9. Persecution in the West

(1940–1941)

While plans were drawn up to invade the Soviet Union, the Nazis had to resolve a pressing question that had arisen as a consequence of their victory in the west. Now that the Germans had many more Jews under their control, how should they treat them?

The way in which they answered that question, between May 1940 and the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, tells us a great deal about the flexibility of their anti-Semitic policy during this first phase of the war. It also shows, once again, that no decision had been taken at this stage to implement mass murder. For the Nazis still clung to the belief that, in the long term, the way to ‘solve’ their ‘Jewish question’ was by expulsion.

On 10 May 1940 the German Army invaded Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium. In Luxembourg, by far the smallest of the three countries, there were around 3,500 Jews out of a population of 300,000.1 A Volksdeutsche movement within the country called for Luxembourg to ‘come home’ to the Reich, and Gauleiter Gustav Simon2 instigated an extensive programme of ‘Germanization’, with the Nuremberg Laws put into effect as early as September 1940. Jews were pressured to travel across the border into France, and the Nazis set various deadlines in the autumn of 1940 by which they wanted all Jews to have left the country. Some Jews were just taken to the border and simply abandoned.3

In neighbouring Belgium the situation was different. Just before the Nazis invaded there were about 65,000 Jews in the country, out of a total population of 8.3 million. Most of these Jews did not hold Belgian citizenship but had fled from Nazi Germany or other eastern European countries. Unlike in Luxembourg, the Germans made no attempt to force the Jews to leave the country, but starting in October 1940 they imposed anti-Semitic legislation. New laws decreed who was a Jew and who was not, and the Nazis demanded that Jews be expelled from various professions. However, the absence of any concerted violence on the streets, together with the fact that the Nazis permitted the Jews to continue to work in the diamond industry in Antwerp, led some Jews to return to Belgium in the summer and autumn of 1940 from neighbouring countries. Nazi policy started to change in November 1940, when Göring demanded that Jewish enterprises be ‘Aryanized’, although the process did not gain full momentum until well into the following year.

There were isolated acts of protest in Belgium against the German persecution of the Jews. In October 1940, for instance, Belgian government officials initially refused to obey a German request to apply anti-Semitic measures, though they did subsequently implement the legislation once the Germans forced it on them. Academics at the Free University of Brussels also protested when the Germans demanded that Jewish academics be deprived of their jobs – but their remonstrations were ignored.

The King of the Belgians, Leopold III, decided to stay on in the country, and was placed under house arrest by the Germans. In the power vacuum that resulted, the government-in-exile based in London played an influential role. Headed by the pre-war Prime Minister of Belgium Hubert Pierlot, the government-in-exile stated in January 1941 that all stolen goods and property would be returned to the true owners once the Germans had been defeated, and that those Belgians who sought to profit by stealing property from others would be held to account. Though this statement did not specifically mention the anti-Semitic measures that the Germans had imposed on Belgium, the effect of the declaration was to warn of eventual retribution for those who stole from Jews. That was certainly how the words were understood by the American Jewish Congress, and Rabbi Stephen Wise wrote to Prime Minister Pierlot in London to thank him for his support.4

In occupied Belgium there were also those who welcomed both the racism and the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. The Rexists, for instance, a far-right Belgian political party under the leadership of Léon Degrelle, came to embrace Nazi ideology. Jacques Leroy, a committed Rexist, confirms that he was also a dedicated ‘racist’. ‘The difference’, he says, ‘between the people whom you call Übermenschen [a superior race] and the ones whom you call Untermenschen [an inferior race] is that the Übermenschen are the white race … In those days we were proud to belong to the white race.’5 As for his attitude towards the Jews, Jacques Leroy’s views can be deduced from the fact that after the war he became a Holocaust denier.

There was sufficient anti-Semitic hatred in Belgium for a pogrom to be launched in the spring of 1941. On 14 April around 200 Belgian collaborators, from paramilitary units like the VNV (Volksverwering), set two synagogues on fire in Antwerp and then turned on the home of the Chief Rabbi.6 The Germans prevented the Belgian fire brigade and police from taking action to extinguish the fire and catch the perpetrators.

Revealingly, those responsible for the attack had just watched Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), an anti-Semitic propaganda film released the previous year. The film is infamous for comparing Jews with rats. It also mounted an attack on Jewish bankers like the Rothschilds, accusing them of opening branches of their bank in different European capitals in an attempt to gain Jewish domination of the banking system. The film thus purported to demonstrate that Jews owed loyalty to each other across international borders, rather than to their country of residence.

Der Ewige Jude was by far the most nauseating piece of anti-Semitic film propaganda produced by the Nazis, and there is evidence that Hitler himself had a hand in its construction. Archival evidence, plus testimony from its director, Fritz Hippler,7 strongly suggests that Hitler’s contribution was to make the film more extreme. Fritz Hippler remembers how, via Der Ewige Jude, ‘Hitler wanted to bring the “evidence” so to speak with this film that the Jews are a parasitic race … who had to be separated from the rest of men.’8 The comparison of Jews with rats was something that Hitler would have found especially powerful, since he had a special loathing of these particular animals. ‘I learnt to hate rats when I was at the front,’ he said during the war. ‘A wounded man forsaken between the lines knew he’d be eaten alive by these disgusting beasts.’9

Goebbels was not a believer in such crude attempts to influence the audience. In July 1941, he outlined how his approach to film propaganda differed from Hitler’s: ‘A few disagreements over the newsreel. The Führer wants more polemical material in the script. I would rather have the pictures speak for themselves and confine the script to explaining what the audience would not otherwise understand. I consider this to be more effective, because the viewer does not see the art in it.’10

In box-office terms, Der Ewige Jude was a failure. But although many in the audience disliked it – there were cases of women fainting while watching it – for fanatics, like the Belgian paramilitaries who saw the film in April 1941, it confirmed their view that Jews, like rats, had to be forcibly expelled.

While the synagogues of Antwerp burnt, a very different form of occupation was in force to the north-west, in Denmark. On 9 April 1940, one month before they invaded western Europe, the German Army had moved north, crossing the Danish border. Massively outnumbered and outgunned, the Danes had little choice but to accept the inevitable. Two hours after the first German soldiers arrived the Danish government surrendered. What happened next was surprising, especially in the context of the Nazi governance of neighbouring territory. For the Germans left the Danes largely to themselves. King Christian X carried on as head of state and the Danish police and judiciary functioned almost as before.

