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Hitler and the 'Final Solution'

LAURENCE REES: So to what extent is this the moment, in the summer of 1941, when the Nazis decide to start killing whole Jewish families in the Soviet Union, that the exterminatory 'Final Solution' is also decided upon? And how can we know Hitler's own role in this? 

: What I think we have to look at is what immediately preceded, as well as what followed, this moment. That is, Himmler and Hitler meet on July 15, but before that Himmler has been touring the areas as well, and he is getting reports on kommandos who carry out executions of Jews along the Memel region of the Lithuanian frontier. He goes to meet with the police battalions at Bialystok, and there has already been a kind of a pogrom in the city where they killed several thousand Jews, and he then encourages the local commander of the police regiment to carry out a more extensive shooting of ‘Jewish plunderers’ so there is still a kind of verbal decelerate rhetoric around this and they don’t say exactly what they’re doing. Then the commander of the order police who was traveling with Himmler goes on to Breslatov and then on to Minsk where there are more shootings, so there he’s looking at local executions and discovering in fact that even police battalions of non-Einsatzgroupen commanders are capable of doing this, and then Himmler meets with Hitler on July 15th.

Now presumably he reported on what had been going on and what he had been witnessing and what is, ‘feasible,’ and that the army has been co-operative. So how you know what exactly happened, whether Himmler proposed it to Hitler or Hitler asks himself, we just don’t know. But I would say on that day it seems to me inconceivable that Himmler had not reported to Hitler the kinds of Jewish executions he had already seen, and that resulted in some kind of discussion from which Himmler left with the firm conviction that he needed now to throw in huge increases of men to engage in the killing of Jewish women and children.

We only have one other time where we really know exactly how the relationship and decision making went between Himmler and Hitler, and that’s in May of 1940 with the Madagascar plan. Himmler writes up a memo when he thinks France is about to be defeated and he carries it to Hitler, and it’s a memo on the treatment of the alien populations of Eastern Europe. And he wants to carry out this vast ethnic cleansing and what we would call a cultural genocide or denationalisation of Polish identity, killing of the intelligentsia, and as for the Jews outlines the prospect to send them to some colony overseas, perhaps in Africa.

Then Himmler talks to Hitler about it, he goes back and records what happens, and he says Hitler read through my memorandum, we discussed it and he said it was ‘very good and correct’, and that ‘I can tell the others’, people like Goering, who had been opposing the idea of ethnic cleansing. Hitler also tells Himmler that he can tell the others that this is in my line of thinking, giving a vague assurance that he will back Himmler up. Now we don’t know if the exact kind of scenario worked the same on July 15th of 1941, but it isn’t a kind of order from above,  it’s Himmler knowing what Hitler’s receptive to, bringing an outline of a rough idea and Hitler saying ‘yes go with it’, and then in this case Himmler going back and introducing concrete measures. So it is an amorphous and informal decision making process, and we have no written formal order for it because it’s certainly an understanding that is reached between Himmler and Hitler.

LAURENCE REES: Is there a direct linkage between this decision and a decision to kill any other European Jews?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: Well, what it does, of course, is raise a question. It sets a new issue on the agenda. So we have two things that we know happened next. One is that Reinhard Heydrich drafts a three sentence authorisation, carries it to Goering, who is officially in charge of co-ordinating Nazi Jewish policy since Kristallnacht, and gets his signature on it. This so-called Goering mandate, or Goering authorization, authorises Heydrich to draw up a plan for a total solution to the Jewish question in the German sphere of Europe. The second sentence says that he should deal with all those other agencies whose jurisdiction’s affected, and the third sentence is he should come back and submit this plan for a 'Final Solution' to the Jewish question to Goering, and so we know that thereafter Heydrich is involved in planning.

Now this used to be thought of as an order for the 'Final Solution'. I don’t think it is, I think it is the authorisation for a feasibility study: can it be done? Once you’re killing Soviet Jewry any good Nazi’s going to think, well, what about the rest of them? We know that Goebbels goes to see Hitler on August 19th and August 20th with two proposals, one, to mark the German Jews and the second to begin deportations of Jews from the Third Reich, beginning in Berlin. Hitler approves the marking, which also tells us you can’t really do anything basic without getting Hitler’s approval - Goebbels cannot do this on his own and he knows it and everyone else knows it. On the second issue he says we will not carry out deportations yet until after the military situation on the Eastern Front is clarified. And then they go on and talk, and Goebbels writes in his diary that they talk about the Reichstag prophecy, and that Goebbels says it is coming true in the Soviet Union now and it has come true in part for German Jews, and it will come fully true in the future.

So Goebbels and Hitler see a two decision process. First there is the fate of the Soviet Jewry which has now been sealed, and the prophecy is not yet complete - for the German Jews and presumably then for the Jews of the rest of Europe - but it will be complete once the issue of the war is clarified. It is really in the following months, September and October, that I think there is the crystallisation of that decision - decision really meaning the crystallisation of awareness -because it is a very informal kind of process in which there aren’t clear cut decisions and orders. But what you do have is a crystallisation of the certainty that what you are doing is in line with what Hitler wants.

This begins, first of all in, in mid-September, when Himmler and Hitler meet again and this time Hitler approves the beginning of deportations from Germany before Christmas to get as many Jews out of Germany before the end of the year. Then Goebbels meets with Hitler, Heydrich and Himmler on September 23rd and September 24th, and Goebbels talks with Heydrich who says we can begin the deportations from Berlin as soon as the military situation is clarified, so that still seems to be the sticking point. He also talks with Hitler and Hitler says he anticipates military resistance of the Soviet Union to be over by October 15th, saying that the Germans will have got to Moscow and the serious fighting will be done.

September is an extraordinarily successful month for the Germans. In the first week they advance against Leningrad, they surround it, they destroy the warehouses where most of the food is stored and Leningrad, of course, is besieged and remains so for months, where a million people are eventually starved. Starting in mid-September they then have the offensive in the Ukraine, they break through and encircle the Soviet armies, and by late September they’ve captured Kiev. Of course within days they carry out the Babi Yar massacre - 33,000 people in two days. So we are in a situation where once again the Nazi regime thinks that they’re about to win the war, just as they did back in mid-July.

They schedule Operation Typhoon, the drive on Moscow, for October 2nd, which begins with a spectacular double encirclement at Vyazma and Bryansk when they think they have destroyed the last Soviet armies. The Soviets also think the Germans have destroyed the last Soviet armies; they’re beginning to evacuate Moscow, shifting people to Kuibyshev, and Stalin decides to stay, but many people are leaving Moscow. It is in that atmosphere that Hitler goes back to Berlin on October 4 and gives his public speech, with Goebbels recording in his diary that Hitler’s in a most exuberant frame of mind and he thinks that if the weather holds that very quickly the last resistance will be taken care of. Well, we know then that the deportations do begin on October 15th - the Nazis think the military situation in the East is clarified, and that the war has been won. But something else has been going on at the same time. Not only are they preparing the deportations which begin on October 15, but all sorts of experimentation with poisoned gas begins, and we can trace this to three different channels.