Biographies & Memoirs

21

Fulfilling the ‘Prophecy’

I

It was no accident that the war in the east led to genocide. The ideological objective of eradicating ‘Jewish-Bolshevism’ was central, not peripheral, to what had been deliberately designed as a ‘war of annihilation’. It was inseparably bound up with the military campaign. With the murderous onslaught of the Einsatzgruppen, backed by the Wehrmacht, launched in the first days of the invasion, the genocidal character of the conflict was already established. It would rapidly develop into an all-out genocidal programme, the like of which the world had never seen.

Hitler spoke a good deal during the summer and autumn of 1941 to his close entourage in the most brutal terms imaginable, about his ideological aims in crushing the Soviet Union. During the same months, he also spoke on numerous occasions in his monologues in the Führer Headquarters – though invariably in barbaric generalizations – about the Jews. These were the months in which, out of the contradictions and lack of clarity of anti-Jewish policy, a programme to kill all the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe began to take concrete shape.

In contrast to military affairs, where his repeated interference reflected his constant preoccupation with tactical minutiae and his distrust of the army professionals, Hitler’s involvement in ideological matters was less frequent and less direct. He had laid down the guidelines in March 1941. He needed to do little more. Self-combustion would see to it that, once lit, the genocidal fires would rage into a mighty conflagration amid the barbarism of the war to destroy ‘Jewish-Bolshevism’. When it came to ideological aims, in contrast to military matters, Hitler had no need to worry that the ‘professionals’ would let him down. He could rest assured that Himmler and Heydrich, above all, would leave no stone unturned in eliminating the ideological enemy once and for all. And he could be equally certain that they would find willing helpers at all levels among the masters of the new Imperium in the east, whether these belonged to the party, the police, or the civilian bureaucracy. Organization, planning, and execution could confidently be left to others. There was no shortage of those keen to ‘carry out practical work for our Führer’, as one lowly police officer put it. It was sufficient that his authorization for the major steps was provided; and that he could take for granted that, with regard to the ‘Jewish Question’, his ‘prophecy’ of 1939 was being fulfilled.

On the eve of ‘Barbarossa’, Hitler had assured Hans Frank that the Jews would be ‘removed’ from the General Government ‘in the foreseeable future’. Frank’s province could therefore be regarded merely as a type of ‘transit camp’. Frank registered the pleasure at being able to ‘get rid’ of the Jews from the General Government, and remarked that Jewry was ‘gradually perishing’ in Poland. ‘The Führer had indeed prophesied that for the Jews,’ commented Goebbels. From early in the year the intention had been, as we noted, to deport the Jews from Frank’s domain to the east, following the victory over the Soviet Union – expected by the autumn. The Jews from Poland, then from the rest of Europe, would be wiped out in the east within a few years by starvation and being worked to death in the icy wastes of an arctic climate. For those incapable of work, the intended fate, if not spelled out, was not difficult to imagine.

The 5–6 million Jews of the USSR were included in the wholesale resettlement scheme for the racial reordering of eastern Europe, the ‘General Plan for the East’ which Himmler, two days after the launch of ‘Barbarossa’, had commissioned his settlement planners to prepare. The Plan envisaged the deportation over the subsequent thirty years of 31 million persons, mainly Slavs, beyond the Urals and into western Siberia. Without doubt, the Jews would have been the first ethnic group to perish in a territorial solution which, for them, was tantamount to their death warrant. What was intended was in itself plainly genocidal. The ‘territorial solution’ could, therefore, be seen as a type of intended ‘final solution’. But shooting or gassing to death all the Jews of Europe – the full-scale industrialized killing programme that evolved over the following months into what would then be a differently defined ‘final solution’ – was at this stage not in mind.

Reinhard Heydrich had already in March received the green light from Hitler to send the Einsatzgruppen into the Soviet Union in the wake of the Wehrmacht to ‘pacify’ the conquered areas by eradicating ‘subversive elements’. According to a letter which Heydrich sent on 2 July to the four newly appointed Higher SS and Police Leaders for the conquered areas of the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen had been instructed to liquidate, alongside Communist functionaries and an array of ‘extremist elements’, ‘all Jews in the service of the party and state’. Heydrich’s verbal briefings must have made clear that the widest interpretation was to be placed on such an instruction.

From the beginning, the killings were far from confined to Jews who were Communist Party or state functionaries. Already on 3 July, for instance, the chief of the Einsatzkommando in Luzk in eastern Poland had some 1,160 Jewish men shot. He said he wanted to put his stamp on the town. In Kowno in Lithuania as many as 2,514 Jews were shot on 6 July. Shootings were carried out by Einsatzkommando 3, based in this area, on twenty days in July. Of the ‘executions’, totalling 4,400 (according to a meticulous listing), the vast majority were Jews. But the briefings had evidently not been unambiguous. They were capable of being interpreted in different ways. Whereas Einsatzgruppe A, in the Baltic, was almost unconstrained in its killing, Einsatzgruppe B in White Russia initially targeted, in the main, the Jewish ‘intelligentsia’, while Einsatzgruppe C spoke of working the Jews to death in reclaiming the Pripet Marshes. While some Einsatzkommandos were slaughtering Jews more or less indiscriminately, one killer squad in Chotin on the Dnjestr confined its murderous action in early July to Communist and Jewish ‘intellectuals’ (apart from doctors).

In the Baltic, the butchery of Einsatzgruppe A was especially ferocious. The first massacre of Jews took place on 24 June, only two days after the beginning of ‘Barbarossa’, in the small Lithuanian township of Gargzdai, lying just behind the border. Men from the Security Police and a police unit from Memel shot dead 201 Jews that afternoon. By 18 July, the killing squads had claimed 3,300 victims; by August the death-toll had reached between 10,000 and 12,000 mainly male Jews together with Communists.

The killing units were assisted in the early stages by Lithuanian nationalists who were prompted into savage pogroms against the Jews. In Kowno, Jews were clubbed to death one by one by a local enthusiast while crowds of onlookers – women holding their children up to see – clapped and cheered. One eye-witness recalled that around forty-five to fifty Jews were killed in this way within three-quarters of an hour. When the butcher had finished his slaughter, he climbed on to the heap of corpses and played the Lithuanian national anthem on an accordion. German soldiers stood by impassively, some of them taking photographs. The Wehrmacht commander in the area, General-Colonel Ernst Busch, took the view, on hearing reports of the atrocities, that it was a matter of internal Lithuanian disputes, and that he had no authority to intervene. It was seen as exclusively a matter for the security police.

Hitler was keen to keep abreast of the killing operations in the Soviet Union. On 1 August SS-Brigadeführer Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo, had passed an enciphered message to the commanders of the four Einsatzgruppen: ‘Continual reports from here on the work of the Einsatzgruppen in the east are to be presented to the Führer.’

Goebbels registered his satisfaction, when he received a detailed report in mid-August, at the information that ‘vengeance was being wreaked on the Jews in the big towns’ of the Baltic, and that they were ‘being slain in their masses on the streets by the self-protection organizations’. He connected the killing directly with Hitler’s ‘prophecy’ of January 1939. ‘What the Führer prophesied is now taking place,’ he wrote, ‘that if Jewry succeeded in provoking another war, it would lose its existence.’ Three months later, when he visited Vilna, Goebbels spoke again of the ‘horrible’ ‘revenge’ of the local population against the Jews, who had been ‘shot down in their thousands’ and were still being ‘executed’ by the hundred. The rest had been impressed into ghettos and worked for the benefit of the local economy. The ghetto inhabitants, he commented, were ‘vile figures’. He described the Jews as ‘the lice of civilized mankind. They had to be somehow eradicated, otherwise they would always again play their torturing and burdensome role. The only way to cope with them is to treat them with the necessary brutality. If you spare them, you’ll later be their victim.’

Such were the extreme, pathological expressions of sentiments which, often in scarcely less overtly genocidal form, had a wide currency among the new masters of the eastern territories, and were far from confined to diehard Nazis.

