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Defense Documents

David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial: Electronic Edition, by Richard J. Evans

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(xi) The suppression of relevant evidence: the memoirs of Franz von Sonnleithner

1. Franz von Sonnleithner was Ribbentrop's Foreign Office adjutant in the Führerhauptquartier. Irving appears not to have interviewed von Sonnleithner, whose memoirs appeared posthumously in 1989.217 At Nuremberg he told the defence 'that I did not believe that it was   Hitler who gave this order for the extermination measures.'218 Elsewhere he wrote that 'Hitler never said anything to me about the treatment of the Jews.'219 This assertion is contradicted though by other passages in his memoirs, and by documentary evidence linking him to the deportation of the Jews of Rome and Denmark to Auschwitz.
2. Sonnleithner related a famous episode in the Führerhauptquartierin 1944:
During a military conference some time in Autumn 1944 the Reich press spokesman [Otto] Dietrich came [...] with an English report, a newspaper article which had reached us, I believe, from the last gateway to the world, namely Lisbon. In the newspaper piece it was claimed that the Russians had taken a German concentration camp called Majdanek. People had been in there that had, without doubt, been exterminated. Pictures showed large racks upon which a very large number of well ordered chambers were to be seen, just as a foreigner would expect from a German institution. I believe that other fittings could also be seen, cells or even incineration chambers, although I'm not sure now. The text said that people had been exterminated there. Dietrich presented the press article to Hitler and we waited expectantly for what he would say about it. The answer came quickly: "That is the same as the hacked-off hands of Belgian children during the First World War, nothing but enemy propaganda." I believe that I have quoted Hitler's statement word for word. Anyway a weight fell from all of our shoulders, one could positively hear the sighs of relief. I myself telephoned the head of the security police [Sicherheitspolizei] Dr. [Ernst] Kaltenbrunner that same day to ask for the papers for a corresponding denial, which he agreed to. [...] as I had heard nothing from the Staatspolizei for a number of weeks I rang Kaltenbrunner and reminded him of his support for a denial. He answered word-for-word: "A public contradiction of the matter means lending the matter too much importance." After the discussion of the situation to which I had referred was over, and I have also delivered my report, Hitler said to me that the Allies had already claimed in the First World War that the German troops who marched into Belgium in 1914 had chopped off the hands of Belgian children or hung them upside down in bell-towers so that   children's heads had served the function of clappers. All that was new to me, so I have a volume brought up from the archive with retractions by the "Times" a few years after the war...We therefore believed that every new English press report was as untrue as the reports from the First World War.220
It would seem that this episode in the Führerhauptquartier had a wide resonance. Hitler's press secretary Heinz Lorenz also related the story to Irving.221
3. Irving also cited a post-war interrogation of Ribbentrop on 11 August 1945 to the same effect, in his book Nuremberg. The Last Battle. Ribbentrop's answer to the question if Hitler knew of the fate of the Jews in the concentration camps ran thus:
 
I know one thing, that after the Russians had taken over the concentration camp in Poland, Majdanek I think it was called, that was the first time I heard of these persecutions in concentration camps, misdeeds, atrocities. This was the first thing I heard when our representatives from abroad sent telegrams that Russian propaganda was making a tremendous row in neutral countries. I got these telegrams and placed them before the Führer. I said that if this were true in any respect it would be quite impossible to make foreign policy. So he took the matter in hand and said it was not my business to discuss this. That's the only thing I heard.222

4. To the Nuremberg psychologist Gilbert, Ribbentrop is likewise quoted as having said: 'You know, I didn't know anything about the exterminations - until the Majdanek affair came out in '44 [...].'223
5. In this case Hitler deliberately played on a psychological obstacle current not only in Germany, but amongst the Allies and even the Jews themselves, namely the historical impact of British propaganda during the First World War. This was expressed in a deep reluctance to give credence to the news that slowly filtered out about the mass murder of the Jews.
6. World War One was of course not the first war in which allegations had been made of cruelty and savagery, but such campaigns had never been conducted so systematically, on such a large scale, and with such success as by the British (and French). British propaganda attributed all sorts of horrors to their enemies, such as that the Germans had hacked of the hands of children in Belgium, that the bodies of fallen soldiers were being used to make soap, and even that the Austrians and Bulgarians had killed 700,000 Serbs using an asphyxiating gas.224
 
