German troops invaded Poland on Friday 1 September 1939 and initiated a rule of terror that would see Poland become the epicentre of the Holocaust. The Germans would build all of their most infamous extermination camps on Polish soil, and Poland would suffer a greater proportionate loss of population than any other single country in the war. Up to 6 million people living in Poland – at least half of them Jews – lost their lives. The vast majority of these people did not die in battle, but as a result of a deliberate policy of starvation, deportation and murder.
The Germans defeated the Polish Army in less than six weeks. In part this success was gained because of superior armaments and tactics, but the Germans also received assistance from an unlikely source – their ideological enemy. On 17 September, just over two weeks after the Germans had entered Poland from the west, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east. As a result Polish forces were crushed between two powerful adversaries. The Poles never stood a chance.
In Moscow, the Germans and the Soviets agreed in comradely fashion to put ideological differences aside and discuss the detailed division of Poland. Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, toasted each other at an extravagant banquet in the Andreevsky Hall of the Kremlin on 27 September. ‘Hurrah to Germany, her Führer and her Foreign Minister!’ said Molotov as he raised his glass.1 This ‘friendship’ had begun with the signing of the Nazi–Soviet pact in August 1939 – a deal which had included a secret protocol about the allocation between them of ‘spheres of influence’ in eastern Europe. But it was only tactical as far as Hitler was concerned – just twenty-two months later Germany would invade the Soviet Union.
As the Wehrmacht crossed into Poland, Reinhard Heydrich arranged with the German Army High Command for more than 2,000 ‘Einsatzgruppen’ – ‘operational groups’ or special task forces – to enter the country immediately behind the army in order to combat ‘elements hostile’ to Germany. Heydrich, who in September was appointed head of the Reich Main Security Office, ordered that ‘the higher echelons of the Polish population need to be rendered as good as harmless.’ The result was that around 16,000 Poles were murdered in the first weeks of the invasion – a mix of members of the intelligentsia, priests, Jews and anyone else considered ‘hostile’.
The atrocities committed by the invading forces were many and various. Erich Ehlers, a member of Einsatzgruppe II, recorded in his diary in September how ‘Polish cutthroats’ were summarily executed. He wrote that ‘one of them still ate a piece of bread, even after the pit had been dug and the guns were already pointed at him’.2 Helmuth Bischoff, commander of an Einsatzkommando, reported that shortly after his arrival in Bydgoszcz he had decided to place ‘14 Jewish and Polish male hostages’ in ‘front of the hotel entrance’ so that ‘the Polish passers-by were well aware that with every shot fired that night in our street, one of them would be killed. Because even this did not discourage the Polish snipers, the fate of the hostages was sealed.’3 One ordinary German soldier, a member of a transport regiment, remembers witnessing the SS Regiment ‘Germania’ conducting a mass execution of Jews near Kraków as the regimental band played.4
In early November 1939 the Nazis called academics at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków to a meeting in one of the lecture rooms. Once they arrived they were beaten with rifle butts before being transported to concentration camps. ‘I had a very Catholic upbringing,’ says Mieczysław Brożek, an assistant professor at the university, ‘and it did not enter my head that something evil [like this] could happen … It was beyond our life experience.’ Once in Dachau he was so appalled by the suffering that he felt a ‘complete annihilation of values. After the experiences I had in the camp there are no values. I had a vision of the worthlessness of everything. The senselessness of everything. This tormented me desperately, to the brink of suicide.’5
As for the mass of Polish civilians, they soon discovered that the Nazis wished them to become a nation of slaves. They were classed as Slavs by the Nazis and were therefore deemed to be an inferior race. ‘There were no schools [any more],’ says Michael Preisler, who was twenty years old in September 1939 and lived in the west of Poland. ‘The churches were closed too. Polish people couldn’t ride buses together with Germans. They even said, “not allowed for Poles and dogs”. We were actually treated just like animals. We were treated as something different than humans.’6
Some members of the German Army were appalled by the atrocities their fellow countrymen were committing in Poland. Major Helmuth Stieff, for example, wrote to his family and said ‘we don’t feel like victors here, more like guilty criminals … This annihilation of whole families with women and children can only be the work of subhumans who no longer deserve to be called “Germans”. I am ashamed to be a German.’7 Famously, General Johannes Blaskowitz wrote a critical report about the activities of the German security forces in Poland that reached Hitler. Hitler was furious, saying that ‘you do not lead a war with Salvation Army methods’ and that ‘he had never trusted General Blaskowitz’.8
Blaskowitz was an exception. Most senior officers did not complain to their superiors about the atrocities that were committed in Poland. Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, the head of the army, set the tone when he wrote on 1 November that the ‘Jew is the fiercest enemy of the German Volk’. A few months later he reminded his troops that the ‘ethnic-political measures ordered by the Führer for the security of German living space in Poland … inevitably must lead to what would otherwise be regarded as unusual, harsh measures against the Polish population in the occupied territory’.9
In many cases officers and men of the German Army assisted the Einsatzgruppen in their work – for example, by suggesting groups to be targeted.10 The army also shot hostages as a reprisal for attacks, and this in turn empowered German soldiers to kill innocent Polish civilians.11 Nearly 400 Poles were murdered for this reason in Bydgoszcz in early September.
All this brutality did not mean, however, that the invasion of Poland marks the beginning of the Holocaust as we know it. Though several thousand Jews were murdered in the early months of the occupation, Hitler and the Nazi leadership were also targeting the ‘leadership class’ within Poland at the same time, and the overarching policy as regards the Jews remained the same as before – persecution and expulsion. But while the outbreak of war appeared to have closed one possible avenue for removing the Jews – the large-scale emigration of the Jews to countries not under German control – it had simultaneously opened another – the possibility of expelling Jews to the furthest reaches of the new Nazi empire. In late September Heydrich said Hitler had approved the idea of deporting the Jews to the east, and as an initial measure Polish Jews were to be concentrated in cities in order to make them easier to control.12
Hitler announced in October 1939 that German-occupied Poland would be divided into two. One part would be incorporated into the Reich and ‘Germanized’ and a section in the south-east of the country, bordering Soviet-occupied Poland, would remain ‘Polish’, albeit under German occupation. This area, containing around 11 million people and including the cities of Warsaw, Lublin and Kraków, was to be called the General Government of the Occupied Polish Areas – subsequently shortened to the General Government. The potential for this area to become, in Nazi slang, a ‘dustbin’ for the Reich, was obvious from the beginning. The rulers of the territory to be Germanized, notably Albert Forster of Danzig/West Prussia, and Arthur Greiser of the Warthegau – the area centred around Poznań – were both keen to ‘cleanse’ their areas and hoped to send the unwanted Poles and Jews to the General Government. Hitler remarked himself, at the end of September, that territory in the east of Poland between the River Bug – the border with Soviet-occupied Poland – and the River Vistula, should accommodate ‘the whole of Jewry’, while slightly to the west, but still within the General Government, a ‘form of Polish state’ should be created.