The Germans behaved in this comparatively restrained way for several reasons. First, the Nazis regarded the Danes as racial brothers – they had no ideological quarrel with the vast majority of the inhabitants of Denmark. As for the Jews, there were only 7,500 of them living in Denmark – just 0.2 per cent of the population. (This small number was partly because the Danes had refused to help thousands of Jews who were seeking refuge from the Nazis during the 1930s.) Finally, the Nazis wanted to do nothing to jeopardize the export of Danish agricultural produce to Germany. As a consequence, the Nazi occupation of Denmark was less oppressive than that of any other defeated country.

On the eve of the German invasion, Bent Melchior, a Jewish schoolboy living in Denmark, was terrified that his father who had been ‘outspoken’ in his criticism of the Nazis would be in immediate danger.11 But after the Germans had arrived, Bent’s father suffered no persecution, and life continued for the Danish Jews much as before. Knud Dyby, a Danish policeman during the war, confirms that the Danish Jews remained safe – at work and at home. ‘The Jews were absolutely assimilated. They had their businesses and their houses like everyone else.’12

The Germans invaded Denmark en route to another Nordic nation, Norway. Hitler wanted to secure Norway for strategic reasons: to gain easy access for the German Navy into the north Atlantic and to protect the shipment of iron ore from neutral Sweden. Despite an attempt by the Allies to prevent the Germans seizing Norway, the country was under Nazi control by the end of the first week of June 1940. Vidkun Quisling, who had established a quasi-Nazi party in Norway in 1933, became the initial ruler immediately after the Germans arrived, but he was replaced within days by a genuine Nazi – Josef Terboven, the former Gauleiter of Essen.

Just as in Denmark, there were only a small number of Jews living in Norway – around 1,700 Jews out of an overall population of 3 million. But, unlike the Danish Jews, they were singled out for persecution. This was partly because of geography. Norway’s long Atlantic coastline made it much more vulnerable to Allied attack than Denmark, and the Germans placed naval bases and troops in Norway in significant numbers. The Jews, as we have seen, were always perceived by the Germans as the ‘enemy behind the lines’ and so were thought to pose a threat to any military installation. But a more hard-line attitude towards the Norwegian Jews was also taken because in Quisling the Nazis possessed a willing anti-Semitic collaborator with a political base.

In the summer of 1940, Quisling managed to convince Hitler to reinstate him as head of the Norwegian government, serving under the authority of Terboven as Reichskommissar. In March 1941 Quisling gave a speech in Frankfurt in which he called for the Jews to be expelled from Norway. He claimed that it was necessary to remove the Jews because they were perverting Norwegian society and ‘corrupting’ the blood of the Norwegians like ‘destructive bacilli’.13 By the time he spoke those words Norwegian collaborators had already closed a number of Jewish shops and other commercial enterprises.

On 10 May 1940, the Germans invaded another country that had, like Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg and Belgium, attempted to avoid the war by claiming neutrality. Three-quarters of the Jews of this country – the Netherlands – would be killed in the Holocaust: a greater proportion than in any other sizeable nation in western Europe. Just why about 75 per cent of Dutch Jews died in the Holocaust – compared to around 40 per cent of Belgian and Norwegian Jews and 25 per cent of French Jews – is a question that has long troubled historians, and some suggestions as to why there was this eventual disparity are made later in this book.14

Unlike the Belgian government-in-exile, the Dutch government-in-exile was not united in its response to the German occupation. While Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was opposed to any collaboration with the Germans, her Prime Minister, Dirk Jan de Geer, took a different view. He believed that the war against the Germans could not be won, and that the Dutch should cooperate with the Nazis in a similar way to the Vichy government in France. True to his beliefs, de Geer secretly left Britain for the Netherlands in September 1940 and subsequently published a pamphlet advocating collaboration with the Germans.15

In the absence of strong political leadership, Dutch civil servants played a crucial role. The majority of them decided to assist the Germans in the administration of the country in a professional and diligent way. As the Dutch government-in-exile stated in 1943: ‘They [the civil servants] had spent their whole lives accustomed to obey, they were always – and rightly – so proud of the impeccable execution of their tasks and conscientious fulfilment of their duties, that they brought the same conscientiousness and the same fulfilment of duty to the scrupulous organization of the plunder of our country, to the advantage of the enemy.’16

Almost all Dutch civil servants agreed to sign forms that confirmed they were of ‘Aryan’ descent – the so-called ‘Aryan attestation’ – and in November 1940 they acceded to the German demand that Jews be removed from public service. The civil servants, keen to preserve appearances, considered the Jews ‘suspended’ from their duties rather than ‘dismissed’.17 It sounded less brutal, but the impact was the same.

Any judgement on the actions of the Dutch civil servants during this period should not, of course, be tainted by our own knowledge of what was to come. Even so, the efficiency with which they facilitated the German desire for all Jews to be individually registered, starting in January 1941, remains startling. This comprehensive system of registration would prove to be of enormous assistance to the Nazis at the time of the deportations of Dutch Jews to the death camps.

By June 1941 a whole range of anti-Semitic measures were in place, directed against the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands.18 Dutch Jews could no longer visit cinemas or public parks or swimming pools; they could not own radio sets or attend mixed schools or work as lawyers or doctors for anyone other than Jewish clients. The Reichskommissar for the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, had demanded all these measures. A committed anti-Semite himself, he was a hard-line Nazi who had grown up in Austria and played a part in the downfall of Chancellor Schuschnigg in 1938. After the invasion of Poland in September 1939 he had served as deputy to Hans Frank, helping to administer and oppress the Poles in the General Government. So by the time he was appointed to his post in the Netherlands he had experienced first hand the bloody reality of the Nazi policy in the east. The fact that the Netherlands was ruled by a brutal racist like Seyss-Inquart, and Belgium by a military governor, General Alexander von Falkenhausen, also partly explains the subsequent disparity between the death rates of Jews in the two countries. Which is not to say that Falkenhausen was any friend of the Jews. He presided over appalling atrocities in Belgium, in part orchestrated by Eggert Reeder, the SS administrator who worked with him, but he still remained an old-school general – one who would eventually be sent to a concentration camp for his complicity in the 20 July plot against Hitler.

