The Final Solution (German: (die) Endlösung, German pronunciation: [ˈɛntˌløːzʊŋ]) or Final Solution to the Jewish Question (German: die Endlösung der Judenfrage, German pronunciation: [diː ˈɛntˌløːzʊŋ deːɐ̯ ˈjuːdn̩ˌfʀaːgə]) was Nazi Germany's plan during World War II to systematically exterminate the Jewish population in Nazi occupied Europe through genocide. This policy was formulated in procedural terms at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, and culminated in the Shoah or Holocaust, the attempt to annihilate the Jewish people which resulted in the killing of two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe.
In his account, The Origins Of The Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy: September 1939 – March 1942, Christopher Browning states that no area of Holocaust studies has been studied and debated as intensively as the nature and timing of the decisions that led to the Final Solution. Browning writes, "Most historians agree there is no 'big bang' theory for the origins of the Final Solution, predicated on a single decision made at a single moment in time. It is generally accepted the decision-making process was prolonged and incremental." Raul Hilberg has stated that in the first phase of the Final Solution, in the occupied USSR, the killers moved to the victims; in the second phase, across Europe, the victims were brought to the killers.
The "Final Solution" was the Nazis' euphemistic term for their plan to annihilate the Jewish people. Historians, including Mark Roseman, have pointed out that the usual tendency of the Nazi leadership when discussing the Final Solution was to be extremely guarded. Euphemisms were "their normal mode of communicating about murder".
From gaining power in January 1933 until the outbreak of war in September 1939, the chief focus of the Nazi persecution of the Jews was on intimidation, expropriating their money and property, and encouraging them to emigrate. After the Anschluss with Austria in 1938, special facilities were established in Vienna and Berlin to "facilitate" Jewish emigration. The aim was not to hold Jews in readiness for later annihilation.
The outbreak of war and the invasion of Poland brought a population of three million Polish Jews under the control of the Nazi security forces, and marked the start of a far more savage persecution, including mass killings. Jews were forced into ghettos pending other solutions. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941 the Nazi government began to conceive of a plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler was the chief architect of the plan, which came to be called the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. On July 31, 1941, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring wrote to Reinhard Heydrich, who was Himmler's deputy and the chief of the RHSA, instructing Heydrich to submit plans "for the implementation of the projected final solution of the Jewish question (Endlösung der Judenfrage)."
Raul Hilberg writes that, broadly speaking, the annihilation phase was accomplished in two major operations. With the invasion of the USSR in June 1941, mobile killing units of the SS and the police were dispatched to Soviet territory where they were to kill all Jewish inhabitants. In the second operation, the Jewish population of central, western, south-eastern Europe were transported to camps with gassing facilities. Hilberg writes, "In essence, the killers of the occupied USSR moved to the victims, whereas outside this arena, the victims were brought to the killers." Massacres of about one million Jews occurred before plans for the Final Solution were fully implemented in 1942, but it was only with the decision to annihilate the entire Jewish population that extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka were constructed with gas chambers to kill large numbers of Jews in a relatively short period of time.
The decision to systematically kill the Jews of Europe "irrespective of geographic borders", including Jews in Vichy France and French North Africa, had been made by the time of the Wannsee Conference, which took place at the Wannsee Villa in Berlin, on January 20, 1942. The conference was chaired by Heydrich, and attended by 15 senior officials of the Nazi Party and the German government. Most of those attending were senior representatives of ministries with responsibilities for the "Jewish question"—the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, and Ministers for the Eastern Territories. The purpose of the conference was to discuss and co-ordinate plans outlined by Heydrich as how best to implement the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question". A surviving copy of the minutes of this meeting was found by the Allies in March 1947; it was too late to serve as evidence during the first Nuremberg Trial but was used by prosecutor Brigadier General Telford Taylor in the subsequent Nuremberg Trials.
From July 1942, Operation Reinhard, the mass murder of Polish Jews, initiated the systematic extermination of the Jews. Heinrich Himmler's speeches at the Posen Conference on October 6, 1943, in which he discussed why the Nazi leadership found it necessary to kill Jewish women and children as well as men, clearly explained to the assembled leaders of the Third Reich that the Nazi state policy was "the extermination of the Jewish people."
