Barely five weeks after the Wehrmacht’s onslaught against Russia, Reich Marshal Hermann Goering issued the following directive on July 31, 1941 to Chief of Gestapo Reinhard Heydrich:
I hereby commission you to carry out all necessary preparations with regard to organizational and financial matters for bringing about a total solution of the Jewish question in those territories of Europe which are under German influence…. I furthermore charge you to submit to me as soon as possible a draft showing the…measures taken for the execution of the desired final solution of the Jewish question.
The terms “total solution” and “final solution of the Jewish question,” as found in the above quote, entered the Nazi vocabulary after the German invasion of Poland. Already on September 21, 1939, three days after Poland’s collapse, Heydrich informed the heads of the Wehrmacht of his initial plans for “the final solution.” The first step would be to concentrate all Jews into main cities, making them easily accessible for transfer, deportation and possible liquidation. Until details of the “housecleaning” plan would be worked out, “the final solution” must be kept “strictly secret,” he warned.
Much of this information became known from the meticulously kept journal of the governor general of Poland under German rule, Hans Frank, which showed up at the Nuremberg trials. Barely a year after the conquest of Poland, on October 7, 1940, Frank summed up the success of his first year’s effort to a Nazi assembly: “My dear comrades,” he perorated, “I could not eliminate all lice and Jews in only one year. But in the course of time, and if you help me, this end will be attained.”
A year later, Frank closed a cabinet session stating: “As far as the Jews are concerned, I want to tell you quite frankly that they must be done away with in one way or another…. Gentlemen, I must ask you to rid yourselves of all feelings of pity. We must annihilate the Jews.”
By the time Goering’s directive to Heydrich was issued, hundreds of thousands of Jews had been massacred by S.S. gangs and specially organized Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) that followed in the wake of the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Russia.
Hitler’s obsession with “the annihilation of the Jewish race throughout Europe” – a quote from his speech to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, which he repeated five times, verbatim, in subsequent utterances – and his “disgust with the Jewish vermin” – from his book Mein Kampf – is well documented. To date, however, no written record has been discovered linking Hitler directly to the process of Jewish annihilation.
Nevertheless, at the Nuremberg trials the chief of the Reich Chancellery, Hans Lammers, testified: “I knew that a Fuehrer order was transmitted by Goering to Heydrich…. This order was called ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.’ ”
Similarly, at his trial in Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann, the director of Heydrich’s Jewish Office, testified that after receiving Goering’s orders Heydrich invited him for consultation during which he said: “The Fuehrer has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews.”
The journalist and author William Shirer also mentioned that in high Nazi circles the “Fuehrer’s Order on the Final Solution,” though not spelled out in writing, was well known. The term “Final Solution” carried only one explicit meaning: the annihilation of the Jews, and it was to this that Goering addressed himself in his July 1941 directive to Heydrich.
On the basis of Goering’s directive, Heydrich perfected a plan he was ready to present to the heads of national departments whose cooperation he deemed essential for the attainment of the ultimate goal. He convened a conference at Wannsee, a quaint suburb of Berlin, on January 20, 1942. Fifteen heads of departments attended for the purpose of agreeing on the proper methods to liquidate European Jewry in the most efficient manner possible.
Eichmann wrote up the report of the conference. It was clear to all those attending that the issue to be discussed was not whether Jews should be murdered but how to proceed with the task. According to Eichmann, to avoid any possible ambiguity, Heydrich announced in his opening remarks that the official policy of the German government regarding the Jews would now be their total annihilation and that he was delegated to accomplish that task.
At the time Goering issued his July 1941 directive, and by the time Heydrich called the Wannsee Conference several months later, the elimination of the Jews was already a regular daily occurrence – through starvation, disease, dislocation, concentration in ghettos, execution for non-compliance with Nazi rules (such as smuggling food, leaving the ghetto during curfew hours, moving without the yellow star), as well as being worked to death and cold-bloodedly machine gunned by the efficient Einsatzgruppen.
For example, barely ten days into the war in Poland, on September 10, 1939, Chief of Staff General Franz Halder noted in his diary that fifty Jews who worked all day on repairing a damaged bridge were herded into a synagogue at the end of their working day by a group of S.S. and massacred.
In 1941, the year Goering issued his directive to Heydrich, in Warsaw alone more than 90,000 Jews died of starvation. That same year, thousands – including a large number of children – were executed for smuggling food. Also in Warsaw in 1941, 15,000 people died of typhus. On January 31, 1942, Einsatzgruppe “A” reported 229,052 Jews killed since the beginning of the Eastern campaign (June 22, 1941) in seven months of operations.
So the process of killing Jews was well under way, with the number of murdered mounting by the hour: in Vilna-Ponar, 30,000; in Riga, 27,000; in Kovno-Fort Nine, 70,000; in Kiev-Babi Yar, 36,000 in two days; and more.
According to conservative estimates, in the two years prior to the Wannsee Conference well over one million Jews had been dispatched by varied means under Nazi rule.
What, then, makes the Wannsee Conference a significant turning point in the history of the Shoah?
The difference consisted in the development, introduction and official approval of highly sophisticated methods of extermination, some of which were at that point still in a testing phase. Overseers at Maidanek, near Lublin, were experimenting with airtight chambers into which exhaust gas from a U-boat motor was introduced. Similar chambers were on the drawing board or in experimental use at other camps. Airtight vehicles leaving the ghetto of Lodz or Chelmno had their carbon monoxide channeled into the transports in order to complete the ghastly task by the time they reached the pre-designed pits.
