ZYKLON B (German pronunciation: ; anglicized. US : /ˈzaɪklɒn
ˈbiː/ ( listen ) or translated CYCLONE B) was the trade name of a
cyanide -based pesticide invented in Germany in the early 1920s. It
consisted of hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid), as well as a cautionary
eye irritant and one of several adsorbents such as diatomaceous earth
. The product is infamous for its use by
Nazi Germany during the
Holocaust to murder approximately one million people in gas chambers
Majdanek , and other extermination
Hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas that interferes with cellular
respiration , was first used as a pesticide in
California in the
1880s. Research at
Degesch of Germany led to the development of Zyklon
(later known as Zyklon A), a pesticide which released hydrogen cyanide
upon exposure to water and heat. It was banned after a similar product
was used by Germany as a chemical weapon in
World War I
World War I . In 1922,
Degesch was purchased by
Degussa , where a team of chemists that
included Walter Heerdt (de) and
Bruno Tesch developed a method of
packaging hydrogen cyanide in sealed canisters along with a cautionary
eye irritant and adsorbent stabilizers. The new product was also named
Zyklon, but it became known as
Zyklon B to distinguish it from the
earlier version. Uses included delousing clothing and disinfesting
ships, warehouses, and trains.
In early 1942,
Zyklon B emerged as the preferred killing tool of Nazi
Germany for use in extermination camps during the
Holocaust . Around a
million people were killed using this method, mostly at Auschwitz.
Tesch was executed in 1946 for knowingly selling the product to the SS
for use on humans.
Hydrogen cyanide is now rarely used as a pesticide,
but still has industrial applications. Firms in several countries
continue to produce
Zyklon B under alternative brand names, including
Detia-Degesch, the successor to Degesch, who renamed the product
Cyanosil in 1974.
* 1 Mechanism of action
* 2 History
* 3 Corporate structure and marketing
* 4 Use in the
* 5 Legacy
* 6 See also
* 7 References
* 7.1 Explanatory notes
* 7.2 Citations
* 7.3 Sources
* 8 Further reading
* 9 External links
MECHANISM OF ACTION
Hydrogen cyanide is a poisonous gas that interferes with cellular
Cyanide prevents the cell from producing adenosine
triphosphate (ATP) by binding to one of the proteins involved in the
electron transport chain . This protein, cytochrome c oxidase ,
contains several subunits and has ligands containing iron groups. The
cyanide component of
Zyklon B can bind at one of these iron groups,
heme a3, forming a more stabilized compound through metal-to-ligand pi
bonding . As a result of the formation of this new iron-cyanide
complex , the electrons that would situate themselves on the heme a3
group can no longer do so. Instead, these electrons destabilize the
compound; thus, the heme group no longer accept them. Consequently,
electron transport is halted, and cells can no longer produce the
energy needed to synthesize ATP. In a human weighing 68 kilograms
(150 lb), death occurs within two minutes of inhaling 70 mg of
A fumigation team in New Orleans, 1939. Zyklon canisters are
Hydrogen cyanide, discovered in the late 18th century, was used in
the 1880s for the fumigation of citrus trees in California. Its use
spread to other countries for the fumigation of silos, goods wagons ,
ships, and mills. Its light weight and rapid dispersal meant its
application had to take place under tents or in enclosed areas.
Fritz Haber of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical
Chemistry and Electrochemistry led to the founding in 1919 of Deutsche
Gesellschaft für Schädlingsbekämpfung mbH (
Degesch ), a
state-controlled consortium formed to investigate military use of the
chemical. Chemists at
Degesch added a cautionary eye irritant to a
less volatile cyanide compound which reacted with water in the
presence of heat to become hydrogen cyanide. The new product was
marketed as the pesticide Zyklon (cyclone). As a similar formula had
been used as a weapon by the Germans during World War I, Zyklon was
Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt (German Gold and Silver
Degussa ) became sole owners of
Degesch in 1922. There,
beginning in 1922, Walter Heerdt (de),
Bruno Tesch , and others
worked on packaging hydrogen cyanide in sealed canisters along with a
cautionary eye irritant and adsorbent stabilizers such as
diatomaceous earth . The new product was also labelled as Zyklon, but
it became known as
Zyklon B to distinguish it from the earlier
version. Heerdt was named the inventor of
Zyklon B in the Degesch
patent application (number DE 438818) dated 20 June 1922. The German
Patent Office awarded the patent on 27 December 1926. Beginning in
Zyklon B was used at U.S. Customs facilities along the
Mexican border to disinfect the clothing of border crossers.
