by Anne S. Reamey
S.S.-Hauptsturmführer Prof. Dr. August Hirt was born April 28, 1898 in Mannheim, Germany1 to an old Strasbourg family. Little is known of the life of August Hirt prior to his involvement with the Ahnenerbe leading up to and during World War II, but due to his role in several radical medical experiments and collections, his works during the war have been closely examined. He joined the Institute of Anatomy at the Reichsuniversität (initially the University of Strasbourg, overtaken and turned to the Anatomisches Institut der Reichsuniversität2) early in 1941 where he became the chairman of the anatomy department3. When Hirt became employed at the University4 he was already an established member of the S.S. and the Ahnenerbe Society5 (the Society for the Heritage of the Ancestors).6
August Hirt, like many Nazi doctors, is most closely associated with his role in the medical experimentation on and gassings of groups of Jewish prisoners. What makes him unique was motive: instead of seeing the gassing of prisoners as a quick and effective method of extermination, Hirt wanted to significantly expand the skull and skeleton collection for his institute at the University of Strasbourg.7 He wanted to create a museum of "sub-humans, in which proofs of the degeneracy and the animality of the Jews would be collected." Hirt considered it to be a task of upmost importance and extremely time-sensitive since soon the Jewish population would be completely exterminated, at which point Jewish "skeletons would be as rare and precious as a diplodocus… "." 8
The Report of Death: Catalyst for the Collection of Medical Research
Attached to a letter from Ostuf. (Obersturmführer - First Lieutenant) Wolfram Sievers (Reich Secretary of the Ahnenerbe Society) to Stbf. (Sturmbannführer - Major) Dr. Rudolf Brandt,9 was a report written by Hirt in February 1942 describing the minimal amount of Jewish skulls existing at the Strasbourg Reich University (Reichsuniversität Strasbourg), and how to best procure the desired number of additional skulls through the assistance of the field Military Police ("Feldpolizei").10 It should be noted that in the report, the skulls requested for procurement were those of "Jewish Bolshevik Commissars". Historian Heather Pringle points out in her book, The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust, that "by "commissars," the army actually meant "Jews." Nazi propagandists had skillfully portrayed Soviet political officers and officials as Jews for years, and so deeply engrained was this notion in the minds of many SS and Wehrmacht officers that they simply accepted it as fact."11
In addition to Hirt's personal interest in the collection of skulls he hoped to obtain, it has also been suggested that Hirt himself had considered getting into the skull mail-order business12 as an additional source of income.
Himmler's Response to Hirt's Deadly Proposal
Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler received Hirt's report with great enthusiasm. He was "prodigiously interested" in the project, considering it to be of "enormous value,"13 and according to Jean-Claude Pressac, he "unceasingly gave his entire support to Professor Hirt's proposal."14 Soon after his receipt of the report, Himmler sent Wolfram Sievers15 of the Ahnenerbe Society to meet with Hirt personally, and agreed to the importance of his research. Sievers then worked with Hirt to determine the best method of transportation of his victims.
A letter used as evidence during the war crime trials at Nuremburg, includes an attachment with a report on "securing skulls of Jewish-Bolshevik Commissars for the purpose of scientific research," which initially allowed Dr. August Hirt to begin his gassings of Auschwitz Jews at Natzweiler - Struthof. A reproduction can be found here.