Not all institutions in the Netherlands cooperated with the Nazis as efficiently as the civil service. On 26 November 1940, Professor Rudolph Cleveringa of the University of Leiden delivered a devastating riposte to the German order that Jewish professors should be sacked. In the Great Hall of the university he condemned the demand as ‘beneath contempt’ and drew a stark comparison between ‘power based on nothing but force’ and the ‘noble’ example of Eduard Meijers, one of the Jewish professors at the university. Professor Meijers, said Cleveringa, was this ‘son of our people, this man, this father to his students, this scholar, whom foreign usurpers have suspended from his duties …’.19 Shortly after he gave this speech, Cleveringa was arrested. He spent the next eight months in prison, and the University of Leiden was closed down.20

Hetty Cohen-Koster, a Jewish student of Leiden University, heard Cleveringa speak that day in November. She described his words as ‘salve for my doubting soul’. At the time she felt that ‘the same thoughts and feelings are being communicated back and forth between us, wordlessly, yet completely and precisely understood by us all. I sit in a community of people sharing the same feelings, the same opinions. I belong here.’21

Hetty Cohen-Koster had not experienced any persecution in pre-war Netherlands. At her school in Haarlem there ‘was not the slightest sign or trace of anti-Semitism … On the contrary, the school had an atmosphere of complete tolerance across all areas: origin, gender, religion and race.’ Many Jews in the Netherlands felt the same way. Though in the 1930s there had been isolated anti-Semitic incidents, the idea of persecuting the Jews went against a tradition of Dutch tolerance that dated back to the emancipation of the Jews at the end of the eighteenth century. It was the legacy of this sense of security that led many to feel that the future could not be totally dark. ‘At that time,’ wrote Hetty Cohen-Koster, ‘we believed that the labour camps in Germany were the worst that could happen.’

The Dutch experience thus demonstrates that it is a serious mistake to assume that the amount of pre-existing anti-Semitism in any country is a guide to the level of subsequent Jewish suffering under the Nazis. Other factors, such as the type of Nazi governance, the continuing presence of a functioning system of administration and the degree to which the Nazis desired to undertake anti-Semitic persecution within that specific territory all played an important part.

There were further voices of resistance in the Netherlands. In October many ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church protested against the ‘Aryan attestation’ by reading a letter of censure to their congregations, and in February 1941 a strike was held – initially in Amsterdam – to protest against the German occupation. All this brave dissent must be remembered, but so must the fact that at a bureaucratic level the Germans were well served by Dutch civil servants who collaborated with the occupying forces in the most ‘scrupulous’ and helpful way imaginable.

France, the final country that the Germans occupied in their march across western Europe, was treated very differently from the other conquered nations. France had never sought to use the cloak of neutrality as a protection against the Germans. The French and the British had reacted together when the Germans invaded Poland, and both had declared war on 3 September 1939. The French had been supremely confident of victory before the German invasion. General Gamelin, the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, said that Hitler would ‘definitely’ be beaten if he tried to attack France in spring 1940.22 It was an optimism shared by many ordinary French citizens. According to one foreign journalist in Paris on 10 May 1940, the day the Germans launched their assault, the people were ‘bubbling with enthusiasm. On the streets and cafés, in the press and on the radio, there was jubilation over the blunder that Germany had just committed.’23

Against this background of over-confidence, it is hard to exaggerate the sense of national humiliation felt by the French when the Germans subsequently defeated them in just six weeks. France had been overrun, the French Army disgraced, and more than 1.5 million soldiers captured and taken to camps in Germany. In the wake of this disaster, the French turned to a national hero in an attempt to regain their self-respect – Marshal Philippe Pétain, the victor of the Battle of Verdun during the First World War. Pétain, eighty-four years old at the time of the French defeat in 1940, was the personal embodiment of the dignity of France. Solemn, grave and forbidding, he was tasked with rescuing the French from this physical and emotional catastrophe.

Pétain agreed an armistice with Germany on 22 June, six days after becoming Prime Minister. The terms of the peace treaty with France left the Germans occupying most of France – the north and the south-west – while around 40 per cent of French territory – the south and the south-east – remained technically under the control of the new French government led by Marshal Pétain. Because Paris was within the German-occupied zone, the capital of this new French regime was established at the spa town of Vichy. Once ensconced in Vichy, Pétain – who was now also Chief of State – possessed considerable power over French citizens, and blamed much of the trouble that had engulfed the country on the weaknesses of the Third Republic. He rejected the revolutionary watchwords of ‘Liberty, equality, brotherhood’ and adopted a new slogan of ‘Work, homeland and family’.

A number of politicians and administrators who served Pétain were confirmed anti-Semites. Xavier Vallat, for instance, who became Commissioner-General for Jewish Questions within Pétain’s government in spring 1941, subsequently said to Theodor Dannecker, the SS officer who oversaw the deportations of Jews from France, ‘I have been an anti-Semite for much longer than you.’24 There was also Louis Darquier, who replaced Vallat as Commissioner-General: he had founded the French Anti-Jewish Assembly before the war, had served a prison sentence for inciting racial hatred and used to confront Jews in cafés.25

Pétain’s government acted swiftly to impose anti-Semitic legislation. In October 1940 the Statutes on Jews were passed which deprived Jews of the ability to work in a whole host of professions. They could no longer be civil servants, policemen, journalists or teachers or serve as officers in the army. Only a narrow range of Jews were exempted from these draconian restrictions – such as those who had fought in the First World War. As for foreign Jews, they were treated worst of all and were now liable to be interned in ‘special camps’ within France.26

There is no evidence that the Germans asked the Vichy government to impose these anti-Semitic measures.27 Indeed, Pétain personally altered a draft of the October statutes in order to make the regulations still harsher.28 The disturbing truth is that the French authorities persecuted the Jews because they chose to, not because they were told to. For the Jews of France, this evidence that fellow French citizens were prepared to victimize them was devastating. ‘I cried last evening,’ wrote Raymond-Raoul Lambert in his diary on 19 October 1940, ‘as a man might cry who has suddenly been abandoned by the woman who was the sole love of his life, his mentor and the guide of his actions.’29

The actions of Vichy seemed all the more outrageous because France was the country of the Enlightenment, of the Rights of Man, the champion of free speech and liberal democracy – indeed, the first European country to emancipate the Jews, as long ago as the end of the eighteenth century. But it was more than that. It was also the country of the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army officer had been falsely accused in the 1890s, and the place where the left-leaning government of Léon Blum in the 1930s had been attacked purely because of Blum’s Jewish ancestry. The Jewish Statutes certainly reflected the spirit of that latter legacy of intolerance. The preamble to the statute of 3 October 1940 states: ‘In its work of national reconstruction, the government from the very beginning was bound to study the problem of Jews as well as that of certain aliens, who, after abusing our hospitality, contributed to our defeat in no small measure.’30

