Military history



Hitler’s utopias crumbled upon contact with the Soviet Union, but they were refashioned rather than rejected. He was the Leader, and his henchmen owed their positions to their ability to divine and realize his will. When that will met resistance, as on the eastern front in the second half of 1941, the task of men such as Göring, Himmler, and Heydrich was to rearrange Hitler’s ideas such that Hitler’s genius was affirmed—along with their own positions in the Nazi regime. The utopias in summer 1941 had been four: a lightning victory that would destroy the Soviet Union in weeks; a Hunger Plan that would starve thirty million people in months; a Final Solution that would eliminate European Jews after the war; and a Generalplan Ost that would make of the western Soviet Union a German colony. Six months after Operation Barbarossa was launched, Hitler had reformulated the war aims such that the physical extermination of the Jews became the priority. By then, his closest associates had taken the ideological and administrative initiatives necessary to realize such a wish.1

No lightning victory came. Although millions of Soviet citizens were starved, the Hunger Plan proved impossible. Generalplan Ost, or any variant of postwar colonization plans, would have to wait. As these utopias waned, political futures depended upon the extraction of what was feasible from the fantasies. Göring, Himmler, and Heydrich scrambled amidst the moving ruins, claiming what they could. Göring, charged with economics and the Hunger Plan, fared worst. Regarded as “the second man in the Reich” and as Hitler’s successor, Göring remained immensely prominent in Germany, but played an ever smaller role in the East. As economics became less a matter of grand planning for the postwar period and more a matter of improvising to continue the war, Göring lost his leading position to Albert Speer. Unlike Göring, Heydrich and Himmler were able to turn the unfavorable battlefield situation to their advantage, by reformulating the Final Solution so that it could be carried out during a war that was not going according to plan. They understood that the war was becoming, as Hitler began to say in August 1941, a “war against the Jews.”2

Himmler and Heydrich saw the elimination of the Jews as their task. On 31 July 1941 Heydrich secured the formal authority from Göring to formulate the Final Solution. This still involved the coordination of prior deportation schemes with Heydrich’s plan of working the Jews to death in the conquered Soviet East. By November 1941, when Heydrich tried to schedule a meeting at Wannsee to coordinate the Final Solution, he still had such a vision in mind. Jews who could not work would be made to disappear. Jews capable of physical labor would work somewhere in the conquered Soviet Union until they died. Heydrich represented a broad consensus in the German government, though his was not an especially timely plan. The Ministry for the East, which oversaw the civilian occupation authorities established in September, took for granted that the Jews would disappear. Its head, Alfred Rosenberg, spoke in November of the “biological eradication of Jewry in Europe.” This would be achieved by sending the Jews across the Ural Mountains, Europe’s eastern boundary. But by November 1941 a certain vagueness had descended upon Heydrich’s vision of enslavement and deportation, since Germany had not destroyed the Soviet Union and Stalin still controlled the vast majority of its territory.3

While Heydrich made bureaucratic arrangements in Berlin, it was Himmler who most ably extracted the practical and the prestigious from Hitler’s utopian thinking. From the Hunger Plan he took the categories of surplus populations and useless eaters, and would offer the Jews as the people from whom calories could be spared. From the lightning victory he extracted the four Einsatzgruppen. Their task had been to kill Soviet elites in order to hasten the Soviet collapse. Their first mission had not been to kill all Jews as such. The Einsatzgruppen had no such order when the invasion began, and their numbers were too small. But they had experience killing civilians, and they could find local help, and they could be reinforced. From Generalplan Ost, Himmler extracted the battalions of Order Police and thousands of local collaborators, whose preliminary assignment was to help control the conquered Soviet Union. Instead they provided the manpower that allowed the Germans to carry out truly massive shootings of Jews beginning in August 1941. These institutions, supported by the Wehrmacht and its Field Police, allowed the Germans to murder about a million Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line by the end of the year.4

Himmler succeeded because he grasped extremes of the Nazi utopias that operated within Hitler’s mind, even as Hitler’s will faced the most determined resistance from the world outside. Himmler made the Final Solution more radical, by bringing it forward from the postwar period to the war itself, and by showing (after the failure of four previous deportation schemes) how it could be achieved: by the mass shooting of Jewish civilians. His prestige suffered little from the failures of the lightning victory and the Hunger Plan, which were the responsibility of the Wehrmacht and the economic authorities. Even as he moved the Final Solution into the realm of the realizable, he still nurtured the dream of the Generalplan Ost, Hitler’s “Garden of Eden.” He continued to order revisions of the plan, and arranged an experimental deportation in the Lublin district of the General Government, and would, as opportunities presented themselves, urge Hitler to raze cities.5

In the summer and autumn of 1941, Himmler ignored what was impossible, pondered what was most glorious, and did what could be done: kill the Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, in occupied eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and the Soviet Union. Aided by this realization of Nazi doctrine during the months when German power was challenged, Himmler and the SS would come to overshadow civilian and military authorities in the occupied Soviet Union, and in the German empire. As Himmler put it, “the East belongs to the SS.”6


The East, until very recently, had belonged to the NKVD. One secret of Himmler’s success was that he was able to exploit the legacy of Soviet power in the places where it had most recently been installed.

In the first lands that German soldiers reached in Operation Barbarossa, they were the war’s second occupier. The first German gains in summer 1941 were the territories Germans had granted to the Soviets by the Treaty on Borders and Friendship of September 1939: what had been eastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, annexed in the meantime to the Soviet Union. In other words, in Operation Barbarossa German troops first entered lands that had been independent states through 1939 or 1940, and only then entered the prewar Soviet Union. Their Romanian ally meanwhile conquered the territories that it had lost to the Soviet Union in 1940.7

The double occupation, first Soviet, then German, made the experience of the inhabitants of these lands all the more complicated and dangerous. A single occupation can fracture a society for generations; double occupation is even more painful and divisive. It created risks and temptations that were unknown in the West. The departure of one foreign ruler meant nothing more than the arrival of another. When foreign troops left, people had to reckon not with peace but with the policies of the next occupier. They had to deal with the consequences of their own previous commitments under one occupier when the next one came; or make choices under one occupation while anticipating another. For different groups, these alternations could have different meanings. Gentile Lithuanians (for example) could experience the departure of the Soviets in 1941 as a liberation; Jews could not see the arrival of the Germans that way.

Lithuania had already undergone two major transformations by the time that German troops arrived in late June 1941. Lithuania, while still an independent state, had appeared to benefit from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939. The Treaty on Borders and Friendship of September 1939 had granted Lithuania to the Soviets, but Lithuanians had no way of knowing that. What the Lithuanian leadership perceived that month was something else: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union destroyed Poland, which throughout the interwar period had been Lithuania’s adversary. The Lithuanian government had considered Vilnius, a city in interwar Poland, as its capital. Lithuania, without taking part in any hostilities in September 1939, gained Polish lands for itself. In October 1939, the Soviet Union granted Lithuania Vilnius and the surrounding regions (2,750 square miles, 457,500 people). The price of Vilnius and other formerly Polish territories was basing rights for Soviet soldiers.8

Then, just half a year after Lithuania had been enlarged thanks to Stalin, it was conquered by its seeming Soviet benefactor. In June 1940 Stalin seized control of Lithuania and the other Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, and hastily incorporated them into the Soviet Union. After this annexation, the Soviet Union deported about twenty-one thousand people from Lithuania, including many Lithuanian elites. A Lithuanian prime minister and a Lithuanian foreign minister were among the exiled thousands. Some Lithuanian political and military leaders escaped the Gulag by fleeing to Germany. These were often people with some prior connections in Berlin, and always people embittered by their experience with Soviet aggression. The Germans favored the right-wing nationalists among the Lithuanian émigrés, and trained some of them to take part in the invasion of the Soviet Union.9


Thus when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Lithuania occupied a unique position. It had profited from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; then it had been conquered by the Soviets; now it would be occupied by the Germans. After the ruthless year of Soviet occupation, many Lithuanians welcomed this change; few Lithuanian Jews were among them. Two hundred thousand Jews lived in Lithuania in June 1941 (about the same number as in Germany). The Germans arrived in Lithuania with their handpicked nationalist Lithuanians and encountered local people who were willing to believe, or to act as if they believed, that Jews were responsible for Soviet repressions. The Soviet deportations had taken place that very month, and the NKVD had shot Lithuanians in prisons just a few days before the Germans arrived. The Lithuanian diplomat Kazys Škirpa, who returned with the Germans, used this suffering in his radio broadcasts to spur mobs to murder. Some 2,500 Jews were killed by Lithuanians in bloody pogroms in early July.10

