By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
At some point in the summer of 1941, perhaps intoxicated by their apparent victory over the USSR, the Third Reich had come to the conclusion that some sort of ‘final solution to the Jewish question’ was at hand. Hitler had issued a verbal order to seek a ‘final solution’. What was it?
The date is uncertain; there certainly is no written evidence. This is one of the red herrings that has been raised sometimes by Holocaust deniers, that there is—or trying to limit somehow Hitler’s responsibility—no written document.
Hitler did not commit himself to paper. So, no written order came directly from him; at least, we’ve never been able to find one, but it is perfectly obvious that an order was given.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Goering OKs a Total Solution
On 31 July 1941, Reinhard Heydrich received Hermann Goering’s formal authorization to prepare a total solution to the Jewish question. Why did Goering give the authorization?
Goering was the head of the Office of the Four-Year Plan, a plan that had been charged with putting the Nazis on an economic footing to conduct the war. He had become involved in Jewish matters as a result of his expropriation of Jewish property. The text was probably dictated by Heydrich and simply signed by Goering.
At this point, the old policy of ‘resettlement’ was still in place for German and Western European Jews. But Heydrich, at some point in the late summer, must have come to the conclusion that the most effective course was something else.
Third Reich’s New Plan
Heydrich drew on the existing policies and institutions of the Third Reich, the concentration camp system, but not the camps within Germany. These were off limits; these were for political prisoners and other undesirables and, at this point, were in the process of becoming labor camps for the German war effort.
But, a concentration camp system would be created somewhere else. Resettlement actually meant forced immigration; resettlement meant the transport of Europe’s Jews to somewhere, to a set of camps in the east.
Finally, he drew on the experience of the Einstazgruppen’s activities in Russia, and the euthanasia program in Germany and their experimentation with poison gas to eliminate unhealthy undesirables in Germany, to pull together what would be his ‘final solution’ to the Jewish question. What Heydrich was now embarked upon was a plan for the systematic mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
Learn more about the Nazi program of ‘resettlement in the east’.
A Conference for the Solution
It is clear from testimony and documents that we have, that by October, a plan to use the camps that had already been established in the Government General for mass extermination using poison gas had taken shape. In November, Hitler told one foreign office official:
The destruction of the Jews is being planned. Now the destruction of the Jews is imminent.
An invitation to a conference at the Berlin suburb of Wannsee was sent to state and party agencies in November of 1941 to discuss a matter of pressing urgency. A very small group was to attend this conference, and it was clear that it was going to deal with the so-called Jewish problem.
The conference was set for the first week of December 1941, but was postponed, in part because of the Russian counterattack and then the American entry into the war in early December. It was to be held on January 20, 1942.
Sharing the Plan in Wannsee
At the conference, presided over by Heydrich, it was made clear that resettlement meant physical extermination. This meeting lasted just a little bit over an hour. It was attended by just over a dozen people.
All the big names in the Nazi party were absent from this conference: Heinrich Himmler, Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Goering. Their agencies would have to be involved in the direct execution of this ‘final solution’.
At the conference, Heydrich said that special concentration camps would be created in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere to handle the millions that would be transported there.
These would be the ernichtungslager, the death camps. Many, he said, would die in transit; others would be worked to death. The others, who had no particular value to the Reich or to the war effort, would simply be liquidated.
What did that mean? It meant that mothers, small children, the old, the infirm were, in principle, deemed unfit for work. They would be marched directly, instantly, to their deaths at arrival at these camps. Special gas chambers would be created, special installations using Zyklon-B gas, to exterminate those who were selected for transport.
Learn more about Hitler’s war against the ‘Judeo-Bolshevik’ Soviet Union.
Why Was it to Be Kept a Secret?
The need for secrecy was emphasized, both at Wannsee and in all subsequent operations. The first reason given was that the German public simply was not prepared for this, that even some National Socialists might be shocked at the radicalism of this decision.
It was necessary that the Germans at home knew that something was going on. Germans living back in the Reich didn’t assume that resettlement in the east for Jews meant that they were going on some sort of holiday or that they were going to the creation of new towns, new villages, new cities. There would be rumors in Germany, but there would be no confirmation.
Common Questions about the Third Reich’s Planning for the ‘Final Solution’
It was believed that the German public was not prepared for the physical extermination of the Jews. Also, some National Socialists in the Third Reich would have been shocked at the radicalism of this decision. Therefore, it was decided to keep the plan a secret.
The Nazi conference in Wannsee was postponed, in part because of the Russian counterattack and then the American entry into the war in early December.
No, all the big names in the Nazi party were absent from the conference in Wannsee that took place in 1942.