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Riddle of why Hitler didn't use sarin gas remains unsolved

Riddle of why Hitler didn't use sarin gas remains unsolved


NYT Syndicate

Sean Spicer badly fumbled one of the major riddles of World War II: Why didn't Hitler use the thousands of tons of lethal nerve agents that German chemists had invented and military leaders had readied for battlefield use, including sarin, the deadly gas that recently killed scores of Syrian civilians, children among them?
"It's a real mystery," said Raymond A Zilinskas, director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation programme at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California."There're a lot more questions than answers."
During the war, the deadly agents could have dealt a major blow to the Allies, who had no knowledge of the lethal arms. According to the Army's textbook on the medical effects of chemical weapons, German attacks with sarin and tabun, another nerve agent,"would have been devastating and might have altered the outcome of that conflict."
Spicer, the White House press secretary, touched off a global outcry after suggesting that President Bashar Assad of Syria was guilty of acts worse than Hitler, and claimed that the Nazi leader had not used chemical weapons, ignoring the use of gas chambers at concentration camps during the Holocaust. Spicer later apologised.
The Nazi death camps, where millions of Jews, other civilians and enemy soldiers were exterminated, relied on chemicals far less hazardous than sarin, medical experts say. The main poison was a type of cyanide ” an unexceptional toxin that Nero in ancient Rome had used to poison members of his family and others who displeased him.
The cyanide that Nazi Germany preferred for its genocidal handiwork was known as Zyklon B, which began life as a pesticide and rodenticide. One of its uses in the United States and other countries was to rid ships of rodents.
Nerve agents like sarin are far more dangerous and deadly, having been developed in secrecy during World War II. The agents disrupt nerve messages sent to the vital organs of the human body. As a result, a slight whiff of vapours or skin exposure can quickly become a death warrant.
German scientists invented tabun in 1936 and sarin in 1938. The substances still rank among the most toxic chemical warfare agents. During the war, the German military built large factories to make the deadly poisons.
According to the US Army textbook, Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare, the German military produced up to 30,000 tons of tabun and smaller amounts of sarin, and put the nerve agents into munitions.
Allied troops captured some of the weapons toward the end of the war and took them to Britain and the United States. The textbook says detailed analyses in the allied nations showed the deadly agents to be"unknown to scientists."
Some investigators were accidentally exposed and suffered the classic symptom seen among victims of the recent sarin attack in Syria ” extreme constriction of the pupil.
Why did the Nazis forgo the nerve agents? One theory suggests that Hitler's own experience of chemical warfare in World War I deterred him. But many experts doubt that theory, as he had no compunction about using deadly chemical vapors to kill millions of people in the death camps.
Another theory suggests that he feared some kind of massive retribution if he crossed the line and used unconventional arms on Allied troops.
"He thought there would be retaliation ” if not in kind," said David H Moore, a toxicologist and former official at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland."That's the common explanation."
Zilinskas of the Middlebury Institute said detailed historical studies suggested at least two other possibilities. The first was that the German military faced huge difficulties in deploying and using secret chemical weapons that had undergone little field testing, especially in battlefield conditions.
More provocative, he said, was evidence that Adm Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, the military intelligence unit of the high command of the German armed forces, devised a disinformation ploy. Initially a supporter of Hitler, he later turned on the Nazis when he felt Germany would lose another major war.
Zilinskas said Canaris told Nazi officials that the Allies had developed masks that were able to withstand the nerve agents, implying that Allied troops would be immune and undeterred by the lethal mists.
"That was wrong," he said."Actually, the masks were for World War I gases. He had provided the wrong information."
Still, Zilinskas conceded, exactly what kept Hitler from doing another unthinkable act remains a riddle lost in time."We just don't have the answers," he said.

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