The Jews already living in the General Government rapidly learnt that they were at the very bottom of the new racial order. In the town of Izbica, Toivi Blatt, a twelve-year-old Jewish schoolboy, discovered that it was not only the Germans who were dangerous – non-Jewish Poles could be almost as threatening: ‘I [had] thought that now we have the same enemy – the same Nazis who are hurting Poland, they’re hurting Catholics, they’re hurting Jews – that we will get together.’13 Instead, he could see that some Poles had realized ‘the Jews are second class and you could do with them whatever you wanted.’ Many of the Jewish merchants who traded around Izbica ‘were beaten up’ and had their ‘money taken away’ because Polish villagers understood that the Jews were now without protection from the state. Catholic Poles even turned on each other. Within two weeks of the Germans seizing control of Izbica, Toivi saw a Polish collaborator ‘beating another Pole because he didn’t obey some German order’.
The first concerted effort to expel Jews into the General Government began in October 1939, little more than a month after the war had started. The head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, ordered Adolf Eichmann – the SD officer who had organized the deportation of many Austrian Jews in the wake of the Anschluss – to plan the expulsion of around 80,000 Jews from Katowice, a city in a part of Poland that was to be Germanized. Almost immediately the planned deportations were broadened to include Jews from within the Reich, and Eichmann started developing plans to expel Jews from Vienna. In a note he sent to the Nazi Gauleiter of Silesia he mentioned that, after the initial transports, he had to send a ‘progress’ report to his superiors, and then ‘in all probability’ this would be given to ‘the Führer’ who would then decide how many more Jews should be sent east.14
The precise destination for these Jews was the town of Nisko on the San river, around 50 miles south of Lublin in the far east of Nazi-occupied Poland. At the end of October nearly 5,000 Jews from Vienna and cities in western Poland were sent to this new Jewish ‘reservation’. When they left the trains, a few of the Jews were told to help in the construction of a camp, but the majority were simply dumped in the countryside without food or shelter. The quasi-genocidal nature of this scheme was obvious from the beginning. As Hans Frank, ruler of the General Government, put it: ‘What a pleasure, finally to be able to tackle the Jewish race physically. The more that die, the better.’15
Just a few days later these transports were halted on Himmler’s orders16 and the Nisko initiative was dropped. This was almost certainly a pragmatic, rather than an ideological, decision. Himmler now had other problems, or ‘challenges’ as he would have seen them, that impacted on the further transportation of Jews from Germany and Austria into eastern Poland. On 7 October 1939 he had been confirmed as Reich Commissioner for the Strengthening of German Nationality. This almost mystical-sounding title concealed a brutal reality. For Himmler was now in charge of deporting large numbers of Poles from the areas of Poland annexed by Germany into the General Government in order to free up homes for hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans. Many of these Volksdeutsche were arriving as part of a deal the Nazis had negotiated with Stalin to allow them to leave territory now controlled by the Soviet Union – such as the Baltic States – and come ‘back to the Reich’ or ‘Heim ins Reich’ as the slogan went. Transporting all these people to the new Reich and then finding homes and jobs for them – all in the midst of a war – was a logistical task of formidable difficulty. But the Nazi leadership believed the racial component of the task was so central that there was never any question of delaying this influx of new German ‘blood’.
The suffering of the Poles who were thrown out of their homes to make space for these new arrivals was – predictably – immense. Michael Preisler remembers how, a few weeks after Himmler had been appointed to his new job, there was a sudden ‘knock at the door’ at two o’clock in the morning and a gang of Nazis rushed into the family home. ‘They went all over the rooms, where my sisters were dressing, and they were standing over them, watching them. We got dressed and we couldn’t even take anything, they say you cannot take anything, no food, nothing, no extra clothes, nothing. And that’s it – they were pushing, you know like Germans. Everything had to be done right away. Then we were marching on the street to a hall where there were other people. And then finally when they collected more families, they took us to the railway station.’17
Another Pole, Anna Jeziorkowska, was deported with her family from Posen (the name the Germans gave to Poznań). She remembers that when the Germans ‘burst’ into their flat, ‘there was great chaos, crying, wailing. The Germans pushed us, they hit father on the face, and we got so frightened that we started crying. My younger brother, he was very delicate, started vomiting.’18
Thousands of Poles like Michael Preisler and Anna Jeziorkowska were taken on trains and dumped in the General Government. Michael Preisler and his family were housed in the west of the General Government, first in a ‘big hall’ and then the whole family was crammed into one room in a house. Anna Jeziorkowska and her family were abandoned in the small town of Golice and huddled together in the open in the town square until an old man took pity on them and offered them space to sleep on his floor.
The Germans conducted the deportations not only with great brutality but also in an atmosphere of administrative chaos. In January 1940, the Higher SS and Police Leader in the General Government, Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, estimated that 110,000 Poles had been sent to the General Government – 30,000 of them without proper agreement.19 As Goebbels put it, writing in his diary the same month: ‘Himmler is presently shifting populations. Not always successfully.’20
Shortly after Goebbels had written those words, Hans Frank, ruler of the General Government, decided that these mass deportations had to stop. Frank acted not out of compassion at the fate of those who had been transported into the General Government, but because of the turmoil that had resulted. As one of Frank’s senior officials puts it: ‘How can you organize anything, when you don’t know [beforehand] that a train will arrive at X or Y or some place? There was nothing to organize … I didn’t know where the transports would arrive. The district leadership didn’t know this either …’21 At a meeting with Göring and Himmler on 12 February, Frank asked for the timetable for the deportations to be reassessed. An uneasy agreement was reached by which future deportations were not supposed to be sent into the General Government without Frank’s prior consent.