In contrast to the conflicts between the Wehrmacht and the SS following the invasion of Poland, the close cooperation established between Heydrich and the army leadership in the build-up to ‘Barbarossa’ enabled the barbarity of the Einsatzgruppen in the eastern campaign to proceed without hindrance, and often in close harmony. The Wehrmacht leadership aligned itself from the start with the ideological aim of combating ‘Jewish-Bolshevism’. Cooperation with the SD and Security Police was extensive, and willingly given. Without it, the Einsatzgruppen could not have functioned as they did. ‘The relationship to the Wehrmacht is now, as before, wholly untroubled,’ ran an Einsatzgruppe report in mid-August. ‘Above all, a constantly growing interest in and understanding for the tasks and business of the work of the Security Police can be seen in Wehrmacht circles. This could especially be observed at the executions.’

In an order issued on 12 September 1941, the head of the OKW, Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, declared: ‘The struggle against Bolshevism demands ruthless and energetic, rigorous action above all against the Jews, the main carriers of Bolshevism.’ Other exhortations from military leaders went still further. A month later, the emphatically pro-Nazi Field-Marshal Walter von Reichenau, Commander-in-Chief of the 6th Army, told his troops: ‘The soldier in the eastern sphere is not only a fighter according to the rules of the art of warfare, but also the bearer of a pitiless racial (völkisch) ideology and the avenger of all the bestialities which have been inflicted on the German and related ethnic nation. The soldier must therefore have full understanding for the necessity of the severe but just atonement from the Jewish subhumans.’ He concluded: ‘Only in this way will we fulfil our historic duty of liberating the German people from the Asiatic-Jewish threat once and for all.’

The Commander-in-Chief of the 17th Army, Colonel-General Hermann Hoth, went, if anything, even further than Reichenau. He spoke in an order on the ‘Behaviour of German Soldiers in the East’, issued on 17 November, of a struggle of ‘two inwardly unbridgeable philosophies … German feeling of honour and race, centuries-old German soldierly tradition, against asiatic ways of thinking and primitive instincts whipped up by a small number of mainly Jewish intellectuals’. His men should act out of ‘belief in a change in the times, in which, on the basis of the superiority of its race and achievements, the leadership of Europe has passed to the German people’. It was a ‘mission to rescue European culture from the advance of asiatic barbarism’. He pointed to the way the Red Army had ‘bestially murdered’ German soldiers. Any sympathy with the native population was wholly misplaced. He stressed the guilt of Jews for circumstances in Germany after the First World War. He saw the extermination of the ‘spiritual support of Bolshevism’ and ‘aid of the partisans’ as ‘a rule of self-preservation’.

Towards the end of November, the Commander-in-Chief of the 11th Army, Erich von Manstein, in a secret order to his troops, was equally uncompromising. The German people had stood since 22 June, he stated, in a life-and-death struggle against the Bolshevik system, which was not being fought according to traditional European rules of war. The clear implication was that a Soviet regime dominated by Jews was responsible for this. Manstein referred to the Soviet partisan war behind the front lines. Jewry, with ‘all the key-points of the political leadership and administration, trade, and crafts’ in their hands, formed, he claimed, the ‘intermediary between the enemy in the rear and the remainder still fighting of the Red Army and Red Leadership’. From this, he drew his conclusion. ‘The Jewish-Bolshevik system must be eradicated once and for all,’ he wrote. ‘Never again must it enter into our European living space. The German soldier has the task, therefore, not solely of smashing the military means of power of this system. He is also the bearer of a racial idea and avenger of all atrocities perpetrated on him and the German people … The soldier must show sympathy for the necessity of the hard atonement demanded of Jewry, the spiritual bearer of the Bolshevik terror …’

Other army commanders increasingly used the spread of partisan warfare as justification for the no-holds-barred treatment of the Jews. Already in the first weeks of ‘Barbarossa’, Jews were being equated with partisans by some commanders or seen as the major source of their support. But the ‘partisan struggle’ only began in earnest in the autumn. In the rear area of Army Group Centre, a ‘seminar’ was organized in September 1941 to allow an exchange of views and experiences between selected officers and leading SS spokesmen on the ‘combating of partisans’. The participants took away from their ‘orientation course’ the plain message to serve as the guideline for future ‘pacification’ policy: ‘Where there’s a partisan, there’s a Jew, and where there’s a Jew, there’s a partisan.’

Such voices were influential. There were, however, others. Some commanders insisted on rigorous separation of the Wehrmacht from the actions of the Security Police. One of these, General Karl von Roques, put out an order at the end of July prohibiting any participation by his men in pogroms on the grounds that it was ‘unsoldierly’ and would seriously damage the standing of the Wehrmacht. However, his order was ineffective. Cases continued to occur in which ‘soldiers and also officers had independently undertaken shootings of Jews or participated in them’. In September, he was forced to issue another order, in which he repeated that ‘executive measures’, especially against Jews, were solely the province of the Higher SS and Police Leader, and any unauthorized shootings by individual soldiers, or participation in ‘executive measures’ of the SS and police would be treated as disobedience and subjected to disciplinary action.

From letters home from the front, it is plain that many ordinary German soldiers needed little persuasion that the merciless onslaught on the Jews was justified. Subjected for years to incessant indoctrination at school and in the Hitler Youth about the Jews, and inundated since the beginning of ‘Barbarossa’ with propaganda about horrors of ‘Jewish-Bolshevism’, on the march into Russia they frequently looked to confirm their prejudices. One soldier, writing home in July, remarked on his shock at ‘evidence of Jewish, Bolshevik atrocities, the likes of which I have hardly believed possible’, and promised that he and his comrades were taking revenge. Another wrote, also in July: ‘Everyone, even the last doubter, knows today that the battle against these subhumans, who’ve been whipped into a frenzy by the Jews, was not only necessary but came in the nick of time. Our Führer has saved Europe from certain chaos.’ Given such a mentality, it was not surprising that many Wehrmacht units were themselves involved in the shooting of Jews and other atrocities from the earliest phase of ‘Barbarossa’.

In the early weeks of ‘Barbarossa’, the ‘actions’ undertaken by the Einsatzgruppen and their sub-units mainly targeted male Jews. The killing, though horrifying, was on nothing like the scale that it reached from August onwards. One particularly murderous Einsatzkommando in Lithuania, for example, killed nine times as many Jews in August and fourteen times as many in September as it had done in July. What was regarded as a large-scale ‘action’ in the first weeks had usually involved the shooting of hundreds of Jews, in rare instances more than 1,000. But by the beginning of October Einsatzkommando 4a, attached to Einsatzgruppe C in the Ukraine, could report with cold precision: ‘In retaliation for the arson in Kiev, all Jews were arrested and on 29 and 30.9 a total of 33,771 Jews were executed.’ This was the notorious massacre at Babi-Yar, outside Kiev. The Jews – many of them women, children, and old people – had been rounded up in retaliation for a series of explosions in the city, killing some hundreds of German soldiers, a few days earlier, just before Kiev had fallen to the Wehrmacht. They were marched in small groups to the outskirts of the city, forced to undress, then to stand on a mound above the ravine of Babi-Yar. As the repeated salvoes of the killing-squads rang out, the lifeless bodies of the victims fell on to the growing mound of corpses below them.

Women and children – seen as possible ‘avengers’ of the future – were now, following verbal instructions passed down the line by Himmler, then by the commanders of the various killer squads during August, generally included in the massacres. Thus, Einsatzkommando 3 shot 135 women among 4,239 Jews ‘executed’ during July, but 26,243 women and 15,112 children in the total of 56,459 Jews murdered during September 1941. Taking the four Einsatzgruppen and their sub-units together, the Jews killed before mid-August numbered around 50,000 – a massive increase on the scale of the murders in Poland, but only a tenth of the estimated half a million who would perish in the next four months.

The huge increase in number of victims demanded different killing techniques. At first, a semblance of martial law and ‘execution’ by firing-squad was preserved. But after a few weeks, the killers took turns with a sub-machine gun, mowing down their naked victims as they knelt at the edge of a pit.