As a result of trained collaboration and local assistance, German killers had all the help that they needed in Lithuania. The initial guidelines for killing Jews in certain positions were quickly exceeded by Einsatzgruppe A and the local collaborators it enlisted. Einsatzgruppe A had followed Army Group North into Lithuania. Einsatzkommando 3 of Einsatzgruppe A, responsible for the major Lithuanian city of Kaunas, had as many helpers as it needed. Einsatzkommando 3 numbered only 139 personnel, including secretaries and drivers, of which there were forty-four. In the weeks and months to come, Germans drove Lithuanians to killing sites around the city of Kaunas. By 4 July 1941 Lithuanian units were killing Jews under German supervision and orders. As early as 1 December Einsatzkommando 2 considered the Jewish problem in Lithuania resolved. It could report the killing of 133,346 persons, of whom some 114,856 were Jews. Despite Škirpa’s wishes, none of this served any Lithuanian political purpose. After he tried to declare an independent Lithuanian state, he was placed under house arrest.11

The city of Vilnius had been the northeastern metropolitan center of independent Poland and briefly the capital of independent and Soviet Lithuania. But throughout all of these vicissitudes, and indeed for the previous half-millennium, Vilnius had been something else: a center of Jewish civilization, known as the Jerusalem of the North. Some seventy thousand Jews lived in the city when the war began. Whereas the rest of Lithuania and the other Baltic States were covered by Einsatzgruppe A, the Vilnius area (along with Soviet Belarus) fell to Einsatzgruppe B. The unit assigned to kill the Vilnius Jews was its Einsatzkommando 9. Here the shooting took place at the Ponary Forest, just beyond the city. By 23 July 1941 the Germans had assembled a Lithuanian auxiliary, which marched columns of Jews to Ponary. There, groups of twelve to twenty people at a time were taken to the edge of a pit, where they had to hand over valuables and clothes. Their gold teeth were removed by force. Some 72,000 Jews from Vilnius and elsewhere (and about eight thousand non-Jewish Poles and Lithuanians) were shot at Ponary.12

Ita Straż was one of the very few survivors among the Jews of Vilnius. She was pulled by Lithuanian policemen to a pit that was already full of corpses. Nineteen years old at the time, she thought: “This is the end. And what have I seen of life?” The shots missed her, but she fell from fear into the pit. She was then covered by the corpses of the people who came after. Someone marched over the pile and fired downward, to make sure that everyone was dead. A bullet hit her hand, but she made no sound. She crept away later: “I was barefoot. I walked and walked over corpses. There seemed to be no end to it.”13

Neighboring Latvia, too, had been annexed by the Soviet Union just one year before the German invasion. Some twenty-one thousand Latvian citizens (many of them Latvian Jews) were deported by the Soviets, just weeks before the Germans arrived. The NKVD shot Latvian prisoners as the Wehrmacht approached Riga. The Germans’ main collaborator here was Viktor Arajs, a Latvian nationalist (German on his mother’s side) who happened to know the translator that German police forces brought to Riga. He was allowed to form the Arajs Commando, which in early July 1941 burned Jews alive in a Riga synagogue. As the Germans organized mass killings, they took care to choose Latvian shooters from among those whose families had suffered under Soviet rule. In July, under the supervision of Einsatzgruppe A commanders, the Arajs Commando marched Riga Jews to the nearby Bikernieki Forest and shot them. The Germans first carried out a “demonstration shooting,” and then had the Arajs Commando do much of the rest. With the assistance of such Latvians, the Germans were able to kill at least 69,750 of the country’s 80,000 Jews by the end of 1941.14

In the third Baltic State, Estonia, the sense of humiliation after the Soviet occupation was just as great as in Lithuania and Latvia, if not greater. Unlike Vilnius and Riga, Tallinn had not even partially mobilized its army before surrendering to the Soviets in 1940. It had yielded to Soviet demands before the other Baltic States, thus precluding any sort of Baltic diplomatic solidarity. The Soviets had deported some 11,200 Estonians, including most of the political leadership. In Estonia, too, Einsatzgruppe A found more than enough local collaborators. Estonians who had resisted the Soviets in the forests now joined a Self-Defense Commando under the guidance of the Germans. Estonians who had collaborated with the Soviets also joined, in an effort to restore their reputations.

Estonians greeted the Germans as liberators, and in return the Germans regarded Estonians as racially superior not only to the Jews but to the other Baltic peoples. Jews in Estonia were very few. Estonians from the Self-Defense Commando killed all 963 Estonian Jews who could be found, at German orders. In Estonia the murders and pogroms continued without the Jews. About five thousand non-Jewish Estonians were killed for their ostensible collaboration with the Soviet regime.15

East of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, the Germans encountered the fresh traces of Soviet statebuilding as they began to build their own empire. The signs were even starker in what had been eastern Poland than in the Baltics. Whereas Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been incorporated by the Soviet Union a year before the German invasion, in June 1940, eastern Poland had been annexed by the Soviets nine months before that, in September 1939. Here the Germans found evidence of a social transformation. Industry had been nationalized, some farms had been collectivized, and a native elite had been all but destroyed. The Soviets had deported more than three hundred thousand Polish citizens and shot tens of thousands more. The German invasion prompted the NKVD to shoot some 9,817 imprisoned Polish citizens rather than allow them to fall into German hands. The Germans arrived in the western Soviet Union in summer 1941 to find NKVD prisons full of fresh corpses. These had to be cleared out before the Germans could use them for their own purposes.16

Soviet mass murder provided the Germans with an occasion for propaganda. The Nazi line was that suffering under the Soviets was the fault of the Jews, and it found some resonance. With or without German agitation, many people in interwar Europe associated the Jews with communism. Interwar communist parties had in fact been heavily Jewish, especially in their leaderships, a fact upon which much of the press throughout Europe had commented for twenty years. Right-wing parties confused the issue by arguing that since many communists were Jews therefore many Jews were communists. These are very different propositions; the latter one was never true anywhere. Jews were blamed even before the war for the failings of national states; after the war began and national states collapsed during the Soviet or German invasion, the temptation for such scapegoating was all the greater. Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles had lost not only the independent states made for their nations but their status and local authority. They had surrendered all of this, in many cases, without putting up much of a fight. Nazi propaganda thus had a double appeal: it was no shame to lose to the Soviet communists, since they were backed by a powerful worldwide Jewish conspiracy; but since the Jews were ultimately to blame for communism, it was right to kill them now.17

In an arc that extended southward from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, the last week of June and the first weeks of July 1941 brought violence against Jews. In Lithuania and Latvia, where the Germans could bring local nationalists with them, and could pose at least for a moment as a liberator of whole states, the resonance of propaganda was greater and local participation more notable. In some important places in what had been eastern Poland, such as Białystok, the Germans carried out large-scale killings with their own forces, thereby setting a kind of example. Białystok, just east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, had been a city in northeastern Poland, then in Soviet Belarus. Immediately after it was taken by the Wehrmacht on 27 June, Order Police Battalion 309 began to plunder and kill civilians. German policemen killed about three hundred Jews and left the bodies lying around the city. Then they drove several hundred more Jews into the synagogue and set it on fire, shooting those who tried to escape. In the two weeks that followed, local Poles took part in some thirty pogroms in the Białystok region. Meanwhile, Himmler journeyed to Białystok, where he gave instructions that Jews were to be treated as partisans. The Order Police took a thousand Jewish men from Białystok to its outskirts and shot them between 8 and 11 July.18

