Military history



Given Hitler’s reference on 25 October 1941 to his own prophecy of the annihilation of the Jews in the event of a world war, it is not surprising that he was thinking on a global scale at this time. In the background of Hitler’s mind throughout Operation Barbarossa and what followed was the thought that the rapid defeat of the Soviet Union would also bring about the capitulation of the British. The attempt to bomb the British into submission in 1940 had clearly failed. But there were other ways of bringing them to the negotiating table. Chief among these was the disruption of their supplies, which by necessity had to come by sea, partly from Britain’s far-flung Empire, but principally from the United States. The US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had up to now won considerable domestic support by keeping America out of the war. But for some time he had privately thought that the USA would have to act to stop further German aggression.84 Roosevelt therefore began a large-scale programme of arms manufacture, with Congress voting through huge sums of money for the construction of aircraft, ships, tanks and military equipment. Already on 16 May 1940, Roosevelt had brought to Congress a proposal to build no fewer than 50,000 military airplanes a year, starting immediately. This was many times the output that any of the European combatants could achieve. Secret technical discussions with the British ensured these aircraft would be of direct benefit to the British war effort. Not long afterwards, Congress also passed the Two Oceans Navy Expansion Act, inaugurating the construction of enormous Atlantic and Pacific fleets grouped around aircraft carriers that would enable the US Navy to strike at America’s enemies around the world. Conscription was next, starting with the drafting and training of an army of 1.4 million men. In November 1940, Roosevelt was re-elected. Buoyed by bipartisan support in Congress, he transferred increasing quantities of military and naval supplies, as well as foodstuffs and much else, to Britain under ‘lend-lease’ arrangements. In 1940 alone, the British were able to purchase more than 2,000 combat aircraft from the USA; in 1941 the number rose to more than 5,000. These were significant quantities. In the middle of August 1941 Roosevelt and Churchill met to sign the ‘Atlantic Charter’, which included the provision that US submarines would accompany convoys to Britain for at least half of their Atlantic passage.85

From June 1941 the USA also began shipping supplies and equipment to the Soviet Union in ever-increasing quantities; if the USSR was defeated, then Roosevelt feared, with some justification, that Germany would return to the attack on Britain and then move on to challenge America.86 The pace and scale of American rearmament in 1940-41, and the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which tied up Soviet forces in the west, helped persuade the aggressively expansionist Japanese government that its drive to create a new Japanese empire in South-east Asia and the Pacific required the elimination of American naval forces in the region sooner rather than later. On 7 December 1941, six Japanese aircraft carriers sent their planes to bomb the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, where they sank, grounded or disabled eighteen ships, before moving on to the invasion of Thailand, Malaya and the Philippines. The attack united the American people behind intervention in the war. And it also prompted Hitler to throw off the restraint he had hitherto shown towards the USA. He now authorized the sinking of American ships in the Atlantic, to disrupt and if possible cut off US supplies to Britain and the Soviet Union. Then, gambling on America’s preoccupation with the Pacific, he issued a formal declaration of war on 11 December 1941. Italy, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria declared war on the USA as well. Hitler believed that the Japanese attack would weaken the Americans by dividing their military efforts. This would offer the best chance of defeating the USA in the Atlantic and cutting off supplies to Britain and the Soviet Union. Moreover, it would consume important British resources in the Far East as the Japanese moved on British colonies from Malaya to Burma and maybe eventually India as well. Above all, Hitler’s move was governed by the realization that it was vital to strike sooner rather than later, before the vast military build-up in the USA reached its full, overwhelming extent.87

These events had a direct bearing on Nazi policy towards the Jews. The rapidly increasing American aid to Britain and the Soviet Union deepened Hitler’s conviction that the USA was effectively participating in the war in a secret, Jewish-dominated alliance with Churchill and Stalin. On 22 June 1941, the day of the launching of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler announced that the hour had come, ‘in which it will be necessary to enter the lists against this conspiracy of the Jewish-Anglo-Saxon instigators of the war and the equally Jewish rulers of the Bolshevik Moscow Central’.88 Propaganda aimed at persuading the German people that the Roosevelt administration was part of an international Jewish conspiracy against Germany had already got under way in the spring of 1941. On 30 May and 6 June 1941 the Propaganda Ministry told the papers to emphasize that ‘England [is] ultimately ruled by Jewry; same is true of the USA’ and urged ‘clarity about the aim of Jews in the USA at any price to destroy and exterminate Germany’.89 Now the propaganda barrage was dramatically intensified.