The actual variation in the scale of the killing operations in the first weeks, and the sharp escalation from around August onwards, strongly suggests that no general mandate to exterminate Soviet Jewry in its entirety had been issued before ‘Barbarossa’ began. The number of men – around 3,000 in all, the core drawn heavily from the Gestapo, criminal police, regular police (Ordnungspolizei), and SD – initially engaged in the Einsatzgruppen actions would, in any case, have been incapable of implementing a full-scale genocidal programme, and could scarcely have been assembled with one in mind. The sharp increase in their numbers through supplementary police battalions began in late July. By the end of the year, there were eleven times as many members of the killing units as had been present at the start of ‘Barbarossa’.

On 15 August, immediately after witnessing that morning an ‘execution’ of Jews near Minsk which made him feel sick, Himmler had told his men that he and Hitler would answer to history for the necessary extermination of Jews as ‘the carriers of world Bolshevism’. It was during his visits to the killing units in the east that month that Himmler instructed them to widen the slaughter, now to include women and children. Had he received explicit new authorization from Hitler? Or did he presume that the Führer’s existing mandate sufficed for the massive extension of the killing operations?

While in FHQ in mid-July, Himmler had received minutes of the important meeting that Hitler had had on the 16th with Göring, Bormann, Lammers, Keitel, and Rosenberg. At the meeting, Hitler had made the telling remarks that the partisan war proclaimed by Stalin provided ‘the possibility of exterminating anything opposing us’ and that pacification of the conquered territory could best be achieved by shooting dead anyone ‘who even looked askance’. A day later, Hitler issued a decree giving Himmler responsibility for security in the newly established civilian regions of German rule in the east. Effectively, this placed the ‘Jewish Question’ as part of a wider policing remit directly in Himmler’s hands.

Within a week, Himmler had increased the ‘policing’ operations behind the front line in the east by 11,000 men, the start of the far bigger build-up that was to follow. Most probably, catching Hitler’s mood at the time, Himmler had pointed out the insufficiency of the forces currently available to him for the ‘pacification’ of the east, then requested, and been granted, the authority to increase the force to an appropriate level. That the Jews, as had been the case from the beginning of the campaign, were viewed as the prime target group to be exterminated – under the pretext of offering the most dangerous opposition to the occupation – would have meant that no specific mandate about their treatment within the general ‘pacification’ remit was necessary. In dealing with the Jews in the east as he saw fit, Himmler could take it for granted that he was ‘working towards the Führer’.

II

Hitler’s own comments about the Jews around this time would certainly have assured Himmler of this. In the twilight hours before dawn on 10 July, Hitler had remarked: ‘ “I feel like the Robert Koch of politics. He found the bacillus of tuberculosis and through that showed medical scholarship new ways. I discovered the Jews as the bacillus and ferment of all social decomposition. Their ferment. And I have proved one thing: that a state can live without Jews … ” ’

He retained his biological terminology when speaking – with remarkable openness – to the Defence Minister of the newly created, brutally racist state of Croatia, Marshal Sladko Kvaternik, on 22 July. Hitler called Jews ‘the scourge of mankind’. ‘Jewish commissars’ had wielded brutal power in the Baltic, he stated. And now the Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians were taking ‘bloody revenge’ against them. He went on: ‘If the Jews had free rein as in the Soviet paradise, they would put the most insane plans into effect. Thus Russia has become a plague-centre for mankind … For if only one state tolerates a Jewish family among it, this would provide the core bacillus for a new decomposition. If there were no more Jews in Europe, the unity of the European states would be no longer disturbed. Where the Jews are sent to, whether to Siberia or Madagascar, is immaterial.’

The frame of mind was overtly genocidal. The reference to Madagascar was meaningless. It had been ruled out as an option months earlier. But Siberia, which had in the interim come into favour, would itself have meant genocide of a kind. And, from his comments to Kvaternik, Hitler was plainly contemplating a ‘solution to the Jewish Question’ not just in the Soviet Union, but throughout the whole of Europe.

No decision for the ‘Final Solution’ – meaning the physical extermination of the Jews throughout Europe – had yet been taken. But genocide was in the air. In the Warthegau, the biggest of the annexed areas of Poland, the Nazi authorities were still divided in July 1941 about what to do with the Jews whom they had been unable to deport to the General Government. One idea was to concentrate them in one huge camp which could easily be policed, near to the centre of coal production, and gain maximum economic benefit from their ruthless exploitation. But there was the question of what to do about those Jews incapable of working.

A memorandum sent on 16 July 1941 to Eichmann, at Reich Security Head Office, by the head of the SD in Posen, SS-Sturmbannführer Rolf-Heinz Höppner, struck an ominous note. ‘There is the danger this winter,’ his cynical report to Eichmann read, ‘that the Jews can no longer all be fed. It is to be seriously considered whether the most humane solution might not be to finish off those Jews not capable of labour by some sort of fast-working preparation.’ Asking for Eichmann’s opinion, Höppner concluded: ‘The things sound in part fantastic, but would in my view be quite capable of implementation.’

On the last day of the month, Heydrich had Eichmann draft a written authorization from Göring – nominally in charge of anti-Jewish policy since January 1939 – to prepare ‘a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe’. The mandate was framed as a supplement to the task accorded to Heydrich on 24 January 1939, to solve the ‘Jewish problem’ through ‘emigration’ and ‘evacuation’. Heydrich was now commissioned to produce an overall plan dealing with the organizational, technical, and material measures necessary. This written mandate was an extension of the verbal one which he had already received from Göring no later than March. It enhanced his authority in dealings with state authorities, and laid down a marker for his control over the ‘final solution’ once victory in the east – presumed imminent – had been won. There was no need to consult Hitler.

The dragnet was closing on the Jews of Europe. But Heydrich’s mandate was not the signal to set up death camps in Poland. The aim at this point was still a territorial solution – to remove the Jews to the east. Within the next few months, recognition that the great gamble of the rapid knockout victory in the east had failed would irrevocably alter that aim.

III

With victory apparently within Germany’s grasp, pressures to intensify the discrimination against the Jews and to have them deported from the Reich were building up. The growing privations of the war allowed party activists to turn daily grievances and resentment against the Jews. The SD in Bielefeld reported, for instance, in August 1941 that strong feeling about the ‘provocative behaviour of Jews’ had brought a ban on Jews attending the weekly markets ‘in order to avoid acts of violence’. In addition, there had been general approval, so it was alleged, for an announcement in the local newspapers that Jews would receive no compensation for damage suffered as a result of the war. It was also keenly felt, it was asserted, that Jews should only be served in shops once German customers had had their turn. The threat of resort to self-help and use of force against Jews if nothing was done hung in the air. Ominously, it was nonetheless claimed that these measures would not be enough to satisfy the population. Demands were growing for the introduction of some compulsory mark of identification such as had been worn by Jews in the General Government since the start of the war, in order to prevent Jews from avoiding the restrictions imposed on them.

Evidently, party fanatics were at work – successfully, so it seems – in stirring up opinion against the Jews. The pressure from below was music to the ears of party and police leaders like Goebbels and Heydrich anxious for their own reasons to step up discrimination against the Jews and remove them altogether from Germany as soon as possible. It did not take long for it to be fed through Goebbels to Hitler himself.

An identification mark for Jews was something Hitler had turned down when it had been demanded in the aftermath of ‘Crystal Night’. He had not thought it expedient at the time. But he was now to be subjected to renewed pressure to change his mind. By mid-August, Goebbels had convinced himself that the ‘Jewish Question’ in Berlin had again become ‘acute’. He claimed soldiers on leave could not understand how Jews in Berlin could still have ‘aryan’ servants and big apartments. Jews were undermining morale through comments in queues or on public transport. He thought it necessary, therefore, that they should wear a badge so that they could be immediately recognized.

