The SS was relatively insignificant in the early stages of the Holocaust. Historians have categorised the steps towards the Holocaust as “identification, concentration and extermination,”1 and it was only in the latter phases that Himmler’s branch of the National Socialist state assumed primacy. Although, of course, members of the SS had played their part in the brutalisation of Germany’s Jews even before the NSDAP gained power.

The first steps in the National Socialist regime’s persecution of the Jews were taken through legislation introduced by the Interior Ministry. On 7 April 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service decreed that government officials of “non-Aryan descent” were to be retired. Four days later, a supplemental regulation—the so-called Arierparagraph (Aryan Paragraph)—defined “non-Aryans” as “any person who had a Jewish parent or grandparent.”2 This law had a marked effect because “government official” did not merely refer to civil servants: a wide range of professions (including teachers, university lecturers and so on) were employees of the state and so subject to the measure. Although this law was characterised by the NSDAP as racial, and thus in line with National Socialist policy, Jewishness was defined by a religious rather than a racial criterion: if the parent or grandparent followed the Jewish religion, their offspring was deemed “non-Aryan”; but someone with an ethnically Jewish, non-observant parent or grandparent fell outside the law’s scope. Similar laws were enacted later the same month. One was supposedly aimed at preventing overcrowding in schools. It imposed a strict quota on the number of non-Aryans who could attend state-funded schools, which had the effect of forcing Jewish children out of the state education sector and into private Jewish schooling. Another law prevented Jewish doctors from treating patients under the national health insurance scheme. And a third restricted entry of Jews into the legal profession.3

Enacting these early laws created a number of practical difficulties for the new regime. First, several foreign nations, including Japan, found the implication that non-Aryans were inferior to Aryans deeply offensive. In response, the German Foreign Office instructed its overseas missions to explain that the laws were designed merely to identify “physical and spiritual qualities” within each race,4 rather than to rank them. Unsurprisingly, this failed to satisfy the Japanese. Second, numerous experienced public officials now had to be dismissed, and this was especially destructive after 28 February 1934, when General von Blomberg, the Minister of War, extended the Aryan Paragraph to the army.5 Some senior officers who had served in the First World War were exempted, but several hundred men—mostly of mixed backgrounds but also a few “full” Jews—were forced to leave the service.

As a corollary to this, it was decided that the term “non-Aryan” was unsatisfactory. Everybody knew that the legislation was primarily intended to discriminate against the Jews, rather than non-Aryans in general, so the regime needed to formulate a precise definition of what it meant to be Jewish. This came to a head at the National Socialist Party rally at Nuremberg in September 1935. Hitler ordered a decree to be drafted under the title “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour.” The principal purpose of this law was to prohibit intermarriage and extramarital sexual intercourse between Jews and citizens of German or related blood, but it also went much further than the earlier law in legally excluding Jews from participation in the German state. Further provisions banned Jews from employing Germans under the age of forty-five as domestic staff, and a separate law forbade Jews from raising the Reich flag. The next day, the Reich Citizenship Law was drafted. This excluded Jews from German citizenship—they became “subjects of the state”—and finally legally defined the term “Jew.” This definition was fairly straightforward. It included: anyone who had three or four Jewish grandparents; anyone who had two Jewish grandparents and was a member of the Jewish religious community on or after 15 September 1935; and anyone who was married to a Jewish person on or after 15 September. Furthermore, anyone born as a result of a marriage involving a Jew that was contracted after the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour had come into force, or anyone born out of wedlock from a relationship involving a Jew after 31 July 1936, would be considered a Jew.

This legislation also created a host of “semi-Jews.” Anyone with two Jewish grandparents who did not practise the Jewish religion, and was not married to a Jew, was now considered Mischlinge (mixed race) of the first degree. Anyone with a single Jewish grandparent was Mischlinge of the second degree. In coming years, the Mischlinge were subjected to harassment, but they were not persecuted to the same extent as “full Jews” (although many Mischlinge of the first degree were murdered in the Holocaust). They were normally barred from National Socialist party and state positions, but, for instance, they could serve in the armed forces.*

One of the key outcomes of the passing of these so-called “Nuremberg Laws” was that they introduced criminal sanctions based on race, and it was this that formally brought the machinery of the SS security apparatus into action against the Jews. Hitherto, the SS had been just one of several party formations involved in the harassment of Jews. And, of course, SS posts had collected information on Jewish activities since the early days of the organisation. But by criminalising the everyday lives of Jews, Sipo and the SD would clearly have major roles to play in their persecution in the future.

