10. War of Extermination

(1941)

On 22 June 1941 the Germans launched the largest single invasion in the history of the world. Nearly 4 million German troops and their allies crossed into the Soviet Union in three giant thrusts aimed initially at Leningrad, Smolensk and Kiev. For Adolf Hitler it was the moment he had dreamt of for nearly twenty years – the start of the fight to create a vast German empire in the east.

The day before the invasion Hitler had written to Mussolini telling him of his plans. It was a letter full of lies and half-truths: he said, for instance, that invading the Soviet Union was the ‘hardest decision’ of his life, when it must have been one of the easiest. He also claimed, contrary to the obvious reality, that ‘England has lost this war.’ But one comment he made in the letter does ring true. He said that having decided to invade he now felt ‘spiritually free’.1 For Hitler that ‘spiritual’ freedom manifested itself in his desire to wage a war without rules and without compassion for the defeated. ‘The Führer says that we must gain the victory no matter whether we do right or wrong,’ wrote Goebbels in his diary on 16 June. ‘We have so much to answer for anyhow that we must gain the victory because otherwise our whole people … will be wiped out.’2

Even though the German invasion plan dwarfed anything attempted before, Hitler and his commanders were so massively over-confident that they anticipated reaching the oil of the Caucasus, more than 1,500 miles east of them, in just a few months.3 Capturing the Soviet oil was just part of the plan, for vast quantities of both food and land were to be seized as well. As for the people who lived in the Soviet Union – the Nazis intended, as we have seen, to starve them to death in their tens of millions.4

At the epicentre of the Nazis’ hatred lay, as always, the Jews. And in order to confront ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ directly, Reinhard Heydrich organized four special task units or Einsatzgruppen – a total force of 3,000 – made up of units of the SD and other security forces. These Einsatzgruppen were to follow immediately behind the army groups as they advanced into the Soviet Union. In a document dated 2 July 1941, Heydrich explicitly ordered these units to shoot ‘Jews in the service of the [Communist] Party or the State’ as well as other leading Communists. He also insisted that ‘No steps will be taken to interfere with any purges that may be initiated by anti-Communist or anti-Jewish elements in the newly occupied territories. On the contrary, these are to be secretly encouraged.’5 The Einsatzgruppen were not the only units to be involved in so-called ‘cleansing’ actions behind the front line. By an order of 21 May, Himmler outlined how special detachments of the Order Police and Waffen SS would also enter the Soviet Union in the wake of the invasion – more than 11,000 members of the Order Police alone.6 These German policemen would commit murder alongside other German security units.

Just how Heydrich’s order that the Einsatzgruppen should not ‘interfere’ with locals who turned against the Jews worked in practice can be seen by the actions of the Germans in Kaunas. German forces reached Kaunas, the second city in Lithuania, on 24 June, just two days after the invasion had begun. Many Lithuanians welcomed the Germans, seeing them as liberators from Stalin’s rule. The Soviets had occupied the country in June 1940, having first forced the Lithuanians to accept Red Army soldiers based on their soil the previous year. Once in control, Stalin’s forces pursued a ruthless policy of ‘Sovietization’ in Lithuania: several thousand Lithuanians were imprisoned as ‘enemies of the people’; land was nationalized and economic shortages created – in part by the Soviet occupiers buying Lithuanian goods at artificially low prices. Just before the Germans arrived, 17,000 Lithuanians had been deported to Siberia.7

It wasn’t just the Soviet forces in general who were blamed for all this suffering, it was the Jews in particular. ‘Many Lithuanian Jews became the political leaders, joined the police,’ says Petras Zelionka, who later collaborated with the German killing squads, ‘and everyone was saying that in the security department people were mostly tortured by Jews. They used to put the screws on the head and tighten them, thus torturing the teachers and the professors.’8 While the idea that under Soviet rule Lithuanian prisoners were ‘mostly tortured by Jews’ was ludicrous, there was some basis for the belief that Lithuanian Jews were predisposed to be sympathetic to the Soviets. Many Lithuanian Jews had been pleased when the Soviets arrived – they knew, for instance, that in the Soviet Union the Communists had removed a number of the restrictions that the Jews had endured during Tsarist times. But although some Lithuanian Jews did subsequently manage to gain positions in local government and the security forces, thousands of other Jews were deported to Siberia after they had refused to accept Soviet citizenship.9 So the Jewish experience in Lithuania at the hands of the Soviets was a decidedly mixed one.

It was also the case, of course, that many non-Jewish Lithuanians had collaborated with the Soviet occupiers. As the German troops marched on to Lithuanian soil it became convenient for these collaborators to focus attention on the Jews. By blaming the Jews they hoped to divert attention from their own complicity with the Soviets. They thus sought to ‘cleanse themselves with Jewish blood’.10 Not for the first – or last – time in this history, the Jews were a convenient scapegoat.

On 25 June 1941, the day after the Germans had arrived in Kaunas, locals turned on Lithuanian Jews in a series of bloody murders outside a garage in the centre of the city. A group of civilians, wearing armbands and armed with rifles, forced between forty and fifty Jews on to the forecourt of the garage. Wilhelm Gunzilius, a member of a German air force reconnaissance unit, witnessed what happened next. ‘This man pulled someone out of the crowd [of Jews] and used his crowbar, “Whack!” And he went down. The victim received another blow when he was on the tarmac.’11Each of the Jews was killed in the same way: ‘one man was led up to him at a time and with one or more blows on the nape of the neck he killed each one.’12 Gunzilius photographed the slaughter, and his pictures show the killings taking place in front of a large group of civilians and members of the German armed forces. ‘The conduct of the civilians,’ he says, ‘among whom there were women and children, was unbelievable. After every blow of the iron bar they applauded …’13

Viera Silkinaitė, a sixteen-year-old Lithuanian, also witnessed the killings, and remembers how some of the crowd shouted, ‘Beat those Jews!’ as the murderer smashed their heads open. One man even lifted up his child so that he could see better. ‘What kind of person would he [that child] be when he grew up?’ asks Viera. ‘If, of course, he could understand what he had seen. And what could you expect of the person who was shouting [encouragement]? It was as if he was going to step into that garage and join the beating.’ Appalled at what she had seen, Viera ran off into a nearby cemetery. ‘I was ashamed,’ she says. ‘When I went to the cemetery, I sat down and I thought: “God Almighty, I heard before that there were [Jewish] windows broken or something like that done, that was still conceivable, but such an atrocity, to beat a helpless man … it was too much.” ’14Back at the garage, once all the Jews had been killed, the man who had smashed their heads open climbed on top of their bodies and played the Lithuanian national anthem on an accordion.15

Dr Walter Stahlecker, the commander of Einsatzgruppe A, which operated in the Baltic States, revealed the complicity of the Nazis in actions like these. He wrote in a report that ‘local anti-Semitic elements were induced to engage in pogroms against the Jews … The impression had to be created that the local population itself had taken the first steps of its own accord as a natural reaction to decades of oppression by the Jews and the more recent terror exerted by the Communists … the task of the security police was to set these purges in motion and put them on the right track so as to ensure that the liquidation goals that had been set might be achieved in the shortest possible time.’16 Heydrich’s instruction that ‘Jews in the service of the Party or the State’ should be killed was thus obviously a statement of the minimum number of murders that was acceptable.

Considerable latitude was given to the local commanders in deciding how best to pursue Heydrich’s instructions, and as a result killing rates varied across the different Einsatzgruppen. It is another example of how fixed and unambiguous orders were not always given in connection with the persecution and murder of the Jews. Instead, once again there was a complex relationship between local initiatives and imprecise instructions from on high. There was, however, one guiding principle that an individual Einsatzgruppe commander could use to determine his actions – the most murderous course was almost always the surest. Not killing enough people, or worse still showing mercy, was seen as a sign that you were not doing your job. Hence when Himmler and Heydrich visited Grodno, 90 miles south of Kaunas, they were unhappy with the numbers killed. Despite the fact that Grodno had a large Jewish population, Einsatzkommando 9 had killed ‘only’ ninety-six Jews.17 Significantly, there isn’t a recorded example of Himmler and Heydrich expressing dissatisfaction that summer because an Einsatzkommando was killing ‘too many’ Jews.

Four days after the murders in Kaunas, the Romanians demonstrated that they were also prepared to murder Jews. Just as in Lithuania, Jews in Romania were often accused of sympathizing with the Soviets, and the pre-June 1941 government of Romania, under the leadership of Marshal Ion Antonescu, had been virulently anti-Semitic.

The Romanians, allies of the Nazis, enthusiastically took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union. The enormous numbers of Romanian soldiers who entered Soviet territory on 22 June, fighting alongside the Germans, were in part motivated by self-interest. In 1940 the Soviets had occupied Bessarabia and other Romanian territories in the east of the country and now Marshal Antonescu relished the chance to snatch this land back.