Operation Barbarossa had been intended from the outset as a surprise attack, so it had not been preceded by the kind of propaganda build-up that had presaged the move against Poland in 1939. In the weeks following the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the Nazi leadership thus thought it necessary to launch a propaganda offensive designed to win the retrospective approval of the German people. Almost immediately, Hitler focused his attention on the Jews. The coincidence of Operation Barbarossa with the escalation of American aid to Britain and Russia formed the central focus of the media blitz that followed. It was personally directed by Hitler himself and reflected his deepest convictions.90 On 8 July 1941, Hitler told Goebbels to intensify media attacks on Communism. ‘Our propaganda line,’ wrote Goebbels the next day, ‘is thus clear: we must continue to unmask the collaboration between Bolshevism and Plutocracy and now more and more expose the Jewish character of this Front as well.’91 Instructions were duly issued to the press, and a massive campaign got underway, reinforced by further encouragement given by Hitler to his Propaganda Minister on 14 July 1941.92

This campaign was spearheaded by the Nazi Party’s daily newspaper, the Racial Observer, edited since 1938 by Wilhelm Weiss. With a circulation of nearly 1.75 million, it had semi-official status. Its stories owed much to the press directives issued by Otto Dietrich, the Reich press chief, from Hitler’s headquarters following his daily meeting with the Leader. Throughout the whole of 1940 it had carried not one single front-page headline of an antisemitic nature. In February and March 1941 there were three, but then there were no more for three months until a concentrated outburst began in July. On 10 and 12 July the paper carried front-page headlines on ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, on 13 and 15 July it turned its attention to Britain (‘Jewry Floods England with Soviet Lies’), and on 23 and 24 July it carried stories about Roosevelt as the tool of Jews and Freemasons who were out to destroy Germany. There were further front-page stories on 10 and 19 August (‘Roosevelt’s Goal is World Domination by Jews’) and there were more lurid headlines attacking Roosevelt on 27 and 29 October and 7 November, with a general lead on ‘The Jewish Enemy’ on 12 November. After this, the campaign died down, with only four antisemitic headlines in 1942.93 In similar fashion, the ‘Word of the Week’ wall-posters, issued since 1937 in editions of 125,000, pasted up on walls and kiosks all over Germany, or mounted in specially designed glass display boxes, and changing their topic every week, had only mentioned antisemitic subjects in three out of 52 editions in 1940, but between 1941 and their cessation in 1943 attacks on the Jews were carried in about a quarter of them. In contrast to the Racial Observer, the wall-posters continued the campaign into 1942, with twelve out of twenty-seven issued up to July devoted to antisemitic themes.94 Thus there was an undoubted peak in antisemitic propaganda of all kinds in the second half of 1941, reflecting Hitler’s order to Goebbels on 8 July to focus his propaganda machine’s attention on the Jews. The propaganda had an almost immediate effect. Already on 23 June 1941, for example, a German army NCO stationed in Lyon reported: ‘Now the Jews have declared war on us all along the line, from one extreme to the other, from the London and New York plutocrats all the way to the Bolsheviks. Everything that is in thrall to the Jews is lined up in a front against us.’95

Much play was made in this campaign with a pamphlet by the American Theodore N. Kaufman, issued earlier in the year under the title Germany Must Perish, which demanded the sterilization of all German men and the parcelling-out of all Germany’s territory amongst its European neighbours. Kaufman was an eccentric (to put it no more strongly than that), who had already earned the ridicule of the press in the USA by urging the sterilization of all American men to stop their children becoming murderers and criminals. Nevertheless, Goebbels seized upon his new pamphlet, portrayed Kaufman as an official adviser to the White House and trumpeted it as a Jewish product that revealed the true intentions of the Roosevelt government towards Germany: ‘Enormous Jewish Extermination Programme,’ announced the Racial Observer on 24 July 1941. ‘Roosevelt Demands Sterilization of German People: German People to be Exterminated within Two Generations.’96 ‘Germany Must be Annihilated!’ declared the ‘Word of the Week’ poster for 10 October 1941. ‘Always the Same Aim.’97 Goebbels declared he would have Kaufman’s book translated into German and distributed in millions of copies, ‘above all on the front’. A booklet containing translated extracts was duly published in September 1941, in which the editor declared it was proof that ‘World Jewry in New York, Moscow and London agrees on demanding the complete extermination of the German people’.98 The Propaganda Minister coupled this with repeated press reporting of alleged atrocities against German soldiers by troops of the Red Army. The message was clear: the Jews were conspiring across the world to exterminate the Germans; self-defence demanded that they be killed wherever they were found.99 In response to the threat, as Goebbels declared on 20 July 1941 in an article for The Reich, a weekly journal he had founded in May 1940 and which had reached a circulation of 800,000 by this time, Germany and indeed Europe would deliver a blow to the Jews ‘without pity and without mercy’ that would bring about ‘their ruin and downfall’.100