The Gestapo had been conducting surveillance on Jewish groups and individuals ever since the National Socialists had come to power, but the extent of that surveillance was largely decided by the local Gestapo commander. For instance, Robert Gellately’s study of Gestapo activity in the Franconian town of Würzburg suggests that the political police’s interest in Jewish activities was limited. Between 1933 and 1935, pressure against the Jewish population largely emanated from the party, rather than the state. To some extent, the Gestapo and other police elements even reined in party members’ excesses. While it was certainly official (party and state) policy to reinforce negative images of the Jews, party-sponsored activities such as trade boycotts tended to damage foreign relationships, international trade and the tourist industry, so they were not always encouraged.

This changed with the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws. In November 1935, the Gestapo office in Münster noted: “after the promulgation of the Jewish laws at the Party meetings in Nuremberg, a certain tranquillity set in with regard to the ‘Jewish question.’ Excesses against Jews, as well as individual actions against Jewish businesses, have not taken place again in the past month.”6 This probably reflected a general satisfaction within the National Socialist–supporting population that, after years of propaganda against the Jews, the government had finally taken some concrete steps to back up its rhetoric.

The Gestapo’s remit evolved into the defence and enforcement of National Socialist ideology, and in many respects it was free to act outside the law. But the Nuremberg Laws also gave it a legal framework within which it could persecute the Jews. For instance, between 1933 and 1945, the Würzburg Gestapo investigated 175 cases of Rassenschande (race defilement)—the criminal offence of sexual intercourse between a Jew and an Aryan—and “friendship towards Jews.”* Although the latter was not a criminal offence, it was taken to indicate a refusal to accept the spirit of National Socialist racial doctrine and so was suggestive of opposition to the regime. The Würzburg office (and its sub-unit at Aschaffenburg) covered the whole of Lower Franconia, comprising a population of some 800,000, of whom only around 25,000 were Jewish. Consequently, it seems fair to conclude that the local Gestapo’s investigations into “Jewish crimes” comprised a relatively small proportion of its work.

The lack of surviving data makes it difficult to draw a nationwide picture of the Gestapo’s role in the persecution of the Jewish population in the early years of the Third Reich. But it seems that “the police role in all this was not extraordinary, it was simply police work directed to whatever conclusion the state directed.”7 Each local office attempted to apply National Socialist law and policy to the Jews, but in no sense did the Gestapo lead the persecution.

In fact, the first SS agency to take a serious interest in the “Jewish question” was the SD. As we have seen, Office II dealt with all “enemies” of National Socialism. But from mid-1935, the Jews became the specific responsibility of Office II 112. Heydrich appointed SS-Untersturmführer (Second Lieutenant) Leopold Edler von Mildenstein to lead it. Born in Prague in 1902, von Mildenstein trained as a civil engineer but seems to have spent most of his time before joining the SD as a traveller and writer. He came to Heydrich’s attention because of an article he wrote for The Attack, the Berlin-based NSDAP newspaper, in which he described a visit to British-mandated Palestine and the prospects for creating a Jewish state there. Considering where this article appeared, it was quite a moderate piece, and von Mildenstein was not a conventional Jew-baiting National Socialist. Along with others in the SD, he recognised that harassment and persecution of Jews might cause more problems than it solved, and he was convinced that a better solution to the “Jewish question” was to persuade Germany’s half-million Jews to emigrate. This had been proposed before, but had always foundered on the unwillingness of other Western countries to accept large numbers of German-Jewish emigrants. As a way round this, von Mildenstein suggested that Germany’s Jews should be “exported” to Palestine. He undoubtedly came to this conclusion partly because he was in friendly contact with a number of Zionist leaders and had even attended Zionist congresses in the past.8

Von Mildenstein had a heavy workload, so he was given permission to take on an assistant. The man recommended for the role was an SD NCO who was currently employed in the organisation’s museum of Freemasonry, where he catalogued seals and medallions. His name was Adolf Eichmann.