Antonescu was an opportunist who believed the Germans would win against the Soviets. When he met Hitler, on 12 June, just before the invasion was launched, Antonescu said to him, ‘Whereas Napoleon and even the Germans in 1917 had still had to contend with the huge problems raised by space, the motor in the air and on the ground have eliminated space as Russia’s ally.’18

One of the first signs that Romanian forces would use the invasion as an opportunity to target Jews was the murderous action that took place in Iaşi in the east of Romania in late June. Antonescu wanted the city purged of Jews, and as soon as the invasion was launched, rumours began to flourish that the 45,000 Jews in Iaşi were somehow helping the Soviets.19 Starting on the night of 28–29 June a mix of Romanians – including large numbers of police, members of the anti-Semitic Iron Guard and ordinary citizens – rampaged through the city killing Jews. The Germans were also involved, with Major Hermann von Stransky liaising with the locals. Stransky was married to a Romanian and knew the country well.

A prominent member of the Jewish population in Iaşi remembered, ‘I saw the crowd flee in total chaos, fired on from rifles and machine guns. I fell on to the pavement after two bullets hit me. I lay there for several hours, seeing people I knew and strangers dying around me … I saw an old Jewish man, disabled after the war of 1916–1918 and wearing the Bărbăţie şi Credinţă [Manhood and Faith] decoration on his chest; he also carried with him papers that officially exempted him from anti-Semitic restrictions. However, bullets had shattered his thorax, and he lived his last moments on a garbage can like a dog.’ Further along the street lay the son of a leather merchant who ‘was dying and sobbing, “Mother, Father, where are you? Give me some water, I’m thirsty” … Soldiers … stabbed [the dying] with their bayonets to finish them off.’20 When Vlad Marievici of the city’s sanitation department arrived at police headquarters on the morning of 30 June, he found ‘a pile of corpses stacked high like logs’ that made it difficult for his truck to enter the courtyard. So many Jews had been murdered the previous night that ‘the floor was awash with blood that reached the gate; the blood came up to the soles of my shoes.’21

At least 4,000 Jews were killed in the city as a result of the pogrom – some estimates put the figure as high as 8,000.22 Five thousand more Jews were forced on to two trains and deported to the south. Crammed on board sealed freight trucks, the Jews found it hard to breathe, and the Romanian guards refused to let them drink any water. After several days their thirst was all but unbearable. Nathan Goldstein, a Jew from Iaşi, witnessed what happened when his train stopped near a river: ‘an eleven-year-old child jumped out the window to get a drink of water, but the [deputy of the train’s commander] felled him with a shot aimed at his legs. The child screamed, “Water, water!” Then the adjutant took him by his feet, shouting, “You want water? Well, drink all you want!”, lowered him head first into the water of the Bahlui River until the child drowned, and then threw him in.’23

The killing of Jews from Iaşi was just the beginning. In the aftermath of the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Romanians went on to murder more than 100,000 Jews in the former Romanian territory of Bessarabia and North Bukovina. Such was the casual brutality employed by the Romanians that even the Germans complained about their behaviour. General von Schobert, for instance, was unhappy with the Romanians for not burying the bodies of those they killed, and the commander of Einsatzkommando 10a criticized the Romanians for ‘lacking planning’ in their actions against the Jews.24 Revealingly, it was the Jews who lived in the Romanian territory that had just been ‘liberated’ from the Soviets who endured the brunt of the violence. Once again, the perceived link between Jews and ‘Bolshevism’ was a factor in legitimizing the murders as far as the killers were concerned.

In the summer of 1941, the war against the Soviet Union also had an impact on the concentration camps. Heydrich’s 2 July directive called for the Einsatzgruppen, operating just behind the front line, to kill ‘People’s Commissars’ – Soviet political officers. However, some of these commissars were not identified immediately after they had been captured, but were only discovered once they had been transferred to POW camps, far away from the Einsatzgruppen area of operation. This created a problem for the Nazis. Once these commissars had been singled out from the hundreds of thousands of other Soviet prisoners, how should they be murdered most efficiently? It was to resolve this issue that systematic mass killing began in concentration camps, in a secret action codenamed 14f14.

In July 1941 several hundred Soviet commissars were sent to Auschwitz. Kazimierz Albin, a Polish inmate of the camp, remembers that ‘they wore uniforms, but the uniforms were not [ordinary] soldiers’ uniforms but officers’ uniforms, very much in tatters. They were unshaven, and extremely emaciated. They impressed me as people who had been in very difficult conditions. And they didn’t look like simple soldiers, they looked like intelligent people.’25 The commissars laboured in a gravel pit near the main gate. Here they were literally worked to death. ‘They were beaten all the time,’ says Kazimierz Smoleń, another Polish prisoner. ‘You could hear those yells all the time. The SS men were yelling, the Kapos were yelling and the people who were being beaten yelled as well.’26 The commissars were forced to work in the gravel pits for hours on end without respite. If they slackened the pace they were severely beaten or even shot. ‘It was just a few days,’ says Kazimierz Smoleń, ‘and then they ceased to exist. It was the torture and murder of hundreds of people. It was a cruel death they died. It’s like in a horror movie, but such a movie will never be shown.’

The Soviet commissars were also sent to other concentration camps to be murdered, and individual SS units often devised their own method of killing. For instance, at Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin, the SS performed an elaborate charade in order to deceive the commissars about their fate. The commissars were taken into a specially converted barracks and told to undress in preparation for a medical examination. Once they were naked they were led one at a time into a room that purported to be a doctor’s office. An SS man, dressed in a white coat, looked them over. What the commissars did not know was that the SS man was interested only in whether or not they had any gold teeth or fillings that could be removed after their death. Next they were taken into a third room where they were told that they were to be measured. They stood up against a measuring stick and then, through a small flap connecting this room to an adjacent one, they were shot in the back of the neck. Kapos took the body away and hastily cleaned the execution chamber ready for the next victim. Loud music was played in the waiting room to drown out the sound of the gunfire.

Despite the labour-intensive nature of this killing process, the SS managed to murder a prisoner every few minutes. Over a ten-week period in 1941 they killed several thousand Soviet prisoners of war.27 But they could not keep the murders secret. One inmate wrote a note, placed it in a jar and managed to conceal it from the SS. Dated 19 September 1941, it reads: ‘we’ve just found out that another 400 Red Guards have been brought to the camp. We’re all under the shattering burden of these murders, which have already claimed more than a thousand lives. We aren’t in a position to help them at the moment.’28

By the time the murder of the Soviet commissars was under way, the adult euthanasia scheme had also spread to the concentration camps. Under action 14f13 concentration camp prisoners who had been selected as unfit to work were transported to euthanasia killing centres. At Auschwitz on the evening of 28 July 1941, around 500 sick prisoners boarded a train to take them to Dresden. The SS had told them that they were leaving the camp so that they could regain their strength elsewhere. ‘They had some hope,’ says Kazimierz Smoleń, who watched them leave. ‘Hope is the last thing that dies.’29 The sick prisoners were taken to Sonnenstein euthanasia centre and murdered by carbon monoxide poisoning. These were the first Auschwitz prisoners to die by gassing. They were chosen not because they were Jews, but because they were sick, and they died not at Auschwitz but in the heart of Germany.

Just days later, in August 1941, the T4 euthanasia programme came under threat. In one of the most famous statements of resistance in the history of the Third Reich, Clemens von Galen, Bishop of Münster, mounted a powerful attack on the practice of ‘euthanasia’. In Münster Cathedral, on the first Sunday in August, he said, ‘For several months we have heard reports that people who have been sick for a while and may appear incurable, have been taken away from mental and nursing homes for the mentally ill on orders from Berlin. After a short time, their relatives then receive notification that the patient has died, the body has been burnt, and the ashes can be sent to them. There is widespread suspicion, bordering on certainty, that these numerous cases of the sudden deaths of the mentally ill don’t occur naturally, but are being caused intentionally, and that they follow that doctrine that claims that one is justified in destroying so-called “life unworthy of life” – thus to kill innocent human beings, when one thinks that their life is of no value for the people [Volk] and the state.’30 Galen passionately believed that ‘This is not about machines, not about horses or cows whose only purpose is to serve mankind, to produce goods for the people! One may annihilate them, butcher them, as soon as they don’t fulfil their purpose any more. No, this is about human beings, our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters! Poor people, sick people, unproductive people if you like! But have they for this reason forfeited their right to live?’ He said that if the same principle was applied widely it could also lead to the killing of ‘invalids’ and, in a warning that had special relevance given the fierce fighting taking place in the east, even of ‘brave soldiers’ who returned home ‘seriously disabled’.