The Compounding of Hate: Multi-faceted Anti-Semitism Meets the "Final Solution"
So what was it in Hirt's report that caught the eye of Himmler and caused him to be supportive of the proposed "scientific" endeavor? While the Jews were on the top of Hitler's list for extermination, Himmler and Hirt brought together two strands of anti-Semitism: rumors of Jewish conspirators and racism. During the proceedings of the fourth Yad Vashem International Historical Conference, Robert Jay Lifton explained, "On one hand, there is the mystical tradition of anti-Semitism and racism as exemplified by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion - the notorious forgery around the idea of a Jewish world conspiracy involving Jewish Bolsheviks and Jewish capitalists. On the other, there is the "scientific" racism that his study of these skulls directly reflects."16
In the case of Hirt's proposed skull collection enhancement, timing was everything: Only a month prior to Hirt's proposal, a new policy had been secretly adopted at a villa overlooking Großer Wannsee17 that would be known as the "Final Solution." In addition to their decision to exterminate the Jews of Europe, and eventually the world, was the debate of what to do with the Mischlinge ("part-Jews"). "Himmler was keen to take action. He wanted the SS Race and Settlement Office (Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt-SS (RuSHA)) to racially evaluate all children of mixed marriages and their progeny for three or four generations, just as agriculturalists did when attempting to breed superior varieties of plants and animals. Descendants who exhibited Jewish traits could then be at least sterilized, if not murdered. For this, the SS needed a much clearer picture of the Jewish Race." 18
The Beginning of the End for the Prisoners of Auschwitz
After receiving permission from Himmler, Hirt began the task of selecting his victims from the prisoners of Auschwitz (although there is some debate as to whether Hirt himself made the selection, or if it was done by SS members Dr. Hans Fleischhacker [Tübingen] and SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Bruno Berger19 [Munich], who arrived in Auschwitz the first half of 1943 )20, as indicated by Tübingen Professor, Dr. Hans-Joachim Lang21, with the initial selection totaling 115 people - 79 Jewish men, 30 Jewish women, 2 Poles, and 4 "Asians" (most likely Soviet POWs). Once his selections were made, SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Bruno Berger collected personal data and biometrical measurements from the prisoners, completing his task by June 15, 1943.22
Although the Ahnenerbe supported Hirt by instructing all members working in the concentration camps to collect "any particularly interesting and demonstrative"23 anatomical specimens, the only known victims for the Institute's skeleton collections came directly from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Robert J. Lifton explained that "there were apparently difficulties in rounding up Jewish-Bolshevik commissars and possibly in severing heads, so that it was decided to make use of full skeletons rather than merely skulls and to collect specimens in the place where any such task could be accomplished - namely, Auschwitz." 24
While there were killings in such substantial numbers at Auschwitz that an extra hundred here or there would make relatively little difference, the fate of Hirt's victims was not a well-kept secret among the camp doctors. "Dr. L. had seen enough of Auschwitz to suspect the terrible truth ("I told myself immediately,…. 'They are going to a museum' "), though she and others refrained in saying so because they "lacked the courage," felt it would be more kind to remain silent, and could not in any case be certain of their suspicion." 25
Meanwhile, the collection of potential victims wasn't the only problem to be dealt with. In a memo from Sievers to Brandt, Sievers quotes the concerns of Hirt: the preparations of Natzweiler-Struthof were going too slowly. More importantly, the camp's administration demanded that Hirt's Institute pay for the prisoners throughout their stay at the camp. This spurred great debates as to who was to pay for the project, and how payments were to be made.
The reproduction of a letter that describes the relationship between Dr. Hirt and the Natzweiler-Struthof camp administration, including the attempt to attach a price to each victim gassed as part of Hirt's "research" as compensation to the camp, can be found here.
Death at Natzweiler-Struthof
Following the initial selection, the prisoners were held inside of the quarantine office at Auschwitz due to the outbreak of a typhus epidemic26 before being relocated to Natzweiler-Struthof, the only extermination camp on French territory.27
Both prior to and following the second World War, Natzweiler-Struthof (31 miles outside of Strasbourg), perched 2,500 feet up on the top of a mountain in the Vosges Mountains, was used as a ski resort for tourists. It is only during WWII that the now-serene location (ironically one that mimicked the German Schwarzwald across the Rhine River) was used as a concentration camp. Originally the camp, known as "Le Struthof" to the French, was not intended as a death camp for mass exterminations, but rather to house Anti-Fascist resistance-fighters and convicted German criminals,28 often referred to as the "Nacht und Nebel" (Night and Fog) operation because fighters were arrested without warning, and without notification to their families, making them appear to simply disappear into the fog. 29
The camp itself, holding only about 1,500 prisoners at a time30 (one of the smaller camps constructed by the Germans), was run by the "brutality incarnate" Joseph Kramer 31 (condemned to death and executed, 10th Military Region archives). Instead of being located immediately within the camp, the building was located about a mile away off a small side road, making the location almost peaceful.32 Due to the local quarries filled with red granite, the prisoners of Struthof were subjected to manual labor in order to create new monuments for Germany.33
The building eventually used as the gas chamber was originally used as a refrigerator room with cold storage chambers by the Struthof hotel, and converted in April 1943 to a site to test the gas masks of SS recruits34 by filling the building with tear-gas35 to help prepare the recruits for the dangers of chemical warfare.
