Memo for the controversial bloggers, part Va: The sum of all errors: Roberto Muehlenkamp – burial space and decomposition

In the above sections, we have seen Nick Terry’s struggles with the Polish language, Jonathan Harrison’s difficulties with German words, and Jason Myers’ troubles with technical issues and witness statements. The contribution of Roberto Muehlenkamp, however, is the apotheosis of erroneous argumentation. This said, Muehlenkamp is the only one of the bloggers who goes much beyond ripping off the published literature. While Terry, Harrison, and Myers have rightly been dubbed the ‘plagiarist bloggers’, Muehlenkamp’s work is for the most part original. After all, whom could he plagiarize? No-one else in the world has ever come up with such nonsense. It’s no surprise to see that Muehlenkamp’s analysis is so poor, given that he proves unable even to understand how to calculate the volume of a truncated pyramid (p. 428) – a topic routinely mastered by twelve-year-olds.[91] Likewise, one can hardly expect a man who genuinely believes (p. 428) that loose sand excavated from pits will form piles whose walls have slopes of 173% (60 degrees)[92] to have much connection with reality. Muehlenkamp does not even manage to be consistent with his colleagues, who made a great fuss about distinguishing upper camp (extermination area) witnesses from lower camp witnesses, as he cites lower camp witness Oscar Strawczynski in support of the claim that the Treblinka mass graves could not be completely emptied (p. 387). In making this argument, Muehlenkamp ignores the statements of upper camp witnesses such as Pinchas Epstein, who claimed to have been personally involved in the cleaning out of the last, small, remains (bone fragments and the like) from the bottom of the Treblinka pits.[93]

The core elements of Muehlenkamp’s presentation concern the burial capacity of mass graves, and the resources in time, space, and fuel required for mass cremation. We will first examine some aspects of his treatment of mass graves. Speaking in general terms, the first feature which should jump out at the reader is Muehlenkamp’s unrelenting hostility to empiricism. One would expect an author examining the burial capacities would begin from the literature on mass burials. Muehlenkamp, however, keeps a respectful distance from empirical results, favoring long chains of extrapolations absent adequate empirical confirmation. There is good reason for this: an examination of actual mass graves would refute Muehlenkamp’s claims, while data-free speculation allows him to tweak the numbers as he sees fit. With his long chains of extrapolation, Muehlenkamp can lop off 5% here and 35% there, continuing the process until he obtains his desired figures. This creative accounting would break down in the presence of hard data.

This memo does not aspire to examine all the manipulations which Muehlenkamp employs in order to make the numbers work for burial capacity at the Reinhardt camps,[94] but will focus on one of these factors, namely his treatment of decomposition. Supposing that each mass grave was kept open for some months, and that over this time period the decomposing bodies would have lost much of their volume, Muehlenkamp deduces that there was a substantial increase in burial capacity. He bases his discussion of decomposition (p. 420) not on the academic literature, but on an online museum exhibit describing the decomposition of a 1.5 kg piglet on the earth’s surface in Australia. From this source he obtains a set of stages of decomposition which he employs throughout his contribution (e.g. pp. 469, 475). The first thing that should be observed is that this particular set of stages of decomposition is nothing more than the descriptive terminology of one museum exhibit. There are various ways in which the stages of decomposition for a body on the surface can be described. In examining several dozen scholarly books treating human decomposition, I have not found any source that gives the phases which Muehlenkamp uses so confidently.

In keeping with his preference for long chains of speculative extrapolation rather than direct data, Muehlenkamp examines decomposition on the basis of an inference from the behavior of bodies on the surface to the behavior of bodies in mass graves. While there do exist rules of thumb for such inference, they are rough instruments, and depend on many factors which Muehlenkamp ignores, such as depth of burial. The differences between decomposition on the surface and underground go beyond simply rescaling the time axis. Decomposition underground is a complex phenomenon that must be studied directly. While Muehlenkamp simply transfers his idiosyncratic list of stages of decomposition from the surface to underground, actual scientists studying underground decomposition have not devised any comparable standardized list of stages for decomposition underground – and certainly not the list which Muehlenkamp uses.[95] Likewise, decomposition in mass graves demands its own special study, as large mass graves have a tendency to preserve bodies better than individual burials.[96] If one is seeking to study decomposition in mass graves, one examines cases of decomposition in mass graves, rather than attempting some kind of extrapolation based on bodies on the surface.

