19

‘Deciding the fate of Europe’ (Hitler)

NOVEMBER 1941

On 22 October 1941 air defence exercises were carried out through Japan, and Tokyo had its first practice black-out. That same day, an unarmed Japanese reconnaissance aircraft flew from an airbase in Indo-China to the Malayan Peninsula; in his report, the pilot advised that the British airfields of Khota Baru and Alor Star should be the prime objects of the invasion. Plans had also gone ahead to attack Pearl Harbour; a message sent on September 24 from Tokyo to Nagai Kita, instructing him to report on the location of American aircraft carriers at the base, was decrypted in Washington on October 9, but did not ring any alarm bells.

On October 24, German forces entered Kharkov, the second largest city in the Ukraine. That day, in Vilna, 885 children were among the 3,700 Jews hunted down in the streets of the ghetto and taken to nearby Ponar, to be shot. Hundreds, hiding in cellars to try to escape the round-up, were dragged out into the street and killed on the spot.

‘From the rostrum of the Reichstag’, Hitler told his visitors at Rastenburg that evening, ‘I prophesied to Jewry that, in the event of war proving inevitable, the Jew would disappear from Europe.’ Hitler added: ‘That race of criminals has on its conscience the two million dead of the first World War, and now already hundreds of thousands more. Let nobody tell me that all the same we can’t park them in the marshy parts of Russia! Who’s worrying about our troops? It’s not a bad idea, by the way, that public rumour attributes to us a plan to exterminate the Jews. Terror is a salutary thing.’

On the day of Hitler’s recollection and reflection at Rastenburg, a civil servant in Berlin, Adolf Eichmann, who had hitherto been in charge of Jewish emigration, approved a proposal put forward a week earlier by Hinrich Lohse. This proposal was that the Jews who were now being deported by train to Riga from Berlin, Vienna and other cities in the Reich, and from Luxemburg, should, after reaching Riga, be killed by mobile gas vans. The decision to use gas vans to kill Jews was elaborated that same day, October 25, by Judge Alfred Wetzel. The Judge was the adviser on Jewish affairs in the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. He noted that Dr Victor Brack, the member of Hitler’s Chancellery whose euthanasia programme was now suspended, had already ‘co-ordinated the supply of instruments and apparatus for killing people through poison gas’. In order to ‘collaborate in the installation of the necessary buildings and gas plants’, Wetzel explained, Dr Brack was willing to send his own chemist, Dr Kallmeyer, to Riga. The aim, explained Judge Wetzel, was to avoid ‘incidents such as those that took place during the shootings of Jews in Vilna’, when the executions ‘were undertaken openly’. The ‘new procedures’, he explained, ‘assure that such incidents will no longer be possible’.

Henceforth, a scheme to kill Jews out of sight of the local population, and without exposing Regular Army soldiers or Special Task Force units to the need to shoot down women and children in cold blood, and then shoot again those who had merely been wounded by the first salvoes, was increasingly put into effect. Experimental gassings were carried out in the western Polish town of Kalisz for four days, beginning on October 27. A total of 290 Jews were taken on that day by van from an old people’s home, on the pretext that they were to be transferred to a similar home in another town. The inside of the van had been linked up to the exhaust pipe. As the van drove slowly and carefully out of Kalisz, to a wood just beyond the outskirts of the town, all those inside it were suffocated and killed.

When the final journey was completed, and all 290 Jews were dead, the surviving Jews of Kalisz were presented with a bill for the cost of the ‘transport’.

The combination of inefficiency and the uneasiness of some German troops meant that it was time for the new method of mass murder to be put into operation. Even as the Kalisz gas van was making its journey from the town to the forest, two letters which indicated the disgusting nature of the Special Task Force killings reached Berlin. The first was a letter from a German Catholic girl, Margarete Sommer, who wrote on October 27 to Cardinal Bertram of a massacre that day in Kovno, in which not only eight thousand local Jews, but a thousand Jews brought by train from Germany, had been murdered at the Ninth Fort, one of the nineteenth century defence works on the outskirts of the city. Of those killed, according to the report of the Special Task Force carrying out the killings, 4,273 were children. ‘The Jews must undress,’ Sommer wrote, ‘—it could have been eighteen degrees below freezing—then climb into “graves” previously dug by Russian prisoners-of-war. They were then shot with a machine gun; then grenades were tossed in. Without checking to see if all were dead, the task force ordered the graves filled in.’

