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The Final Solution

LAURENCE REES: When did the German leadership, particularly Hitler, decide on the 'final solution' - the physical extermination of the Jews of Europe? Is there a moment that we can point to that decision being taken?

RICHARD EVANS: I think it’s a mistake to look for a date, that is a very simplistic way of looking at things and that’s why historians have never actually found a date. It’s a mistake to look for a single order whether written or verbal as well, and its not - on the whole - how the Nazis operated. It’s true that in the policy of killing off the mentally ill and mentally handicapped known as Action T4 - the so-called involuntary euthanasia campaign that began in September 1939 - Hitler did sign an order, but that was because, I think, it needed the Minister of Justice to show it to the medical profession, to doctors and so on who had to play a part in this, should they say this is unethical.

With the extermination of the Jews he’s dealing with fanatical SS Officers who don’t need that kind of justification. In my view there are a series of stages and it’s not inevitable at all as a progression - one shouldn’t look too far back in history. Up to 1939, even 1940 moving on into 1941, the Nazis main aim was to get Jews out of Germany and to prevent them from causing, as they saw it, trouble in the countries they’d occupied. But on the twenty-second of June 1941 the Nazis invade the Soviet Union and at that point, immediately, a massive anti Semitic propaganda campaign is launched on Hitler’s direct orders through Goebbels and his propaganda ministry and all the mass media. It’s put on the newspapers; it’s put on wall posters and is broadcast as a huge anti Semitic propaganda campaign which links Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin as three tools of an entirely imaginary world Jewish conspiracy. A conspiracy designed to eliminate Germans and Germany. Roosevelt is already steering increased quantities of help, material help, across the Atlantic to the British by this time and it is clear that in Hitler’s mind this has all become interlinked, and this carries on until the end of 1941, almost unremitting. In my view, that is the decision, that is the order - this propaganda campaign is what constitutes the order because that is the way the chain of command works in Nazi Germany. This was, I think, best put in a report issued by the Nazi Supreme Court after the pogrom of 9th 10th of November 1938 (Kristallnacht), when 91 Jews were killed and the party court wanted to know whether any of the Nazis who had killed them should be prosecuted for murder because there had been no explicit order that these Jews should be killed. And the party court concluded that during the 1920’s when the Nazi party had frequently been on the verge of illegality, on one occasion it was illegal, the leadership had got used to issuing vague commands which the rank and file, the intermediate officials, had got used to reading more into than they actually contained in words.

Its rather like Henry II saying of Thomas A Becket 'who will rid me of this turbulent priest' and the two knights take this as an order to kill him. In a similar way I think the barrage of Nazi propaganda against the Jews in the second half of 1941 was interpreted by Himmler and then by the SS and its official apparatus as an order to kill the Jews and this is what Himmler means I think when he says on various later occasions that he’s received a soldiery command, given to him as a soldier and it could only be from Hitler, that they should be physically exterminated.

LAURENCE REES: To beigin with, though, in the summer of 1941, the killings are almost exclusively confined to Jews in the Soviet Union.

RICHARD EVANS: Well because the propaganda campaign lasts for so long it takes a while to have an effect, so initially it is within the Soviet Union. It is the SS security service and their associated police and other squads that are shooting large numbers of Jews. But fairly quickly it takes on a European dimension and you already find within just a couple of months that they’re beginning to talk about killing all the Jews of Europe.

LAURENCE REES: Other historians see October 1941 as a key moment of decision making, how do you see it?

RICHARD EVANS: Well they start off by killing Jewish men and then very quickly, with a few weeks, they start shooting Jewish women and children as well. There’s this famous much discussed document, which Heydrich creates. He gets an order from Goering, who’s nominally in charge of the whole thing right at the end of July 1941, to find a total solution for the Jewish 'problem' in Europe. So, this conciousness of a wider European field is there fairly early on. So there’s no paper trail, nothing that shows that Hitler suddenly one day got Himmler or Heydrich and said 'right you are now going to kill all the Jews, this is my order carry it out please'. And I think if he had actually said that explicitly on one occasion you would have had some kind of paper trail.  As it is I think it's much more general, Hitler, Goering, the media - Hitler driving Goebbels on all the time to create propaganda against the Jews. And that I think is the order and of course it takes time to percolate through, and people, Heydrich and Eichmann and so on, to start thinking how are we going to implement this.

LAURENCE REES: Does that allow space for people to argue that a lot of this was Himmler interpreting these vague commands from Hitler, but Hitler didn’t really know the details?

RICHARD EVANS: Well, in the first place they were vague, of course, but they were vehement, they were vicious and they were murderous. The whole language that Hitler uses is a murderous language, much more vehement than the kind of language he’s been using on previous occasions I think. Secondly you can show that Hitler received reports of the numbers of deaths caused by shooting by the task forces in eastern Europe and that he did actually know about these things that were presented to him. The documents were read by the Fuehrer. Quite a few of them were printed on a special Fuehrer typewriter - he’s very short sighted so he had to have special large letters in the documents, and you can be sure that those made their way to him. There’s no question that he didn’t know about it, of course he knew about it and of course he drove the process on.