The timing of Galen’s intervention was particularly inconvenient for Hitler. Earlier in 1941 the Gauleiter of Bavaria, Adolf Wagner, had ordered all crucifixes to be taken down in schools within his area of control. Hitler did not request that this action take place, and it has never been fully established whether Wagner acted entirely on his own initiative. There was certainly support for attacks against the church at high levels within the Nazi party. Martin Bormann, head of the party Chancellery, had written a note to all Gauleiters in June 1941 – some weeks after Wagner’s actions in Bavaria – in which he said that it was important to try and break the power of the church. Both Wagner and Bormann were outspoken critics of Christianity, and it is possible that Bormann in his enthusiasm to act against church authorities misunderstood a passing reference that Hitler might have made as a signal for action.31

Whatever the origin of the decision to order the removal of crucifixes from schools in Bavaria, it turned out to be a major tactical mistake for the Nazis. Bavarians, many of them staunchly Catholic, rose up in large numbers to protest in a flurry of petitions, demonstrations and public meetings. They wrote to their sons and husbands on the front line, complaining about what was happening back home. ‘Of course we were angry,’ says Emil Klein, a committed Nazi from Bavaria who had taken part in the Beer-Hall Putsch in 1923, and was now fighting on the eastern front, ‘when we were lying out there in the ditches and we heard that at home they were taking the crucifixes off the walls in Bavaria. We were annoyed about that!’32

Hitler could not afford to lose the support of men like Emil Klein, and the crucifix order was rescinded. Once again Hitler’s personal reputation was partly protected by the popular notion that he knew nothing about the conduct of some of his underlings. ‘You wear brown shirts on top,’ read one anonymous protest letter attacking local Nazis, ‘but inside you’re Bolsheviks and Jews. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to carry on behind the Führer’s back.’33

Coming on top of the crucifix debacle, Bishop von Galen’s sermon condemning the euthanasia killings was especially problematic for Hitler. Though he wanted to see Galen punished, he felt he could not act against him without stirring up discontent among his own supporters who were also Christians. Moreover, the transportation across Germany of disabled patients to be murdered had now become dangerously high profile.

On 24 August 1941, Hitler decided to cancel the T4 action. This didn’t mean that all euthanasia killings ceased – individual hospitals continued to starve disabled patients to death and to kill them by fatal injections – but the systematic gassing in the special killing centres no longer took place as before. In turn, this meant that a number of individuals from the T4 programme who possessed expertise in mass murder, like Christian Wirth and Irmfried Eberl, were unemployed. They would shortly be asked to use their particular talents elsewhere.

It is not possible to say that Galen’s intervention led directly to the cancellation of the T4 operation, given that Hitler was already anxious about civilian morale in the light of the crucifix controversy and other concerns.34 Nonetheless, this episode does demonstrate not just the personal courage of Bishop von Galen but also that open resistance was possible in the Third Reich – risky, of course, but possible. It is significant that something similar was not attempted by Bishop von Galen in particular or the German public in general over the treatment of the Jews. Underlying anti-Semitism amongst much of the population was not the only reason for this lack of action. Protests also did not occur because the Catholic Church in Germany had distanced itself from the persecution of the Jews, fearing the consequences for the church itself of protesting. In addition, most non-Jewish Germans were not personally affected by the way the Jews were treated. By now the Jews were almost completely isolated from the rest of the population. They lived in Jewish houses and their children attended Jewish schools. On the other hand, most German civilians had a relative in the armed forces, and so the adult euthanasia scheme affected them directly. What if their loved ones were murdered by the state after they became severely injured in battle?

Hitler knew that many of his supporters were Christians and that without their support his ambitions would be damaged. Emil Klein was both a committed Catholic and a committed Nazi. It would be foolhardy to force him to choose between these two faiths. Hitler had no such problem when it came to the Jews. A vanishingly small number of his soldiers on the front line, or their relatives back at home in Germany, cared enough about Jews to risk protesting about how they were treated.

At the same time as the crucifix controversy festered within Germany, Hitler’s soldiers appeared to be winning the war against the Soviet Union. Minsk, the capital of Belarus, fell to the Germans at the end of June and nearly 300,000 Red Army soldiers were captured. By now, only a week after the launch of the attack, German panzers were almost a third of the way to Moscow. This was not just the largest invasion in history – it was the swiftest as well. In conversation with his acolytes, Hitler basked in the glory. He said: ‘to those who ask me whether it will be enough to reach the Urals as a frontier, I reply that for the present it is enough for the frontier to be drawn back as far as that. What matters is that Bolshevism must be exterminated.’ His plans for Moscow were simple; the city must ‘disappear from the earth’s surface’.35 Ten days later, on 16 July, Hitler met with leading Nazi figures, including Göring, Bormann and Rosenberg, and announced that he intended to build a ‘Garden of Eden’ in the eastern territories, using ‘all necessary measures’ such as ‘shooting’ and ‘resettlements’. Anyone who ‘even looks sideways at us’, he said, should be killed.36

Shortly after the 16 July meeting, Himmler ordered a large increase in the number of security personnel involved in the mass killing of Jews in the Soviet Union; over 16,000 troops, mostly from SS units, were now ordered to help with the murders. Himmler hadn’t been present when Hitler said he wanted to build a ‘Garden of Eden’ on Soviet territory, using ‘all necessary measures’, but he had nonetheless understood what his boss wanted. That, after all, was how the Reichsführer SS had prospered in the Third Reich. Over the next few weeks he visited the killing squads operating behind the front line – visits that often coincided with an increase not just in the number of people killed, but in the categories of people killed as well. Gradually over the summer and early autumn of 1941, Jewish women and children were murdered alongside men. Now that babies were targeted, there could no longer be any pretence that the Nazis were only killing Jews who posed an immediate threat to their security.

However monstrous these murders seem to us today, the extension of the killing to include Jewish women and children was not a major ideological departure for the Nazis. They were already aware that they were fighting in a war of ‘extermination’. The German Army, as we have seen, had been told to let ‘millions’ starve as soldiers stole the food they needed from the locals. And on 24 June, two days after the invasion began, Himmler ordered Professor Konrad Meyer to work on a ‘General Plan for the East’ – an epic vision for the Nazi-occupied east that necessitated the deaths of tens of millions of Soviet men, women and children. As Himmler had said just before the war in the east began: ‘It is a question of existence, thus it will be a racial struggle of pitiless severity.’37

There was also a practical reason, as the Nazis saw it, why these Jewish women and children had to be murdered in the Soviet Union. For once the Jewish men had been shot, many of the women and children had lost their breadwinners and so would likely suffer a slow death by starvation. In the warped world of the Third Reich, one Nazi even argued that it would be more humane to kill the Jews quickly rather than let them starve. Back in Poland, on 16 July – the same day that Hitler held his meeting about establishing a ‘Garden of Eden’ in the East – SS Sturmbannführer Rolf-Heinz Höppner wrote a memo to Adolf Eichmann about the situation in the Warthegau: ‘There is a danger that, in the coming winter, it will become impossible to feed all the Jews. It must seriously be considered whether the most humane solution is to finish off the Jews unfit for labour through some fast-acting means. This would definitely be more pleasant than letting them starve to death.’38

However, it was one thing to talk about extending the killing in the abstract, quite another for SS men to stand up close and pull the trigger, a few feet away from naked Jewish women and children. Nonetheless, in the summer and autumn of 1941 thousands of SS men became murderers for the first time as they killed in just such an intimate manner. The 1st SS Infantry Brigade, for example, murdered Jews in Ostrog in the west of Ukraine at the start of August 1941. Ostrog was a predominantly Jewish city, with a population of 10,000 Jews, now swelled by several thousand more who had sought refuge in the city from the surrounding area. On 4 August the SS forced Jews out of Ostrog into the countryside. ‘They treated us as cattle,’ says Vasyl Valdeman, then a twelve-year-old Jewish boy. ‘They [the SS] were armed and had dogs with them. They made the strong [Jews] carry the ill people, and those who had beards were beaten, because they thought they were rabbis, and we saw much blood on their faces. They [the Jews] were crying out, I remember their words, “They are beating us, beating us as dogs.” ’

When the Jews reached a large sandy field the SS ordered them to sit down. The SS had told the Jews that they were needed to dig fortifications, but it soon became clear that they were to be murdered. ‘We were looking at our parents,’ says Vasyl, ‘and when we saw our grandmother and mother crying we realized that this was something horrible.’39

The Jews waited hours in the scorching heat until, one group at a time, they were ordered to undress and all their valuables were stolen. Next they were marched forward to an open pit and shot. But the SS didn’t possess the manpower to kill all the Jews in one day, so in the evening the remaining Jews were marched back into Ostrog. The next day the killing began again and continued until the military commander of Ostrog said he needed the remaining Jews to act as forced labour.40 Almost the whole of Vasyl’s family were murdered by the Nazis – including his father, two brothers, two uncles, his grandmother and grandfather. Vasyl and his mother were hidden by non-Jewish neighbours and survived the war. ‘They even ran risks so that we could survive,’ he says. ‘Nobody told the Germans that we were hiding.’

‘There were no problems between Ukrainians and Jews in Ostrog,’ says Oleksiy Mulevych, a non-Jewish Ukrainian, who was sixteen years old when the Germans arrived. ‘What the Germans have done to Jews cannot be forgiven. I felt no difference between the Jews and me. I understood that the next turn would be mine.’ Oleksiy thought he and his family might starve because the Nazis ‘took all our food away. At the time we had two hectares of land and they took the corn and the cows … The Germans were the enemies of all the people. They were like beasts.’41 Oleksiy knew nothing of the details of the German plan to feed their armed forces at the ‘expense’ of the local population, but he and his family felt its impact as they struggled to survive on whatever scraps they could find.