The second protest at the method of mass murder, was from the German Civil Commissioner of the Territory of Slutsk, Dr Carl, who reported to his superiors in Berlin, first by telephone and then by letter, the statements of German troops in Slutsk during a round-up on October 27. Jews and White Russians had been ‘beaten with clubs and rifle butts’ in the streets; rings were pulled off fingers ‘in the most brutal manner’; and in different streets ‘the corpses of Jews who had been shot’ were ‘piled high’. The action, Dr Carl added, ‘bordered already on sadism’, the town itself being ‘a picture of horror’.

The recipient of Dr Carl’s letter, Wilhelm Kube, the Commissar General of White Russia, sent it on to Berlin, to the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, Alfred Rosenberg. ‘Peace and order cannot be maintained in White Russia with methods of that sort’, Kube wrote. ‘To have buried alive seriously wounded people, who then worked their way out of their graves again, is’, he asserted, ‘such extreme beastliness that this incident as such must be reported to the Führer and the Reich Marshal.’

The evolving plans for murder by gas would ensure that most future killings would be done behind a mask of secrecy, by methods which far fewer people would have to see, and in circumstances which would reduce to a minimum the chance of discovery. In anticipation of the new method, individual Jews with foreign passports were now refused permission to emigrate, even within regions under German influence. In refusing an application from a Jewish woman, Lily Satzkis, to move from Nazi Germany to Vichy France, Adolf Eichmann noted on October 28: ‘In view of the approaching final solution of the European Jewry problem, one has to prevent the immigration of Jews into the unoccupied area of France’.

A third protest was made on the very day of Eichmann’s letter, at General von Bock’s headquarters at Smolensk. As Colonel Lahousen wrote in his diary, the question was raised, at a conference with the General’s Intelligence officer, about the shooting of Jews at Borisov, von Bock’s former headquarters. ‘Seven thousand Jews had been liquidated there’, Lahousen noted, ‘“in the manner of tinned sardines”. The scenes that had resulted were indescribable’—often even the killers ‘could not go on, and had to keep going by heavy consumption of alcohol’.

***

On October 25, deep snow fell on the Moscow front. On the following day, in Minsk, the Germans staged the first public hanging, intended to deter partisan activity. Three partisans were executed, Kirill Trus, Volodya Shcherbatseyvich and Maria Bruskina. A seventeen-year-old Jewish girl, Maria Bruskina had been working as a nurse in a field hospital for Russian officers and who had been taken prisoner in the battle for Minsk. Her ‘crime’ was to have smuggled into the hospital forged identity papers and clothes, enabling several prisoners-of-war to escape.

North-west of Moscow, on October 28, the Germans reached Volokolamsk, seventy-five miles from the capital. On the following day, near Borodino, the first Soviet troops rushed westward from the Far East were in action. Yet still the Germans were confident of victory: ‘We’re convinced we’ll shortly finish off Moscow’, was General Wagner’s comment on October 29. There was certainly no danger of intervention from the United States. On that same day, in the Atlantic, the American destroyer Reuben James, which was escorting convoy HX 156 from Halifax, Nova Scotia, was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk; 115 of her crew, including all her officers, were drowned.

For the second time in two weeks, Roosevelt took no action. He was determined not to be drawn into the war. But he was equally determined to help those who were at war with Germany. On October 30, the day after the sinking of the Reuben James, he telegraphed to Stalin that he had given his Presidential approval to one billion dollars of Lend—Lease aid for Russia, with no interest to be charged, and with repayment not having to begin until five years after the war.

The battle for Moscow, winter 1941

On October 31 the German Air Force carried out forty-five separate bombing attacks over Moscow. From Leningrad, the Russians completed the evacuation by air of 17,614 armament factory workers and 8,590 wounded Red Army, Navy and Air Force officers. Behind the German lines, on that last day of October, two hundred Jews were shot at Kletsk for having tried to obtain food from non-Jews living outside the ghetto. That same day, from the occupied Baltic States, in Report from the Occupied Eastern Territories No. 6, SS General von dem Bach Zelewski reported proudly to Berlin: ‘Today, there are no more Jews in Estonia.’

In southern Russia, the Special Task Forces were also confident that their work was thorough; on October 31, at Poltava, the executions began, over a six day period, of 740 people, listed in Operational Situation Report USSR No. 143, as ‘—3 political officials, 1 saboteur, 137 Jews, 599 mentally ill persons’. A further two hundred inmates of the Poltava Lunatic Asylum, who had been judged ‘curable’, were sent to work in an agricultural implement factory. After the executions, the asylum itself had been turned into a German field hospital, and the ‘underwear, clothing and household articles’ of the former inmates placed at the field hospital’s disposal.

