Why No Poison Gas?

By Robert M. Citino
12/13/2009 • Fire for Effect

Hitler was a bad guy.

Talk about stating the obvious.  We can call Hitler many things.  Fanatic.  Megalomaniac.  Warmonger.  War criminal.  Mass murderer.  No one fits the bill like the Führer.
And yet, there was one rather obvious crime that this world-class criminal refused to commit.  And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why.  My students ask me the question every single semester, and after 25 years of college teaching, I have to confess that still don’t have a really satisfactory answer.

Why didn’t Hitler use poison gas in World War II?

He certainly did everything else.  Unprovoked aggression (multiple counts).  Terror towards civilian populations in occupied areas.  And the greatest mass murder of all time, the “Judeocide” that most people refer to as the Holocaust.

But he didn’t drop poison gas on civilian populations during bombing raids by the Luftwaffe.  He didn’t even use it tactically against enemy troop concentrations.  The conundrum becomes even tougher to explain when we remember that this is a man who himself fought in a war that featured the liberal use of poison gas.  Chlorine, mustard, phosgene:  World War I saw them all used in abundance, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers on all sides died a horrible choking death, or spent the next twenty years of their lives in the most painful suffering imaginable.  World War II, however, a war that dwarfed the previous one in virtually every category of cruelty, almost completely eschewed this particular variety of  horror.  It remains a puzzle.

I currently am privileged to have as a graduate student a captain in the US Army.  He’s an interesting guy–as most of the officers I’ve met tend to be.  He currently works in military intelligence (“MI,” I’ve learned to call it).  Like just about anyone in the army today, he’s done more than one tour in our current Global War on Terror (that’s “GWOT”, sometimes pronounced ironically as a question, “G-what?”), and at one time in his career he was a specialist in nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare (and yes, that’s usually referred to as “NBC”).

The Good Captain’s take on Hitler’s tentativeness is this:  there was no “value added” for Hitler in using gas.  By the 1940s, just about any literate society could produce various forms of poison gas.  Thus, there was no real advantage to Germany in introducing it into the war.  Countermeasures would immediately follow, for which Germany had no more effective response than any other combatant.  And that went equally for the vesicants like mustard gas as well as the new “nerve” agent just discovered in Germany’s Wuppertal-Elberfeld lab in 1939–the deadly compound that we know as Sarin.

When it came down to it, Hitler was a man who knew no limits, and who made his decisions relatively free of moral considerations.  Sarin didn’t strike him as particularly inhumane or ghastly.  It just seemed… ineffective.

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