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Hitler’s decisions about the Jews

LAURENCE REES: Was there one moment - or one particular day - when Hitler made the decision to 'remove' all the Jews? Or did this just evolve by gradual increments?

DAVID CESARANI: I think that Hitler always wanted to break the power of the Jews and this could be achieved practically and also symbolically in various ways, like removing Jews from economic, political, social and cultural influence, by segregating them territorially, by forcing them onto a reservation for example, or finding some corner of the German sphere of influence where they could be relocated, and if they lived or died it didn’t really matter but their power would be broken. We know that this was conceived of for a time as the Lublin Reservation and then it was thought of in terms of an island off the coast of Africa – Madagascar - and then I think in the late summer and autumn of 1941 when Operation Barbarossa was in high gear, and when it looked as though victory over the Soviet Union was certain if not imminent, at that point Hitler accelerates the timetable to remove the Jews from the Reich, to a place where they can be dumped and safely ignored.

The security apparatus, the SD, the SS and the offices that dealt with the Jewish question (notably Eichmann’s office under Heydrich and Mueller) had already thought about removing all of the Jews from Western Europe to Madagascar. Hitler gives the order, or agrees to the forced relocation, the 'evacuation' in their language, the deportation of Jews from the Reich to the East initially to ghettos. But probably the vision was that they would be dumped in Siberia once Russia was defeated. When Hitler gives that approval it inevitably means that the rest of the Jews of Europe are going to follow in train, because the security apparatus, Eichmann, Heydrich, Himmler, had already been thinking of removing all the Jews of Europe. So when Hitler says the Jews of Germany will now be removed, the men who are responsible for that, the Head Office of the SS, which is already now responsible for all the Jews of Europe, is going to put two and two together: first the Jews of Germany then the rest of the Jews of Europe. That connection has already been made, that is why the thinking around the Madagascar plan is so important.

Did Hitler, when he approves the removal of the Jews from the Reich to the East, think that this meant that all the Jews of Europe were going to be removed? I really don’t know. He had a lot on his plate at the time.

LAURENCE REES: Crucially, did he think that meant that they would all be killed?

DAVID CESARANI: The difference between breaking the power of the Jews by removing their hands from the fantastical levers of power - social, economic, political, cultural - and breaking the power of the Jews by physically exterminating them; I don’t think matters so much at this point.

LAURENCE REES: But, of course, it mattered a great deal to the people who were going to be killed or not.

DAVID CESARANI: Of course it did, but I think that there are moments of transition. If it had been possible to break the power of the Jews by segregating them, removing them from power and then shifting them to some place where they could be deemed non-threatening and then just ignore them, if they lived or died, I don’t think it would really have mattered to Hitler or to the Nazi inner core that thought about these matters. The physical killing of the Jews comes about because in order to break their power it is not possible to dump them somewhere where they are no longer a threat. They remained within the sphere of influence of the Third Reich; they remain, in Hitler’s vision, breathing down his neck.

There is the potential for the stab in the back. If they can’t be removed to a place of safety, not safety for the Jews but safety for the Nazis, the Volk, for the rest of humanity; if they cannot be removed then they have to be got rid of in another way - to use a phrase of Goering in another context ‘one way or another’. Well, the one way which was deportation and dumping may, indeed, as Peter Longerich has reminded us, have been genocidal. You send four million Jews from Europe to Madagascar and they’re not going to have a very nice time. You send four million, five million Jews into the wastes of Siberia, and it’s a death sentence for millions.

LAURENCE REES: And that’s very similar to Stalin’s policy.

DAVID CESARANI: But what makes Hitler’s policy so different to Stalin’s way of doing things; what makes the 'final solution', as it becomes, so extraordinary, is that finding it impossible to simply remove the Jews and dump them and then ignore them whatever happens to them, the decision is made to remove them to places where they will be killed for sure and that great efforts will be made to murder them. Not all of them all at once necessarily, because some will be preserved for labour, but they would ultimately all be killed. They wouldn’t just die on an island off the coast of Africa, in Siberia, on a reservation, typhus, starvation, whatever. They would be killed.

That is radical; it is unprecedented. Stalin conceived of killing thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. The order to kill the officers of the Polish Army at killing sites in Katyn and elsewhere was a horrendous decision, and Stalin knew when he said kill them he meant kill them; thousands of people. But Stalin, as far as I’m aware, never said you will round up nations and kill them, not even the Ukrainians. Engineer a famine, allow millions to die, break them as a nation, but not the order to round up every Ukrainian and kill them, not some time in the future but within a time-span.