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Mass extermination in the concentration camp: trial against the traders of death

Status: 01.03.2021 11:00 p.m.

In the trial against the bosses of Tesch & Stabenow 75 years ago, entrepreneurs came to court for the first time for their involvement in the Holocaust. The Hamburg company supplied concentration camps with Zyklon B, a poison gas.

by Irene Altenmüller

The cans of the deadly poison gas were carefully packed and labeled. On it the manufacturer's name: "Tesch u. Stabenow, Hamburg 1 - Messberghof". During the Second World War, the company supplied several concentration camps with Zyklon B. The Nazis murdered more than 900,000 people in Auschwitz alone.

Zyklon B brings Tesch & Stabenow good sales

To this day, the name of the hydrogen cyanide gas Zyklon B stands for industrially organized mass murder. For the pest control company Tesch & Stabenow, or "Testa" for short, Zyklon B is one thing above all else: a lucrative business. In the years 1942/43 the profit of the Hamburg company skyrocketed - from 40,000 Reichsmarks to 120,000 Reichsmarks in 1943. A particularly good customer is the SS - the organization manages the concentration camps. In 1943 alone, the company delivered 12,000 kilograms of Zyklon B to Auschwitz.

Poison gas Zyklon B: "Effective" for the mass extermination of people

Bureaucratically organized mass murder: the trucks needed a special permit for the poison gas deliveries.

Initially, the SS used the drug to fight pests such as rats, bed bugs and cockroaches in the concentration camp barracks. From September 1941, it first used Zyklon B to purposefully destroy human life. In a first "test" 600 Soviet prisoners of war are gassed in Auschwitz. Camp commandant Rudolf Höß seems so effective that he decides that Zyklon B should be used as a priority for murder in Auschwitz in the future. The Nazis were soon killing hundreds of thousands of Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, prisoners of war and other prisoners in specially built gas chambers with the poison gas produced by the Hamburg company.

Agonizing death from suffocation

Hundreds of thousands of people in Auschwitz were murdered with Zyklon B in seven gas chambers.

The death caused by the hydrogen cyanide gas Zyklon B is horrific. Cramping pain is followed by excruciating suffocation. In the gas chambers, the stronger fight their way up, where they can breathe a little longer. The weak stay downstairs and die first, so that the corpses pile up in a pyramid shape in the gas chambers.

Tesch & Stabenow company courses on concentration camp operations

The chemist Bruno Tesch was head of the Tesch & Stabenow company at the time. He travels to various concentration camps several times. There he gives courses in which the SS men learn how to use the poison gas.

The detention bunkers in Neuengamme concentration camp were specially converted in 1942 to gass people in them.

SS man Wilhelm Bahr is someone who takes part in one of these "disinfector courses" under Tesch's direction. In September and November 1942 he took part in the gassing of a total of 448 Soviet prisoners of war with Zyklon B in the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg, as he confirmed after the war. Since there is no gas chamber in Neuengamme, he throws Zyklon B through a roof hatch into the sealed detention bunker. Bahr was executed for his crimes in 1946.

Himmler is personally committed to the company

After the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, concentration camp guards presented the poison gas stocks.

When the offices of Tesch & Stabenow were destroyed in an air raid on Hamburg on March 30, 1945, it became clear how important the company was for the SS. SS chief Heinrich Himmler personally asks the Hamburg construction police to support the company with the reconstruction.

In a letter he stated that it was "in the interests of the Reichsführer SS that the Tesch & Stabenow company should be able to resume its work as soon as possible".

March 1 to 8, 1946: Tesch as a war criminal in court

A few weeks later the war is over. It took until September 3, until Bruno Tesch and Karl Weinbacher, the company's second managing director, as well as the technician Joachim Drosihn, were arrested on September 3, 1945 in the company premises. A former accountant of the company, Erich Sehm, had reported them. From March 1 to March 8, 1946, as war criminals, they must answer before the British military tribunal for their alleged involvement in the mass murder in the concentration camps. It is the first war crimes trial of the British military justice in the Hamburg Curiohaus.

What did Bruno Tesch know?

There Tesch denies having known that people were murdered with Zyklon B. He believed that the poison was only used for disinfection and delousing.

But several witnesses incriminate him heavily: A secretary, for example, remembers that Tesch told her after a dictation that Zyklon B was also used to murder people. And Erich Sehm, the former accountant, describes in court how he accidentally came across a business trip report in the company documents in 1942. In it, Tesch made the suggestion to "leading figures in the Wehrmacht" that hydrogen cyanide should be used for the murder of people "in the same way as we did in the extermination of vermin".

Executed on May 16, 1946

The witnesses do not incriminate his deputy Weinbacher. However, the military court followed the prosecutors' view that Weinbacher "must have known everything that Tesch knew". On March 8, 1946, the judges sentenced Tesch and Weinbacher to death by hanging. On May 16, 1946, they were executed in the Hamelin penitentiary. The court acquitted the technician and long-time employee of the company, Joachim Drosihn.

Bronze plaque at the Meßberghof commemorates the merchants of death

The Meßberghof - the commercial building in which Tesch & Stabenow was based - has been preserved to this day. The imposing brick building, which was originally named after the well-known shipowner and head of Hamburg's Hapag, Albert Ballin, is located in Hamburg's Kontorhaus district, across from the famous Chilehaus. The Nazis renamed the building in 1938 because of Ballin's Jewish origins in 1938.

"Death came from Hamburg"

Only after a long dispute was a clearly visible memorial plaque attached to the facade of the Messberghof in 1997.

Since 1997, a simple bronze plaque has been a reminder that the company Tesch & Stabenow, which supplied the poison gas Zyklon B to concentration camps in the 1940s, had its headquarters there - after initial resistance from Deutsche Bank as the owner of the building at the time. The company feared "negative effects on the rentability of the property".

At the inauguration of the plaque in June 1997, Gabriele Fenyes from the Jewish Community in Hamburg explains: "Here I stand and know that death came from Hamburg. That is a terrible connection."

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Hamburg Journal | 03/08/2016 | 19:30 o'clock