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.