As for the new ethnic German settlers, many of them did not find life as rosy as they had hoped. They had been promised that they were going ‘home to the Reich’ so it was a surprise to discover that while they were – according to the Nazis – arriving in the ‘Reich’, it wasn’t the ‘Reich’ they had necessarily been expecting. Irma Eigi, a seventeen-year-old ethnic German from Estonia, remembers how unhappy she and her family were to discover that they had to begin their new lives not in Germany but in Poland. ‘We hadn’t reckoned on that at all,’ she says. ‘When we were told we were going to the Warthegau, well, it was quite a shock, I can tell you.’22
A sense of disappointment about this whole enterprise was not confined to the arriving Volksdeutsche – some of the Germans who lived in the part of Poland that had been taken from Germany at the end of the First World War were just as displeased with the new arrivals. ‘Quite a few times we welcomed trains carrying resettlers [from Volhynia, an area that bordered Poland to the east],’ says Charles Bleeker Kohlsaat, from an ethnic German family. ‘They spoke poor German, they had a terrible accent which nobody could understand and we almost took them for Poles. I remember particularly clearly one family with a boy – the boy might have been, perhaps ten years old, perhaps he was only nine … And when this boy arrived with his German parents – “German” in inverted commas – he was wearing a Polish boy scouts’ cap, [and] he had used an indelible pencil to draw a swastika on the cap, this square cap … Basically we were appalled by the quality of these resettlers, because they were shabbily dressed, they arrived with unsightly bundles. Later, as refugees, we also carried such bundles, but we were not to know that at the time … So we said to ourselves, good heavens, what is the point of pushing out these old-established Polish families – farming families – and moving in these semi-Polish resettlers instead? And they gave the impression of being rather under-developed … besides, they were dressed in exactly the same fashion as the Polish farmers. They wore the high fur hat, they wore the long fur made out of unsheared sheepskin, they wore high boots and they rolled their cigarettes like the Poles did. And among themselves they spoke Polish. Well, we said: “One lot out, one lot in, what is the difference?” To us they were not genuine Germans, they were third-class Germans, if that.’23
Despite the meeting in February, and further protests by Hans Frank, the deportations into the General Government never entirely stopped. Between May 1940 and January 1941 around 90,000 Poles and 2,500 Jews were deported from the Warthegau into the General Government to create space for the arrival of the ethnic Germans.24 Himmler made his own attitude clear in a memo he wrote in May 1940, when he said the population of the General Government should eventually consist of an ‘inferior remnant’.25
Amid this administrative infighting, the Nazis began to place greater emphasis on a short-term solution to their Jewish ‘problem’ – ghettos. Since it was obviously not possible to transport at once all of the Polish Jews to the General Government, and given that it was a central tenet of Nazi ideological belief that the Jews were dangerous, both as supposed carriers of disease and as spiritual corruptors, it is not surprising that the idea of containing them within designated areas of Polish cities became widespread – nothwithstanding the concerns about ghetto ‘security’ that Heydrich had raised at the time of the November 1938 conference held in the wake of Kristallnacht.26
The first large ghetto to be constructed was in the city of Łόdź – renamed Litzmannstadt by the Germans – in the Warthegau. This was an enormous task for the Nazis, since one in three of the 700,000 population of Łόdź was Jewish. In a secret order of 10 December 1939, the German governor of the city, Friedrich Uebelhoer, wrote: ‘Of course, the creation of the ghetto is only a transitional arrangement … the ultimate objective must be to completely burn out this plague spot.’27 The first public order, calling for Jews to live within a designated area within the city, was published in early February 1940, and the ghetto was secured on 1 May. After this date any Jew found outside the wire fence of the ghetto without permission was liable to be shot.
Prior to the creation of the ghetto, the Jews of Łόdź had already suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Soldiers of Einsatzkommando 2 entered the city in the first days of the invasion and with the assistance of ethnic Germans instigated riots, tormented Jews they found on the streets and carried off others to work in forced-labour gangs. In his diary entry for 12 September 1939, one Łόdź Jew, Dawid Sierakowiak, wrote that ‘the local Germans freely indulge their whims.’ Jews were ‘beaten and robbed’, others were ‘sadistically abused. Some Jews were ordered to stop working, to remove their clothes and stand facing the wall, at which point they were told they’d be shot. Shots were fired in their direction, and though nobody was killed this was repeated a few times.’28
Shortly after they seized control of the city in September 1939, the Nazis banned the Jews from working in the textile industry – a major source of Jewish employment – and all Jewish businesses were handed over to Germans. Jews were told not to ride on buses or possess radios or visit the synagogue or own a car, and from 12 November Jews were ordered to wear a Star of David marking on their clothing.
The Łόdź ghetto, however, was to be a step change for the worse in the suffering of the Jewish population. Conditions within the ghetto were unsanitary and overcrowded. By the time the ghetto was sealed 70,000 Jews had left Łόdź – many had either been deported or had fled to other parts of Poland – but 164,000 Jews still remained, all of whom were now crammed into an area of 1.5 square miles.
Max Epstein, a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, was one of the Łόdź Jews imprisoned within the ghetto. Before the war he had lived a comfortable life – his father was a prosperous businessman who owned a lumberyard in the city. Now, Max, his father and his mother were confined to one room in an old house within the ghetto. As soon as Max’s father arrived in the ghetto he made a fateful decision. ‘My father was already in his middle fifties,’ says Max Epstein, ‘and his philosophy was, I don’t want to live. He didn’t dare to commit suicide, because you just don’t. But he said: “That’s the end of it. I really don’t want this. I’ve lived my life and I don’t want to live.” So he closed the shutters, it was always dark in our room … He didn’t shave, he just sat there with our shutters closed. He didn’t want to see the world outside.’ But Max, supported by his mother, tried to make the best of life in this new world. ‘When you are young,’ he says, ‘you don’t think of death. I’m not suggesting that we were not aware of the gravity of the situation … But you still think of the ridiculously mundane things.’29
Estera Frenkiel, another Jewish teenager trapped in the ghetto, felt ‘just as though a bomb had gone off over our heads … We were used to anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was also rife amongst the Poles … Polish anti-Semitism was perhaps more financial. But German anti-Semitism was: “Why do you exist? You shouldn’t be! You ought to disappear!” ’30
Part of the Nazis’ plan was to make the ghetto as self-governing as possible. They imposed a ‘Jewish Council’ or ‘Council of Elders’ to oversee the ghetto and established a Jewish police force to keep discipline. The German authorities told the chairman of the Council of Elders, ‘You must particularly ensure order in economic life, food provisions, use of manpower, public health, and public welfare. You are authorized to take all necessary measures and issue all necessary instructions to attain this goal, and to enforce them by means of the Jewish police force that is under your command.’31
The Nazis had sought to establish Jewish committees across Poland in the wake of their invasion and now transferred the idea to the ghettos. Their creation helped the Nazis in a number of important ways. Chiefly, the Jewish leadership groups distanced the German occupiers from contact with most of the other Jews. This meant, in turn, that the perceived risk of ‘infection’ from the Jewish population was reduced. In January 1940, four months before the ghetto had been sealed, the police-president of Łόdź had warned about the ‘danger’ of ‘typhoid fever’ and ‘dysentery’32spreading from the Jewish-occupied districts of the city. The Nazis had precipitated this situation, of course, by previously depriving the Jews of adequate food and healthcare. An additional consequence of this distancing effect was that German soldiers did not have to see the suffering within the ghetto – there was little danger of them witnessing sights that might potentially cause them emotional disquiet. Another benefit for the Nazis in devolving administrative responsibility to the Jews was the consequent conflict within the ghetto. The Jewish councils eventually were forced by the Germans to choose some of those who would be deported from the ghetto – thus deciding who among their fellow Jews would be sent to an even worse fate. The members of the Jewish councils could also decide to give themselves a less onerous existence, which in turn made many other Jews angry. And a ghetto divided against itself suited the Germans perfectly.
In Łόdź, the chairman of the Council of Elders was a sixty-three-year-old Jew called Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. A former director of a Łόdź orphanage, he was a domineering character with little formal education. In his role as chairman of the ghetto he would become one of the most controversial Jewish figures of the Holocaust.