Further south in what had been eastern Poland, in regions where Ukrainians were a majority, Germans appealed to Ukrainian nationalism. Here the Germans blamed the Jews for Soviet oppression of Ukrainians. In Kremenets, where more than a hundred prisoners were found murdered, some 130 Jews were killed in a pogrom. In Lutsk, where some 2,800 prisoners were found machine-gunned, the Germans killed two thousand Jews, and called this revenge for the wrongs done to Ukrainians by Jewish communists. In Lviv, where about 2,500 prisoners were found dead in the NKVD prison, Einsatzgruppe C and local militia organized a pogrom that lasted for days. The Germans presented these people as Ukrainian victims of Jewish secret policemen: in fact, some of the victims were Poles and Jews (and most of the secret policemen were probably Russians and Ukrainians). The diary of a man belonging to another of the Einsatzgruppen recorded the scene on 5 July 1941: “Hundreds of Jews are running down the street with faces covered with blood, holes in their heads, and eyes hanging out.” In the first few days of the war, local militias, with and without various kinds of German aid and encouragement, killed and instigated others to kill about 19,655 Jews in pogroms.19

Political calculation and local suffering do not entirely explain the participation in these pogroms. Violence against Jews served to bring the Germans and elements of the local non-Jewish population closer together. Anger was directed, as the Germans wished, toward the Jews, rather than against collaborators with the Soviet regime as such. People who reacted to the Germans’ urging knew that they were pleasing their new masters, whether or not they believed that the Jews were responsible for their own woes. By their actions they were confirming the Nazi worldview. The act of killing Jews as revenge for NKVD executions confirmed the Nazi understanding of the Soviet Union as a Jewish state. Violence against Jews also allowed local Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles who had themselves cooperated with the Soviet regime to escape any such taint. The idea that only Jews served communists was convenient not just for the occupiers but for some of the occupied as well.20

Yet this psychic nazification would have been much more difficult without the palpable evidence of Soviet atrocities. The pogroms took place where the Soviets had recently arrived and where Soviet power was recently installed, where for the previous months Soviet organs of coercion had organized arrests, executions, and deportations. They were a joint production, a Nazi edition of a Soviet text.21

The encounter with Soviet violence east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line served the SS, and its leaders. Himmler and Heydrich had always maintained that life was a clash of ideologies, and that traditional European understandings of the rule of law had to give way to the ruthless violence needed to destroy the racial and ideological enemy in the East. The traditional enforcers of German law, the police, had to become “ideological soldiers.” Thus before the war Himmler and Heydrich had purged the ranks of the police of men deemed unreliable, encouraged policemen to join the SS, and placed the SS and the Security Police (Order Police plus Gestapo) under a single structure of command. Their goal was to create a unified force dedicated to preemptive racial warfare. By the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union, about a third of German policemen with officer rank belonged to the SS, and about two thirds belonged to the National Socialist party.22

The German surprise attack had caught the NKVD off guard, and made the East appear to be a domain of lawlessness primed for a new German order. The NKVD, usually discreet, had been revealed as the murderer of prisoners. Germans broke through the levels of mystification, secrecy, and dissimulation that had covered the (far greater) Soviet crimes of 1937-1938 and 1930-1933. The Germans (along with their allies) were the only power ever to penetrate the territory of the Soviet Union in this way, and so the only people in a position to present such direct evidence of Stalinist murder. Because it was the Germans who discovered these crimes, the prison murders were politics before they were history. Fact used as propaganda is all but impossible to disentangle from the politics of its original transmission.

Because of the visible record of Soviet violence, German forces of order could present themselves as undoing Soviet crimes even as they engaged in crimes of their own. In light of their indoctrination, what Germans found in the doubly occupied lands made a certain kind of sense to them. It seemed to be a confirmation of what they had been trained and prepared to see: Soviet criminality, supposedly steered by and for the benefit of Jews. Soviet atrocities would help German SS-men, policemen, and soldiers justify to themselves the policies to which they were soon summoned: the murder of Jewish women and children. Yet the prison shootings, significant as they were to the local people who suffered Soviet criminality, were for Nazi leaders rather catalyst than cause.

In July 1941, Himmler was eager to show his master Hitler that he was attuned to the darker side of National Socialism, and ready to pursue policies of absolute ruthlessness. His SS and police were in competition for authority in the new eastern colonies with military and civilian occupation authorities. He was also in a personal contest for Hitler’s favor with Göring, whose plans for economic expansion lost credibility as the war preceded. Himmler would demonstrate that shooting was easier than starvation, deportation, and slavery. As Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom, Himmler’s authority as chief of racial affairs extended only to conquered Poland, not to the conquered Soviet Union. But as German forces moved into the prewar Soviet Union, Himmler behaved as if it did, using his power as head of the police and the SS to begin a policy of racial transformation that depended upon mortal violence.23

In July 1941, Himmler traveled personally throughout the western Soviet Union to pass on the new line: Jewish women and children should be killed along with Jewish men. The forces on the ground reacted immediately. Einsatzgruppe C, which had followed Army Group South into Ukraine, had been slower than Einsatzgruppe A (the Baltic States) and Einsatzgruppe B (Vilnius and Belarus) to undertake mass shootings of Jews as such. But then, at Himmler’s instigation, Einsatzgruppe C killed some sixty thousand Jews in August and September. These were organized shootings, not pogroms. Indeed, Einsatzkommando 5 of Einsatzgruppe C complained on 21 July that a pogrom by local Ukrainians and German soldiers hindered them from shooting the Jews of Uman. In the next two days, however, Einsatzkommando 5 did shoot about 1,400 Uman Jews (sparing a few Jewish women who were to take gravestones from the Jewish cemetery and use them to build a road). Einsatzkommando 6 of Einsatzgruppe C seems not to have killed women and children until a personal inspection by Himmler.24

The killing of women and children was a psychological barrier, one that Himmler made sure to break. Even as the Einsatzgruppen were generally killing only Jewish men, Himmler sent units of his Waffen-SS, the combat troops of the SS, to kill entire communities, including the women and children. On 17 July 1941, Hitler instructed Himmler to “pacify” the occupied territories. Two days later Himmler dispatched the SS Cavalry Brigade to the marshy Polesie region between Ukraine and Belarus, with the direct order to shoot Jewish men and to drive the Jewish women into the swamps. Himmler couched his instructions in the language of partisan warfare. But by 1 August the commander of the Cavalry Brigade was clarifying that: “not one male Jew is to be left alive, not one remnant family in the villages.” Quickly the Waffen-SS understood Himmler’s intentions, and helped to spread his message. By 13 August, 13,788 Jewish men, women, and children had been murdered. Himmler also sent the 1st Infantry SS Brigade to aid the Einsatzgruppen and police forces in Ukraine. Over the course of 1941, Waffen-SS formations killed more than fifty thousand Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line.25

Himmler made sure that the Einsatzgruppen were sufficiently reinforced to kill all the Jews that they found. From August 1941 forward, twelve battalions of the Order Police would provide most of the German manpower for killing actions. The Order Police were supposed to be deployed throughout the conquered Soviet Union; since the military campaign went more slowly than expected, they were available in larger-than-expected numbers in the occupied rear areas. By August the manpower available for mass murder east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line had reached about twenty thousand. By this time, Himmler seems to have authorized the practice, already widespread, of recruiting local policemen to assist in the shooting. Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians had taken part in the shooting almost from the beginning. By the end of 1941, tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, and Tatars had also been recruited to local police forces. Ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union were most desired, and took a prominent part in the killings of Jews. With the Order Police and the local recruits, there was manpower enough for the extermination of the Jews of the occupied Soviet Union.26

Himmler took the initiative, directed the murders, and organized the coercive bureaucracy. Enjoying the confidence of Hitler, Himmler was able to arrange the institutions of the police to his liking. He extended the institution of Higher SS and Police Leaders to the occupied Soviet Union. In Germany itself, the Higher SS and Police Leaders had proven to be little more than another layer of administration; in the East, they became what Himmler had always wanted them to be: his personal representatives, a crucial stage in a simplified hierarchy of coercive police power. A Higher SS and Police Leader was assigned to Army Groups North, Center, and South, while a fourth was held ready for an advance into the Caucasus. These men were theoretically subordinate to the civilian occupation authorities (Reichskommissariat Ostland in the north, Reichskommissariat Ukraine in the south) established in September 1941. In fact, the Higher SS and Police Leaders reported to Himmler. They understood that to kill Jews was to fulfill his desires. At Bletchley Park, where the British were decoding German communications, it became clear that the Higher SS and Police Leaders “stand somewhat in competition with each other as to their ‘scores.’”27

In late August 1941, the coordination of the German forces was on display at the mass shooting of Jews in the southwest Ukrainian city of Kamianets-Podilskyi. Here the war itself had created a problem of Jewish refugees.