It was no accident that foreign Jews were especially vulnerable under the new legislation. Out of a total of approximately 330,000 Jews in France in December 1940, about 135,000 were not French citizens, but had sought sanctuary in France from other countries. These ‘aliens’, as the Statutes described them, were particularly hated by French anti-Semites, and would later suffer disproportionately compared to French Jews. While around 10 per cent of French Jews would lose their lives in the Holocaust, more than 40 per cent of foreign Jews in France would die at the hands of the Nazis.31

In essence, the Vichy government’s policy was to separate and eventually try and expel ‘alien’ Jews and ‘neutralize’ – or otherwise assimilate – Jews who were French citizens. Indeed, there was always an element of ambiguity in the Vichy attitude towards French Jews. Admiral François Darlan, who became French Prime Minister in February 1941, went as far as to say: ‘The stateless Jews who have thronged to our country for the last fifteen years do not interest me. But the others, the good old French Jews, have a right to every protection we can give them. I have some, by the way, in my own family.’32

Thus, if you were a Jew in occupied Europe during the first year or so of the war, how you were treated could depend not just on the country in which you lived, but whether you were a native of that country or not. Equally, while there was no overarching policy that the Nazis sought to impose on all the Jews under their control, certain core principles were evident across most of occupied Europe. Just as they had in Germany, the Nazis wanted – as a first step – to identify the Jews and isolate them.

As for the longer term, the Nazis had already demonstrated their desire to rob Jews of their wealth and then expel them from all areas under their control. Madagascar, as we have seen, offered one possible destination for the Jews during this period. But since the Madagascar plan depended on the ability of merchant ships carrying the Jews to sail thousands of miles in safety, it was an idea that could only be implemented once the British fleet had been rendered harmless – and the only way to do that was to force Britain out of the war. But that was proving hard to do. Dissatisfied with the Luftwaffe’s inability to bomb Britain to the negotiating table, and after it became obvious that the Germans could not mount a successful seaborne invasion of Britain, Hitler increasingly turned his attention to the east. Operation Sealion was postponed – indefinitely as it turned out – after a meeting Hitler held on 17 September 1940 and plans proceeded for an attack on the Soviet Union.

The inability of the Nazis to implement the Madagascar plan did not mean that the idea of deporting Jews out of the Reich had been shelved. That autumn Robert Wagner, the Gauleiter of Baden in the west of Germany, forcibly expelled 6,500 German Jews over the border into Vichy France. Wagner, also the Gauleiter of territory in Alsace-Lorraine, had previously presided over the deportation of French citizens unwanted in this newly ‘Germanized’ land. This experience appears to have given him the idea of taking the same action against Jews within his domain in Germany. Local police detained German Jews on 22 and 23 October 1940 and forced them to board trains to Vichy. They were each permitted to take with them just 50 kilos of belongings and a maximum of 100 Reichsmarks. Heydrich noted that ‘The deportation of the Jews was conducted throughout Baden and Pfalz without incident. The general population was hardly aware of the operation.’33

It was an action reminiscent of the deportations that had recently taken place in Poland of Jews from the lands to be Germanized to the General Government. And just as Hans Frank in the General Government had done, the Vichy authorities objected to their territory being used in this way. They had accepted the nine trains of Jews – seven from Baden, two from Saarpfalz – only because they thought they contained French citizens.34 ‘The French government can no longer provide asylum to these foreigners,’ the Vichy authorities declared in a protest letter of 18 November 1940. ‘It most urgently proposes that the Reich government immediately take the necessary measures so that they are transported back to Germany and the expenditures arising from their stay in France are repaid.’35 But the Nazis refused to do as their defeated neighbour asked, and the German Jews continued to be held in internment camps in south-west France. A large proportion of them were shipped east in 1942 and eventually died in the Nazi death camps in Poland.

This little-known action in the autumn of 1940 is significant not just because of the importance of remembering the suffering of those German citizens who were suddenly snatched from their homes, but because it offers an insight into the way local initiatives could help shape decision-making. Hitler, as we have seen, did not come up with the idea of deporting the Jews of Baden and Pfalz and then order Wagner to implement the task. Instead, it was Gauleiter Wagner who wanted to send German Jews across the border without telling the French in advance. This initiative was then given the green light by Himmler and, according to one report, by Hitler as well.36

All this was possible only because Hitler was a visionary leader who expected his underlings to demonstrate huge amounts of initiative. A month before these deportations took place, he had said to Wagner and Gauleiter Bürckel of the Saar-Palatinate and Lorraine, that ‘in ten years’ time there was only one report he would want to have from the Gauleiters, namely that their areas were German and by that he meant completely German. He would not ask questions about the methods they had used to make the areas German and could not care less if some time in the future it was established that the methods used to gain the territories had been unpleasant or not absolutely legal.’37

In many ways this was a typical Hitler instruction to elite Nazi leaders. This is your goal, accomplish it by whatever means you like. As a consequence, different Gauleiters could pursue wildly different methods of implementation. That is certainly what happened in Poland as rival Gauleiters Albert Forster of Danzig/West Prussia and Arthur Greiser of the Warthegau both sought to impose the ‘Germanization’ policy desired by Hitler. Arthur Greiser ordered an examination of Poles to see if they could be classed as Germans or not. Those that weren’t considered German were subject to deportation. In the next-door Gau (administrative region), Albert Forster took a much more laissez-faire approach and categorized some entire groups of Poles as German. Not only did this result in a row between Greiser and Forster, but it also led to the bizarre situation whereby some members of the same family were categorized as German in Foster’s Gau and others as Poles in Greiser’s Gau.38 This mattered a great deal to these Poles – indeed, it could be a matter of life and death, as the ones classed as Germans in Forster’s Gau were not subject to deportation and received more food than those classed as Poles in Greiser’s Gau. Yet both Forster and Greiser claimed that they were each implementing Hitler’s vision – just in different ways.

The same situation – where two district leaders pursued different policies but each maintained they were following the will of their Führer – occurred in the context of Nazi policy towards the Jews. The Łόdź ghetto, established by Arthur Greiser, was in existence at the same time as the Gauleiter of East Upper Silesia, Fritz Bracht, was pursuing a totally different policy. In Bracht’s realm, Albrecht Schmelt of the SS compelled Jews to work as forced labour on a variety of industrial and construction projects,39 with the result that the Jews in the major cities that Bracht controlled, such as Katowice and Będzin, were not imprisoned in ghettos.40

This interaction between visionary leadership from above and initiatives from below was characteristic of the way the Holocaust developed. And, as we shall see, in the process of this evolution those involved were influenced not just by their own hate-filled ideology but also by the changing world around them.

