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Magirus-Deutz van in Chełmno extermination camp, type used by the Nazis for suffocation, with the exhaust fumes diverted into the sealed rear compartment where the victims were locked in. This particular van has not been modified yet as explained by Office of the United States Chief Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality (1946),[1] nevertheless it gives a good idea about the process

The gas van or gas wagon (Russian: душегубка (dushegubka); German language: Gaswagen) was a vehicle reequipped as a mobile gas chamber. The vehicle had an air-tight compartment for victims into which exhaust fumes were transmitted while the engine was running. The victims were gassed with carbon monoxide, resulting in death by monoxide poisoning and suffocation. The gas van was invented and used by the Soviet secret police NKVD in the end of 1930s during the Great Purge.[2][3][4][5][6][7] It was later widely implemented as an extermination method in Nazi Germany to kill victims of the regime, mostly Jews.[8]

Invention and use in Soviet Union

The gas van was invented in the Soviet Union[2][3][4][9][10] in 1936,[7] allegedly by Isay Berg, the head of the administrative and economic department of the NKVD of Moscow Oblast which suffocated batches of prisoners with engine fumes in a camouflaged bread van while on the drive out to the mass graves at Butovo, where the prisoners were subsequently buried.[5] According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

I. D. Berg was ordered to carry out the decisions of the NKVD troika of Moscow Oblast, and Berg was decently carrying out this assignment: he was driving people to the executions by shooting. But, when in Moscow Oblast there came to be three troikas having their sessions simultaneously, the executioners could not cope with the load. Then the solution was thought about: to undress the victims naked, to tie them up, plug their mouths and throw them into a closed truck, disguised from the outside as a bread van. During transportation the fuel gases came into the truck, and when delivered to the farthest [execution] ditch the arrestees were already dead.[6]

However, according to historian Lydia Golovkova, Berg denied that he was inventor of the gas van, and his authorship has never been proven.[11] The work of historian Vatlin also makes no connection between Berg and the gas van [12]

Use in Nazi Germany

During trips to Russia in 1941, Heinrich Himmler learned the psychological impact on the Einsatzgruppen killers posed by the shooting of women and children. Hence, he commissioned Arthur Nebe to explore ways of killing that were less stressful for the killers. Nebe's experiments eventually led to the production of the gas van.[13] This vehicle had already been used in 1940 for the gassing of East Prussian Pomeranian mental patients in Soldau, a camp located in the former Polish corridor.[14] One application by the Nazis gas van became known in 1943 after the trial of members of crimes against humanity committed in the territory of the Krasnodar Territory of the USSR, where about 7,000 civilians were killed by gas poisoning. It was a vehicle with an airtight compartment for victims, into which exhaust gas was piped while the engine was running. As a result, the victims were gassed with carbon monoxide, resulting in death by the combined effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation. The suffocations usually occurred as the gas van was carrying the victims to a freshly dug pit or ravine for mass burial.

Gas vans were used, particularly at Chełmno extermination camp, until gas chambers were developed as a more efficient method for killing large numbers of people. There were two types of gas vans in operation, used by the Einsatzgruppen in the East. The Opel-Blitz, weighting 3.5 tones, and the larger Saurerwagen, weighing 7 tonnes.[15] In Belgrade, the gas van was known as "Dušegupka" and in the occupied parts of the USSR similarly as "душегубка" (dushegubka, literally (feminine) soul killer/exterminator).

The use of gas vans had two disadvantages:

  1. It was slow—some victims took twenty minutes to die.
  2. It was not quiet—The drivers could hear the victims' screams, which they found distracting and disturbing.

By June 1942 the main producer of gas vans, Gaubschat Fahrzeugwerke GmbH, delivered 20 gas vans in two models (for 30-50 and 70-100 individuals) to Einsatzgruppen, out of 30 ordered. Not one gas van was extant at the end of the war. The existence of gas vans first came to light in 1943 during the trial of Nazi collaborators involved in the gassing of 6,700 civilians in Krasnodar. The total number of gas van gassings is unknown.

The gas vans are extensively discussed in some of the interviews in Claude Lanzmann's film, Shoah.

See also


  1. "SS use of mobile gassing vans". A damaged Magirus-Deutz van found in 1945 in Kolno, Poland. World War II Today. 2011. Retrieved April 22, 2013. "Source: Office of the United States Chief Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality: Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression – Washington, U.S Govt. Print. Office, 1946, Vol III, p. 418" 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Yevgenia Albats, KGB: The State Within a State. 1995, page 101
  3. 3.0 3.1 Robert Gellately. Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. Knopf, 2007 ISBN 1-4000-4005-1 p. 460
  4. 4.0 4.1 Catherine Merridale. Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia. Penguin Books, 2002 ISBN 0-14-200063-9 p. 200
  5. 5.0 5.1 Timothy J. Colton. Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis. Belknap Press, 1998. ISBN 0-674-58749-9 p. 286
  6. 6.0 6.1 Солженицын, А.И. (2002) (in Russian). Two Hundred Years Together (Двести лет вместе). 2. Москва: Русский путь. p. 297. ISBN 5-85887-151-8. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 (in Russian) Argumenty i Fakty, Аргументы и факты. N 17. April 1993. 
  8. "Gas Wagons: The Holocaust's mobile gas chambers", an article of Nizkor Project
  9. Е. Жирнов. «По пути следования к месту исполнения приговоров отравлялись газом». Коммерсантъ Власть, № 44, 2007.
  10. Н. Петров. «Человек в кожаном фартуке». Новая газета, спецвыпуск «Правда ГУЛАГа» от 02.08.2010 № 10 (31).
  11. Special Object Butovo, article by Lydia Golovkova
  12. А.Ватлин "Террор районного масштаба: "массовые операции" НКВД в Кунцевском районе Московской области в 1937 - 1938 гг.", 2004.
  13. The path to genocide: essays on launching the final solution By Christopher R. Browning
  14. The destruction of the European Jews, Part 804, Volume 1 By Raul Hilberg
  15. Ernst. Klee, Willi Dressen, Volker Riess (1991). "The gas-vans (3. 'A new and better method of killing had to be found')". The Good Old Days: The Holocaust As Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders. Konecky Konecky. p. 69. ISBN 1568521332. Retrieved 2013-05-08. 

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