The Decision-Making Process

Upon assuming power in 1933, the National Socialists radicalised their policies against the Jewish population by means of exclusion, disenfranchisement, forced emigration and physical persecution. Once the war broke out, a further set of measures were added, namely ghettoization, deportation and mass murder in the military occupied territories. These two phases did not always follow one another chronologically or were planned to follow in succession; rather, they were subject to constant change and at times ran parallel to one another, completely unorganised. During a speech he gave in front of the Reichstag on 30 January 1939, Hitler announced for the first time – should war eventuate – “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”. In an article published in Das Reich from 16 November 1941, Joseph Goebbels recalled Hitler’s warning: “We are experiencing the fulfilment of this prophecy and Jewry is meeting a fate that, though hard, is more than deserved. Sympathy, let alone regret, is completely misplaced.” Despite these statements, the decision-making process leading to the Holocaust was by no means straightforward and the state of the relevant documentation has complicated matters: many particulars as to how this process proceeded within the Nazi regime remain unclear and are still keenly discussed today in Holocaust Studies.

The first goal of the Nazis was to remove Jews from Germany. Expelling Jews was therefore high on the agenda. In the wake of the Nazis assuming power and the wave of terror of 1933, tens of thousands of Jewish Germans fled the country. While the regime showed in 1935 that it was willing to accelerate and intensify anti-Jewish policy, passing the Nuremberg Laws which degraded the Jews to second-class citizens, massive violence against Jews, as demanded and inflicted by some Nazis groups in isolated cases, seemed politically inopportune. The persecution of political opponents was now transferred to the courts, with draconian imprisonment terms handed out but hardly any death sentences.

After 1936, once the Olympic Games were over, a series of changes in the politics of persecution were initiated. At first, they were organisational in nature: key amongst them was the amalgamation between the intelligence service of the SS, the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst or SD), a kind of ideological spearhead of the Nazi Party, and the state political police, the Gestapo. Once the political opposition had been effectively silenced, the Gestapo and SD developed another enemy stereotype: now, not only political enemies were to be persecuted, but anyone deemed harmful to Nazi Germany. Functionaries not only targeted Jews but also increasingly Sinti and Roma, as well as so-called “asocials”, often long-term unemployed or homeless persons, and “professional criminals”, previously convicted persons. At the same time, since 1936/37 Hitler had started to intensify preparations for the war he intended to conduct. For the Nazi leadership, preparation for war also entailed eliminating every suspected internal enemy. In 1937 the SS thus set up new large concentration camps in Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. (see "Nazi Concentration Camps") By 1938 the new camps were filling up following systematically organised arrest campaigns against the “asocials”, Sinti and Roma, as well as Jews, who had been criminalised. Already in 1937 laws had been drafted to completely exclude Jews from economic life. The “Anschluss” of Austria in March 1938 brought with it a marked radicalisation. This is the background to the largest pogrom in the Reich, the so-called “Reichskristallnacht” of November 1938. (see "A Society of Exclusion")

From the standpoint of the Nazi leadership, the pogrom achieved its goal: emigration increased again markedly. The fateful year of 1938 made clear the lengths the Nazi persecution of Jews could go to, although at this point in time it was still not possible to predict that the persecution would culminate in mass murder. For this to happen a number of factors were required which had yet to crystallise. Decisive here was Hitler’s war, a war he desired from the outset but which would develop very differently to how he envisaged. Hitler’s expansion plans revolved around the Soviet Union, which was to serve as a “living space” (Lebensraum) for Germans. The invasion of Poland launched on 1 September 1939 marked the turning point to wholesale murder as the goal of Nazi persecution. It was however – at first – not the murder of Jews, though thousands of them were murdered upon regional initiatives. While the brief campaign was still going on, SS and police units began to systematically track down and shoot members of the Polish intelligentsia, above all priests, teachers and other academics. But that was by no means all – almost simultaneously, resident patients in psychiatric clinics were murdered in occupied Poland and the Reich. Racist doctrines categorised a considerable number of the mentally ill and disabled as “life unworthy of life”, who allegedly lived at the taxpayers’ expense. Hitler saw the war as an opportunity to begin this murder programme. Finally, in September 1939 a third monstrous programme of violence was developed. Poland was to not only be divided up between Germany and the Soviet Union and thus once again vanish as a political entity from the face of the earth, but its western areas were to be incorporated into the Reich. Officially called “incorporated territories”, these areas were to be “Germanised”, a plan necessitating a deportation of all Jews and undesired Poles to German-occupied central Poland. At first, a million Polish citizens were to suffer this fate; the projected figure was soon raised to three million however. As early as the winter of 1939/40 mass deportations began, mostly under catastrophic conditions. Jews were to be brought to the eastern border of German-occupied territory, in a so-called “reservation” in the area around Lublin. While more than 300 000 persons were freighted in goods wagons to the east, the overall plan failed. The German occupiers in central Poland refused to accept any further deportees, while criticism in the Reich had become increasingly louder.