That autumn Hitler was also considering large strategic questions – the most important of which was whether he should finally authorize the invasion of the Soviet Union and launch a war of destruction without parallel in history. It was a dilemma that he resolved after meeting Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister. Molotov arrived for talks with Hitler and Ribbentrop in Berlin on 12 November 1940. He had come armed with a list of detailed questions about the relationship between the two countries – what, for example, were Germany’s exact intentions towards the buffer states between them, such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria? But Hitler and Ribbentrop didn’t want to dwell on such prosaic topics. Instead they talked in grandiose – and vague – terms of a future German world empire. Partly as a result of this mismatch between the practical Molotov and the visionary Hitler, the Soviet official interpreter at the talks described the encounter as ‘tiresome and obviously pointless’.41 A month after this dialogue of the deaf, on 18 December 1940, Hitler signed the plan for the invasion of the Soviet Union – codenamed Operation Barbarossa, after the nickname of Emperor Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor who had led the Third Crusade in the twelfth century.

This time German military commanders raised little objection to Hitler’s epic plans. In part that was because of the success of the invasion of France, and Nazi ideological teaching which said the Soviets were ‘subhuman’, but it was also because military intelligence suggested that the Red Army was not much of a threat. Soviet forces had recently performed badly in the war against Finland, and Stalin had purged the Red Army of many of the Soviet Union’s finest officers during the 1930s, frightened they were plotting against him. All this led General Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Wehrmacht’s Operations Staff, to remark: ‘The Russian colossus will prove to be a pig’s bladder, prick it and it will burst.’42

Hitler’s decision to commit to an invasion of the Soviet Union had immediate consequences for Nazi policy towards the Jews. Since the idea of shipping the Jews to ‘a colony in Africa’ had been shelved, a new policy had to be devised for the Jews imprisoned in Poland in ghettos. The Nazis, as we have seen, had previously imagined that these ghettos were only a temporary measure until the Jews could be expelled from the Reich.

Conditions in the Łόdź ghetto were desperate by the summer of 1940. There were food riots in August, with a crowd of starving Jews shouting, ‘We want bread, we’re dying from hunger!’43 The Nazi officials in the Warthegau asked Hans Frank to allow the Jews to be deported to the General Government since ‘the situation regarding the Jews in the Warthegau worsened day by day’ and the ghetto ‘had actually only been erected on the condition that the deportation of the Jews would begin by mid-year at the latest’.44

True to his past actions, Hans Frank refused to take the inhabitants of the Łόdź ghetto into his jurisdiction. So it was left to the authorities in the Warthegau to come up with a solution to their self-created problem. Since the Jews in the ghetto no longer had any money to buy food from the Germans, the Nazis faced a stark choice – let the Jews starve to death or permit them to work in order to earn money to pay for food. The different sides of this dilemma were personified by two people: Hans Biebow, the German chief of the ghetto administration, and Alexander Palfinger, a slightly more junior ghetto official. Estera Frenkiel, a Polish Jew who worked in the office of the Jewish Council within the ghetto, dealt with both of these German bureaucrats in the summer and autumn of 1940. Palfinger, she remembers, was happy to see the Jews in the ghetto ‘starve to death’.45 Her recollection is supported by documentary evidence from the time. ‘A rapid dying out of the Jews is for us a matter of total indifference,’ wrote Palfinger in a report in late 1940, ‘if not to say desirable, as long as the concomitant effects leave the public interest of the German people untouched.’46 Biebow, on the other hand, took a very different view. As Estera Frenkiel says, ‘Biebow had great entrepreneurial spirit. He had great powers of persuasion – something Palfinger lacked. He carried on trying to persuade people until spittle formed at the sides of his mouth.’47 Biebow proposed that the ghetto become self-sustaining. Factories and workshops could be established for the Jews and the goods they made sold in order to provide money for food.

Biebow’s argument won the day. The Nazis gave the Jewish Council within the ghetto a 3 million Reichsmark ‘loan’ (from money previously stolen from the Jews) in order to set up the necessary infrastructure. This was just what Rumkowski, the Jewish head of the ghetto, had wanted. He had lobbied the Mayor of Łόdź for a network of workshops to be established in the ghetto, saying, ‘There are in the ghetto about 8–10,000 experts of various branches … Shoe and bootmakers (manual and mechan[ized]), saddlers … tailors (made to measure and mass production) … hat and cap makers, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, masons, painters, bookbinders, upholsterers. I could arrange for these [skilled artisans] to work for the authorities …’48

Biebow’s victory was a key moment in this history. For it marked the transition from the ghetto as a temporary measure – a holding area where the Jews were confined, awaiting deportation somewhere else – to an institution that could theoretically become self-sufficient. Rumkowski, in particular, welcomed this development, because he believed the key to the survival of the ghetto was for the Jews to make themselves useful to the Germans. He called this ‘Rescue through work’. As a consequence, those who worked in the ghetto received more food than those who were unemployed.49 Both the Nazis and the imprisoned Jews had an interest in making the new system work. The Jews because they had witnessed how close the Nazis had come to letting them starve to death over the summer, and the Nazis because there was money to be made.

The new system was corrupt on both sides. Arthur Greiser, the ruler of the Warthegau, sought to get personally rich from the ghetto. Biebow regularly transferred money into an account set up in Greiser’s name.50 Estera Frenkiel even witnessed a suitcase full of valuables from the ghetto sent via Biebow to Greiser. On the Jewish side, Rumkowski now possessed even more personal power than he had before, since everything the Germans supplied to the ghetto under this new arrangement was routed through his office. He decided to enrich himself at the expense of others, and in the process created a better standard of living for himself than anyone else in the ghetto. He even, for instance, had a personal carriage and driver.

Meanwhile, just over 70 miles to the east, in Warsaw in the General Government, the largest ghetto of all was about to be sealed off from the outside world. More than 400,000 Jews would be imprisoned in the 1.5 square miles of the Warsaw ghetto – as many Jews in this small area as there were in the whole of France, Denmark and Norway. Around 30 per cent of the population of Warsaw was Jewish, and the enormous scale of this undertaking partly explains why this, the largest of the ghettos, was created relatively late.

