THIS DAY - September 3, 1941 Zyklon B used as a weapon of mass destruction for the first time


Zyklon B was the trade name of a pesticide invented in Germany in the early 1920s. The pesticide was produced in granules consisting of prussic acid. The substance was invented by chemists Walter Heerdt, Bruno Tesch, and Gerhard Peters from Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Dahlem. On June 20, 1922, the Deutschen Gesellschaft für Schädlingsbekämpfung (translation: German Corporation for Pest control), in short Degesch, submitted a patent application, which was issued December 27, 1926. Walter Heerdt was registered as the inventor. The Zyklon B gas was not a chemical weapon; it is not and has never been subject to any international disarmament bans. After the World War I and during the World War II, it was the most commonly used pesticide in the world. It was also used as a disinfectant in private houses as well as in the Nazi concentration camps. On September 3, 1941, Zyklon B was first used as a weapon of mass destruction in the Auschwitz death camp. By the initiative of the camp’s first deputy commandant Karl Fritzsch, the substance was tried as a massive destruction weapon. The first victims were Soviet prisoners of war who had been taken to Auschwitz, and 250 sick Poles. All of them suffocated to death from Zyklon B in the basement of building 11. Soon, another 900 Soviets were killed the same way in the morgue of crematorium 1.


According to the memoirs of the camp commandant Rudolf Höß:


“I did not retain well the first case of mass killing with the gas… The clearer memory is the killing of 900 Russians[1]… in the old crematorium… Russians (meaning the prisoners of war – author’s remark) were told to undress in the antechamber, then they calmly entered the morgue where they thought they were to be subject to disinfection. The capacity of the morgue was enough to hold all the people transported to the camp. As soon as everybody was in, the doors were bolted and the gas was introduced through the holes in the ceiling… Only after a few hours, the doors were unbolted and the room was aired. It was the first time that I saw this many bodies of people killed by gas… I was petrified by the sight… I never had any second thoughts about killing the Soviet prisoners. It was the order which I had to follow.”


As of the early 1942, Zyklon B became the main means of killing in Nazi death camps. Around 1,1 million people were killed with it, in gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Mauthausen, Dachau, Buchenwald. Most of the victims were Jews, and the most killed were in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of 729 tons of Zyklon B sold in total in Germany in 1942-44, about 56 tons were used in concentration camps, which was ca. 8% domestic sales. After the end of the World War II in 1945, Bruno Tesch was found guilty and executed for conscious giving Zyklon B for use as a weapon of mass destruction. Gerhard Peters was also sentenced but due to the changes in the criminal code, was released after 2,8 years spent in prison.


Despite the tragic consequences of the Zyklon B use during the World War II, it was produced and used by a different name as a pesticide up until 2015.

Dilfuza Hlushenko

[1] (auth.) Russians - former Red Army soldats