Hungary, a German ally, had been allowed to annex subcarpathian Ruthenia, the far eastern district of Czechoslovakia. Rather than grant the native Jews of this region Hungarian citizenship, Hungary expelled “stateless” Jews to the east, to German-occupied Ukraine. The influx of Jews into a German-controlled territory strained limited resources. Friedrich Jeckeln, the Higher SS and Police Leader for the area, took the initiative, likely so that he could report a success to Himmler at a meeting on 12 August. He flew in personally to make arrangements. The Germans chose a site outside Kamianets-Podilskyi, and forced Jewish refugees and some local Jews to march there. The Jews were shot in pits by Order Police Battalion 320 and Jeckeln’s personal staff company. Some 23,600 Jews were killed in the course of four days, from 26 to 29 August. Jeckeln reported the number by radio to Himmler. This was by far the largest massacre yet carried out by the Germans, and it set a pattern for those to follow.28


The Wehrmacht aided and abetted such shooting operations, and sometimes requested them. By late August 1941, nine weeks into the war, the Wehrmacht had serious concerns about food supplies and the security of the rear. Murdering Jews would free up food and, according to Nazi logic, prevent partisan uprisings. After the mass shooting at Kamianets-Podilskyi, the Wehrmacht systematically cooperated with the Einsatzgruppen and the police forces in the destruction of Jewish communities. When a town or a city was taken, the police (if present) would round up some of the Jewish men and shoot them. The army would register the surviving population, noting the Jews. Then the Wehrmacht and the police would negotiate over how many of the remaining Jews could be killed, and how many should be left alive as a labor force in a ghetto. After this selection, the police would proceed to a second mass shooting, with the army often providing trucks, ammunition, and guards. If the police were not present, the army would register Jews and organize forced labor itself. The police would arrange the killings later. As central directives became clearer and these protocols of cooperation were established, death tolls among Jews in occupied Soviet Ukraine roughly doubled from July to August 1941, and then again from August to September.29

In Kiev in September 1941, a further confrontation with the remnants of Soviet power provided the pretext for the next escalation: the first attempt to murder all of the native Jews present in a large city.

On 19 September 1941 the Wehrmacht’s Army Group South took Kiev, several weeks behind schedule, and with the help of Army Group Center. On 24 September, a series of bombs and mines exploded, destroying the buildings in central Kiev where the Germans had established offices of their occupation regime. Some of these explosives were on timers set before Soviet forces withdrew from the city, but some seem to have been detonated by NKVD men who remained in Kiev. As the Germans pulled their dead and wounded from the rubble, the city suddenly seemed unsafe. As a local remembered, the Germans stopped smiling. They had to try to govern the metropolis with a very small number of people, dozens of whom had just been killed, even as they prepared a continued eastward march. The Germans had a clear ideological line to follow: if the NKVD was guilty, the Jews must be blamed. At a meeting on 26 September, military authorities agreed with representatives of the police and SS that the mass murder of Kiev Jews would be the appropriate reprisal for the bombing. Although most of the Jews of Kiev had fled before the Germans took the city, tens of thousands remained. They were all to be killed.30

Disinformation was the key to the entire operation. A Wehrmacht propaganda crew printed broadsheet notices that ordered the Jews of Kiev to appear, on pain of death, at a street corner in a westerly neighborhood of the city. In what would become the standard lie of such mass shooting actions, the Jews were told that they were being resettled. They should thus bring along their documents, money, and valuables. On 29 September 1941 most of the remaining Jewish community of Kiev did indeed appear at the appointed location. Some Jews told themselves that since Yom Kippur, the highest Jewish holiday, was the following day, they could not possibly be hurt. Many arrived before dawn, in the hopes of getting good seats on the resettlement train—which did not exist. People packed for a long journey, old women wearing strings of onions around their necks for food. Having been assembled, the more than thirty thousand people walked, as instructed, along Melnyk Street in the direction of the Jewish cemetery. Observers from nearby apartments recalled an “endless row” that was “overflowing the entire street and the sidewalks.”31

The Germans had erected a roadblock near the gates of the Jewish cemetery, where documents were verified and non-Jews told to return home. From this point forward the Jews were escorted by Germans with automatic weapons and dogs. At the checkpoint, if no earlier, many of the Jews must have wondered what their true fate would be. Dina Pronicheva, a woman of thirty, walked ahead of her family to a point where she could hear gunshots. Immediately all was clear to her; but she chose not to tell her parents so as not to worry them. Instead she walked along with her mother and father until she reached the tables where the Germans demanded valuables and clothes. A German had already taken her mother’s wedding ring when Pronicheva realized that her mother, no less than she, understood what was happening. Yet only when her mother whispered sharply to her—“you don’t look like a Jew”—did she try to escape. Such plain communication is rare in such situations, when the human mind labors to deny what is actually happening, and the human spirit strives toward imitation, subordination, and thus extinction. Pronicheva, who had a Russian husband and thus a Russian surname, told a German at a nearby table that she was not Jewish. He told her to wait at one side until the work of the day was complete.32

Thus Dina Pronicheva saw what became of her parents, her sister, and the Jews of Kiev. Having surrendered their valuables and documents, people were forced to strip naked. Then they were driven by threats or by shots fired overhead, in groups of about ten, to the edge of a ravine known as Babi Yar. Many of them were beaten: Pronicheva remembered that people “were already bloody as they went to be shot.” They had to lie down on their stomachs on the corpses already beneath them, and wait for the shots to come from above and behind. Then would come the next group. Jews came and died for thirty-six hours. People were perhaps alike in dying and in death, but each of them was different until that final moment, each had different preoccupations and presentiments until all was clear and then all was black. Some people died thinking about others rather than themselves, such as the mother of the beautiful fifteen-year-old girl Sara, who begged to be killed at the same time as her daughter. Here there was, even at the end, a thought and a care: that if she saw her daughter shot she would not see her raped. One naked mother spent what she must have known were her last few seconds of life breastfeeding her baby. When the baby was thrown alive into the ravine, she jumped in after it, and in that way found her death. Only there in the ditch were these people reduced to nothing, or to their number, which was 33,761. Since the bodies were later exhumed and burned on pyres, and the bones that did not burn crushed and mixed with sand, the count is what remains.33

At the end of the day, the Germans decided to kill Dina Pronicheva. Whether or not she was Jewish was moot; she had seen too much. In the darkness she was led to the edge of the ravine along with a few other people. She was not forced to undress. She survived in the only way possible in that situation: just as the shots began, she threw herself into the gorge, and then feigned death. She bore the weight of the German walking across her body, remaining motionless as the boots tread across her breast and her hand, “like a dead person.” She was able to keep open a small air hole as the dirt fell down around her. She heard a small child calling for its mother, and thought of her own children. She began to talk to herself: “Dina, get up, run away, run to your children.” Perhaps words made the difference, as they had earlier when her mother, now dead somewhere below, had whispered to her. She dug her way out, and crept away quietly.34

Dina Pronicheva joined the perilous world of the few Jewish survivors in Kiev. The law required that Jews be turned in to the authorities. The Germans offered material incentives: money, and sometimes the keys to the Jew’s apartment. The local population, in Kiev as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, was of course accustomed to denouncing “enemies of the people.” Not so very long before, in 1937 and 1938, the main local enemy, denounced at that time to the NKVD, had been “Polish spies.” Now, as the Gestapo settled in to the former offices of the NKVD, the enemy was the Jew. Those who came to report Jews to the German police passed by a guard wearing a swastika armband—standing before friezes of the hammer and sickle. The office dealing with Jewish affairs was rather small, since the investigation of Jewish “crimes” was simple: a Soviet document with Jewish nationality recorded (or a penis without a foreskin) meant death. Iza Belozovskaia, a Kiev Jew in hiding, had a young son called Igor who was confused by all of this. He asked his mother: “What is a Jew?” In practice the answer was given by German policemen reading Soviet identity documents or by German doctors subjecting boys such as Igor to a “medical examination.”35