Forced to endure an increasingly greater array of harassment measures, the situation of Jews in the core of the Reich itself worsened continually. Mostly elderly or single, those still in the Reich were reliant on welfare services. Younger Jews had either already emigrated or been drafted into perform forced labour. Soon after, the ghettoization of German Jews in so-called “Jewish houses” began.

The decisive factor in the overall development of the persecution was, however, that with the war against Poland and then Western Europe, the number of Jews living in territories under German control rose considerably. Already during the first month of the conflict, in September 1939, thousands of Jews were killed in numerous massacres, while tens of thousands were expelled from their home towns and villages. The German authorities treated the so-called “east Jews” (Ostjuden) far worse than those in the Reich; with most of them living in poor and humble conditions, they were considered to be uncivilised, squalid and infested with disease. In addition, occupied Poland turned into a legal vacuum where cases of physical abuse and even killing by German officials in broad daylight were rarely punished. Above all though, the Germans regarded the Jews in Poland, making up 10% of the Polish population, as a special “problem”. While the German occupying authority tried to deport Jews, this generally failed. Following the military defeat of France, the fanciful plan was even hatched to ship the Jews to the French colony of Madagascar. This plan required victory over the naval power Britain however. The Nazis therefore decided to set up ghettos in Poland as a kind of interim solution (see also "Ghettos under Nazi Rule"). At first, a few local officials seized the initiative, before in 1940/41 Jews were forced into specially designated quarters in Polish cities. For the occupiers, it went without saying that the Jews were to receive only the bare minimum in terms of food, medicine and heating material in winter.

The genocide had thus already began, almost insidiously, before Germany attacked the Soviet Union. This war was undoubtedly the watershed, leading to the systematic mass murder of Jews. In the spring of 1941, as preparations for the war were in full swing, Nazi officials agreed that the so-called “Jewish problem” had meanwhile become acute and needed to be “solved”. Internally it was speculated if it was possible to deport the Jews living under German control to the newly occupied Soviet territories, for instance to the marshes and the polar region. Of crucial importance was how the invasion of the Soviet Union was not based on conventional warfare. For the first time, the adversary was not only a deadly enemy in terms of ideology, but covered a vast, scarcely imaginable geographical space and potentially possessed enormous military power. The consequences Hitler and his military leaders drew from these considerations were radical: the Soviet system was to be weakened by murdering captured officials and cadre in a lawless territory. One of the few preserved documents illustrating the decision-making process is an order issued by Göring to Heydrich, authorising him to draft a “master plan” for the costs, organisation and carrying out the “final solution of the Jewish problem”. This order is dated 31 July 1941, shortly after the beginning of the war against the Soviet Union. Hitler and the military leadership had already issued a series of orders prior to the war preparing the way for these acts of violence.

Following the invasion of the Soviet Union, a number of remarks made by leading National Socialists indicate planned mass murder; many historians interpret them as evidence that a definitive decision on the “final solution of the Jewish question” must have been made in the autumn of 1941. One crucial example is the entry in Goebbels’s diary from 13 December: “With regard to the Jewish question the Führer is determined to sort things out. […] The world war has come, the annihilation of Jewry has to be the inevitable consequence.”

In the Nazi worldview – and in large parts of the general population – the ‘Soviet Jews’ played a key role in the Bolshevik system, indeed they were seen as the social basis of “Jewish Bolshevism”. Thus, before the invasion, orders were issued that special SS and police units were to shoot able-bodied Jewish men. Soon afterwards, discussion broke out as to what was to be done with the women and children; successively, as of August 1941, the German murder squads began to murder them as well. The massacre of Carpatho-Ruthenian and Ukrainian Jews at Kamenets-Podolsk at the end of August 1941 marked the start of a series of mass executions of unprecedented scale. These actions gravitated more and more towards the wholesale murder of all Jews. From around September 1941, the SS and police units immediately massacred in newly occupied towns and cities all Jews who had not fled. In the autumn of 1941, the fate of all European Jews on territory under German rule was sealed. At that time, there were already signs that the war against the Soviet Union, planned as a blitzkrieg, would fail. This signalled the end of the poorly conceived plans to deport the Jews further eastward, considered after all the various resettlement projects – for example Nisko in the autumn of 1939 and Madagascar in the summer of 1940 – had proven unfeasible. In the Soviet Union the death squads demonstrated that another “solution” to the “Jewish question” was possible: straightforward murder. Officials in the Reich and the occupied territories now reported their concerns, demanding the deportation of Jews from the area under their command, or themselves even proposing the murder of Jews unfit to work. After extended discussions with the administrations of the occupied territories, the Nazi leadership decided to cease deporting the Jews to a kind of “reservation”, ordering instead that killing centres be set up – to be operated by the personnel active in “euthanasia” – where most of the Jews were living, namely in Poland.