***

On October 30, Admiral Canaris had visited Hitler at Rastenburg. When Hitler asked him what the weather had been like at the front, he answered in one word: ‘Bad!’ On 1 November, snow stayed on the ground all day at Rastenburg. Hitler was undeterred. ‘If Russia goes under in the war,’ he told his guests on November 2, ‘Europe will stretch eastwards to the limits of Germanic colonization. In the Eastern territories, I shall replace Slav geographical titles by German names. The Crimea, for example, might be called Gothenland.’ On November 3, in a further measure of Germanization, Kiev’s Cathedral of the Dormition was blown up.

On November 3, east of Leningrad, the German Army cut the railway line to Vologda and moved towards Tikhvin, a centre for the flying in of supplies to Leningrad. That same day, in Tokyo, the Combined Fleet Top-Secret Order No. 1 was issued to all relevant commanders: Pearl Harbour was to be attacked in thirty-four days’ time. There were to be simultaneous attacks on the British in Malaya and on the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies, and a further attack on the Americans in the Philippines.

It was on November 4, a day after this final Japanese decision, that General MacArthur, commander of the American and Philippine forces, received a letter from General Marshall in Washington, reporting on the attitude of the United States Congress. ‘They are going to give us everything we asked for,’ MacArthur’s Chief of Staff exclaimed, delighted. But a careful reading of Marshall’s letter showed that the tanks, guns and soldiers MacArthur had asked for, while approved in principle, would not be fully in place until April 1942.

On November 4 the Soviet gunboat Konstruktor, crossing Lake Ladoga from Osinovets to Novaya Ladoga with refugees, most of them women and children, was hit by a German dive bomber; 170 refugees and 34 crew members were killed. On November 6, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin addressed a rally of Moscow Party workers, held underground, in the ornamental marble hall of the Mayakovsky Metro station. The Germans were ‘men with the morals of beasts’, he said. ‘If they want a war of extermination, they shall have one.’

***

On November 6, two days after General MacArthur had received General Marshall’s letter, promising reinforcements to the Philippines, Japanese warplanes, flying from their aircraft carriers, carried out a two hundred mile practice run on a Japanese equivalent of Pearl Harbour, Kagoshima Bay. The attack methods which they followed were those which they would use on the day itself.

***

On November 7, Stalin was in Red Square where, from the top of Lenin’s mausoleum, he took the salute at a review of his troops, and, in his speech, urged them to do their utmost to defend ‘holy Russia’. From Red Square, the soldiers marched up Gorky Street, and then on to the front. The ground had frozen in the night, giving the German tanks a chance to move forward, free from the cloying, seeping, all-pervading mud, which had been such an obstacle to their advance during the last two weeks of October.

As Stalin saw his soldiers leave Red Square for the front line after their march-past on November 7, Roosevelt officially extended the Lend-Lease Act to cover the Soviet Union, which had already been the recipient of considerable quantities of American weapons, and of British weapons which had been manufactured in the United States. For their part, the British had renewed their heavy air raids on Germany; in the raids of November 7, on Berlin, Cologne and Mannheim, thirty-seven out of the four hundred attacking planes were lost, due to exceptionally bad weather conditions.

For several days, over Leningrad, German bombers had dropped, not bombs, but leaflets, telling the inhabitants to beware of November 7. ‘Go to the baths,’ the leaflets advised. ‘Put on your white dresses. Eat the funeral dishes. Lie down in your coffins and prepare for death. On November 7 the skies will be blue—blue with the explosion of German bombs.’

As British bombs had fallen on Berlin, so German bombs also fell on Leningrad that November 7, while behind the German lines, in the White Russian city of Minsk, twelve thousand Jews were slaughtered in pits just outside the city. Three days later, a train with a thousand Jews from Hamburg arrived in Minsk. ‘They felt themselves’, an eye witness later recalled, ‘as pioneers who were brought to settle the East.’ Almost none of them was to survive the massacres of future months, any more than the six thousand Jews who were sent after them later that November, from Frankfurt, Bremen and the Rhineland.