7. Unlike the hacking-off of the hands of Belgian children, the reports filtering out into the world about Majdanek were not Allied propaganda. Majdanek was built near Lublin in the General Government in Poland at the orders of Himmler during a visit he made to Lublin in July 1941. At first it was run as a prisoner-of-war camp under the aegis of the SS, but on 16 February 1943 it was re-named a concentration camp.
8. There are only rough estimates of how many died in Majdanek. Some 500,000 people passed through the camp and at least 250,000 met their deaths there, perhaps as many as 360,000.225 60% died from hunger, filth, disease, torture and sheer exhaustion. 40% were executed by shooting or murdered in gas chambers making Majdanek a death camp. The zenith of the executions came on 3 November 1943, when 18,000 Jews were shot in the camps of the Lublin district in an action code-named Harvest Festival.226
9. Whilst a Polish source dates the first gassings in Majdanek to September 1942, the Düsseldorf court which tried members of the camp personnel between 1975 and 1981 said that the gassing facilities were operational in October 1943 at the latest.227 The method of gassing in chambers, the immediate selection process of those too old, young or infirm to work, and the camouflage were all similar to those tried and tested in Auschwitz.228 The majority of those killed with gas were Jews, many deported from all over Europe. This combination of work,   depravation, and murder made Majdanek 'the model of a future camp of gradual annihilation combined with a camp of immediate extermination.'229
10. The camp was liberated in the night of 22-23 July 1944 by the Soviet army. 480 prisoners regained their freedom, mainly crippled Soviet PoWs and Polish peasants from 'pacified' villages. In their haste to evacuate the camp the Germans had failed to destroy all the evidence of Majdanek's murderous purpose. With the forced evacuation of the prisoners the camp authorities had burned most documentation and the main crematorium. But most of the prisoner's barracks, the gas chambers, smaller crematoria and ditches for mass executions with the corpses of shot prisoners gave witness to the camp's nature.230 A joint Polish-Soviet investigation committee began its work the same month.
11. At the very least, the episode gives yet again the lie to the Irving's claim that none of Hitler's adjutants (in this case had heard anything of the mass exterminations in the East). As Schroeder told Zoller of Hitler's abhorrence of any discussion on the 'Final Solution':
If in the conferences the talk came to the rumours of the mass murders and torturing in the concentration camps then Hitler would not answer, or brusquely broke off the conversation. Only very rarely did Hitler deign to answer, and then only too deviously. He would have never have admitted in front of witnesses the inhuman severity of laws issued by him.231
12. It was Irving himself who offered another piece of proof that staff at the Führerhauptquartier had heard Hitler talk of the concentration camps. Irving related the following to an audience in New Zealand in 1986:  
I remember right at the end of the war [sic] 232 I asked one of Himmler's staff, 'Did you know nothing about the concentration camps, the extermination of people in concentration camps?' And he said, 'Nothing was told.' He said, 'I was with Hitler right through [Unintelligible - 'when was it now?'?], from August 1944 right through until the last days in the bunker.' This man's name was SS Colonel Johannes Göhler. He was the adjutant to Himmler's liaison officer to Hitler [Fegelein], and as such attended all the main conferences with Hitler. And he says, 'In any of the conferences no where was there any discussion of the extermination of the Jews or anything.' And I say, 'Well yes, you've got to say that haven't you.' He says, 'Wait a minute. I remember one conference where something similar came up, but not quite the same.' He says, 'I remember Himmler saying to Hitler, two weeks before the end of the war, three weeks perhaps before the end of the war,' Himmler being the chief of the SS, "Mein Führer we've got this terrible problem. The Americans are approaching Weimar. They're on the point of over-running the concentration camp at Buchenwald." The famous concentration camp at Buchenwald. "What do we do with the inmates?" And Hitler says, "Herr Reichsführer, wait and see me after the conference is over." Göhler says, 'I remember after the conference was over Hitler sat on the edge of the conference table, swinging his legs. He says, "Herr Himmler, this concentration camp [Unintelligible - "that is next to?"] Buchenwald, I want all the inmates liquidated before the Americans get them."233

