Military history



On 29 November 1941 Reinhard Heydrich ordered Adolf Eichmann to draft an invitation to a variety of senior civil servants from ministries with responsibilities of one kind or another for the Jewish question, together with representatives of key SS and Nazi Party departments involved in the area. ‘On 31 July 1941,’ the invitation began, ‘the Reich Marshal of the Greater German Reich commissioned me, with the assistance of the other central authorities, to make all necessary organizational and technical preparations for a comprehensive solution of the Jewish question and to present him with a comprehensive proposal at an early opportunity.’163 In order to finalize the details of such a proposal, all the interested agencies needed to meet. Heydrich was particularly concerned to include representatives of institutions and departments with which the SS had experienced some problems. The Foreign Office was asked to send a senior official, belying later claims that the conference was intended only to deal with German Jews; indeed, although Heydrich did not go into any details about what exactly the conference would be discussing, the Foreign Office assumed that it would focus on arranging the round-up and deportation of Jews in every country in Europe under German occupation.164

The meeting was scheduled for 9 December 1941 and was to take place in a lakeside villa in the tranquil Berlin suburb of Wannsee. But the day before, on hearing of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Heydrich’s staff telephoned all the invitees and postponed the conference, since it was likely that he and other participants would be called to the session of the Reichstag that this new development in international politics clearly warranted.165 This did not mean, however, that policy towards the Jews was to take a back seat. Speaking to a meeting of senior Party officials the day after he had declared war on the USA, Hitler, as recorded in Goebbels’s diary, repeated his sentiments of the previous August in more precise form:

As far as the Jewish question is concerned, the Leader is determined to clear the decks. He prophesied to the Jews that if they brought about another world war, they would thereby experience their own annihilation. That was not just waffle. The world war is here, the annihilation of Jewry must be the necessary consequence. This question is to be contemplated without any sentimentality. We are not here to pity the Jews but to pity our own German people. Now that the German people have lost another 160,000 dead on the Eastern Front, the originators of this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives.166

On 14 December 1941 Rosenberg agreed with Hitler for reasons of international policy not to mention ‘the extermination of Jewry’ in a public speech he was about to deliver, even though, as Hitler remarked, ‘they saddled us with the war and brought destruction; it’s no wonder that they are the first to bear the consequences’.167

By this time, it had become clear to Hitler and everyone else in the Nazi hierarchy that the war was not going to come to an end as soon as they had expected. They now accepted that it would last through the winter, though they still thought that the Soviet Union would collapse some time in the summer of 1942. The deportation of European Jews to the east would now therefore take place before the end of the war. Hitler’s radical rhetoric in November and December 1941 was designed to push on the detailed planning and implementation of this policy as quickly as possible.168 Since the Jews were already being exterminated in the occupied territories of eastern Europe, including those like the Wartheland that had been incorporated into the Reich, it was clear that the earlier plans to deport them to the Reich Commissariat of the Ukraine, or to some undefined area further east, had now been abandoned. As Hans Frank told his staff in the General Government of Poland on 16 December 1941, after returning from the 12 December conference of Nazi leaders with Hitler in Berlin:

With the Jews - I want to say that to you with complete frankness - an end has to be made in one way or another . . . We were told in Berlin, why are you raising all these objections; we can’t do anything with them in the [Reich Commissariat of the] Eastern Land or in the Reich Commissariat [of the Ukraine], liquidate them yourself!! Gentlemen, I have to forearm you against any thought of pity. We must annihilate the Jews wherever we come upon them and wherever it is at all possible, in order to sustain the total structure of the Reich here.169

How was this to be done, however? The number of Jews in the General Government that Frank had been told to kill was impossibly large, some three and a half million in all according to Frank (something of an exaggeration; his staff later put the number at two and a half million): ‘We can’t shoot these 3.5 million Jews,’ complained Frank to his staff on 16 December 1941, ‘we can’t poison them, but we will be able to take measures that somehow lead to their successful annihilation, namely in connection with large-scale measures that are to be discussed from the Reich.’170 What these measures were would soon become clear.

The mass murder of Eastern European Jews that began in the summer of 1941 owed something to the ideological zeal of men such as Arthur Greiser, Regional Leader of the Wartheland, and police chiefs and Task Force Leaders who on their own initiative carried out large-scale massacres of Jews in a number of centres. At the same time, however, they were framed by an overall policy the parameters of which were set by Hitler and implemented in practical terms by Himmler. When, for example, the police chief in Riga, Friedrich Jeckeln, had a trainload of Jewish deportees from Berlin shot on their arrival, Himmler, whose order not to kill them, sent on 30 November 1941, reached Jeckeln too late, was furious. Shooting Berlin Jews would alarm those who were still in the capital. The intention was to keep them in the Riga ghetto for the time being. Himmler disciplined Jeckeln and told him not to act on his own initiative again.171 For the most part, however, local and regional initiatives fell well within the overall purposes of the regime. The general transfer of gassing technology to the east, along with the experts who knew how to set it up and operate it, and the participation of institutions like Frank’s General Government administration, the army, the Leader’s Chancellery (which supplied the gas technologists) and the Reich Security Head Office, led by Himmler, spoke of a broadly co-ordinated policy under central direction. So too did the timing of the regional killing operations, which coincided with the beginnings of the organized deportations of Jews from the Reich and the commissioning of special camps near the major ghettos in the east with the sole purpose of killing their inhabitants.