At the end of the war, captured German documents provided a clear record of the Final Solution policies and actions of Nazi Germany. The Wannsee Conference Protocol, which documented the co-operation of various German state agencies in the SS-led Holocaust, and the Einsatzgruppen Reports, which documented the progress of the mobile killing units assigned, among other tasks, to kill Jewish civilians during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, were central to the evidence which documented the mechanism of the Holocaust, and were submitted at Nuremberg.
Historiographic debate about the decision
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Historians disagree as to precisely when Hitler personally (1) decided that the European Jews should be killed and (2) gave orders to that effect. The issue is commonly described as functionalism versus intentionalism: was the Holocaust gradually improvised, or was it the execution of a plan laid in advance?
Prior to the beginning of World War II, during a speech given on January 30, 1939 (the sixth anniversary of his accession to power), Hitler foretold the coming Holocaust of the Jews of Europe when he said:
Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!
Raul Hilberg, in his book The Destruction of the European Jews, was the first historian to systematically document and analyse the Nazi project to kill every Jew in Europe. The book was initially published in 1961, and issued in an enlarged version in 1985.
Hilberg's analysis of the steps that led to the destruction of European Jews states that it was "an administrative process carried out by bureaucrats in a network of offices spanning a continent." Hilberg divides this bureaucracy into four components or hierarchies: the Nazi Party, the civil service, industry, and the Wehrmacht or armed forces—but their cooperation is viewed as "so complete that we may truly speak of their fusion into a machinery of destruction." For Hilberg, the key stages in the destruction process were: definition and registration of the Jews; expropriation of property; concentration into ghettoes and camps; and, finally, annihilation. Hilberg gives an estimate of 5.1 million as the total number of Jews killed. He breaks this figure down into three categories: Ghettoization and general privation: over 800,000; open-air shootings: over 1,300,000; extermination camps: up to 3,000,000.
With respect to the "functionalism versus intentionalism" debate, Hilberg posits what has been described as "a kind of structural determinism". Hilberg argues "a destruction process has an inherent pattern" and the "sequence of steps in a destruction process is thus determined." If a bureaucracy is motivated "to inflict maximum damage upon a group of people", it is "inevitable that a bureaucracy—no matter how decentralized its apparatus or how unplanned its activities—should push its victims through these stages," culminating in their annihilation.
In his detailed account, The Origins Of The Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939 – March 1942, published in 2004, Christopher Browning argues that Nazi policy towards the Jews was radicalized twice: in September 1939, when the invasion of Poland implied policies of mass expulsion and massive loss of Jewish life; and in spring 1941, when preparation for Operation Barbarossa involved the planning of mass execution, mass expulsion and starvation—to dwarf what had happened in Jewish Poland.
Browning believes that the "Final Solution as it is now understood—the systematic attempt to murder every last Jew within the German grasp" took shape during a five week period, 18 September to 25 October 1941. During this time: the sites of the first extermination camps were selected, different methods of killing were tested, Jewish emigration from the Third Reich was forbidden, and 11 transports departed for Łódź as a temporary holding station. During this period, Browning writes, "The vision of the Final Solution had crystallised in the minds of the Nazi leadership and was being turned into reality." This period was the peak of Nazi victories against the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front, and, according to Browning, the stunning series of German victories led to both an expectation that the war would soon be won, and the planning of the final destruction of the Jewish-Bolshevik enemy.
Browning describes the creation of the extermination camps, which were responsible for the largest number of deaths in the Final Solution, as bringing together three separate developments within the Third Reich: the concentration camps which had been established in Germany since 1933; an expansion of the gassing technology of the Nazi euthanasia programme to provide killing mechanism of greater efficiency and psychological detachment; and the creation of "factories of death" to be fed endless streams of victims by mass uprooting and deportation that utilized the experience and personnel from earlier population resettlement programmes—especially the HSSPF and Adolf Eichmann’s RSHA for "Jewish affairs and evacuations".