Rumkowski knew from the beginning that he was a servant of the Germans, and that they would punish him severely if he did not do as he was asked. On 11 November 1939, every single member of the original Łόdź Jewish Council – apart from Rumkowski and two others – had been arrested and sent to Radogoszcz prison. More than twenty of them were subsequently killed. Their only crime had been not to function as effectively as the Germans had wished. Members of the new Jewish Council, formed shortly afterwards and still under Rumkowski’s chairmanship, were thus well aware that their position of relative privilege could potentially lead to their torture and death.
Within the ghetto, Rumkowski’s power was immense. ‘Toward his fellow Jews,’ wrote Yehuda Leib Gerst, a survivor of the ghetto, ‘he was an incomparable tyrant who behaved just like a Führer and cast deathly terror on anyone who dared to oppose his lowly ways.’33 When Rumkowski subsequently visited the Warsaw ghetto, the Jewish leader, Adam Czerniaków, thought him ‘replete with self-praise’ and ‘conceited’. Rumkowski was also ‘dangerous’, wrote Czerniaków, because ‘he keeps telling the authorities that all is well in his preserve.’ Czerniaków came to the conclusion, having read the newspaper published by Jews in the Łόdź ghetto, that Rumkowski’s ‘main concern’ appeared to be ‘that “his people” should not bother him in the streets by handing him propositions and petitions’.34
The initial Nazi plan, after the Łόdź ghetto had been sealed, was to make the Jews pay for their own food. As a consequence, Jews were forced to part with whatever they owned at a fraction of its real value. One ethnic German who profited on the black market from these one-sided exchanges later confessed that ‘I saw it from the point of view of a businessman. They [the inhabitants of the ghetto] couldn’t nibble on a ring, but if they could get a piece of bread for it, then they could survive for a day or two. If I got something in my hand for 100 marks and it was worth 5000 marks, then I’d be stupid not to buy it.’35
Jacob Zylberstein and his family had no money to buy food from the Germans at the inflated prices they demanded. So he realized that, if he didn’t find a way of smuggling in food and bypassing the Germans, they would all die. He knew that their lives depended on his ability to make contact with a Pole outside the ghetto. This was a task that was immensely difficult since Jews worked almost exclusively within the confines of the ghetto. But Jacob had one advantage – his house backed on to the ghetto fence. Because of this proximity, in the early days of the ghetto he was able to come to an arrangement with a Pole on the other side of the wire. The Pole gave Jacob a loaf of bread; Jacob kept half for his family to eat, sold the other half within the ghetto and then passed on to the Pole the money he had earned. ‘He helped us for two months,’ says Jacob. But then the Pole was caught and killed by the Germans. ‘Still,’ remembers Jacob, ‘two months was a very long time.’
Jacob could not believe that the Germans could be so cruel: ‘You can’t comprehend it as a human being, that such a thing can happen to you. How could a normal human being understand it? Hundreds died – weeks after the ghetto was closed … I remember that the hunger was so colossal that my mother went to pick weeds, and she cooked the weeds. You [even] got hold of potato peels – it’s more than a luxury, it was the best food ever.’36
The outbreak of war did not just bring increased suffering to Jews and Poles. Other categories of people who had been targeted in the past by the Nazis were also at much greater risk – most notably the mentally and physically disabled. The way in which they were now treated would, in turn, have an impact on the development of the Holocaust.
As we have seen, Hitler despised the disabled. But, while the Nazis had introduced compulsory sterilization, they had so far refrained from authorizing the killing of the disabled – a policy known euphemistically as ‘euthanasia’. That all changed just before the war began, when Philipp Bouhler, head of the Führer’s Chancellery, brought to Hitler’s attention a letter written by the father of a severely disabled child. The father, a believer in ‘euthanasia’, asked Hitler for permission for his child, who was a few months old, to be killed.
Hitler authorized his own doctor, Karl Brandt, to investigate the case and, if he found that the father’s description of his son’s condition was accurate, to arrange the child’s murder. Brandt did as he was asked and subsequently organized the killing. Recent research has shown that the murder was carried out towards the end of July 1939.37 That is several months later than had previously been thought, and offers further evidence that Hitler believed the forthcoming war would provide useful cover for drastic action against the disabled. He was fulfilling the prophecy he had made to Gerhard Wagner, Leader of the Reich Doctors, back in 1935, that he would ‘radically solve’ the ‘problem’ of the mentally ill in the event of a future conflict.38
The death of this one child led Hitler to authorize Bouhler and Brandt to murder other children who were similarly disabled – not just babies but older children as well. A whole administrative structure was subsequently constructed to oversee the process. In August 1939 the Interior Ministry issued confidential guidelines that called on midwives to report any newborn children who were suffering from conditions such as deformity or paralysis. These reports were then sent to three separate doctors who marked each document with a plus or a minus. If a majority wrote down a minus, the child was sent to a special clinic. Here the children who had been selected to die were killed, often by an overdose of morphine or another sedative. In the official record their deaths were recorded as the result of another plausible disease like measles.
The whole operation was conducted in great secrecy. The general public was never supposed to find out what was happening to children inside these special units. But within the walls of the hospital, it was difficult to hide the evidence of the crime. During the war, Paul Eggert – assessed as a ‘delinquent’ – was sent to Aplerbeck, one of the children’s hospitals that also served as a killing centre. He remembers how every few weeks a nurse would come into the dining room during supper and select children. Next morning they were taken to the doctor’s consulting room – supposedly they were to be immunized against diphtheria or scarlet fever. But Paul noticed that these children ‘never came back’ from their visit to the consulting room. He remembers that on occasion the selected children would hold on to the older boys in an attempt not to be taken away, but ‘the doctor or the nurse would say, “Come now”, or something [like that].’ Long after the war Paul recalled ‘the screams’ and the terrified backward ‘glances’ from the children as they were led away to be killed. It was ‘hopeless’, he says, ‘it was terrible.’39
Hitler didn’t just want to kill disabled children, he also wanted to murder disabled adults. In June or July 1939 – the exact date isn’t known – he asked Dr Leonardo Conti, the state secretary for health, to widen the ‘euthanasia’ scheme. Philipp Bouhler, of the Chancellery of the Führer, wasn’t happy about Conti’s planned role, as his department was already involved with the children’s euthanasia operation. An expert in internal Nazi politics, Bouhler quickly managed to manoeuvre Conti out of the way and control both schemes.40
What this bureaucratic manoeuvring demonstrated was the flexibility of the administrative structure of the Nazi state – especially when it came to secret tasks like the killing of the disabled. German doctors were already murdering children in special units without any law to permit their action having been passed, and without the knowledge of the vast majority of Germans – including those in the government departments that would have expected to oversee such a policy had it been approved by the state in any formal way.