Setting aside the methodological inadequacy of Muehlenkamp’s discussion of decomposition, let us examine the details of how he carries out his analysis. As usual, he errs fundamentally in carrying out his calculations. On the basis of accumulated degree day methods, and the work of Arpad Vass in particular, he states that he will analyze “time to skeletonization at Belzec in the late spring, summer and autumn of 1942” under the assumption that temperatures at this place and time were 20 to 30 degrees Celsius (p. 420). These assumed temperatures would be excessive even if daily highs were the relevant figures. Given that accumulated degree day methods actually rely on average temperatures,[97] Muehlenkamp’s temperature suppositions are wildly incorrect. In nearby Zamość, the average temperatures for the months of April through November are 7, 12, 15, 17, 16, 13, 8, and 2 degrees centigrade, well shy of Muehlenkamp’s 20-30 degree range.[98]

In truth, however, Muehlenkamp’s use of results on time to skeletonization in terms of accumulated degree days is more apparent than actual, and serves mainly to give the analysis a veneer of scientific rigor. Muehlenkamp does not even seem to be aware that Vass is using the term “skeletonization” in a very specific sense, in which a body is said to be skeletonized if it has ceased to release volatile fatty acids. Though this is not made absolutely explicit in the manifesto, the details being hidden behind his citation of one of his blog posts, the output that Muehlenkamp takes from his analysis of decomposition is that the bodies older than 50 days will have lost 50% of their mass – a figure which is nothing more than Muehlenkamp’s guesstimate, unsupported by any data. There is no direct link between Vass’ work and Muehlenkamp’s assumption’s regarding mass loss. How could one infer how much mass a carcass has lost from the fact that it has ceased to release volatile fatty acids? In fact, the figure found in the literature is that a total of one third of the carcass mass is ultimately lost in leachate.[99] Although we will not elaborate on this point, this particular piece of distortion on Muehlenkamp’s part has consequences not only for his treatment of burial capacity, but also for his treatment of cremation, as he feeds this false data into his cremation analysis.

In addressing the alleged contribution of decomposition to the burial capacity of mass graves, we need to obtain figures for the volume loss of the carcass mass. Thus far we have seen how Muehlenkamp, on the basis of his own invented (and false) numbers, estimates the mass loss of individual carcasses in mass graves. How does he make the transition from mass loss of the individual carcasses to volume loss of the carcass mass? In the most mindless of possible ways: he assumes that the proportion of mass lost by the individual carcasses is equal to the proportion of volume lost by the carcass mass. This assumption is unfounded for two complementary reasons. First, organic substances which dry out generally decrease in density, a fact precisely equivalent to the statement that they lose proportionally less volume than they lose mass. Second, a pile of carcasses each of which is shrinking due to loss of fluids will generally increase in porosity, i.e. it will contain proportionally more free space. This is tantamount to saying that the proportion of volume loss for the carcass mass is less than the proportion of volume loss of the individual carcasses. The increase in porosity arises for a number of reasons. Surfaces which were once convex and pressed up against one another in a space-filling fashion now become more concave as the objects dessicate, but due to the discrete nature of the carcasses and the semi-rigid structure given by the human skeleton, the gaps introduced by dessication are not filled in. The configuration of the carcasses is largely fixed on their initial burial, and they cannot rearrange themselves of their own accord; thus, for example, shrinkage in one of the horizontal axes does not translate into a proportional reduction in the height of the carcass mass.

All of these factors are difficult to quantify, but it is clear that the volume loss of the carcass mass will be significantly less than the mass loss of the carcasses. Given the difficulties involved in estimating this volume loss theoretically, it should be assessed on the basis on real life experience with mass graves. Ultimately, however, one can spare oneself the trouble, because as Carlo Mattogno has pointed out,[100] the filling rates for the graves would have been far too rapid for decomposition losses to have made any significant contribution to grave capacity.