No operation of this size and scale could have taken place in the Third Reich without the knowledge of Hitler, whose position as Leader made him the person to whom all these institutions were ultimately responsible. It was Hitler’s murderous, but deliberately generalized, antisemitic rhetoric, repeated on many occasions in the second half of 1941, that gave Himmler and his subordinates the essential impulse to carry out the killings.172 On occasion, Hitler confirmed his approval of the murders directly. Meeting with Himmler on 18 December, for example, he told the SS leader, according to the latter’s notes, ‘Jewish question/to be exterminated as partisans’.173 The extermination of Soviet Jews was thus to be continued, under the pretext that they were partisans. The fruits of this policy were visible just over a year later in ‘Report number 51’, dated 29 December 1942, sent by Himmler to Hitler and, as a marginal note by Hitler’s adjutant confirms, seen and read by him. Entitled ‘the fight against bandits’, it noted under the sub-heading of ‘those assisting bandits or suspected of banditry’ that the number of ‘Jews executed’ in southern Russia, the Ukraine and the Bialystok district in the months from August to November 1942 was no less than 363,211.174 The sheer extent of the killings became a factor in itself, suggesting powerfully to leading Nazis that the mass extermination of Jews on a hitherto unimaginable scale was now a real possibility. By this time, the Nazi net had widened to encompass not only Polish and Soviet Jews, but Jews in the whole of occupied Europe as well.175


On 20 January 1942 the meeting of senior officials called by Heydrich the previous November finally took place. The fifteen men gathered round a table in the Wannsee villa included representatives of Rosenberg’s Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, Frank’s Office of the General Government of Poland and the SS Security Service in Poland, Latvia and the Reich Commissariat of the Eastern Territory, all of whom would be concerned with the actual operation of the extermination programme; the Reich Ministries of the Interior and Justice, the Party Chancellery and the Reich Chancellery, covering legal and administrative questions; the Foreign Office, dealing with Jews living in nominally independent countries outside Germany, particularly in Western Europe; the Four-Year Plan, to cover economic aspects; and the SS departments of the Reich Security Head Office and the Head Office for Race and Settlement, who would be in charge of the exterminations. There had been some argument between various Nazi satraps, notably Hans Frank and Alfred Rosenberg, as to who should have control over the ‘Jewish question’ in the occupied territories, and Heydrich wanted to assert the authority of the SS. He began, therefore, by reminding the meeting that G̈ring had charged him on 31 July 1941 with making the detailed arrangements for the final solution of the European Jewish question, and that overall responsibility lay with his superior, Heinrich Himmler. After outlining the measures taken over the previous several years to get Jews to emigrate from Germany, Heydrich noted that Hitler had, more recently, approved a new policy, of deporting them to the east. This, he emphasized, was only a temporary measure, though it would provide ‘practical experience that is of great significance for the coming final solution of the Jewish question’.176

Heydrich then went on to enumerate the Jewish population of every country in Europe, including many outside the German sphere of influence. There were, for instance, he noted, 4,000 Jews in Ireland, 3,000 in Portugal, 8,000 in Sweden and 18,000 in Switzerland. All of these were neutral countries, but their inclusion in the list strongly suggested that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Third Reich hoped to be in a position to put pressure on them to surrender their Jewish populations for extermination. Altogether, Heydrich reckoned, the Jewish population of Europe totalled around 11 million, though, he noted disapprovingly, these were in many cases only people who practised Judaism, ‘since some countries still do not have a definition of the termJew according to racial principles’.177 ‘In the course of the final solution and under appropriate leadership,’ he said, ‘the Jews should be put to work in the East. In large, single-sex labour columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastward constructing roads.’ But this was in practice to be another form of extermination, for, Heydrich continued: ‘Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes.’ Any who survived the experience would be ‘dealt with appropriately because, by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history)’. Those deemed ‘fit to work’ would in any case only be a small minority. The representative of the General Government pointed out that ‘the two and a half million Jews in the region were in any case largely unable to work’. Jews over sixty-five - nearly a third of the remaining Jewish population of Germany and Austria - and Jews with war decorations or severely wounded in the First World War were to be sent to an old-age ghetto. The meeting discussed the problems of persuading occupied or allied countries to give up their Jewish populations. An ‘adviser for Jewish questions’ would have to be forced on the Hungarian government for this purpose. Pausing to note that the ‘Jewish question’ had already been ‘solved’ in Slovakia and Croatia, the meeting then plunged into a pedantic and inconclusive discussion about what to do with people who were ‘racially mixed’ - a matter that continued to be discussed in follow-up meetings and discussions, notably on 6 March 1942. It then concluded with what the minutes coyly described as ‘various possible kinds of solution’. According to later testimony, this included the use of gassing vans.178

It has been argued that the main concern of the conference was to organize the provision of labour for the huge road-building schemes envisioned by the General Plan for the East. Thus it was not really about mass murder.179 But in fact, Task Force C had already some months before recommended the drafting of Jews into labour projects and commented that this would ‘result in a gradual liquidation of Jewry’. Jewish slave labourers would be deprived of adequate rations and worked till they dropped. Given the labour shortage under which the German war economy was increasingly suffering, using Jewish workers seemed unavoidable; but this was not in the end an alternative to killing them, merely a different way of doing it. The almost parenthetical reference to the fact that the Jews of the General Government were mostly unable to work, along with the statement that those who survived the labour columns would be killed, meant that the major purpose of the meeting was to discuss the logistics of extermination. The men sitting round the table in the Wannsee villa were well aware of this.180

