The gas van was invented in the Soviet Union in 1936, by Isay Berg, the head of the administrative and economic department of the NKVD of Moscow Oblast which suffocated batches of prisoners with engine fumes in a camouflaged bread van while on the drive out to the mass graves at Butovo, where the prisoners were subsequently buried. According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "I. D. Berg was ordered to carry out the decisions of the NKVD troika of Moscow Oblast, and Berg was decently carrying out this assignment: he was driving people to the executions by shooting. But, when in Moscow Oblast there came to be three troikas having their sessions simultaneously, the executioners could not cope with the load. They hit upon a solution: to strip the victims naked, to tie them up, plug their mouths and throw them into a closed truck, disguised from the outside as a bread van. During transportation the fuel gases came into the truck, and when delivered to the farthest ditch the arrestees were already dead." Berg denied that he was inventor of the gas van.
During trips to the Soviet Union in 1941, Heinrich Himmler learned the psychological impact of shooting women and children on the Einsatzgruppen. Hence, he commissioned Arthur Nebe to explore ways of killing that were less stressful for the task forces. Nebe's experiments eventually led to the utilization of the gas van. This vehicle had already been used in 1940 for the gassing of East Prussian and Pomeranian mental patients in the Soldau concentration camp. Another source states that the vans were first tested on Soviet prisoners in Sachsenhausen.
One application of the Nazis' gas van became known in 1943 after the trial of members of crimes against humanity committed in the territory of the Krasnodar Krai of the USSR, where about 7,000 civilians were killed by gas poisoning. It was a vehicle with an airtight compartment for victims, into which exhaust gas was piped while the engine was running. As a result, the victims were gassed with carbon monoxide, resulting in death by the combined effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation. The suffocations usually occurred as the gas van was carrying the victims to a freshly dug pit or ravine for mass burial.
Gas vans were used, particularly at Chełmno extermination camp, until gas chambers were developed as a more efficient method for killing large numbers of people. There were two types of gas vans in operation, used by the Einsatzgruppen in the East. The Opel-Blitz, weighing 3.5 tons, and the larger Saurerwagen, weighing 7 tonnes. In Belgrade, the gas van was known as "Dušegupka" and in the occupied parts of the USSR similarly as "душегубка" (dushegubka, literally (feminine) soul killer/exterminator).
The use of gas vans had two disadvantages: