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Holocaust15th May 1940

Himmler writes crucial memo

Heinrich Himmler (far left) played a crucial role in Nazi plans for Poland
Heinrich Himmler (far left) played a crucial role in Nazi plans for Poland

In May 1940 Heinrich Himmler sat down to compose a memo to Adolf Hitler, diffidently entitled ‘Some Thoughts on the Treatment of the Alien Population of the East.’ It was an important moment both in the history of the Nazis’ occupation of the East – particularly Poland – and the evolution of the Holocaust.

One reason this document is instructive is simply because it exists. It was rare at the highest levels of decision making in the Nazi state for policy documents to exist at all – still less in the potentially contentious area of population and Jewish strategy. Most often Hitler would make his ‘vision’ clear orally and those beneath him would seek to devise ways of implementing it, often fighting in a Darwinian way amongst each other to gain the favour of their leader (in a process brilliantly described by Professor Sir Ian Kershaw as ‘working towards the Fuehrer’).

But in May 1940 Himmler felt compelled to put his views down on paper – because his new job of Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of German Nationhood was not going well. He had been appointed in order to oversee the most gigantic ethnic re-shaping of a country ever attempted. The population of Poland was in the process of being ripped asunder – and there was chaos.

The Nazis had divided their section of occupied Poland essentially into two (the Soviets had snatched the other half of Poland – in the East – for themselves in September 1939). Sections like Danzig/West Prussia, Upper Silesia and the area around Posen (known by the Nazis as the Warthegau) were intended to become ‘German’ and form a permanent part of the Reich, whilst the area to the south and east containing Krakow and Warsaw was to become a kind of ‘dumping ground’ for the Poles and was known by the Nazis as the General Government. 

This division meant, of course, that several million Poles were in the wrong place, as far as the Nazis were concerned. And so Himmler went about the business of moving much of the population of Poland about between these different zones. Or, as Goebbels put it in his diary in January 1940: ‘Himmler is presently shifting populations. Not always successfully.’i

There were three distinct types of population Himmler was ‘shifting’. The first was the non-Jewish Poles. Hundreds of thousands of them were forcibly deported from the areas to be Germanized to the General Government. There were cases where trainloads of Poles were simply taken south east and then dumped in a field with no means of surviving. The human suffering caused by these actions was appalling.

Typical was the experience of Anna Jeziorkowska who was 10 years old when the Germans arrived to deport her and the rest of her family from their home in Posen on 8 November 1939. ‘They burst into the room, into the kitchen, they were everywhere. Of course, there was great chaos, crying, wailing. The Germans pushed us, they hit father on the face, and we got so frightened that we started crying. My younger brother, he was very delicate, started vomiting.’

After the Germans had stolen the family’s money and jewelry they were taken to a transit camp, and from there they were shoved onto a train to the General Government. Abandoned in the town of Golice the family would have starved but for an old man who took pity on them and gave them a room to sleep in. There was no running water, no beds, no comforts of any kind. But at least it was shelter.

Then there were the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans who were arriving in the Germanized areas of Poland. Stalin had agreed that these Germans could leave territory – like the Baltic States – which was now decreed to be in the Soviet ‘sphere of influence’ under the terms of the secret protocol of the Nazi/Soviet non-aggression pact. The Nazis said to these brother Germans that they were ‘coming home to the Reich.’ But they were coming ‘home’ to occupied Poland, not pre-war Germany, and on arrival in this ‘new’ Reich the settlers were given houses and businesses that had been snatched from Poles.

Not surprisingly, this huge act of ethnic ‘cleansing’ caused massive administrative problems, and a number of the incoming ethnic Germans protested at how they were being treated. Their dreams of a new life in the ‘Reich’ had most definitely not been realized.

Finally, there was the third group of people whose fate Himmler focused on – the Polish Jews. Around two million Jews had fallen into Nazi hands after the conquest of western Poland and, initially, the SS were not certain what their eventual fate should be. The Nazis were agreed, of course, that the Jews should be persecuted – but what form should that persecution take?

To begin with, the Einsatzgruppen – German special units – had murdered several thousand Jews in the wake of the invasion of Poland. Then there had been a plan – only partly realised and then swiftly cancelled – to deport Jews to a ‘reservation’ in the Lublin area of the General Government. The next stage in the Nazis’ attempt to oppress the Polish Jews had been to imprison them in ghettos – the biggest of which, in the spring of 1940, was in Lodz. Ghettos were never imagined by the Nazis to be a permanent ‘solution’ to their self created Jewish ‘problem’. They were simply somewhere to contain the Jews until a longer term policy had been decided upon.

So these were the heady problems that Himmler set his mind to address in his memo to Hitler. He knew as he wrote it that all ‘unauthorized’ deportations to the General Government had just been halted after protests from the Nazi ruler of the district, Hans Frank. Thus one of his priorities in his memo was to confirm that the Poles should be turned into a ‘leaderless labouring class’ and that the policy of the Germanization of Poland – with the General Government remaining as the dumping ground for Poles not wanted by the Nazis as slaves in their own districts – should continue.

‘The non-German population of the Eastern territories must not receive any education higher than that of an elementary school,’ wrote Himmler. ‘I consider it unnecessary to teach reading.’ii

As for the Jews, Himmler had a radical fate in store for them: ‘I hope to see the term ‘Jew’ completely eliminated through the possibility of some large scale emigration of all Jews to Africa or some other colony.’

It’s a revealing statement. Because it shows that Himmler was still thinking in terms of forced emigration as a way of ‘dealing’ with the Jews. The idea of sending the Jews to Africa was not new, it had been the fantasy of a number of previous anti-Semites. It is also clear that the Jews were not to prosper in Africa – a Nazi governor would preside over their gradual destruction. But this was most certainly not a plan – at this stage – for the Holocaust as we know it.

Also significant is that Himmler states, in the context of the overall population of Poland, that ‘physically exterminating a people’ was ‘fundamentally unGerman’. An opinion, of course, that he was to change within the next two years.

Himmler gave his memo to Hitler who pronounced it ‘good and correct’. But, of course, the plan to send the Jews to Africa would never be realized – not least because it assumed that the British would shortly make peace, thus enabling passenger ships to travel south unhindered.

Nonetheless the memo is important – offering us, as it does, both a snapshot of Nazi ideas in May 1940 and a rare glimpse into the detailed workings of Himmler’s bleak imagination.


i Diary entry of Josef Goebbels, 24 January 1940, quoted in Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, BBC Books, 2005, p. 42
ii Quoted in J. Noakes and G. Pridham (eds.), Nazism 1919-1945: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination, vol. 3, Exeter University Press, 1988, p. 933