The stress laid in the conference on ‘extermination through labour’ had significant administrative consequences over the following weeks. In February 1942 the administration of all the concentration camps was restructured, with the economic, construction and internal administrative divisions being merged into the new SS Economy and Administration Head Office under Oswald Pohl. Group D of Pohl’s Head Office, under Richard Gl̈cks, was now in charge of the whole system of concentration camps. These changes marked the fact that the camps were now being seen as a significant source of labour to be supplied to Germany’s war industries. This had in fact already begun before the war, but it was now to become far more systematic. Nevertheless, the SS did not approach the need to utilize prisoner labour for the war economy in a rational manner. Getting the most out of such men was not, for them, a matter of improving their conditions or paying them wages. Instead, they were to be forced to increase their labour input by violence and terror. The prisoners were regarded by the SS not just as expendable, but in the medium to long term as obstacles to the racial reordering of Eastern Europe. Hence they were subjected to ‘extermination through labour’. Those who became unproductive would be killed, and replaced by fresh slave labourers. This was what the SS also envisaged would happen to millions of Slavs once the war was over. The selection of able-bodied Jews for work duties provided a convenient justification for the mass killing of the millions not deemed fit to work.181

The talk at the Wannsee Conference, as Eichmann, who took the minutes, later admitted, had been of killing, often expressed ‘in very blunt words . . . totally out of keeping with legal language’.182 The minutes had played this down, but at key points they made it clear that all the Jews of Europe would perish in one way or another. Almost all of the men round the table had at some time either given direct orders for Jews to be killed - four of them had ordered or directed the mass killings carried out by the SS Security Service Task Forces, both Eichmann and Martin Luther of the Foreign Office had explicitly called for all the Jews of Serbia to be shot, a number of participants, including the representatives of the Party Chancellery and the Foreign Office, had most probably seen the murder statistics compiled by the Task Forces and sent back to Berlin, and the officials sent to Wannsee from the General Government and the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories had already sanctioned the murder of Jews deemed unfit for work - or created conditions in the ghettos that they knew to be fatal to many of their inhabitants.183 So they had no problems in planning genocide.

At the end of the meeting, the participants stood around for a while, drinking brandy and congratulating themselves on a successful day’s work. Heydrich sat down by the fireplace with Eichmann and with Heinrich M̈ller, the Gestapo chief, all three of them from the Reich Security Head Office. Heydrich started smoking and drank a cognac, something which, Eichmann later said, he had not seen him do before, or at least not for many years. The Ministry of the Interior and the General Government had both come into line, and Heydrich’s overall authority in the ‘final solution’ had been unambiguously affirmed. Sending out thirty copies of the minutes to a variety of officials, Heydrich noted that ‘happily the basic line’ had been set down ‘as regards the practical execution of the final solution of the Jewish question’.184 On reading his copy of the minutes, Joseph Goebbels noted: ‘The Jewish Question must now be solved on a pan-European scale.’ On 31 January 1942, Eichmann sent out new deportation orders. Transport problems delayed matters for some weeks, so he ordered a fresh series of deportations of German Jews in March.185 They were taken, not to extermination camps, but to ghettos in the east. Here they would be confined for a while, possibly until the end of the war, before being killed. In the meantime, those who were capable of it would be used as labour. To make room for them, the Polish and East European Jews in the ghettos would have to be taken out and exterminated in the nearby camps that were already being prepared for this purpose.186


The Wannsee Conference and its aftermath took place in an atmosphere of violent antisemitic propaganda, led by Hitler himself. On 30 January 1942, in his traditional speech marking the anniversary of his appointment as Reich Chancellor in 1933, Hitler reminded his audience at the Sports Palace in Berlin that he had prophesied in 1939 that if the Jews started a world war, they would be annihilated: ‘We are . . . clear that the war can only end either by the Aryan peoples being exterminated or by Jewry disappearing from Europe . . . This time the true old Jewish law “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is being applied for the first time!’187 Privately, Hitler assured Himmler and Lammers that the Jews would have to leave Europe altogether. ‘I don’t know,’ he told them on 25 January 1942,

I’m colossally humane. In the days of Papal rule in Rome the Jews were badly treated. Every year up to 1830, eight Jews were driven through the city with donkeys. I’m only saying, they have to go. If they perish in the process, I can’t do anything about it. I only see total extermination if they don’t leave of their own free will. Why should I regard a Jew any differently from a Russian prisoner? Many are dying in the prison camps because we have been driven into this situation by the Jews. But what can I do about it? Why then did the Jews provoke the war?188

Here was a moment in which Hitler admitted the killing of large numbers of Soviet prisoners of war, declaring that the same fate was befalling the Jews of Europe, while at the same time verbally washing his hands of responsibility for both acts of mass murder: in his own imagination, it was the Jews who were responsible.

Hitler’s justification of the genocide continued through the early months of 1942, couched in terms that wanted for nothing in clarity. His repeated insistence on the need to destroy, remove, annihilate, exterminate the Jews of Europe constituted a series of impulses to his subordinates, headed by Himmler, to press on with the extermination of the Jews even before the war was over.189 On 14 February 1942 Hitler told Goebbels

that he is determined to clear up the Jews in Europe without compunction. It is impermissible to have any kind of sentimental emotions here. The Jews have deserved the catastrophe they are experiencing today. As our enemies are annihilated so they will experience their own annihilation too. We must accelerate this process with cold ruthlessness, and in so doing we are rendering an incalculable service to a human race that has been tormented by Jewry for millennia.190

Goebbels himself was well aware of the process by which the killing programme was being implemented. On 27 March 1942 he confided to his diary the details he had learned - or at least some of them; even Goebbels was too cautious to put everything down on paper. The passage is a crucial one, for Hitler’s views as much as for those of his Propaganda Minister, and deserves to be quoted at length:

The Jews are now being pushed out of the General Government, beginning in Lublin, to the east. A pretty barbaric procedure is being applied here, and it is not to be described in any more detail, and not much is left of the Jews themselves. In general one may conclude that 60% of them must be liquidated, while only 40% can be put to work. The former Regional Leader of Vienna [Globocnik], who is carrying out this action, is doing it pretty prudently and with a procedure that doesn’t work too conspicuously. The Jews are being punished barbarically, to be sure, but they have fully deserved it. The prophecy that the Leader issued to them on the way, for the eventuality that they started a new world war, is beginning to realize itself in the most terrible manner. One must not allow any sentimentalities to rule in these matters. If we did not defend ourselves against them, the Jews would annihilate us. It is a struggle for life and death between the Aryan race and the Jewish bacillus. No other government and no other regime could muster the strength for a general solution of the question. Here too the Leader is the persistent pioneer and spokesman of a radical solution, which is demanded by the way things are and thus appears to be unavoidable.191

The ghettos in the General Government, he went on, would be filled by Jews from the Reich as they became free (in other words, when their inhabitants had been killed), and then the process would repeat itself.192 His insistence that the Jews were hell-bent on the extermination of the German race provided an implicit justification for killing them en masse.

This series of antisemitic tirades culminated in a speech delivered by Hitler to the last-ever meeting of the Reichstag, on the afternoon of 26 April 1942. The Jews, he said, had destroyed the cultural traditions of human society. ‘What then remains is the animal part of the human being and a Jewish stratum that, having been brought to leadership, in the end parasitically destroys its own source of nourishment.’ Only now was the new Europe declaring war on this process of the decomposition of its peoples by the Jews.193On the same day, Goebbels noted in his diary: ‘Once more I talk through the Jewish question with the Leader, at length. His position with regard to this problem is unrelenting. He wishes to expel the Jews from Europe absolutely.’194 Hitler’s speeches in these months were accompanied by a swelling chorus of antisemitic addresses by other Nazi leaders and anti-Jewish diatribes in the press. In a speech delivered in the Sports Palace in Berlin on 2 February 1942, German Labour Front Leader Robert Ley declared that ‘Jewry will and must be exterminated. That is our holy mission. That is what this war is about.’195 Crucial here were the Nazi leaders’ ideologically driven anxieties about the security threat that Jews were believed to pose. These were dramatically illustrated by a bomb attack, organized by a group of Communist resisters under the leadership of Herbert Baum, on an anti-Soviet exhibition in Berlin on 18 May 1942. Little damage was done and nobody was hurt. But the action made a considerable impression on the Nazi leadership. The Gestapo succeeded in tracking down and arresting the perpetrators, among whom, Goebbels wrote on 24 May 1942, there were five Jews and three half-Jews as well as four non-Jews. ‘One sees from this composition how correct our Jewish policy is,’ he noted. Goebbels thought this showed that all remaining Jews had to be removed from Berlin as a security measure. ‘Of course, liquidation would be the best thing.’196 Baum committed suicide after being tortured, the other members of the group were executed, and 250 Jewish men incarcerated in Sachsenhausen were shot as a ‘reprisal’, to be replaced by another 250 Jewish men from Berlin taken there as hostages. On 23 May 1942 Hitler told Nazi leaders assembled in the Reich Chancellery that the bomb attack demonstrated ‘that the Jews are determined to bring this war to a victorious conclusion for themselves under all circumstances, since they know that defeat also means personal liquidation for them.’197 In conversation with the Propaganda Minister on 29 May 1942, Hitler agreed to override objections to the deportation of Jewish forced labourers from Berlin. They could be replaced by foreign workers. ‘I see a great danger,’ said Goebbels, ‘in the fact that 40,000 Jews who have nothing more to lose are at large in the capital of the Reich.’ The experience of the First World War, Hitler added, showed that Germans would only take part in subversive movements when persuaded to do so by Jews. ‘In any case,’ wrote Goebbels, ‘it is the Leader’s aim to make the whole of Western Europe Jew-free.’198

These radical diatribes against the Jews were translated into action by Heinrich Himmler, who met Hitler on a number of occasions in these months for confidential discussions. In the late winter and early spring of 1942, following the Wannsee Conference, Himmler repeatedly pushed on the killing programme. He visited Cracow and Lublin on 13- 14 March, when the programme of mass killings by poison gas began. A month later, on 17 April 1942, a day after talking with Hitler, he was in Warsaw, where he ordered the murder of the Western European Jews who had arrived in the L’d’ ghetto. After further consultation with Hitler on 14 July 1942, Himmler travelled eastwards again to accelerate the killing programme. At Lublin, he sent an order to Kr̈ger, the Chief of Police in the General Government, to organize the killing of the remaining Jews in the General Government by the end of the year. Himmler even issued a written order for the extermination of the last Ukrainian Jews, which began in May 1942. As in the previous autumn and winter, Himmler, busily travelling around the occupied areas of Poland, pushed on the killings time and again. The Wannsee Conference had made the process easier to co-ordinate and implement, but it had neither inaugurated it nor made it into an automatic sequence of events.199 Himmler’s restless activity ensured that it was put into effect. As he noted on 26 July 1942, in response to an attempt by Rosenberg to interfere, as he saw it, in policy towards the Jews: ‘The occupied eastern territories will be Jew-free. The Leader has laid the implementation of this very difficult order on my shoulders. Therefore I forbid anyone else to have a say in it.’200