That blow fell in stages in the late summer and early autumn of 1941. From late June onwards the Task Forces and their auxiliaries were, as we have seen, killing increasing numbers of Jewish men, then, from mid-August, Jewish women and children as well, in the east. But it was already clear by this time that the Nazi leaders were thinking not just on a regional but on a European scale. On 31 July 1941 Heydrich took to Göring, who was formally in charge of Jewish policy, a brief document to sign. It gave Heydrich the power ‘to make all necessary preparations in organizational, practical and material respects for a total solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe’. The key point about this order, which also empowered Heydrich to consult all other central Party and government offices if their areas of competence were affected, was that it extended Heydrich’s brief to the entire Continent. It was not a command to initiate, still less to implement, a ‘total solution of the Jewish question’, it was a command to make preparations for such an action. But, on the other hand, it was a good deal more than the commission that some historians have seen in it merely to undertake ‘feasibility studies’ that might or might not be used some time in the future - the subsequent reports and references to the outcome of such studies that one might expect in the documentary record are simply not there.101

The matter hung fire for a few weeks while Hitler and the generals argued about whether to move on Moscow or divert the German armies further north and south; and then for much of early August Hitler was seriously ill with dysentery.102 By mid-August, however, he was well enough to launch a fresh diatribe against the Jews, recorded by Goebbels in his diary entry of 19 August 1941:

The Leader is convinced that the prophecy he made then in the Reichstag, that if Jewry succeded again in provoking a world war, it would end with the annihilation of the Jews, is confirming itself. It is becoming true in these weeks and months with a certainty that seems almost uncanny. The Jews are having to pay the price in the east; it has to a degree already been paid in Germany, and they will have to pay it still more in future. Their last refuge remains North America, and there in the long or short run they will one day have to pay it too.103

It was remarkable how Goebbels here let slip the global scope of Nazism’s ultimate geopolitical ambitions. More immediately these remarks coincided, not by chance, with a marked escalation in the killings carried out by the Task Forces in occupied Eastern Europe. Moreover, from February to April 1941, Hitler had sanctioned the deportation of some 7,000 Jews from Vienna to the Lublin district at the request of the Nazi Regional Leader of the former Austrian capital, Baldur von Schirach, who had come to prominence in the 1930s as the head of the Hitler Youth. Schirach’s main aim was to obtain their houses and apartments for distribution to the non-Jewish homeless. At the same time, his action stood in a continuity of ideologically driven antisemitic measures that went back to the first days of the German occupation of Vienna in March 1938.104 For some months this remained a relatively isolated action. In order to avoid any possible disturbance at home while the war was still in progress, Hitler for the time being vetoed Heydrich’s proposal to begin evacuating German Jews from Berlin as well.105

But in mid-August Hitler once more took up the idea that he had rejected earlier in the summer of 1941, of starting to deport Germany’s remaining Jews to the east. By mid-September his wishes had become widely known in the Nazi hierarchy. On 18 September 1941, Himmler told Arthur Greiser, the Regional Leader of the Wartheland: ‘The Leader wants the old Reich and the Protectorate [of Bohemia and Moravia] to be emptied and liberated of Jews from west to east as soon as possible.’106 Hitler may have thought of the deportations, which were to be carried out openly, as a warning to ‘international Jewry’, especially in the USA, not to escalate the war any further, or worse things would happen to the Jews of Germany. He had come under pressure to take retaliatory measures against ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ Russia following Stalin’s forcible deportation of the Volga Germans.107 Regional Leaders, notably Karl Kaufmann in Hamburg, were pressing for Jews to be evicted to make room for bombed-out German families. Joseph Goebbels, in his capacity as Regional Leader of Berlin, was determined ‘that we must evacuate the Jews from Berlin as quickly as possible’. This would be possible ‘as soon as we have cleared up the military questions in the east’.108 The fact that vast tracts of territory had already been conquered east of the General Government had already opened up the possibility of deporting Jews there from Central Europe. They would, Goebbels said after a meeting with Heydrich, be put into the labour camps already set up by the Communists. ‘What is more obvious than that they should now be peopled by the Jews?’109 Overriding all other possible motives in Hitler’s mind was that of security: in his memory of 1918, the Jews had stabbed Germany in the back, and ever since he had come to power he had been attempting by increasingly radical means to prevent this recurring by driving them out of the country. On the one hand, the threat had seemingly increased following the invasion of the Soviet Union and the growing involvement of America in the war. On the other, the opportunity for mass deportation now presented itself with the new territorial annexations in the east. The moment seemed to have come for action on a European scale.110