Three days later a hastily summoned meeting at the Ministry of Propaganda, filled with party hacks, attempted to persuade representatives from other ministries of the need to introduce identification for the Jews. Eichmann, the RSHA (Reich Security Main Office) representative, reported that Heydrich had already put a proposal to this effect to Göring a short while earlier. Göring had sent it back, saying the Führer had to decide. On this, Heydrich had reformulated his proposal, which would be sent to Bormann, for him to speak to Hitler about it. The view from the Propaganda Ministry embroidered upon the remarks Goebbels had entrusted to his diary a few days earlier. The Jews of Berlin, it was alleged, were a ‘centre of agitation’, occupying much-needed apartments. Among other things, they were responsible, through their hoarding of food, even for the shortage of strawberries in the capital. Soldiers on leave from the east could not comprehend that Jews were still allowed such licence. Most of the Jews were not in employment. These should be ‘carted off’ to Russia. ‘It would be best to kill them altogether.’ On the question of ‘evacuation of the Jews from the Old Reich’, Eichmann commented that Heydrich had put a proposal to the Führer, but that this had been refused, and that the Security Police Chief was now working on an amended proposal for the partial ‘evacuation’ of Jews from major cities. Given the alleged urgency of the need to protect the mood of the front soldiers, Goebbels, it was announced, intended to seek an audience with the Führer at the earliest opportunity.

This was the purpose of the Propaganda Minister’s visit to FHQ on 18 August. He encountered a Hitler recovering from illness, in the middle of a running conflict with his army leaders, in a state of nervous tension, and highly irritable. In this condition, Hitler was doubtless all the more open to radical suggestions. Eventually raising the ‘Jewish problem’, Goebbels undoubtedly repeated the allegations about Jews damaging morale, especially that of front soldiers. He was pushing at an open door. Hitler must have been reminded of the poor morale which had so disgusted him in Berlin and Munich towards the end of the First World War, for which he (and many others) had blamed the Jews. He granted Goebbels what the Propaganda Minister had come for: permission to force the Jews to wear a badge of identification. According to Goebbels, Hitler expressed his conviction that his Reichstag ‘prophecy’ – that ‘if Jewry succeeded in again provoking a world war, it would end in the destruction of the Jews’ – was coming about with a ‘certainty to be thought almost uncanny’. The Jews in the east were having to pay the bill, noted Goebbels. Jewry was an alien body among cultural nations. ‘At any rate the Jews will not have much cause to laugh in a coming world,’ Goebbels reported him as saying.

Next day, Goebbels wrote that he would now become immediately active in the ‘Jewish Question’, since the Führer had given him permission to introduce a large, yellow Star of David to be worn by every Jew. Once the Jews wore this badge, Goebbels was certain they would rapidly disappear from view in public places. ‘If it’s for the moment not yet possible to make Berlin into a Jew-free city, the Jews must at least no longer appear in public,’ he remarked. ‘But beyond that, the Führer has granted me permission to deport the Jews from Berlin to the east as soon as the eastern campaign is over.’ Jews, he added, spoiled not just the appearance but the mood of the city. Forcing them to wear a badge would be an improvement. But, he wrote, ‘you can only stop it altogether by doing away with them. We have to tackle the problem without any sentimentality.’

On 1 September, a police decree stipulated that all Jews over the age of six had to wear the Star of David. A week later, preparing the population for its introduction, Goebbels ensured that the party Propaganda Department put out a special broadsheet, with massive circulation, in its publication Wochensprüche (Weekly Maxims), emblazoned with Hitler’s ‘prophecy’.

According to SD reports – echoing in the main no doubt hardline feelings in party circles – the introduction of the Yellow Star met with general approval but, in the eyes of some, did not go far enough, and needed to be extended to Mischlinge as well as full Jews. Some said the Yellow Star should also be worn on the back. Not all ordinary Germans responded in the same way as the party radicals. There were also numerous indications of distaste and disapproval for the introduction of the Yellow Star, along with sympathy for the victims. It is impossible to be certain which were the more typical responses. Open support for Jews was at any rate dangerous. Goebbels castigated those who felt any sympathy for their plight, threatening them with incarceration in a concentration camp. He turned up his antisemitic invective to an even higher volume. Whatever the level of sympathy, it could carry no weight beside the shrill clamour of the radicals, whose demands – voiced most notably by the Reich Minister of Propaganda – were targeted ever more at removal of the Jews altogether. As Goebbels had recognized, deportation had to wait. But the pressure for it would not let up.

Much of the pressure came from the Security Police. Not surprisingly, the Security Police in the Warthegau, where the Nazi authorities had been trying in vain since autumn 1939 to expel the Jews from the province, were in the front ranks. It must have been towards the end of August that Eichmann asked the SD chief in Posen, SS-Sturmbannführer Rolf-Heinz Höppner – the self-same Höppner who had written to him in July suggesting the possible liquidation of Jews in his area who were incapable of working during the coming winter through a ‘fast-working preparation’ – for his views on resettlement policy and its administration.

Höppner’s fifteen-page memorandum, sent to Eichmann on 3 September, was not concerned solely, or even mainly, with deporting Jews, but the ‘Jewish problem’ formed nevertheless part of his overview of the potential for extensive resettlement on racial lines. His views corresponded closely with the ideas worked out under the General Plan for the East (Generalplan Ost). He envisaged deportations once the war was over ‘out of German settlement space’ of the ‘undesirable sections of the population’ from the Great German Reich and of peoples from eastern and south-eastern Europe deemed racially unfit for Germanization. He specifically included ‘the ultimate solution of the Jewish Question’, not just in Germany but also in all states under German influence, in his suggestions. The areas he had in mind for the vast number of deportees were the ‘large spaces in the current Soviet Union’. He added that it would be pure speculation to consider the organization of these territories ‘since first the basic decisions have to be taken’. It was essential, however, he stated, that there should be complete clarity from the outset about the fate of the ‘undesirables’, ‘whether the aim is to establish for them permanently a certain form of existence, or whether they should be completely wiped out’.

Höppner, aware of thinking in the upper echelons of the SD, was plainly open to ideas of killing Jews. He himself, after all, had expressed such an idea some weeks earlier. But in early September he was evidently not aware of any decision to exterminate the Jews of Europe. As far as he was concerned, the goal was still their expulsion to the available ‘spaces’ in the dismantled Soviet Union once the war was over.

IV

Any decision to allow the deportation of the Jews of Europe to the east could only be taken by Hitler. He had rejected Heydrich’s proposal to deport them only a few weeks earlier. Without Hitler’s approval, Heydrich had been powerless to act. Hitler was even now, in September, unwilling to take this step. He had, of course, presumed that deportations and a final settlement of the ‘Jewish Question’ would follow upon the victorious end of a war expected to last four or five months. But by this time, Hitler was well aware that this expectation had been an illusion. So practical considerations arose. There was the question of transport. Not enough trains were available to get supplies to the front line. That was more urgent than shipping Jews to the east. And where were the Jews to be sent? The areas currently under German occupation were intended for ‘ethnic cleansing’, not as a Jewish reservation. Soviet Jews were now being slaughtered there in thousands. But how to deal with an influx of millions more Jews from all over Europe into the area posed problems of an altogether different order. Mass starvation – the fate to which Hitler was prepared to condemn the citizens of Leningrad and Moscow – still required an area to be made available for the Jews to be settled until they starved to death. This had to be in territory intended for the ‘export’, not ‘import’, of ‘undesirables’. Alternatively, it could only be in the battle-zone itself, or at least in its rear. But this was simply an impracticality; moreover, the Einsatzgruppen had been deployed to wipe out tens of thousands of Jews precisely in such areas; and from Hitler’s perspective it would have meant moving the most potent racial enemy to the place where it was most dangerous. So, as long as the war in the east raged, Hitler must have reasoned, the expulsion of the Jews to perish in the barren wastes to be acquired from the Soviet Union simply had to wait.

Suddenly, in mid-September, he changed his mind. There was no overt indication of the reason. But in August, Stalin had ordered the deportation of the Volga Germans – Soviet citizens of German descent who had settled in the eighteenth century along the reaches of the Volga river. At the end of the month the entire population of the region – more than 600,000 people – were forcibly uprooted and deported in cattle-wagons under horrific conditions, allegedly as ‘wreckers and spies’, to western Siberia and northern Kazakhstan. In all, little short of a million Volga Germans fell victim to the deportations. The news of the savage deportations had become known in Germany in early September. Goebbels had hinted in early September that they could prompt a radical reaction. It was not long in coming. Alfred Rosenberg, the recently appointed Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, lost little time in advocating ‘the deportation of all the Jews of central Europe’ to the east in retaliation. His liaison at Army Headquarters, Otto Bräutigam, was instructed by Rosenberg on 14 September to obtain Hitler’s approval for the proposal. Bräutigam eventually succeeded in attracting the interest of Hitler’s chief Wehrmacht adjutant, Rudolf Schmundt, who recognized it as ‘a very important and urgent matter’ which would be of great interest to Hitler.