A different time frame had been proposed by the German historian Christian Gerlach, who argued in 1997 that the Final Solution decision was made by Hitler on December 12, 1941, when he addressed a meeting of the Nazi Party (the Reichsleiter) and of regional party leaders (the Gauleiter).[a 1] In his diary entry of December 13, 1941, the day after Hitler’s private speech, Joseph Goebbels wrote:
Regarding the Jewish Question, the Führer is determined to clear the table. He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their own destruction. Those were not empty words. Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence. We cannot be sentimental about it. It is not for us to feel sympathy for the Jews. We should have sympathy rather with our own German people. If the German people have to sacrifice 160,000 victims in yet another campaign in the east, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives.
Goebbels echoed his above statements, and combined them with the January 30, 1939 speech by Hitler, in an article which Goebbels wrote in 1943, entitled "The War and the Jews":
None of the Führer 's prophetic words has come so inevitably true as his prediction that if Jewry succeeded in provoking a second world war, the result would be not the destruction of the Aryan race, but rather the wiping out of the Jewish race. This process is of vast importance, and will have unforeseeable consequences that will require time. But it can no longer be halted. It must only be guided in the right direction.
After this decision, plans were made to put the Final Solution into effect. For example, on December 16, 1941, at a meeting of the officials of the General Government, Hans Frank referred to Hitler's speech as he described the coming annihilation of the Jews:
As for the Jews, well, I can tell you quite frankly that one way or another we have to put an end to them. The Führer once put it this way: if the combined forces of Judaism should again succeed in unleashing a world war, that would mean the end of the Jews in Europe. ...I urge you: Stand together with me ... on this idea at least: Save your sympathy for the German people alone. Don't waste it on anyone else in the world, ... I would therefore be guided by the basic expectation that they are going to disappear. They have to be gotten rid of. At present I am involved in discussions aimed at having them moved away to the east. In January there is going to be an important meeting in Berlin to discuss this question. I am going to send State Secretary Dr. Buhler to this meeting. It is scheduled to take place in the offices of the RSHA in the presence of Obergruppenführer Heydrich. Whatever its outcome, a great Jewish emigration will commence. But what is going to happen to these Jews? Do you imagine there will be settlement villages for them in the Ostland? In Berlin we were told: Why are you making all this trouble for us? There is nothing we can do with them here in the Ostland or in the Reich Commissariat. Liquidate them yourselves!
Journalist Ron Rosenbaum, in his book Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, found that the phrase "final solution" had been used much earlier. An investigative report by the Münchener Post, a socialist newspaper that was an early opponent of Hitler, found as early as 1931 Nazi Party and SA documents using the phrase as part of a description of plans for what became the Nuremberg Laws and a suggestion that "for the final solution of the Jewish question it is proposed to use the Jews in Germany for slave labor or for cultivation of the German swamps administered by a special SS division."
By 1943 the wholesale extermination of European Jewry was taking place, as described in two of Himmler's speeches made to the Nazi Party leadership at Posen on October 4, 1943:
I am now referring to the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. It's one of those things that is easily said: 'The Jewish people are being exterminated', says every party member, 'this is very obvious, it's in our program, elimination of the Jews, extermination, we're doing it, hah, a small matter.' [...] But of all those who talk this way, none had observed it, none had endured it. Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when 500 lie there or when 1,000 are lined up. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person – with exceptions due to human weaknesses – had made us tough. This is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned. [...] We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people to do it, to kill this people who wanted to kill us.
And on October 6, 1943:
I ask of you that that which I say to you in this circle be really only heard and not ever discussed. We were faced with the question: what about the women and children? – I decided to find a clear solution to this problem too. I did not consider myself justified to exterminate the men – in other words, to kill them or have them killed and allow the avengers of our sons and grandsons in the form of their children to grow up. The difficult decision had to be made to have this people disappear from the earth. For the organisation which had to execute this task, it was the most difficult which we had ever had. [...] I felt obliged to you, as the most superior dignitary, as the most superior dignitary of the party, this political order, this political instrument of the Führer, to also speak about this question quite openly and to say how it has been. The Jewish question in the countries that we occupy will be solved by the end of this year. Only remainders of odd Jews that managed to find hiding places will be left over.
