Poland -- Russia -- Wannsee Conference

While Herman Stern's relatives in Germany joined thousands of other Jews in seeking refuge in other parts of the world, and while he worked to find a place for them in the United States, Hitler's Germany was embarking on the wholesale murder of all the Jews of Europe. This became increasingly clear once war began in September 1939.

Hans Frank, as Governor-General of conquered Poland, had his representative at the Wannsee Conference insist that "the final solution of this [Jewish] problem could be begun in the General Government [of Poland] . . . as quickly as possible." Image from National Archives.

Murders in Poland

September 1, 1939: Five special units called "Einsatzgruppen" (action task forces) marched into Poland in the wake of the German army. The commanders of these units, all reliable members of the SS, carried orders from Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler's most-trusted subordinate. The Einsatzgruppen were to "decapitate" Polish leadership by killing teachers, writers, intellectuals, officials,anyone suspected of being a communist, anyone who might possibly organize opposition to the Nazi conquest of Poland. Tens of thousands of Poles were shot by these units over the next several months.

Other execution squads, which were made up of SS security troops, former concentration camp guards, and German police units, were given a second task to perform by Heydrich. At the beginning of 1939, Hitler had predicted "the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe"in the event of another world war. He hadn't forgotten his promise when he attacked Poland nine months later. (a) In a special letter sent to the Einsatzgruppen commanders, Heydrich ordered them to round up Polish Jews from the various towns and villages, for the purpose of placing them into segregated ghettos. Heydrich noted in his letter that the ghettos were an "interim measure" and that the "ultimate aim" in dealing with the Jews in eastern Europe "will take some time." Years later, Adolf Eichmann, who organized the transportation for these deportations, was shown this letter before his trial in Israel and commented:

After I read through this, I say to myself today that, according to this, the order for the physical
extermination of Jewry was given by or came from Hitler, not near the beginning of the
German-Russian War, as I had believed until now, but this basic idea was already rooted in the
minds of the higher leaders of the men at the very top at the time these directives were drafted.

Heydrich's orders were carried out. Hundreds of men, women and children were "shot while trying to escape." An officer from one "Totenkopf" (Death's-Head) unit of former camp guards told a German army officer that he had orders to arrest every Jewish male in a particular town and that these men and boys "will all be shot in any case." Beginning in October 1939, Jews who had been rounded up were crammed into railroad cars and sent eastwards. Two men, Max Berger and Hugo Kratky, who were transported early and gave testimony about their experiences after the war, remembered that they were removed from a train near Nisko [i.e. Lublin], Poland, on the San River, and told by an SS officer: "Some seven to eight kilometres from here, across the San, the Fuhrer has promised the Jews a new homeland. There are no dwellings and no houses; if you carry out the construction you will have a roof over your heads. There is no water, the wells all around carry disease; cholera, dysentery and typhoid are rampant. If you start digging and find water, then you will have water." Max Berger and some others in the group proceeded to construct a camp. Soon other transports of Jews arrived: "Some of them were not even permitted to enter the camp, but were driven on immediately [eastwards, on foot], without the luggage they had brought with them. A transport of one thousand extremely old Jews arrived. The cold was unusual that winter and touched 40 degrees [centigrade] below zero." (See Nizkor Project link above).

Further transports continued well into the winter. Hans Frank, whom Hitler had appointed to administer his newly acquired Polish territories, publicly said of the Jews thus sent into the elements "The more that die, the better." And thousands did die in this manner.


The Einsatzgruppen in Russia

In 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and the much-enlarged Einsatzgruppen marched again, this time with even more explicit orders. German army commanders were warned not to interfere with these units, which were to carry out "special tasks" under the direction of Himmler, who in turn was acting "on behalf of the Fuhrer." When Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D, testified at the Nuremberg trials in 1946, he explained the nature of the special tasks;

COL. AMEN: In what respects, if any, were the official duties of the Einsatz groups concerned with
Jews and Communist commissars?
OHLENDORF: On the question of Jews and Communists, the Einsatzgruppen and the commanders
of the Einsatzkommandos were orally instructed before their mission.
COL. AMEN: What were their instructions with respect to the Jews and the Communist
OHLENDORF: The instructions were that in the Russian operational areas of the Einsatzgruppen the
Jews, as well as the Soviet political commissars, were to be liquidated.
COL. AMEN: And when you say "liquidated" do you mean "killed?"
OHLENDORF: Yes, I mean "killed."

