irritation at the evasive or dilatory reactions to disinfection, or of fear of the contagiousness of Eastern Europeans, is likely to be catalogued by Weindling as simply further indication of the supposedly evolving anti-Semitic stereotype that would, decades later, make possible mass murder.

Weindling's defensiveness in this area reaches a high point in his discussion of the well-known cholera epidemic of 1892, which struck Hamburg, and New York City later the same year. Weindling quotes the assessment of leading German physician Robert Koch that the cholera had been brought in by Russian immigrants. Yet, at the end of a tortured paragraph of reasoning, Weindling argues that "there is no conclusive proof for the view held at the time by anti-Semites that Russian Jews caused the Hamburg cholera epidemic" (p. 63). Our first reaction to this kind of display is to wonder why the author chooses to waste the reader's time with such argument. If Russian immigrants were the source of the disease in Hamburg, and most of them were Jews, then the conclusion should be obvious. We should stress that this in no way should be considered a slur on the Jewish migrants: they were, after all, fleeing persecution, carrying diseases to which they themselves succumbed, and were usually destitute: King Cholera, like most diseases, reigned mostly over the poor. But to argue around the point, just so anti-Semites will never be right, or, perhaps, to ensure that a people is never stigmatized, is not only to distort history but to write history which hardly bears reading.

Unfortunately, these apologetic tendencies are repeatedly at work in this book. Resistance against disinfection is excused because it was harsh and dehumanizing. Avoidance of head shaving was justified because there was divided opinion as to whether head lice were vectors of typhus. If Germans characterized Polish Jewish prostitutes as disease-ridden and lousy, Weindling is quick to point out that the incidence of gonorrhea and syphilis was higher in German cities. The threat of typhus in Eastern Europe was exaggerated by unnamed "medical elites" in order to justify the enormous expenditures by Germans, Britons, and Americans to combat it. Typhus itself is described in innocuous terms; the delirium of the disease as it approaches climax is characterized as an "act of spiritual resistance" when experienced by concentration camp inmates (p. 6). And so on.

Weindling is just as biased when it comes to arguing his thesis, which seems to involve little more than demonizing Germans. The rigor of German procedures is routinely characterized in the most unflattering terms; the developments of German medicine are stereotypically portrayed as flat-footed, unimaginative, and factious. On one page, Weindling will praise the American development of DDT, while castigating German caution. On the next page, he is bound to admit that "Ironically, the Germans showed greater awareness of the toxicity of DDT, problems of acquired resistance, and the ecological hazards of its deployment" (p. 380) -- in other words, precisely the factors that led them to be cautious in the first place!

Elsewhere, Weindling notes the fact that the Germans developed extensive procedures to protect against gas warfare; but because "the Germans were deploying poison gas against civilians," this must have been meant to protect the "perpetrators" (p. 387). Elsewhere, while scrupulously avoiding any mention of the notorious British anthrax plans, Weindling launches into a long discussion about German plans for biological warfare, a discussion which, in the end, seems to turn on the fact that the Germans were afraid of being attacked by such agents themselves, and had unreasoning fears about being attacked with diseases by their captive populations. To be sure, the German fears were probably excessive, but it would have helped if Weindling had mentioned that Jan Karski, among others, has bragged about how Polish resistants were infecting German soldiers with typhus. In the same vein, Weindling uncritically repeats Stalinist accusations of German biological warfare in the 1930s.

The all-important section of the book, for relevance to revisionism, proposes the linkage of the highly developed German disinfection procedures with the assumed mass extermination policies in the camps. Here the main character is Joachim Mrugowsky, head of the SS Hygiene Institute. Weindling proposes Mrugowsky's culpability in genocide, by association if nothing else, in a lengthy argument, while Mrugowsky's protestations that Zyklon was used solely for disinfection are duly referenced and completely ignored.

Strikingly absent from the discussion as well, especially for a book as thoroughly researched as this one, is Dr. Mrugowsky's order of May 13, 1943, mandating to the entire concentration camp system that henceforth Zyklon would be used solely for fumigating barracks. (See Crowell, "Bomb Shelters in Birkenau," section 3.7, http://www.codoh.com/incon/inconbsinbirk.html) Certainly this document is important in assessing Mrugowsky's veracity. Another omission of this type concerns World War One disinfection measures: although Weindling is thorough in referencing the literature that revisionists have used in the past, he omits in his discussion of Austrian disinfection procedures any reference to the fact that such procedures, as Faurisson has shown, led to false reports of mass gassing. As though to compensate for this omission, Weindling relates without comment the accusation that the Turks gassed Armenian infants in 1917 in a steam bath. (p. 106)

When discussing the actual mechanics of the Holocaust, Weindling's impressive grasp of the archives gives way to a derivative section depending largely on the contributions of Jean-Claude Pressac, Henry Friedlander (for euthanasia), Robert Jan Van Pelt and Deborah Dwork, and Eugen Kogon's compendium Nazi Mass Murder with Poison Gas. As is well known to revisionists, these books in turn are based largely on testimony and anecdote, supplemented occasionally with interrogation records and a smattering of survivor accounts. As a result, Weindling's discussion of the Jewish catastrophe amounts to little more than a disjointed and gullible regurgitation of the greatest hits of Holocaust arcana, all the way from Kurt Gerstein's wild reports to such suspicious claims as the story of the champagne party thrown by the staff of the Hadamar euthanasia center on the cremation of their ten thousandth corpse. This is the weakest and least interesting part of the book.

The book is poorly written, not only because of its endless slanting and argument, but because the body of the text consists in many places of repeated information, to no clear purpose. While that makes the book largely unusable for the general reader, Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890-1945 is a great boon for those who are deeply interested in its subject. The book contains much interesting and surprising detail that will delight the expert, and the scope of the research commands respect.

In the end, these elements save this book. Although betraying an irritating bias, Weindling has written a good and solid book about the dilemmas of epidemics and their prevention that will be of great use to Holocaust scholars, and to revisionists in particular. We can only regret that he didn't write from a more objective and humane perspective, for then he might have produced a much better one.


About the author

Samuel Crowell is the pen name of an American writer who describes himself as a "moderate revisionist." At the University of California (Berkeley) he studied philosophy, foreign languages (including German, Polish, Russian, and Hungarian), and history, including Russian, German, and German-Jewish history. He continued his study of history at Columbia University. For six years he worked as a college teacher.


From The Journal of Historical Review, September/December 2001 (Vol. 20, No. 5/6), page 75.