White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has apologized profusely for his much-criticized comparison of Syria’s Bashar Assad to Adolf Hitler, but his clarification that he meant Hitler did not drop chemical bombs from airplanes requires some historical context. The Nazis manufactured and stockpiled thousands of tons of chemical munitions. While Hitler never employed them in battle, historians say that was largely for tactical reasons.
Spicer was skewered in the media for his initial comment — he said that Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” As multiple news outlets quickly pointed out, Hitler had killed millions of Jews and others in concentration camp gas chambers during the Holocaust.
In the same press conference, Spicer clarified that he meant that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.” More specifically, he said in yet another clarification after the press conference that he was “trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers.”
That’s more in line with the comment Defense Secretary James Mattis made later in the afternoon when he said the intent of the U.S. missile attack on Syria on April 6 was “to stop the cycle of violence into an area that even in World War II, chemical weapons were not used on battlefields.”
“Even in the Korean War, they were not used on battlefields,” Mattis said. “Since World War I, there’s been an international convention on this.”
The Geneva Protocol, signed in 1925, prohibited the use of poison gases. Germany ratified the protocol in 1929.
Historians say Hitler’s restraint when it came to the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, however, may have had less to do with some line that Hitler would not cross, and more to do with tactical decisions.
Origins of Nerve Gases
German chemist Gerhard Schrader — sometimes called “father of the nerve agents” — is believed to have created the first organophosphorus nerve agents in 1936. Schrader’s discovery came inadvertently while suffering loss of vision and shortness of breath while developing pesticides, as Jonathan Tucker — a former biological weapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq — details in his book “War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda.”
The compound, later called tabun, was reported to the German military authorities given its chemical weapon significance, John Hart, the head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told us via email.
The agents developed by Germany were tabun, soman and sarin, Hart said, though they were never used against other states during World War II in state-to-state armed conflict.
Germany did, however, stockpile chemical munitions (mainly sulphur mustard and tabun — as well as sarin and soman), Hart said.
According to The Daily Mail, “by mid-1943, the Germans had managed to manufacture 12,500 tons of Tabun, much of which was loaded into munitions such as shells and bombs.”
So why didn’t Germany ever use those chemical weapons it had stockpiled?
In his book, “Of Spies and Stratagems,” Stanley P. Lovell, the head of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services during the war, says historians would be wise to dismiss the notion that nerve gas munitions were not used in World War II for humanitarian reasons.
At the war trials at Nuremberg, Nazi leader Hermann Göring was asked why the Germans did not use “Gas Blau” to stop the Normandy invasion. Lovell paraphrases Göring’s explanation that it was because they could not create suitable gas masks for horses, which were critical for transporting supplies.
From “Of Spies and Stratagems,” by Stanley Lovell:
Q. We know you had Gas Blau [a name used for nerve gas] which would have stopped the Normandy invasion. Why didn’t you use it?
A. Die Pferde (the horses).
Q. What have horses to do with it?
A. Everything. A horse lies down in the shafts or between the thills as soon as his breathing is restricted. We never have had a gas mask a horse would tolerate.
Q. What has that to do with Normandy?
A. We did not have enough gasoline to adequately supply the German Air Force and the Panzer Divisions, so we used horse transport in all operations. You must have known that the first thing we did in Poland, France, everywhere, was to seize the horses. All our material was horse-drawn. Had we used gas you would have retaliated and you would have instantly immobilized us.
Q. Was it that serious, Marshal?
A. I tell you, you would have won the war years ago if you had used gas – not on our soldiers, but on our transportation system. Your intelligence men are asses!
Some historians say Hitler’s reluctance to employ chemical weapons may have been tied to his exposure to mustard gas during World War I, which temporarily blinded him. Others suggest the use of chemical weapons was deemed inefficient, and risked exposing soldiers to friendly-fire incidents.
Finally, some believe Hitler was concerned about the retaliatory use of chemical weapons by Allied troops. Signers of the Geneva Protocol agreed not to be the first to use chemical weapons in war, historians said, but they reserved the right to use them if the enemy did first.