‘However long the war may last,’ Hitler told the annual beer hall celebration in Munich on November 8, ‘the last battalion in the field will be a German one’, and he added, on a note of triumph: ‘We are deciding the fate of Europe for the next thousand years.’ On the following day, in the Mediterranean, two Italo-German convoys, bringing fuel for the German Air Force and a large consignment of motor transport for Rommel’s Army in North Africa, was attacked by a British naval squadron of two cruisers, a submarine and two destroyers. All ten Axis supply ships were sunk. Their cargoes, their date of departure, the strength of their escort and their route across the Mediterranean had all been revealed by Britain’s now regular and unimpeded eavesdropping on Italy’s most secret naval radio messages.

In Russia, Leningrad’s eastern supply town of Tikhvin fell to the Germans on November 8. The encirclement of Leningrad was complete. On the following day, in the Crimea, German forces occupied Yalta. In Yugoslavia, General Mihailović and his Četnik forces, instead of attacking the Germans, had revealed, on November 9, their intention to destroy Tito and his Communist partisans. The Germans had gained an unexpected and an unwitting ally.

One success of the war against the Axis came on November 9, in Britain, when two German agents, both Norwegians, code named ‘Jack’ and ‘OK’, who had landed in Scotland from Norway seven months earlier, and had at once agreed to work for Britain, ‘organized’ an act of sabotage in a Ministry of Food warehouse at Wealdstone, just outside London. ‘Fire Bomb in Food Depot’, one British newspaper reported. ‘Incendiarism Suspected at Foodstore’ declared another. For Colonel Lahousen, it was a triumph for the sabotage efforts of ‘Jack’ and ‘OK’. For the British it was proof that their double-cross system continued to work, thanks on this occasion to the men they knew as ‘Mutt’ and ‘Jeff’.

That night, November 9, in Leningrad, the Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Karl Eliasberg, performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the city’s Philharmonic Hall. The concert was broadcast live to London. ‘Two parts of the symphony were played without interruption,’ Eliasberg later recalled. ‘When the third began, we heard the wail of the sirens and almost immediately the impact of bombs falling nearby, and the thunder of anti-aircraft guns. The building shook. To that accompaniment the orchestra played the symphony to the end. The announcer signed off and wished our listeners in Great Britain goodnight.’

***

On November 12, the temperature on the Moscow front fell to twelve degrees centigrade below zero. Many German soldiers found frostbite an unexpected and crippling enemy. Hitler, in Berlin, was still talking about the aftermath of victory over Russia. ‘We shall give the natives all they need: plenty to eat, and rot-gut spirits. If they don’t work, they’ll go to a camp, and they’ll be deprived of alcohol.’ From oranges to cotton, Hitler added, ‘we can grow anything in that country’.

Hitler had reason to be in a good mood that week; at sea, on November 13, a German submarine, U-81, commanded by Lieutenant Guggenberger, torpedoed the British aircraft-carrier Ark Royal off Gibraltar. She sank on the following day. But November 13 saw an event which balanced the blow of the loss of the Ark Royal, for on that day, by what one historian has called the ‘chillingly narrow’ margin of 212 to 194, the United States Congress amended the Neutrality Act, not only to allow all American merchant ships to be armed, but to permit them passage to the war zones. ‘This is a very great help to us’, King George VI noted in his diary two days later, ‘though it appears the President had to send a special message to Congress to have it passed.’

Every few days, from Berlin, thirty and at times even more German officials were sent the Operational Situation Reports USSR. Report No. 133, sent out on November 14, went in all to sixty people. In it were details of some of the October massacres of Jews: nine hundred in Mstislavl; 2,200 in Gorky, north-east of Mogilev; 3,726 ‘of both sexes and all ages’ in Mogilev itself. ‘None has suffered more cruelly than the Jew’, Churchill wrote that November 14 in a letter to the London Jewish Chronicle on its centenary, ‘the unspeakable evils wrought on the bodies and spirits of men by Hitler and his vile regime’.

Churchill was aware of at least a percentage of the killings in the East from his reading of the decrypts of more than seventeen intercepted German police messages, as well as his regular scrutiny of a weekly secret summary of all such intercepted messages. In his letter to the Jewish Chronicle he added: ‘The Jew bore the brunt of the Nazis’ first onslaught upon the citadels of freedom and human dignity. He has borne, and continues to bear, a burden that might have seemed to be beyond endurance. He has not allowed it to break his spirit: he has never lost the will to resist’.

The Operational Situation Reports USSR detailed more than a hundred examples of Jewish resistance that autumn and winter. They also gave details of Jewish participation in partisan activity. The report of November 14, for example, spoke of the arrest and execution of fifty-five partisans in Mogilev, of whom twenty-two were Jews ‘who worked with fanatical zeal to strengthen the organization further’. Also in Mogilev, the report noted, six Jews and one Jewess—Fania Leikina—‘were liquidated for refusing to wear the Jewish badge and for spreading inflammatory propaganda against Germany’.

