One fine June day of 1946 at Nuremberg three members of the American prosecution staff were interrogating S.S. Obergruppenfuehrer Oswald Pohl, who, among other things, had been in charge of work projects for the inmates of the Nazi concentration camps. Pohl, a naval officer before he joined the S.S., had gone into hiding after the German collapse and had not been apprehended until a year later—in May 1946—when he was discovered working on a farm disguised as a farmhand.†
In answer to one question Pohl used a term with which the Nuremberg prosecution, busy for months in poring over millions of words from the captured documents, had begun to become familiar. A certain colleague by the name of Hoess had, Pohl said, been employed by Himmler “in the final solution of the Jewish question.”
“And what was that?” Pohl was asked.
“The extermination of Jewry,” he answered.
The expression crept with increasing frequency into the vocabulary and the files of the leading Nazis as the war progressed, its seeming innocence apparently sparing these men the pain of reminding one another what it meant and perhaps too, they may have thought, furnishing a certain cover for their guilt should the incriminating papers ever come to light. Indeed at the Nuremberg trials most of the Nazi chiefs denied that they knew what it signified, and Goering contended he had never used the term, but this pretense was soon exploded. In the case against the fat Reich Marshal a directive was produced which he had sent Heydrich, the chief of the S.D., on July 31, 1941, when the Einsatzgruppen were already falling with gusto to their extermination tasks in Russia.
I here with commission you [Goering instructed Heydrich] to carry out all preparations with regard to … a total solution of the Jewish question in those territories of Europe which are under German influence …
1 furthermore charge you to submit to me as soon as possible a draft showing the … measures already taken for the execution of the intended final solution of the Jewish question.*52
Heydrich knew very well what Goering meant by the term for he had used it himself nearly a year before at a secret meeting after the fall of Poland, in which he had outlined “the first step in the final solution,” which consisted of concentrating all the Jews in the ghettos of the large cities, where it would be easy to dispatch them to their final fate.†
As it worked out, the “final solution” was what Adolf Hitler had long had in mind and what he had publicly proclaimed even before the war started. In his speech to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, he had said:
If the international Jewish financiers … should again succeed in plunging the nations into a world war the result will be … the annihilation of the Jewish race throughout Europe.
This was a prophecy, he said, and he repeated it five times, verbatim, in subsequent public utterances. It made no difference that not the “international Jewish financiers” but he himself plunged the world into armed conflict. What mattered to Hitler was that there was now a world war and that it afforded him, after he had conquered vast regions in the East where most of Europe’s Jews lived, the opportunity to carry out their “annihilation.” By the time the invasion of Russia began, he had given the necessary orders.
What became known in high Nazi circles as the “Fuehrer Order on the Final Solution” apparently was never committed to paper—at least no copy of it has yet been unearthed in the captured Nazi documents. All the evidence shows that it was most probably given verbally to Goering, Himmler and Heydrich, who passed it down during the summer and fall of 1941. A number of witnesses testified at Nuremberg that they had “heard” of it but none admitted ever seeing it. Thus Hans Lammers, the bullheaded chief of the Reich Chancellery, when pressed on the witness stand replied:
I knew that a Fuehrer order was transmitted by Goering to Heydrich … This order was called “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.”53
But Lammers claimed, as did so many others on the stand, that he did not really know what it was all about until Allied counsel revealed it at Nuremberg.*
By the beginning of 1942 the time had come, as Heydrich said, “to clear up the fundamental problems” of the “final solution” so that it could at last be carried out and concluded. For this purpose Heydrich convened a meeting of representatives of the various ministries and agencies of the S.S.-S.D. at the pleasant Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942, the minutes of which played an important part in some of the later Nuremberg trials.54 Despite the current setback of the Wehrmacht in Russia the Nazi officials believed that the war was almost won and that Germany would shortly be ruling all of Europe, including England and Ireland. Therefore, Heydrich told the assembly of some fifteen high officials, “in the course of this Final Solution of the European Jewish problem, approximately eleven million Jews are involved.” He then rattled off the figures for each country. There were only 131, 800 Jews left in the original Reich territory (out of a quarter of a million in 1939), but in the U.S.S.R., he said, there were five million, in the Ukraine three million, in the General Government of Poland two and a quarter million, in France three quarters of a million and in England a third of a million. The clear implication was that all eleven million must be exterminated. He then explained how this considerable task was to be carried out.
The Jews should now in the course of the Final Solution be brought to the East … for use as labor. In big labor gangs, with separation of sexes, the Jews capable of work are brought to these areas and employed in road building, in which task undoubtedly a great part will fall through natural diminution.
The remnant that finally is able to survive all this—since this is undoubtedly the part with the strongest resistance—must be treated accordingly, since these people, representing a natural selection, are to be regarded as the germ cell of a new Jewish development.
In other words, the Jews of Europe were first to be transported to the conquered East, then worked to death, and the few tough ones who survived simply put to death. And the Jews—the millions of them—who resided in the East and were already on hand? State Secretary Dr. Josef Buehler, representing the Governor General of Poland, had a ready suggestion for them. There were nearly two and a half million Jews in Poland, he said, who “constituted a great danger.” They were, he explained, “bearers of disease, black-market operators and furthermore unfit for work.” There was no transportation problem with these two and a half million souls. They were already there.
I have only one request [Dr. Buehler concluded], that the Jewish problem in my territory be solved as quickly as possible.
The good State Secretary betrayed an impatience which was shared in high Nazi circles right up to Hitler. None of them understood at this time—not, in fact, until toward the end of 1942, when it was too late—how valuable the millions of Jews might be to the Reich as slave labor. At this point they only understood that working millions of Jews to death on the roads of Russia might take some time. Consequently long before these unfortunate people could be worked to death—in most cases the attempt was not even begun—Hitler and Himmler decided to dispatch them by quicker means.
There were two—principally. One of them, as we have seen, had begun shortly after the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941. This was the method of mass slaughter of the Polish and Russian Jews by the flying firing squads of the Einsatzgruppen, which accounted for some three quarters of a million.
It was this method of achieving the “final solution” that Himmler had in mind when he addressed the S.S. generals at Posen on October 4, 1943.
… I also want to talk to you quite frankly on a very grave matter. Among ourselves it should be mentioned quite frankly, and yet we will never speak of it publicly …
I mean … the extermination of the Jewish race … Most of you must know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side by side, or 500, or 1,000. To have stuck it out and at the same time—apart from exceptions caused by human weakness—to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written …55
No doubt the bespectacled S.S. Fuehrer, who had almost fainted at the sight of a hundred Eastern Jews, including women, being executed for his own delectation, would have seen in the efficient working by S.S. officers of the gas chambers in the extermination camps an even more glorious page in German history. For it was in these death camps that the “final solution” achieved its most ghastly success.