“Mr Death”

Yesterday I watched Mr Death, Errol Morris’s documentary about Fred Leuchter Jr. The movie tells the story in Morris’s usual style: stay out of sight, and let the subject do the talking. Illustrate with interesting composition, archive footage, and re-enactments. Refrain from moralizing or pushing a particular agenda.

For those who don’t know: Leuchter was an engineer who, quite by accident, built up quite a reputation in the death business. He started out renovating old electric chairs, before moving on to design the lethal injection system used in many US states. Then one day he was asked if he could provide expert testimony in a Canadian legal case in which a Holocaust Revisionist was being prosecuted for hatemongering.

Fred took a plane trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau with his wife, a translator, and a cameraman. He wandered around the ruins, chipping off bits of brick and plaster without permission. He smuggled them back to Massachusetts, where he sent them to a chemical lab for analysis. He then wrote an infamous document called The Leuchter Report, which you can almost certainly find via Google if you want to.

The problem was, Fred didn’t really know anything about the chemistry of gas on solids. The lab tested for cyanide—but they tested the entire sample, not the few microns near the surface that might have shown traces of exposure to gas. Fred didn’t know about history either—he stumbled around assuming nothing at the site had changed, whereas in fact many of the buildings were disassembled to rebuild nearby farmhouses. Fred also didn’t know German, so he didn’t visit the Auschwitz archive, which has extensive original blueprints and other documentation showing that there were in fact ventilation systems and other essentials of mass execution by gas.

After publishing his report and testifying in the trial, Leuchter suddenly found that his old business contacts no longer wanted to associate with him. His wife left him, and he was driven out of Massachusetts for practicing engineering without a license. He turned to his new friends—he headed for California, where he was promised a job by someone in the Holocaust Revisionist movement.

The job failed to materialize, and Fred found himself locked out of his room. He now apparently makes a living giving speeches to adoring fans at Revisionist conferences.

It’s a sad tale of how a gullible nobody believed what people told him, and told them what they wanted to hear, so that he could feel important and famous. And in the end, it destroyed his marriage and his career.