The Jews of Warsaw were targeted for persecution from the moment the Germans entered the city just over four weeks after the start of the war. Within days the Nazis had ordered the Jews to create a Jewish Council through which anti-Semitic measures could be communicated to the Jewish population. Over the next few months the Jews of Warsaw were ordered to identify themselves by wearing a blue Star of David on a white armband, Jewish schools were closed and Jewish wealth seized. Jews were captured and made to work as forced labourers, and were frequently tormented by the Germans. ‘Here’s a game they play at the garages in the Dinance park,’ wrote Emmanuel Ringelblum, a Warsaw Jew, in February 1940. ‘The workers are ordered to beat one another with their galoshes … A rabbi was ordered to shit in his pants. They divide the workers into groups, and have the groups fight each other … I have seen people badly injured in these games.’51 He also recorded that ‘Both yesterday and today women were seized for labour. And, it just so happened, women in fur coats. They’re ordered to wash the pavement with their panties, then put them on again wet.’52

Jews were at risk not just from Germans, but from Poles. Adam Czerniaków, an engineer by training and now the leader of the Warsaw Jewish Council, wrote in his diary in December 1939 that a mad Polish woman ‘molests the Jews, striking them and grabbing their hats’.53 The following month he described how a ‘gang of [Polish] teenage hooligans, which for the last several days was beating up the Jews, paraded in front of the [Jewish] Community offices breaking the windows in the houses on the other side of the street’.54 Other Poles thought that they could now steal from the Jews with impunity. On New Year’s Eve 1939, ‘two strangers’ visited Czerniaków and told him that his apartment was to be ‘requisitioned’. It subsequently transpired that the ‘requisitioner’ of his apartment was ‘a driver delivering or distributing soups’ – leaving Czerniaków with the problem of whether or not he should ask the SS to punish the Pole who had tried to steal his home.55

After the ghetto had been sealed in November 1940, the Nazis pursued the same policy as they had initially in Łόdź – they forced the Jews to pay for their own food or starve. Alexander Palfinger, who had lost the argument in Łόdź about whether or not to let the Jews die in large numbers, was appointed to run the Transferstelle in Warsaw, the department that assessed how much the goods surrendered by the Jews in the ghetto were worth and how much food they could expect in return. Palfinger’s presence was disturbing news for the Warsaw Jews. He had not changed his view – it remained a matter of ‘total indifference’ to him how many Jews died.

Just as in the Łόdź ghetto, those Jews who had valuables to sell or could find some paid work within the ghetto had a chance to stave off starvation. Wealthy Jews bought supplies that had been smuggled into the ghetto – one estimate is that more than 80 per cent of the food in the ghetto was purchased on the black market.56 If you were unemployed or owned nothing then you were at risk of a swift death. In desperation women even sold themselves. Emmanuel Ringelblum noted in January 1941 that ‘streetwalking has become notable’ and that ‘yesterday, a very respectable looking woman detained me.’ The insight he gained into human nature as a result of this experience was bleak. ‘Necessity drives people to anything.’57

Halina Birenbaum was eleven years old when her family was imprisoned in the ghetto. In the context of the horror of the ghetto, she was fortunate. One of her brothers, Mirek, was a medical student and worked in a Jewish hospital. He ‘used to do injections’ privately for wealthy Jews within the ghetto, so she did not starve. Watching from her position of relative privilege, she was shocked by the sights she saw. Children lay ‘on pavements, in the streets, courtyards of houses … so swollen [with hunger] that you could hardly see the eyes in their faces’. She remembers a ‘very tall ginger girl’ who performed on the street in order to try and gain a few coins to buy food. She recited ‘in Yiddish a song she wrote about how they [the Germans] drove her out from her town, how her parents died one after another and her brothers too. And she was saying to God, “How long will it take? Is the glass not yet full of our tears?” I will never forget this girl.’58

Just as in Łόdź, a crisis point was reached in Warsaw within a few months. The head of the Economic Division of the General Government wrote a report for Hans Frank in which he outlined the fundamental question that had to be answered: was the Warsaw ghetto part of a plan to ‘liquidate the Jews’59 or an attempt to hold the Jews alive for an unspecified period of time? If the latter, then work had to be found for around 60,000 Jews to ensure that enough food could be purchased to feed the rest. Just as he had in Łódź, Palfinger did his best to discredit those who argued that the Jews should be permitted to work in large numbers, and just as he had in Łódź, he lost the argument. Hans Frank sacked Palfinger in April 1941 and replaced him with Max Bischoff, who was charged with making the ghetto productive. At a meeting in May 1941, Adam Czerniaków, now the Jewish leader of the ghetto – the equivalent position to the one Rumkowski held in Łódź – was informed that ‘starving the Jews’ was not the objective of the Nazis, and that ‘there is the possibility that the food rations would be increased and that there will be work or orders for the workers.’60During the same meeting Czerniaków was also told that ‘the corpses lying in the streets create a very bad impression’ and that the ‘corpses … must be cleared away quickly’.

Although the systematic murder of every Jew by starvation did not now take place, there was still not enough food, despite Nazi promises, to feed everyone in the ghetto. In June 1941, a month after the meeting at which the Nazis had indicated they would increase the food ration, Czerniaków recorded that his work had been interrupted by beggars moaning under his window, ‘Bread, bread! I am hungry, hungry!’61

At the same time as Jews died from lack of food in the Warsaw ghetto, plans were under discussion elsewhere in the Nazi state to starve millions of people to death in the wake of the invasion of the Soviet Union. On 2 May 1941 the central economic agency of the Wehrmacht stated that since the ‘whole’ of the invading German Army would have to be ‘fed at the expense of Russia’ this meant that ‘tens of millions of [Soviet] men will undoubtedly starve to death if we take away all we need from the country.’62 Later that month, on 23 May, the same agency produced another document entitled ‘Political-Economic Guidelines for the Economic Organization East’ which estimated that 30 million people might die of hunger in the Soviet Union as a consequence of the German Army seizing their food.63

Such thinking was not just the product of expediency. German Army planners didn’t decide in a vacuum to starve 30 million people to death. Ideological beliefs underpinned their thinking, for they worked in an environment in which German economists calculated how many people in the eastern territories were ‘surplus to requirements’.64 What would be the advantage, the Nazis maintained, in winning new land and yet simultaneously acquiring millions of ‘useless eaters’? Himmler certainly understood the genocidal consequences of this logic. Just days before the invasion of the Soviet Union was launched, he told his senior SS colleagues that ‘the purpose of the Russian campaign’ was ‘to decimate the Slavic population by 30 millions’.65

The Nazis’ plan was brutally audacious. During the war against the Soviet Union, they were planning to starve to death more than the combined population of Sweden, Norway and Belgium.66 This objective was in their minds before they had conceived the idea of creating factories of death in order to exterminate the Jewish people. Understandably, we ask today – what kind of human beings could consider such an idea? And the answer is – profoundly racist ones. We have already seen how not just Hitler but the whole Nazi state functioned on the iron premise of relative racial value. The German soldiers who were about to invade the Soviet Union were considered more valuable human beings than the ones they would find there. The Slavs were a ‘race’ that Hitler considered ‘a mass of born slaves’.67 Moreover, since some of the Slavs in the Soviet Union were also both ‘Bolsheviks’ and Jews, that meant that there were three separate reasons for the committed Nazi to loathe one single Soviet citizen, three reasons to despise one human being who was, at the same time, Slavic, Bolshevik and Jewish.