Revenge and reprisal invariably played a large part in Hitler’s motivation. But at first he hesitated. His immediate response was to refer the matter to the Foreign Office. Ribbentrop was initially non-committal. He wanted to discuss it personally with Hitler. Werner Koeppen, Rosenberg’s liaison officer at FHQ, noted on 20 September: ‘The Führer has so far still made no decision in the question of taking reprisals against the German Jews on account of the treatment of the Volga Germans.’ He was said to be contemplating making this move in the event of the United States entering the war. Koeppen’s report was, however, already out of date when he submitted it.

Hitler was now, in fact, ready to accept the case that it was urgently necessary to put the long-standing plans for a comprehensive ‘solution to the Jewish Question’ into action, and that deportation to the east was indeed feasible despite the unfinished war there. Why he was now prepared to bend to such arguments lay partly, no doubt, in his acceptance that an early end to the Russian campaign was not in sight. It was, in fact, precisely the juncture at which he acknowledged that the war in the east would stretch into 1942. Tackling the ‘final solution of the Jewish Question’, he would have seen, could not wait that long. If victory over Bolshevism had to be delayed, he must have concluded, the time of reckoning with his most powerful adversary, the Jews, should be postponed no longer. They had brought about the war; they would now see his ‘prophecy’ fulfilled.

It would have been remarkable, when Himmler lunched with Hitler at the Wolf ’s Lair on 16 September, had the deportation issue not been raised. Almost certainly, the Reichsführer-SS pressed for the Reich’s Jews to be deported. The following day, Ribbentrop met Hitler to discuss the Rosenberg proposal. That evening, 17 September, Himmler paid the Foreign Minister a visit. By then, Hitler must have agreed to the suggestions to start deporting German, Austrian, and Czech Jews to the east. Himmler evidently left with the authorization. He gave notification of the decision next day.

On 18 September, Arthur Greiser, Reich Governor and Gauleiter of the Warthegau, received a letter from Himmler. ‘The Führer wishes,’ ran the missive, ‘that the Old Reich and the Protectorate [Bohemia and Moravia] are emptied and freed of Jews from the west to the east as soon as possible.’ Himmler told Greiser that it was his intention to deport the Jews first into the Polish territories which had come to the Reich two years earlier, then ‘next spring to expel them still further to the east’. With this in mind, he was sending 60,000 Jews to the Lodz ghetto, in Greiser’s province, for the winter.

Around the middle of September, then, Hitler had bowed to the pressure to deport the German and Czech Jews to the east, some of them via a temporary stay in Lodz (where the ghetto was already known to be seriously overcrowded). It was the trigger to a crucial new phase in the gradual emergence of a comprehensive programme for genocide.

Hitler’s agreement to the deportation of the German Jews was not tantamount to a decision for the ‘Final Solution’. It is doubtful whether a single, comprehensive decision of such a kind was ever made. But Hitler’s authorization opened the door widely to a whole range of new initiatives from numerous local and regional Nazi leaders who seized on the opportunity now to rid themselves of their own ‘Jewish problem’, to start killing Jews in their own areas. There was a perceptible quickening of the genocidal tempo over the next few weeks. But there was as yet no coordinated, comprehensive programme of total genocide. This would still take some months to emerge.

V

Within a few days of the decision to deport the Reich Jews, Goebbels was back at FHQ, seizing the opportunity to press once more for the removal of the Jews from Berlin. Before his audience with Hitler, he had the chance to speak with Reinhard Heydrich. Himmler, Neurath, and a number of other leading figures were also in the Wolf’s Lair. The occasion for the assembly of notables was Hitler’s decision to ‘retire’ Neurath as Reich Protector in Prague, following intrigues against him by radicals within the Nazi administration in the former Czech capital, able to exploit reports of a mounting incidence of strikes and sabotage. Levels of repression had been relatively constrained under Neurath. But the growing disturbances now prompted Hitler to put in a hard man, Security Police Chief Heydrich – nominally as Deputy Reich Protector – with a mandate to stamp out with an iron fist all forms of resistance.

Goebbels lost no time in reminding Heydrich of his wish to ‘evacuate’ the Jews from Berlin as soon as possible. Heydrich evidently told the Propaganda Minister that this would be the case ‘as soon as we have reached a clarification of the military question in the east. They [the Jews] should all in the end be transported into the camps established by the Bolsheviks. These camps had been set up by the Jews. What was more fitting, then, than that they should now also be populated by the Jews.’

During his two-hour meeting alone with Hitler, Goebbels had no trouble in eliciting the assurance he wanted, that Berlin would soon be rid of its Jews. ‘The Führer is of the opinion,’ Goebbels noted down next day, ‘that the Jews have eventually to be removed from the whole of Germany. The first cities to be made Jew-free are Berlin, Vienna, and Prague. Berlin is first in the queue, and I have the hope that we’ll succeed in the course of this year in transporting a substantial portion of the Berlin Jews away to the east.’

He was in the event to be left less than wholly satisfied. He noted towards the end of October that a beginning had been made with deporting Berlin’s Jews. Several thousand had been sent in the first place to Litzmannstadt (as Lodz was now officially called). But he was soon complaining about obstacles to their rapid ‘evacuation’. And in November he learnt from Heydrich that the deportations had raised more difficulties than foreseen.

Goebbels kept up the pressure with a hate-filled tirade in Das Reich – a ‘quality’ newspaper reaching over 1½ million homes – on 16 November, entitled ‘The Jews are Guilty’. He explicitly cited Hitler’s ‘prophecy’ of the ‘annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe’, stating: ‘We are experiencing right now the fulfilment of this prophecy.’ The fate of the Jews, he declared, was ‘hard, but more than justified’, and any sympathy or regret was entirely misplaced. Goebbels ordered the widest circulation of the article to the troops on the eastern front.

The Propaganda Minister again raised the deportation of Berlin’s Jews with Hitler during their three-hour discussion a few days later, on 21 November. Hitler, as usual, was easily able to assuage Goebbels. He told him he agreed with his views on the ‘Jewish Question’. He wanted an ‘energetic policy’ against the Jews – but one which would not ‘cause unnecessary difficulties’. The ‘evacuation of the Jews’ had to take place city by city, and it was still uncertain when Berlin’s turn would come. When the time arrived, the ‘evacuation’ should be concluded as quickly as possible.

Once again, as had repeatedly been the case with Frank in Cracow and Schirach in Vienna, Hitler had raised hopes which encouraged pressure for radical action from his subordinates. That the hopes could be fulfilled less easily than anticipated then simply fanned the flames, encouraging the frantic quest for an ultimate solution to the problem which nothing but the Nazis’ own ideological fanaticism had created in the first place.

Both Himmler and Heydrich were still speaking in October of deporting the Jews to the east; Riga, Reval, and Minsk were all mentioned. Plans were set in train for extermination camps in Riga and, it seems, in Mogilew, some 130 miles east of Minsk. Transport difficulties and continued partisan warfare eventually caused their abandonment. But, prompted by the murderous initiatives being undertaken by their minions, who had rapidly realized that they were being shown a green light and lost no time in preparing to set localized genocides in motion, the attention of the SS leaders was starting to switch to Poland, which posed fewer logistical difficulties, as an area in which a ‘final solution of the Jewish Question’ could take place.

The use of poison gas had already been contemplated before the deportation order was granted. More efficient, less public, and – with characteristic Nazi cynicism – less stressful (for the murderers, that is) ways of killing than mass shootings were required. Gas-vans, already deployed in East Prussia in 1940 to kill ‘euthanasia’ victims, offered one alternative, though, it soon proved, had their own drawbacks. Other methods, involving stationary killing installations, were considered. At the beginning of September, several hundred Russian prisoners-of-war were gassed in Auschwitz, then a concentration camp mainly for Poles, as an experiment. A large crematorium was then ordered in October from the Erfurt firm of J. A. Topf and Sons. The poison-gas Zyklon-B was used for the first time on the Soviet prisoners; it would by summer 1942 be in regular use for exterminating the Jews of Europe, ferried by the train-load to the huge killing factory of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Once the decision to deport the Reich Jews to the east had been taken, things began to move rapidly. Heydrich told Gauleiter Alfred Meyer, State Secretary in Rosenberg’s Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, on 4 October that attempts by industry to claim Jews as part of their workforce ‘would vitiate the plan of a total evacuation of the Jews from the territories occupied by us’. Later that month, following a visit to Berlin by the Lublin Police Chief, SS-Brigadeführer Odilo Globocnik, evidently aimed at instigating the extermination of the Jews in his district, Polish labourers were commandeered by the SS to construct a camp at Belzec in eastern Poland. Experts on gassing techniques used on patients in the ‘euthanasia action’ followed a few weeks later, now redeployed in Poland to advise on the gas chambers being erected at Belzec. Initially, the aim was to use Belzec, whose murderous capacity was in the early months relatively small, for the gassing of Jews from the Lublin area who were incapable of work. Only gradually did the liquidation of all Polish Jews become clarified as the goal – embodied in what, with the addition of two other camps, Sobibor and Treblinka, in spring 1942, came eventually to be known as ‘Aktion Reinhard’.

In the autumn, too, Eichmann was sent to Auschwitz for discussions with Rudolf Höß, the commandant there, about gassing installations. Mass-killing operations at Belzec began in the spring of 1942, in Auschwitz in the summer. They had been preceded by developments in the Warthegau. There, the first of twenty transports in autumn 1941 bringing German Jews to Lodz had arrived on 16 October. The authorities in Lodz had at first objected vehemently to the order in September to take in more Jews. Himmler was implacable. He sharply reprimanded the Government President of Lodz, Friedrich Uebelhoer, himself the bearer of an honorary SS rank. But alongside the reprimand, the Lodz authorities had evidently been assuaged by being told that those Jews incapable of working would soon be liquidated. Mass killings by shooting and gassing (in gas-vans) were already taking place in the autumn weeks. At the same time, Herbert Lange, head of a Special Command which had earlier been deployed at Soldau in East Prussia to gas the inmates of mental asylums, began looking for a suitable location to carry out the systematic extermination of the Jews of the Warthegau. Whether Hitler was consulted on the precise developments or not, his overall approval was almost certainly necessary. By the first week of December 1941, Chelmno, a gas-van station in the south of the Warthegau, had become the first extermination unit to commence operations.

The Warthegau was not the only area scheduled to receive the deportees. Shortly before the killing in Chelmno commenced, the first transports of German Jews had arrived in the Baltic. The initial intention was to send them to Riga, to be placed in a concentration camp outside the city prior to further deportation eastwards. Hitler had approved proposals from the local commander of the Security Police, SS-Sturmbannführer Dr Otto Lange, to set up the concentration camp. Lange had, however, proposed erecting a camp for Latvian Jews. This was turned, in accordance with a ‘wish’ of the Führer, into the construction of a ‘big concentration camp’ for Jews from Germany and the Protectorate. Some 25,000 were expected to be interned there, en route, it was said, for an eventual destination ‘farther east’. Some Nazi leaders, at least, were well aware by now what deportation to the east meant. When Goebbels, still pressing to have the Jews of Berlin deported as quickly as possible, referred in mid-December to the deportation of Jews from the occupied part of France to the east, he said it was ‘in many cases synonymous with the death penalty’.

By the time the first Jews were due to arrive in Riga from the Reich, the building of the camp had scarcely begun. An improvised solution had to be found. Instead of heading for Riga, the trains were diverted to Kowno in Lithuania. Between 25 and 29 November, terrified and exhausted Jews were taken from five trains arriving in Kowno from Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, and Breslau and, without any selection on grounds of ability to work, promptly taken out and shot by members of the locally based Einsatzkommando. The same fate awaited 1,000 German Jews who then did arrive in Riga on 30 November. They were simply taken straight out into the forest and shot, along with some 14,000 Latvian Jews from the Riga ghetto. Himmler had earlier in the month told the police chief in the area, Friedrich Jeckeln, ‘that all the Jews in the Ostland down to the very last one must be exterminated’.

However certain Jeckeln was of his murderous mandate, other Nazi leaders in the east still had their doubts. Hinrich Lohse, Reich Commissar for the Eastern Region (Ostland), and Wilhelm Kube, General Commissar for Belorussia (Weißruthenien), were among those who were less sure that Reich Jews were meant to be included in the mass shootings and indiscriminately slaughtered together with the Jews from the east. They now sought urgent clarification from the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories and from Reich Security Head Office. Lohse, pressed by the Wehrmacht to retain Jewish skilled workers, wanted guidance on whether or not economic criteria were relevant in determining whether Jews were to be liquidated. In Minsk, where 12,000 Jews from the local ghetto had been shot by the Security Police to make way for an influx of German Jews, Kube protested that ‘people coming from our own cultural sphere’ should be treated differently from the ‘native brutish hordes’. He wanted to know whether exceptions were to be made for part-Jews (Mischlinge), Jews with war decorations, or Jews with ‘aryan’ partners. Other protests and queries, reflecting both unease and lack of clarity over the intended fate of the Jews from the Reich, reached the Ostministerium and RSHA. These prompted Himmler to intervene on 30 November to try to prohibit the liquidation of the train-load of 1,000 German Jews – many of them elderly, some bearers of the Iron Cross First Class – sent to Riga. His telephone-call came too late. By then the Jews had already been slaughtered by Jeckeln’s killing-squads.

The previous day, 29 November, Heydrich had sent out invitations to several State Secretaries and to selected SS representatives to a conference to take place close to the Wannsee, a beautiful lake on the western rim of Berlin, on 9 December. Heydrich wanted to inculcate relevant government ministries in the RSHA’s plans to deport to the east all the Jews within Germany’s grasp throughout Europe. In addition, he was keen to ensure, in line with the commission he had requested and been granted at the end of July, that his primacy in orchestrating the deportations was recognized by all parties involved. On 8 December, the day before the conference was scheduled to take place, Heydrich had it postponed to 20 January 1942.

The postponement was caused by the dramatic events unfolding in the Pacific and in eastern Europe. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December would, as Heydrich knew, bring within days a German declaration of war on the USA. With that, the European war would become a world war. Meanwhile, the opening of the first major counter-offensive by the Red Army on 5 December had blocked for the foreseeable future any prospect of mass deportations into Soviet territory. Both developments carried important consequences for the deportation programme. Their impact soon became evident.

Plans to bring about a ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish Question’ were about to enter a new phase – one more murderous than ever.

VI

Hitler’s responsibility for the genocide against the Jews cannot be questioned. Yet for all his public tirades against the Jews, offering the strongest incitement to ever more radical onslaughts of extreme violence, and for all his dark hints that his ‘prophecy’ was being fulfilled, he was consistently keen to conceal the traces of his involvement in the murder of the Jews. Sensing that the German people were not ready to learn the deadly secret, he was determined – his own general inclination to secrecy was, as always, a marked one – not to speak of it other than in horrific, but imprecise, terms. Even in his inner circle Hitler could never bring himself to speak with outright frankness about the killing of the Jews.

Even so, compared with the first years of the war when he had neither in public nor – to go from Goebbels’s diary accounts – in private made much mention of the Jews, Hitler did now, in the months when their fate was being determined, refer to them on numerous occasions. Invariably, whether in public speeches or during comments in his late-night monologues in his East Prussian headquarters, his remarks were confined to generalities – but with menacing allusion to what was happening.

At lunch on 6 October, conversation focused mainly on eliminating Czech resistance following Heydrich’s appointment on 27 September as Deputy Reich Protector. Hitler spoke of ways ‘to make the Czechs small’. One way was the deportation of the Jews. He was speaking about three weeks after he had agreed to their deportation from the Reich and the Protectorate. His comments reveal at least one of the reasons why he agreed to deport them: he continued to believe in the Jews as dangerous ‘fifth-columnists’, spreading sedition among the population. It was exactly what he had thought of the role of the Jews in Germany during the First World War. ‘All Jews must be removed from the Protectorate,’ he declared around the lunch-table, ‘and not just into the General Government, but straight away further to the east. This is at present not practical merely because of the great demand of the military for means of transport. Along with the Protectorate’s Jews, all the Jews from Berlin and Vienna should disappear at the same time. The Jews are everywhere the pipeline through which all enemy news rushes with the speed of wind into all branches of the population.’

On 21 October, a month after the deportation order, as part of a diatribe comparing ‘Jewish Christianity’ with ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, he compared the fall of Rome with latter-day Bolshevization through the Jews. ‘If we eradicate this plague,’ he concluded, ‘we will be carrying out a good deed for mankind, of the significance of which our men out there can have no conception.’ Four days later his guests were Himmler (a frequent visitor to the Wolf’s Lair during these weeks) and Heydrich. The conversation again revolved mainly around the connections of Jewry and Christianity. Hitler reminded his guests and his regular entourage of his ‘prophecy’. ‘This criminal race has the two million dead of the World War on its conscience,’ he went on, and ‘now again hundreds of thousands. Don’t anyone tell me we can’t send them into the marshes! Who bothers, then, about our people? It’s good when the horror precedes us that we are exterminating Jewry.’ Though lacking coherence, these notes of Hitler’s rantings point to his knowledge of the attempts – eventually given up – in the summer to drown Jewish women by driving them into the Pripet marshes. Hitler’s allocation of guilt for the dead of the First World War and the current war to the Jews, and the recourse once more to his ‘prophecy’, underline his certainty that the destruction of Jewry was imminent. But the consequences flowing from the deportation order of the previous month had still to merge into the full genocidal programme.

On the evening of 5 November, remarks about the ‘racial inferiority’ of the English lower class led Hitler once more into a monologue about the Jews. As usual, he linked it to the war. This was the ‘most idiotic war’ that the British had ever begun, he ranted, and would lead in defeat to an outbreak of antisemitism in Britain which would be without parallel. The end of the war, he proclaimed, would bring ‘the fall of the Jew’. He then unleashed an extraordinary verbal assault on the lack of ability and creativity of Jews in every walk of life but one: lying and cheating. The Jew’s ‘entire building will collapse if he is refused a following’, he went on. ‘I’ve always said the Jews are the most stupid devils that exist. They don’t have a true musician, thinker, no art, nothing, absolutely nothing. They are liars, forgers, deceivers. They’ve only got anywhere through the simple-mindedness of those around them. If the Jew were not washed by the aryan, he wouldn’t be able to see out of his eyes for filth. We can live without the Jews. But they can’t live without us.’

The links, as he saw them, between the Jews and the war that they had allegedly inspired, now also, after years in which he had scarcely mentioned the Jews, found a prominent place in his public speeches. But, whatever the rhetorical flourishes, whatever the propaganda motive in appealing to the antisemitic instincts of his hard-core supporters in the party, there cannot be the slightest doubt, on the basis of his private comments, that Hitler believed in what he said.

In his speech to the party’s ‘Old Guard’ on 8 November (a date of especial significance in the Nazi calendar, linking the anniversaries of the putsch and the allegedly Jewish-inspired Revolution of 1918), Hitler pressed home the theme of Jewish guilt for the war. Despite the victories of the previous year, he stated, he had still worried because of his recognition that behind the war stood ‘the international Jew’. They had poisoned the peoples through their control of the press, radio, film, and theatre; they had made sure that rearmament and war would benefit their business and financial interests; he had come to know the Jews as the instigators of world conflagration. England, under Jewish influence, had been the driving-force of the ‘world-coalition against the German people’. But it had been inevitable that the Soviet Union, ‘the greatest servant of Jewry’, would one day confront the Reich. Since then it had become plain that the Soviet state was dominated by Jewish commissars. Stalin, too, was no more than ‘an instrument in the hand of this almighty Jewry’. Behind him stood ‘all those Jews who in thousandfold ramification lead this powerful empire’. This ‘insight’, Hitler suggested, had weighed heavily upon him, and compelled him to face the danger from the east.

Hitler returned to the alleged ‘destructive character’ of the Jews when talking again to his usual captive audience in the Wolf ’s Lair in the small hours of 1–2 December. Again, there was a hint, but no more than that, of what Hitler saw as the natural justice being meted out to the Jews: ‘he who destroys life, exposes himself to death. And nothing other than this is happening to them’ – to the Jews. The gas-vans of Chelmno would start killing the Jews of the Warthegau in those very days. In Hitler’s warped mentality, such killing was natural revenge for the destruction caused by the Jews – above all in the war which he saw as their work. His ‘prophecy’ motif was evidently never far from his mind in these weeks as the winter crisis was unfolding in the east. It would be at the forefront of his thoughts in the wake of Pearl Harbor. With his declaration of war on the USA on 11 December, Germany was now engaged in a ‘world war’ – a term used up to then almost exclusively for the devastation of 1914–18. In his Reichstag speech of 30 January 1939, he had ‘prophesied’ that the destruction of the Jews would be the consequence of a new worldwar. That war, in his view, had now arrived.

On 12 December, the day after he had announced Germany’s declaration of war on the USA, Hitler addressed the Reichsleiter and Gauleiter – an audience of around fifty persons – in his rooms in the Reich Chancellery. Much of his talk ranged over the consequences of Pearl Harbor, the war in the east, and the glorious future awaiting Germany after final victory. He also spoke of the Jews. And once more he evoked his ‘prophecy’.

‘With regard to the Jewish Question,’ Goebbels recorded, summarizing Hitler’s comments, ‘the Führer is determined to make a clear sweep of it. He prophesied that, if they brought about another world war, they would experience their annihilation. That was no empty talk. The world war is here. The annihilation of Jewry must be the necessary consequence. This question is to be viewed without any sentimentality. We’re not here to have sympathy with the Jews, but only sympathy with our German people. If the German people has again now sacrificed around 160,000 dead in the eastern campaign, the originators of this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their own lives.’

The tone was more menacing and vengeful than ever. The original ‘prophecy’ had been a warning. Despite the warning, the Jews – in Hitler’s view – had unleashed the world war. They would now pay the price.

Hitler still had his ‘prophecy’ in mind when he spoke privately to Alfred Rosenberg, Reich Minister for the Eastern Territories, on 14 December, two days after his address to the Gauleiter. Referring to the text of a forthcoming speech, on which he wanted Hitler’s advice, Rosenberg remarked that his ‘standpoint was not to speak of the extermination of Jewry. The Führer approved this stance and said they had burdened us with the war and brought about the destruction so it was no wonder if they would be the first to feel the consequences.’

The party chieftains who had heard Hitler speak on 12 December in the dramatic context of war now against the USA and unfolding crisis on the eastern front understood the message. No order or directive was necessary. They readily grasped that the time of reckoning had come. On 16 December, Hans Frank reported back to leading figures in the administration of the General Government. ‘As regards the Jews,’ he began, ‘I’ll tell you quite openly: an end has to be made one way or another.’ He referred explicitly to Hitler’s ‘prophecy’ about their destruction in the event of another world war. He repeated Hitler’s expression in his address to the Gauleiter that sympathy with the Jews would be wholly misplaced. The war would prove to be only a partial success should the Jews in Europe survive it, Frank went on. ‘I will therefore proceed in principle regarding the Jews that they will disappear. They must go,’ he declared. He said he was still negotiating about deporting them to the east. He referred to the rescheduled Wannsee Conference in January, where the issue of deportation would be discussed. ‘At any event,’ he commented, ‘a great Jewish migration will commence.’ ‘But,’ he asked, ‘what is to happen to the Jews? Do you believe they’ll be accommmodated in village settlements in the Ostland? They said to us in Berlin: why are you giving us all this trouble? We can’t do anything with them in the Ostland or in the Reich Commissariat [Ukraine] either. Liquidate them yourselves! … We must destroy the Jews wherever we find them and wherever it is possible to do so …’ A programme for bringing this about was evidently, however, still unknown to Frank. He did not know how it was to happen. ‘The Jews are also extraordinarily harmful to us through their gluttony,’ he continued. ‘We have in the General Government an estimated 2.5 million – perhaps with those closely related to Jews and what goes with it, now 3.5 million Jews. We can’t shoot these 3.5 million Jews, we can’t poison them, but we must be able to take steps leading somehow to a success in extermination …’

The ‘Final Solution’ was still emerging. The ideology of total annihilation was now taking over from any lingering economic rationale of working the Jews to death. ‘Economic considerations should remain fundamentally out of consideration in dealing with the problem’ was the answer finally given on 18 December to Lohse’s inquiry about using skilled Jewish workers from the Baltic in the armaments industry. On the same day, in a private discussion with Himmler, Hitler confirmed that in the east the partisan war, which had expanded sharply in the autumn, provided a useful framework for destroying the Jews. They were ‘to be exterminated as partisans’, Himmler noted as the outcome of their discussion. The separate strands of genocide were rapidly being pulled together.

On 20 January 1942, the conference on the ‘final solution’, postponed from 9 December, eventually took place in a large villa by the Wannsee. Alongside representatives from the Reich ministries of the Interior, Justice, and Eastern Territories, the Foreign Office, from the office of the Four-Year Plan, and from the General Government, sat Gestapo chief SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, the commanders of the Security Police in the General Government and Latvia, Karl Schoengarth and Otto Lange, together with Adolf Eichmann (the RSHA’s deportation expert, who had the task of producing a written record of the meeting).

Heydrich opened the meeting by recapitulating that Göring had given him responsibility – a reference to the mandate of the previous July – for preparing ‘the final solution of the European Jewish question’. The meeting aimed to clarify and coordinate organizational arrangements. (Later in the meeting an inconclusive attempt was made to define the status of Mischlinge in the framework of deportation plans.) Heydrich surveyed the course of anti-Jewish policy, then declared that ‘the evacuation of the Jews to the east has now emerged, with the prior permission of the Führer, as a further possible solution instead of emigration’. He spoke of gathering ‘practical experience’ in the process for ‘the coming final solution of the Jewish question’, which would embrace as many as 11 million Jews across Europe (stretching, outside German current territorial control, as far as Britain and Ireland, Switzerland, Spain, Turkey, and French North African colonies). In the gigantic deportation programme, the German-occupied territories would be combed from west to east. The deported Jews would be put to work in large labour gangs. Many – perhaps most – would die in the process. The particularly strong and hardy types who survived would have ‘to be dealt with accordingly’.

Heydrich was not orchestrating an existing and finalized programme of mass extermination in death-camps. But the Wannsee Conference was a key stepping-stone on the path to that terrible genocidal finality. A deportation programme aimed at the annihilation of the Jews through forced labour and starvation in occupied Soviet territory following the end of a victorious war had given way to the realization that the Jews would have to be systematically destroyed before the war ended – and that the main locus of their destruction would no longer be the Soviet Union, but the territory of the General Government.

That the General Government should become the first area to implement the ‘Final Solution’ was directly requested at the conference by its representative, State Secretary Josef Bühler. He wanted the 2½ million Jews in his area – most of them incapable of work, he stressed – ‘removed’ as quickly as possible. The authorities in the area would do all they could to help expedite the process. Bühler’s hopes would be fulfilled over the next months. The regionalized killing in the districts of Lublin and Galicia was extended by spring to the whole of the General Government, as the deportation-trains began to ferry their human cargo to the extermination camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. By this time, a comprehensive programme of systematic annihilation of the Jews embracing the whole of German-occupied Europe was rapidly taking shape. By early June a programme had been constructed for the deportation of Jews from western Europe. The transports from the west began in July. Most left for the largest of the extermination camps by this time in operation, Auschwitz-Birkenau in the annexed territory of Upper Silesia. The ‘Final Solution’ was under way. The industrialized massmurder would now continue unabated. By the end of 1942, according to the SS’s own calculations, 4 million Jews were already dead.

Hitler had not been involved in the Wannsee Conference. Probably he knew it was taking place; but even this is not certain. There was no need for his involvement. He had signalled yet again in unmistakable terms in December 1941 what the fate of the Jews should be now that Germany was embroiled in another world war. By then, local and regional killing initiatives had already developed their own momentum. Heydrich was more than happy to use Hitler’s blanket authorization of deportations to the east now to expand the killing operations into an overall programme of European-wide genocide.

On 30 January 1942, the ninth anniversary of the ‘seizure of power’, Hitler addressed a packed Sportpalast. As he had been doing privately over the past weeks, he invoked once more – how often he repeated the emphasis in these months is striking – his ‘prophecy’ of 30 January 1939. As always, he wrongly dated it to the day of the outbreak of war with the attack on Poland. ‘We are clear,’ he declared, ‘that the war can only end either with the extermination of the aryan peoples or the disappearance of Jewry from Europe.’ He went on: ‘I already stated on 1 September 1939 in the German Reichstag – and I refrain from overhasty prophecies – that this war will not come to an end as the Jews imagine, with the extermination of the European-aryan peoples, but that the result of this war will be the annihilation of Jewry. For the first time the old Jewish law will now be applied: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth … And the hour will come when the most evil world-enemy of all time will have played out its role, at least for a thousand years.’

The message was not lost on his audience. The SD – no doubt picking up comments made above all by avid Nazi supporters – reported that his words had been ‘interpreted to mean that the Führer’s battle against the Jews would be followed through to the end with merciless consistency, and that very soon the last Jew would disappear from European soil’.

VII

When Goebbels spoke to Hitler in March, the death-mills of Belzec had commenced their grisly operations. As regards the ‘Jewish Question’, Hitler remained ‘pitiless’, the Propaganda Minister recorded. ‘The Jews must get out of Europe, if need be through use of the most brutal means,’ was his view.

A week later, Goebbels left no doubt what ‘the most brutal means’ implied. ‘From the General Government, beginning with Lublin, the Jews are now being deported to the east. A fairly barbaric procedure, not to be described in any greater detail, is being used here, and not much more remains of the Jews themselves. In general, it can probably be established that 60 per cent of them must be liquidated, while only 40 per cent can be put to work … A judgement is being carried out on the Jews which is barbaric, but fully deserved. The prophecy which the Führer gave them along the way for bringing about a new world war is beginning to become true in the most terrible fashion. No sentimentality can be allowed to prevail in these things. If we didn’t fend them off, the Jews would annihilate us. It’s a life-and-death struggle between the aryan race and the Jewish bacillus. No other government and no other regime could produce the strength to solve this question generally. Here, too, the Führer is the unswerving champion and spokesman of a radical solution …’

Goebbels himself had played no small part over the years in pushing for a ‘radical solution’. He had been one of the most important and high-placed of the party activists pressing Hitler on numerous occasions to take radical action on the ‘Jewish Question’. The Security Police had been instrumental in gradually converting an ideological imperative into an extermination plan. Many others, at different levels of the regime, had contributed in greater or lesser measure to the continuing and untrammelled process of radicalization. Complicity was massive, from the Wehrmacht leadership and captains of industry down to party hacks, bureaucratic minions, and ordinary Germans hoping for their own material advantage through the persecution then deportation of a helpless, but unloved, minority which had been deemed to be the implacable enemy of the new ‘people’s community’.

But Goebbels knew what he was talking about in singling out Hitler’s role. This had often been indirect, rather than overt. It had consisted of authorizing more than directing. And the hate-filled tirades, though without equal in their depth of inhumanity, remained at a level of generalities. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt about it: Hitler’s role had been decisive and indispensable in the road to the ‘Final Solution’. Had he not come to power in 1933 and had a national-conservative government, perhaps a military dictatorship, gained power instead, discriminatory legislation against Jews would in all probability still have been introduced in Germany. But without Hitler, and the unique regime he headed, the creation of a programme to bring about the physical extermination of the Jews of Europe would have been unthinkable.

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