Those who carried out these executions and liquidations, whether in the field or in the concentration camps, were not eligible for the Iron Cross. But their commanders wanted them to be rewarded. It seemed that the War Labour Cross was a suitable award. On November 14 the camp Commandant at Gross-Rosen concentration camp, in Silesia, asked what ‘reasons’ should be listed for the granting of the Cross. Should it be ‘execution i.e. special action’, or something more ‘routine’? Six days later he received his reply from the acting inspector of the concentration camps, SS Lieutenant-Colonel Liebehenschel. Under ‘reasons’, he advised, the Commandant should ‘enter “completion of vital war assignments”’. Liebehenschel added: ‘The word “execution” should under no circumstances be mentioned.’

One of those most closely involved in these executions, Hinrich Lohse, the Reich Commissar for the Baltic States and White Russia, had taken independent action early in November, when, at Libava, he had ordered the killings in progress there to cease. Asked by his superiors to explain why he had called a halt to them, he replied on November 15 that ‘the manner in which they were performed could not be justified’. Not moral, but economic reasons, were his complaint: the destruction of much manpower that could be of use to the war economy. Was it intended, Lohse asked, that Jews were to be killed ‘irrespective of age, sex or economic factors’? In reply, he was informed from Berlin, by Alfred Rosenberg’s Ministry of the Eastern Territories, that the demands of the economy ‘should be ignored’.

Other extreme attitudes of Nazism were seen that month, when, on November 15, Himmler issued a decree, in Hitler’s name, that henceforth any SS or police officer ‘engaging in indecent behaviour with another man or allowing himself to be abused by him for indecent purposes will be condemned to death and executed’.

***

On the battlefront, November 15 saw a complaint by SS General Eicke, now returned from Sachsenhausen to his Death’s Head Division, that within the division’s ranks many of the ethnic Germans—those of German language and culture who lived in areas outside the Germany of 1938—were wounding themselves in order not to have to serve any longer. Incidents of cowardice were common among them, Eicke wrote. But the pressures of battle were impinging even upon German nationals; since entering Russia four-and-a-half months earlier, his division had suffered 8,993 casualties, half its initial strength. On the following day, November 16, exceptionally severe wintry conditions were reported from the entire Eastern Front; in the Moscow region, Russian ski troops went into action for the first time.

The German forces were near the limit of their capacity; a German Air Force message, sent by Enigma on November 16, and read at Bletchley by the British decrypters, was a complaint from an Air Force liaison officer with the German troops in the Kursk section, to the effect that no German fighters had been seen for two weeks. On the following day, Ernst Udet, the First World War fighter pilot ace who since 1939 had been Director-General of Equipment for the German Air Force, committed suicide, in part because of the German Air Force failures on the Eastern Front.

One of those at Udet’s funeral was his fellow fighter ace, Werner Molders, who came back to the funeral from the Crimea, where he was directing air operations. On his way back to the Crimea in fog and rain, he crash-landed at Breslau and was killed.

Even in the crisis of battle, the Nazi leaders could not rid themselves of their obsession with the imminent Final Solution. On November 16, Goebbels wrote in the magazine Das Reich: ‘The Jews wanted the war, and now they have it’. But, he added, ‘the prophecy which the Führer made in the German Reichstag on 30 January 1939 is also coming true, that should international finance Jewry succeed in plunging the nations into a world war once again, the result would not be the Bolshevization of the world and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. We are in the midst of that process and thereby a fate fulfils itself for Jewry which is hard but which is more than deserved. Compassion or regret are entirely out of place here’.

On November 17, Himmler telephoned Heydrich, in Prague, to discuss with him the ‘elimination of the Jews’. These were the words used in Himmler’s own note of the conversation. That same day, eight Warsaw Jews were executed for trying to leave the ghetto in search of food. One, a girl not quite eighteen years old, asked a few moments before she was shot that her family be told that she had been sent to a concentration camp, and would not be seeing them for some time. Another girl ‘cried out to God’, the diarist Chaim Kaplan noted, ‘imploring Him to accept her as the expiatory sacrifice for her people, and to let her be the final victim’.

Another Warsaw ghetto diarist, Emanuel Ringelblum, noted that during the execution of the eight Jews, a few SS officers had stood by, watching the scene, ‘calmly smoking cigarettes and behaving cynically throughout the execution’.

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