During this period, conditions of life deteriorated rapidly for those Jews who remained in Germany. One of them was Victor Klemperer, whose position was still to some extent protected by his marriage to a non-Jew, his wife Eva, and his record as a war veteran. Imprisoned in a police cell in Dresden on 23 June 1941 for violating blackout regulations, Klemperer found the time in jail weighed heavily on his mind. But he was not badly treated, and, despite his obsessive worry that he had been forgotten, he was released on 1 July 1941. He settled back into life in the overcrowded Jews’ House he was forced to share with his wife and other, similar, couples in Dresden.111 Soon his diary was filled with the growing difficulties he and his non-Jewish wife experienced in what he called ‘the hunt for food’. In April 1942 he recorded despairingly that ‘we are now facing complete starvation. Today even turnips were only “for registered customers”. Our potatoes are finished, our bread coupons will last for perhaps two weeks, not four.’112 They began to beg and barter.113 By the middle of 1942 Klemperer was feeling constantly hungry and had been reduced to stealing food from another inhabitant of the house (‘with a good conscience’, he confessed, ‘because she needs little, allows much to go to waste, is given many things by her aged mother - but I feel so demeaned’).114

From 18 September 1941, following a decree issued by the Reich Ministry of Transport, German Jews were no longer allowed to use dining cars on trains, to go on excursion coaches, or to travel by public transport in the rush hour.115 As his wife sewed the Jewish star on to the left breast of his coat on 19 September 1941, Klemperer had ‘a raving fit of despair’. Like many other Jews, he felt ashamed to go out (ashamed ‘of what?’, he asked himself rhetorically). His wife began to take over the shopping.116Klemperer’s typewriter was confiscated and from 28 October 1941 onwards he had to write his diary and the remainder of his autobiography by hand.117 More petty privations followed. Jews were denied coupons for shaving-soap (‘do they want to reintroduce the medieval Jew’s beard by force?’ Klemperer asked ironically).118 A list he compiled of all the restrictions to which they were subjected ran by this time to over thirty items, including bans on using buses, going to museums, buying flowers, owning fur coats and woollen blankets, entering railway stations, eating in restaurants, and sitting in deck chairs.119 A law issued on 4 December 1941 laid down the death penalty for virtually any offence committed by a Jew.120 On 13 March 1942 the Reich Security Head Office ordered a white paper star to be pasted on the entrance to every dwelling inhabited by Jews.121 A further blow came in May 1942 when the authorities announced that Jews would no longer be allowed to keep pets, or to give them away; with a heavy heart, Klemperer and his wife took their cat Muschel to a friendly vet and had it put to sleep illegally, to spare it the suffering they thought it would be subjected to if they handed it over in the general round-up.122 All of these measures, as their timing makes clear, were intended to prepare for the mass deportation of Germany’s Jews to the east.123

To underline the firmness of the deportation decision, Himmler ordered on 23 October 1941 that Jews were no longer to be allowed to emigrate from the German Reich or any country occupied by it.124 The end of the Jewish community in Germany was also signalled by the Gestapo’s dissolution of the Jewish Culture League on 11 September 1941; its assets, musical instruments, possessions and property were distributed to a variety of institutions including the SS and the army.125 All remaining Jewish schools in the Reich had already been closed down.126 The round-ups and deportations got under way on 15 October 1941; according to decrees issued on 29 May and 25 November 1941 and personally approved by Hitler, the deported were deprived of their German nationality and their property was confiscated by the state. By 5 November 1941, twenty-four long trainloads of Jews - some 10,000 from the Old Reich, 5,000 from Vienna and 5,000 from the Protectorate - had been transported to L’d’, along with 5,000 Gypsies from the rural Austrian territory of the Burgenland. By 6 February 1942, a further thirty-four trainloads had taken 33,000 Jews to Riga, Kovno and Minsk.127 This still left a substantial number who were performing forced-labour tasks thought important to the war economy. Goebbels was disappointed and pressed for the deportations to be speeded up. On 22 November 1941 he was able to note in his diary that Hitler had agreed to further deportations on a city-by-city basis.128