Iza Belozovskaia felt death everywhere. “I felt a strong desire,” she remembered, “to sprinkle my head, my whole self, with ashes, to hear nothing, to be changed into dust.” But she kept going, and she lived. Those who gave up hope sometimes survived thanks to the devotion of their non-Jewish spouses or their families. The midwife Sofia Eizenshtayn, for example, was hidden by her husband in a pit he dug at the back of a courtyard. He led her there dressed as a beggar, and visited her every day as he walked their dog. He talked to her, pretending to talk to the dog. She pleaded with him to poison her. Instead he kept bringing her food and water. Those Jews who were caught by the police were killed. They were placed in cells of the Kiev prison that had held victims of the Great Terror three years before. When the prison was full, the Jews and other prisoners were driven away at dawn in a covered truck. Residents of Kiev learned to fear this truck, as they had feared the NKVD black ravens leaving these same gates. It took the Jews and other prisoners to Babi Yar, where they were forced to disrobe, kneel at the edge of the ravine, and wait for the shot.36

Babi Yar confirmed the precedent of Kamianets-Podilskyi for the destruction of Jews in central, eastern, and southern Ukrainian cities. Because Army Group South had captured Kiev late, and because news of German policies spread quickly, most Jews of these regions had fled east and therefore survived. Those who remained almost always did not. On 13 October 1941 about 12,000 Jews were killed at Dnipropetrovsk. The Germans were able to use the local administrations, established by themselves, to facilitate the work of gathering and then killing Jews. In Kharkiv, it appears that Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C had the city administration settle the remaining Jews in a single district. On 15 and 16 December more than 10,000 Kharkiv Jews were taken to a tractor factory at the edge of town. There they were shot in groups by Order Police Battalion 314 and Sonderkommando 4a in January 1942. Some of them were gassed in a truck that piped its own exhaust into its own cargo trailer, and thus into the lungs of Jews who were locked inside. Gas vans were also tried in Kiev, but rejected when the Security Police complained that they disliked removing mangled corpses covered with blood and excrement. In Kiev the German policemen preferred shooting over ravines and pits.37

The timing of the mass murder was slightly different in occupied Soviet Belarus, behind the lines of Army Group Center. In the first eight weeks of the war, through August 1941, Einsatzgruppe B under Artur Nebe killed more Jews, in Vilnius and in Belarus, than any of the other Einsatzgruppen. But the further mass murder of Jews in Belarus was then delayed somewhat by a military consideration. Hitler decided to send divisions from Army Group Center to aid Army Group South in the battle for Kiev of September 1941. This decision of Hitler’s delayed the march of Army Group Center on Moscow, which was its main task.38

Once Kiev was taken and the march on Moscow could resume, so did the killing. On 2 October 1941, Army Group Center began a secondary offensive on Moscow, code-named Operation Typhoon. Police and security divisions began to clear Jews from its rear. Army Group Center advanced with a force of 1.9 million men in seventy-eight divisions. Then the policy of general mass murder of Jews, including women and children, was extended throughout occupied Soviet Belarus. Throughout September 1941 Sonderkommando 4a and Einsatzkommando 5 of Einsatzgruppe B were already exterminating all Jews of villages and small towns. In early October that policy was applied to cities.39

In October 1941, Mahileu became the first substantial city in occupied Soviet Belarus where almost all Jews were killed. A German (Austrian) policeman wrote to his wife of his feelings and experiences shooting the city’s Jews in the first days of the month. “During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse. The death that we gave them was a beautiful quick death, compared to the hellish torments of thousands and thousands in the jails of the GPU. Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water.” On the second and third of October 1941, the Germans (with the help of auxiliary policemen from Ukraine) shot 2,273 men, women, and children at Mahileu. On 19 October another 3,726 followed.40

Here in Belarus a direct order to kill women and children came from Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the Higher SS and Police Leader for “Russia Center,” the terrain behind Army Group Center. Bach, whom Hitler regarded as a “man who could wade through a sea of blood,” was the direct representative of Himmler, and was certainly acting in accordance with Himmler’s wishes. In occupied Soviet Belarus the accord between the SS and the army on the fate of the Jews was especially evident. General Gustav von Bechtolsheim, commander of the infantry division responsible for security in the Minsk area, fervently advocated the mass murder of Jews as a preventive measure. Had the Soviets invaded Europe, he was fond of saying, the Jews would have exterminated the Germans. Jews were “no longer humans in the European sense of the word,” and thus “must be destroyed.”41


Himmler had endorsed the killing of women and children in July 1941, and then the total extermination of Jewish communities in August 1941, as a small taste of the paradise to come, the Garden of Eden that Hitler desired. It was a post-apocalyptic vision of exaltation after war, of life after death, the resurgence of one race after the extermination of others. Members of the SS shared the racism and the dream. The Order Police sometimes shared in this vision, and were of course corrupted by their own participation. The Wehrmacht officers and soldiers often held essentially the same views as the SS, girded by a certain interpretation of military practicality: that the elimination of the Jews could help bring an increasingly difficult war to a victorious conclusion, or prevent partisan resistance, or at least improve food supplies. Those who did not endorse the mass killing of Jews believed that they had no choice, since Himmler was closer to Hitler than they. Yet as time passed, even such military officers usually came to be convinced that the killing of Jews was necessary, not because the war was about to won, as Himmler and Hitler could still believe in summer 1941, but because the war could easily be lost.42

Soviet power never collapsed. In September 1941, two months after the invasion, the NKVD was powerfully in evidence, directed against a most sensitive target: the Germans of the Soviet Union. By an order of 28 August, Stalin had 438,700 Soviet Germans deported to Kazakhstan in the first half of September 1941, most of them from an autonomous region in the Volga River. In its speed, competence, and territorial range, this one act of Stalin made a mockery of the confused and contradictory deportation actions that the Germans had carried out in the previous two years. It was at this moment of Stalin’s sharp defiance, in mid-September 1941, that Hitler took a strangely ambiguous decision: to send German Jews to the east. In October and November, the Germans began to deport German Jews to Minsk, Riga, Kaunas, and Łódź. Up to this point, German Jews had lost their rights and their property, but only rarely their lives. Now they were being sent, albeit without instructions to kill them, to places where Jews had been shot in large numbers. Perhaps Hitler wanted revenge. He could not have failed to notice that the Volga had not become Germany’s Mississippi. Rather than settling the Volga basin as triumphant colonists, Germans were being deported from it as repressed and humbled Soviet citizens.43

Despair and euphoria were on intimate terms in Hitler’s mind, and so an entirely different interpretation is also possible. It is perfectly conceivable that Hitler began to deport German Jews because he wished to believe, or wished others to believe, that Operation Typhoon, the secondary offensive on Moscow that began on 2 October 1941, would bring the war to an end. In a moment of exaltation Hitler even claimed as much in a speech of 3 October: “The enemy is broken and will never rise again!” If the war was truly over, then the Final Solution, as a program of deportations for the postwar period, could begin.44

Though Operation Typhoon brought no final victory, the Germans went ahead anyway with the deportations of German Jews to the east, which began a kind of chain reaction. The need to make room in these ghettos confirmed one mass killing method (in Riga, in occupied Latvia), and likely hastened the development of another (in Łódź, in occupied Poland).

In Riga, the police commander was now Friedrich Jeckeln, as Higher SS and Police Leader for Reichskommissariat Ostland. Jeckeln, a Riga native, had organized the first massive shooting of Jews at Kamianets-Podilskyi in August, in his former capacity as Higher SS and Police Leader for Reichskommissariat Ukraine. Now, after his transfer, he brought his industrial shooting methods to Latvia. First he had Soviet prisoners of war dig a series of pits in the Letbartskii woods, in the Rumbula Forest, near Riga. On a single day, 30 November 1941, Germans and Latvians marched some fourteen thousand Jews in columns to the shooting sites, forced them to lie down next to each other in pits, and shot them from above.45


The city of Łódź fell within the domain of Arthur Greiser, who headed the Wartheland, the largest district of Polish territory added to the Reich. Łódź had been the second-most populous Jewish city in Poland, and was now the most populous Jewish city in the Reich. Its ghetto was overcrowded before the arrival of the German Jews. It could be that the need to remove Jews from Łódź inspired Greiser, or the SS and Security Police commanders of the Wartheland, to seek a more efficient method of murder. The Wartheland had always been at the center of the policy of “strengthening Germandom.” Hundreds of thousands of Poles had been deported beginning in 1939, to be replaced by hundreds of thousands of Germans who arrived from the Soviet Union (before the German invasion of the USSR made shipping Germans westward utterly pointless). But the removal of the Jews, always a central element of the plan to make this new German zone racially German, had proven the hardest to implement. Greiser confronted a problem on the scale of his district that Hitler confronted on the scale of his empire: the Final Solution was officially deportation, but there was nowhere to send the Jews. By early December 1941 a gas van was parked at Chełmno.46

Hitler’s deportation of German Jews in October 1941 smacked of improvisation at the top and uncertainty below. German Jews sent to Minsk and Łódź were not themselves killed but, rather, placed in the ghettos. The German Jews sent to Kaunas were however killed upon arrival, as were those of the first transport sent to Riga. Whatever Hitler’s intentions, German Jews were now being shot. Perhaps Hitler had decided by this point to murder all of the Jews of Europe, including German Jews; if so, even Himmler had not yet grasped his intention. It was Jeckeln who killed the German Jews arriving in Riga, whom Himmler had not wished to murder.