In her account of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Hannah Arendt portrayed him as an unintelligent, simple man who was not overtly anti-Semitic. She argued that he became, in effect, the logistician of the Holocaust simply because it represented professional advancement for him. Certainly, the Eichmann who appeared in the dock did not come across as a monster: he was puny in appearance and mild and submissive in manner. But there can be no doubt that he accepted the SS’s ideological framework and believed that the Volk had to be protected from Jewry. That was what motivated him to behave as he did. Eichmann was not conscripted into the SS: he volunteered when the SS was at its most selective; and he was accepted because he demonstrated the “correct” outlook.

Adolf Eichmann was born on 19 March 1906 in Solingen in the Rhineland. At the time, his father was an accountant for the Solingen Light and Power Company, a subsidiary of AEG, but when Eichmann was just seven the family moved to Linz in Austria. His father became commercial director of the local power company, and Eichmann attended the Kaiser Franz High School—Hitler’s alma mater—until the age of fifteen.9 By that point, his father had gone into business for himself, opening a shale oil mine and taking an interest in a machine shop in Salzburg. Eichmann attended the local engineering vocational college, but he was pulled out by his father because of his poor results and sent to work in the mine. After a few months of this he did an apprenticeship at his father’s old company. He remained there until 1928, when he became a travelling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company. He also joined a monarchist youth group called the Young Veterans’ Association, through which he came into contact with the NSDAP for the first time. At a National Socialist meeting in late 1931 or early 1932, Eichmann bumped into an acquaintance, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who invited him to join the local branch of the SS. Eichmann later recalled: “Ernst Kaltenbrunner put it to me straight from the shoulder: ‘You’re going to join us!’ That’s how easy it was in those days, all very free and easy, no fuss. I said: ‘Alright.’ So I joined the SS.”10

In 1933, Eichmann was made redundant by the Vacuum Oil Company and decided to move to Germany to try his luck there. By this stage, Austrian NSDAP, SA and SS activities were being suppressed by the government, and the Upper Austrian Regional Leader had already fled over the border. Kaltenbrunner needed to get some documents to his party boss, and he entrusted Eichmann with the task. Having handed over the papers, Eichmann asked for some help finding work. Instead, the Regional Leader suggested that he should join the newly formed SS-Special Purpose Troops and “play soldiers”11 for a while. With nothing better to do, Eichmann joined the SS-Regiment Deutschland. He was one of the older members of the unit, as well as competent and organised, so he was quickly made his company’s administrative NCO and given the rank of Oberscharführer (sergeant). After originally forming up at Kloster Lechfeld, the unit moved to the Munich suburb of Dachau, where they occupied quarters outside the concentration camp.

Eichmann stayed with the regiment until September 1934, but by then he was bored and looking for a way out. He volunteered for the SD in the hope that he would be appointed to one of the security escorts that guarded the NSDAP’s leaders. He was wrong: when he arrived at the SD’s headquarters at 102 Wilhelmstrasse, he was dismayed to find that he would have a desk job under the eccentric, self-styled Freemasonry expert SS-Major Schwarz-Bostunitsch. Eichmann later admitted that he “would have gone in with the devil himself just to get away from that business with the seals,”12 but as it happened he found von Mildenstein “an open-minded, friendly sort.”13

Eichmann was interested in his new work and applied himself assiduously to his specific task of monitoring Zionist groups. Having taught himself the Hebrew alphabet so that he could read Yiddish, he studied their key texts and periodicals and went as far as to visit their offices in plainclothes to make contact with their leaders. He even tried to learn Hebrew itself, but when he sought a grant from SD-Main Office to pay for lessons from a rabbi, he was rebuffed. Nevertheless, his efforts earned him a spurious reputation among the young intellectuals in the SD as a genuine expert on the “Jewish question.”

In the spring of 1936, von Mildenstein moved on. In Eichmann’s version of events, he joined the Organisation Todt—the National Socialist civil engineering organisation—and was sent to the United States to study the highways system.* Eichmann applied for his job but did not get it. Instead, a brash young SS-NCO, Kuno Schröder, was appointed and Eichmann continued with his work on Zionism. By this time, he had been joined by Theodor Dannecker, a Bavarian lawyer who was a few years younger than Eichmann. Dannecker’s job was to monitor assimilationist Jews.