Although Vasyl Valdeman and his mother were protected by non-Jewish Ukrainians, not everyone in Ukraine was as supportive of the Jews. There were many cases of non-Jewish Ukrainians profiting from the destruction of their Jewish neighbours. In Horokhiv, for example, 50 miles south of Ostrog, locals stood in queues to buy the murdered Jews’ possessions at knock-down prices.42 In Lwów there were horrific scenes on the streets at the end of June 1941 as Ukrainians participated in the murder of around 4,000 Jews.43 This orgy of violence was sparked by the discovery that Soviet security forces had killed several thousand prisoners just before the Germans arrived.

Nazi-approved pogroms like the ones in Lwów and Kaunas certainly did take place – one estimate is that there were at least sixty of them in the occupied Soviet Union44 – but the majority of Jews were murdered that summer and autumn in actions like the one in Ostrog where the Jews were shot at close quarters. Hans Friedrich, an ethnic German from Romania, participated personally in these ‘pit’ killings as a member of the 1st SS Infantry Brigade. Friedrich says he had ‘no feelings’ as he shot the Jews. He claims this lack of ‘empathy’ – indeed his overall ‘hatred’ of Jews – was because Jews had previously ‘harmed’ his family by buying animals from their farm too cheaply. The ‘motto’ of this war, he says, was ‘against Communism’, and since ‘there were connections between Jews and Bolshevism’ he thought it understandable that the Jews were considered a target, especially since the Soviet Union was only ‘half civilized’.45

In the Baltic States in particular, many of those who shot the Jews were locals, murdering alongside German security forces. Petras Zelionka, for example, was a member of a Lithuanian unit that took part in the killings. He felt justified in murdering innocent Jewish civilians partly because he believed that Jews had tortured Lithuanians during the Soviet occupation of the country – ‘we were told what they have done, how they used to kill even the women.’46 He also reveals that his comrades relished the chance to steal from the Jews. Straightforward avarice could be just as much a reason to commit murder as anything ideological.

A distinguished Lithuanian historian has identified five motivational factors for those who participated in the killings. Revenge (against those who had allegedly helped the Soviets oppress the population), expiation (for those who wanted to show their loyalty to the Nazis after collaborating with the Soviets), anti-Semitism, opportunism (a desire to adapt swiftly to the new situation in Lithuania) and self-enrichment. Having met Petras Zelionka, I believe he matches four of those criteria. Only ‘expiation’ is doubtful in his case.47

An additional motivational factor, not mentioned in this list, was one almost certainly possessed by both Petras Zelionka and Hans Friedrich – sadism. Even long after the war was over – Zelionka was interviewed in 1996 and Friedrich eight years later – neither expressed any remorse for their actions, and they both talked about the killings as if they had gained some base, sadistic kick out of murdering in this intimate way. Friedrich, for example, says that the Jews ‘were extremely shocked, utterly frightened and petrified, and you could do what you wanted with them’,48 and Zelionka that he felt a sense of ‘curiosity’ as he killed children – ‘you just pull the trigger, the shot is fired and that is it.’49

Zelionka’s unit also committed murders at the Seventh Fort in Kaunas, though he claimed he did not take part personally in this particular action. Here there were reports that the killers were sexual sadists. ‘Night after night the Lithuanian henchmen would proceed to select their victims: the young, the pretty,’ recorded Avraham Tory in his diary. ‘First they would rape them, then torture them, and finally murder them. They called it “going to peel potatoes”.’50

The perverted pleasure that some members of the Einsatzgruppen took in the killing process was obvious to onlookers. ‘There were a number of filthy sadists in the extermination Kommando,’ said Alfred Metzner, a driver and interpreter. ‘For example, pregnant women were shot in the belly for fun and then thrown into the pits … Before the execution the Jews had to undergo a body search, during which … anuses and sex organs were searched for valuables and jewels.’51

In Ukraine, Dina Pronicheva, a Jew who escaped from a killing site, witnessed how some of the German killers were happy to commit what their own ideology considered a ‘race crime’: ‘At the opposite side of the ravine, seven or so Germans brought two young Jewish women. They went down lower to the ravine, chose an even place and began to rape these women by turns. When they became satisfied, they stabbed the women with daggers … And they left the bodies like this, naked, with their legs open.’52

There were similar sadists not just in the SS but in the ordinary German Army. During the partisan war behind the front line on the eastern front, Adolf Buchner, a member of an SS Pionierbataillon, saw both SS and army soldiers take pleasure in mentally and physically torturing Soviet civilians. ‘There were some bastards among them,’ he says. ‘They undressed them [i.e. the villagers] until they were naked and they killed them once they were naked … among our own people there were those who were really hot for it, to be able to let them have it … Was there any need, for example, to shoot the children in front of the women and then shoot the women after that? That happened too. That is sadism. There were officers like that, they liked sadistic things, they liked it when the mothers were screaming or children were screaming – they were really hot for that. In my view those people are not human.’53

For Walter Fernau, who served on the eastern front with the 14 Panzerjäger-Kompanie, the reason for the atrocities was simple. ‘If you give a person a weapon and power over other people,’ he says, ‘and then allow him to drink alcohol then he becomes a murderer.’ There was also, he says, a ‘coarsening’ and a ‘brutalization’ that occurred within the German Army during the war in the east, particularly once the ‘partisan war’ started up: ‘then one would meet someone who looked like a partisan … [and] he was simply shot.’ The final element in this toxic cocktail of emotions was, according to Walter Fernau, straightforward ‘fear’. ‘You would not believe what sort of feeling it is to be really afraid,’ he says. ‘When I ever actually spoke to young people … about war or anything, I always told them how scared I was.’54

As early as 3 July 1941, Stalin had demanded that ‘Conditions in the occupied regions must be made unbearable for the enemy and all of his accomplices.’55 The Germans took this to mean that all civilians in the Soviet territory they controlled were now potential partisans. Since a recurring theme of Nazi ideology was that the Jews were a security threat, it was easy for German forces to conflate ‘partisan’ and ‘Jew’. That was what General von Manstein, commander of the Eleventh Army, did when he issued this order of the day on 20 November 1941: ‘Jewry constitutes the mediator between the enemy in the rear and the still fighting remnants of the Red Army and the Red leadership.’ Manstein went on to emphasize the racial nature of the war: ‘The Jewish–Bolshevik system must be eradicated once and for all. Never again may it interfere in our European living space. The German soldier is therefore not only charged with the task of destroying the power instrument of this system. He marches forth also as a carrier of a racial conception and as an avenger of all the atrocities which have been committed against him and the German people.’56

Though a number of German Army commanders issued orders insisting that their soldiers have no part in the SS and Einsatzgruppen killings, the involvement of the Wehrmacht in the pacification actions against the partisans in the east was widespread. For instance, Wolfgang Horn, an NCO with a Panzer artillery unit, personally ordered the burning down of an entire village during the fight against partisans, but he thought little of it because the houses were ‘not worth much anyhow … we didn’t take it so seriously to [set on] fire a Russian house … we didn’t respect them as as civilized as we are … their lifestyle was too primitive for us.’57

Many ordinary soldiers, after years of schooling in Nazi ideology, had little doubt that they were fighting inferior human beings. ‘Everyone, even the last doubter,’ wrote one soldier in July 1941, ‘knows today that the battle against these subhumans, who’ve been whipped into a frenzy by the Jews, was not only necessary but came in the nick of time. Our Führer has saved Europe from certain chaos.’58

While there were killers who liked what they were doing, there were also those who had problems participating in the murders. Himmler discovered this for himself on a visit to Minsk in the summer of 1941. On 15 August he watched as around a hundred people – a mix of ‘partisans and Jews’59 according to his work diary – were shot by Einsatzgruppe B. The victims were forced to lie face downwards in a pit and shot from behind. The next group then had to climb into the pit and lie on the people who had just been shot.

