The Holocaust Decesion

Holocaust Romania
Figure 1.--The Germans in mid-1941 decided to proceed with mass murder. They first began killing Jews in large numbers as part of the invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941). The killing in the Soviet Union was dine by shooting Jews. Elsewhere in Europe Jews were being concentrated in ghettos or selected neighborhoods and camps. After expeiments with different methods, the SS determined that poson gas was the most effective killing method. The Wansee Convention was held to resolve questions about the coordination of the killing operations (February 1942). Facilities being built for the killing of Jews on an industrial scale with poison gas at camps in Poland. The facilities began to become operational (Spring 1942). All of this was done in secrecy. A German soldier took this photograph. Jew in occupied Europe had to wear identifying badges. Notice the Jews here are walking in the street and not on the side walk. Regulations in some countries prohibited them from walking on sidewalks. This photograph was taken in June 1942 as the gas chambers were becoming operational. I'm not sure where. The background looks more like Romania than Germany. but pergaps our European reades will help identify it. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

No one knows when Hitler made the decision to kill 11 million European Jews. Nor do we know precisely when the orders when or if such a precise order was given to Himmler or Göring to carry out. Hitler had made inflamatory speeches against the Jews from the very beginning of his political career (1919). More notably stated in a speech just before he launched World War II, "... if the international Jewish finaceers in and outside Europe should succeed in plungeing the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewery, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" The decession to kills the Jews is probably more accurately thought of a process more than one specific order. Even after the War began, the NAZIs did not have a carefully planned program to kill all European Jews, although from the beginning killings commenced. As late as 1940, NAZI officials were still toying with a territorial approach. One scheme was deporting all European Jews to Madagascar. It was, however, soon discarded as being completely impractical. As planning for Barbarossa began, the territorial phase of removing Jews from Europe shifted to Siberia. Limited killing of Jews during the Polish invasion was followed by massive killing conducted by well equipped and organized by SS Einsatzgruppen. The first actual order we know of was given by Göring to Heydrich on July 31, 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union was well underway. Heydrich was ordered to make "all necessary preparations with regard with regard to the organizational and financial matters for bringing about a complete sollution to the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe". [Noakes and Pridham, pp. 485-489.]

Hitler's Mindset

Hitler like many Europeans was exposed to anti-Semitism at a very early age. It seems to have been in Vienna where his hopes to be an artists were dashed that his attitudes toward Jews begabn to become pathological. Vienna had a very large Jewish populations and coming from Linz, it was probably the first time he saw large numbers of Jews. Ekeing out a meager existence and living in flop houses he must have resenting seeing so many successful, prosperous Jews. From Vienna he moved to Munich and here enrolled in the German Army to fight in World war I. It was in the Army that he first experienced success. The War for him was a positive experience. He was in a hospital, recovering from a gas attack when Germany asked for an armistice. He could not understand how this happened. Jews and Socialists were the November War Criminals that he constantly spoke about when he entered right-wing politics and the NAZI Party. This view was further strengthened with the involvement of Jews both in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the Spatacist and other left-wing risings in Germany itself. Hitler made it very clear from his earliest speeches and in Mein Kampf (924) that there was no place in Germany for Jews. But even at this early stage Hitler was not just thinking about Germany. He was determined to recover lost territory and to obtain land in the East for Lebensraum. This meant in essence war and an NAZI dominated Europe. And there was no place for Jews in the future NAZI Europe. Hitler does not explain what was to be done with the Jews, but clearly from this ealy point in his thinking he was determined tht the Jews would have to go.

NAZI Government Policies

NAZI policies until Kristallnacht were not genocidal. The basic thrust of NAZI policy was to drive Jews out of Germany. A series of actions were design to isolated Jews and make increasingly difficult to make a living. The Nurremberg Laws stripped them of German citizen ship. Jewish children were expelled from schools. A steady stram of dregrees were designed to make life intolberable. Parks, swimming pools, theaters were placed off limuts to Jews. Jews in small towns were particularly vulnerable. Those that did not leave, sought the relative anomity of the larger cities. The NAZIs did not prevent Jews from leaving, although they first stripped them of their property and assetts. Jews leaving Germany could not take any property except personal affects with them. Only after Kristallnacht did it begin to become difficult to leave.

