On 4 October 1943, Heinrich Himmler made a speech, in the Golden Hall in Posen, to an audience that included around 50 senior SS figures. It was – in the context of the history of the Holocaust – an extremely important occasion, because we have here, first hand, an insight into the mind of one of the chief perpetrators of the crime.
‘I also want to mention a very grave matter here before you in complete frankness,’ said Himmler, during the speech.i ‘We can talk about it quite openly among ourselves, but we shall never speak of it in public. Just as we did not hesitate to do our duty as we were ordered to on 30 June 1934, and stand comrades who had lapsed against the wall and shoot them, so we have never spoken about it, and we shall never speak of it. It was a matter of tact, for all us, thank God, never to speak of it, never to talk of it. It appalled everyone, and yet everyone was absolute in his mind that he would do it again if ordered to do so, and if it should be necessary.
I am referring now to the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. It is one of those things which is easy to talk about. ‘The Jewish people will be exterminated,’ says every Party comrade, ‘It’s clear, it’s in our programme. Elimination of the Jews, extermination – we’ll do it.’ And then they all come along, these worthy 80 million Germans, and every one of them produces his decent Jew. Of course, it’s quite obvious that the others are swine, but this one is a fine Jew. Not one of those who speak this way has watched it happening, not one of them has been through it.
Most of you know what it means when 100 bodies lie side by side, or when 500 or a 1,000 lie there. To have stuck it out – apart from exceptions caused by human weakness – and to have remained decent, that has made us tough. This is a glorious entry in our history which has never been written, and can never be written. For we know how difficult it would be for us if we still had the Jews, as secret saboteurs, agitators and trouble makers, amongst us now, in every city on top of the bombing raids, together with the suffering and deprivations of the war. We would probably already be in the same situation as in 1916/17 if the Jews were still part of the body of the German people.’
By October 1943, as Himmler stood and spoke these words, the Nazi state was in trouble. The battle of Stalingrad had been lost at the start of the year and in the summer the German offensive at Kursk had been held by the Red Army. With Americans pouring into Britain, in preparation for D-Day, it was hard to see how the war could be won by the Nazis. So Himmler, in speaking as frankly as he did about the ‘Final Solution’, was making sure that knowledge of the crime was spread widely amongst the Nazi elite. Part of this may have been almost a perverse sense of ‘pride’ in what his SS had accomplished, but in large measure – surely – Himmler was ensuring that everyone who heard his words was implicated in what had happened. How much harder would it be for these key people to turn against the regime in the difficult days ahead, now that they knew of the mass murder of the Jews?
On 6 October, two days later, Himmler gave a similar speech to Nazi party leaders – Reichsleiter and Gauleiter. But this time he also specifically addressed what he knew was one of the aspects of the mass killing of the Jews that caused disquiet – the murder of children. He said that the Jewish children had to be killed so that a group of ‘avengers’ did not grow up ‘for our sons and grandchildren’. Thus he argued: ‘The difficult decision had to be taken to have this people disappear from the earth.'ii
Himmler, across both his speeches, gives us a number of insights into his mentality. The first is the revealing comparison he makes between the killing of the Jews and the role of the SS in the 1934 ‘night of the long knives’ action against Ernst Roehm and other leaders of the SA, the Nazi stormtroopers. Here, too, he says, the SS did its ‘duty’ (and remember the motto of the SS was ‘Meine Ehre heisst Treue’ – ‘my honour is my loyalty’). Thus, since the SS was also doing its ‘duty’ in killing the Jews, the actual order to murder them could only have come from a higher authority than Himmler – Adolf Hitler.
The reference to having been ‘tough’ in taking this action was typical SS talk. ‘We must be hard as granite, otherwise the work of our Fuehrer will perish,’ said Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s key lieutenant.iii It was also redolent of the underlying belief in Nazism that life was a permanent struggle in which the strong had the right to advance their position by killing the weak. There was, for the Nazis, no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in this struggle – it was simply the way life was. As Hitler said in a speech, as early as 1928: ‘Struggle is the father of all things… It is not by the principles of humanity that man lives or is able to preserve himself above the animal world, but solely by means of the most brutal struggle.’iv And so in Hitler’s universe there could be no moral condemnation of the Nazis for killing the Jews – they destroyed them because they, the Nazis, were stronger, and because, ultimately, they could.
The next insight centres around Himmler’s reference to ‘1916/17’. One of the key reasons Hitler gave for acting against the Jews was his desire to prevent them ‘stabbing Germany in the back’ as he believed – falsely, of course – they had done in the First World War. And here in this speech Himmler simply echoes that attempted justification. It’s a common theme and one that was prevalent much lower down the Nazi chain of command. Oskar Groening, who worked as a member of the SS at Auschwitz, told how ‘the general society I lived in made us aware that the Jews were the cause of the First World War and had also ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ at the end. And that the Jews were actually the cause of the misery in which Germany found herself…. What happened in the First World War must be avoided, namely that the Jews put us into misery.’v
Finally, Himmler’s reference to killing the Jewish children also allowed the perpetrators to think that they were preserving the lives of their own children by murdering the children of their enemy. ‘The children are not the enemy at the moment,’ said Oskar Groening. ‘The enemy is the blood in them. The enemy is their growing up to become a Jew who could be dangerous. And because of that the children were also affected.’vi Significantly, Himmler’s words did not provoke outrage amongst his audience. On the contrary, the response was enthusiastic. These Nazis gave every sign of being pleased that the mass murder of the Jews was taking place.
i Heinrich Himmler, Speech at Posen, Poland, 4th October 1943, US National Archives document 242.256, reel 2 of 3
ii Quoted in Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis, Allen Lane, 2000, p. 605
iii Quoted in Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, BBC Books, 2005, p. 34
iv Quoted ibid., p. 33
v Quoted ibid., p. 177
vi Quoted ibid., p. 172
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