The Final Solution
Hitler's ultimate aim, in its simplest context, was the complete eradication of all Jews from Germany and occupied lands. This process was code-named Die Endlösung (the Final Solution).
The phrase was first used by Hermann Goering on July 31, 1941, shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union. Goering instructed Reinhard Heydrich to create a plan “showing the measures for organization and action necessary to carrying out the final solution of the Jewish question” in German-occupied Europe. Heydrich later added other groups to the extermination order, including Gypsies.
Figure 15-1 A starving inmate of Camp Gusen, Austria, May 1945.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (111-SC-264918)
In January 1942, Heydrich and his aide, Adolf Eichmann, chaired the Wannsee Conference, where one of the primary topics of discussion was “the final solution of the European Jewish question.” Also in attendance were representatives from the Occupied Eastern Territories, the ministries of Justice and the Interior and the Foreign Office, and various Nazi organizations.
In a horrifying example of raw Nazi barbarism, several German officials discussed the idea of eliminating 30,000 Gypsies by taking them by boat into the Mediterranean Sea and then bombing the boats. However, the idea was later abandoned.
The conference was held at the Reich Central Security Office in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin. Eichmann acted as secretary, taking detailed notes of the strategies under discussion. At issue was how to deal with an estimated 11 million Jews in Germany and the occupied territories. According to Eichmann's notes, Heydrich outlined a plan in which Jews capable of working would be sent in large labor gangs from other parts of Europe to conquered territory in the East. The survivors of the slave labor program represented “the strongest resistance” and were to be eliminated. It's important to note that the word killed does not appear in Eichmann's notes. Heydrich spoke in euphemisms, noting that Jews who survived forced labor “represented a natural selection” that must be “treated accordingly.” In short, those posing the greatest threat would have to be killed. During his trial in Israel in 1961, Eichmann said that he never saw a written order regarding the mass extermination of Jews. “All I know,” he said, “is that Heydrich told me, ‘The Führer ordered the physical extermination of the Jews.’”
The so-called Final Solution was carried out in two ways: via action squads that followed German troops into conquered lands with the specific mission of rounding up and executing Jews, and via death camps equipped with gas chambers and other methods of mass slaughter.
According to the Nuremberg International Tribunal on War Crimes, German action squads killed as many as 2 million men, women, and children in German-occupied territories over the course of the war. Most victims were rounded up, taken to a specific location outside the town or city, lined up in front of a large ditch, and quickly executed by firing squad. The bodies were then buried in mass graves. The murders committed by the action units remained a secret at first because there were usually no witnesses. However, word eventually leaked out of Germany that special death squads were murdering people on a massive scale.
The role of the death camps was to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible — in other words, efficient genocide. Various methods were used over the course of the war, including firing squads and poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide and Zyklon-B.
Two extermination centers operated in concentration camps — Auschwitz-Birkenau and Lublin-Majdanek — under the auspices of the SS Central Office for Economy and Administration. Five others were in camps established by regional SS or police officials: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka in eastern Poland; Kulmhof in western Poland; and Semlin outside Belgrade in Serbia.
The victims of Germany's killing centers came from all over occupied Europe, though the first groups were deported from Polish ghettos. More than 300,000 were taken from the Warsaw ghetto, most of them women, children, and older men — individuals who could not work and thus could not benefit Germany. However, even those initially retained as laborers and workers were later scheduled for execution.
Death and Dishonor
Perhaps most horrifying is the fact that death did not end the degradation for many people murdered at Nazi extermination camps. Gold fillings were routinely removed with pliers from the mouths of corpses, and very often, skin was stripped from their backs, thighs, and buttocks, cured, and used to make lampshades, purses, and other articles. According to testimony at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, driving gloves made from human leather were particularly coveted among SS officers.
The heaviest deportations of Jews occurred in the summer and fall of 1942. The victims were transported by train and never told of their final destinations. However, news of the death camps eventually reached the ghettos, triggering organized resistance (much more so than in Germany itself). The greatest resistance effort occurred in the Warsaw ghetto, where in April 1943 nearly 65,000 Jews managed to hold off German police for three weeks.
The possessions of deported Jews did not go to waste. Everything the doomed people owned — from bank accounts to clothing and furniture — was acquired by the state for later distribution. Many Germans whose houses were destroyed by Allied bombing raids refurnished their new homes with furniture confiscated from deported Jews in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Hitler's desire to eliminate the Jews from Germany and all occupied lands created a political and bureaucratic nightmare for German officials. Some German-held countries, such as Vichy France, began deporting Jews even before being ordered to, but others were less cooperative. The Fascist government in Italy refused to deport Jews until the country was occupied by German forces in September 1943. Hungary also held out until Germany invaded in 1944. The government in Romania had no qualms about massacring Jews in occupied regions of the Soviet Union but refused to turn Romanian Jews over to the Germans. And in Denmark, tremendous efforts were made to save Danish Jews by covertly transporting them to neutral Sweden.