Notes

217. Franz von Sonnleithner, Als Diplomat im "Führerhauptquartier" forward by Reinhard Spitzy (Munich/Vienna, 1989).
218. 'Im übrigen habe ich diesem Verteidiger gegenüber behauptet, daß ich nicht glaubte, daß Hitler diesen Befehl zur Vernichtungsmaßnahmen gewesen sei.' (von Sonnleithner, p. 108).
219. 'Hitler hat mir gegenüber nie etwas über die Behandlung der Juden gesagt'. (von Sonnleithner, p. 109).
220. 'Während einer militärischen Lagebesprechungen etwa im Herbst 1944 kam der Reichsspressechef Dietrich [...] mit einer englischen Meldung, einem Zeitungsbericht, der uns über das, ich glaube, letzte Tor zur Welt, nämlich Lissabon, erreicht hätten. In dieser Zeitungsnotiz wurde behauptet, daß die Russen ein deutsches Konzentrationslager mit namen Majdanek erobert hätten. In deisem seien zweifellos Menschen gewesen, die man vernicht hätten. Bilder zeigten große Gestelle, auf denen eine sehr große Zahl von Kämmern zu sehen war, wohlgeordnet, wie sich es der Ausländer von einer deutschen Institution erwartet. Ich glaube, es waren auch andere Einrichtungen zu sehen, Zellen oder sogar Verbrennungsanlagen, das weiß ich heute nicht mehr. Der Text besagte, daß hier Menschen vernichtet worden seien. Dietrich legte die Pressemeldung Hitler vor, und wir hingen an seinem Mund, was er wohl dazu sagen würde. Die Antwort kam rasch: "Das sind die abgehackten Hände der belgischen Kinder während des Ersten Weltkrieges, nichts als feindliche Propaganda!" Ich glaube, daß ich die Aussage Hitlers wörtlich richtig zitiert habe; jedenfalls fiel uns allen ein Stein von Herzen, man konnte förmlich das Aufatmen hören. Ich selbst habe noch am gleichen Tag mit dem Chef der Sicherheitspolizei Dr. Kaltenbrunner telephoniert und von ihm Unterlagen für ein entsprechendes Dementi verlangt, die er mir auch zusagte [...] als ich von der Staatspolizei nach einigen Wochen nichts hörte, rief ich Kaltenbrunner an und errinerte ihn an seine Unterstützung bei einem Dementi. Er ewiderte wörtlich: "Ein Wiederaufrühren der Sache in der öffentlichkeit hieße, des Angelegenheit eine zu große Bedeutung beimessen!" So ließ man also die Pressemeldung unwidersprochen. / Nachdem die erwähnte Lagebesprechung beendet war und ich auch meinen Vortrag hinter mich gebracht hatte, sagte Hitler zu mir, daß die Alliierten schon im Ersten Weltkrieg behauptet hätten, die 1914 in Belgien einmarschierenden deutschen Truppen hätten den belgischen Kindern die Hände abgehackt oder sie verkehrt in Glocken aufgehängt; so daß Kinderköpfe die Funktion von Klöppeln erfüllt hätten. Mir war das alles neu, und so ließ ich mir aus dem Archiv einen Band mit einige Jahre nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg erschienenen Widerrufen der "Times" bringen. [...] Wir hielten daher die neue englische Pressemeldung ebenso für eine Unwahrheit wie die Nachrichten im Ersten Weltkrieg.' (von Sonnleithner, pp. 107-8).
221. Document 726, redrafted pages of Hitler's War on the ending of the Final Solution for a revised edition, ca. 1980, p. 3.
222. David Irving, Nuremberg. The Last Battle (London, 1996), p. 78.
223. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diaryp. 170.
224. Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret. Supression of the Truth about Hitler's "Final Solution" (London, 1982), pp. 8-9.
225. Jóozef Marszalek, Majdanek. The Concentration Camp in Lublin (Warsaw, 1986), p. 142; Yisrael Gutmann (ed.), Enzyklopädie des Holocausts. Die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden (Munich/Zurich, n.d.), vol. II, entry 'Majdanek', pp. 918-20.
226. Marszalek, p. 130.
227. Egon Kogon et al. (eds.), Nationalsozialistische Massentötung durch Giftga. Ein Dokumentation (Frankfurt a.M., 1986), p. 241.
228. Marszalek, pp. 136-142.
229. Ibid, p. 142.
230. Ibid, p. 186.
231. Zoller, pp. 194-5.
232. Irving was still a child at the end of the war.
233. Audiocassette 90, Irving in Christchurch, New Zealand, 26 March 1986. According to Irving, Göhler related the episode a second time, with the proviso that Hitler's fear was that the Americans would let the inmates lose on the local populace.
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