Prelude to the Final Solution: Operation Barbarossa
Preparations for Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union which commenced on June 22, 1941, set in motion a murderous "war of destruction" which quickly opened the door to the mass murder of first Soviet and then European Jews. For Hitler, Bolshevism was merely "the most recent and most nefarious manifestation of the eternal Jewish threat." On March 3, 1941, Wehrmacht Joint Operations Staff Chief Alfred Jodl quoted Hitler's comment that the forthcoming war would be a confrontation between two world views, and Hitler's declaration that the "Jewish-Bolshevik intelligentsia would have to be eliminated". In May 1941, Gestapo leader Heinrich Müller wrote, "The troops will encounter an especially dangerous element from the civilian population, the carriers of the Jewish-Bolshevik worldview".
Himmler assembled a force of about 3000 men as "special commandos of the security forces", known as Einsatzgruppen, to "exterminate" the intelligentsia of Stalin's state. These forces were supported by 21 battalions of Order Police under Kurt Daluege, adding up to 11,000 men. The explicit orders given to the Order Police varied, but in Police Battalion 309, Major Weiss explained to his officers that this would be a war against Jews and Bolshevism, and that his battalions would proceed ruthlessly against the Jews.
In the first five weeks of Operation Barbarossa, argues Browning, what had been regarded as morally questionable became a normal way of operating in "the east". The crucial taboo against the killing of women and children was breached in Gargždai and Bialystok in late June 1941. By July, significant numbers of women and children were being killed by Germans, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. The largest single massacre of Jewish women and children before the end of September 1941 took place in the ravine of Babi Yar near Kiev when more than 33,000 Jews were killed. By mid-October 1941, HSSPF South under the command of Friedrich Jeckeln had reported the killing of more than 100,000 men, women and children.
By the end of 1941, before the Wannsee Conference, between 600,000 and 800,000 Jews, including women and children, had been murdered and entire regions were reported "free of Jews". By this time, awareness of the Final Solution policy in the east was spreading. Addressing his district governors in the General Government on December 16,1941, Governor-General Hans Frank said, "But what will happen to the Jews? Do you believe they will be lodged in settlements in Ostland? In Berlin, we were told: why all this trouble; we cannot use them in the Ostland or the Reichskommissariat either; liquidate them yourselves!"
Holocaust in Lithuania
Several scholars have noted that the Final Solution and the Holocaust in Lithuania began after the German invasion. Dina Porat wrote: "The Final Solution – the systematic overall physical extermination of Jewish communities one after the other – began in Lithuania." Konrad Kweit wrote: "Lithuanian Jews were among the first victims of the Holocaust [...] The Germans carried out the mass executions [...] signaling the beginning of the "Final Solution."
Holocaust in General Government (GG) Galicia
Dr. Samuel Drix (Witness to Annihilation), Jochaim Schoenfeld (Holocaust Memoirs), and several survivors of the Janowska Camp, who were interviewed in the film, Janovska: The Janovska Camp at Lvov, among other witnesses, have argued equally as convincingly that the Final Solution began in Lwów (Lemberg) during that same week. Statements and memoirs of these survivors emphasize that, when Ukrainian civilians and ad hoc or auxiliary militias began to murder women and children rather than only male Jews, the "Final Solution" was begun. Witnesses have said that such murders happened both prior to and during the pogroms associated with the "Prison Massacre." The question of whether there was some coordination between the Lithuanian and Ukrainian militias remains (i.e. collaborating for a joint assault in Kovno, Wilno, and Lwów). Historians still find it difficult to determine precisely when the first concerted effort at annihilation of all Jews began in the last weeks of June 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, despite the assertion of Dina Porat that the Lithuanian Jews, rather than the Galician Jews, had the dubious distinction of being the first victims of the Final Solution. See generally Jakob Weiss, The Lemberg Mosaic, (New York: Alderbrook Press, 2011)
- Commenting on Gerlach, Christopher Browning writes: "What [Gerlach] interprets as Hitler's basic decision, I see as an official initiation of party leaders to a decision taken several months earlier." Browning, 2004, p.540
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- The Development of the Final Solution – lecture from Dr. Havi Dreifuss – Yad Vashem
- Elimination of the Jewish National Home in Palestine: The Einsatzkommando of the Panzer army Africa, 1942 by Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers
- Death Decree – Göring directive officially launches the Final Solution