Walter Frentz, an air force cameraman who was stationed at the Führer’s headquarters in East Prussia, had asked to accompany Himmler’s group to Minsk because he wanted ‘to see something else for a change – not always just these four walls at HQ’. Frentz was ‘pretty shocked’ by what he saw, because he ‘didn’t know that things like that happened’.60 Once the killings were finished ‘the commander of the auxiliary police approached me, because I was in the air force. “Lieutenant,” he said, “I can’t take it any more. Can’t you get me out of here?” I said, “Well, I don’t have any influence over the police. I’m in the air force, what am I supposed to do?” “Well,” he said, “I can’t take it any more – it’s terrible!” ’61

SS Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant General) von dem Bach-Zelewski claimed that he said to Himmler after the killings in Minsk: ‘Reichsführer, those were only a hundred [that had been shot] … Look at the eyes of the men in this Kommando, how deeply shaken they are. These men are finished for the rest of their lives. What kind of followers are we training here?’62

Himmler gathered the killers around him after the shooting and made a short speech, explaining that ‘He alone bore responsibility before God and the Führer for what had to happen.’ He said that no doubt his men had noticed that he was not happy that this work had to be fulfilled, but it was a necessary task. Himmler also, according to Bach-Zelewski, told his men that they ‘were supposed to look at nature, there was struggle everywhere, not only for humans, but in flora and fauna as well. Those who didn’t want to fight simply perished … we humans were in the right when we defended ourselves against vermin …’63 Himmler added that although the task they had been set was ‘hard’ he ‘could not see any way round it. They must be hard and stand firm. He could not relieve them of this duty, he could not spare them.’64 That evening, Frentz heard Himmler say: ‘You may be wondering why something like this was done. But if we didn’t do this, what would they do to us?’ Frentz says he thought these words were ‘terrible’.65 Himmler gave a further glimpse into his murderous mentality the following month, when he said: ‘Even the brood in the cradle must be crushed like a puffed-up toad. We are living in an iron time and have to sweep with iron brooms. Everyone has therefore to do his duty without asking his conscience first.’66

After witnessing the murders in Minsk in August, Himmler drove on to a mental hospital at Novinki and almost certainly gave the order for the patients to be killed. It is also likely that during or shortly after this visit he discussed with Arthur Nebe, commander of Einsatzgruppe B and a former head of the Criminal Police, other potential methods of mass murder. Himmler had just witnessed, of course, in dramatic personal terms, the potential psychological problems that shooting Jews at close range could cause.67

In the weeks following Himmler’s visit, Nebe experimented with different killing techniques with the help of Dr Albert Widmann of the Technical Institute of the Criminal Police. Widmann’s presence in Minsk was a sign of the growing involvement in the killings in the east of the team that had worked on the T4 euthanasia scheme. Widmann, as we have seen, had helped devise the gas chambers in the euthanasia centres.

It soon became apparent that the killing techniques of T4 could not easily be replicated in the east. The gas chambers in the killing centres in Austria and Germany had used bottled carbon monoxide gas, and it was impractical – partly because of the expense – to transport canisters of carbon monoxide to the various killing locations spread across the occupied Soviet Union. The mobile gas van had been one way round this ‘problem’, but the physical capacity of the gas van was limited. What the Nazis needed was a cheap and simple method of mass killing that spared the killers the psychological stress caused by facing their victims eye to eye.

In this context, it is a common misconception that gas chambers emerged as the preferred killing method of the Holocaust simply because of the desire of the Nazis to kill Jews in large numbers. That wasn’t the case. During the infamous murders at Babi Yar outside Kiev in September 1941, for example, a combination of soldiers from SS police battalions, Einsatzgruppen and local collaborators murdered nearly 34,000 Jews in just two days by shooting them. This was killing on a scale that no death camp ever matched over a similar period. What gas chambers offered was not a way of killing more people in a single day than shooting, but a method of making the killing easier – for the killers.

In the summer of 1941 it wasn’t immediately obvious to the Nazis that gas chambers were the most suitable way forward. Widmann and his team also tried – almost unbelievably – imprisoning mental patients in a bunker and blowing them up. The experiment was not a success from the Nazis’ point of view. ‘The sight was atrocious,’ said Wilhelm Jaschke, an officer in Einsatzkommando 8. ‘Some wounded came out of the dugout crawling and crying … Body parts were scattered on the ground and hanging in the trees.’68 After the failure of this attempt to murder people, Widmann, Nebe and their colleagues turned their attention once again to carbon monoxide. Was there a way of creating this gas, so effective in killing the disabled in Germany, without using the canisters? The answer turned out to be all around them – in the exhaust gases expelled from cars and trucks. At a mental hospital in Mogilev in Belarus, the Nazis locked patients into a sealed room and piped in exhaust gases from a car engine. When this turned out not to produce enough poisonous gas, they tried a larger engine from a truck until they succeeded in murdering everyone in the room.

Experiments in different methods of killing were not only conducted in the occupied Soviet Union. At Auschwitz, in Upper Silesia, the SS devised another way of murdering prisoners. In the early autumn of 1941, Karl Fritzsch, deputy to the commandant, Rudolf Höss, tried killing sick prisoners and Soviet POWs with a powerful cyanide-based chemical in crystallized form that was used to destroy insects. The crystals, stored in sealed tins, turned into poisonous gas once exposed to the air. The chemical was called Zyklon Blausäure – or Zyklon B for short.

The SS experimented by locking selected prisoners in the basement of Block 11 in Auschwitz. Block 11 was a prison within a prison, the most feared building in the camp, the place where the SS interrogated and tortured prisoners. But just as initial attempts to kill with carbon monoxide exhaust had not been as effective as the Nazis would have liked, so Fritzsch’s first attempt to murder with Zyklon B was not – from his point of view – completely successful.

August Kowalczyk, a Polish political prisoner in Auschwitz, witnessed how the SS tried to seal the area in Block 11 where the prisoners were to be gassed by blocking it off with soil and sand. But either the sealing process was ineffective or insufficient Zyklon B was used, because the day after the gassing he saw one SS man running back and forth in an agitated way. It turned out that some prisoners were still alive, so more Zyklon B crystals were poured into the makeshift gas chamber. The terrible agonies faced by these unknown Soviet POWs and sick prisoners as they half suffocated during the night in Block 11 can scarcely be imagined.69

The SS, by this murderous trial and error, established the exact amount of Zyklon B crystals required to murder a set number of prisoners. In the process they discovered that the gas was more effective the hotter the room, and the more people that were crammed inside. They also found out that Block 11 was far from the perfect place to conduct mass murder. The difficulty they faced, as August Kowalczyk witnessed, was ‘how to evacuate the corpses’. Other prisoners had to enter the basement, disentangle the bodies, carry them back upstairs, place them on handcarts and then push them to the other end of the main camp to be burnt in the crematorium. Not only was this a labour-intensive and time-consuming process, but it was impossible to keep the murders secret from the rest of the camp. After giving the matter some thought, the SS realized that they could short-cut the process by turning one of the corpse-storage rooms in the crematorium into a gas chamber. The prisoners could now be murdered next to the ovens that were used to burn their remains.

These various experiments in the summer and autumn of 1941 were carried out against the background of another campaign of killing that dwarfed the gassings in terms of scale. For during the second half of 1941 the Nazis murdered a staggering number of Soviet prisoners of war. By the end of 1941, out of the 3.35 million Soviet prisoners taken captive by the Germans since the war began on 22 June, more than 2 million were dead. Around 600,000 had been killed as a consequence of the Commissar Order, the rest died of mistreatment of one kind or another, with large numbers starved to death.70 As one historian of this period remarked, if the war had ended at the start of 1942, ‘this programme of mass murder would have stood as the greatest single crime committed by Hitler’s regime.’71

Georgy Semenyak was one of the minority of Soviet POWs captured at the start of the war who survived. He was imprisoned by the Germans in a camp in the open air along with around 80,000 other POWs and survived on the occasional serving of thin soup, which because the Germans did not issue bowls or cups he had to drink from his forage cap. ‘The forage cap is Soviet Army issue,’ he says, ‘and was intended for summer wear, and the thin soup ran straight through the material.’ After a few weeks he was moved to an even larger camp. Here he faced another problem: an infestation of lice. ‘This brought about an epidemic of typhus. And people started to die of typhus. Furthermore, there were so many lice that many people’s hair was so full of lice that it started to move. Not only were people’s hair, clothes and bodies covered with lice, but if you leant over and picked up a handful of sand, the sand moved because of all the lice in it.’72

The Soviet prisoners tried to capture rats to eat. ‘Sometimes a man would catch a rat by the tail,’ says Georgy Semanyak, ‘and the rat would bend round and bite his hand. They have two incisor teeth – very strong teeth. So the rat is biting the man’s hand, but he won’t let go of it. He hits it to kill it, to get a piece of meat to boil or fry.’ Soviet prisoners were so desperate that they even ate the dead bodies of their comrades. Semanyak reveals that a number of his comrades cut the buttocks, liver and lungs from corpses and then fried and ate them.

Semanyak also remembers how the Germans played sadistic games on the Soviet POWs, reminiscent of some of the torments they inflicted on Jews: ‘A German approaches a crowd of people and asks: “Who wants some food?” What an idiotic question! When you can see that people haven’t eaten their fill for months on end, how can you ask: “Who wants food?” Everyone wants food. “OK [says the German], then who can eat a whole bucket of porridge?” Someone raises their hand and says: “I can.” “Come forward then.” And the German gives him the bucket of porridge. But of course he can’t eat the whole bucket. But he stands by the bucket and starts eating. He eats a couple of bowlfuls at the most … That’s already pretty exceptional. He can’t possibly eat any more. And then he says: “That’s it!” And the bucket is still three-quarters full. And then they beat him up. So he has to take a beating, but at least he’s eaten.’73

Hunger dominated the lives of millions who lived under Nazi occupation in the summer and autumn of 1941. True to the intentions they had expressed in secret that spring, the Nazis murdered those they despised not just by the bullet and the gas chamber, but by starvation. This does not mean, however, that the Nazis had the same attitude to killing Soviet POWs as they did to killing Jews. The mental process that allowed them to justify the murders was different. Wolfgang Horn, for example, was a typical soldier in that while he regarded the Soviets ‘as uncivilized, nearly savages’, he thought the Jews were not ‘savages’ but intelligent. Horn had been told that the Jews were ‘ruling Russia’ and were also the reason that the Germans had lost the First World War.74

It thus followed logically from Nazi ideology that the Jews were the deadlier enemy – they were not mere subhumans, but a ‘race’ that was clever enough to plot secretly against Germany. As a consequence it was necessary to remove – in one way or another – every single one of them. As for the Soviet POWs, if they could work as beasts of burden then they might be allowed to serve the Nazi state. When they became ‘useless eaters’, it was time for them to die. That mentality explains why the mortality rate of Soviet POWs in German hands decreased after Hitler ordered on 31 October 1941 that Soviet prisoners should be employed in large numbers as forced labourers.75 Significantly, he was not prepared at this stage in the war to countenance the use of Jews as workers within the Reich. In the spring of 1941 Arthur Greiser had been so keen to expel Jews from the Warthegau that he had suggested sending 70,000 Jews to Germany as slave labourers, but Hitler had vetoed the idea.76 The idea was to expel them from the Reich, not to take them back as workers.