Job titles meant nothing to Hitler, as long as you could fulfil the task he wanted. The department that was running this large murder operation was called the Chancellery of the Führer and had previously had nothing to do with medical issues. Bouhler, the head of the Chancellery, was a thirty-nine-year-old party bureaucrat who, up to now, had worked on party-related business. His deputy, Viktor Brack, had once been Himmler’s chauffeur. Neither Brack nor Bouhler possessed any medical qualifications.41 But in the Nazi state, all this was irrelevant. What mattered was that these were ideologically committed, ambitious men keen to progress their careers and serve their Führer. If Hitler wanted mentally and physically disabled patients to be killed, then they would make it happen.
On 9 October 1939 Viktor Brack chaired a meeting attended by medical professionals sympathetic to the idea of killing the adult disabled. Here they discussed the mechanics of how the system should work. They decided that first a list of all the institutions where ‘mental patients, epileptics, and the feebleminded’ were currently treated should be compiled.42 Staff at the named institutions would then be told to fill in forms outlining the nature of each patient’s disability. Medical professionals would examine these forms, and decide who should live and who should die. One factor these doctors used in reaching their verdict was the extent to which the patients could still perform useful work. The selection was thus made on economic as well as medical grounds.43
The question of how exactly to kill the adult disabled was also discussed at the 9 October meeting. The Nazis were aware that there would probably be too many people to murder – an estimated 70,000 – just by medication, injection or starvation. So Brack consulted Arthur Nebe, head of the Criminal Police, about the best method of killing the disabled in large numbers. Nebe in turn suggested that Brack talk to Dr Albert Widmann, who ran the chemical department of the Criminal Technical Institute. Like a number of those who came to be involved in these secret schemes, Widmann was young and relatively inexperienced. He was just twenty-seven years old when he was asked to help devise methods to kill the disabled, and had received his doctorate in chemical engineering only the year before. At his trial after the war, Widmann said that he had been told by Nebe that ‘animals in human form’ were to be killed under the new scheme. At a subsequent meeting, Widmann said that in his expert opinion ‘carbon monoxide gas’ would be the best killing agent. He suggested that the gas could be ‘discharged into the wards at night and thus “euthanize” the mental patients’.44
In an attempt to ensure the secrecy of this enormous murder operation, the euthanasia action was known only as ‘T4’ after the address of the headquarters of the scheme, Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin. A number of those involved even adopted pseudonyms. Brack himself used the alias ‘Jennerwein’, the name of an infamous nineteenth-century poacher. But there still came a point, late in 1939, when those involved thought some kind of official authorization for their actions was necessary. So Hitler was approached, most likely by Bouhler, and asked to confirm in writing that he had ordered the project. The result was a short note, signed by Hitler, which said that Bouhler and Dr Brandt had been given the ‘responsibility’ of authorizing doctors to grant ‘a mercy death’ to those suffering from ‘incurable’ illnesses. Significantly, Hitler backdated the note to ‘1 September 1939’, the day of the invasion of Poland. He thus emphasized once again the connection between his decision to kill the disabled and the outbreak of war. This link between the war and the creation of an apparatus for the mass murder of the disabled was important not just for Hitler. As many of those involved in the killings were told, why should the disabled and unproductive be allowed to live at a time when the healthy were dying on the battlefield?45
Hitler’s intense loathing of the disabled – particularly the mentally disabled – was on show that autumn during a meeting attended by Hans Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery and Hitler’s closest legal adviser. At the Nuremberg trials after the war, Lammers testified: ‘On this occasion, the Führer discussed, in my presence for the first time, the problem of euthanasia. He explained that he thought it fit to remove “life unworthy of life” – that is the lives of the seriously mentally ill – through medical intervention causing death. He mentioned, if I recall correctly, by way of example, serious mental illnesses in which mentally ill people could only sleep on sand or sawdust because they would soil themselves constantly – cases in which these sick people would eat their own excrement as food. And he explained how it was the right thing to end this “life unworthy of life”. He also explained how through this, there could be savings in the cost of hospitals, doctors and nursing staff.’46
On 4 January 1940, Dr Widmann conducted a gassing experiment in Brandenburg an der Havel at a prison converted into a euthanasia unit. The gassings took place in a tiled room with fake water pipes along the ceiling. The patients to be murdered were told to undress outside the room because they had to take a shower. Once the patients were locked inside the pretend shower room, Widmann personally turned on the valve to release the gas from bottles of carbon monoxide. The gas flowed through pipes into the room and the twenty or so patients were murdered. After they had died the room was ventilated and the bodies taken away to be burnt.
Dr Widmann’s original idea of gassing the patients as they slept in their dormitories had been considered impractical, but this fake-shower method proved to be an effective method of committing mass murder. From the Nazi perspective it solved a number of practical problems. First, the patients who were to be killed were calm almost until the last moments of their lives. There was no need for them to be anxious about something as prosaic as taking a shower. Large numbers of patients could also be killed simultaneously, and fewer staff needed to be involved than in any previous killing method. Finally, the use of fake showers meant that the killers were distanced from the act of killing. Instead of having to look into the eyes of patients as they injected or shot them, all the killers needed to do now was to turn on a valve. The murderers were not just emotionally separated from the moment of killing, but physically separated as well.
Dr Karl Brandt, who personally witnessed the gassing at Brandenburg, did not mention any of these advantages for the Nazis when talking about the decision to gas patients at his trial after the war. Instead, he claimed that he had talked to Hitler about the choice between killing by injection and by gas and Hitler had asked, ‘Which is the most humane way?’47 For Brandt the answer was ‘clear’ – gassing. A number of other Nazis who were aware of this method of murder later claimed that they thought the same. They fantasized that the killers were being kinder to their victims by sparing them the torment of anticipating their own deaths, and that by deceiving them until the moment that gas came from the pipes above them, they were demonstrating an element of humanity. But the idea that death in a gas chamber was necessarily less horrific than death by any other method was a lie, as subsequent testimony from those involved in the gassing at the extermination camps makes clear.48
Dr Brandt also maintained that the ‘experiment’ of killing the disabled by gas was ‘just one example of [what happens] when major advances in medical history are being made. There are cases of an operation being looked on at first with contempt, but then later on one learned it and carried it out.’49 And so, believing that he was part of a ‘major advance in medical history’ and with a ‘good conscience’, Brandt pushed forward with the adult euthanasia scheme.
No doctor was compelled to participate in this project. Those who objected could excuse themselves – for instance, by saying they were too ‘weak’ for the task – but the majority of those who were asked went along with the scheme with various degrees of enthusiasm. Some made the argument that by killing the most severely disabled they released more funding for other patients. Others subscribed to the official belief that the role of the doctor in the Nazi state was to look after the wellbeing as much of society as of the individual patient – especially at a time when the country was at war. Whatever excuse the doctors gave themselves, they knew that without their participation this murderous scheme could not function. Medical professionals were central to the whole process – from initially selecting the patients to die, to reassuring the patients as they prepared to enter the gas chamber, to turning on the gas valve, to certifying that the patients were dead, and to inventing fake causes of death to write on the official documentation that was sent to the relatives of the deceased.