At the same time, in the Reich Security Head Office, Adolf Eichmann was following up the Wannsee Conference by issuing a stream of orders intended to set the trains rolling to the ghettos of Eastern Europe once more. On 6 March 1942 he told Gestapo chiefs that 55,000 more Jews would have to be deported from the ‘Old Reich’, the Protectorate and the ‘Eastern March’ (i.e., the former Austria). Some sixty trains, each loaded with up to 1,000 deportees, made their way to the ghettos during the following weeks. The removal of most of the employees of the remaining Jewish institutions began, with the first trainload going on 20 October 1942, to be followed by Jewish inmates of concentration camps in the Reich. Following the decision to begin deporting Jewish munitions workers in Germany and replace them with Poles, the police began rounding up the remaining ‘full Jews’ and their families in Germany on 27 February 1943. The first trainload left on 1 March 1943 and by the end of the first week of the action nearly 11,000 Jews had been transported, including 7,000 from Berlin, where most remaining German Jews now lived. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Berlin Jews who had been arrested had been able to show the police that they were exempted from deportation, mostly because they were married to non-Jewish partners. While the authorities worked out the details of where they were to be sent to work - not in munitions factories any more, for security reasons, but in the few remaining Jewish institutions in the capital, such as hospitals - the internees’ wives, relatives and friends gathered on the pavement across from the building at Rosenstrasse 2- 4 where they had been detained, waiting for the decision, calling out to them, and occasionally trying to get food parcels into the building. By 8 March 1943 most of the internees had been reassigned to new jobs; the rest followed. The small crowd dispersed. Subsequent legend elevated this incident into a rare public protest that had secured the internees’ release; but there had never been any intention of sending these particular Jews east for extermination, and the crowd had not engaged in any kind of explicit protest.201 By this time, the last remnants of Jewish community organizations in Germany had finally been destroyed; the only Jews left were those in a privileged position (mostly through marriage to non-Jews) or those who had gone underground.

For some, suicide seemed the only dignified way out. The devout Protestant writer Jochen Klepper, whose wife and stepdaughters were Jewish, had rejected the idea of resistance, as so many did, for patriotic reasons. ‘We cannot wish Germany’s downfall out of bitterness against the Third Reich,’ he wrote in his diary on the outbreak of war.202 As one fresh antisemitic measure after another impinged on his immediate family, Klepper managed to secure permission for one of his stepdaughters to emigrate, but the other daughter, Renate, stayed on. In 1937 he had sent Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick copies of his successful historical novel The Father: The Novel of the Soldier King, and in October 1941 used Frick’s appreciation of his work to secure an official letter certifying that Renate would be exempted from deportation. On 5 December 1942, Renate obtained an immigration permit from the Swedish Embassy in Berlin, but when Klepper visited Frick to try to obtain permission for his wife to leave with her, the Interior Minister told him: ‘I can’t protect your wife. I can’t protect any Jews. Such things can’t by their very nature be carried out in secret. They’ll come to the Leader’s ears and then there’ll be a murderous row.’203 It was likely, said Frick, that the two women would be deported to the east. ‘God knows,’ wrote Klepper despairingly, ‘that I can’t bear to let Hanni and the child go on this cruellest and most dreadful of all deportations.’204 There remained one last chance. Since Frick had in any case lost the power to grant emigration permits, Klepper pulled some more strings and obtained a personal interview with Adolf Eichmann, who told him that while his daughter probably would be able to leave, his wife would not. Klepper, his wife and his daughter did not want to be separated from each other. ‘We will now die - oh, that too is in God’s hands,’ wrote Klepper on 10 December. ‘We will go to our deaths together tonight. Above us stands in our last hours the image of Christ in blessing, and he will fight for us. In the sight of it, our life will end.’205 A few hours later, they were dead.

Many Jews killed themselves rather than be deported at this time; others did so more out of despair at their increasingly unbearable situation. Among them was Joachim Gottschalk, a well-known movie actor who had been banned by Goebbels from appearing in films because he refused to divorce his Jewish wife. On 6 November 1941 he killed himself with his wife and daughter when the two women received a deportation order. Another was the widow of the painter Max Liebermann, who killed herself in 1943 when she received a deportation order. She was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Weissensee, where 811 suicides had been interred the previous year, compared with 254 in 1941. Up to 4,000 German Jews killed themselves in 1941- 3, with the number rising to 850 in the fourth quarter of 1941 alone. By now, Jewish suicides made up almost half of all suicides in Berlin, despite the tiny numbers of the surviving Jewish community. Most of them were elderly, and saw taking poison, the commonest method, as a way of asserting their right to end their own life when and how they wanted to, rather than being murdered by the Nazis. Some men put on their First World War service medals before committing suicide. Such acts continued almost until the end of the war. On 30 October 1944, for example, a Jewish woman in Berlin whose non-Jewish husband had been killed on the Eastern Front refused to accept her situation, and failed to collect her ‘Jewish star’ from the Gestapo office in her home town, preferring to take her own life instead.206

Long before this time, the extermination programme had been extended to other parts of Europe. The deportations began on 25 March 1942. Over the following weeks, some 90,000 Jews, first young men intended for labour, then older men, women and children, were sent from the puppet-state of Slovakia to ghettos in the Lublin district, and to camps in the east. Visiting Bratislava, the Slovak capital, on 10 April 1942, Heydrich told Minister-President Tuka that his was merely ‘one part of the programme’ for the deportation of half a million Jews from European countries including Holland, Belgium and France.207 On 27 March 1942, 1,112 Jews were deported east from Paris, to be held as hostages as a deterrent to the French resistance (with which, in reality, very few of them had any connection at all). Five more trainloads, the departure of which had already been proposed by Heydrich in the spring, followed in June and July 1942. In July it was decided to request the Croatian government to deliver the country’s Jews to Germany for extermination; 5,000 were duly deported the following month. Pressure was put on other allies of Germany, including Hungary and Finland, to do the same. The ‘final solution of the Jewish question in Europe’ was now under way.208


