A Brief History
On September 3, 1941, the first experiments using an insecticide which had been adapted to kill people were conducted at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Soviet prisoners of war were gassed to death with a cyanide-based insecticide in a dress rehearsal for the mass extermination of Jews and others known as the Holocaust.
Zyklon B was a product made by the giant German chemical company IG Farben. Developed from an earlier version known as Zyklon A, it was originally intended to be used as an insecticide and delousing agent. In its insecticide form, it had a special odorant added for safety reasons so that the smell would warn of its presence. The odorant was omitted from the product used to gas “undesirables” in the gas chambers.
Death from Zyklon B could be almost instantaneous if the victim was close enough to the release point and inhaled a large quantity of gas right away. For people some distance from the release points, death could take up to half an hour, with their screams being heard as they died horribly.
Karl Fritzsch, the deputy commandant of Auschwitz, was the man who had developed Zyklon B as an execution agent. One famous quote by him during a roll call goes,
“For a prisoner there are only two ways to get out of this camp. Either he is released, or he goes up the chimney. Most of you will go the second route!”
Fritzsch disappeared during the war, and his fate is unknown. Unfortunately, he could not killed in the gas chambers with the gas he designed, a befitting punishment.
After the war, IG Farben still attempted to sell Zyklon B, but public outrage brought about the end of its production and use. By that time, DDT had become the universal insecticide, anyway.
Speaking of DDT, it later became a reviled and infamous product itself, blamed for the failure of predatory bird eggs and the decline of many species of birds. It was also found to accumulate in the bodies of food fishes. Although DDT use was eventually banned, many critics of the ban say that the danger posed by DDT was more than balanced out by the enormous amount of humans saved who might otherwise have been killed by disease-bearing insects such as mosquitoes, tse-tse flies, etc.
Many products that were initially released with much promise and enthusiasm later became hated and reviled, and Zyklon B is certainly high on that list. Question for students (and subscribers): What products would you nominate for another article/list on infamous, notorious and reviled products? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
For a list of Nazi war crimes, please see the History and Headlines article: “10 Rotten Things the Nazis Pulled.”
For another interesting event that happened on September 3, please see the History and Headlines article: “10 Nicknames for Cities.”
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For more information, please see…
Hunger, Hans and Antje Tietz. Zyklon B (German Edition). Books On Demand, 2007.
Jeffreys, Diarmuid. Hell’s Cartel. Holt Paperbacks, 2010.
Venezia, Shlomo. Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz. Polity, 2011.