Ohlendorf estimated that within a year his men had killed at least 90,000 men, women and children in Russia, mostly Jewish civilians, by shooting them "in a military manner [i.e. by firing squads] and the corpses thrown into the ditch."(b) By the spring of 1942, several hundred thousand more Jews were similarly murdered by all Einsatz units operating in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and the other parts of the Soviet Union occupied by the German army. The exact number of those who were murdered in this way is uncertain and disputed, with some Einsatz and SS reports mentioning 600,000 victims, other sources indicating more than that. What is clear is that by the spring of 1942, the SS, concerned that the shooting of so many unarmed civilians was becoming for the executioners, in Ohlendorf's words, "psychologically, an immense burden to bear." The SS began experiments in conducting mass executions with the use of gas.


The Wannsee Conference

Heated debates have taken place over the exact moment Adolf Hitler decided to have the Jews of Europe exterminated. As noted above, Adolf Eichmann believed Hitler determined to do this "near the beginning of the German-Russian war" in June 1941. Eichmann later changed his mind and decided Hitler had "the basic idea" already in September 1939, when he attacked Poland. Many other dates have been proposed for when Hitler decided on the "Final Solution," including September, 1941, when the Nazis ordered Jews in Germany to begin wearing the Yellow Star, thus making them easier to identify and round up, and December 1941, when the American entry of the war meant that Hitler could no longer use the lives of the European Jews to keep the United States neutral in the war.

The debate is unlikely to be resolved. What can be said with confidence is that since the early 1920s Hitler had been obsessed with his belief that the Jews were the greatest threat (he used the term Weltfeind, "world enemy") to his vision of Aryan-German supremacy in Europe. This being the core of Hitler's beliefs, then it followed that, as Robert Wistrich has written, "unless the demonic [Jewish] Weltfeind was annihilated, there would be no 'peace' in a Europe that was to be united under Germanic leadership so that Germany could fulfill its 'natural destiny' by expanding to the east to create Lebensraum (living space) for its people."(c) It should not be surprising then that it was during the first winter of war with Russia (a war that some Germans were beginning to suspect that they might lose) that Reinhard Heydrich summoned a number of German officials who were involved in the "Jewish question" to a meeting in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. The meeting was held on January 20, 1942.

It is in the minutes of the Wannsee Conference that we can find the summary of the plans to kill all the Jews of Europe (an English-language copy of these minutes can be read here). In these minutes, the Jews of Europe are tabulated by country and number. The minutes expressly state that in order to carry out the "practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east" in order to round up every Jew and evacuate them to the east (i.e. to Auschwitz and the other death camps). Heydrich made it clear that this plan included the Jews who were once German citizens: "Germany proper, including the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, will have to be handled first due to the housing problem and additional social and political necessities." Heydrich closed the meeting by noting that evacuations would begin almost immediately, and that he expected the various government bodies represented at the meeting to "afford him appropriate support during the carrying out of the tasks involved in the solution."(d)

The Wannsee Conference, more than anything else, made it clear that the society Hitler had built in Germany, and then extended across Europe through conquest, was more than willing to carry out genocide.

Background image to this page: German soldiers round up Jews in Holland for "resettlement in the east" The latter phrase, which was repeated in many reports and orders, was the Third Reich's most common euphemism for the shipment of Jews to Poland for extermination. Image from the National Archives collections.
a. Hitler persisted in believing that he first made his statement about the destruction of the European Jews in his September 1, 1939 speech announcing war with Poland, instead of seven months earlier -- see Lucy Dawidowicz's comments on her study The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (1975), p. 147-48. It should also be noted that the Nazis triggered its war against Poland by having an SS unit don Polish army uniforms and make an attack on a German radio station. To give further weight to this pretext for war, the SS units left behind "casualties" -- dead concentration camp inmates in military and civilian dress.
b. For a full account of the Einsatzgruppen activities in their early months in Russia, consult Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death: The Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (2002), esp. chapters 3-4.
c. See Wistrich, Hitler and the Holocaust (2001), pp. xii-xiii. Wistrich's careful examination of the steps taken to begin the Final Solution provides new insights as well as summarizes a vast amount of literature on the subject.
d. Mark Roseman has recently and persuasively argued that the purpose of the Wannsee Conference was not to obtain agreement for exterminating the Jews, which had already been decided by Hitler and Himmler, but for the purpose of ensuring that none of the major German government agencies (concerned with transportation, diplomacy, occupied territories and Jewish affairs) would fail to cooperate with Heydrich in carrying out the Final Solution -- "No one arrived at Wannsee with even the faintest intention of speaking up for the Jews. . . . No one raised objections to the proposals for murder. It was much too late for that." The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution (2002), pp. 139-140. For a paper copy of the Wannsee Protocol, see Yitzhak Arad, Documents on the Holocaust (1999 ed.), pp. 249-261.
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