New 'Official' Changes in the Auschwitz Story

By Mark Weber

Since the end of World War II, authoritative claims about the character and scope of killings at the Auschwitz concentration camp have changed drastically. One particularly striking change concerns the various "official" estimates of the number of victims -- a number that since 1945 has been steadily declining.

Today, more than half a century after the end of the war, the process of "establishment" revisionism still continues. It finds recent expression in a lengthy article, "The Number of Auschwitz Victims," published in the May 2002 issue of the scholarly German journal Osteuropa, issued by the prestigious Society for Eastern European Studies. The article is written by Fritjof Meyer, a respected foreign policy analyst, author of several books, and managing editor of Germany's foremost weekly news magazine Der Spiegel. / 1

Drastic Reductions

The Auschwitz camp complex, located in what is now south-central Poland, was set up by German authorities in 1940. Large numbers of Jews were deported there between 1942 and mid-1944. The main camp, or Stammlager, was known as Auschwitz I. Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, is regarded as the main extermination center.

At the postwar International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (1945-1946), the victorious Allied powers charged that the Germans exterminated four million people at Auschwitz. This figure, which was given in a report produced by a Soviet government commission, was uncritically accepted for many years, and often appeared in major American newspapers and magazines. / 2

Other figures, both higher and lower, were sometimes also claimed during the decades after the end of World War II. / 3

One of the most widely read books on the German wartime camp system is a detailed study written shortly after the end of the war by former Buchenwald inmate Eugen Kogon. This much-praised work, published in the United States under the title The Theory and Practice of Hell, reports that at Auschwitz alone there were "at least 3,500,000 victims, probably 4,500,000." / 4

The 1955 French documentary film "Night and Fog," which is still widely shown in France, and has been seen by many in the United States, claims that nine million people lost their lives in Auschwitz. / 5

In his Osteuropa article, Meyer writes that Gerald Reitlinger, a prominent Jewish specialist of this subject, estimated in his 1953 book The Final Solution, that a total of one million people perished in Auschwitz, of whom as many as 750,000 were murdered by gas. / 6

Until 1989, notes Meyer, it was forbidden in eastern Europe to dispute the official finding that four million were killed at Auschwitz. At the Auschwitz State Museum, staff members who expressed doubts about this figure were threatened with disciplinary measures. In 1989 Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer said that it is time to finally acknowledge that the familiar four million figure is a deliberate myth. /7 In July 1990 the Auschwitz State Museum, a Polish government agency, along with Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Center, announced that altogether perhaps one million people (both Jews and non-Jews) died at Auschwitz. / 8

Franciszek Piper, director of the Auschwitz State Museum, in an essay published in a semi-official 1994 American anthology, put the number of Auschwitz victims at 1.1 million. / 9 More or less consistent with that, prominent American newspapers in recent months have been telling readers that "more than a million" Jews lost their lives at Auschwitz. / 10

In a book published in 1994, the French anti-revisionist writer Jean-Claude Pressac estimated 631,000 to 711,000 deaths at Auschwitz, of which 470,000 to 550,000 were from gassing. / 11

In his recent Osteuropa article, Fritjof Meyer presents a further revision downwards. He writes: "These considerations are the basis for the conclusion here that in Auschwitz half a million people were murdered, about 356,000 of them with gas." Similarly, Meyer ends his article by concluding that 510,000 lost their lives in Auschwitz, of whom 356,000 "probably" were killed by gas.

The Höss 'Confessions'

For decades key evidence cited for mass killings at Auschwitz has been the postwar testimony of Rudolf Höss, who was commandant of the camp from May 1940 until December 1943, and again between May and July 1944. Since the end of the war, his statements of March and April 1946, and his testimony in April 1946 as a witness at the main Nuremberg trial, have been widely cited in numerous history books, newspapers, and magazine articles. / 12 In those statements, and in that testimony, he declared that three million died at Auschwitz, of whom two and a half million were killed "there by gassing and burning." / 13

In a detailed 1985 essay, Prof. Robert Faurisson established that the Höss "confession" is a false document that was extracted under torture. / 14 Fritjof Meyer, echoing arguments and points made 17 years earlier by Faurisson, writes that Höss' "confession" was wrung out of him after "three days of sleep deprivation, torture, beatings after every answer, being held naked, and forcibly intoxicated," and, finally, with the use of a whip.

Martin Broszat's Deceit

In his Osteuropa article, Meyer refers to the deceit of Martin Broszat, one of Germany's most prominent postwar historians. From 1972 until his death in 1989 Broszat was deputy director, and then director of Germany's semi-official Institute for Contemporary History in Munich. "The unreliability of Höss' million-large figures," writes Meyer, "is so serious that Martin Broszat simply left out some of them in the publication of the Höss papers that he edited."