Hitler, of course, was not making every decision about the nature of the killing that took place in the wake of the invasion of the Soviet Union. It is even unclear whether Himmler’s instruction to the Einsatzgruppen, to expand the murders in July 1941 in the Soviet Union to include Jewish women and children, was made as a result of a direct order from Hitler. That Hitler knew what the Einsatzgruppen killers were doing, however, is certain. He received direct intelligence detailing how many people they were murdering. On 1 August 1941 the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, transmitted a message to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen: ‘The Führer is to be sent regular reports from here about the work of the Einsatzgruppen in the east. For this purpose particularly interesting illustrative material is required, like photographs, posters, pamphlets and other documents.’77 Equally certain is that Hitler approved wholeheartedly of the killings. Later that same month Goebbels wrote in his diary after a meeting with him: ‘We talk about the Jewish problem. The Führer is convinced that the prophecy he made in the Reichstag – that if the Jews manage to provoke a new world war, it would result in the extermination of the Jews – is now coming true … with almost uncanny certainty. In the east the Jews have had to settle their account; in Germany they have partly paid and will have to pay even more in future.’78

Most probably, in extending the killings in the occupied Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Himmler knew that he was acting within an overall mandate given to him by Hitler about the fate of the Jews during this war of extermination. He was also aware that Hitler would be informed once the operation was under way, and if the Führer was unhappy then the action could be stopped. Tellingly, it was not.

This flexibility in the way the extermination process operated can be detected through the whole chain of command. It is likely, for instance, that when Himmler visited the Einsatzgruppen on location in the east in the summer of 1941 he did not often give written orders, but orally encouraged the Einsatzgruppen to extend the killing where and when possible. And when written orders were issued they could be couched in terms that were imprecise. On 1 August, for example, the 2nd SS Cavalry Regiment, operating in the Pripet Marshes in the occupied Soviet Union, received this message which emanated from Himmler: ‘All Jews must be shot. Drive the female Jews into the swamp.’ SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Magill replied: ‘Driving women and children into the swamp was not successful because the swamp was not so deep that sinking could occur.’79

If there had been an explicit written order from Himmler circulating among the SS and Einsatzgruppen units, this kind of ambiguous communication would not have occurred. In this case, Himmler did not want to be explicit in writing about killing Jewish women and children and hoped his men would read between the lines. But then this particular unit took the order they had received too literally. Magill correctly understood this instruction to be a euphemistic way of saying ‘kill the women and children’ and so sent his reply explaining that the method of killing he had been told to use – drowning in the swamp – didn’t work.

We can learn two important things from this brief exchange. First, that SS functionaries thought it necessary to use camouflage language in writing even between themselves. Second, because orders from the top were sometimes given with an element of ambiguity, some junior officers could be uncertain about what exactly was required of them.

This level of subterfuge even led to other Nazi functionaries trying to stop what they saw as unauthorized killing actions. Hinrich Lohse, for instance, the Reich Commissioner for the Baltic States, wrote on 15 November 1941: ‘I have forbidden the indiscriminate executions of Jews in Libau because they were not carried out in a justifiable way.’ He asked for clarification whether or not there was an ‘instruction to liquidate all Jews in the east’ because he was unable ‘to find such a directive’.80 The reply he received from the head of the political department of the Reich Ministry for Eastern Territories was careful not to refer to such a ‘directive’ in writing, and merely said that Lohse’s concern about the ‘Jewish question’ ought by now to have been ‘clarified’ via ‘oral discussions’.81

We cannot know for certain exactly why the Nazis administered their policy of mass killing in this way. But the most persuasive explanation is that they were aware that public knowledge of what they were doing could lead to problems for them. The lesson to take from Bishop von Galen’s protests over euthanasia, as far as the Nazis were concerned, would have been to put more effort into keeping killing projects secret. It was not so much that the Nazis would have been concerned about public protests in Germany – although that remained a risk – as the consequences abroad if the rest of the world knew in detail what was happening. Hitler, in particular, would have been concerned about damage to his prestige. He envisaged a life for Germany after the war was won and it would be diplomatically easier for the German head of state if the extermination of the Jews had been kept secret – or at least that he himself had managed to maintain plausible distance from it. Having decided in 1939 to sign a document authorizing the euthanasia scheme, and subsequently seen the way the church attacked the Nazis, Hitler would have been doubly concerned to keep his name out of any other killing actions that might attract negative publicity. While he could stand in front of the Reichstag and predict in principle the extermination of the Jews if there was a world war, that wasn’t the same as revealing in detail how Jewish men, women and children were being slaughtered. Much better, from Hitler’s perspective, to make sure that no order in his name about this sensitive project ever existed. He was well aware that written orders could come back and haunt the sender. That is one reason he remarked in October 1941, ‘it’s much better to meet than to write, at least when some matter of capital importance is at issue.’82

But no sophisticated state can function if every order is merely spoken, so on occasion it was necessary to refer to the killings in writing. As a result a whole range of euphemisms came to be associated with the destruction of the Jews. ‘Special handling’, for example, was one way in documents of referring to murder. Equally, the term ‘Final Solution’ came to mean the plan to exterminate the Jews, even though the words had initially meant only their deportation. It still held this original meaning in a document signed by Göring for Heydrich, dated 31 July 1941. ‘To supplement the task that was assigned to you,’ the document read, ‘on 24 January 1939, which dealt with the solution of the Jewish problem by emigration and evacuation in the most suitable way, I hereby charge you to submit a comprehensive blueprint of the organizational, subject-related and material preparatory measures for the execution of the intended final solution of the Jewish question.’83 We know that the ‘final solution’ mentioned in this document was not the mass extermination of the Jews in the death camps, because earlier discussions between Heydrich and Göring about a possible ‘blueprint’ for the ‘final solution’ can be traced to March 1941, at a time when the Nazis planned to deport the Jews east after the war. So by far the most convincing explanation of this July 1941 exchange is that Heydrich was still working on a plan to deport the Jews into the furthest reaches of the occupied Soviet Union, with the vast population movements necessary not taking place until the war in the east was over. This interpretation also fits with the thrust of previous Nazi wartime policy against the Jews, which was one of deportation with genocidal consequences in the medium to long term. Just as the Jews sent to Nisko in the General Government at the start of the war had died in large numbers of starvation, disease and other mistreatment, and the Jews would have perished over time had they been sent to Madagascar, so the fate of the Jews sent to the wastelands of the occupied Soviet Union would have been similarly catastrophic.

However, in the late summer and early autumn of 1941 there were discussions about a change in the timetable of the Final Solution. A number of Hitler’s most loyal followers wanted the Jews deported east not after the war was over but immediately. When Goebbels met Hitler on 19 August he asked for the Jews of Berlin to be removed from the German capital. Goebbels felt it unconscionable that 70,000 Jews were still able to live in the city while German soldiers were fighting and dying on the eastern front. Hitler did not agree to deport the Berlin Jews at once, but he did accept one of Goebbels’ proposals – that German Jews should be marked. Jews in Poland had been forced to wear identification badges for some time, and now it was the turn of German Jews to be subjected to this humiliation.