Himmler did set in motion, also in October 1941, a search for a new and more effective way of killing Jews. He made contact with his client Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader for the Lublin district of the General Government, who immediately set to work on a new type of facility for the killing of Jews at a site known as Bełżec. By November 1941 the concept was not entirely clear and machinery was not yet in place, but certain outlines of Hitler’s final version of the Final Solution were visible. In the occupied Soviet Union, Jews were being killed by bullets on an industrial scale. In annexed and occupied Poland (in the Wartheland and in the General Government), gassing facilities were under construction (at Chełmno and Bełżec). In Germany, Jews were being sent to the east, where some of them had already been killed.47

The Final Solution as mass murder, initiated east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, was spreading to the west.


In November 1941 Army Group Center was pushing toward Moscow, to win the delayed, but no less glorious, final victory: the end of the Soviet system, the beginning of the apocalyptic transformation of blighted Soviet lands into a proud German frontier empire. In fact, German soldiers were heading into a much more conventional apocalypse. Their trucks and tanks were slowed by the autumn mud, their bodies by the lack of proper clothing and warm food. At one point German officers could see the spires of the Kremlin through their binoculars, but they would never reach the Soviet capital. Their men were at the very limits of their supplies and their endurance. The resistance of the Red Army was ever firmer, its tactics ever more intelligent.48

On 24 November 1941 Stalin ordered his strategic reserves from the Soviet East into battle against Army Group Center of the Wehrmacht. He was confident that he could take this risk. From a highly placed informer in Tokyo, and no doubt from other sources, Stalin had reports that there would be no Japanese attack on Soviet Siberia. He had refused to believe in a German attack in summer 1941 and was wrong; now he refused to believe in a Japanese attack in autumn 1941 and was right. He had kept his nerve. On 5 December the Red Army went on the offensive at Moscow. German soldiers tasted defeat. Their exhausted horses could not move their equipment back quickly enough. The troops would spend the winter outside, huddling in the cold, short on everything.49

Stalin’s intelligence was correct. Japan was about to commit decisively to a war in the Pacific, which would all but exclude any Japanese offensive in Siberia. The southern course of Japanese imperialism had been set by 1937. It had been clear to all when Japan invaded French Indochina in September 1940. Hitler had discouraged his Japanese ally from joining in the invasion of the Soviet Union; now, as that invasion had failed, Japanese forces were moving further in the other direction.

Even as the Red Army marched west on 6 December 1941, a Japanese task force of aircraft carriers was sailing toward Pearl Harbor, the base of the United States Pacific Fleet. On 7 December, a German general, in a letter home, described the battles around Moscow. He and his men were “fighting for our own naked lives, daily and hourly, against an enemy who in all respects is superior.” That same day, two waves of Japanese aircraft attacked the American fleet, destroying several battleships and killing two thousand servicemen. The following day the United States declared war on Japan. Three days later, on 11 December, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. This made it very easy for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare war on Germany.50

Stalin’s position in east Asia was now rather good. If the Japanese meant to fight the United States for control of the Pacific, it was all but inconceivable that they would confront the Soviets in Siberia. Stalin no longer had to fear a two-front war. What was more, the Japanese attack was bound to bring the United States into the war—as an ally of the Soviet Union. By early 1942 the Americans had already engaged the Japanese in the Pacific. Soon American supply ships would reach Soviet Pacific ports, unhindered by Japanese submarines—since the Japanese were neutral in the Soviet-German war. A Red Army taking American supplies from the east was an entirely different foe than a Red Army concerned about a Japanese attack from the east. Stalin just had to exploit American aid, and encourage the Americans to open a second front in Europe. Then the Germans would be encircled, and the Soviet victory certain.

Since 1933, Japan had been the great multiplier in the gambles that Hitler and Stalin took with and against each other. Both men, each for his own reasons, wished for Japan to fight its wars in the south, against China on land and the European empires and the United States at sea. Hitler welcomed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, believing that the United States would be slow to arm and would fight in the Pacific rather than in Europe. Even after the failure of Operations Barbarossa and Typhoon, Hitler wished for the Japanese to engage the United States rather than the Soviet Union. Hitler seemed to believe that he could conquer the USSR in early 1942 and then engage an America weakened by the Pacific War. Stalin, too, wished for the Japanese to move south, and had very carefully crafted foreign and military policy that had precisely this effect. His thought was in essence the same as Hitler’s: the Japanese are to stay away, because the lands of the Soviet Union are mine. Berlin and Moscow both wanted to keep Japan in east Asia and in the Pacific, and Tokyo obliged them both. Whom this would serve depended upon the outcome of the German attack on the Soviet Union.51


Had the German invasion proceeded as envisioned, as a lightning victory that leveled the great Soviet cities and yielded Ukrainian food and Caucasian oil, the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor might indeed have been good news for Berlin. In such a scenario, the attack on Pearl Harbor would have meant that the Japanese were diverting the United States as Germany consolidated a victorious position in its new colony. The Germans would have initiated Generalplan Ost or some variant, seeking to become a great land empire self-sufficient in food and oil and capable of defending themselves against a naval blockade by the United Kingdom and an amphibious assault by the United States. This had always been a fantasy scenario, but it had some light purchase upon reality so long as German troops were making for Moscow.

Since the Germans were turned back at Moscow at the very moment that the Japanese advanced, Pearl Harbor had exactly the opposite meaning. It meant that Germany was in the worst of all possible configurations: not a giant land empire intimidating Great Britain and preparing itself for a confrontation with the United States but rather a single European country at war against the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States with allies either weak (Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia) or uninvolved in the crucial east European theater (Japan, Bulgaria). The Japanese seemed to understand this better than the Germans. They wanted Hitler to make a separate peace with Stalin, and then fight the British and the Americans for control of Asia and North Africa. The Japanese wished to break Britain’s naval power; the Germans tried to work within its bounds. This left Hitler with one world strategy, and he kept to it: the destruction of the Soviet Union and the creation of a land empire on its ruins.52


In December 1941, Hitler found a strange resolution to his drastic strategic predicament. He himself had told his generals that “all continental problems” had to be resolved by the end of 1941 so that Germany could prepare for a global conflict with the United Kingdom and the United States. Instead Germany found itself facing the timeless strategic nightmare, the two-front war, to be fought against three great powers. With characteristic audacity and political agility, Hitler recast the situation in terms that were consistent with Nazi anti-Semitism, if not with the original planning for the war. What besides utopian planning, inept calculation, racist arrogance, and foolish brinksmanship could have brought Germany into a war with the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union? Hitler had the answer: a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.53

In January 1939, Hitler had made a speech threatening the Jews with extinction if they succeeded in fomenting another world war. Since summer 1941, German propaganda had played unceasingly on the theme of a tentacular Jewish plot, uniting the British, the Soviets, and ever more the Americans. On 12 December 1941, a week after the Soviet counterattack at Moscow, four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and one day after the United States reciprocated the German declaration of war, Hitler returned to that speech. He referred to it as a prophecy that would have to be fulfilled. “The world war is here,” he told some fifty trusted comrades on 12 December 1941; “the annihilation of Jewry must be the necessary consequence.” From that point forward his most important subordinates understood their task: to kill all Jews wherever possible. Hans Frank, the head of the General Government, conveyed the policy in Warsaw a few days later: “Gentlemen, I must ask you to rid yourselves of all feeling of pity. We must annihilate the Jews wherever we find them, in order to maintain the structure of the Reich as a whole.”54

