- Peter Lomgerich
There probably was no single written order initiating the holocaust. Instead it was a long-term policy that grew out of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and which was often tempered by external political events. It was only after most of the nations of the world had become embroiled in a world war, and Germany was beginning to stare at defeat, that Nazi policy became that of racial extermination. This book traces the evolution of that policy and Hitler’s influence on it.
Hitler’s anti-Semitism may have been latent in his youth, but it was only after Germany’s defeat in the First World War – partially blamed on Jewish influence – and his involvement with extreme right parties in Munich after the war, that his hatred of the Jews became virulent. Thereafter anti-Semitism became one of the core policies of the Nazi party and a factor in the party’s gradual rise to power.
After the Nazi’s came to power in 1933, the Jews steadily became a persecuted minority in Germany, yet this persecution worsened in stages and the pace of it was governed by Hitler’s need to maintain reasonably cordial relations with the major European nations and the USA. Pre-war anti-Semitism occurred in three basic stages: in 1933 and 1934 the Jews were steadily excluded from public life, from 1935 onward they were segregated and legally discriminated against and starting in 1937 their wealth was seized, often with the use of force.
During these years, Hitler’s involvement is clearly documented; both in terms of public policy and in control of the violent elements of the Nazi party. The author fairly convincingly shows how Hitler was able to orchestrate the level of violence to suit both his domestic and foreign policy aims; increasing it when domestic policy demanded it, temporarily decreasing it when he needed to for foreign policy reasons – for example at the time of the 1936 Olympics.
All this changed with the coming of war; domestic policy now trumped foreign policy although Hitler always kept half an eye on American reaction. Believing them to be a nation under the control of international Jewry, he regarded the Jews under his control as potential hostages for good American behaviour. His policy at this stage was deportation rather than extermination, with expulsion to the island of Madagascar one of the options under consideration.
During the early years of the war another form of mass killing occurred – and one that was to result in Hitler giving the great majority of all future orders for the mass killing of the Jews verbally. That program was the T4 Euthanasia program where the mentally ill and the disabled were deliberately killed in large numbers. Such was the adverse reaction of the German population when news leaked out that Hitler seems to have shunned giving any further written orders for mass killings – instead the holocaust was to be organised by Hitler behind the scenes instructions to top Nazis such as Goebbels, Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.
Although the Jews remained a key focus of Hitler’s hatred, his initial response after the conquest of Poland was to ship Germany’s Jews there, responsibility being largely delegated to Himmler. The program got underway, but was then partially halted because Hitler realised the areas he was deporting Jews to were the areas he would eventually need as jumping off points for any future attack against the Soviet Union.
The next stage was catalysed by Himmler after the Fall of France in 1940. He passed a memo to Hitler, proposing to ship four million Jews to the Vichy colony of Madagascar, a plan that met with the Fuhrer’s approval. However, little was done in practical terms as Hitler’s focus was once again shifting to Poland as a dumping ground for Europe’s Jews, although this was a lower priority that preparations for Operation Barbarossa.
The real killing started the following year after the invasion of the Soviet Union, with the Einstatzgruppen carrying out mass murders in the wake of the advancing German Army, although as yet these killings were mainly confined to Jewish men and Russian political functionaries. By the autumn of 1941, the killings had become genocide, with mass shootings of Jewish women and children added to those of the men. It would appear that the practical details were dealt with by Himmler, although he was following basic principles set down by Hitler.
The autumn of 1941 also saw the first mass deportations to the East, Jews being steadily moved from Western Europe to ghettos in Poland and the other occupied territories. In contrast with the fate of the Polish and Russian Jews, these ‘Juden’ were maltreated and starved, but not as yet subject to genocide – the Fuhrer tending to regard them as hostages for future good American behaviour, whom he regarded as being under Jewish influence.
The initial mass killings had been by shooting, something that took a toll on those carrying out the murders as they resorted to copious use of alcohol to blunt the stress. The Nazi regime then decided to build gas chambers as an alternative and more efficient way of killing. Construction of the first began at Belzec in Poland in October 1941, with the construction of the other concentration camps intended purely for genocide beginning in early 1942. The initial technique was to use the exhaust gasses from petrol engines – either pumped into the gas chambers or, less efficiently, into the backs of vans as they were driven about.
The genocide against the Jews underwent another policy change in December 1941, following the declaration of war on the USA by Hitler. The European Jews were no longer regarded as hostages for future good American behaviour and they too were slated for extermination by Hitler. Although no formal written order exists, there is clear evidence is the diaries and papers of top Nazi officials (such as Goebbels), that the Fuhrer was urging his lieutenants on with the mass killings.
The policy became slightly more formalised – although still largely unwritten – after the Wannsee conference of January 1942. Reinhard Heydrich, acting on verbal instructions from the Fuhrer, convened a meeting of top Nazi officials from all branches of the state to discuss the ‘Jewish Problem’. The surviving minutes record a whole series of bureaucratic decisions designed to speed up the deportations to the East and the associated mass killings; either through maltreatment or in the gas chambers.
The Spring and Summer of 1942 also saw Hitler’s net widening yet again, the deportation of Jews from countries under his control (such as France) or from allied states such as Hungary beginning. There was little reasoning in this policy. Nazi Germany was increasingly suffering from manpower shortages as its young (and not so young) men were conscripted into the Wehrmacht, yet a workforce numbering in the millions, over the objections of the more realistic Nazis, was steadily killed.
1942 and 1943 saw yet further intensification of the killing, the turning of the tide against Nazi Germany the catalyst to increase the rate of genocide. If Germany were to lose the war, then it intended there would be few Jews around to enjoy its defeat. And increasingly this would come to interfere with military operations; not only in the steadily killing off of a large potential workforce, but also in the diversion of state facilities like the railways from transporting munitions to the fighting fronts to the transport of Jews to the extermination camps.
As the end of the war neared, the rate of killing often reached a crescendo; the demented action of a regime to a race they regarded as worse than “a tuberculosis bacilli that might attack health bodies”. By the end of the war, six million Jews – two-thirds of the total in Europe – would be dead.
Although, following the wave of public disapproval in German over the T4 Euthanasia program, Hitler generally refrained from giving formal orders, there is ample evidence of the dominant role he played in the genocide of the Jews. Diary entries, the minutes of meetings such as the Wannsee Conference and actions recorded as being carried out ‘according to the will of the Fuhrer’ leave (all carefully documented by the author) no doubt of his guilt.