From 1 September 1941, Jews over the age of six in Germany, Austria and the other incorporated territories had to wear a yellow badge in the shape of the Star of David on their clothing. The effect of this measure was not only to identify Jews and make them more liable to harassment, but to make the persecution of the Jews obvious to every non-Jewish German. Although some Germans abused the now easily identifiable Jews in the streets, there were others who were uneasy at this new development. Uwe Storjohann, for example, remembers that his mother – who, he says, ‘probably welcomed’ the idea of the deportation of the Jews – nonetheless objected to their ‘stigmatization’. Shortly after the Jews of Hamburg had been compelled to wear the yellow badge, Uwe was walking with his mother through a Jewish area of the city when they saw ‘an elderly Jew coming along wearing a very torn suit, and carrying a very old suitcase, and he carried it in such a way that his Star of David was covered up. And then he must have been taken by a human need, and he was peering around furtively, thinking whether he could enter a public toilet [which was marked “forbidden to Jews”]. Then he went in there. And my mother stopped, and I thought, why’s she stopping? And she said, “Well, have you seen him? That was a Jew, wasn’t it? He went in there, and he had his briefcase with the Jewish star hidden underneath it.” She waited until he came out. And when he saw my mother, he suddenly had a very anxious expression. I’ll never forget this panic, anxiety. He dropped his briefcase, and there you could see the Star of David. And I knew how my mother thought about these things, and I was wondering what would happen next, what she would do. And the Jew too, of course, [was thinking] if she goes to the police now, I’m done for. My mother goes towards him, she points to the Star of David, and says, “We didn’t want that.” And I said to myself, well, you never expected that. So, at that moment, she must have felt sorry for him. I’m sure she imagined that you exclude Jews from business life and let them do inferior jobs, or perhaps resettle them into towns where they can then live nicely among themselves, or something like that, or in their own state, such as Israel today … But this stigmatization, she thought that was terrible. I became very thoughtful, and thought, well, maybe she isn’t quite as keenly anti-Semitic as I thought she was. But it was also typical of a large part of the population, who said, “Well, no, that is going too far, we don’t like that.” But they wouldn’t have done anything. Nothing. They turned their ears and eyes away …’84

Erna Krantz, a Nazi supporter who lived in Munich, felt similar emotions after the Jews were forced to wear the Star of David: ‘In the street parallel to us we had a Baroness Brancka, who was married to a Baron, but was a Jewish shopkeeper’s daughter from Hamburg … and she had to wear the Jewish star. I was sorry about that, it was so terrible, because this woman was such a nice woman, that’s what you felt. But really, just like today, when you walk away from people in need, you can’t help everywhere, it was the same then.’85

As we have seen, Goebbels had asked for the Jews not just to be marked, but to be deported as well. And soon other leading Nazis also said they wanted the Jews to be sent away. On 15 September 1941, the Gauleiter of Hamburg, Karl Kaufmann, wrote to Hitler asking if the Jews of the city could be deported. Kaufmann wanted their property to house non-Jewish Germans who had suffered in the recent air attacks. Hitler now decided to reverse his previous policy and authorize the deportation of Jews from within the Reich immediately, rather than after the war was over. Why did he change his mind at this moment, when he had said to Goebbels just a few weeks before that the Jews could not be sent east? Nobody knows for certain. One possible explanation is that Hitler acted out of revenge because of Stalin’s decision in August to deport several hundred thousand ethnic Germans living in the Volga region to the wastes of Siberia and Kazakhstan. Whether or not this specific act by Stalin was the trigger for Hitler’s action, the overall context of the war against the Soviet Union would surely have played a part in his decision.

 The war still appeared to be going well for the Germans. Though the soldiers of the Wehrmacht had not – as planned – managed to defeat the Red Army in a matter of weeks, they were in the process of winning the largest battle of encirclement in history as they fought in the fields around Kiev, capital of Ukraine. On 19 September 1941, the city fell to German forces and 600,000 Soviet soldiers were captured. ‘The German soldier has again proved that he is the best soldier in the world,’ said Hitler, speaking to his close associates as he basked in triumph. ‘The operation now in progress, an encirclement with a radius of more than a thousand kilometres, has been regarded by many as impracticable. I had to throw all my authority into the scales to force it through.’ What this success demonstrated, he said, was that ‘The Slavs are a mass of born slaves in need of a master.’ Moreover, it was ‘better not to teach them to read’. Hitler didn’t believe that large numbers of German troops would be needed to occupy and administer this new territory, as the ‘Slavs’ were so clearly inferior. ‘The Russian space is our India,’ he said. ‘Like the English, we shall rule this empire with a handful of men.’86

Hitler claimed just a few weeks later, in a speech on 3 October in Berlin, that the Red Army was ‘broken’ and ‘will never rise again’.87 This belief that the war was all but won might well have played a part in his decision to bring forward the timetable for the deportation of the Jews. Instead of sending the Jews east once the war against the Soviet Union was over, why not deport them now, since Stalin was effectively vanquished? He knew that his ally, Marshal Antonescu of Romania, had been aggressively pursuing a policy of murdering Jews in the east. The centre of the killing was a region beyond the Dniester river, subsequently known as Transnistria. By September, with Transnistria occupied by Romania as an eastern province, Antonescu prepared to expel thousands of Jews from Bukovina and Bessarabia into camps in this new territory. The editor of the Romanian newspaper Porunca Vremii wrote in the summer of 1941, ‘The die has been cast … The liquidation of the Jews in Romania has entered the final, decisive phase … To the joy of our emancipation must be added the pride of [pioneering] the solution to the Jewish problem in Europe. Judging by the satisfaction with which the German press is reporting the words and decisions of Marshal Antonescu, we understand … that present-day Romania is prefiguring the decisions to be made by the Europe of tomorrow.’88

Not surprisingly, Hitler approved of Marshal Antonescu’s actions. ‘As far as the Jewish problem is concerned,’ he said to Goebbels at the end of August 1941, ‘it may be stated with certainty that a man like Antonescu is pursuing much more radical policies in this area than we have so far.’89Hitler was still praising Antonescu six weeks later in October, ‘Apart from the Duce [Mussolini],’ he said, ‘amongst our Allies Antonescu is the man who makes the strongest impression. He’s a man on a big scale, who never lets anything throw him out of his stride …’ Moreover, the ‘first thing’ that Antonescu had to do in order to create a strong Romania, Hitler believed, was to ‘get rid of the Jew’.90

Hitler now resolved to ‘get rid’ of the Jews in the Old Reich. But while it was easy to decide to deport them, one vital practical question still remained. Where should they go? Himmler, once again, facilitated a solution. He wrote on 18 September 1941 to Arthur Greiser of the Warthegau, informing him that the Führer had decided to empty the ‘Old Reich and the Protectorate’ of Jews. As a result, Himmler wanted to send 60,000 Jews to the Łódź ghetto, within Greiser’s Warthegau, where they would be accommodated before being sent to an unspecified destination ‘further east’ the following spring.91 After protests from Nazi officials in the Warthegau about the inability of the Łódź ghetto to take any more Jews, Himmler reduced the number to 20,000.

In October 1941 the first Jews left Hamburg for Poland. Lucille Eichengreen, one of the Jews sent to Łódź from Hamburg, remembers that as they were marched to the station to begin their journey to Poland a few Germans shouted anti-Semitic comments at them, but most of the non-Jewish population of the city reacted without emotion.92 Elsewhere, some Jews said that their non-Jewish neighbours expressed sympathy for them, in Frankfurt bringing them ‘cookies and other food’ and in Vienna crying ‘openly’ as they were sent away.93

The Jews from western Europe were unprepared for what awaited them in Łódź. One Polish Jew, already in the ghetto, wrote of a group of Czech deportees who arrived in October 1941: ‘it is said that they asked if it would be possible to get two-room apartments with running water.’94 But that naivety did not last long, and the western Jews soon discovered the appalling reality of life and death in the ghetto. Most had no friends among the Polish Jews, no connections that would help them get a job or a room in which to live. Many were crammed together in ghetto schools where they had nothing to do, and almost nothing to eat. ‘One’s belly becomes loose, gradually sinks in,’ wrote Oskar Rosenfeld, who was deported from Prague to Łódź. ‘Hesitantly, almost fearfully, one runs one’s hand over the restless body, bumps into bones, ribs, runs over one’s legs and finds oneself, feels suddenly that one was quite recently fatter, fleshier – and is amazed at how quickly the body deteriorates … One word, one concept, one symbol confronts everybody: bread! For bread one would be a hypocrite, a fanatic, a wretch. Give me bread and you are my friend.’95

In many cases the shock of the transition proved too much for these Jews from the west to endure. ‘They were definitely very depressed,’ says Jacob Zylberstein, a Polish Jew already in the ghetto. ‘I think because normally they [Jews from the Reich] look down on the Polish Jews – we’ve been definitely a different category than them. And all of a sudden it hit them that they’ve come to the same level or maybe lower than us because they cannot live in the conditions we did.’96 As a consequence, the Jews from the Reich and the Protectorate suffered a much higher mortality rate than the Polish Jews already living in the ghetto.97

Jews were not just sent to the Łódź ghetto. A number of transports journeyed further east into the killing zones of the Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Soviet Union. Some of these Jews were housed in camps, where many perished in the cold. Others were murdered shortly after they arrived. In late November 1941, for instance, five trains left for Lithuania from Germany and Austria. All of these Jews were murdered by killing squads after they had disembarked in Kaunas. Elsewhere, Wilhelm Kube, Nazi Commissar for Belarus, questioned in December whether Jews from ‘our own cultural sphere’ should be treated the same way as the ‘native brutish hordes’98 of the east. Just over two weeks before, at the end of November, Himmler had gone so far as to try and prevent the murder – almost certainly temporarily – of one trainload of German Jews sent to Riga while matters were clarified, but his communication arrived too late. The Jews had already been killed.99 All of which demonstrated that there was an element of uncertainty about the intended immediate fate of the Jews from the Old Reich.