To prepare the deportations, the Gestapo would obtain lists of local Jews from the Reich Association of the Jews in Germany, pick out the names of those to be deported, give each of them a sequenced number, and inform them of the date on which they were to depart and the arrangements to be taken for the journey. Each deportee was allowed to take 50 kilos of luggage, and provisions for three to five days. They were taken by the local police to a collection centre, from where, after waiting often for many hours, they were transported to an ordinary passenger train for the journey. These measures were intended to prevent the Jews becoming alarmed about their fate. Yet the trains began their journey at night, in shunting yards instead of passenger stations, and not infrequently the deportees were roughly pushed on to the train by the police, with curses and blows. A police guard accompanied each transport on the journey. When the deportees reached their destination, their situation deteriorated radically. The first trainload to leave Munich, for instance, set out on 20 November 1941, and after being diverted from its original destination of Riga, where the ghetto was full, it arrived in Kovno three days later. Informed that the ghetto there was full too, the police took the deportees to the nearby Fort IX, where they were made to wait in the dry moat surrounding the building for two days until they were all shot.129

In January 1942 the order came for the Jews of Dresden to be deported to the east. Victor Klemperer’s relief was palpable, therefore, when he learned that holders of the Iron Cross, First Class, who lived in ‘mixed marriages’, such as himself, were exempt.130 For those who remained, life became still harder. On 14 February 1942 Klemperer, aged sixty and in less than perfect health, was ordered to report for work clearing snow off the streets. Arriving at the venue, he discovered that he was the youngest of the twelve Jewish men on the site. Fortunately, he reported, the overseers from the municipal cleansing department were decent and polite, allowed the men to stand around chatting, and told Klemperer: ‘You must not over-exert yourself, the state does not require it.’131They were paid the meagre sum of just over 70 Reichsmarks a week after tax.132 When this service was no longer required, Klemperer was sent to work in a packing factory.133 The Gestapo became ever more brutal and abusive, and Jews came to dread house-searches by the authorities. When Klemperer’s own Jews’ House was searched, he was fortuitously out visiting a friend. He returned to find the house had been turned over. All the food and wine had been stolen, along with some money and some medication. The contents of cupboards, drawers and shelves had been emptied on to the floor and stamped on. Anything they wanted to steal, including bed-linen, the Gestapo men had stowed into four suitcases and a large trunk, which they ordered the inhabitants to take to the police station the following day. Eva Klemperer had been insulted (‘You Jew’s whore, why did you marry the Jew?’) and repeatedly spat at in the face. ‘What an unthinkable disgrace for Germany,’ was Victor Klemperer’s reaction.134These are no longer house searches,’ his wife commented, ‘they’re pogroms.’135 Desperately worried that the Gestapo would find his diaries (‘one is murdered for lesser misdemeanours’), Klemperer started to get his wife to take them at more frequent intervals to his non-Jewish friend, the doctor Annemarie Köhler, for safe keeping. ‘But I shall go on writing,’ he declared in May 1942. ‘This is my heroism. I intend to bear witness, precise witness!’136

In Hamburg, thankful that his privileged status as the war-decorated husband of a non-Jew and bringing up a daughter as a Christian meant that her Jewish husband Friedrich did not have to wear the yellow star, Luise Solmitz recorded bitterly on 13 September 1941: ‘Our luck is now negative - everything that doesn’t affect us.’ The Solmitzes secured a ruling from the Gestapo that people in privileged mixed marriages such as theirs were not obliged to accommodate Jews in their houses. Cuts in pensions, benefits and rations they shared with other Germans. Otherwise they lived much as they had done before, though necessarily more privately, since Friedrich was effectively barred from taking part in the social life of the non-Jewish circles in which they had previously moved. Luise Solmitz and her husband steadily lost weight as food supplies became shorter in the course of 1941. By 21 December 1942 she weighed 96 pounds. Yet her principal worry about changes in rationing arrangements was not so much that their diet would become even more restricted, but that she would be banned from collecting the family’s ration cards, and Friedrich would have to go to the ration office himself as a Jew, with his ‘evil, impossible epithet’ imposed by the government (‘Israel’) and queue ‘amidst all the people who one has never had anything to do with’, or in other words Hamburg’s remaining population of Jews. Her concern for the safety of her half-Jewish daughter Gisela grew as rumours circulated that people classified as mixed-race were to be deported. ‘We are already the playthings of dark and malicious powers,’ she recorded gloomily in her diary on 24 November 1942.137


