On 12 December 1941, five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Adolf Hitler made a revealing speech in Berlin to Nazi leaders, both Gauleiter and Reichleiter; and Josef Goebbels recorded in his diary what had been said: ‘With regard to the Jewish Question the Fuehrer is determined to make a clean sweep. He prophesized that if they brought about another world war, they would experience their annihilation. This was no empty talk. The world war is here. The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence. This question is to be viewed without sentimentality. We’re not to have sympathy with the Jews, but only sympathy with our German people. If the German people has again now sacrificed around 160,000 dead in the eastern campaign, the instigators of this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their own lives.'i
It’s hard to imagine a clearer statement of principle.
The day before he uttered these words, 11 December, Adolf Hitler had declared war on America in the wake of the Japanese attack on Hawaii. A ‘world war’ had indeed just begun. And, as a consequence, the flames of Hitler’s own intense prejudice and hatred of the Jews were fanned into a firestorm.
Hitler had always blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the last ‘world war’ in 1918. He maintained that German Jews had profited from the sacrifice of German soldiers on the front line, and that it had been Jewish influence that had led to the decision to make peace with the Allies in the autumn of 1918, when the German army was still fighting outside German borders.
It was a fantasy, of course. Jews were dying in the German army in proportionately as large numbers as non-Jews, and the reason for the armistice was that Germany was exhausted, with millions on the brink of starvation as the result of the Allied sea blockade. But the Jews were a convenient scapegoat for Germany’s humiliation in the First World War, and it became an absolute act of faith for both Hitler and the rest of the Nazi movement that the Jews had sabotaged Germany’s chances of winning the conflict.
Indeed, in Mein Kampf, written in the early 1920s, Hitler explicitly linked the imagined deceit of the Jews in the First World War with the need for their destruction, saying that the ‘sacrifice of millions at the front’ would have been prevented if ‘twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas.’ii
Now, in December 1941, further evidence of the consequence of Hitler’s speech on 12 December can be gleaned from the words of Hans Frank, Nazi ruler of the General Government (the eastern part of occupied Poland) – words which he spoke to Nazi officials in Krakow on 16 December. Frank, who had been one of the senior Nazis briefed by Hitler at the Reich Chancellery four days previously, said that, ‘In Berlin,’ he had been told that he and his comrades should ‘liquidate the Jews… themselves.’ And earlier in the same speech he outlined the reasons why this mass murder should take place: ‘As an old National Socialist, I must state that if the Jewish clan were to survive the war in Europe, while we sacrificed our best blood in the defence of Europe, then this war would only represent a partial success.
With respect to the Jews, therefore, I will only operate on the assumption that they will disappear… We must exterminate the Jews wherever we find them.’iii The unequivocal nature of these words, as well as other evidence like notes in Himmler’s desk diary, has lead to some historians pointing to December as the single moment when the ‘Final Solution’ was decided upon. But we must be careful with this analysis. Plenty of important developments in the extermination of the Jews had already occurred before December.
The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, for example, had brought about a dramatic escalation in anti-Jewish action. First adult male Jews and then whole families, including women and children, had been shot by special killing squads during the summer and autumn. In September, the German Jews were marked with a yellow star for the first time and, shortly afterwards, their deportation east began. Some were sent to the Lodz ghetto in Poland – already overcrowded – and others to ghettos in the occupied Soviet Union, where a number were shot shortly after arrival.
In addition, in October 1941, the building of Belzec began – the first purpose-built fixed extermination centre. Situated in the Lublin area of Poland – where hundreds of thousands of Jews were concentrated – the decision to create Belzec can either be read as a relatively local solution to the question of how to murder the Jews in this one area, or as part of a larger plan. Certainly the Holocaust historian, Professor Christopher Browning, sees October 1941 as a key moment in the decision making process of the ‘Final Solution’.
But, ultimately, some think it might be better not to look for one moment of decision – whether October or December or some other month. That’s the view of the current Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, Richard Evans, who believes that the way important decisions were taken in the Third Reich mitigates against ever finding such a singular point.
What is certain is that the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ developed not as the result of a complete blue-print devised before the war, but to a large extent in response to events. However, one of the few constants during this period was the Nazis’ absolute hatred of the Jews. And the chief proponent of that violent loathing, of course, was Adolf Hitler. As Professor Sir Ian Kershaw puts it in his interview on WW2History.com: ‘What you have is a stage of progressive steps whereby this proto-genocidal notion becomes converted then into policies of outright genocide, in which Hitler is absolutely crucial and central in providing authorization for this. But the actual practical steps are taken by his leading figures in the police – by Himmler, the head of the SS and the German Police, and by Heydrich, the head of the Security Police. But if you want to use a building metaphor you could say that Himmler was the architect of the ‘Final Solution’, Heydrich was maybe the master builder, but it needed somebody to commission the plan, and that was Hitler. So Hitler is there and the proto-genocidal then genocidal intent is there all the way through. But the actual policies, of course, take time to materialize and develop and shape up.’
'I think Hitler is central to all of this,' agrees Professor Mary Fulbrook. 'I think there’s no doubt about Hitler’s own views being central to this... Because he is the legitimation that is always used. I mean, the Fuehrer is the legitimatory figurehead for all of this, and whenever we look at any particular instance it is always what the Fuehrer wishes which is the legitimatory fig-leaf around the whole thing. Even when people have some doubts about the wisdom of what they’re doing, he is the legitimatory figurehead here and Himmler is putting it into effect in particular ways. I think without Himmler things would have been different too, but Himmler, Heydrich and so on are putting things into effect, but it is seen as the Fuehrer Befehl [Fuehrer order] and that is what’s appealed to in the lower level documents.
And one key staging post in this 'Fuehrer Befehl' was Hitler’s speech in December 1941 in the aftermath of the entry of American and Japan into the conflict – and the consequent creation of a truly ‘world war’.
i Diary entry of Josef Goebbels, 13 December 1941, quoted in Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed The World, 1940-1941, Allen Lane, 2007, p. 431
ii Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, quoted in Kershaw, Fateful Choices, p. 435
iii Speech by Hans Frank, quoted in Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, BBC Books, 2005, p.112
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