There was also, according to Hitler, another unchallengeable intellectual justification for taking food from millions of people and starving them to death. ‘The earth continues to go round,’ he said, ‘whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal.’68 For Hitler, a sense of common humanity was a sign of weakness. If you wanted something, you should try and take it. If you were strong enough to get what you wanted from someone else, then you deserved it. There was nothing else to say. The great religious leaders, the great humanist thinkers – all of them had been wasting their time.

On 30 March 1941, Hitler explained to his generals that the forthcoming war with the Soviet Union would be a ‘clash of two ideologies’, and reiterated, ‘Communism is an enormous danger for our future.’ It followed, he said, that ‘We must forget the concept of comradeship between soldiers. A Communist is no comrade before or after the battle. This is a war of extermination. If we do not grasp this, we shall still beat the enemy, but thirty years later we shall again have to fight the Communist foe.’ Hitler called for the normal rules of war to be set aside during the fight against the Soviet Union, and demanded the ‘Extermination of the Bolshevist commissars and of the Communist intelligentsia’.69 In his eyes, the war in the east would be an epic struggle for German domination – the epoch-changing conflict that he had dreamt of for years.

Most senior military commanders did not protest at Hitler’s characterization of the forthcoming conflict as a war of ‘extermination’. A small number, like Field Marshal von Bock, objected to the order to shoot Soviet political officers rather than take them prisoner – the so-called ‘Commissar Order’ – but Bock’s main concern was that these killings might have a negative effect on military discipline. Many more officers would have agreed with the views of Colonel-General Erich Hoepner who said in a directive issued on 2 May 1941, a month before the formal promulgation of the Commissar Order, that the forthcoming war would be ‘the old struggle of the Germanic people against Slavdom, the defence of European culture against Moscovite-Asiatic inundation, the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. This struggle has to have as its aim the smashing of present-day Russia and must consequently be carried out with unprecedented severity. Every military action must in conception and execution be led by the iron will mercilessly and totally to annihilate the enemy. In particular, there is to be no sparing the upholders of the current Russian-Bolshevik system.’70

The forthcoming war in the east also offered fresh possibilities for a solution to an existing Nazi problem: just where should the Jews be deported? As early as 21 January 1941, Theodor Dannecker, the SD officer from Eichmann’s department based in Paris, had learnt that ‘In accordance with the Führer’s wishes, after the war a final solution will be found for the Jewish question within the territories ruled and controlled by Germany.’71 Dannecker added that Reinhard Heydrich had been told to devise a plan to bring this ‘huge task’ about. One idea was to deport the Jews first to the General Government in Poland, where they would await onward transportation to a destination yet to be decided.72

Heydrich’s commission to devise a ‘final solution’ for the ‘Jewish question’ does not mean that this was the order for the Holocaust. The words ‘final solution’ do not mean here what they came to mean later. Heydrich was working on a plan not to exterminate the Jews in gas chambers, but to deport them to somewhere under German control once the war was over. Eichmann had already attempted a similar operation at the start of the war with the Nisko plan. Now Heydrich was almost certainly planning to send the Jews even further away – to the extremity of the new Nazi empire in the conquered territory of the Soviet Union.

At the same time as Heydrich was working on this first version of the ‘final solution’, Himmler was in discussion with Viktor Brack about another method of dealing with the ‘Jewish question’ – mass sterilization. For Himmler, the benefits of a swift method of sterilizing not just Jews but any other targeted group were considerable. Most obviously, sterilized labourers posed no ‘racial’ threat to the people around them since they could not reproduce.73 As a consequence, Brack investigated potential methods of sterilizing people – without those operated on knowing what was happening to them. In a letter dated 28 March 1941, he outlined the challenges: ‘If any persons are to be sterilized permanently, this result can only be attained by applying x-rays in a dosage high enough to produce castration with all its consequences, since high x-ray dosages destroy the internal secretion of the ovary, or of the testicles, respectively.’74 The difficulty with carrying out this procedure in secret was that unless the rest of the body was protected by a lead covering, ‘the other tissues of the body will be injured.’ Brack suggested that ‘one practical way of proceeding’ would be to tell the person to be sterilized to ‘approach a counter’ and fill in some paperwork for ‘two or three minutes’. X-rays could then be turned on while most of the victim’s body was protected by the counter. ‘With a two-valve installation,’ wrote Brack, ‘about 150–200 persons could be sterilized per day, and therefore, with twenty such installations as many as 3,000–4,000 persons per day …’75 As we have seen, sterilization of the disabled and other groups the Nazis did not wish to see procreate, including children from disturbed backgrounds,76 had been taking place since 1933, but Brack’s proposal called for a radical expansion. Subsequently, Himmler did not progress Brack’s idea – though, as we shall see, further sterilization experiments were later conducted at Auschwitz.

Brack’s note is more than a bizarre sidelight at this point in the history, because it demonstrates how the Nazis were considering a whole variety of ideas as potential ‘solutions’ to their ‘Jewish question’. It is crucial to recognize that all of them – from the Madagascar plan to ghettoization, to mass sterilization – were ultimately genocidal. Jews would not be destroyed en masse via sterilization, that’s true, but over a generation they would all disappear. In Madagascar they would have vanished over time because the territory could not support large numbers of people, and because the Jewish ‘reservation’ would have been overseen by SS fanatics. In the ghetto they would have perished eventually because the Nazis had created an environment where the death rate was higher than the birth rate and children were treated as ‘useless eaters’.

Just suppose for a moment that circumstances had been such that the Nazis had adopted one of these methods, instead of going on as they did to create the death camps. Would the world have been so appalled? Would one of these methods of extermination still have been called a ‘Holocaust’? Perhaps not, because the factories of death the Nazis created in the east represented a particular horror – the cold, mechanistic destruction of human life in an instant, a crime that was symbolic of the worst extremes of the industrial age, somehow an even more haunting means of extermination than the mass shootings the Nazi killing squads would carry out elsewhere in the east at the same time. But we should still remember that the death camps were just one means to the same end that all of these other potential ‘solutions’ offered – the elimination of the Jews.

