Sean Spicer Got Three Things Wrong About Hitler's Use of Chemical Weapons

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1941 photo showing the railroad tracks leading to the entrance of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
1941 photo showing the railroad tracks leading to the entrance of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.Credit: AP

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made three miserable mistakes on Tuesday when he compared Syrian President Bashar Assad and Adolf Hitler over the former's use of chemical weapons to kill scores of people in northern Syria last week. 

First, Spicer's sweeping claim that even Hitler didn't sink to using chemical arms is just flat out wrong. In fact, Hitler used chemical weapons – gasses like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and Zyklon B – to kill more people than anyone in history.

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Second, Spicer's attempt to clarify his remark by saying that unlike Assad, Hitler didn't gas his own people is also mistaken. Hitler killed more than 200,000 Germans – both Jews and non-Jews. 

Third is Spicer's neologism "Holocaust Centers," a term which earned much ridicule on Twitter. Spicer most likely meant to say "Killing Centers," a term for Nazi death camps and concentration camps used by the Holocaust Museum in Washington. 

Later, Spicer issued a statement saying that he wasn't "trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust." It should be noted that the Nazis started using chemical weapons well before the the Holocaust began in 1941. In 1939, the Nazis used CO2 in the course of Aktion T4, a program for the involuntary euthansia of the mentally handicapped. The victims (again, Germans) were seen by the Nazis as a threat to the so-called purity of the race, and were gassed in six centers across Germany. Tens of thousands were killed. 

After the German armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, German troops complained of the difficulty of carrying out the mass shootings of civilians. In response, the Nazis started using "gas vans" – sealed trucks with the engine exhaust rerouted into the luggage compartment. The trucks were loaded with people – mostly Jews, Gypsies and the mentally handicapped – who suffocated from the toxic fumes during the ride. Their bodies were then thrown into mass graves that were dug in advance. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in this way. 

In 1942, permanent gas chambers were set up in the Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka death camps, which also used CO2. But genocide by means of poison gas reached its infamous apex with Zyklon B, utilized in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis first used the cyanide-based gas in September 1941 to kill several hundreds of Soviet POWs and sick criminal inmates, but later, Zyklon B was used to kill 1.2 million people, most of them Jews. 

Similar gas chambers were also used in other, smaller camps.

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