Some months earlier, towards the end of September 1941, Hitler had retired the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, the old-conservative former Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath, ostensibly on health grounds. The German occupiers had begun to encounter mounting resistance from the Czechs, and Communist sabotage and other acts of subversion were multiplying in the wake of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The situation, Hitler thought, required a firmer and more thorough approach than Neurath was able to offer. The new Reich Protector was Reinhard Heydrich, who thus now added the running of Bohemia and Moravia to his many other duties. Heydrich lost no time in announcing that the Czechs would be divided into three basic categories. The racially and ideologically unsound would be deported to the east. Those judged racially unsatisfactory but ideologically acceptable would be sterilized. Racially impeccable but ideologically dubious Czechs would be Germanized. If they refused, they would be shot. Before he could launch this bizarre programme, however, Heydrich had to deal with the swelling tide of resistance. He began to have Czechs arrested and executed for their part in the movement - 404 in his first two months of office alone. Over the same period he sent 1,300 more to concentration camps in the Reich, where most of them perished. In October 1941 he staged a show trial of the figurehead Czech Prime Minister Alois Eli’ˇ, who was sentenced to death in a blaze of publicity for supposedly making contact with the Czech government in exile and encouraging the local resistance. Eli’ˇ was eventually executed in June 1942. These measures effectively destroyed the Czech resistance movement, earning Heydrich the nickname of ‘the Butcher of Prague’. Commissioned among other things to improve the productivity of Czech workers and farmers in the interests of supplying German agriculture and industry, however, he also raised food rations for over 2 million employees, and made 200,000 much-needed pairs of new shoes available to munitions workers. He reorganized and improved the Czech social security system, and engaged in a series of public gestures to woo the Czech masses away from the nationalist intelligentsia, including a scheme to send workers to luxury hotels in Czech spa towns. All of this, he considered, would prevent the re-emergence of any kind of serious resistance movement, now that the existing resistance had effectively been destroyed.209

Alarmed at the apparent success of Heydrich’s policies, the Czech government-in-exile in London urged that he should be killed. This would have the additional benefit of calling down harsh repression that would in turn get the resistance movement going again. Without an active resistance movement working for it in the Protectorate, the exiled Czech government might find itself in a weak negotiating position when the war finally ended. The British government went along with this plan. Two Czech exiles, Jozef Gabˇ’k and Jan Kubiˇ, were selected to do the job by the exiled Czech government in December 1941. They were given training in sabotage and espionage techniques by the British, and flown to the Protectorate in a plane supplied by the British Special Operations Executive in May 1942, parachuting down into a field on the outskirts of Prague. On the morning of 27 May 1942, Heydrich left his home, twelve miles outside Prague, to drive to his office at the Hradˇany Castle in the city centre. Despite being the leading security official in the Reich, he took no pains at all over his own personal safety. He travelled alone, without an escort; the only person with him in the car was his chauffeur. At this particular time, enjoying the pleasant spring weather, Heydrich had asked to be driven to work in an open-top car. The assassins had established that Heydrich travelled the same route every day, at the same time. Although he was a little later than usual on this particular morning, they were still lying in wait as the car slowed down to take a sharp bend in the road in a suburb of the Czech capital. Gabˇ’k’s sten-gun jammed as he tried to fire it, but Kubiˇ managed to throw a grenade which hit the rear wheel and went off, bringing the car to a standstill. Heydrich leaped out, drew his revolver and started shooting at Kubiˇ, who ran behind a passing tram, leaped on to a bicycle and pedalled away from the scene. Thwarted, Heydrich turned on Gabˇ’k, who returned fire with a revolver, missing him but shooting the chauffeur in both legs. Then Heydrich put his hand to his hip and staggered to a halt. Gabˇ’k left the scene and made good his escape by getting onto a crowded tram. The look-out, who had flashed a mirror to warn the assassins that the car was coming, calmly walked away from the scene of carnage.210

Heydrich had been badly injured. The grenade had blown bits of leatherwork and horsehair and shards of steel springs from the car’s upholstery into his ribs, stomach and spleen. The foreign objects were removed in an operation, but the cut was too wide, the wound became infected, and on 4 June 1942 he died.211 He was, the SS newspaper the Black Corps declared in an obituary, ‘a man without defects’.212 Hitler called him ‘indispensable’.213 He certainly appeared to many as the incarnation of all the SS virtues. Even his own men sometimes called him, with a touch of irony, ‘the blond beast’. Yet his character remained elusive, hard to pin down. Most historians have characterized him as a technician of power, a ‘craftsman of pragmatism’, or the ‘incarnation of the technology of government by brute force’. Certainly, there can be no doubt about his consuming ambition to make a career for himself under the Third Reich. Ideology, it has been argued, was something that he was too intelligent to take seriously. Yet anyone who reads his written memoranda and statements must surely be impressed by their mindless and total assimilation of Nazi ideology, their permeation by the thought-patterns of Nazism, their lack of recognition of any possible alternative to the Nazi world-view.214 His extraordinary scheme for classifying and dealing with the Czech population was a case in point.