Hitler's Prophecy (January 30, 1939)

Hitler had wanted a war over the Sudetenland and was felt after Munich that British Prime Minister Chamberlain had cheated him of his war (September 1938). By the end of the year he was laying plans in his mins for his next great achievement--reclaiming former German lands from Poland. He believed that Britain and France would not oppose him, but was more than willing to oblige them if they decided on war. With the issue of war and peace in his mind, he addressed the German Reichstag, long since a compliant NAZI cheering machine (January 30, 1939). The occassion was the sixth anniversary of the NAZI seizure of power. The speech was carried by radio into most German homes. He declared in angry tones, "In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power, it was in the first instance the Jewish race that received my prophecies with laughter - when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then, among many other things, settle the Jewish problem. I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face (laughter). Today I will once more be a prophet. If the international Jewish financiers, inside and outside Europe, succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" [Hitler--January 30, 1939.] It is very clear now that Hitler was thinking about two things, 1) eliminating the Jews and 2) aggressive military action that could lead to war. In his twisted mind he managed to link the victims with stary=ting the War. A linkage that many Germans after 6 years of relentless anti-Semetic propaganda would now accept. Hitler must have given considerable thought to this speech and his "prophecy" because over the course of the next 6 horific years, he would refer to it time and time again in his public statements and private conversations. He had not yet decided how to eliminate the Jews, but it is clear from this speech that it would be a major German War goal. And after killing 6 million innocent people, he would refere to it again in his Berlin bunker in his Political Testament just before shooting himself.

Killings Before World War II

The NAZIs murdered individual Jews after they seized power. The NAZIs abused, beat, deprived Jews of their livlihood, deported, expelled children from the schools, terrirized, robbed Jews, but the number of actual murders was fairly limited. Even during the disorders following the Anschluss and Kristallnacht, the number of Jews murdered were relatively small. especially in comparison with what was to come. The same was true with the NAZIs occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia after Munich (March 1939). The same was true of Memel (March 1939). There were mo mass executions before the beginning of World War II.

Invasion of Poland (September 1939)

Limited killing of Jews took place during the Polish invasion. The primary culprits were the Einsatzgruppen, but the Wehrmacht was also involved in some incidents. The procedures later used in the Soviet Uniin were not yet perfected. There were killings in Poland during the German invasion. These attocities involved not inconsiderable numbers of Jews as well as Polish officials and intelectuals. The killings were, however, not the full scale genocide that was to develop as the Holicaust. The first concern was to deprive the Jews of their prpperty and concentrate them into ghettoes where they could be used as slave labor to support the War effort. The NAZIs in 1940 were planning to create a Jewish Pale in eastern Poland. This is a strong indication that the decession to murder European Jews had not yet been taken. An Austrian SS officer Odilo Globocnick was ordered to plan such a Jewish Pale and to coordinate with Adolf Eichmann who was the director of the Reichssicherheitsamt Section IV D which was responsible for deporting German Jews with the goal of making Germany "Jew Free". Numerous signs were posted by numerous local communities indicating that they had achieved that objective.