It is clear that by October 1941 the deportation idea encompassed in principle the whole of Europe, and was intended to begin almost immediately.138 On 4 October 1941 Heydrich referred to ‘the plan of a total evacuation of the Jews from the territories occupied by us’.139 In early November 1941, he defended his approval of antisemitic attacks on Parisian synagogues that had taken place four days earlier in view of the fact that ‘Jewry has been identified at the highest level with the greatest clarity as the fire-raiser responsible for what has happened in Europe, and must finally disappear from Europe.’140 Hitler himself sharply increased his rhetorical attacks on the Jews once more, not just in the Soviet Union and the USA but also in Europe as a whole. On 28 November 1941, meeting the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, Hitler declared: ‘Germany is determined to press one European nation after the other to solve the Jewish problem.’ In Palestine too, he assured the Mufti, the Jews would be dealt with once Germany gained control of the area.141

By this time, the surviving Jews in the regions conquered by the German forces in Eastern Europe were being rounded up and confined in ghettos in the principal towns. At Vilna (Vilnius), beginning on 6 September 1941, 29,000 Jews were crammed into an area formerly housing only 4,000 people. Visiting the Vilna ghetto at the beginning of November 1941, Goebbels noted that ‘the Jews are squatting amongst one another, horrible forms, not to be seen, let alone to be touched . . . The Jews are the lice of civilized humanity. They have to be exterminated somehow . . . Wherever you spare them, you later become their victim. ’142 Another ghetto was set up at Kovno on 10 July 1941, where a Jewish population of 18,000 was subjected to frequent, violent raids by German and Lithuanian forces searching for valuables.143 Smaller ghettos were established around the same time in other towns in the Baltic states in the wake of major massacres of the local Jewish population. Since these massacres had mainly, at least in the initial phase, been directed against men, these ghettos often had a preponderance of women and children: in Riga, for example, where the ghetto was set up towards the end of October 1941, there were nearly 19,000 women compared to just over 11,000 men when the ghetto was closed just over a month later. 24,000 were taken out and shot on 30 November and 8 December 1941, the remainder, mostly men, being sent off to Germany as industrial labourers. A similar mass killing happened on a larger scale in Kovno on 28 October 1941, when Helmut Rauca, head of the Jewish Department of the Gestapo in the town, ordered its 27,000 Jewish inhabitants to assemble at six in the morning on the main square. All day long, Rauca and his men separated those who could work from those who could not. By dusk, 10,000 Jews had been sorted into the latter category. The rest were sent home. The next morning, the 10,000 were marched out of the city on foot to Fort IX and shot in batches.144

Almost all of the ghettos created in occupied Eastern Europe following the invasion of the Soviet Union were improvised and relatively short-lived, designed as little more than holding areas for Jews destined for death in the very near future. In Yalta, a ghetto was created on 5 December 1941 by partitioning off an area on the edge of the city: on 17 December 1941, less than two weeks later, it was shut down and its inhabitants killed. A similar pattern could be observed in other centres too.145 Clearly, the Jews of Eastern Europe were not expected to live much longer. The ghettos were to be cleared in order to make way for the Jews whose expulsion Hitler was now repeatedly urging from the ‘Old Reich’ and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and following this from the rest of German-occupied Europe. Some historians have tried to identify a precise date on which Hitler ordered the expulsion and extermination of Europe’s Jews. Yet the evidence for this is unpersuasive. Much has been made of the fact that, long after the war, Adolf Eichmann recalled that Heydrich had summoned him in late September or early October to tell him that ‘The Leader has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews.’ Himmler was also to refer to such a command on more than one occasion in the future. But it is extremely doubtful whether it was given to Himmler or Heydrich or indeed anyone else in so many words. Hitler’s statements, recorded in a number of sources, most notably the public record of his speeches and the private notes of his conversations in Goebbels’s diary and the Table Talk, represent both the style and the substance of what he had to say on this issue. It is a mistake to look for, or imagine, an order, whether written or spoken, of the kind issued by Hitler in the case of the compulsory euthanasia programme, where it was required to give legitimacy to the actions of professional doctors rather than committed SS men, who scarcely needed it anyway.146 As the Nazi Party’s Supreme Court had noted early in 1939, under the Weimar Republic, Party leaders had become accustomed to evading legal responsibility by ensuring ‘that actions . . . are not ordered with absolute clarity or in every detail’. Correspondingly, Party members had become accustomed ‘to read more out of such a command than it says in words, just as it has become a widespread custom on the part of the people issuing the command . . . not to say everything’ and ‘only to hint’ at the purpose of an order.147