Specifically, Meyer notes, Broszat deleted from Höss' "memoir" statements about millions of non-existent Jews who were scheduled for extermination, including "about four million Jews from Romania," as well as "an estimated two and a half million Jews from Bulgaria." In fact, Meyer writes, in 1940 there were only about 342,000 Jews in Romania altogether, and the total number of Jews in Bulgaria, according to more or less reliable estimates, was between 48,000 and some 63,000. Höss had exaggerated the actual number of Jews in Romania by more than ten times, and in Bulgaria by about 50 times.

So far, anyway, no public outcry has arisen against Dr. Broszat, who consciously falsified an important historical document, or against the prestigious scholarly institute he directed. Similarly, no one has yet apologized for this deception -- or even demanded that an apology be made.

Downplaying the Birkenau 'Kremas'

For decades it has been authoritatively claimed that mass killings of Jews were carried out at Auschwitz -- above all, by poison gas in semi-underground cellars adjacent to the Birkenau crematory structures (Kremas). This has been the view, for example, of Robert Jan van Pelt, a Jewish scholar who is regarded as an authority on Auschwitz and who was a key witness against British historian David Irving in the headline-making Irving-Lipstadt trial of January-March 2000. In his testimony in the trial, van Pelt referred to Krema II at Birkenau as "the most lethal building of Auschwitz," the place where "more people lost their lives than any other place on this planet. Five hundred thousand people were killed." / 15

In his Osteuropa article, Meyer discounts the importance of these "lethal buildings." In a significant revision of the familiar Auschwitz story, he shifts the focus of gassings from Birkenau Kremas II and III to two "farm houses" or "bunkers," which were also known as the "white house and the "red house." Meyer writes: "The actual genocide that was carried out probably took place mostly in the two reconstructed farm houses outside of the camp; the foundations of the first, the 'White House' or 'Bunker I,' were recently discovered."

Meyer unhelpfully does not explain what he means here by "probably" and "mostly."

Unsystematic Mass Killings?

Meyer also calls into question another important aspect of the familiar extermination story. According to the "standard" story, in the summer of 1941 or, at the latest, in the summer of 1942, Hitler ordered the systematic extermination of all the Jews of Europe under German control. In keeping with that, SS chief Heinrich Himmler supposedly ordered Commandant Höss to carry out systematic killings of Jews at Auschwitz, which was to serve as a central killing center. Only employable Jews who could be "worked to death" were to be temporarily spared.

This story is not accurate, Meyer suggests. Several months after the end of the war in Europe, he relates, former SS officer Hans Aumeier testified that in November 1942 Höss received an order from Himmler to gas all weak, sick or otherwise unemployable Jewish prisoners as a measure to prevent further spread of disease in the camp. / 16 Aumeier's testimony, which Meyer accepts as valid, suggests that Jews were killed at Auschwitz not as part of an comprehensive extermination program systematically to kill all European Jews, but rather as an exceptional measure to curb the horrific epidemics that were ravaging the Auschwitz I and Birkenau camps. / 17

A Dubious Document

Meyer also takes a skeptical look at a document that has been cited for years as a key piece of evidence for mass killings at Auschwitz: a June 28, 1943, letter from SS officer Karl Bischoff, head of the Auschwitz camp central construction department, to the WVHA center in Berlin. In this letter, Bischoff reports that all the crematory ovens in the Auschwitz main camp and in Birkenau could process as many as 4,756 corpses every 24 hours. This document is cited, for example, in the semi-official book, Nazi Mass Murder, in a section headed "the Perfected Gas Chambers at Birkenau." / 18

But as long ago as 1989, the French anti-revisionist researcher Jean-Claude Pressac expressed doubt about the figures given in this document. In a detailed book published that year, he expressed the view that the true cremation figures may perhaps have been one-half or one-third of those given in the Bischoff letter. / 19 Noting that some years ago Pressac had characterized this document as "an internal propaganda lie" of the SS, and that even van Pelt has cut in half the figures in the Bischoff letter, Meyer writes of the "entirely permissible doubts about the authenticity of the document."

Meyer also discounts the familiar image of "factory like" crematories at Birkenau, operating day and night and continually belching smoke. He points out that these crematories operated only fitfully, and often broke down. He cites, for example, Birkenau's crematory facility (Krema) II, which went into operation on March 22, 1943. Cracks in the chimney were already visible on April 3, and by mid-May the crematory was no longer operational. Because Birkenau's crematories could not possibly have "processed" as many corpses as has been claimed, Meyer concludes that between December 1942 and March 1943 tens of thousands of corpses were cremated there in the open air.