Hitler and the NAZIs had a range of options as to what to do with the Jews. Mass murder or the Final Solution was not the option that had been decided upon as late as the onset of World War II. The decession to murder European Jews was a decession that was arrived at over time. There were aange of other options. One important factor to be considered is that even though NAZI officials, even high NAZI officials, were considering various options does not mean that they were options that Hitler was willing to consuder. 1) An option that was considered was deportation. As late as mid-1940, NAZI officials were toying with various schemes. One scheme was deporting all European Jews to Madagascar. It was, however, soon discarded as being completely impractical. About the same time, as planning for Barbarossa began, deporting Jews to Siberia emerged as a more practical alternative. 2) Himiler is known to have considered mass sterilization. SS doctors were ordered to develop inexpessive methods of mass sterilizations. 3) NAZI officials were developing plans to use Jews as a slave labor force to support the war effort. Here plans varied and include the murder of non-profuctive Jews such as children and the elderly. This is alternative that Ghetto Jews clung to and tried their best to make themselves useful to the NAZIs. Many NAZIs supported this alernative, primarily because of the opportunities it afforded for graft and corruption. Ultimately these options were discarded for simple murder. It is notable that most of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were killed after it was clear that the War would not be quickly won and that the NAZIs needed labor to replace German woekers conscripted for military service and to expand production. The killing thus was given priority over winning the War.

Invasion of France (May-June 1940)

The NAZIs after the invasion and occupation of France (May-June 1940), ordered the Jews out of Alscace which ws to be incorporated into the Reich. The fact that the Jews were dispersed rather than concentraed, shows that the decession to murder them had not yet been taken. The surrender of France opened up the opportunity of deporting Jews to some remote part of the French Empire. The place the NAZIs focused on was Madasgascar. It shhould not be thought that SS planners were thinking about allowing deported Jews to escape their clutches. The idea was to set up a huge ghetto where the Jews would slave for their NAZI overlords and gradually die out as a result of forced labor, malnutrition, and disease. Madagascar was quickly discarded because such an operation would require the forebearance of the British Royal Navy. When it looked like Britain would soon also be defeated, Madagascar was an option, but when Britain sucessfully defied Hitler, the French colonial iption had to be discarded. And it is at this time with the planning for Barbarossa that Siberia was seized upon as a more practical option. The defear of France also seems to have affected Hitler's mindset. Little restrained him before the fall of France. After the fall of France there was virtually no restraint. He saw himself as master of Europe and he saw no way that hh or the NAZIs could be held accountable for their actions.

Hitler's Role

Hitler's precise role in the Holocaust is a matter of historical conjecture which will probably never be answered with absolute certainty. Here an understanding of the power structure of the NAZI state is essential in understanding Hitler's role. It is not entirely clear precisely what Hitler's vision was. It is clear it was a German that was Juden frei, but just what was to be done with the Jews is less clear. his seems to have changed over time, especially as the Wehrmacht expanded the boundaries of the Reich and more Jews came under German control. Hitler had a first been happy to encourage emigration. But once the War began, the goal shifted to muder. This was not just in areas to be annexed to the Reich, but also in other countries that Hitler did not plan on annexing. There are two schools of thought concerning Hitler's role. First, that the Holocaust developed out of unplanned local ininiatives to gain the Führer's approval. Second is a more Hitler-centric view that maintains that Hitler's orders and policies were at the heart of the Holocaust. [Kershaw]

The Decession

No one knows when Hitler made the decision to kill 11 million European Jews. Hitler had made inflamatory speeches against the Jews for years. He stated in a speech just before he launched World War II, "... if the international Jewish finaceers in and outside Europe should succeed in plungeing the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewery, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" We do not know to what extent Hitler discussed this matter and if so with whom. Discussions may have occurred with Himmler, Heydrich, and Göring. Hitler approved a radical change in these plans in 1941. We do not know precisely when he changed the plans or indeed whose idea it actually was. One historian suggests that the change occurred in mid-1941. [Craig, p. 748.] We suspect that the decission was made earlier, perhaps early 1941, in part because the Einsatzgruppen were so effectively prepared un the killing process when the invaion of the Soviet Union began (June 1941).


No records exist as to how Hitler arrived at the decission. The decession may have been conceived by Hitler himself, but there is no proof of this. In the NAZI system, underlings attempted to curry the Füuherer's favor by presenting him with plans they knew he would like. Surely when the Germans had won the War the Jews would have killed. Just who came up with the idea of killing them during the War is unknown. It defined logic as labor was needed to procecute the War. Of course NAZI thinking at the beginning of 1941 was that they had already essentially won the War. Who ever initiated the idea, Hitler approved.