At the same time as these Jews from western Europe were being murdered in the occupied Soviet Union, preparations were under way for two killing installations in Poland. The first, at Chełmno, 40 miles north-west of Łódź, was primarily created in order to murder Jews from the Łódź ghetto selected as unfit to work. From the perspective of Arthur Greiser, ruler of the Warthegau, the immediate need for such a murder facility was obvious. He needed a way of easing the intense overcrowding in the Łódź ghetto, a situation that had worsened since the arrival of the Jews from the west. But even as far back as July 1941, as we have seen, Rolf-Heinz Höppner, the SS head of the Emigration Central Office in Posen in the Warthegau, had written that the question of the fate of the Jews in the Gau had been the subject of much ‘discussion’. He had asked whether – since there was a danger that all of the Jews could not be fed that winter – it might not be more ‘humane’ to ‘finish off’ Jews who could not work ‘through some fast-acting means’.100

Just such a ‘fast-acting means’ – in the form of a gas van – was already operating in the Warthegau, touring around hospitals and murdering the disabled. Now, in the autumn of 1941, a plan was put in place to use gas vans to kill Jews from Łódź. Herbert Lange, who commanded the unit responsible for killing the disabled, searched for a suitable location to base the vans. His driver, Walter Burmeister, later confirmed that Lange told him that autumn that ‘we’ve got a tough but important job to do.’101 The village of Chełmno was eventually chosen as the location for the vans, with the Jews subsequently buried in a forest near by.

The second killing installation under construction in Poland during November 1941 was at the village of Bełżec, 75 miles south-east of Lublin in the General Government. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans had established a labour camp at Bełżec in order to house Jews who were working on border fortifications between the German and Soviet zones of Poland, but that camp had closed by the end of 1940. This new camp at Bełżec would become the first static, as opposed to mobile, killing facility, purpose-built to murder Jews. Bełżec’s location was advantageous to the Nazis in a number of ways. It was relatively remote, away from major centres of population, yet it was next to the main railway line and within easy reach of three cities – Lublin, Kraków and Lwów – each of which contained a large number of Jews.

As well as these two installations under construction in Poland, there is also evidence that discussions were held at the same time about the possibility of building other fixed killing factories in Riga and Mogilev in the occupied Soviet Union.102 Himmler visited Mogilev in Belarus in October, and the following month a large order was placed with Topf and Söhne to construct a massive cremation installation at Mogilev with thirty-two incinerator chambers.103 It is possible that this huge crematorium – which was never ultimately built – would have been the centrepiece of a camp which combined the functions of a murder facility with a more conventional concentration camp.104 Clearly a step change in the way the Nazis were approaching the ‘Jewish question’ was under way.

But does all this mean that Hitler made a decision in autumn 1941 to exterminate the Jews? Is this when the Holocaust as we know it began? A number of new initiatives certainly came together at this time, including not only the decision to deport Jews from the Old Reich and Protectorate to the east, and the construction of killing installations at Chełmno and Bełżec in Poland, but also Hitler’s own comments in private that October about the Jews. Ominously, he quoted from the ‘extermination’ speech he had given in January 1939. ‘From the rostrum of the Reichstag,’ he said on 25 October 1941, ‘I prophesied to Jewry that, in the event of war’s proving inevitable, the Jew would disappear from Europe. That race of criminals has on its conscience the two million dead of the First World War, and now already hundreds of thousands more … It’s not a bad idea, by the way, that public rumour attributes to us a plan to exterminate the Jews.’105

In addition, according to the post-war testimony of Adolf Eichmann, Heydrich told him in the autumn of 1941, ‘The Führer has ordered the physical destruction of the Jews.’106 And Kurt Möbius, one of the SS guards who worked at Chełmno in the early days of the camp, said under interrogation after Germany’s defeat, ‘We were told by Captain Lange that the order for the extermination of the Jews came from Hitler and Himmler. And as police officers we were drilled to regard any order from the government as lawful and correct … At the time I believed the Jews were not innocent but guilty. The propaganda had drummed it into us again and again that all Jews are criminals and sub-humans who were the cause of Germany’s decline after the First World War.’107

Still more evidence appears to come from an article in the Nazi newspaper Das Reich in November 1941, in which Goebbels publicly proclaimed that ‘The Jews wanted their war, and now they have it. But they also feel the effect of the prophecy made by the Führer in the German Reichstag on 30 January 1939, that if international financial Jewry should succeed in forcing nations once more into a world war, the result would not be the bolshevization of the earth, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe … All Jews belong, due to their birth and race, to an international conspiracy against National Socialist Germany. They wish for our defeat and destruction and do everything in their power in order to help realize this. Every German soldier who is killed in this war is the responsibility of the Jews. They have him on their conscience, and that’s why they have to pay for it …’108

However, despite all these indications, it does not necessarily follow that an absolute decision was taken in the autumn of 1941 to murder all of the Jews currently living in Nazi-occupied territory.109 A more nuanced interpretation of events in the autumn of 1941 is that Hitler authorized the sending of Jews to the east, but only as and when practicable, with priority always given to the needs of the Wehrmacht. Hitler had wanted the Jews deported from the Reich since the autumn of 1939 – it was just a question of deciding when the time was right. Now, sharing the anger of key lieutenants like Goebbels and Kaufmann at the fact that Jews remained in the Reich, and believing the war in the east was all but over, Hitler resolved to get ‘rid’ of the Jews once and for all. He was well aware that Soviet Jews were being murdered in the east, and so by sending other Jews into the killing zones he would have known what was likely to happen to them. But whether they were killed on arrival by shooting, or gassed, or starved in ghettos, or worked to death over a longer period – these were all details that could be worked out by others. What was crucial was that once expelled they should never come back. Thus while Hitler authorized the sending of the Jews east to die, he didn’t dictate a precise method of killing them or an exact timescale within which their disappearance had to occur.

This was still, therefore, an important moment in the evolution of the Holocaust, but it does not amount to initiating the whole enterprise by one single, overarching decision. A large number of questions remained unresolved in the autumn of 1941. What about the Jews in occupied western Europe, were they also to be sent east to die? If so, when? And what about the rest of the Jews still in the Old Reich? Forty-two thousand Jews were deported from the Old Reich and the Protectorate between October and December 1941, but that still left the majority behind. What was the timetable for their destruction? Most tellingly of all, what about the nearly 3 million Jews of Poland, was this really the moment their fate was sealed? Why, if there was a decision at this point to kill all the Polish Jews, were the only two killing centres that were actually under construction in Poland on such a small scale? Could not both of them – Bełżec and Chełmno – also be explained as local initiatives created under Himmler’s aegis to deal with local ‘problems’? In short, doesn’t it appear that those on the ground were, to an extent, working out what to do without precise orders from above?

Support for this interpretation can be found in Hitler’s own words that autumn. In mid-October 1941 he asked, ‘what would happen to me if I didn’t have around me men whom I completely trust, to do the work for which I can’t find time? Hard men, who act as energetically as I would do myself. For me the best man is the man who removes the most from my shoulders, the man who can take 95 per cent of the decisions in my place.’110 An example of how this attitude influenced actual events can be found in a note that Greiser wrote to Himmler in spring 1942 about the killing of patients with tuberculosis in the Warthegau. After Greiser’s authority to proceed with the killing had been questioned, he said to Himmler, ‘I personally don’t think we have to consult the Führer again in this matter, all the more since he told me at the last meeting concerning the Jews that I should act according to my best judgment.’111 All of which suggests that Hitler’s position that autumn about the deportation and subsequent treatment of the Jews may well have been similar to the one he took over plans for ‘Germanization’ where, as we have seen, he told his Gauleiters that he ‘would not ask questions about the methods they had used’ to make his vision a reality.112

Similarly, at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941, SS personnel were using their ‘best judgment’ to upgrade the improvised methods of killing they had used so far. As they discussed plans for a new crematorium to be built at the camp they decided on a series of small but significant changes that would allow the building to be turned into a killing factory. Some time between October 1941 and January 1942, the ventilation outlets in the smaller of the two mortuaries in the semi-basement of the building were set back into the concrete of the wall and the fans altered so that they could expel air quickly. The only plausible explanation for these changes in the plans was that this mortuary would now become a gas chamber, with the ducts recessed so that the dying could not wrench them from the wall, and the ventilation system altered so as to allow the poisonous gas to be expelled after the murders had taken place.113 But it is all but impossible to see how the creation of this one gas chamber at Auschwitz could have been part of a master plan already in existence to murder all the Jews of Europe. Instead, this was surely another example of a local initiative, motivated by the knowledge that gassing with Zyklon B was already taking place in the existing crematorium of the main camp. It would thus make sense, from the perspective of the SS at Auschwitz, to ensure that this new crematorium was also capable of performing the same function.

As the SS at Auschwitz held these discussions, 750 miles away to the east the Germans were fighting arguably the most important series of battles of the whole war. These events on the battlefield – plus a dramatic decision by one of Hitler’s allies – were the background against which Nazi policy towards the Jews would harden still further.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!