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The importance of October '41

LAURENCE REES: And why did they take the decision to initiate all these actions in October 1941?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: Well, October is, again, a point at which they think the war has been won; they increase the radicalness of what they’re planning to do at points at which they think victory is in sight. In mid-September 1939 when they know that Stalin’s going to abide by the non-aggression pact, and that France and England are going to sit in the Maginot Line and not disturb them, this is when Himmler goes to Hitler and gets approval of the Lublin plan, and the ethnic cleansing of Western Poland. In late May of 1940 when the British and French armies are trapped at Dunkirk and the fate of France is sealed, Himmler goes to Hitler about the Madagascar Plan. In mid-July 1941 when they think the Soviet Union’s on the verge of collapse, the first phase of the ‘Final Solution’ is decided. In October when they think the road to Moscow is open, they determine the fate of the rest of European Jewry.

So you have this extraordinary coincidence that at each peak of victory there is a huge leap in the radicalisation of what they’re going to do about the Jews. So I think part of it is what I would call the euphoria of victory. Hitler’s already said what some of the goals are, and then when people bring him these increasingly radical proposals he can say the time is now ripe. And so when Himmler and others come and tell Hitler they have plans for gas chambers and this is the way we can kill them, presumably, though we don’t know when and how, he gets the nod of the head from Hitler. So part of it I think is that.

The key in all of this, of course, is the fact that for many people this has become easier than dealing with ethnic cleansing. Moving people and finding a new place for them is in some ways logistically harder than killing them.

We have this remarkable memorandum in early September from the man in charge of local ethnic cleansing. He’s an Eichmann man, in charge of ethnic cleansing in a certain area, and he’s bucking for a brilliant job. On September 2nd he writes to Eichmann and others explaining that if he could come back to Berlin he could be in charge of ethnic cleansing of all of Europe. He goes on to say that presumably the Soviet Union is a reception area for these people, but says that to go any further now would be futile because we don’t yet have a basic decision in full clarity from the Fuehrer. He then goes on to make clear what he means, asking if it is the final goal to leave these people at a certain level of subsistence living, or is to liquidate them entirely? He’s perfectly willing to kill but he just needs the approval. By now killing these people, instead of having all the problems of where you’re going to put them, or where you’re going to store them, is a cleaner more 'Final Solution', without the successive complications that you’ve been having. So from the people who have been wrestling with this problem the notion of it disappearing entirely by murdering them all is ripe by this time. They’re indicating that they’re ready to do it even before the green light flashes from above. So this interaction of initiative and enthusiasm from below, combined with Hitler reaching the point when he thinks he can basically do what he wants without having to worry about other kinds of military complications, all comes together, I think, in October of 1941.