When describing the SD in this period, historians often highlight its lack of any kind of executive arm and the fact that its role often overlapped with that of the Gestapo. However, this is a fairly common model for domestic intelligence collection, where political police forces are routinely separated from intelligence agencies. At this stage, Office II 112 was an intelligence staff rather than an executive unit: its role was to receive—and, to some extent, collect—information, process it, but not act upon it. However, as members of the team developed expertise in their field, their recommendations started to carry increasing weight. Therefore, it is far from remarkable that Office II 112 began to exert influence on the issue of the “Jewish question.”

Schröder left Office II 112 in March 1937. Again, Eichmann was overlooked, and Dieter Wisliceny took over leadership of the department. The tubby East Prussian was preferred for the role because he had studied theology at university. However, he and Eichmann got on well—in conversation, they would address each other with the familiar du. At this point, most of the office’s energy was being devoted to compiling a card index of all the Jews in Germany. This had initially proved too much for the small team, but then the organisational changes instituted by Himmler came to their aid. First, Heydrich—by now Chief of the Security Police (Gestapo and Kripo) and the SD—ordered that Office II 112 should have access to all information gathered during Gestapo raids on Jewish organisations and interrogations of Jewish community leaders. Then, in July 1937, Six (head of Office II), Wisliceny, Eichmann and Herbert Hagen (a young ex-journalist and now a member of Office II 112) attended a meeting with representatives of the Gestapo. The SD men asked for access to the Gestapo’s files on Jews and Jewish organisations, and Werner Best (Heydrich’s deputy) agreed that the entire Gestapo card index should be turned over to them.14 This was a clear acknowledgement of Office II 112’s growing significance—it placed the department right at the centre of SS involvement in the formulation of Jewish policy.

However, those outside Office II 112 were not always comfortable with its activities, particularly in respect to its cultivation of contacts within the Zionist movement. Eichmann was especially active in developing the links that von Mildenstein had forged with Zionists who sought German support for mass Jewish emigration to Palestine. For instance, his interest was piqued after reading an article in Haint, a Yiddish newspaper published in Warsaw, about the Haganah, an underground Zionist self-defence and intelligence organisation that was based in Palestine. Eichmann summoned Dr. Paul Eppstein, one of the leaders of the National Socialist–controlled Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden (Reich Representatives of German Jews) and a regular source of information on Jewish matters, for questioning on Haganah. Eppstein claimed to know nothing about the organisation, but Eichmann remained interested. Then, in February 1937, Otto von Bolschwingh—a friend of von Mildenstein and a part-time SD spy—told Eichmann that a Haganah officer, a Polish Jew named Feivel Polkes, was coming to Berlin. Having sought permission from Six and Heydrich, Eichmann arranged to meet him.

The two men had lunch at a restaurant near Berlin Zoo on 26 February. Eichmann’s account of the meeting and what followed, given under interrogation before his trial in Israel, was somewhat anodyne:

I took the gentleman to lunch. He knew who I was and I knew he was from Palestine. He told me all about the Kibbutzim, about construction and development projects, things I already knew because I had read about them, but now I began to take a real interest. There was no hostility. We both said what we had to say, and neither of us—I had the impression—kept anything back, because we believed that our aims converged. After a second lunch, the gentleman invited me to Palestine. He wanted me to go and see the country for myself, and said they’d show me everything. I was more than willing. I reported that, too, and I submitted a report of our discussion, which went as far as Heydrich. And something I hadn’t thought possible: Heydrich authorised me to accept the invitation. This came as a surprise to my colleagues. It sparked off a race between them: Wisliceny wanted to come along, so did Hagen. Hagen won out.15

In effect, Polkes was offering information in return for the SD’s help in promoting Jewish emigration to Palestine. He might also have been seeking weapons, although there is no evidence that any were handed over. Eichmann’s report of the meeting noted that Polkes “was prepared among other things to give powerful support to German foreign policy interests in the Middle East…on condition that German currency regulations were relaxed for Jews emigrating to Palestine.”16

Eichmann and Hagen, undercover as a journalist and a student, finally set off for Palestine at the end of September. Their trip took them by train through Poland and Romania to the port of Constanza, where they boarded a steamer. They reached the port of Haifa on 2 October. Then chance stepped in: an Arab uprising in September had forced the British authorities to close Palestine’s borders. Eichmann and Hagen were given permission to disembark from their ship for twenty-four hours but were told not to journey elsewhere in Palestine. After doing a little sightseeing the next morning, they continued on to Alexandria and from there took a train to Cairo.