Jews were now blamed for the looming disaster that could not be named. Nazis would have instantly grasped the connection between the Jewish enemy and the prospect of downfall. They all believed, if they accepted Hitler’s view, that Germany had not been defeated on the battlefield in the last world war, but instead brought down by a “stab in the back,” a conspiracy of Jews and other internal enemies. Now Jews would also take the blame for the American-British-Soviet alliance. Such a “common front” of capitalism and communism, went Hitler’s reasoning, could only have been consecrated by the Jewish cabals in London, Moscow, and Washington. Jews were the aggressors, Germans the victims. If disaster were to be averted, Jews would have to be eliminated. Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels recorded the moral reversal in his diary: “We are not here to have sympathy with the Jews, but only to have sympathy with our German nation.”55

As the war turned Stalin’s way, Hitler recast its purpose. The plan had been to destroy the Soviet Union and then eliminate the Jews. Now, as the destruction of the Soviet Union was indefinitely delayed, the utter extermination of the Jews became a wartime policy. The menace henceforth was less the Slavic masses and their supposed Jewish overlords, and more the Jews as such. In 1942, propaganda against Slavs would ease, as more of them came to work in the Reich. Hitler’s decision to kill Jews (rather than exploit their labor) was presumably facilitated by his simultaneous decision to exploit the labor of Slavs (rather than kill them). These moves signified an abandonment of most of the initial assumptions about the course of the war, although of course Hitler would never have admitted that. But the mass killing of the Jews at least looked consistent with the initial vision of a frontier empire in the East.56

In fact, the decision to kill the Jews contradicted that vision, since it was an implicit acceptance that the Germans would never control the vast territories that they would have needed for a Final Solution by deportation. In logistical terms, mass murder is simpler than mass deportation. At this point, killing was Hitler’s only option if he wished to fulfill his own prophecy. His was a land empire rather than a sea empire, but he controlled no wastelands into which Jews could disappear. Insofar as there had been progress in the Final Solution, it was in Himmler’s demonstration of the method that did not require deportation: murder. The killing was less a sign of than a substitute for triumph. From late July 1941 Jews had been murdered as the envisaged lightning victory failed to materialize. From December 1941, Jews as such were to be killed as the alliance against Germany grew in strength. Hitler sought and found still deeper emotions and gave voice to more vicious goals, and a German leadership aware of its predicament accepted them.57

By defining the conflict as a “world war,” Hitler drew attention away from the lack of a lightning victory and the unwelcome lessons of history that followed from this military failure. In December 1941, German soldiers were staring straight at the fate of Napoleon, whose Grande Armée had reached the outskirts of Moscow faster in 1812 than had the Wehrmacht in 1941. Yet in the end Napoleon had retreated from winter and Russian reinforcements. As German troops held their positions, they would inevitably confront a repetition of the kinds of battles that had been fought in 1914-1918: long days of sinking into trenches to escape machine guns and artillery, and long years of slow, meaningless movement and countless casualties. The kind of warfare that had supposedly been made obsolete by Hitler’s genius was upon them. The German general staff had anticipated losses of about half a million and victory by September; losses were approaching a million as victory receded in December.58

All of the failed offensives and missed deadlines and depressing prospects would be less shameful if what the Wehrmacht was fighting was not an ill-planned colonial war of aggression but a glorious if tragic world war in defense of civilization. If German soldiers were fighting the powers of the whole world, organized by the Jewish cabals of Moscow and London and Washington, then their cause was great and just. If they had to fight a defensive war, as was indeed now in practice the case, then someone else could be handed the role of the aggressor. The Jews filled that place in the story, at least for Nazi believers and many German civilians waiting for fathers and husbands to return. German soldiers, whether or not they believed in Jewish responsibility for the war, likely needed ideological revisions less than the politicians and the civilians. They were desperate but they were still deadly; and they would fight well, and they would fight on, long enough, at least, for Hitler to fulfill his prophecy. The Wehrmacht was and would remain by far the most effective fighting force in the European theater, even though its chances for a traditional victory were now nil.

By the magic of racial thinking, killing the Jews itself was a German triumph, at a moment when any other victory receded beyond the horizon of the possible. The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were enemies of Germany, and the Jews were the enemy of Germany, and thus, went the spurious syllogism, they were under the influence of the Jews. If these were Jewish states, then Jews in Europe were their agents. Killing the Jews of Europe was thus an attack on Germany’s enemies, directly and indirectly, and was justified not only by moral but by military logic. Himmler noted Hitler’s desire that the Jews of Europe, as of December 1941, were to be destroyed “as partisans,” as agents of Germany’s foes behind the lines. By this time, the logic of killing Jews as “retribution” for partisan attacks had already been developed: in the Polesian swamps between Belarus and Ukraine, where Himmler had used it as the reason to kill Jewish men, women, and children beginning in July 1941; in Kiev, where the Germans had murdered more than thirty thousand Jews in retribution for the Soviet bombings in the city; and even further in Serbia, where the German armed forces had encountered serious resistance slightly earlier than in the Soviet Union.59

The Serbian example was, perhaps, especially pertinent. The German war in southeastern Europe had begun slightly earlier than the war in the Soviet Union, and had brought certain applicable lessons. Germany had invaded Yugoslavia and Greece in spring 1941, just before the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, mainly to rescue its bungling Italian ally from defeat in its own Balkan wars. Though Germany had quickly destroyed the Yugoslav army and created a Croatian puppet state, resistance in the Serbian occupation zone it shared with Italy was considerable. Some of it came from communists. The German commanding general in Serbia ordered that only Jews and Roma be killed as revenge for the deaths of Germans who fell in action against partisans—at a ratio of one hundred to one. In this way, almost all of the male Jews of Serbia had been shot by the time Himmler made his note about the destruction of Jews “as partisans.” The logic of Serbia was universalized. Jews as such would be killed as retribution for the US-UK-USSR alliance. Neither Jews nor the Allies could be expected to understand this. It made sense only within the Nazi worldview, which Hitler had just adapted for future use.60

The fifth and final version of the Final Solution was mass death. In Nazi parlance, the word resettlement now shifted from description to euphemism. For years German leaders had imagined that they could “resolve” Europe’s Jewish “problem” by resettling Jews to one place or another. Jews would be worked to death wherever they landed, and perhaps sterilized so that they could not reproduce, but they would not all be killed as such. Thus resettlement was incomplete though not entirely inaccurate as a description of Jewish policy in 1940 and into 1941. Henceforth resettlementorresettlement to the East would mean mass murder. Perhaps the resettlement euphemism, by suggesting an essential continuity of policy, helped Nazis to overlook the fact that German policy not only changed but had to change because the war was not going as expected. It might thus have allowed the Germans to shield from themselves the reality that military disaster conditioned their Jewish policy.61

The Germans had already shown, by December 1941, that they could do something far worse than deport Jews to Poland, Madagascar, or the Soviet Union. They could kill the Jews under their control, and blame the victims for their fate. The reality of resettlement from which the Germans now distanced themselves can be brought closer by simple quotation of German usage: “Resettlement site: on the resettlement site eight trenches are situated. One squad of ten officers and men are to work at each trench and are to be relieved every two hours.”62


By the time Hitler conveyed his preferences in December 1941, Himmler’s SS and police forces (aided by the Wehrmacht and local policemen) had already killed about a million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union. Retrospect conveys a sense of inevitability, and the new German policy of killing all European Jews may appear to be nothing more than the fulfillment of a goal that was, in some sense, already a given. While it is true that Hitler took for granted that the Jews would have no place in his future Europe, and that Himmler’s escalating murder must have corresponded to Hitler’s wishes, Hitler’s decision to speak of the mass murder of all Jews must be seen as just that: a decision. Other responses to the same events, after all, were possible.63

Germany’s ally Romania showed the possibility of such reversals. Bucharest had also been pursuing national purification. As of December 1941, Romanian Jews had suffered more than German Jews. Romania had joined in the invasion of the Soviet Union—like Germany, under propaganda associating communism with Jews. By invading the Soviet Union along with the Germans, Romania recovered the Bessarabian and Bukovinan territory that the Soviet Union had annexed in 1940. Romania then added a new region called “Transnistria,” seized from the southern part of Soviet Ukraine. In this zone in 1941, Romanian policies toward Jews were every bit as brutal as their German equivalents. After taking Odessa, Romanian troops killed about twenty thousand local Jews in “reprisals” for an explosion that destroyed their headquarters in the city. In the Bohdanivka district the Romanians shot more than forty thousand Jews in a few days in late December 1941. The Romanians also created their own set of ghettos and labor camps in Transnistria, where tens of thousands of Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina perished. All in all, Romania killed about three hundred thousand Jews.64