What was absent from Heydrich’s rhetoric was the coarseness and crudity that so often characterized the language used by ‘Old Fighters’ like Hans Frank, Hermann G̈ring or Heinrich Himmler. Nazi ideology appeared to be for Heydrich something utterly impersonal, an unquestioned set of ideas and attitudes that it was his ambition to put into effect with cold, passionless efficiency. Most of his subordinates and colleagues were afraid of him, even Himmler, who was only too aware of his intellectual inferiority to his subordinate. ‘You and your logic,’ he shouted at him on one occasion: ‘we never hear about anything but your logic. Everything I propose you batter down with your logic. I’m fed up with you and your cold, rational criticism.’215 Yet, on the other hand, Heydrich was also, as many remarked, a passionate man, a keen sportsman, a musician who was often clearly deeply moved when he played the violin. His divided personality did not escape the attention of contemporaries, many of whom (quite wrongly) explained it in terms of a divided, part-Jewish ancestry - ‘an unhappy man, completely divided against himself, as often happened with those of mixed race’, as Himmler was reported to have observed.216 Carl J. Burckhardt, the League of Nations Commissioner in Danzig during the 1930s, said to himself on meeting Heydrich, ‘Two people are looking at me simultaneously.’217 One of Heydrich’s colleagues told Burckhardt a story of how Heydrich, coming home drunk, looked through an open door into the bathroom, where the lights were on, and saw his own image in the full-length mirror on the opposite wall. Drawing his revolver, he fired twice at the reflection, shouting, ‘At last I’ve got you, scum!’218

Hitler accorded Heydrich a suitably solemn and pompous memorial ceremony. Privately, he was furious at the security lapse that had given the assassins their chance. Heydrich’s habit of indulging in ‘such heroic gestures as driving in an open, unarmoured vehicle’ were, he said, ‘stupid and idiotic’.219 Heydrich was replaced in the Protectorate by Karl Hermann Frank, who had been his deputy as well as Neurath’s. The champion of a less subtle, more crudely repressive approach than Heydrich, Frank was eventually named German State Minister for Bohemia and Moravia in August 1943. It was Frank who presided over the fearful revenge Hitler now visited upon the Czechs. The assassins themselves, hiding in the St Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church in Prague, were betrayed to the Gestapo by a local agent of the British Special Operations Executive for a large reward. Together with five other agents who had also been parachuted into the Protectorate by the British, they fought a bitter gun-battle that raged for several hours. Eventually, realizing their situation was hopeless, they turned their guns on themselves. Hitler initially wanted to shoot 10,000 Czechs out of hand in reprisal for the murder, and to eliminate the entire Czech intelligentsia just as he had done the Polish. He told the puppet Czech President H’cha that if another similar incident occurred, ‘we should have to consider deporting the whole Czech population’.220 Flying swiftly to Berlin, Hermann Frank persuaded the Leader that these measures would cause immense damage to Czech arms production. Among the papers found on another Czech agent of the Special Operations Executive was one mentioning the Czech village of Lidice. Frank suggested that making an example of the village would be a sufficient reprisal. Hitler agreed. On 10 June 1942, the entire population of Lidice, charged with providing shelter to the assassins, was rounded up, the men shot, the women sent to the Ravensbr̈ck concentration camp, and the children taken away for racial cataloguing. Eighty-one of them were deemed racially inferior, taken off and killed; the other seventeen were given new identities and placed with German families for adoption. The village was burned to the ground. A further twenty-four men and women were shot in the hamlet of Lezacky, and their children sent to Ravensbr̈ck. Another 1,357 people were summarily tried and executed for their supposed involvement in the resistance. 250 Czechs, including entire families, were killed in the Mauthausen concentration camp. And 1,000 Jews were rounded up in Prague and taken off to be killed. Altogether, some 5,000 Czechs perished in this orgy of revenge. Only the desperate need of the Nazi regime for the products of the sizeable and advanced Bohemian arms industry prevented the terror from going further. For the time being, at least, it had achieved its object.221

The assassination of Heydrich reinforced the fear in the Nazi leadership that the Jews (who in fact had had nothing to do with it) posed a growing security threat on the Home Front. Some historians have also argued that growing food shortages in the Reich were what prompted an acceleration of the killing programme at this time. The daily rations allocated to the German population at home had been cut in April 1942. These cuts were not only unpopular, but also obliged the government to reduce the rations allotted to foreign labourers in Germany still further, to avoid hostile comment by native Germans. This damaged their productivity. Such was the severity of the cuts that Hitler took the unusual step of forcing the retirement of his Agriculture Minister, Richard Walther Darr’, who had proved more of an ideologue than an administrator, and promoting the Ministry’s top civil servant, Herbert Backe, to the post of Acting Minister. After meeting with Hitler and Himmler in May 1942, Backe secured their agreement to stop provisioning German armed forces from Germany. Henceforth they would have to live off the land. In the east, where most of them were stationed, this meant cutting still further the rations of the local population, and this was ordered by Backe on 23 June 1942. As for the region’s remaining Jews, whose food supplies had already been cut to starvation rates by many local administrators, their rations would be stopped altogether. The General Government, said Backe, would be ‘sanitized’ of Jews ‘within the coming year’.222 But this, of course, was not a statement of intent, more a report of what was in any case expected, given the scale of the killing programmes already in operation. Nor is there any evidence to suggest a direct causal link between the food situation and any decisive acceleration of the extermination programme.

Security considerations remained uppermost in the minds of the Nazi leadership.