Hitler’s focus on his longed-for war in the east was momentarily diverted in the spring of 1941 by events in the Balkans – and, as a consequence, many more Jews unexpectedly came under German control before the Wehrmacht crossed into the Soviet Union. The problem Hitler faced was Yugoslavia. He had believed in March 1941 that the Yugoslavs had, after considerable persuasion, decided to join the Tripartite Pact, the agreement of cooperation originally made between Germany, Italy and Japan in September 1940 and subsequently signed by other German allies such as Hungary and Romania.

Hitler had wanted to secure the compliance of the Yugoslavs, in order both to prevent any potential problems behind the lines as his armies moved forward into the Soviet Union and to ease a planned German attack on Greece which was to be launched before the start of the war against the Soviets. Following the botched invasion of Greece by the Italians in October 1940, the Germans feared a counter-attack by the Allies through Greece once the Wehrmacht were committed in the Soviet Union. Hence Hitler’s pleasure in March 1941 that at least the non-involvement of Yugoslavia in the forthcoming conflict had been achieved.

So it was with enormous anger that he learnt on 27 March, just two days after Yugoslavia had signed the Tripartite Pact, that a group of Serbian officers had mounted a coup and overthrown the regime of Prince Paul. In the face of what Hitler saw as a total betrayal, he ordered the immediate invasion of Yugoslavia. ‘This is no joking matter for the Führer,’ wrote Goebbels in his diary.77 But this extra military commitment meant a delay in the scheduled May launch date of the invasion of the Soviet Union.

The Germans attacked both Greece and Yugoslavia on 6 April. The military action was an astonishing success, with Yugoslavia defeated in less than two weeks, and the Greek mainland occupied by the end of April. Suddenly, around 150,000 more Jews were under German control.

In Yugoslavia, the Nazis fuelled the ethnic tensions that had existed for hundreds of years between the various republics that made up the country. Yugoslavia itself was a creation of the peace treaties at the end of the First World War, formed from the amalgamation of territory that had been part of the Kingdom of Serbia with land from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Nazis now supported the formation of an Independent State of Croatia under the leadership of Ante Pavelić, a man who had previously conducted terrorist actions against the Yugoslav state in an effort to force the creation of a separate Croatia. Pavelić, and the Ustaše revolutionary movement that he led, were profoundly racist. They asserted that the Croats were not ‘Slavic’ like the Serbs, but of mainly Germanic descent, and that only those of true Croat ‘blood’ could take part in the running of Croatia. They possessed an intense hatred of the nearly 2 million Orthodox Christian Serbs who lived within the boundaries of the new Croat state, and the brutal and sadistic way in which the Ustaše treated these Serbs – murdering more than 300,000 (perhaps as many as 500,000) in the course of the war – is a war crime that deserves to be better acknowledged. The 40,000 Jews living in Croatia were also at risk,78 as the Ustaše maintained that they too were not true Croats. An editorial in a Croatian newspaper in 1939 stated that ‘the Jews were not Croats, and they could never become Croatian because by nationality they are Zionists, by race they are Semites, their religion is Israelite …. I am asking the peoples of the world, how long are we going to kill each other for the interests of the Jews? … if we are to kill each other, let us first kill the Jews …’79

By the Law Concerning Nationality, signed on 30 April 1941, Croat Jews were deprived of their citizenship. Three weeks later, on 23 May, another law was passed that ordered all Jews to be marked with yellow patches on their clothing. Businesses belonging to Croat Jews were seized – often to the benefit of other Croats rather than the government itself – and Jewish lawyers, doctors and other professionals were sacked from their jobs. But still worse was to come in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, when on 26 June Ante Pavelić accused the Jews of profiteering and ordered them to be imprisoned in concentration camps.

However, Pavelić, though undoubtedly responsible for mass murder, was not as ideologically consistent as the Nazis wished. While he believed that ‘Communism and Judaism work together against the national liberation of Croatia,’80 he gave himself the power to decide who was Jewish. He created the term ‘Honorary Aryan’ in order to allow a number of Jews – including those deemed to have performed meritorious service to the Croat state – to escape persecution. Pavelić’s motivation for this act was almost certainly self-serving – his own wife was the daughter of a Jew, and the wives of a number of his colleagues were Jewish.

In neighbouring Serbia the Germans decided to install a military administration aided and abetted by a puppet government. While the overall military command was in the hands of a German air force general, the civilian governance was administered by Harald Turner, an SS officer who would become notorious for his subsequent involvement in the extermination of Serbian Jews.

At the time of the German invasion of Yugoslavia there were about 16,000 Jews in Serbia, the majority living in Belgrade. They were an immediate target for the occupying forces, and the Germans swiftly persecuted them in an all too familiar pattern: passing decrees identifying who was a Jew, banning the Jews from a number of professions, ordering them to wear identifying badges and drafting Jewish men as forced labour.

Most of the rest of what had been pre-war Yugoslavia was swallowed up by a group of greedy neighbours that were already allies of the Nazis. The Italians took southern Slovenia, a section of the Croatian coast and Montenegro; Hungary annexed a chunk of Serbia including the city of Novi Sad and territory to the north; and Bulgaria snatched much of Macedonia.

After the surrender of Greek forces and the flight of British and Greek soldiers to the island of Crete, Greece was split between Bulgaria, Germany and Italy. The Italians took the bulk of the Greek mainland as well as the Ionian and Cycladic islands, the Germans occupied Salonica, and the Bulgarians most of Thrace and another section of Macedonia. The Germans arrested a number of Jews in the wake of the occupation, but although Greek Jewish communities remained at risk, the immediate persecution in Greece was not on the same scale as that in Croatia.

With the conquest of Greece and Yugoslavia, Hitler had secured his southern flank in preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union. But these were countries that he would have preferred not to have had to conquer by force. Only the coup in Yugoslavia and the inept performance of the Italians in Greece, which drew Allied troops to the region, had compelled him to act.

Now that he had control of this territory he wanted the minimum possible German military commitment consistent with the subjugation of the population. As for the Jews within Greece and Yugoslavia, they were subjected, as we have seen, to varying degrees of persecution in the spring of 1941. But in that context it is important to remember the question of scale. For while the Nazis gained about 150,000 Jews after conquering Yugoslavia and Greece, that was less than half the number that were currently incarcerated within the Warsaw ghetto alone, and a fraction of the number that were about to be encountered in the Soviet Union.

Hitler was focused on the east. And it would be in the midst of his self-proclaimed war of ‘extermination’ on Soviet territory that the Holocaust would be born.

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