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Section: What was the Final Solution?

The Wannsee Conference

Ukrainian Jews forced to undress by an Einsatzgruppe detachment, Lubny, Soviet Union, 16 October 1941
Ukrainian Jews forced to undress by an Einsatzgruppe detachment, Lubny, Soviet Union, 16 October 1941 © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Nazis sent many thousands of Czech Jews to ghettos in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. On 22 June 1941, the German invasion of the Soviet Union brought many more Jews within the German sphere of influence. Some Polish Jews had managed to escape into the Soviet Union during the German invasion of Poland. Now, as the German army rolled into the Soviet Union, they were again trapped.

In order to make way for these new prisoners, the SS took many thousands of Jews from the ghettos of Kovno, Riga, Minsk, Łódź, Lvov and Lublin to be murdered by the Einsatzgruppen. Even though the SS claimed to be the hardened ‘Master Race’, quite a few of them found it ‘difficult’ to murder women and children. In addition, the shooting process used by the Einsatzgruppen was expensive.

Heinrich Himmler witnessed this killing process and decided to develop a cheaper, more effective method of murder that would not be as upsetting for the perpetrators. The Nazis were already using gas to murder the mentally and physically disabled; this was now to be applied to the Jews as well. This section will discuss the the Wannsee Conference and the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’.

Autumn 1941

In Germany, the Nazis had been murdering mentally and physically disabled people as part of its euthanasia programme since 1939. In the beginning, doctors killed them by lethal injection. This was not considered fast enough, so they developed a new process of gassing that was faster and more effective in killing large numbers of people. Over 70,000 people were killed as part of the euthanasia programme.

In the summer of 1941, Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, received orders from Heinrich Himmler to begin experimenting with Zyklon B gas. On 3 September 1941, the Auschwitz deputy camp commandant Karl Fritzsch experimented on 600 Russian prisoners of war and 250 Polish inmates by gathering them in the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B.

In October 1941 the Nazis began turning the concentration camp at Majdanek into a death camp as well. They then began the construction of killing centres at Bełżec, Treblinka, near Warsaw, and at Sobibór. The first mass gassing of Jews began in Chelmno on 8 December 1941, when the Nazis used gas vans to murder people from the Łódź ghetto. The Nazis also ordered the expansion of the Auschwitz camp complex to increase the capacity for murder.

Consequently six ‘factories of death’ were created in eastern Europe.

Who ordered the 'Final Solution'?

When did the Nazis decide to kill all the Jews of Europe? Was murder always in the mind of Adolf Hitler? These are some of the most difficult questions historians have to answer. Certainly, up until the invasion of the Soviet Union, Jews did manage to emigrate from Germany. Historians will never know precisely when the order for mass killing was given, but large-scale murders began with the invasion of Russia.

Some people believe that Hitler always intended to murder the Jews. In a letter dated 16 September 1919, he wrote, “the final objective must be the complete removal of the Jews”. Was the road to the death camps foreseen and planned in advance? Or was it, as others believe, an unplanned response to circumstances that arose? What is certain is that Hitler and his inner circle were obsessed with the Jews. They believed that they were responsible for all the ills of the world.

In fact, in the last letter Hitler wrote before he committed suicide, the last paragraph was about the Jews: “But before everything else I call upon the leadership of the nation and those who follow it to observe the racial laws most carefully, to fight mercilessly against the poisoners of all the peoples of the world, international Jewry.”

In January 1939, Reinhard Heydrich had received an order to solve “the Jewish question by means of emigration or evacuation in the most convenient way possible”.

This was upgraded on 31 July 1941, when Hermann Goering sent an order that Heydrich should make “all necessary preparations with regard to organisational, practical and financial aspects for an overall solution to the Jewish question”. Heydrich was to “submit an overall plan… for the execution of the intended ‘Final Solution’ of the Jewish question”.

Although Goering had given the order, Hitler had approved it. He also allowed the use of the railway system to transport Jews from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany to occupied Poland and the Soviet Union.

The Wannsee Conference is called

The villa at 56–58 Am Großen Wannsee, Germany, where the conference to discuss the 'Final Solution' was held.
The villa at 56–58 Am Großen Wannsee, Germany, where the conference to discuss the 'Final Solution' was held. © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

Reinhard Heydrich called leading officials of the various departments of the Nazi government and SS to a meeting on 8 December 1941.

This meeting was postponed until 20 January 1942, when 15 leading officials of the Nazi state met at a villa in Wannsee. These officials were highly educated men; two thirds of them were lawyers and many of them had obtained doctorates from leading German universities.

At this meeting, Heydrich announced a programme of organised deportation of Jews to the East. However, every participant at the meeting knew that the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ did not merely mean the deportation of Jews.

The ‘Final Solution‘ was a code name for the murder of all the Jews of Europe. The people present at the conference were to discuss how to make mass murder happen in an organised and methodical way. No one present at the meeting objected to the ‘Final Solution’ – the debates were on how it should happen.

The Wannsee Conference

The Protocol of the Wannsee Conference outlines the discussions and outcomes of the meeting. You will see from the document above that the Wannsee Protocol outlined the number of Jews in each country of Europe, including 330,000 in England, and also the total number in Europe (11 million).

The minutes of the Protocol stated that because of the war with the Soviet Union, “emigration has now been replaced by evacuation of Jews to the East… …with the appropriate prior authorisation by the Führer.”

It went on to say that “Europe will be combed through from East to West in the course of the practical implementation of the Final Solution.” 

Jews would be “utilised for work in the East… [The] sexes [will be] separated. Jews capable of work will be moved into these areas as they build roads, during which a large proportion will no doubt drop out through natural reduction. The remnant that eventually remains will require suitable treatment…The evacuated Jews will first be taken, group by group, to so-called transit ghettos, in order to be transported further east from there.”

It further explained that “Jews with severe war injuries and Jews with war decorations (Iron Cross, First Class) will be admitted to the Jewish old-age ghetto along with those who were over 65 years of age.”

The Protocol also highlighted the fact that in Slovakia, Croatia and Romania, local governments were working with the Nazis in their anti-Jewish activities. In Italy, the Nazis planned to liaise with the Italian police. France, the document said, would not prove difficult. It was noted that there was much opposition to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies in the Nordic States, and that the ‘Final Solution’ would be postponed for a while in these countries.

Dr Josef Buhler, the official who represented the General Government, requested that the ‘Final Solution’ begins in his territory, as transport would be no problem. He also stated that the majority of Jews there were unfit for work and carried diseases.

Buhler promised that Heydrich’s work “would have the support of the authorities of the Governor General.” He had only one request: “that the Jewish question in this area be solved as quickly as possible.”

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