Nazi Pogroms against the Jews

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

By October 1940, Jews were being deported from Western Europe to the Government General. It was at this point that Heinrich Himmler ordered the construction of a camp at Auschwitz to handle the overflow of Jews being brought in. The SS considered several options at this point. What were those?

Jews in a Nazi concertation camp.
The concentration camps in Europe were a result of the Nazi pogroms against the Jews. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

In February 1940, the Jewish reservation idea, seems to have been approved by Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, and Hans Frank, was dropped less than a month later. There were problems with the idea: First of all, where would it be?

After the invasion of the Soviet Union, the idea popped up again, a Jewish reservation somewhere out beyond the Urals, off at the edge of civilization, as they liked to put it. That was a problem, and there were certainly no more options left in Poland, the Nazis felt; at least Hans Frank didn’t feel so.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Madagascar Plan

At roughly the same time, another plan was put forward within the SS that had been discussed off and on since the outbreak of the war. That was the idea of settling Europe’s Jews somewhere in Africa. In fact, the place that was chosen was the French island colony of Madagascar. Pierre Laval, the French premier at this point, and a collaborationist of the first degree, was actively offering Madagascar as a place to resettle Europe’s Jews.

A portrait of Reinhard Heydrich.
Reinhard Heydrich drafted numerous memoranda in pursuance of the Madagascar plan. (Image: Bundesarchiv/ Hoffmann, Heinrich/CC-BY-SA/Public domain)

Certainly, the SS and especially the Reich Security Central Office under Reinhard Heydrich, drafted numerous memoranda on issues of international law, transport, etc., in pursuance of this Madagascar option.

But, as 1940 turned to 1941, no solution had been found, and confusion reigned in National Socialist policy.

It was clear that Hitler was talking about the elimination of the Jews, but what exactly did that mean? Did it mean a reservation somewhere out in the east? Did it mean a Madagascar Plan, as this was now called? What exactly did it mean?

While these policy options were being discussed in top secret within the Reich Security Central Office, another set of decisions in another area of policy took form. It would come to play an ominously central role in the evolution of what came to be called as the “final solution” to the Jewish problem.

Learn more about Nazi genocide and master plans.

The Brandt and Bouhler Plan

In 1939, the Nazis had initiated a euthanasia program in Germany itself. It was directed by men named Philipp Bouhler and Dr. Karl Brandt, and it worked out of Hitler’s chancellery in Berlin. This was in pursuance of what the Nazis called racial hygiene: to cleanse the volkskorp, or the body of the people, of all bacteria, of all elements that might weaken the health of the volksgemeinschaft, the people’s community.

In pursuance of this, Brandt and Bouhler set up 21 special children’s departments in hospitals around  the country to evaluate children with birth defects, with any sort of physical abnormality or had some other sort of learning disability.

They used social agencies, including the church, to identify children with these learning disabilities and so on, without explaining what exactly was at stake in this.

The Nazi Obsession with Public Health

The Nazis would often wonder, how does one restore public health, create a healthy people’s community, a healthy body for the people? Within SS circles, however, they talked about these children as “racially valueless” children.

The German term is as ghastly as the English; it’s lebensunwertes leben, literally meaning ‘life unworthy of life’. Dr. Leonardo Conti, who was appointed head of this program, was very eager to take part, but he wanted to have a written authorization from Hitler himself before he would sign on to be the head of this program to remove the “racially valueless” children—and what remove meant was to kill.

Interestingly, Hitler refused and Conti resigned. Hitler himself was always interested in what we would now call deniability. He didn’t want to be directly associated with this. Part of the reason for that, and other less sinister projects, was that if a policy didn’t work, he could distance himself from it.

It was the fault of the person who initiated it, who ran it, not his. But in this, Hitler didn’t want to have anything to do with a written document associating him with this plan. Nonetheless, the plan went forward.

Learn more about war in the west, war in the east.

The Euthanasia Program in Nazi Germany

In 1940, the program expanded to cover adults who were currently housed in asylums; people with various handicaps, mental as well as physical; people with social problems, meaning alcoholics. Still run out of now Bouhler’s office in the Reich Chancellery, the personnel for this program were drawn from the SS, and six euthanasia installations were established around the country.

The children, and then later the adults, were to be killed by injection. But in 1939, the first experiments were conducted within this euthanasia program with poison gas; 20–30 patients were taken to special shower stalls and gassed as part of this program.

The parents of the children, the relatives of the adults who were killed in this fashion, received what looked like personal letters, but were in fact form letters, saying “Your son/your daughter/your brother/your husband/your wife has died of complications from an operation or from disease.” No explanation was given to the grieving relatives.

A picture of Philipp Bouhler.
The euthanasia program was run out of Philipp Bouhler’s office in the Reich Chancellery. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Nazi Secret Program

Over 5,000 such ‘racially valueless’ children, as the Nazis put it, died in the euthanasia program in this period; 80,000–100,000 mentally defective or handicapped adults also fell victim to Nazi racial hygiene, as they called it.

At one point in August of 1941, the veil of secrecy, which they were determined to keep, slipped a little bit, and there was actually a protest of several mothers who discovered, quite by accident, that they had all got the same sort of letter about what had happened to their children, and they demanded some explanation; they went public with it.

The program was backed off; the murders were halted temporarily, but after a brief pause it would pick up once again. It was a broader notion of race—of cleansing the racial stock of the country.

Common Questions about the Nazi Pogroms against the Jews

Q: Who directed the euthanasia program in Nazi Germany?

The euthanasia program in Nazi Germany was directed by Philipp Bouhler and Dr. Karl Brandt.

Q: What was the Madagascar plan?

The Nazis thought of settling Europe’s Jews somewhere in the French island colony of Madagascar.

Q: Who was Dr. Leonardo Conti?

Dr. Leonardo Conti was appointed as the head of the euthanasia program in Nazi Germany. He resigned from the post when Hitler refused to give permission to kill the “racially valueless” children in Germany.

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