They stayed in the Egyptian capital for twelve days, met Polkes again, and persuaded him to become a paid SD agent (he was given a salary of £15 per month). They also applied to the British authorities for permission to enter Palestine. According to Eichmann, “We were told: ‘I’m sorry, nothing doing.’ I seem to remember that there had been some kind of disorders in Palestine at the time, maybe bombings. It’s also possible that British Intelligence had caught on to us.”17 This was quite likely. During this period, British embassies’ and consulates’ “passport control offices” were usually staffed by MI6 operatives; and even if the British had no knowledge of Eichmann and Hagen’s mission, suspicions would have been aroused by the two men’s arrival.

Eichmann and Hagen returned from the Middle East with the former resigned to the fact that their mission had been a failure. But this view was not shared by his superiors, particularly Heydrich, who was now convinced that Office II 112’s Zionist contacts could be used to further the SD’s influence. Before long, the department was hosting a “Jewish Day,” a seminar outlining the SD’s position on the “Jewish question.” Records of this event reveal that, despite its supposed expertise on Jewish matters and its rejection of the crude extremism of many party members, Office II 112’s thinking was still broadly in line with typical National Socialist attitudes. In Eichmann’s closing address—on the connections between world Jewry and the Jews of Germany—he painted a ludicrous picture of Haganah and other Zionist conspiracies being perpetrated by foreign-born Jews in Germany. But, as his biographer points out: “This fantasy was not simply driven by ideology: the SD needed to find conspiracies in order to justify its operations and its budget.”18

Eichmann’s work gave him a thorough grounding in the “Jewish question,” and he certainly saw emigration to Palestine as the best solution to it. At this point, neither he nor any of the other experts on Jewry in the SD considered the mass extermination of the Jewish population as a feasible “final solution,” and it would be several years before they became involved in it. In the meantime, the Austrian Anschluss gave them an opportunity to put some of Office II 112’s ideas into practice.

In early 1938, the SD was told to prepare for an upcoming action in Austria. Its offices immediately set to work drawing up lists of organisations and individuals that they intended to target. The German Army crossed the border on 12 March, and before long they were joined by the full panoply of the National Socialist security apparatus. Hagen moved to Vienna to establish a “special unit” of Office II 112, while Eichmann—who had finally been made an officer on 30 January—followed him on 16 March, bearing lists of prominent Jews to be arrested and organisations to be raided. At his trial, more than twenty years later, he tried to give the impression that he acted as the Jews’ protector in Vienna. In reality, he personally took part in many of the raids and arrests, and only when this first wave of terror had left Austrian Jews cowering and intimidated did he move on to the next phase. Having consulted with the local Sipo leadership as well as Berlin, he decided that he needed a degree of cooperation from the Jewish community in order to begin the forced emigration process. So, from his headquarters in the Hotel Metropol, he summoned Jewish community leaders to a series of meetings.

Ultimately, he chose a Viennese lawyer, Josef Löwenherz—a vice-president of the main Jewish community group—to be his chief enforced collaborator. Eichmann sent Löwenherz back to his cell and ordered that he should be held there “until he produced a plan for the mass emigration of Austrian Jews.”19 The plan that was eventually formulated was effectively a system of expropriation: “The majority of Austria’s 300,000 Jews were destitute and could not produce the minimum capital demanded by the receiving countries; the National Socialist regime, on the other hand, was short of foreign currency and could provide no funds. The richer Jews were accordingly compelled to subsidize the exodus from their own resources.”20 The SD knew that these wealthy Jews would need little persuading to leave. The problem lay with getting them to take the poorer ones with them.

Eichmann’s Central Office for Jewish Emigration was established in a former Rothschild family palace on Prinz-Eugen-Strasse in Vienna. Here he set up a “conveyor-belt” system to handle the bureaucracy, with representatives of all the interested departments located in the building to speed up the process. Within the first eight months of the Anschluss, this office had organised the emigration of 45,000 Austrian Jews; within eighteen months, 150,000 had been forced from their homes.21

