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The Nazis’ priorities

LAURENCE REES: Why are the Nazis devoting resources to these anti-Jewish measures at a time when they are also fighting a war on an immense scale?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: What the Nazis are planning with the Jews is simply one part of a much wider racial revolution that they are envisaging. For instance, when they conquer Poland the Western third of Poland is an extra Germany. If it’s to become part of the Third Reich it has to be Germanised which means that all the people living there have to be German. So they have a plan for expelling 8 million people from Western Poland, 7 and a half million Poles, a half million Jews, and this is to go on, starting in the winter of 1939-40 even as the war is on. Now, it does turn out, as Goering notes, that you can’t have factories in these areas producing goods if the workers have been sent away, and you can’t be harvesting crops if the farmers have been taken off their land.

So while Himmler tries to repopulate these areas with ethnic Germans rescued from the Eastern territories of Europe ceded to Stalin in the non-aggression pact, especially the Baltic Germans, numerically it simply couldn’t replace 8 million people, and so Goering argues on the basis of utilitarian arguments, that these areas have to be incorporated into the war economy. Because of this, the ethnic cleansing of 7 and a half million Poles is vastly scaled down. The Jews that are concentrated in the Lodz ghetto or in certain areas in Silesia are put to work, and these are points at which the Nazis temporarily make concessions to the ongoing war, but they do it reluctantly, never losing sight of ultimately what they want to do, which is to carry out a total redrawing and remaking of the demographic map of Eastern Europe, of which dealing with Jews is simply one part.

LAURENCE REES: Can one say that actually this isn’t about military priorities at all, but rather about core absolute belief?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: Yes, these are the aims for which the war is being fought, that is you have the war you’re fighting and you want to win it, but for what purpose? And these are the ultimate aims that justify the war - that you are going to remake the demographic map, that you’re going to be a demographic revolutionary. Of course Poland, it turns out, is just the start. When they begin planning to invade the Soviet Union, despite all of their actual problems that they ran into in Poland, showing how difficult and impractical this is, they just exponentially increase their goals for the Soviet Union. Himmler, for instance, announces in mid-June 1941 on the eve of the invasion, to his collection of SS Generals, that there are 30 to 40 million too many people in these areas who are either going to have to be killed, starved or expelled, which would mean a depopulation of these areas by up to 40 million people, once you’ve quickly defeated the Soviet Union. All of these are based on the assumption that the next campaign will be quick and totally victorious. And, of course, what happens is that they don’t defeat Britain, and they don’t defeat the Soviet Union, so the war drags on and they never get to the point where they have absolutely no inhibitions, but they keep planning for that day.