User:Icewhiz/KL Warschau conspiracy theory
How Wikipedia promoted Holocaust distortion for 15 years
Note: the most recent version of the article is here. Please leave your comments on the associated talk page.
One August eve, as I was catching up on recent pieces on Polish Catholic-nationalist discourse, I came across an article by Christian Davies titled Under the Railway Line. Davies describes a conspiracy theory, first advanced by Polish judge Maria Trzcińska, stating that 200,000 Poles were killed in the Warsaw concentration camp using a giant gas chamber built into a road tunnel located next to the camp. Davies describes how a procession - complete with a priest sprinkling holy water and two soldiers - hung a commemorative plaque to the alleged events at a church in the Grochów neighbourhood of Warsaw. According to Davies, this theory fits within a "Polocaust" narrative used by some right-wing activists who are
"resentful of the international attention the Holocaust receives to claim a parity of suffering" - part of a
"standard trope on the Polish nationalist right that Jews have exaggerated their victimhood in order to extort money from the Poles and obtain global power and influence". Needless to say, Davies states that this
"nationalist fever dream" has no support among historians, but that:
"...the more Trzcińska’s claims were challenged, the more determined her supporters became. Marches, demonstrations, public meetings and religious ceremonies were held, bogus maps circulated, false testimonies promoted, Wikipedia entries amended. Worst of all, plaques and monuments bearing false witness to the secret genocide started to appear around the city."
So I turned to Wikipedia, and found this: an entry describing a much larger camp than that accepted by historians, stating as a fact that
"the first gassing there took place on October 17, 1943, killing at least 150 Poles... and about 20 Belgian Jews". Prior to May 2019 it was even worse: As of 4 May 2019, prior to a large cleanup by K.e.coffman, the English Wikipedia stated for a fact that the camp had 400,000 inmates, and whose existence was "debated secretly" under the post-war Communist regime that wished to inflate the Warsaw Uprising casualty numbers. This wasn't isolated - the entire article consisted of details advanced by conspiracy theorists and contradicted by reliable sources.
The article has always been in "conspiracy theory" turf, despite hundreds of edits by dozens of editors. Back when it was created on August 2004, the lead and several of the sections contain several false details in WikiVoice. The article stated that
"Among those grouped in Warsaw the majority was either shot to death or gassed in a provisional gas chambers"; the previous paragraph, claiming a death count of 400 victims a day over a period of 22 months, would've resulted in 264,000 victims - more than more well-known camps like Sobibór and Majdanek. Despite concerns raised by an IP and editor in 2006, which were that were ignored by other editors, this hoax was live in main space for 15 years.
The content was also present in several higher-tier articles:
- German camps in occupied Poland during World War II (2006 - 2019):
"up to 200,000 at KL Warschau". 5,562 average monthly views; had this hoax live for 13 years and 3 months.
- Extermination camp (2007 - 2019): Much of the time in unqualified WikiVoice, e.g.
"similar camps existed at Warsaw and Janowska"2011)). 36,137 average monthly views; had this hoax live for 12 years, 3 months.
- Pabst Plan (2009 - 2019):
"From autumn of 1942 next step of extermination of Warsaw’s population was launched....
- Nazi crimes against the Polish nation (2006 - 2019): Death camp for Polish extermination, gas chambers, and Communist cover-up all in WikiVoice; Trzcińska is treated as a bona-fide historian, and the sole item of dispute is the "enormous gas chamber in a railway tunnel" (other gas chambers are presented as accepted historical fact).
- War crimes in occupied Poland during World War II (2006 - 2019): At addition tunnel was considered fact; at removal camp is still described in WikiVoice as containing "killing facilities" for extermination of Poles in the capital.
- List of Nazi concentration camps (2004 - 2019). At addition, 40,000 inmates and 200,000 victims. At removal number of inmates went up to 400,000 but victims down to 20,000–35,000. In both false 1942 start date.
