As we have seen, almost as soon as Himmler witnessed for himself the grim reality of “open air” executions in Minsk, it was decided that a more efficient method was needed to kill the large numbers of Jews now being targeted for extermination. This ultimately led to the Operation Reinhard death camps and Auschwitz, but Jews were being gassed in static locations—largely on the initiative of local commanders—before that process even began.

On 16 July 1941, SS-Major Rolf-Heinz Höppner wrote to Adolf Eichmann to inform him that, over the forthcoming winter, “there is a danger that not all of the Jews can be fed anymore. One should weigh earnestly if the most humane solution might not be to finish off those of the Jews who are not employable, by some quick-working device. At any rate it would be more pleasant than to let them starve to death.”1 Four months later, an extermination camp was built in the village of Chelmno nad Nerem (“Kulmhof-an-der-Nehr” under the German administration), some seventy kilometres north-west of Lodz. It came into operation on 7 December, the day after Zhukov had launched his counter-attack to the west of Moscow.

The camp was built around an empty manor house, known as the “Castle,” and was commanded by SS-Lieutenant Herbert Lange—the man who had earlier organised the gassing of over fifteen hundred mental patients in Poland and East Prussia. Since then, he had been employed as a Kripo investigator in Poznan. His guard force at Kulmhof comprised a fifteen-man Sipo special unit and between sixty and a hundred members of the 1st Company of the Litzmannstadt Police Battalion.

The first victims were local Jews from surrounding villages, but from mid-January 1942 the camp also started to exterminate deportees from the Lodz ghetto. Typically, the victims were transported by train to Kolo station, approximately fifteen kilometres away, where they were locked in the local synagogue until they could be transferred to the camp. Once sufficient trucks had been found, the prisoners were taken in batches to the Castle, where they were addressed by Lange (and later by his successor, SS-Captain Bothmann), who said that they were to become labourers either on the estate or further east, and that they would be treated fairly and fed well. However, first, for reasons of hygiene, they and their clothes had to be washed and disinfected.

The victims were then escorted into an undressing room on the first floor of the Castle, where they were made to strip and hand over any valuables. Next, they were taken downstairs to a corridor that led to the back of a truck. They were told that this would drive them to the baths. Many of the prisoners were even given pieces of soap in order to maintain this fiction. Walter Burmeister, one of the van drivers, described what happened next:

The gas vans were large vans, about 4–5 meters long, 2.2 meters wide and 2 meters high. The interior walls were lined with sheet metal. On the floor there was a wooden grille. The floor of the van had an opening which could be connected to the exhaust by means of a removable metal pipe. When the lorries were full of people the double doors at the back were closed and the exhaust connected to the interior of the van…

The Kommando member detailed as driver would start the engine right away so that the people inside the lorry were suffocated by the exhaust gases. Once this had taken place, the union between the exhaust and the inside of the lorry was disconnected and the van was driven to the camp in the woods were the bodies were unloaded. In the early days they were initially buried in mass graves, later incinerated…I then drove the van back to the castle and parked it there. Here it would be cleaned of the excretions of the people that had died in it.2

Kulmhof eventually claimed the lives of at least 152,000 people—the vast majority of them Jews, but also at least 5,000 Gypsies, a number of Soviet POWs and at least 88 Czech children. A small number of Polish and Jewish prisoners worked in the “forest camp,” where the mass graves (and later improvised incinerators) were located, but every other prisoner who was taken there was killed there. That made it the first camp to be set up solely for extermination, and it served as a model for the Operation Reinhard camps that were established later in 1942.

ON 29 NOVEMBER 1941, Reinhard Heydrich wrote to a number of officials from various ministries and National Socialist Party offices, inviting them to a meeting to discuss the “final solution of the Jewish question.” To underline both the importance of this meeting and Heydrich’s authority to call it, he enclosed a copy of a written order from Hermann Goering, dated 31 July 1941, which commissioned Heydrich to make preparations for a “total solution to the Jewish question,” to prepare a plan, and to coordinate the activities of the relevant government departments. The meeting was originally scheduled for 9 December, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s subsequent declaration of war on the United States necessitated a postponement. It finally took place at an SS conference centre at 56–58 Am Grossen Wannsee on 20 January 1942. The invited officials were told to arrive at 12 p.m. for a conference, which would be followed by “breakfast.”

Those who attended were: SS-General Reinhard Heydrich (chief of the RSHA and Reichsprotektor of Bohemia-Moravia), chairman; Dr. Josef Bühler (representative of the General Government); Dr. Roland Freisler (Ministry of Justice); SS-Major General Otto Hofmann (Race and Resettlement Main Office, RuSHA); SA-Senior Colonel Gerhard Klopfer (NSDAP Chancellery); Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger (Reich Chancellery); SS-Major Dr. Rudolf Lange (Commander-in-Chief of the Security Police, Latvia); Dr. Georg Leibbrandt (Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories); Dr. Martin Luther (Foreign Office); Regional Leader Dr. Alfred Meyer (Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories); SS-Major General Heinrich Müller (chief of Gestapo); Dr. Erich Neumann (director, Office of the Four-Year Plan); SS-Senior Colonel Dr. Karl Eberhard Schöngarth (SD, assigned to the General Government); Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart (Ministry of the Interior); and SS-Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann (head of Section IV B4, Gestapo), secretary.3

According to Eichmann’s minutes, Heydrich opened the conference by reasserting his authority to coordinate policy relating to the “Jewish question”:

At the beginning of the discussion Chief of the Security Police and of the SD, SS-General Heydrich, reported that the Reich Marshal had appointed him delegate for the preparations for the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe and pointed out that this discussion had been called for the purpose of clarifying fundamental questions. The wish of the Reich Marshal to have a draft sent to him concerning organizational, factual and material interests in relation to the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe makes necessary an initial common action of all central offices immediately concerned with these questions in order to bring their general activities into line. The National Leader of the SS and the Chief of the German Police (Chief of the Security Police and the SD) was entrusted with the official central handling of the final solution of the Jewish question without regard to geographic borders.4

He then went on to outline the steps that had been taken both before and during the war:

The Chief of the Security Police and the SD then gave a short report of the struggle which has been carried on thus far against this enemy, the essential points being the following:

a) the expulsion of the Jews from every sphere of life of the German people,

b) the expulsion of the Jews from the living space of the German people.

In carrying out these efforts, an increased and planned acceleration of the emigration of the Jews from Reich territory was started, as the only possible present solution.

By order of the Reich Marshal, a Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration was set up in January 1939 and the Chief of the Security Police and SD was entrusted with the management. Its most important tasks were:

a) to make all necessary arrangements for the preparation for an increased emigration of the Jews,

b) to direct the flow of emigration,

c) to speed the procedure of emigration in each individual case.

The aim of all this was to cleanse German living space of Jews in a legal manner.5

Heydrich next mentioned the difficulties that the emigration policy had faced, such as the increasing sums of money demanded of the emigrants at their destinations, the lack of available shipping, restrictions on entry visas and so forth. However, he then told the delegates:

In spite of these difficulties, 537,000 Jews were sent out of the country between the takeover of power and the deadline of 31 October 1941. Of these:

•  approximately 360,000 were in Germany proper on 30 January 1933

•  approximately 147,000 were in Austria (Ostmark) on 15 March 1939

•  approximately 30,000 were in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia on 15 March 1939.6

These figures included Jews who had emigrated to “safe” countries outside the German sphere of influence and those who had gone to, for example, Poland, the Netherlands and Hungary, and so were now back under German control. They also included those who had been forcibly deported from German territory to the General Government. Heydrich then explained that the Jews had financed their enforced emigration themselves, having raised some US$9.5 million among Jewish organisations inside and outside Germany. However, the war situation had now forced the German government to abandon the emigration project for security reasons.

With the preamble over, Heydrich moved on to the main topic of the meeting: what was to be done with the Jews. While Eichmann’s minutes are bureaucratic and neutral,* nobody present could have been in any doubt about what they were discussing. After all, mass executions had been taking place in the incorporated territories of Poland and the General Government since 1939, and a similar policy was now being pursued in the Baltic States and the western Soviet Union. The various delegates were therefore fully aware that they were there to discuss genocide, even though Heydrich never used the word during the meeting:

Another possible solution of the problem has now taken the place of emigration, i.e. the evacuation of the Jews to the East, provided that the Führer gives the appropriate approval in advance.

These actions are, however, only to be considered provisional, but practical experience is already being collected which is of the greatest importance in relation to the future final solution of the Jewish question.7

Of course, “evacuation of the Jews to the East” was a euphemism. At the time of the conference, the military situation in the Soviet Union was far from secure, and no plans had been drafted to resettle the Jews anywhere permanently. Any “practical experience” therefore related not to evacuation but to mass extermination. Lange, the Sipo commander in Riga, was able to give the assembled delegates precise details of the relevant “experience” he had accumulated in the city’s ghetto.

Heydrich next went on to explain the scale of the task that they faced. The Jews of Europe could be divided into two groups: those under the direct control of Germany and those in countries that still possessed their own sovereign governments. Heydrich’s figures for the first group were:


• Germany proper


• Austria


• Eastern territories


• General Government


• Bialystock


• Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia


• Estonia


• Latvia


• Lithuania


• Belgium


• Denmark


• France: occupied territory


               unoccupied territory


• Greece


• Netherlands


• Norway


His estimates for those in the second group—who were expected to be swept up in the final solution at some point—were:


• Bulgaria


• England


• Finland


• Ireland


• Italy, including Sardinia


• Albania


• Croatia


• Portugal


• Romania, including Bessarabia


• Sweden


• Switzerland


• Serbia


• Slovakia


• Spain


• (European) Turkey


• Hungary




• Ukraine


• White Russia, excluding Bialystock


Heydrich made it very clear what was planned for all of these people:

Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East. Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes.

The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history).

In the course of the practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from West to East. Germany proper, including the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, will have to be handled first due to the housing problem and additional social and political necessities.10

Although the conference concerned all the Jews of Europe, specific attention was paid to the murder of German Jews—principally, it seems, because of concerns about political protests. The T-4 programme had been wound down just five months earlier, partly in the face of vocal opposition from the churches, and the conference delegates may well have feared similar protests against the extermination of the Jews. In a bid to forestall this, Heydrich explained that Jews over the age of sixty-five and those who had been seriously wounded or had won the Iron Cross, first class, during the First World War would be exempted from “evacuation.” Instead, they would be deported to the “old age” ghetto that had recently been established at Theresienstadt* (now Terezín in the Czech Republic). Heydrich believed that, “With this expedient solution, in one fell swoop, many interventions will be prevented.”

Another issue that the delegates had to address was the question of the Mischlinge. Heydrich proposed that Mischlinge of the first degree (those with two Jewish grandparents) should be treated as Jews unless they had married a person of German blood and that union had produced children; or if they had been granted exemption by the “highest offices of the State” through personal merit. However, these Mischlinge would need to accept sterilisation as a prerequisite for being allowed to remain in Germany.

Mischlinge of the second degree (those with one Jewish grandparent) would be treated as Germans unless:

a) The person of mixed blood of the second degree was born of a marriage in which both parents are persons of mixed blood.

b) The person of mixed blood of the second degree has a racially especially undesirable appearance that marks him outwardly as a Jew.

c) The person of mixed blood of the second degree has a particularly bad police and political record that shows that he feels and behaves like a Jew.11

In other words, looking Jewish or having a criminal record was enough to ensure a death sentence.

Heydrich then enumerated the plans for various other permutations of Mischlinge and Jews who were married to each other, and to persons of German blood. Basically, all of this attention to detail was designed to prevent disquiet among the German population at the evacuation of Jewish or Mischlinge spouses or relatives, while also ensuring that as many people as possible fell within the scope of the “final solution.”

There was also some discussion among the delegates about how the planned genocide would be implemented throughout Europe:

The beginning of the individual larger evacuation actions will largely depend on military developments. Regarding the handling of the final solution in those European countries occupied and influenced by us, it was proposed that the appropriate expert of the Foreign Office discuss the matter with the responsible official of the Security Police and SD.

In Slovakia and Croatia the matter is no longer so difficult, since the most substantial problems in this respect have already been brought near a solution. In Rumania the government has in the meantime also appointed a commissioner for Jewish affairs. In order to settle the question in Hungary, it will soon be necessary to force an adviser for Jewish questions onto the Hungarian government.

With regard to taking up preparations for dealing with the problem in Italy, SS-General Heydrich considers it opportune to contact the chief of police with a view to these problems.

In occupied and unoccupied France, the registration of Jews for evacuation will in all probability proceed without great difficulty.

Under Secretary of State Luther calls attention in this matter to the fact that in some countries, such as the Scandinavian states, difficulties will arise if this problem is dealt with thoroughly and that it will therefore be advisable to defer actions in these countries. Besides, in view of the small numbers of Jews affected, this deferral will not cause any substantial limitation.

The Foreign Office sees no great difficulties for southeast and western Europe.

SS-Major General Hofmann plans to send an expert to Hungary from the Race and Settlement Main Office for general orientation at the time when the Chief of the Security Police and SD takes up the matter there. It was decided to assign this expert from the Race and Settlement Main Office, who will not work actively, as an assistant to the police attaché.12

With the main business of the meeting now done, there were still a few issues to resolve. Neumann, Goering’s representative from the Office for the Four-Year Plan, sought assurances that key Jewish war workers would not be “evacuated”; Heydrich was happy to provide them. Then Bühler, from the General Government, made a special plea:

State Secretary Dr. Bühler stated that the General Government would welcome it if the final solution of this problem could be begun in the General Government, since on the one hand transportation does not play such a large role here nor would problems of labor supply hamper this action. Jews must be removed from the territory of the General Government as quickly as possible, since it is especially here that the Jew as an epidemic carrier represents an extreme danger and on the other hand he is causing permanent chaos in the economic structure of the country through continued black market dealings. Moreover, of the approximately 2½ million Jews concerned, the majority is unfit for work.

State Secretary Dr. Bühler stated further that the solution to the Jewish question in the General Government is the responsibility of the Chief of the Security Police and the SD and that his efforts would be supported by the officials of the General Government. He had only one request, to solve the Jewish question in this area as quickly as possible.13

This was the most explicit reference to the real purpose of the “final solution” during the meeting. If the intention was genuinely to evacuate Jews to the East, why would transportation not be an issue for the Jews of the General Government? Clearly, Bühler was under no illusions about what was about to happen to the Jews of Europe: they would be going no further east than the General Government.

Eichmann recorded: “In conclusion the different types of possible solutions were discussed, during which discussion both Regional Leader Dr. Meyer and State Secretary Dr. Bühler took the position that certain preparatory activities for the final solution should be carried out immediately in the territories in question, in which process alarming the populace must be avoided.”14 This meant that the delegates finished the meeting—after cognac had been served—casually discussing the pros and cons of different methods of killing.

The Wannsee Conference was probably not as significant as it is often portrayed. It did not initiate any new measures, and it did not include substantive discussions about the practicalities or logistics of the mass execution of the Jewish people. Rather, by and large, it was simply a briefing by Heydrich that was designed to demonstrate his (and the RSHA’s) authority and pre-eminence in policy relating to the “Jewish question” over all other agencies and departments that might have some objections to it. It was felt that this needed to be established particularly with respect to the Foreign Ministry—which had concerns on diplomatic grounds—and the Office of the Four-Year Plan—which was worried on economic grounds. Once this had been achieved, the meeting could conclude.

* In the aftermath of the meeting, Heydrich instructed Eichmann that his minutes must not be a verbatim record of what had been said: Eichmann was told to “clean them up,” to eliminate such words as “extermination” and “liquidation.”

* Theresienstadt had been established as a Jewish ghetto towards the end of 1941. It was used by the SS to reassure the outside world about the fate of the Jews, but conditions there were still harsh. Between 1941 and 1945, some 144,000 Jews were sent there, and approximately 33,000 of them died within the ghetto, mainly of hunger or disease. Around 88,000 were ultimately deported to Auschwitz and other death camps. There were just 17,272 survivors when the ghetto was liberated by the Soviet Army.

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