LAURENCE REES: Would you go as far to say that without Hitler it couldn’t and it wouldn’t have happened?

RICHARD EVANS:  I think that’s probably right. I think that if you could imagine an alternative scenario in which Hitler had fallen under a bus in 1932 then I think the Weimar Republic by that time was beyond rescue, and probably there would have been a military coup and a military dictatorship which was quite clearly threatened at the beginning of 1933 and was one of the reasons why Hindenburg and the clique around him put Hitler into the Chancery to try and head that off. I think the generals would have started a war at some point. They are certainly anti-Semitic but I don’t think they would have taken the step of mass extermination. You can see in the military resistance to Hitler, that, although it only covers a part of the army, a number of officers (particularly middle ranking), backed by some more senior figures like Beck, try to kill Hitler in 1944 partly because of the outrage against the extermination of the Jews. It’s not the only reason but that is certainly one of the reasons.

LAURENCE REES: But is the existence of Hitler's anti-Semitism - virulent anti-Semitism - enough to allow us to understand why this happened?

RICHARD EVANS: Well his view, of course, is shared by parts of the Nazi elite, certainly by Himmler and Heydrich, though Himmler is constantly talking about how it is very difficult to put into effect. Goebbels, in his diary, talks about the extermination of Jews again in terms of something that you mustn’t write about in too much detail, it’s very difficult. They don’t think of it as something easy at all. They were willing to carry it out driven through by Hitler’s will and their own deep anti-Semitism, there’s no doubt about the deep anti-Semitic convictions of many of the people involved in it, including Eichmann. With Hitler I think it would be wrong to look for psychological explanations of what he tried to do. We simply know too little about his childhood and upbringing to be able to speculate with any plausibility about deep-seated psychological forces that might have driven him to this.

I think the key is that in 1918/19 Hitler had found a sense of identity and purpose, for the first time in his life, fighting for Germany in the First World War and although he was Austrian he in fact went to Munich and he volunteered and went into the German Army. With the defeat of Germany his world completely fell apart and he himself describes a sort of psychological crisis, he saw black and he went temporarily blind, whether literally or not is beside the point really. It was a very deep crisis and after this came this determination which you see from his very first public speech right through to his so called political testament, the last thing he wrote,  that the Jews are the source of evil, the Jews are destroying Germany and that they had to be eliminated by one means or another. It’s a sort of visceral hatred and of course he was in the position to do something about it from 1933 onwards.

LAURENCE REES: How can we understand the mentality of someone like Dr Johannes Schultz, who you write so interestingly about? How someone like that can go along with this and come out with what we see as almost, if it wasn’t so tragic, a kind of comic like craziness.

RICHARD EVANS: Well the higher up you go up the SS hierarchy the more PhDs there are - the better educated they are. There’s a generation that comes into higher education in particular who are just too young in the 1920s to have fought in the war. The universities in 1920s are hot beds of radical nationalism. There are all kinds of reasons- they’re not very successful, you can’t get a job after its sort of radicalising effects, university overcrowding and so on, but also this strong nationalist feeling amongst this particular generation born between 1900 and around about the late 1890’s up till about 1910 who feel that the older generation who fought the war had failed Germany somehow, they had to do better, they had to be more ruthless, tougher, more extreme, and these are the people who are quite young and who are running large parts of the SS Empire by the time you get to the war. And they simply feel that there must be no limits to what we’re prepared to do for Germany even if this means massacring large numbers of civilians, then we will do it, we will not shrink before it. It is that kind of mentality.

If you’re looking for the reasons why doctors like Josef Mengele at Auschwitz engaged in human experimentation on unwilling subjects causing them pain and death,  mostly concentration camp inmates, or engaged in bizarre experiments to try and convert men from homosexuality or reveal that it was not innate, then I think that’s got at least as much to do with the power of medicine in German culture as a whole and in Nazism in particular. In German culture as a whole medicine had achieved enormous fame and prestige in the late 19th Century with men like Robert Koch discovering the cause of tuberculosis, cholera and a whole range of other diseases. He was the Louis Pasteur of Germany, not as well known as Pasteur but I think he probably should be. Medicine had made huge strides in Germany and the prestige of the medical profession was just vast.

Added to that there’s the Nazi racist notion of racial hygiene, that medicine had to take a lead in purging the German race of its degenerate elements and so medicine becomes by far the leading profession in the 1930s. More than half of all German university students by 1939 are studying medicine, its extraordinary. There are vast numbers of jobs in the army, the armed forces, in the SS, for medical people.  Institutes of racial hygiene are set up everywhere and there’s a kind of arrogance about the belief that they can experiment on what they view as racially sub human people or people who are inferior in some way or another like criminals or concentration camp inmates. They believe that they’re entitled to do that for the future of the German race.