But even as the SD’s pro-emigrationists were driving out the Austrian Jews, the anti-Semitic hard core of the NSDAP was gearing up to wrest Jewish policy-making away from them. In March 1938, the government of Poland, under pressure from the nationalist, anti-Semitic right, announced that all Poles who had lived abroad for more than five years were to be deprived of their citizenship. This measure was explicitly designed to rid the country of the seventy thousand Polish Jews who were residing in Germany and Austria. A further decree on 6 October announced that all Polish passports would be cancelled unless they received a validation stamp—available only in Poland—before the 31st of the month. The German government quite rightly concluded that this was simply another attempt by its eastern neighbour to dump Polish Jews on Germany. In response, Heydrich arrested some twelve thousand Polish Jews living in Germany and transported them to the border. On the night of 28–29 October, they were driven across the frontier and marched two kilometres to the Polish town of Zbaszyn. But the Polish frontier guards refused to accept them into the country, so they remained stuck in no-man’s-land as winter drew in. They were fed only intermittently by the Polish Red Cross and Jewish aid organisations.*

Among the twelve thousand were Sendel and Rivka Grynszpan, a couple who had emigrated to Hannover in 1911. Thereafter, Sendel ran a tailoring business in the town. They took Polish nationality at the end of the First World War but remained in Hannover. Like most Jews in Germany after the National Socialists came to power, they were frightened for themselves and their children, and in 1936 they arranged for their youngest son, fifteen-year-old Herschel, to travel to Belgium. They hoped he would be able to emigrate to Palestine from there, but instead he entered France illegally and went to live with an uncle in a small Jewish enclave in Paris.

Two years later, Rivka sent Herschel a postcard from Zbaszyn, begging him to try to organise emigration for her and Sendel to the United States. On 7 November, Herschel asked his uncle for some money to pursue this, but he refused and a furious row erupted. Still fuming, Herschel stormed out of the house, went to a gun shop and bought a pistol and some ammunition. Then he walked to the German Embassy and asked to see a diplomat. He was shown into the office of Ernst vom Rath, a young National Socialist Party member, whereupon he drew his pistol and shot vom Rath three times. The diplomat died two days later—the fifteenth anniversary of the Munich Putsch.

Leading National Socialists, including Hitler, always marked 9 November with a meeting in Munich. This year, the Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, was intending to make an incendiary speech that he hoped would incite a pogrom against the Jews. Of course, Goebbels was a rabid anti-Semite, but he was planning to launch this particular attack for peculiarly personal reasons. The previous year, he had started an affair with a Czech actress, Lida Baarova, whom he had met through the Propaganda Ministry’s UFA film studios. However, his wife, Magda—a favourite of Hitler—learned of Goebbels’ philandering and complained to the Führer, who duly ordered his minister to end the affair. Goebbels responded by offering his resignation (which Hitler refused) and then, on 15 October 1938, allegedly made a half-hearted attempt at suicide. An infuriated Hitler decided that the only solution was to order Himmler to remove Baarova from the country. Although this ended the affair, Goebbels’ reputation had been seriously tarnished, and it seems that his speech was designed to curry favour with Hitler by raising the party’s anti-Semitic hackles.

Then, just as the meeting was beginning, news of vom Rath’s death reached Munich. This gave Goebbels the ammunition he needed to make his address to the meeting even more explosive. He was seen in earnest conversation with Hitler, who then left suddenly, without making his customary speech. Of course, the precise details of their conversation are not known, but Höhne believes that Goebbels “informed the Führer that in certain areas anti-Jewish demonstrations had already taken place. The Führer had thereupon decided that such demonstrations were neither to be prepared nor organised by the Party: they should occur spontaneously; however, no action was to be taken to stop them.”22 Goebbels then rose to relate what had just been discussed to the “old fighters” who were gathered in the Old Town Hall. They had all been in the party long enough to understand exactly what was now expected of them. Soon they were hurrying to issue orders to SA units and party groups throughout Germany.

Goebbels’ speech unleashed a wave of violence across Germany and Austria. In total, 1,574 synagogues and more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses were damaged or destroyed; around 26,000 Jewish men were taken to concentration camps and at least 91 Jews were killed, often beaten to death in front of their families. This turn of events came as a complete surprise to the leaders of the SS. Of course, both Himmler and Heydrich had been in Munich, but the first Heydrich knew of the violence was when a synagogue close to his hotel went up in flames. He hurried to issue orders to Gestapo, regular police and SS units, telling them to protect Jewish businesses and houses to the best of their ability, and to arrest looters. Nevertheless, many individual SS men, as well as local units, were certainly enthusiastic participants in the violence.

