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When Did the Germans Decide to Murder the Jews of Europe?

‘The Twisted Road to Auschwitz’

According to German historian Christian Gerlach, Hitler made the decision “in principle to murder all the Jews in Europe, either on or around December12, 1941. … At least that is when it was made public.” During a speech on December 12 to approximately 50 regional and “sectional” leaders of the Nazi Party, Joseph Goebbels, Reich minister of propaganda, reported: “Regarding the Jewish Question, the Führer has determined to clear the table. He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their own destruction. They were not empty words. Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be the necessary consequence. We cannot be sentimental about it.”

On December 16, Hans Frank, governor general of the General Government in Poland, (Kraków, Warsaw, Radom and Lublin), who attended the December 12 meeting, informed his administration in Kraków that an organization would be established in the future in the General Government, to produce a “destructive result” against the Jews. During the war, the Jews had to vanish because they were “useless eaters.”

Alfred Rosenberg, Reich minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, urged Hitler on December 14 not to mention extermination publicly, which Hitler agreed not to do, and said the Jews would pay dearly for having caused the German people such harm.

Significantly, Rosenberg wrote to the Reich commissioner for the Ostland, who also had been at the December 12 speech, that with regard to “the Jewish question, clarity has meanwhile presumably been provided through oral conversations. Economic considerations shall not be taken into account in solving the problem.” (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the northeastern part of Poland and the west part of the Belarusian SSR).


A Change in Guidelines

After a meeting with Hitler on December 18, Heinrich Himmler, reichsführer of the SS, reported the “Jewish question /to be exterminated as partisans.” Gerlach viewed this as a reference to Jews in general—the alleged “Jewish threat.” He interpreted this to mean that Hitler had fundamentally changed his strategy. Instead of murdering the Soviet Jews en masse and removing the remainder to a region where they would slowly die after the war, Hitler wanted the total destruction of European Jewry during the war.


Wannsee Conference, January 20, 1942

Though the decision to change policy was conveyed to the appropriate authorities, this resolve did not translate quickly into increased mass murder or the construction of new extermination camps, Gerlach noted. The purpose of the Wannsee Conference, held on January 20, 1942, in a villa in a suburb of Berlin, was to coordinate and, perhaps, centralize the Final Solution.

Although complete centralization was not accomplished, SS General Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), who chaired the proceedings, was pleased that the 15 officials at this interagency meeting had reached “complete agreement” concerning the “practical enforcement of the final solution of the Jewish question.” Most importantly, no one raised any opposition to killing European Jewry.

No decision about whether to include the German “half Jews” in the Final Solution was made at the conference or later, Gerlach pointed out and the Nuremberg laws were never modified. The Propaganda Ministry and Hitler and other leading Nazi officials did not want to treat those in mixed marriages like Jews, primarily to preclude a barrage of angry dissent from outraged relatives.

In December 1941, when Hitler decided “in principle to murder all the Jews in Europe,” and at the Wannsee Conference, neither Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich nor Adolf Eichmann had a practicable program to annihilate the Jews. After Wannsee, Gerlach said Eichmann and his collaborator Friedrich Bosshammer developed a report outlining anti-Jewish polices throughout Europe, when deportations were being scheduled and where the Jews would be taken. (Ibid. 87-88).

To demonstrate the absence of any plan, Gerlach pointed to high-level discussions about deporting Jews to Siberia. Heydrich liked the idea, but on May 15, 1942, Hitler rejected the notion, since he believed Jews are the “most climate-resilient human on earth.”

As of February 1941, Gerlach said Heydrich and Himmler continued to assume the plan was for Jews to die a slow death over a period of time (in territories Germans never actually captured), instead of being murdered rapidly. Some lower-level officials agreed with their vision. In December 1941 and as late June 1942, there were reports from the east claiming the Jewish Question had been solved, and suggesting the surviving Jews be used as forced laborers on a large scale. The reports were submitted by “some of the most extreme mass murderers of Jews,” who believed that there was no need for complete annihilation.


Shift in Policy

Historian Jeffrey Herf explained that during the spring and summer of 1942, the Nazis began to “accelerate” actions against the Jews. In May, Theodor Dannecker, a member of the Security Police stationed in Paris, and an expert in anti-Jewish policies, described the goal of this “acceleration” as the “final solution of the Jewish question with the purpose of the complete destruction of the enemy.” While in Amsterdam and The Hague in May 1942, Robert Ley, head of the German Labor Front, delivered three speeches about the Jews. Speaking on May 10 in Amsterdam to a meeting of German and Dutch workers, broadcast on German radio, he proclaimed: “Comrades, believe me, I am not painting too grim a picture. It is bitter for me, bitterly serious. The Jew is the great danger to humanity. If we don’t succeed in exterminating him, then we lose the war. It is not enough to take him someplace. That would be as if one wanted to lock up a louse somewhere in a cage [laughter]. It would find a way out. … You have to annihilate them, you have to exterminate [them for what] they have done to humanity” [interrupted by ongoing applause].

Ley’s speech revealed more than any other Nazi official had in public about the need to annihilate the Jews, and that deporting them from one area to another would not resolve the problem. Historian Jeffrey Herf noted that the transcript of the speech conveyed Ley’s demand to kill the Jews. Cheering by the workers meant they understood and enthusiastically supported the objective. Gerlach added that since the mid-1930s, the term “final solution” had different meanings, but did not always denote the complete destruction of European Jewry. At this point, there is no question this clear and unequivocal statement meant extermination.


In Keeping With This New Direction

In keeping with this new direction, Gerlach said Himmler announced on June 9, 1942, the end of the “great migration of the Jews within a year.” The goal to murder European Jewry by 1943, allegedly for being a security threat, became a guideline for the SS and the police. This policy also influenced the future of Jewish labor. Viktor Brack, who had organized the murder of the disabled, sought to sterilize two to three million Jewish women out of the total of 10 million Jews. After Himmler discussed the possibility with SS physicians, he realized the expenses involved became too costly to implement.

This shift in policy is reflected in the establishment of extermination camps. The Bełżec extermination camp had planned to start murdering Jews in October 1942. Instead, the camp began on March 17, 1942. Construction of the camp at Sobibór began in February 1942 and the camp at Treblinka in May. The number of Jews being murdered required Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka to be temporarily shut down until new and larger gas chambers could be installed. This increase in the number of Jews being sent to the camps illustrates how significantly the policies had changed from a few months before.

The change caused havoc in other areas of under Nazi occupation. Tens of thousands of Jews died of starvation or thirst or were shot by the SS and police. In Volyn, in northwestern Ukraine, Podolia, and southern Belarus, 300,000 were shot in 1942, in response to demands for food from the Reich. More than three million Jews were killed in 1942, which marked the peak period in their destruction.


One Final Point

Gerlach concluded that approximately 80% of the Jews who were under German or Axis control died. Jews had the highest death rate in Europe. In contrast, a little more than 50% of the Soviet POWs under German hands died.

Dr. Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).

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