Thus Hitler is extremely unlikely to have gone any further than issuing the kind of statements which he repeatedly made from the middle of 1941 onwards in respect of the Jews, backed up by virulently antisemitic propaganda from Goebbels and his co-ordinated mass media. Such statements were often widely broadcast and publicized, and those made in public at least would have been familiar to virtually every member of the Party, the SS and similar organizations. When added to the explicit orders given in advance of Barbarossa to kill Soviet commissars and Jews, and the murderous policies already implemented in Poland since September 1939, they created a genocidal mentality in which Himmler in Berlin and his senior officers on the ground in the east competed to see how thoroughly and how radically they could put Hitler’s repeated promise, or threat, to annihilate the Jews of Europe into effect. Often they were faced with severe food shortages, and, as in Poland, they established a hierarchy of food rationing in which the Jews were inevitably bottom of the heap. From here to active extermination was but a short step for many zealous local and regional commanders, who - as in Belarus - also ordered the killing of other people seen as unable to work and therefore ‘useless eaters’, as the phrase had it. Among these were the mentally ill and the handicapped. They were murdered not for racial reasons, though the German ‘euthanasia’ campaign had provided an important precedent, but for economic ones. The SS did not object to ‘degenerative’ influences on Slavic heredity; they simply considered the mentally ill and handicapped in these areas surplus to requirements.148

The concrete results of such a mentality were evident by the middle of October 1941 at the latest. By this time, Jews from the Greater German Reich and the Protectorate were being deported to the east, and Jews from the rest of German-occupied Europe were to follow. No Jews were allowed to emigrate. There are numerous statements from this time at various levels of the Nazi hierarchy testifying that there was common agreement that all Europe’s Jews were to be deported to the east. Task Forces were indiscriminately shooting huge numbers of Jews all across occupied Eastern Europe. In a lecture delivered to senior military, police, Party, Labour Front, academic, cultural and other figures at the German Academy on 1 December 1941, Goebbels reported that Hitler’s prophecy of 30 January 1939 was now being fulfilled.

Sympathy or even regret is wholly out of place. World Jewry in unleashing this war made a completely false assessment of the forces at its disposal. It is now suffering a gradual process of annihilation that it intended for us and that it would without question have carried out if it had the power to do so. It is now perishing as a result of Jewry’s own law: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.149

Although the mass murder, as Goebbels hinted, was, for obvious reasons of practicality, to be carried out in stages, there was now no doubt that, as Alfred Rosenberg put it, speaking at a press conference on 18 November 1941, that the aim was the ‘biological extermination of the whole of Jewry in Europe’.150

By this time, it was clear that military authorities, police units, SS and civil administrators were co-operating without difficulty in the implementation of the extermination programme. According to a report compiled by the Arms Inspectorate of the Armed Forces, Ukrainian militia, ‘in many places, regrettably, with the voluntary participation of members of the German armed forces’, had been shooting Jewish men, women and children in a ‘horrible’ manner. Up to 200,000 had been killed already in the Reich Commissariat of the Ukraine, and in the end the total would reach nearly half a million.151 But already it was becoming clear that mass shooting could not achieve the scale of extermination that Himmler was demanding. Moreover, complaints were coming in from Task Force leaders that continual mass shootings of defenceless women and children were placing an intolerable strain on their men. As Rudolf Höss, a senior SS officer, later recalled, ‘I always shuddered at the prospect of carrying out exterminations by shooting, when I thought of the vast numbers concerned, and of the women and children.’ Many members of the Task Forces, ‘unable to endure wading through blood any longer, had committed suicide. Some had even gone mad. Most . . . had to rely on alcohol when carrying out their horrible work.’152 The numbers of Jews to be shot were so great that one Task Force report concluded on 3 November 1941: ‘Despite the fact that up to now a total of some 75,000 Jews have been liquidated in this way, it has nevertheless become apparent that this method will not provide a solution to the Jewish problem.’153


A solution to the problem, however, presented itself immediately. After the enforced termination of the T-4 ‘euthanasia’ action on 24 August 1941, following its denunciation by Bishop Clemens von Galen, its lethal gas technicians became available for redeployment in the east.154 Specialists from the T-4 unit visited Lublin in September; so too did Viktor Brack and Philipp Bouhler, its two leading administrators. Dr August Becker, who described himself as ‘a specialist in the gassing processes involved in exterminating the mentally sick’, later remembered:

I was transferred to the Reich Security Head Office in Berlin as a result of a private conversation between Reich Leader SS Himmler and Senior Service Leader Brack. Himmler wanted to deploy people who had become available as a result of the suspension of the euthanasia programme and who, like me, were specialists in extermination by gassing, for the large-scale gassing operations in the east which were just beginning.155