The Nazis created six euthanasia centres, five in Germany – Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Bernburg, Hadamar and Sonnenstein – and one in Austria at Hartheim, close to Linz. Typical was the one at Sonnenstein, on a hill in the suburbs outside the town of Pirna, not far from Dresden. Built originally as a fortress, the building was turned into a mental hospital in the nineteenth century. In 1940 work began on converting several rooms in the basement into a killing facility. One small room was made into a gas chamber and disguised as a shower room, with an airtight door linking it to a mortuary. Selected patients were taken in buses from other mental institutions in the area and on arrival at Sonnenstein told to enter the basement to take a shower, as part of the admissions procedure into the new hospital. Once the patients were in the fake shower room the gas valve was turned on and they were murdered. After they had been gassed and pronounced dead, their bodies were taken into the mortuary and any gold fillings or gold teeth in their mouths were removed. The bodies were then moved next door into a room that contained two cremation furnaces made by the Berlin firm of Heinrich Kori GmbH. The corpses were placed on a steel frame – normally two at a time – and pushed inside the furnace. Finally, their ashes were thrown out at the back of the building on to a hillside. During the operation of the Sonnenstein killing centre, from June 1940 to August 1941, an estimated 14,751 people were murdered in this way.50
The similarities between the process of killing at the euthanasia centres in the Reich in 1940 and the death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1942 were many and varied, as we shall see. Not only were the techniques of killing much the same, but so were a number of the personnel. Present at the first experimental killing at Brandenburg euthanasia centre in January 1940 were two men who in different ways would help shape the Holocaust. The first was a medical professional, Dr Irmfried Eberl, who was the director of the Brandenburg killing centre. He was a twenty-nine-year-old Austrian, born in Bregenz and educated at Innsbruck University. Eberl’s life was devoted to the Nazi cause, from the trivial – he sported a Hitler moustache and wore his hair slicked back – to the criminal – he was intimately involved in the murders conducted in Brandenburg. Eberl ‘always considered’ it ‘his responsibility’51 to turn on the gas valve, according to the testimony of his deputy, Aquilin Ullrich. Another member of the staff at Brandenburg, who was a keen gardener, said that Dr Eberl had told him that just as ‘all weeds needed to be destroyed’ so ‘people not worthy to live ought to disappear.’52 A different T4 official said that Dr Eberl was so enthusiastic about his task that he ‘wanted to gas all the world and his brother’.53
Dr Eberl believed, like Dr Brandt, that through his work he was furthering medical science. The brains of children killed at Brandenburg were sent to Professor Julius Hallervorden, head of the Neuropathology Department of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in Berlin. Eberl’s notebook records that Professor Hallervorden even visited Brandenburg and took part in autopsies conducted at the killing centre.54 Hallervorden subsequently said at the Nuremberg trials that ‘those brains offered wonderful material’ and ‘it really wasn’t my concern where they came from …’55
Eberl’s career was clearly on an upward trajectory within the Nazi state. It is hard to imagine any other circumstances in which a junior doctor like Eberl could have contributed so much to the researches of a famous neurologist like Professor Hallervorden. Dr Eberl, just like Dr Widmann, discovered that killing could be a way to swift advancement.
The second person who witnessed the gassing experiment that January, and who would later participate in the Holocaust, could not have been more different from Dr Eberl in age, education and life experience. Christian Wirth was fifty-five years old when he was appointed administrative director of the euthanasia centre in Brandenburg. As a young man he had trained as a carpenter before becoming a policeman. He won an Iron Cross in the First World War and after Germany’s defeat joined the Nazi party while still pursuing his career in the police force. Immensely tough and practical, Wirth was a fearsome figure. His behaviour was so infamous that he came to be known as the ‘wild Christian’. Once involved with T4, he had no qualms about participating in the killing process directly – he once personally shot four women patients who had been sent to a euthanasia centre and were thought to have typhus. He told those who worked for him that the ‘mentally ill’ were a ‘burden on the state’ and so had to be eliminated. One of those under Wirth’s command described him simply as ‘a beast’.56 Franz Stangl, another policeman who joined the adult euthanasia programme and who would later go on to command a death camp, described Wirth as ‘a gross and florid man. My heart sank when I met him.’ Wirth spoke with ‘awful verbal cruelty’: ‘He spoke of “doing away with useless mouths” and said that “sentimental slobber” about such people “made him puke”.’57 Wirth and Eberl, who worked together at Brandenburg killing centre in early 1940, would meet again two years later in the occupied east in even more appalling circumstances.
The disabled were murdered not just in Germany and Austria but in Nazi-occupied Poland as well. In the autumn of 1939 members of the Eimann Special Guard, an SS unit from Danzig, together with the Einsatzgruppen, shot thousands of mental patients in the territory of the newly Germanized area of Danzig/West Prussia. Those targeted were not just unfit for work – every Polish or Jewish patient was killed regardless of the severity of their illness.58
By early 1940 a new method of killing the disabled was in operation in Poland. A unit under the command of Herbert Lange, a thirty-year-old SS officer, used a mobile killing machine – a van with the words ‘Kaiser’s Coffee Company’ written on the side. Once selected patients had been locked inside the van, bottled carbon monoxide was pumped in from outside. Lange’s van travelled up and down the roads of Poland and the borderland with Germany murdering several thousand disabled.59 The gas van had an obvious advantage for the Nazis over a fixed gas installation since it could travel to the location where the patients were hospitalized. There were, however, equally obvious disadvantages with this new killing method. There was a risk, for example, of the van becoming notorious – since no one who climbed into the back ever reappeared alive. But as long as the van was not overused in one particular area then secrecy could be preserved.
Within Germany, to begin with, disabled Jews were selected in much the same way as other patients – the doctors focused on clinical criteria as well as whether the patient could do useful work. But that changed in April 1940 when Herbert Linden, a doctor involved in ‘race hygiene’ and one of the functionaries supporting the T4 campaign, asked local authorities to reveal the names of all their Jewish mental patients. Every one of these patients was then selected to be killed.60
The outbreak of war also had dire consequences for Jews within the concentration camps that had been established on German territory before the conflict. While there is no evidence of an order from above calling on the Jews in the concentration camps to be murdered en masse, the SS within the camps knew that the febrile atmosphere of the war meant they could act against the Jews more or less as they wished. The arrival of a number of Polish Jews within the system only exacerbated the desire of the SS to torment the Jewish inmates. At Sachsenhausen outside Berlin the SS let their sadistic imagination run wild – thirsty Jewish prisoners were made to swallow their own urine, and those who were hungry had to beat each other up for food.61 At Buchenwald near Weimar, more than twenty Jews were taken out of the camp and shot in November 1939, in revenge for an attempt on Hitler’s life that had taken place in Munich the day before.62
The war also led to greater abuse of non-Jewish inmates in the concentration camps. In January 1940, for instance, Rudolf Höss, then an SS officer at Sachsenhausen, ordered 800 prisoners to stand for hours in the freezing cold and wind on the roll-call square. The senior prisoner – the camp elder – begged Höss to have mercy, but to no avail. The prisoners had to stand and suffer. Altogether in 1940 around 14,000 prisoners died within the concentration camp system. In 1938, the year of greatest fatalities before the war, 1,300 had lost their lives. The war thus brought more than a tenfold increase in the death rate.63
The war also led to an expansion in the overall concentration camp system, as the Nazis opened new camps in occupied territory. On 2 September 1939, the day after the Germans had invaded Poland, a concentration camp was established at the town of Sztutowo (Stutthof to the Germans) near Danzig. But it wasn’t until the spring of 1940 that preparations were made to open on Polish soil what would become the most infamous camp within the whole Nazi system – Auschwitz.