These and similar methods applied prior to Wannsee were crude, unsuitable for use outside the war zone, produced disapproval from the more refined Nazi supporters, invited international condemnation and reportedly even brought some of the hardened murderers to the verge of nervous breakdowns. This applied in particular to the murder of infants, children, pregnant women and the old while their executioners stood face to face with them.
Heinrich Himmler, in addressing S.S. generals in October 1943, referred to this burdensome problem: “Among ourselves it should be mentioned quite frankly, and yet we will never speak of it publicly…. I mean…the extermination of the Jewish race…. Most of you must know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side by side, or 500, or 1,000. To have stuck it out and at the same time…to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.”
By the time Goering issued his order, it became clear that the process of eliminating the Jews had to be refined and properly sanitized and, if the task was to be successfully completed, made substantially more efficient.
Heydrich opened the Wannsee Conference with a review of steps taken in the past to find a proper solution for the Jewish question. The chief of the Security Police elaborated on that issue: In January 1939 a Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration was set up with the aim of cleansing German living space of Jews. But the office encountered difficulties, such as demands by foreign governments for exaggerated sums of money to be presented at the time of the Jewish refugees’ landing, or increased restrictions of entry permits by countries supposedly ready to offer refuge.
As a result of the reluctance of most nations to accept Jews, the Office for Jewish Emigration was terminated on October 31, 1941. By then, however, a means of solving the Jewish question opened up in the East where the corpses of millions of Jews could be deposited. Heydrich presented a country-by-country count of Jews who would be involved in the final solution by means of evacuation to the East. The total number amounted to 11 million, which included 330,000 Jews from England and 4,000 from Ireland. Obviously, the Germans were still confident at that point that eventually they would conquer Great Britain.
The practical execution of the final solution would require the transfer of the Jews from the West to the East. Until that point the murderers had to seek out the victims. After Wannsee the victims would be delivered to the murderers. A methodical sweep was planned, combing Europe from West to East. The ghettos in Poland would be eliminated at the earliest opportunity, making places temporarily available for transports from the West.
And while the Nazi Reich needed to use all the means at its disposal to deliver the necessary manpower, instruments of war, crucial supplies, food, medicine, and ammunition to the fighting men on the front, it was implicit in the decisions of the Wannsee Conference that the delivery of Jews to designated points of destruction would take precedence over the war effort.
In other words, the war against the Jews had priority to the war against any other enemy, be it on the Western or Eastern front. And until the crucial turnaround on the two fronts – on the East with the Battle of Stalingrad, on the West with the Normandy landing – the Wannsee decree giving priority to the elimination of Jews made a certain perverse sense to the Nazi mindset. But as the war progressed and the German military found itself under increasing strain, the war effort against the Allies demanded substantial modification.
Indeed, in some cases trainloads carrying Jews to their final destination were held up without any water, food or evacuation facilities to allow military cargo to speed by, sometimes to the extent that when the trains arrived at their destination, all that was left to unload were corpses wallowing in filth and excrement. But with few exceptions the Wannsee creed regarding the Ausrottung – total destruction of the Jews, was not negotiable. So deep was the hatred for the Jew in the German soul that the killing had to be carried out to the bitter end, even when Germany found itself short of labor and could have used Jewish hands in strategic locations.
Delivering the victim to the executioner in the East was only one aspect in expediting the process of freeing Europe from the Jewish pest. The slow, inefficient and cumbersome method of executing Jews, besides being very costly in ammunition, also left alarming traces behind. Mass graves filled with thousands of bodies, shot in a lineup or burned in synagogues, slaughterhouses or ritual baths, dotted the countryside in the German-occupied territories. A new destruction process was needed that would be less costly and more speedy and efficient while not leaving behind incriminating evidence.
The new method called for the establishment of murder factories of unprecedented dimensions. In short order a new industry of death came into being – the likes of which defied all former generations of mankind, drawing on the human ingenuity for limitless evil.
Once the unsuspecting victims were unloaded at their final destination, believing they had reached the much-sought-after point of resettlement, it was of paramount importance for the Germans to utilize the precious minutes of surprise and shock. From the moment of entry into this Realm of Satan, the victims were greeted with reassuring signs reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” and “Disinfectant Rooms.”
Deceit dominated every step, leading through the “showers” to the crematoria and including postcards written to those still at home about the delights of the new settlement. It was indeed an unreal planet, where time was not measured by years, months or days but by hours and minutes.
The new official state policy of the Third Reich – total war against the Jews – has its starting date in the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942. By Hitler’s decree, in the words of Himmler’s secretary: “The Reichsfuhrer desires that no mention be made of the ‘special treatment of Jews.’ It must be called ‘transportation of Jews toward the Russian East.’ ”
In October 1943, Himmler told a small group in the Nazi inner circle: “We have written a glorious page of our history, but it shall never appear on paper.”
Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel; taught at City University of New York, Haifa University and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.
About the Author: Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University, and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and, at the request of David Ben-Gurion, founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker. Dr. Birnbaum’s memoir, “Turning Obstacles Into Stepping-Stones,” is now in its second printing and can be acquired by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
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