There is one final topic concerning the role of decomposition that should be mentioned, although it lies off the main road of Muehlenkamp’s analysis, namely Kurt Gerstein’s tale of collapsing pits at Belzec (p. 419). Gerstein describes this as a rapid phenomenon, quite unlike the slow settling that may accompany decomposition, and his story clearly belongs to the realm of fantasy. As Gerstein’s testimony was widely publicized, this story influenced other accounts, and the theme was taken up by later authors, such as Gitta Sereny in her rendition of Franz Stangl’s alleged prison statements. In these later accounts, the tale continues to reveal its nature as fiction. This can be seen, for instance, in Eliahu Rosenberg’s version, given in his testimony at the Demjanjuk trial:

The pits somehow rose up and this – as we had covered it – the whole thing would suddenly rise up and it served as a kind of volcano from which a thick, viscous sort of material rose-colored and it was bubbling. It was a sort of vulcanized type of matter and the pit and the earth on top of the pit would rise up and then would suddenly drop, would subside. I don’t understand anything about the chemistry of this, but this is how it happened. And in these pits, to the extent that it had subsided, it had sunk, well we would top it up again.[101]

What Rosenberg and Gerstein describe is plainly not something with a real foundation in terms of the settlement due to decomposition. It is a tall tale, nothing more.

——

[91] Muehlenkamp erroneously assumes that the volume of a truncated pyramid whose sides slope at a given angle can be given in the form V=c*height*(AreaOfBase), where c is a fixed constant. In fact, the value of c in such a formula depends not only on the slope of the sides but also on other aspects of the shape of the truncated pyramid. No matter what the sides’ angle of slope might be, it can take any value in the open interval (1/3, 1). In the case Muehlenkamp considers, it will not take the value he supposes.
[92] Muehlenkamp assumes that deep burial pits will be dug with walls of this slope, and infers that the removed sand can be piled up at the same angle. In reality, it is common knowledge that soil will support a steeper slope when still in the ground (with years’ worth of compression having given it strength) than it will when it has been removed, loosened, and thereby deprived of its strength.
[93] Demjanjuk trial, 23.2.87, p. 651; Fedorenko trial, 9.6.78, pp. 1141-1144, 1154-1155.
[94] A few of these have been analyzed separately at https://holocausthistorychannel.wordpress.com/
[95] For an overview of decomposition underground, see William C. Rodriguez, Decomposition of Buried and Submerged Bodies, in: William D. Haglund and Marcella H. Sorg (eds). Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains, CRC Press, 1997.
[96] See William D. Haglund, Recent Mass Graves: An Introduction, in: William D. Haglund and Marcella Sorg (eds), Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory, and Archaeological Perspectives, CRC Press, 2002.
[97] It should be self evident to any thinking person that it is the average, and not the high, temperature which should be used; indeed, this is implied by the (not strictly accurate) assumption of linearity which underlines accumulated degree day (or hour) methods. For the benefit of those who, like Muehlenkamp, prefer to eschew rational mental processes, we will cite a paper that confirms this fact: see e.g. Mary Megyesi, Stephen Nawrocki, and Neal Haskell, Using Accumulated Degree-Days to Estimate the Postmortem Interval from Decomposed Human Remains, J. Forensic Sci., Vol. 50, No. 3, 2005, pp. 618-626.
[98] http://www.weatherbase.com/weather/weatherall.php3?s=59521
[99] Carcass Disposal: A Comprehensive Review, Chapter 1: Burial, p. 6; Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Construction Specifications for Carcass Burial Facilities, Wellington, 2005, pp. 3-5; C.P. Young, P.A. Marsland, & J.W.N. Smith, Foot & Mouth Disease Epidemic. Disposal of culled stock by burial: Guidance and Reference Data for the protection of controlled waters. Draft R&D Technical Report: Version 7: 20 June 2001, pp. 17-18.
[100] Carlo Mattogno, Thomas Kues, and Jürgen Graf, The “Extermination Camps” of “Aktion Reinhardt”: An Analysis and Refutation of Factitious “Evidence,” Deceptions and Flawed Argumentation of the “Holocaust Controversies” Bloggers, 2013, pp. 1118-1120.
[101] Demjanjuk trial, 25.2.87, pp. 1008-1009.

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