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Hitler and poison gas: Just how wrong is Spicer?

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Today, Sean Spicer declared that Assad was worse than Hitler, because the latter “didn't even sink to using chemical weapons”. That’s wrong for one really big, really obvious reason: the Holocaust. But even if we give Spicer a little more benefit than he deserves, and assume that he meant only weaponized chemical agents in deployable munitions, then… he’s still completely wrong.

In the mid-1930s, the Germans were struggling with a crippled economy. Compounding that issue was dependence on food imports. Improving the yield of domestic agricultural meant doing something about the local insect problem, which in turn required new and better insecticides. IG Farben, a well-established chemical company, was up to the task, led by young chemist Gerhard Schrader. In 1936, after a few false starts, Schrader decided to explore a family of phosphorus- and cyanide-based compounds. A couple drops out of containment sent him and much of his staff to the hospital for several weeks, and attracted the attention of the German military (following a law that any civilian discovery with potential military implications had to be reported). With a little more refinement, Schrader produced “Preparation 9/91”. It killed insects very effectively. But it also killed a large variety of other animals, and it was very clear that it would kill people just as well. As an insecticide, Preparation 9/91 was a failure, too dangerous to give to the farmers of Germany.

As a weapon, however…

The military named the compound tabun (from the German Tabu, taboo). WWI-era poison gases like mustard and phosgene could take hours or days to kill. Tabun took 20 minutes. Schrader was paid handsomely for his discovery, and put to work researching this category of chemical agents further, for the greater glory of the Third Reich. In 1938, he and his team had found a related compound, twice as toxic as the one before. This one was named after the members of the team: Schrader, Ambros, Ritter, and von der Linde. Sarin, the very chemical that has been in the new of late in Syria.

The first plant dedicated to building weapons based on these nerve agents was in Raubkammer, near Münster. There, munitions testing determined the most effective means of deployment was to load the gas into shells with a small explosive charge, dispersing the toxin as a fine mist. In 1943, with the war now underway in earnest, a large-scale plant, codenamed “Hotchwerk”, was opened at Dyhernfurth, near Wrocław, Poland. This forced-labor facility was dedicated to the production of tabun-filled munitions, at the rate of 350 thousand kilograms of tabun per month. Needless to say, safety was not the highest priority. 300 accidents, leading to at least 10 deaths, were documented. Given the state of the operation, it’s entirely possible that more occurred.

As research continued, it was clear that sarin was simply better at killing, if harder to produce. In 1943, a new plant was opened at Falkenhagen, near Berlin, to produce sarin. In the same year, Nobel laureate chemical and ardent Nazi Richard Kuhn was recruited into the program. He quickly determined the cause of action of these nerve agents, blocking the action of cholinesterase, forcing nerve cells into an overstimulated state. With that knowledge in hand, he quickly synthesized soman, a newer, better anticholinesterase agent twice as potent as sarin itself.

Why weren’t these weapons deployed?

There were likely several factors. Hitler had been exposed to mustard in WWI, and likely had a poor opinion of chemical warfare. Also, the prevailing military strategy for Nazi Germany was the Blitzkreig, and it simply wouldn’t do to poison the enemy lines immediately before pushing into them, risking exposure of your own troops.

But perhaps more importantly, Hitler came to believe that Germany was behind in the chemical weapons race. He met with Otto Ambros (the “a” in sarin), on the topic of chemical weapons. Ambros advised that the Allied powers almost certainly had vast stocks of mustard gas, given their easier access to the precursor ethylene. Hitler inquired about tabun, initially believing that Germany had a monopoly on these new nerve agents. But Ambros demured; the basic scientific research necessary to produce tabun had been published all the way back in 1907. Additionally, IG Farben had patented tabun and sarin before the war (owing to their potential application as pesticides), so details of their synthesis were technically public knowledge. Finally, there had been nothing published in Allied chemical journals about organophosphates since the start of the war, which Ambros took to mean that the compounds were being weaponized by the Allies already, and their research publicly suppressed. In reality, neither the British nor the Americans had anything like tabun or sarin; indeed, although British captured an employee of IG Farben with knowledge of the new weapons during the war, they considered the story too incredible to believe and promptly discounted it.

Fearing overwhelming retaliation in kind, from weapons that never actually existed, Hitler held back his stockpiles. So, in the narrowest possible sense of history, Spicer was right; Hitler didn’t deploy nerve agents in warfare. But it most certainly wasn’t because he was a nicer guy than Assad!

As a final historical note, the factories and research labs involved with the German chemical weapons program were captured, intact, by the Soviets. Several of them, including Hotchwerk, the tabun facility, were dismantled, shipped back the USSR, and rebuilt there, jumpstarting the Soviet chemical weapons program (and almost certainly leading to a hastening of the US nuclear weapons program once we learned just how far behind we were in mass destruction research). Even today, the Nato identifiers for the first-generation organophosphates all begin with a G (sarin, for example, is GB). The G stands for Germany… Hitler’s Germany.

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