CORPORATE STRUCTURE AND MARKETING
A can of
Zyklon B with adsorbent granules and original signed
documents detailing ordering of
Zyklon B as "materials for Jewish
resettlement" (on display at
Auschwitz concentration camp museum)
Degussa ceded 42.5 per cent ownership of
Degesch to IG
Farben and 15 per cent to Th. Goldschmidt AG , in exchange for the
right to market pesticide products of those two companies through
Degussa retained managerial control.
Degesch owned the rights to the brand name Zyklon and the
patent on the packaging system, the chemical formula was owned by
Degussa. Schlempe GmbH, which was 52 per cent owned by Degussa, owned
the rights to a process to extract hydrogen cyanide from waste
products of sugar beet processing. This process was performed under
license by two companies, Dessauer Werke and Kaliwerke Kolin, who also
combined the resulting hydrogen cyanide with stabilizer from IG Farben
and a cautionary agent from
Schering AG to form the final product,
which was packaged using equipment, labels, and canisters provided by
Degesch. The finished goods were sent to Degesch, who forwarded the
product to two companies that acted as distributors: Heerdt-Linger
GmbH (Heli) of
Tesch & Stabenow
Tesch & Stabenow (Testa) of
Their territory was split along the
Elbe river, with Heli handling
clients to the west and south, and Testa those to the east. Degesch
owned 51 per cent of the shares of Heli, and until 1942 owned 55 per
cent of Testa.
Prior to World War II
Degesch derived most of its
Zyklon B profits
from overseas sales, particularly in the United States, where it was
produced under license by Roessler "> Empty poison gas canisters
found by the Allies at the end of World War II
In early 1942,
Zyklon B emerged as the preferred killing tool of Nazi
Germany for use in extermination camps during the
Holocaust . The
chemical was used to kill roughly one million people in gas chambers
installed in extermination camps at
and elsewhere. Most of the victims were
Jews , and by far the
majority killed using this method died at Auschwitz.
Zyklon B was
supplied to concentration camps at Mauthausen , Dachau , and
Buchenwald by the distributor Heli, and to Auschwitz and
Testa. Camps also occasionally bought
Zyklon B directly from the
manufacturers. Of the 729 metric tons of
Zyklon B sold in Germany in
1942–44, 56 metric tons (about 8 per cent of domestic sales) were
sold to concentration camps. Auschwitz received 23.8 tons, of which 6
tons were used for fumigation. The remainder was used in the gas
chambers or lost to spoilage (the product had a stated shelf life of
only three months). Testa conducted fumigations for the
supplied them with Zyklon B. They also offered courses to the SS in
the safe handling and use of the material for fumigation purposes. In
April 1941, the German agriculture and interior ministries designated
the SS as an authorized applier of the chemical, and thus they were
able to use it without any further training or governmental oversight.
Rudolf Höss , commandant of Auschwitz, said that the use of Zyklon-B
to kill prisoners came about on the initiative of one of his
Karl Fritzsch , who used
the substance to kill some Russian POWs in late August 1941 in the
Block 11 in the main camp. The experiment was repeated on
more Russian POWs, with Höss watching, in September. Block 11
proved unsuitable for mass killings, as the basement was difficult to
air out afterwards and the crematorium (Crematorium I, which operated
until July 1942) was some distance away. The site of the killings was
moved to Crematorium I, where more than 700 victims could be killed at
once. By the middle of 1942, the operation was moved to Auschwitz
II–Birkenau, a nearby satellite camp which had been under
construction since October 1941.
The first gas chamber at Auschwitz II–Birkenau was the "red house"
(called Bunker 1 by SS staff), a brick cottage converted to a gassing
facility by tearing out the inside and bricking up the windows. It was
operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, the "white house"
or Bunker 2, was converted some weeks later. According to Höss,
Bunker 1 held 800 victims and Bunker 2 held 1,200 victims. These
structures were in use for mass killings until early 1943. At that
point, the Nazis decided to greatly increase the gassing capacity of
Birkenau. Crematorium II, originally designed as a mortuary, with
morgues in the basement and ground-level incinerators, was converted
into a killing factory by installing gas-tight doors, vents for the
Zyklon B to be dropped into the chamber, and ventilation equipment to
remove the gas afterwards. Crematorium III was built using the same
design. Crematoria IV and V, designed from the start as gassing
centers, were also constructed that spring. By June 1943, all four
crematoria were operational. Most of the victims were killed using
these four structures.
The Nazis began shipping large numbers of
Jews from all over Europe
to Auschwitz in the middle of 1942. Those who were not selected for
work crews were immediately gassed. The group selected to die, about
three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with
small children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief
and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be completely fit.