Meyer does not consider an obvious problem inherent in this claim: If Birkenau had really been a center for a well-planned, systematic extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews, why did the authorities in charge fail to arrange for the construction of adequate crematory facilities to process the anticipated numbers of victims? To put it another way, cremation of tens of thousands of corpses in makeshift open-air pyres cannot be reconciled with Birkenau's supposed role as a center where, on the basis of orders from the highest level, a program of systematic extermination was carried out.

It is largely on the basis of his understanding of cremation capacity in the camp, and his estimate that a total of perhaps 433,000 corpses were cremated at Auschwitz (including Birkenau), that Meyer concludes that some 500,000 people perished there.


Compared to the recently "authoritative" figure of approximately one million Auschwitz deaths, Meyer has reduced the number of Jewish victims there by at least 450,000. If he were held to the legal standards that are routinely applied to revisionist skeptics, he would be prosecuted for violating Germany's law against "relativizing" or "denying" Jewish deaths.

Meyer seems vaguely aware of this. In an apparent effort to provide a "politically correct" justification for his "denial" and "relativizing," he pompously writes: "Accordingly, the dimension of the breach of civilization becomes conceivable and, for the first time, is a convincing portent for those born afterwards … This result does not 'relativize' the barbarism, but rather verifies it -- and serves as a severe warning against a new shattering of civilization."

Meyer's article is subtitled "New Revelations through new archival findings." In fact, Fritjof Meyer and Osteuropa journal affirm the decades-old skepticism of the "deniers," embracing even some of the same "physical" or "forensic" arguments presented for years by revisionists such as Robert Faurisson. / 20 Meyer unintentionally affirms that the skeptics were right to reject the "official" story, which -- as his article shows -- is still changing.