The question arises as to why this decession was taken at this time. Germany had a population of 0.5 million Jews when the NAZIs seized power. That population had been substantially reduced by emmigration. The incorporation of Austria, parts of Czechoslovakia, and especially Poland had brought several million Jews under German control, many within the boundary of the Reich. It seems likely that Hitler was apauled by this and with the looming invasion of the Soviet Union presentuing the prospect of several million more Jews that ge decided that some decissibe avtion was needed. At the same time, the staggering NAZI military victories had left Hitler that he was onipotent and the War was already essentially won. This is, however, only speculation.

Policy Debates (1940)

We know that the decesion to begin kill Europen Jews had not yet been taken in 1940. The operative word here is "begon". There had beet shootings and other horific incidents in Poland, but the numbers killed were still relatively small. Also after the invasion of France, the Germany expelled Jews in Alsace and Loraine to France rather than pursuing any organized killing operations. In addition a great deal of tak began about deporting Jews to Madagasscar, a French colony. This it is very clear that the decesion to kill European Jews had not been taken. Although it should not be thought that exile to Madagascar was meant to be an idelic tropical vacation. The idea was to turn Madagascar into a tropical colony operated by the SS. Here the Jews would labor and gradually disappear. The idea was to eliminate Jews. What had not yet been decided was just how to accomplish this. Himmler for example showed considerable interest in sterlization to eliminate the Jews in a generation wiithout killing. In addition a lot of important NAZIs were making aeat deal of money srtripping Jews of their property and organizing operations in the Polish ghettos tsaking advatage of slave labor.

Killing Soviet Jews (1941-44)

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, initiated the NAZI mass killing of Jews. The limited actions taken in Poland were enacted by additional Einsatzgruppen which had prefected their methods. The Einsatzgruppen were well equipped and organized and carried out massive killing actions with chilling barbarity as soon as the invasion began. The level of killing made it clear that the decesion to eliminate European Jews had been taken before the invasion. The variation in the approach of the killing groups, however, show that the the methods and goal had not been fully worked out. The killing groups did not operate under the same orders. Some groups killed all Jews they enciuntered. Others at first only killed the men, although this soon evolved into all Jews. The orders they were given did not specify killing all Jews. Rather they were couched more into killing political Commisars, Soviet officials, and regime supporters. As Jews were seen as the core of the Bolshevism, these orders were seen as authorizing the killing of Jews. This was not an authorization to begin killing the Jews in the Reich and occupied areas. Barbarossa was seen as opening up new areas sich as Siberia where Jews could be deported after the Soviet state had been destroyed. Here through forced labor, malnutrition, disease, and a histile climate they would gradually perish. Only the unexpected resistence of the Red Army made this fate for the Jews impossible. From the NAZI perspective, it would obviously make no sence to ship Jews who theu identified as Boshevik conspirators to the Soviet Union which was now their arch enemy. It is at this time that Hitler turned to other alernatives, althernatives the SS had been deligently pursuing. The bloody work of the SS as well as the mounting German casualties surely had the impact of radicalizing NAZI thought.

The Order

Nor do we know precisely when the orders were given to Himmler to carry it out. Presumably the order was given verbably by Hitler to Himmler. Heydrich may have been present. Göring was probably also involvd. There is no record of this meeting. None of these individuals left a record of any meeting with Hitler in whivh he gave the order. This is understandable as they planned to cover up the whole process and had begun to do so in 1944. It is possible, however, to reconstruct the process through changes in German policy and known meetings with Hitler. Whikle the four key figures did not leave aitten record, their underlings did. The decesion to kill Soviet Jews in large numbers was taken before Barbarossa. At that time the decesion to kill the Jews in the rest of Europe was postponed until the War was over, which Hitler thought would be only a few months--expecting the Red Army to collapse. As far as we can tell, the decession to kill European Jews occurred in the aftermath of Barbarossa. And it was not so much a an order to kill, the NAZI intentions had become genocidal duriung the plannoing for Bsarbsarossa. The order given was that the killing in the rest of Europe should proceed before the end of the War and was indeed to be a central war goal. .