When Rudolf Höss, transferred from Sachsenhausen as the newly appointed commandant of the camp, arrived at Auschwitz in April 1940, he had no idea that the facility he was to create and run would become the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world. That’s because he had been ordered to build not an extermination camp, but a more extreme version of Dachau – the ‘model’ camp run by Theodor Eicke in which Höss had originally trained. The town of Auschwitz, Oświęcim in Polish, was in Upper Silesia, a part of Poland that the Nazis wanted to Germanize, and the purpose of Höss’s new camp was to strike terror into the local Polish population.
This camp, the original Auschwitz, was established next to the Sola river close to Auschwitz town, and was based around a collection of red-brick former Polish Army barracks. From the beginning the death rate at Auschwitz was much higher than in pre-war Dachau – more than half of the 20,000 Poles first sent to the camp were dead by the start of 1942.
Jerzy Bielecki, a Polish political prisoner, was on the first transport into the camp in June 1940. He remembers how the SS guards beat the prisoners all the way from the railway station to the gate of the camp: ‘There was a young boy standing next to me, maybe he was sixteen – fifteen even – and he was crying, tears were falling. And his head was cracked and blood was dripping on his face … We were afraid, we didn’t know where we were. It seemed to me that we found ourselves in hell. You cannot describe it any other way. And it turned out that this was hell.’64Bielecki, who had been sent to Auschwitz because the Germans believed that he was a member of the Polish resistance, was put to work along with the other prisoners, building the camp.
Jerzy Bielecki also recalls the brutality of the Kapos – German criminals sent to Auschwitz from Sachsenhausen – who supervised their work: ‘I got used to seeing death, beatings and maltreatment,’ he says. After ‘three or four months I got used to that sight’. When he was part of a construction ‘commando’ he witnessed a Kapo, who was angry at the work of one of the prisoners, take a spade and ‘cut his neck so that blood spouted and the spade was immersed to halfway in his neck. I’ll never forget this … I see it in my dreams.’65
Only a small percentage of those sent to Auschwitz in 1940 were Jewish, but just as in camps within the pre-war borders of the Reich, Jews who were imprisoned in Auschwitz were liable to suffer appallingly. Kazimierz Ablin, who was also on the first transport into Auschwitz in June 1940, remembers that the Germans ‘fished out’ any Jews from among the prisoners, along with ‘priests and monks’ who ‘were treated almost as badly as the Jews’.66
Wilhelm Brasse, who arrived in Auschwitz in August 1940, recalls that the Germans selected Jews and Catholic priests and told them to ‘chant religious songs and hymns’. They would ‘beat the priests and then the Jews, and would yell at them that they were lazy because they didn’t chant loud enough. The impression this made on me was just terrifying. I’ve never imagined anything like this [could happen].’67
From the day the camp opened a variety of techniques were used to torment the prisoners. Punishments were not just cruel – a common one was to tie a prisoner’s hands behind his back and then suspend him by his wrists from a pole – but often arbitrary. Every inmate knew that they were at permanent risk of a beating, or worse, and there was little they could do to prevent it. To exacerbate all of this suffering, the Germans insisted that life be conducted at speed. The sight of all the prisoners scurrying around the camp reminded August Kowalczyk, who was sent to Auschwitz at the end of 1940, of ‘an anthill that someone had kicked. The anthill opens and then you see the ants running in all directions.’68
In May 1940, just days after Höss had arrived at Auschwitz, Himmler outlined his vision for the whole occupied east. This memo, which Himmler intended to submit to Hitler, was entitled – rather modestly given the sweeping nature of the proposals – ‘Some Thoughts on the Treatment of the Alien Population in the East’.69 A large section of the memo dealt with Himmler’s plans to conduct a search among the Polish population in order to find children that were ‘racially first class’ and who ‘came up to our requirements’. These children would then be transported to Germany and raised as German citizens. Himmler believed this policy would not just allow the Nazis access to more German ‘blood’ but deprive the Poles of the potential for a leadership class. As for the rest of the Polish children, they would receive the most basic education – taught only to count ‘up to 500’ and to write their own names. ‘I consider it unnecessary to teach reading,’ said Himmler. More important, he maintained, was that Polish children should learn that it was ‘God’s commandment to be obedient to the Germans and to be honest, hard working and well behaved’. When they grew up, these children would become part of a ‘leaderless labouring class’ that the Germans could use in ‘road building, quarries’ and ‘construction’.
Himmler also said in his memo that the idea of ‘physically exterminating a people’ was ‘fundamentally unGerman and impossible’ – a view that he would change once the Holocaust began. But even though he would not, for the moment, countenance mass murder, his proposal for the Jews was still radical. ‘I hope’, he said, ‘to see the term “Jew” completely eliminated through the possibility of a large-scale emigration of all Jews to Africa or to some colony.’ He obviously had in mind something like the Madagascar plan which, as we have seen, the Poles themselves had been seriously considering just before the war. It was a striking departure from the policy expressed by Heydrich in the autumn of 1939, which was one of deporting the Jews to the eastern part of the new German Empire.
The reason Himmler felt able to float the idea of sending the Jews to Africa was because of what was happening elsewhere. By 15 May 1940, the date of the document, the German Army was five days into a major offensive against France and the Low Countries. While it was not yet certain if the Wehrmacht would achieve victory, the assumption underlying Himmler’s vision of relocating the Jews to Africa was that once the Germans had triumphed and had occupied France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, then Britain would make peace. This, in turn, would allow the Germans to use merchant ships, mostly captured from their opponents, to transport the Jews south, either to Madagascar – which the Germans would now lay claim to as former French-controlled territory – or to some other African country.
At first sight, especially given what happened later, it sounds like a fantasy. But the trail of documents the Nazis left through the summer of 1940 demonstrates that this potential ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’ was taken seriously. Just over a week after the defeat of France, on 3 July, Franz Rademacher, head of Jewish Affairs in the German Foreign Office, wrote a memo in which he said, ‘France must make the island of Madagascar available for the solution of the Jewish question.’70 Nine days later, Hans Frank remarked that there would be ‘no more transports of Jews into the General Government’.71 This was because the plan now was to send ‘the whole pack of Jews’ to an ‘African or American colony’ and that ‘Madagascar is being considered, to be ceded by France for this purpose.’