Yet Romania’s leadership reacted to the changing course of the war differently than did Hitler. Its policies toward Jews remained brutal, but were gradually softened rather than hardened. By summer 1942 Romania was no longer deporting Jews to Transnistria. When the Germans built death facilities, Romania declined to send its Jews to them. By the end of 1942, Romanian policy had diverged significantly from the German. Romania would attempt to switch sides later in the war, and at that time the survival of remaining Jews would come to seem an asset. The year 1942 was thus a crucial turning point, when German and Romanian policies turned in opposite directions. Germany would kill all Jews because the war was lost; Romania, late that year, would save some Jews for much the same reason. The Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu would leave open a crack in the door for negotiations with the Americans and the British; Hitler left the Germans no possibility to escape from their own guilt.65



Over the course of the year 1942, the Germans killed most of the remaining Jews who were under their occupation. West of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, mass murder would be carried out at gassing facilities. East of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, the Germans continued the mass shootings, and also used the gas vans that had been tested on the Soviet prisoners of war. In occupied Soviet Ukraine, the killing began again as soon as the earth had thawed enough for the digging of pits, and sometimes, where machines were available for digging, even sooner. In the eastern part of Soviet Ukraine, still under military occupation, the shooting simply continued without any pause from late 1941 through early 1942. In January, Einsatzgruppen, assisted by the Wehrmacht, killed smaller Jewish communities that had survived the first sweep, as well as groups of Jewish laborers. In spring 1942 the action shifted from the east to the west, from the military zone to the civilian occupation authority, the Reichskommissariat Ukraine. Here all of the actions were carried out by stationary police forces, battalions of German Order Police with the assistance of local militiamen. With the help of tens of thousands of local collaborators, the Germans had the necessary manpower.66


Killing became extermination last in the lands that the Germans took first. Though the Germans had overrun all of the former lands of eastern Poland in the first ten days of the war, in June 1941, many of the native Jews of Poland’s southeast, now the west of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, had survived until 1942. German forces had already passed through by the time Himmler began to order the destruction of whole Jewish communities. By the time German policy had shifted, most German forces had already departed. In 1942 the Germans undertook a second round of mass shootings in the western districts of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, this time organized by the civilian authorities and implemented by the police, with a great deal of help from local auxiliary policemen.67

These west Ukrainian districts were typical of the many towns and small cities, in the lands that had been eastern Poland, where Jews numbered about half of the population, sometimes a bit less, sometimes a bit more. Jews usually inhabited the center of the cities, in stone houses around town squares, rather than the wood shanties of the outskirts. These were settlements where Jews had lived for more than half a millennium, under varying governments and with varying levels of prosperity, but with a success demonstrated by the simplest measures of architecture and demography. The majority of this Jewish population, in interwar Poland, had remained religiously observant and rather separated from the outside world. The languages remained Yiddish and (for religious purposes) Hebrew, and rates of intermarriage with Christians were low. Eastern Poland had remained the heartland of an Ashkenazic Jewish civilization, speaking Yiddish and dominated by rival clans of charismatic Hasidim. This Jewish tradition had outlived the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth where it had originated, it had outlived the Russian Empire, and it had outlived the interwar Polish Republic.68

After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the joint invasion of Poland, Soviet power and Soviet citizenship were extended to these Jews in 1939-1941, and thus they are usually counted as Soviet Jewish victims of the Nazis. These Jews did live for a time in the Soviet Union after Soviet borders were extended westward to include what had been eastern Poland, and they were subject to Soviet policies. Like the Poles and the Ukrainians and the Belarusians of these lands, they had been subject then to arrests, deportations, and shootings. Jews had lost their businesses and their religious schools. Yet this brief period of Soviet rule was hardly enough to make Soviet Jews of them. With the exception of the very youngest children, people in Rivne and similar settlements had been citizens of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Romania for far longer than they were citizens of the Soviet Union. Of the 2.6 million or so Jews killed on the terrains of the Soviet Union, some 1.6 million had been under Soviet jurisdiction for less than two years. Their civilization had been seriously weakened by Soviet rule during 1939-1941; it would not survive the German Reich.69

Rivne, unusually for these cities, had already seen a mass killing action in 1941. Although Kiev was the center of the German police state in Ukraine, Rivne was in 1941 the provisional capital of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine. The Reichskommissar, Erich Koch, was a man known for his brutality. Hitler’s advisors called Koch a “second Stalin,” and they meant it as a compliment. Koch had already in autumn 1941 ordered that most of the Jews of Rivne be killed. On 6 November 1941 the police had told all Jews without work permits to report for resettlement. Some seventeen thousand people were then transported to nearby woods, known as Sosenky. There they were shot over pits dug earlier by Soviet prisoners of war. The remaining ten thousand or so Jews were then forced to live in a ghetto in the worst part of the city.70

In early 1942, even after the majority of the Jews were dead, the Rivne Judenrat was trying to maintain for the survivors some means of subsistence. The German authorities, however, had decided that Jews were not to exist at all. In summer 1942 Koch, with an eye to food shortages, took the next step, asking his subordinates for a “100% solution” to the Jewish problem. On the night of 13 July 1942 Rivne’s Jews were herded by German police and Ukrainian auxiliaries from the ghetto. The Jews were forced to walk to the train station, where they were enclosed in train cars. After two days without food and water, they were transported to a quarry near woods outside the town of Kostopil. There they were shot by German Security Police and the auxiliary policemen.71

In Lutsk, the Jews constituted about half the population, perhaps ten thousand people. In December 1941 the Jews were forced into a ghetto, where the Germans appointed a Judenrat. Generally the Judenrat served to extract the wealth of the community in exchange for various stays of execution, some true, some false. The Germans also usually established a Jewish police force, which was used to create the ghettos, and then later to clear them. On 20 August 1942 in Lutsk the local Jewish police set out to find Jews who might be in hiding. The same day Jewish men were sent to woods near Hirka Polonka, seven kilometers from Lutsk, to dig pits. The Germans guarding them made no effort to disguise what was about to happen. They told the men to dig well, as their wives and mothers would be resting in the pits the next day. On 21 August the women and children of Lutsk were taken to Hirka Polonka. The Germans ate and drank and laughed, and forced the women to recite: “Because I am a Jew I have no right to live.” Then the women were forced, five at a time, to undress and kneel naked over the pits. The next group then had to lie naked over the first layer of corpses, and were shot. That same day the Jewish men were taken to the courtyard of the Lutsk castle, and killed there.72

In Kovel, too, Jews were about half the local population, some fourteen thousand people. In May 1942 the Jews of the city were divided into two groups, workers and nonworkers, and placed in two separate ghettos, the first in the New Town and the second in the Old Town. One local Jew, having learned the Nazi terms, knew that the Germans saw the second ghetto as the one for “useless eaters.” On 2 June German and local auxiliary police surrounded the ghetto in the Old Town. All six thousand of them were taken to a clearing near Kamin-Kashyrskyi and shot. On 19 August, the police repeated this action with the other ghetto, shooting eight thousand more Jews. Then began a hunt for Jews in hiding, who were rounded up and locked in the town’s Great Synagogue with no food and water. Then they were shot, but not before a few of them left their final messages, in Yiddish or Polish, scraped with stones, knives, pens, or fingernails on the walls of the temple where some of them had observed the Sabbath.73

A wife left a note of love and devotion to her “dear husband” so that he might learn of her fate and that of their “beautiful” child. Two girls together wrote of their love of life: “one so wants to live, and they won’t allow it. Revenge. Revenge.” A young woman was more resigned: “I am strangely calm, though it is hard to die at twenty.” A mother and father asked their children to say kaddish for them, and to observe the holidays. A daughter left a farewell note to her mother: “My beloved Mama! There was no escape. They brought us here from outside the ghetto, and now we must die a terrible death. We are so sorry that you are not with us. I cannot forgive myself this. We thank you, Mama, for all of your devotion. We kiss you over and over.”

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!