Declaration of War on America (December 1941)

Hitler stunned the German people and military when 4 days after Pearl Harbor by declaring war on the United States (Secember 11, 1941). Most older Germans remembered that it was the American entry into World War I that had turned the tide on the Western Front. Hitler himself viewed America as an ememy that would have to be dealt with. His concept when theWar began was that his mission was to secure German supremecy in Europe. It would be for another generation of Germans to deal with America. Roosevelt's undeclared naval waer in the North Atlantic and his desire to support his Japanese ally appears to have changed his mind. This was the stragest of his War inintiatives. His general approach was to surprise a country by invading. But America was beyond his reach and he could only declare war and not attacked except for unleasing his U-boats. The failure to seize Moscow may have been another factor. His decesion seems to have had a major impact on his thinking toward the Jews. He seems to have convinced himself that the continuing hostility of President Roosevelt was due to the entirely eroneous concept that Jews dominated the American economy and controlled President Roosevelt. (While this may seem absurd to modern readers, HBC received eMails from the Muslim world which continue to repeat this belief.) Based on this belief, Hitler apparently saw some value in the Jews as hostages against American intervention. Now with America in the War, the Jews lost all value in his mind. This is of course conjecture. But there is strong reasons for believing this. The day after declaring War on America, Hitler assembled NAZI Party leaders in the Reich Chancellery (December 12). There is no recording of his comments or transcript. Propaganda Minister Goebbels took notes and we thus have a record. With regard to the Jewish Question, the Führer is determined to make a clean sweep."

Wannsee Conference (January 1942)

NAZI officials saw the mass killing of Jews in the Soviet Union in the summer and fall of 1941 as being conducted in a disjointed and uncoordinate fashion. Himmler became concerned about the psychological impact on SS members of personally killing Jews, especially women and children. Now that the NAZIs contolled virtually all of western Europe and millions of Jews, it was felt that a coordinated plan was needed to efficently execute the "Final Sollution". The SS was the principal tool, but the killing of millions necesitated the cooperation of many different Government agencies. The was originally scheduled for December 9, 1941, but had to be postponed because of the stuningly successful Russian offensive in front of Moscow and after Pearl Harbor, Hitler's declaration of war on America. The meeting was finally held on January 20, 1942 in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. The meeting was a secret sesion attended by 15 senior NAZI officials. The purpose was to coordinate the "Final Sollution"-the murder of 11 million Europen Jews. that had already began in Poland and the Soviet Europe. The decission to murder the Jew had already been taken. The Conference was to coordinate and immplement that decission.

1942 Steps

The steps taken in early in 1942 after the Wansee Convention included during early 1942 the construction of a new death camp at Sobibor. Labor camps at Majdanek (near Lublin) and Treblinka (near Warsaw) were conerted to be used as death camps. By mid-1942 these camps were fully opperatioinal and the killing on an industrial scale began. Einsatzgruppen operating in the Ukraine began using mobil gassing vans behind the Wehrmachts summner 1942 offensive.



Goering, Herman, Order to Reinhard Heydrich, July 1941, International Military Tribunal xxvi, pp. 266-67.

Hitler, Adolf. Speech to the Reichstag, January 30, 1939. Stiftung Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (Frankfurt, Germany).

Hoess, Rudolf. Commondant of Auschwitz (1960).

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution.

Noakes, Jeremy and Geoffrey Pridham. ed. Documents on Nazism, 1919-1945.


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Created: January 16, 2004
Last updated: 7:47 AM 3/13/2009