On 19 July 1942 Himmler ordered Friedrich Wilhelm Kr̈ger, the Chief of Police in the General Government, to ensure ‘that the resettlement of the entire Jewish population of the General Government is carried out and completed by 31 December 1942’. The ethnic reordering of Europe demanded a ‘total cleaning-out’.223 Hitler too was now determined, as he said in September 1942, that Jewish workers should as far as possible be removed from munitions factories in the Reich and that all remaining Jews in Berlin should be deported.224 He returned to his ‘prophecy’ of 30 January 1939 in a speech at the Berlin Sports Palace on 30 September 1942. He had predicted, he told his audience, ‘that if Jewry provokes an international world war for the extermination of the Aryan peoples, then it will not be the Aryan peoples who are exterminated, but Jewry.’ But now, ‘an antisemitic wave’ was going round Europe ‘from people to people’, and every state that entered the war would become an antisemitic state.225 In a private discussion with Bormann on 10 October 1942, G̈ring, it was reported, ‘believes the steps undertaken by the Reich Leader of the SS, Himmler, to be absolutely correct’, despite the fact that there had (probably for economic reasons) to be at least some exceptions.226 A few days previously, in a speech delivered at the Berlin Sports Palace, G̈ring had told his audience that Churchill and Roosevelt were ‘drunken and mentally ill people who dangle from the Jews’ wires’. The war was a ‘great race war . . . about whether the German and Aryan will survive or if the Jew will rule the world’.227 He too, therefore, presented the extermination as a necessary act of self-defence on the part of the German people. Hitler’s annual speech to the Nazi ‘Old Fighters’ at Munich on 8 November 1942, broadcast over German radio, repeated yet again his 1939 prophecy, this time saying bluntly that the war would end in their ‘extermination’. He added that the Jews who (he thought) had laughed at him then ‘are laughing no longer’.228

Immediately after this speech, Hitler’s press chief Dietrich stepped up antisemitic propaganda once more. Over the coming months, Goebbels also returned repeatedly to this theme. A significant part of his speech in the Sports Palace in Berlin on 18 February 1943, which was broadcast on all German radio stations, was devoted to it:

Behind the onrushing - [excited shouts of intejection] - behind the onrushing Soviet divisions we can already see the Jewish liquidation squads, which loom behind terror, the spectre of millions going hungry and total anarchy in Europe. Here international Jewry is once more proving itself to be the devilish element of decomposition . . . We have never been afraid of Jewry and we are less afraid today than ever! [shouts of ‘Hail!’, loud applause] . . . The aim of Bolshevism is the world revolution of the Jews . . . Germany at least does not intend to quail before this Jewish threat; rather, to meet it with the timely, if necessary total and most radical exter . . . [correcting himself] exclusion of Jewry! [loud applause, wild shouting, laughter].229

Goebbels’s deliberate slip enlisted the complicity of his audience across the nation, not only in the mass murder of the Jews, but also in their understanding that euphemistic language had to be employed when referring to it. Hitler spoke, less explicitly, along the same lines on 24 February and 21 March 1943. He instructed Goebbels to intensify antisemitic propaganda in foreign broadcasts, especially to England.230 In a lengthy monologue addressed to the Propaganda Minister on 12 May 1943, after Goebbels had drawn his attention to the Tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a work that Hitler insisted was undoubtedly genuine), the Nazi Leader insisted that the Jews were everywhere working on the basis of their racial instinct to undermine civilization. ‘Modern peoples have no choice remaining but to exterminate the Jews.’ Only by fighting the Jewish race ‘with all the means at our disposal’ was victory possible. ‘The peoples who have rumbled the Jews first and fought them first will rule the world in their place.’231The apocalyptic tone of this speech was remarkable. Hitler was now justifying the extermination of the Jews as a necessary precondition of world domination by Germans.

On 3 May 1943, Goebbels issued a confidential circular to the German press demanding that more attention be devoted to attacks on the Jews. ‘The possibilities for exposing the true character of the Jews are endless,’ he opined. ‘The Jews must now be used in the German press as a political target: the Jews are to blame; the Jews wanted the war; the Jews are making the war worse; and, again and again, the Jews are to blame.’232 After only four front-page headlines of an antisemitic nature in the Racial Observer in the whole of 1942, there were seventeen in the first five months of 1943 alone. Altogether in 1943, indeed, the paper carried thirty-four front-page headlines referring to the Jews.233 The propaganda offensive repeated ad nauseam the now-familiar diatribes against Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin as puppets of a Jewish world conspiracy aimed at the annihilation of the German race - a kind of projection, it has been argued, of Nazism’s own drive to annihilate the Jews.234 As the military situation worsened and Allied bombing raids on German cities began to have a serious impact, propaganda warnings that a victory for the Allies would mean a genocidal extermination of the German people became steadily more shrill. Great play was made with the discovery of the graves of Polish officers massacred by the Soviet secret police at Katy’ earlier in the war - a massacre inevitably attributed not to the Russians but to the Jews. Anti-Jewish propaganda, which had gone through its first period of concentrated intensity in the second half of 1941 as a way of launching what the Nazis called the ‘final solution of the Jewish question in Europe’, was now becoming a means of rallying the German people to continue fighting.235

Thus the pace, justification and mode of implementation of the genocide changed repeatedly from its inception in the summer of 1941. Examining the origins of ‘the final solution’ in terms of a process rather than a single decision uncovers a variety of impulses given by the Nazi leadership in general, and Hitler and Himmler in particular, to the fight against the supposed global enemy of the Germans. Overriding all of them, however, was the memory of 1918, the belief that the Jews, wherever and whoever they might be, threatened to undermine the German war effort, by engaging in subversion, partisan activities, Communist resistance movements and much else besides. What drove the exterminatory impulses of the Nazis, at every level of the hierarchy, was not the kind of contempt that stamped millions of Slavs as dispensable subhumans, but an ideologically pervasive mixture of fear and hatred, which blamed the Jews for all of Germany’s ills, and sought their destruction as a matter of life and death, in the interests of Germany’s survival.

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