Though the Nazis’ Madagascar idea was not an immediate plan for the extermination of the Jews, it would have led to the deaths of millions. That’s because the Polish commission that had investigated the possibility of mass emigration to Madagascar before the war had concluded that only 60,000 Jews could survive on the island, yet Eichmann’s office sent a memo to Rademacher on 15 August saying that ‘four million’ Jews would be settled there.72 Nor, under the Nazi plan, were the Jews to be allowed any form of self-government on Madagascar. The island would be ‘under the control of the Reichsführer SS’ and a ‘police governor’.73 Two further indications that the Nazi plans were quasi-genocidal was the fact that Philipp Bouhler – one of the originators of the adult euthanasia scheme – was mentioned as a possible ‘Governor’ of Madagascar, and that by late summer 1940 Rademacher had revised up his estimate of the number of Jews to be sent to the island still further – from 4 million to 6.5 million.74
The reason this scheme could even be discussed during the summer of 1940 was because of the Germans’ swift victory in western Europe. In just six weeks in late spring 1940 the Wehrmacht had accomplished more than the German Army had achieved during the whole of the First World War. Popular myth tells us that this victory was inevitable, that the German armed forces were destined to win because their forces were more armoured, more motorized, more modern in every way than their opponents. But this is simply not the case. The reality was that the Western Allies possessed more tanks – and better ones – than the Germans. Victory in the west was not a foregone conclusion for Hitler’s forces.
The background to this immense German success is significant in the context of the development of the Holocaust because of the change in perception of Hitler that occurred as a result of the victory. Towards the end of 1939 senior figures in the German Army had considered removing Hitler from power. Not because they were outraged by the appalling atrocities the Germans were committing in occupied Poland, but because they believed that Hitler was leading Germany to disaster by planning to invade western Europe. General Franz Halder, Chief of Staff of the German Army, wrote in his diary on 3 November 1939, ‘None of the Higher Hq [Headquarters] thinks that the offensive ordered by OKW [the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht, which worked directly for Hitler] has any prospect of success.’75 One senior officer expressed his view more succinctly, saying the invasion plan was simply ‘mad’.76
In November 1939, that judgement was almost certainly correct. For if the plans to invade the west as they existed at that time had been implemented, the Germans would most probably have suffered a catastrophic defeat. Only a change in strategy, caused in part by the Allies gaining intelligence about the Germans’ original intentions, created the necessary precondition for success. The new idea was an enormous gamble – a swift attack through the seemingly impassable Ardennes forest towards the French city of Sedan, coupled with a diversionary thrust further north into Belgium. Hitler bet his entire future, and the fate of Germany, on the assumption that the Allies would not spot the movement of German armour through the Ardennes until it was too late to prevent the panzers of the Wehrmacht crossing the River Meuse at Sedan and dashing over the plains of central France to the Channel. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate either the radical nature of this plan or the element of risk involved. But, as we all know, it worked – chiefly because of the incompetence of the Allied military leadership who, as Hitler had gambled, did not understand the significance of the German advance towards Sedan until too late.
Hitler was now fêted by his military commanders. General Wilhelm Keitel, head of the OKW, the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht – promoted to field marshal after the victory over France – announced that Hitler was ‘the greatest military leader of all time’.77 Most of the German population was just as ecstatic; the mass crowds that greeted Hitler on his return to Berlin from the western front on 6 July 1940 were almost hysterical as they demonstrated their gratitude for their Führer’s apparent genius.
As a result of all this adulation, Hitler would have been reconfirmed in his own assessment of himself as one of the most important individuals that had ever existed. As he had told his generals in August 1939, ‘essentially all depends on me, on my existence …’78 He had also reiterated, in a speech to his military leaders three months later, on 23 November, that he saw the conflict in which they were now all embroiled in equally epic terms. The choice was either ‘victory or defeat’; it was therefore necessary to ‘annihilate’ the enemy or risk annihilation oneself. This ‘racial struggle’ was inevitable, according to Hitler, because ‘the increasing population [of Germany] needs larger Lebensraum.’79
The message that victory in the west sent out to the millions of Germans who were predisposed to support the Nazi movement was clear. It was no longer necessary to worry about the future. They could throw away their individual doubts and anxieties, because their Führer had shown that he was always right. Hitler had not ‘hypnotized’ these people. It was not that they agreed with him because their own better judgement had somehow been usurped. They chose to trust him because recent events had demonstrated that this appeared to be the most sensible thing to do. But that mindset was immensely dangerous. It meant that later on, when the Jews started vanishing from the streets, they could attempt to dismiss any anxieties they might have by hiding once again behind the familiar rubric – the Führer knows best. Hitler had shown in the past that he knew best, so he would know best in the future as well. If he ordered that the Jews should suffer more than ever before, then it was the right thing for Germany and the policy should be supported.
After the German victory on mainland Europe, Hitler expected Britain to make peace. In his Reichstag speech on 19 July 1940 he appealed to the British to see ‘reason’. He said: ‘I am still sad today that, in spite of all my efforts’ no ‘friendship’ had been established with ‘England’.80Churchill, who had become Prime Minister two months before, was against any such accommodation, as was the government he led. And once it was clear that the British would carry on fighting, Hitler faced a dilemma. He could direct his armed forces to invade Britain, or he could turn his attention east and confront the enemy he had identified in Mein Kampf in 1924 – the Soviet Union. For Hitler, this was an easy choice. He had never wanted war with Britain, and the German Navy lacked the warships capable of protecting a cross-Channel invasion fleet. At a meeting on 31 July 1940 he raised with his military commanders the possibility of invading the Soviet Union – even before Britain had been defeated. He justified this course of action by using somewhat twisted logic. He argued that one of the reasons the British had carried on fighting was because they hoped that eventually the Soviet Union would come to their aid, saying that ‘Russia is the factor on which Britain is relying the most.81 So destroying the Soviet Union’s chances of entering the war on the British side, Hitler implied, would make Churchill sue for peace. It was a bizarre argument, not least because the British war effort depended on aid from America, not the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, no one spoke up against the idea.
Hitler didn’t completely reject the idea of invading Britain. Plans were still put in place to launch an aerial bombardment, and despite the gloomy prospects for a cross-Channel attack outlined by Grand Admiral Raeder at the 31 July 1940 meeting, half-hearted preparations were made for Operation Sealion – the invasion of the British mainland. But Hitler was never committed to this option, and his hopes for another military triumph rested on the plans that were developed during the rest of 1940 for a massive strike against the Soviet Union the following year.
Hitler had said, as far back as 1924, that Germany needed to gain land in the east – and the war necessary to win this new territory was getting nearer.