  1. Fritjof Meyer, "Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz: Neue Erkenntnisse durch neue Archivfunde," Osteuropa: Zeitschrift für Gegenwartsfragen des Ostens, 52. Jg. 5/2002, Mai 2002, pp. 631-641. (Osteuropa is published by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde.) Fritjof Meyer, managing editor (leitender Redakteur) of Der Spiegel, was born in 1932. He holds several certifications of expertise: Dipl. DHP, Dipl.-Politologe, Dipl.-Kameralist. He is the author, for example, of Weltmacht im Abstieg: der Niedergang der Sowjet-Union (München: C. Bertelsmann, 1984). A leading German daily has reported on the impact of Meyer's comment on the impact of, or response to, Meyer's Osteuropa article. See: Sven Felix Kellerhoff, "Der Fall des angesehenen Journalisten Fritjof Meyer," Die Welt, August 28, 2002. (This text is posted on David Irving's web site.) See also: "Auschwitz: Die Wahrheit," National-Zeitung (Munich), No. 30, July 19, 2002, pp. 1, 5.
  2. Nuremberg document 008-USSR (May 6, 1945). International Military Tribunal, Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg: 1947-1949; IMT 42-vol. "blue series"), Vol. 39, pp. 241, 261; C.L. Sulzberger, "Oswiecim Killings Placed at 4,000,000," The New York Times, May 8, 1945, and, The New York Times, Jan. 31, 1986, p. A4.
  3. Robert Faurisson, "Combien de morts a Auschwitz?," Dec. 18, 1995, in Écrits Révisionnistes (1999), vol. 4, pp. 1730-1740.
    German translation: R. Faurisson, "Wieviele Tote gab es im KL Auschwitz"?," Viertelsjahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung, Sept. 1999 (3. Jg., Heft 3), pp. 268-272. Note also Faurisson's comment on Auschwitz figures in The Journal of Historical Review, Jan.-Feb. 1995 (Vol. 15, No. 1), p. 24.
  4. Eugen Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1950; and, New York: Berkley, 1984 [pb.]), p. 253. The original German edition was entitled Der SS Staat.
  5. "Night and Fog" ("Nuit et Brouillard") is a film by Alain Resnais (distributed by Classic Releasing, 1993). Approximately 55 seconds from the end, as the grounds of Auschwitz are panned, the English subtitle reads: "Nine million dead haunt this landscape." See also Robert Faurisson's mentions of this film in The Journal of Historical Review, Jan.-Feb. 1994, p. 24, and in Écrits Révisionnistes (1999), vol. 4, pp. 1730-1731 (incl. footnote), 1738.
  6. In the second edition of The Final Solution, Gerald Reitlinger estimated that altogether perhaps 700,000 to 900,000 people (Jews and non-Jews) perished at Auschwitz. See: G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe (London: Sphere Books, pb., 1971. 2nd edition), pp. 500-501.
  7. Y. Bauer, "Fighting the Distortions," The Jerusalem Post (Israel), Sept. 22, 1989.
  8. "Auschwitz Deaths Reduced to a Million," The Daily Telegraph (London), July 17, 1990; "Poland Reduces Auschwitz Death Toll Estimate to 1 Million," The Washington Times, July 17, 1990.
  9. F. Piper, "The Number of Victims," in Y. Gutman and M. Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, 1994), p. 71.
  10. Recently The Wall Street Journal told readers that at Auschwitz "more than one million people [were] murdered here, 90 percent of them Jews." See: "Burden of History: Auschwitz Repairs Force Tough Debate over Preservation," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 14, 2002, p. A1. Similarly, Prof. John K. Roth, in a review of a new book by two prominent Jewish Holocaust historians, wrote that "more than a million Jews perished" in Auschwitz-Birkenau, "most of them gassed to death." See: Los Angeles Times "Book World," Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002, p. 4.
  11. Jean-Claude Pressac, Die Krematorien von Auschwitz: Die Technik des Massenmordes (Munich: Piper, 1994), p. 202.
  12. Höss' testimony is described as "crucial" and of "critical importance" in Y. Gutman, M. Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, 1994), p. 29.
  13. Höss statement, March 14 (or 15), 1946. Nuremberg document NO-1210 (749-D); Höss statement, April 5, 1946. Nuremberg document 3868-PS (Exhibit USA-819). International Military Tribunal, Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg: 1947-1949; IMT 42-vol. "blue series"), Vol. 33, pp. 275-279. This latter Höss statement, including its figures of Auschwitz deaths, was quoted by the Nuremberg Tribunal in its final judgment. See IMT "blue series," Vol. 1, pp. 251-252.
  14. Robert Faurisson, "How the British Obtained the Confessions of Rudolf Höss," The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1986-87 (Vol. 7, No. 4), pp. 389-403. ( The original French text was first published in Annales d'Histoire Revisionniste (Paris), No. 1, spring 1987, pp. 137-152. It was also reprinted in: R. Faurisson, Écrits Révisionnistes (1999), vol. 2, pp. 657-669.
  15. "David Irving's Final Address in the London Libel Trial," The Journal of Historical Review, March-April 2000 (Vol. 19, No. 2), pp. 37-38. Together with Deborah Dwork, Robert Jan van Pelt is author of Auschwitz: 1270 to Today (New York: Norton, 1996), and, most recently, also with Dwork,Holocaust: A History (New York: Norton, 2002).
  16. Source cited by Meyer (in note No. 8 of his Osteuropa article): CIA Special Collections, Reference Coll., Box 3; Bericht von BB-175 über Aumeiers Vernehmung im Gefängnis Akerhus, Norwegen, vom 29.10.1945.
    See also the report on the interrogation of Kurt Aumeier of August 10, 1945, posted on David Irving's web site ( Source cited by Irving: National Archives (Washington, DC), RG.319 - IRR - XE.003245 Hans Aumeier. According to this report, Aumeier stated that in November 1942, he was told in strictest confidence of an order from Berlin "that all Jewish prisoners who were infirm, sick or incapable of work were to be gassed in order to prevent further spreading of diseases."
  17. On epidemics at Auschwitz, see: Y. Gutman and M. Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, 1994), pp. 27, 214, 328, 381, 388. See also: M. Weber, "High Frequency Delousing Facilities at Auschwitz," The Journal of Historical Review, May-June 1999 (Vol. 18, No. 3), pp. 4-12, esp. pp. 2-8.
  18. Eugen Kogon, and H. Langbein, A. Rückerl, and others, Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1994), p. 157. Original German edition: Nationalsozialistische Massentötungen durch Giftgas (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1986), p. 219.
    This document is also cited, and reproduced in facsimile, in a six-page article in Der Spiegel, No. 40/ 1993, Oct. 4, 1993, pp. 151, 156. More recently, Prof. John K. Roth, in a review of a new book by D. Dwork and R. J. van Pelt, wrote that the four crematory structures at Birkenau, which "included eight gas chambers, 46 ovens and the capacity to dispose of 4,416 corpses a day." This calculation is from the June 28, 1943, Bischoff letter (4,756 minus 340 for the crematory in the Auschwitz I main camp). Los Angeles Times "Book World," Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002, p. 4.
  19. J.-C. Pressac, Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers (New York: B. Klarsfeld, 1989), pp. 244, 247.
  20. See, for example, "Faurisson's Three Letters to Le Monde (1978-1979)," The Journal of Historical Review, May-June 2000, pp. 40-46.

From The Journal of Historical Review, May-August 2002 (Vol. 21, No. 3-4), pages 24-28.