Human Remains and Mass Violence: Methodological Approaches,
by Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Élisabeth Anstett. 2014
Reviewed by Jan Peczkis
The customary mystification of the Holocaust, which elevates the Jews’ Holocaust above all other genocides in the public imagination, includes the paying of a great deal of attention to Jews as victims of so-called industrial genocide, particularly mass cremation. This, in turn, is part of the line that asserts that the crimes of the Communists (including the gulags) do not possibly compare with the crimes of the Nazis (against Jews that is). The superficial thinking behind such reasoning avoids the real issues, which I now discuss.
THE USSR AND NAZI GERMANY: BURIALS VS MASS CREMATIONS
The profligate use of crematoria, by Nazi Germany, owed less to the presumed special treatment of Jews as it did to practical matters. Let us compare the Nazis and the Communists in this regard.
To begin with, the Soviet Union was geographically very different from Nazi Germany. Unlike Nazi Germany and its conquests, the USSR possessed vast territories that were sparsely inhabited, making feasible the quasi-individual burials of millions of victims without the need to cremate them. So, to be sure, “The vast majority of corpses from the gulags, however, remain buried in the vicinity of the camps.” (p. 187).
There is also the question of the evidentiary value of the bodies of victims of crimes, and the need to destroy the evidence of the crime. The Soviet Union, unlike Nazi Germany, never faced the possibility of defeat that would bring its crimes to light. Nazi Germany thought so too, and at first resorted to mass burial of the victims of the Einsatzgruppen, and of the victims of some death camps (e. g., Treblinka). As eventual defeat grew more likely, the Germans switched to mass cremation. This included the re-exhumation and mass cremation of previously buried bodies ( e. g, as in SONDERAKTION 1005]. I now elaborate on this consideration.
BODIES THAT ARE BURIED ARE INCRIMINATING: THE LESSON OF KATYN
The German invaders’ find of Polish Katyn victims, on captured Soviet soil, is one of the things that sensitized the Germans to the incriminating nature of bodies. This prompted the Germans to switch to mass cremation of bodies at Treblinka, including that of all the previously buried bodies. See:
COMMUNIST CREMATORIA IN ACTION
Even though the Soviets had no systematic need to do mass cremations of the “enemies of the people” they murdered, they nevertheless often used cremation. The remainder of my review elaborates on this fact.
Dreyfus and Anstett write, “In what constituted something of an exception to the rule, however, detainees’ bodies were cremated in Moscow at the newly opened Donskoï cemetery, where the crematorium, which began operating in 1927 (and continued up to 1970), was used from 1935 onwards to incinerate some of the victims of Stalin’s purges. The rate varied: while ‘only’ 107 bodies were clandestinely cremated in 1937, the bodies of all the people executed in Moscow in 1940 were cremated on this site. The crematorium at the new Donskoï cemetery in which these cremations were carried out was removed in 1970, and the church which had housed it was restored and re-instated as a place of worship. However, several commemorative plaques left by delegations from various countries (including Japan, Germany, Poland and Korea) act as reminders that the Soviet capital was the scene not only of mass murders, but also of mass cremations, well before the ovens of the Nazi camps.” (pp. 186-187. Emphasis added).
THE SAME GERMAN COMPANY (TOPF) THAT BUILT THE NAZI CREMATORIA ALSO BUILT THE COMMUNIST CREMATORIA!
Authors Dreyfus and Anstett state these surprising facts, “This link between mass violence and technological innovation emerges within a historical context, that of the twentieth century, which was particularly marked by the growing complexity of devices used (going, for example, from using spades to using bull- dozers to dig burial pits) and by the importance of transfers of technology. It should be noted, for example, that the same German firm, Topf & Söhne, which in 1926 designed the crematory ovens that would allow the Soviet state to carry out the clandestine incineration of the victims of the purges would, at the beginning of the 1940s, design crematory ovens able to function day and night and which were installed most notoriously at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The circulation of techniques and knowledge is thus revealed as being at the heart of practices of the mass destruction of bodies, not merely at the stage of killing, but also at the subsequent, additional stages of the confiscation of bodies and the concealment of traces.” (p. 193).
It is clear that, already long before the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (1939-1941), the Soviet Communists and the German Nazis were already partners in crime, including the use of jointly manufactured crematoria to dispose of the regimes’ murder victims. The crematorium was not the sole provenance of Nazi use against Jews!