The riots became known as Kristallnacht* (Night of the Broken Glass), reflecting the shattered windows of Jewish shops and businesses, and they marked a significant turning point in anti-Semitic policy in the Third Reich. Hitherto, most of the pressure against the Jews had been applied legally, economically and socially. From now on, it was increasingly physical, applied brutally in the “protective custody” of the concentration camps.

In the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, Hitler turned to Goering, rather than Himmler or Heydrich, to find a solution to the “Jewish question.” Goering convened a meeting of interested parties and announced:

I have received a letter written on the Führer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another…I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today’s meeting. We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me.23

It was decided to increase the pressure on Jewry, completely exclude them from the economy and, above all, step up the SD’s emigration programme. Heydrich set about creating a nationwide replica of the Viennese Central Office for Jewish Emigration, commanded by Heinrich Müller of the Gestapo. Like Eichmann, he also co-opted Jewish community leaders to ensure that it ran smoothly.

The main problem for the SD, though, was where to send the Jews. In an attempt to halt intercommunal violence in Palestine, Britain had imposed a strict limit on the number of Jews it would allow to move there over the next five years: 75,000. Germany had nearly 500,000 Jews within its borders, and it wanted to expel all of them as soon as possible. Some of them could be accommodated elsewhere in Europe or in the United States, but these countries also had limits on the number of immigrants they could, or would, accept. Despite the widespread international condemnation of Germany’s treatment of its Jews, no country was prepared to increase its quota to meet the demand. So, once again, the SD turned to the Zionists.

In 1937, Haganah had organised a special unit—Mossad le Aliyah Bet—to smuggle as many Jews as possible into Palestine, using a network of contacts throughout Europe. According to Höhne:

At about the time of Kristallnacht, two representatives of Mossad, Pino Ginzburg and Moshe Auerbach, journeyed to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich to offer the SS their assistance in the matter of Jewish emigration. They were prepared to accelerate the Zionist re-education programme for Jews willing to emigrate, and to ship the Jews to Palestine. Emigration figures had already begun to fall and so the SD leapt at the idea and guaranteed Mossad their co-operation.24

These “illegal” convoys began in March 1939. Jews were usually transported from Germany or Austria to a third country, where they were loaded onto a ship and taken to Palestine. The British attempted to counter this influx with a naval patrol off the Palestinian coast, and they intercepted a number of the transports. Nevertheless, at least ten thousand Jews managed to escape from Germany before the start of the Second World War brought this form of emigration to an abrupt end.

In total, some 40,000 Jews got out of Germany in 1938, while some 78,000 escaped in 1939. The SD could therefore claim that its emigration policy was something of a success. Should Hitler not have been determined to fight a war of conquest, it even seems likely that the “Jewish question” in Germany would have been solved in this way, without recourse to the grisly horrors that were to come. Of course, part of the tragedy was that many of the Jews who emigrated to Germany’s European neighbours—and for a time must have believed they were reasonably safe—subsequently fell back into National Socialist hands as their new homes were occupied.

The rigorous pursuit of the emigration policy illustrates that, prior to the war at least, extermination of the Jews was not seriously considered as an option by the men who were dealing with the “Jewish question” at the coal face. In fact, many of the SD’s “experts” were sharply critical of the crude anti-Semitism of their counterparts in the party. They recognised that the logical conclusion of National Socialist hate propaganda was to kill the Jews, but they simply did not believe that this was feasible, for numerous political and legal reasons. Tragically, though, they had no moral objections to it, which meant that most of them shifted effortlessly from forced emigration to mass murder and extermination as soon as the “final solution” was devised.

* The Mischlinge could be exempted from the provisions of the racial laws under various circumstances; and they could petition the state for “liberation.” Over the years, several attempts were made to recategorise them as Jews, but none of these succeeded.

* Most of the 175 investigations were launched after accusations were made by members of the public. Seventy-one of them ultimately proved to have no foundation in fact, which would seem to indicate that making accusations to the Gestapo was often used to settle private scores.

* Other accounts suggest he joined the Foreign Ministry or the Propaganda Ministry.

* Ultimately, the Polish government relented and allowed the expellees to move into refugee camps within the Polish frontier. After Poland began expelling German citizens from its territory in retaliation, the German government relented and allowed the Polish-German Jews to return to their homes to collect property, before leaving for good.

* In Germany, it is now generally known, less euphemistically, as Pogromnacht.

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