Commentary: The German soldiers who took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 had been told they were fighting a different kind of war to the one in the West.
Words of Carlheinz Behnke (SS Panzer Division): Jewish Bolshevism, you see, that was the big enemy. And these were the people to fight against because they meant a threat to Europe, according to the view at the time. And the Jews were simply regarded as the leadership class or as those who were firmly in control over there in the Soviet Union.
Commentary: Following the warped logic of this Nazi fantasy, many Germans believed they faced a uniquely dangerous enemy in the Soviet Union - a combination of Slavs, Communists and Jews. And so the German soldiers had been told this was to be a war of annihilation, of ‘keine kameraden’ - no comradeship between opponents. From the very beginning of the war in the Soviet Union special Nazi units were under orders both to shoot selected Jews and incite the locals to attack the entire Jewish population.
Professor Omer Bartov: If you look at genocide in the twentieth century more generally you will find that it almost always happens either at a time of war or is at least described as war. As happening within a war, and a war for existence, not just any war. And so that war, that war of ‘keine kameraden’, that war in which the normal rules of war do not apply, which is the war in the Soviet Union, is not only the opportunity but the best cover for this kind of genocide.
Commentary: Entire Jewish families were murdered by Nazi killing squads in the Soviet Union within just a few weeks of the war starting. Women and children were ordered to strip naked and stand in front of pits. Then they were shot.
Professor Christopher Browning: We are no longer carrying out a selective mass murder of potential enemies, mainly Jewish leadership and males Jews. But we are now targeting Jewish women and children, we are now in effect going to destroy all Jews in the Soviet Union. We now have a plan - we are going to kill them, we are going to kill them now, and we are going to kill them through firing squads. So this is explicit genocide here and now.
Commentary: Hitler had said that he felt liberated by the war against the Soviet Union. And for Hitler this feeling of liberation meant that several months into this war he felt able to contemplate action not just against the Soviet Jews, but other Jews as well.
Professor David Cesarani: There comes a moment during the war, in the autumn of 1941, when Hitler decides that the ‘Jewish Question’ will be solved during the war. That’s a very radical change. Not only does it involve certain logistical issues because he’s fighting a global war as well as now deciding to physically destroy the Jews or get rid of them in the most radical way imaginable, but he’s going to do it within the span of the war.
Commentary: The practical details of how this action against the Jews, this so-called ‘Final Solution’, would be organised were the responsibility of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. Here he is on the left. And next to him his key deputy, Reinhard Heydrich.
Professor Sir Ian Kershaw: If you want to use a building metaphor you could say that Himmler was the architect of the ‘Final Solution’, that 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 and then genocidal intent is there all the way through. But the actual policies, of course, take time to materialise and develop and shape up.
Commentary: This is footage of just one of a number of killing experiments the Nazis tried in the autumn of 1941. Soviet prisoners were locked in a brick building, and carbon monoxide exhaust gas was used to murder them. The Nazis wanted to be able to destroy people in large numbers with the minimum disturbance to their own killers. By the spring and early summer of 1942 the Nazis had achieved this aim as they established a number of death camps in occupied Poland.
Professor David Cesarani: The point to be aware of is that never before in history, I think, had a leader decided that within a conceivable time frame an ethnic religious group would be physically destroyed, and that equipment would be devised and created to achieve that. That was unprecedented.
Commentary: Eventually it was to be one of the camps the Nazis opened in occupied Poland, Auschwitz, that was to become the most infamous of all. The site of the largest single mass murder in the history of the world, where around a million Jews were killed. The ultimate realisation of Adolf Hitler’s dream.