The victims were told they were to undergo delousing and a shower.
They were stripped of their belongings and herded into the gas
Zyklon B was delivered by ambulance to the crematoria by a
special SS bureau known as the Hygienic Institute. The actual
delivery of the gas to the victims was always handled by the SS, on
the order of the supervising SS doctor. After the doors were shut, SS
men dumped in the
Zyklon B pellets through vents in the roof or holes
in the side of the chamber. The victims were dead within 20 minutes.
Johann Kremer , an SS doctor who oversaw gassings, testified that the
"shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the
opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives".
Sonderkommandos (special work crews forced to work at the gas
chambers) wearing gas masks then dragged the bodies from the chamber.
The victims' glasses, artificial limbs, jewelry, and hair were
removed, and any dental work was extracted so the gold could be melted
down. If the gas chamber was crowded, which they typically were, the
corpses were found half-squatting, their skin discolored pink with red
and green spots, with some found foaming at their mouths, or bleeding
from their ears. The corpses were burned in the nearby incinerators,
and the ashes were buried, thrown in the river, or used as fertilizer.
With the Soviet
Red Army approaching through Poland, the last mass
gassing at Auschwitz took place on 30 October 1944. In November 1944,
Heinrich Himmler , head of the SS, ordered gassing
operations to cease across the Reich.
Majdanek gas chamber, showing
Prussian blue residue
After World War II ended in 1945,
Bruno Tesch and
Karl Weinbacher of
* ^ Cautionary eye irritants used included chloropicrin and
cyanogen chloride .
* ^ Soviet officials initially stated that over 4 million people
were killed using
Zyklon B at Auschwitz, but this figure was later
proven to be greatly exaggerated.
* ^ The gas chamber also had to be heated, as the
Zyklon B pellets
would not vaporize into hydrogen cyanide unless the temperature was 27
°C (81 °F) or above.
* ^ Of the Hungarian
Jews who arrived in the middle of 1944, 85
percent were killed immediately.
* ^ A B Nelson & Cox 2000 , pp. 668, 670–71, 676.
* ^ International
Cyanide Management Institute .
* ^ A B Hayes 2004 , p. 273.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , pp. 273–274.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , p. 274.
* ^ Christianson 2010 , p. 95.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , pp. 274–275.
* ^ Heerdt 1926 .
* ^ Burnett 2006 .
* ^ Hayes 2004 , pp. 278–279.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , p. 280.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , p. 275.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , pp. 275–276.
* ^ Christianson 2010 , p. 165.
* ^ Christianson 2010 , p. 166.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , Chart, p.357.
* ^ Christianson 2010 , pp. 10, 92, 98.
* ^ Christianson 2010 , p. 92.
* ^ A B Hayes 2004 , p. 281.
* ^ Longerich 2010 , pp. 281–282.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , pp. 2, 272.
* ^ A B C Piper 1994 , p. 161.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , p. 272.
* ^ Steinbacher 2005 , pp. 132–133.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , pp. 288–289.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , p. 296.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , pp. 294–297, chpt.
Degesch and Zyklon B. »The
SS learned in 1944 that the expiration dates on the Zyklon tins were
not hard and fast. All in all, it seems reasonable to assume that the
SS over- rather than underdosed...« (Peter Hayes).
* ^ Hayes 2004 , p. 283.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , p. 284.
* ^ Browning 2004 , pp. 526–527.
* ^ A B C Pressac & Pelt 1994 , p. 209.
* ^ Piper 1994 , pp. 158–159.
* ^ Rees 2005 , pp. 96–97, 101.
* ^ A B C Piper 1994 , p. 162.
* ^ Steinbacher 2005 , p. 98.
* ^ Steinbacher 2005 , pp. 100–101.
* ^ Rees 2005 , pp. 168–169.
* ^ Pressac & Pelt 1994 , p. 214.
* ^ Steinbacher 2005 , p. 109.
* ^ Levy 2006 , pp. 235–237.
* ^ A B C Piper 1994 , p. 170.
* ^ Piper 1994 , p. 163.
* ^ A B Piper 1994 , p. 171.
* ^ Piper 1994 , p. 174.
* ^ Steinbacher 2005 , pp. 123–124.
* ^ Shirer 1960 , p. 972.
* ^ Hayes 2004 , pp. 297–298.
* ^ United Nations 2002 , pp. 545, 171, 438.
* ^ Dzombak et al. 2005 , p. 42.
* ^ United Nations 2002 , p. 545.
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* ^ Hayes 2004 , p. 300.
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