In addition, Albert Widmann, who had devised the standard gas chamber used in the ‘euthanasia’ programme, visited Minsk and Mogilev, where Task Force B had requested technical assistance in killing the patients of the local mental hospitals. Such murders were a standard part of Task Force activities in the east, as they had been in Poland in 1939-40, and several thousand mental patients fell victim to them. After a number of patients had been killed by carbon monoxide gases from car exhaust fumes being pumped into a sealed room, Arthur Nebe, the head of the Task Force, conceived the idea of killing people by putting them in an airtight van and piping the exhaust fumes into it. Heydrich gave his approval.156

On 13 October 1941, Himmler met regional police chiefs Globocnik and Krüger in the early evening and agreed that a camp should be built at Belzec, to serve as a base for the gas vans. It was, in other words, to be a camp created for the sole purpose of killing people.157 Construction began on 1 November 1941, and specialists from the T-4 operation were sent there the following month.158 The inhabitants of the Polish ghettos were now being systematically killed to make space for the Jews who were to be taken there from other parts of Europe. A similar centre was set up at Chelmno in the Wartheland, from where Jewish prisoners, transported from the Lo’dz’ ghetto, would be taken out in the vans to be gassed. The three gas vans based at Chelmno could kill fifty people each at a time, driving them out from the camp to woods about 16 kilometres distant, asphyxiating the people inside along the way. There they halted to unload their grisly cargo into ditches dug by other Jewish inmates of the camp. Occasionally a mother inside the van managed to wrap up her baby tightly enough to keep it from breathing in the deadly fumes. Jakow Grojanowski, one of the gravediggers employed by the SS, reported how German guards picked up any babies who had survived the journey and smashed their heads against nearby trees. Up to 1,000 were killed every day; 4,400 Gypsies from the L’d’ ghetto were also murdered. Altogether, 145,000 Jews were put to death in the first period of Chelmo’s existence; more followed, and another 7,000 were murdered when the camp briefly reopened in the spring of 1944; the total killed in the camp exceeded 360,000.159

These gas wagons were among thirty built by a small vehicle manufacturer in Berlin. The first four were delivered to the Task Forces in November-December 1941; all four Task Forces were using them by the end of the year.160 The van operators later described how up to sixty Jews, often in a poor physical state, hungry, thirsty and weak, were herded into the back of each van, fully clothed. ‘It did not seem as if the Jews knew that they were about to be gassed,’ one later said. ‘The exhaust gases were fed into the inside of the van,’ remembered Anton Lauer, a member of Police Reserve Battalion number 9. ‘I can still today hear the Jews knocking and shouting, “Dear Germans, let us out.” ’ ‘When the doors were opened,’ another operator recalled, ‘a cloud of smoke wafted out. After the smoke had cleared we could start our foul work. It was frightful. You could see that they had fought terribly for their lives. Some of them were holding their noses. The dead had to be dragged apart.’161

One gas van was also sent to Serbia, where General Franz B̈hme, busily exterminating Jews in reprisal for what he supposed was their part in the Chetnik uprising in progress since the previous July, reported in December 1941 that 160 German soldiers killed and 278 wounded had been avenged by the killing of between 20,000 and 30,000 Serbian civilians, including all adult male Jews and Gypsies. Up to this point the murders had encompassed only men; B̈hme envisaged that the remaining 10,000 Jewish women, children and old people, as well as any surviving Jewish men, would be rounded up and put into a ghetto. Over 7,000 Jewish women and children, 500 Jewish men and 292 Gypsy women and children were herded by the SS into a camp at Sajmiste, across the river from Belgrade, where they were kept in insanitary conditions in unheated barracks while the SS arranged for a mobile gassing unit to be sent from Berlin. While the Gypsies were released, the Jews were told that they were being transferred to another camp where better conditions prevailed. No sooner had the first batch of sixty-four climbed into the lorry than the doors were sealed and the exhaust pipe swung round to pump its deadly fumes into the interior. As the lorry drove through the centre of Belgrade, past the unsuspecting crowds of pedestrians and through the daily traffic, to the firing-range at Avela on the other side of the capital, the Jews inside were all being gassed to death. A police unit at Avela removed them and threw them into an already excavated mass grave. By the beginning of May 1942 all the camp’s 7,500 Jewish inmates had been killed in this way, along with the inmates and staff of the Jewish hospital in Belgrade and Jewish prisoners from another, nearby camp. Serbia, the leading SS officer in the country, Harald Turner, declared with pride in August 1942, was the only country in which the Jewish question had so far been completely ‘solved’.162

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!