The gas experimentation chamber was modified in August of 1943 to allow for the gassings at the suggestion of Kramer. He considered the similarities of the tear-gas testing with the requirements of a building that was to use the "hydrocyanic salts" Hirt provided to Kramer for the killings. Already lined with white tiles and kept cool by blocks of ice, the SS works doctorate named the site "Bauwerk 10" or building site 10.36 The adaptation of the building was completed between August 3 and 12, 1943.37
The wall of the chamber was perforated below and to the right of the peep-hole. A metal pipe was passed through, with the inside end opening into a small porcelain basin, and the outside wnd consisting of a 1.5 litre fullel equipped with a tap flow and safety control. According to a plan drawn up when the camp was liberated, it seems that a protective housing was installed, hiding the equipment from view… Kramer proceeded as described in his 2nd deposition of the 6 December 1945. In fact, there was no other way to carry out the operation. Water poured into the funnel flowed onto a substance previously placed in the basin, triggering the release of hydrocyanic gas ("Gas Blausäure") .38
As knowledge of the camp spread to the United States, so did the awareness of Hirt's victims, according to The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Nuremberg IMT (International Military Tribunal) records indicate that an assistant to Dr. Hirt secretly noted the numbers tattooed on the arms of the 86 victims, making their identification possible.39
The Arrival of Hirt's Victims at Natzweiler-Struthof
Although there is little information regarding the time gap between June 15, 1943 when Dr. Bruno Berger completed his part of the record-keeping and the time of the arrival of the prisoners from Auschwitz to Natzweiler-Struthof, the records that are available indicated that the 2 month gap took place during the quarantine of prisoners during the typhus outbreak at Auschwitz. Once it was considered that the prisoners could be transported, they were moved to Natzweiler-Struthof in August of 1943. Joseph Kramer, commandant of Natzweiler-Struthof, recalled, "during the month of August 1943, I received from the Supreme S.S. Commandant in Berlin an order to accept about 80 prisoners from Auschwitz. I was to get in touch with Professor Hirt." 40
Once the prisoners did arrive, we have a clear account of the events that followed given at the Military Tribunal in Strasbourg by Joseph Kramer. Kramer was instructed to meet Hirt at the Institute of Anatomy. During their meeting, Hirt provided Kramer with instructions to gas the convoy using crystals Hirt supplied for their "treatment." There is some debate as to the exact contents of the flask given to Kramer by Hirt, but it usually falls within two possible answers:
Either the flask provided by Hirt, with a capacity of about 250 ml, contained an inert combination of sodium or potassium cyanide thoroughly mixed with a crystalline acid, such as citric, oxalic or tartic acid, these being two agents that react with one another only in an aqueous medium. Or the flask contained calcium cyanide, which has the peculiarity of decomposing in water with hydrocyanic acid release. It would be possible to determine exactly what substance was used by complicated calculations, based on the volume of the gas chamber (approximately 20m cubed), the quantity used (1/3 or ¼ of 250 ml), and the expected HCN release, as a function of the amount of water added, needed to bring the room's atmosphere rapidly up to a lethal concentration for man.41
During his conversation with Hirt, Kramer was also told he was to divide the bodies into smaller groups to be delivered directly to Hirt following the gassings.42
One evening, about nine o-clock, the eighty prisoners arrived. I led about fifteen women to the gas chamber. I told them they were going to be 'disinfected.' With the help of some of the S.S. guards, I got them completely undressed and pushed them into the gas chamber. When I closed the door they began to scream. I put some of the crystals that Hirt had given me into the funnel above the observation window. I would watch everything that was going on inside through it. The women continued to breathe for half a minute and then fell to the floor. I turned on the ventilation, and when I opened the door they were lying dead on the ground, full of shit. I told some of the male S.S. nurses to put the bodies in a truck and take them to the Institute of Anatomy at 5:30 the next morning.43
Following the initial gassing, the same procedure was repeated with four or five more groups over a period of three nights.44 In total, 86 people would fall victim to Kramer's gassings. It should be noted that the discrepancy in numbers by multiple sources (86 versus 87 bodies) was due to an incident that took place at Natzweiler-Struthof. As the victims were being herded into the gas chamber, one prisoner resisted and was shot by an SS officer. Due to the pistol's bullet wound, the body was not sent to Strasbourg with the others because it was considered "spoiled."45
Extract from interrogation of Josef Kramer by Major Jadin, military investigative judge with the Military Tribunal in Strasbourg on the 26 July 1945:
'As soon as I locked the door, they started to scream..Once the door was locked, I placed a fixed quantity of the salts in a funnel attached below and to the right of the peep-hole....