Reputable sources in English, all describe a much smaller facility, and none mention the conspiracy theory. According to the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945 the camp only operated for one year (July 1943-July 1944), part of it as a sub-camp of Majdanek, with 8,000-9,000 inmates, and by the end of the war some 4,000-5,000 deaths. The inmates in the camp were mainly foreign Jews (notably Greek in the first transports, and Hungarians in the May-June 1944 replacement transports, selected for their lack of Polish language skills) who were exterminated through labor by salvaging bricks and metal from the destroyed Warsaw Ghetto. Source do note that the July 1944 death march of 4,500 prisoners to Kutno, some 120 km away, was the first of several. Seeing the extent of falsification in the article, I proceeded to WP:TNT and re-write the article based on mainstream sources.
As of September, the page is present in 12 different Wikipedias, but is notably absent from the Hebrew Wikipedia (which generally has good coverage of Holocaust-related subjects), which only mentions it (fairly accurately) in the Aftermath section of the Warsaw Ghetto entry. Most of the other entries are either apparent, though not always credited translations of the English, German, or Polish Wikipedia entries from some past date; or stubs (which often seem to be a copy or translation of a cross-wiki lead) - with fairly few edits following their creation and more or less the same "hoax status" their origin article had at the time of their creation. The dynamics between the English, German, and Polish Wikis are interesting:
- English: Created as a hoax on 25 August 2004 and remained as a hoax until August 2019.
- Polish: Created on 6 February 2005; the initial revision refers to gas chambers as fact, noting a dispute on numbers, but otherwise treating the camp as an extermination camp for ethnic Poles. The article remained in "fringe territory" for several years - the peak conspiracy versions are probably 2012 - Jan 2016. On 15 Jan 2016 the article was rewritten by Dreamcatcher25 (mainly based on B. Kopka's 2007 book) and taken to GA, removing the fringe content. Rejection of the fringe theory was further strengthened subsequently. (e.g. 10 October 2017).
- German: Created on 15 February 2005 and was fairly accurate on creation. The hoax propagated to the German Wikipedia from the English one on 1 January 2006 (edit summary:
"replaced by better article from English"). A proposal for deletion & renewal was posted on the talk page on 13 December 2007, citing this scathing review from 2003, which pre-dates any of the Wikipedia pages; and on 11 January 2009 the page was completely rewritten, complete with a mention of Trzcińska's claims ("not scientifically serious and criticized by historians").
The USHMM's encyclopedia notes that
"the existence of the Warschau concentration camp is hardly mentioned in standard accounts of the Holocaust"; another source refers to it as
"admittedly apocryphal"; and yet on Wikipedia it became a full length article translated to a dozen languages.
Why were English Wikipedia editors indifferent to this hoax for so many years? I can only speculate that having passed WP:V for the name (KL Warschau did exist, if only for a year), editors were not inclined to verify the many details that, while highly questionable to a reader with domain knowledge, are not entirely implausible in the eyes of a lay reader. The obscurity of the subject surely played a part as well: Wikipedia has a long tail of short articles on esoteric subjects, which uninvolved editors are reluctant to touch. Editorial dynamics within the topic area may have also promoted indifference. Whatever the reason may be, the result is the same: a hoax in a major area of scholarship that should've raised alarms for multiple editors over its existence, remained in main space for 15 years - an unacceptable result by any standard.
- Under the Railway Line, London Review of Books, Christian Davies, Vol. 41 No. 9, 9 May 2019
- Christian Davies is a Warsaw-based journalist writing for the London Review of Books and The Guardian.
- The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Geoffrey P. Megargee, Martin Dean, and Mel Hecker, Volume I, part B, pages 1512-1515
- Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories, Routledge, 2010, chapter by Dieter Pohl, page 156-157 in print version (no page numbers in e-book)
- The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, Princeton University Press, Wolfgang Sofsky page 337
- Clearing the Ruins of the Ghetto, Yad Vashem
- Camps were often arranged as systems with one main camp and multiple "satellite" camps; Majdanek had at least eight such satellites within a 130 km radius, and another one further away.
- Biddle, Ian, and Beate Müller. "“… and all of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began singing…”: languages and commemoration in Arnold Schoenberg’s cantata A Survivor from Warsaw (Op. 46)." Edinburgh German Yearbook: New Literary and Linguistic Perspectives on the German Language, National Socialism, and the Shoah (2014)