A fascinating account from The Daily Mail details the claim that a German scientist “exaggerated the Allies’ capability of hitting back with their own chemical weapons, which caused the Fuhrer to rethink his plans.” The article cites the work of Frank Dinan, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Canisius College, who said the German scientist told Hitler that tabun and sarin appeared in patents and were publicized internationally — which was not true.
“There was a general lack of awareness of these agents in the UK and the US during the war,” Hart told us.
Nonetheless, the article says, the scientist’s response gave Hitler enough pause to abandon calls for the use of Germany’s chemical weapons on the battlefield.
One further point: While Hitler may not have dropped chemical bombs, some believe the Germans did use poison gas against enemy soldiers in World War II. In her book “Ivan’s War,” Catherine Merridale writes that Nazis used poison gas to kill some 3,000 Soviet troops and civilians holed up in caves after the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula in 1942.
Spicer has clarified and apologized for his original comment several times.
Again, this is his original statement:
Spicer, press briefing, April 11: We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had … someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons. So you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself, is this a country [Syria] that you and a regime [the Assad regime] that you want to align yourself with?
Later in the same press conference, in response to a reporter who read back his quote, Spicer said this:
Spicer, April 11: I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no … he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean, there was clearly … there was not — in the — he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that.
But I was saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent — into the middle of towns. It was brought — so, the use of it — and I appreciate the clarification. That was not the intent.
After the press conference, the White House provided this statement to the White House pool:
Spicer statement, April 11: In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.
That night, Spicer went on CNN to apologize for the remark.
Spicer on CNN, April 11: I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week using chemical weapons and gas. And frankly I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no — there is no comparison. And for that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that. …
Well, clearly, anybody who not just suffered in the Holocaust or is a descendant of anybody, but frankly, you know, anyone who was offended by those comments. It’s not — as I said, I’m not in any way standing by them. I was trying to draw a comparison for which there shouldn’t have been one. It was insensitive and inappropriate.
CNN host Wolf Blitzer asked Spicer if he did not know “that there were gas chambers where the Nazis brought Jews and others, gypsies, homosexuals and others, mostly Jews, to slaughter them in these poison gas chambers at Birkenau, near Auschwitz, and other death camps.”
“Yes, clearly, I’m aware of that,” Spicer said. “Again, as I said initially, there is no attempt to clarify. The point was to try to talk about the use of aircraft as a means by which Assad was using this to gas his people. But it was a mistake to do that.”
In an interview at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on April 12, Spicer again apologized.
Spicer, April 12: I got into a topic that I shouldn’t have. And — and I screwed up. I mean, you — you know, and I hope people understand that — that we all make mistakes.
We don’t want to belabor the issue. But Mattis also made the point that “chemical weapons were not used on battlefields” in World War II. As the historians we cited earlier make clear, Germany stockpiled chemical weapons. Hitler may not have made the decision to drop them on Allied troops, but that was likely for tactical reasons.
Bogus Spicer Quotes
Spicer’s comments also sparked fake news postings.
A Facebook page called “Press Secretary Sean Spicer” – which has since been deleted – posted a bogus statement attributed to Spicer saying: “The media has mischaracterized my recent statements on the Assad regime. It was not my intention to imply that Hitler had never used chemical weapons, but that he never used them on fellow Germans.”
A Google cache version of the page, captured at 9:18 p.m. ET on April 11, shows about 300 people had liked the post, nearly 2,000 had shared it and even more had commented on it. The page included several postings of articles from Breitbart Insider, a parody site (just note the fake Pulitzer reference, for instance, on the “About Us” page), not the actual Breitbart.
And the satirical site Newslo fabricated several quotes it attributed to Spicer, including a line that gas chambers were “a minute part” of World War II. Newslo, our readers may recall, often includes some real news in its stories, giving readers the opportunity to “show facts” or “hide facts.” In this case, its post started off with real Spicer quotes from the press conference, and then fabricated several paragraphs.