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Invasion of the Soviet Union

LAURENCE REES: To what extent should we see the invasion of the Soviet Union also as a crucial point in the decision making process that leads to the 'Final Solution'?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: Well, it is the turning point in the war in so many ways. From that point on Hitler will not be winning short campaigns in the sequence that gives him breathing space, he will be called into a war that doesn’t end until somebody is totally victorious, and it certainly is what is going to open the door for the 'Final Solution'. Now when Hitler decides to invade the Soviet Union, he makes very clear through a series of exhortations in the spring of 1941 that this is not to be a conventional war as in the West, like when they fought the French. It is certainly going to be a military campaign, but it is a territorial war for Lebensraum, an ideological war against Bolshevism, and a racial war against the Jews and Slavs.

So this is going to be the war out of which his historical meaning and manifest destiny is realized; the person who finally lays the groundwork for the greater Germany with the infinite Lebensraum, that will make the German race the most powerful in the world. So we have lots of planning documents in which people are trying to put into concrete form Hitler’s exhortation for this so-called war of destruction in the East, as he refers to it, instead of a conventional war. This war of destruction involved the military planners stating that any restrictions of traditional martial law on the behaviour of German troops towards civilian population were lifted, that Soviet functionaries are not to have POW status but to be executed when they are caught and that no provisions for taking care of the hundreds of thousands, eventually millions of POWs that were captured, were to be made, most of whom will be left to starve. As well as this, Himmler and the SS are going to be sending these whole firing squads, the Einsatzgroupen, into the Soviet Union and Himmler has said that there are 40 million people - 30 to 40 million too many - and the military planners are openly stating that when we take all we need out of the Soviet Union to make Germany blockade-proof we must take it for granted that umpteen million people will starve to death.

This is the so-called Hunger Plan - that mass starvation will be part of the consequences of German victory and exploitation of the conquered Soviet Union. In all of those documents there is almost nothing about Jews, which is the missing link in the documentation. So there is lots of controversy, you know - was there a plan to begin systematic mass murder of Soviet Jewry at this time, or does that come later? My own opinion is that it is simply folded, since two things are happening. One, the Einsatzgroupen have the mandate to eliminate potential enemies, and the Einsatzgroupen commanders are going to interpret that as shooting Communists, Jewish male leadership and even all male Jews of military age that might be a form of resistance, when they first go into the Soviet Union. But when one looks at the whole package and one sees that you’re going to depopulate these areas by 30 to 40 million people and that there’s going to be mass executions - wherever there have been mass executions Jews have always been shot in higher percentages than anybody else, and whenever there’s been starvation Jews are at the bottom of the food chain and starve first, and wherever there’s been mass expulsion no Jews are to be left behind. So implied in that is a genocide. Clearly, in some way, through whatever mixture of means, of shooting, starvation, expulsion, the Jews have to disappear. Now, that’s an implied genocide, it isn’t a plan to do something right now in a prescribed manner.

So the key question, as I see it, is when do the Nazis go from an implied genocide in the indefinite future to an explicit genocide here and now? And I think they cross that bridge in mid-July of 1941. Having gained extraordinary success in the first four weeks of the war and gone deep into the Soviet Union, destroyed and captured and encircled the Soviet armies on the frontier and destroyed the Soviet airforce on the ground, victory seems to be in sight. Hitler meets with Himmler on July 15 and then he meets with the other top Nazi leaders on July 16, and though we don’t know what he said to Himmler, there’s no record, but we do know what he said to the others because that was recorded by Martin Bormann. And he gives what amounts to a victory speech, that these territories Germany has taken and will take, Germany will never retreat from, and will be turned into a garden of Eden, that’s his phrase. Well, there aren’t many Jews in a garden of Eden, at least not for a German Nazi garden of Eden; he goes on to say we must accelerate the shootings and the expulsions, and says isn’t it good that Stalin has called for guerrilla warfare behind the front, as it gives us the pretext, those were his very words, to shoot anyone who so much as looks askance at us.

So this again is one of his exhortations, and, again, what we have to do is look at what people did in response? How did they interpret that? Well, we know what Himmler did. Himmler went back and within a matter of days he assigns two SS brigades and eleven or twelve police battalions to reinforce the Einsatzgroupen. So the number of people devoted to killing behind the lines jumped from 3,000 to 20,000. He tours these areas, talks to the various units and when he leaves they begin shooting women and children. Finally he approves in late July, within ten days of his meeting [with Hitler], the creation of large numbers of auxiliary police, of Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians, which will reach the number of 30,000 by December of 1941, 300,000 by the December of 1942 and which become one of the main manpower sources for the second wave of killing in the Soviet Union.

So I would argue his interpretation of what Hitler said was a re-targeting. We are no longer carrying out a selective mass murder of potential enemies, Jewish leadership and male Jews, but we are now targeting Jewish women and children, and in effect going to destroy all Jews in the Soviet Union. We now have a plan, and the plan is to kill them straight away and kill them through firing squads. So this is explicit genocide here and now. I would say that awareness of that and the steps to implement it basically stretch out from mid-July, when Himmler gives the initial signal, to middle to late August. By then almost everywhere along the front Jewish women and children are now being targeted, and that the scale of the executions increases very significantly.