On 20 January 1942, fifteen high-ranking representatives from the Nazi government and senior SS officials gathered at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, with Reinhard Heydrich presiding over the meeting. The main objective of the Wannsee Conference was to outline the deportation of Europe’s Jewish population to the east for extermination and determine the necessary coordination. The participants drew up a schedule for the mass murder, specified more precisely the target victim groups and, finally, agreed on a cooperation under the leadership of the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt). The Chelmno extermination camp, where Jews were killed in gas vans, had already been set up in December 1941. In March 1942, the SS leader in Lublin, Odilo Globocnik, had the first of three extermination camps completed at Bełżec, which was followed in May at Sobibór and then Treblinka in July, forming the three camps of “Aktion Reinhardt”. (see "Camps of Operation Reinhard") The Polish Jews were now forcibly removed from the ghettos and deported to these camps in freight trains, where most were killed on the day of their arrival through exhaust fumes. From July 1942 the total annihilation began. Most of the victims of the genocide committed against European Jews were killed in just a few months, between July and November 1942, either in the gas chambers in Poland or through mass executions on German-occupied Eastern Polish or Soviet territory. Already by December 1942, two-and-a-half years before the war would end, 90% of the Jews in Poland, the Soviet Union and the Baltic were murdered. The murders were committed at different tempos and times, depending on the region. The Nazi death squads targeted more and more victim groups, resulting in a radicalisation of the killing methods. While some groups were still deported, others were simply murdered immediately – it is therefore extremely difficult to clearly distinguish the steps of planning, decision-making as to the implementation and the implementation itself.

But how did the Jews from Central and Western Europe become entangled in this extermination programme? The Nazi leadership considered the German Jews to be particularly dangerous because they allegedly undermined the unity of the home front. At the same time however, they were not certain as to how the population would react to transports from German cities. Both the Nazi leadership and the district leaders (Gauleiter) pressed for the Jews to be deported from Germany as quickly as possible. In November 1941 it was decided to send the trains eastward, to Minsk, Riga and Kaunas. Principally, the deportees were to remain alive, with the German police murdering the local Jews to – as it were – make room for the German Jews. But already in November 1941 German Jews were the victims of mass executions. The Nazi leadership decided that elderly Jews were to be deported to a special so-called elders’ ghetto at Theresienstadt. (see "A10 Two 'Tagesbefehle'; Theresienstadt") But this merely served to deceive the public, for in 1942 the victims were transported on to the killing centres.

One of these centres was the Auschwitz concentration camp. (see "Auschwitz: The similar and the unique characteristic aspects of the largest German-Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp") This camp was set up in the spring of 1940 as a detention camp. At this time, the German occupation police had launched a second wave of terror against Polish elites, who were to be either shot or sent to a concentration camp. Because the concentration camps in the Reich were overcrowded due to the new arrivals from a host of occupied countries, the decision was made to set up a further camp at a transportation junction in Poland. The war against the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 meant that the function of the camp gradually changed. The Chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was keenly interested in gaining control over part of the German Army’s POW administration, believing this would help establish the Armed SS (Waffen-SS) to become an independent force alongside the regular troops. He was thus able to secure a contingent of several hundred thousand Soviet POWs who were to work at SS settlements in the East. This allocation was in turn the lever to expand the camps at Auschwitz and Lublin-Majdanek. In the spring of 1941, the SS leadership began to segregate prisoners from the concentration camps who were deemed either unfit for work or categorised as undesirable, and send them to the “euthanasia” killing facilities, where they were murdered. At the beginning of September 1941, it was then decided that such prisoners, now including the Soviet POWs, were to be murdered on the spot. For the first time, the pesticide Zyklon B was used. The mass murder continued until autumn 1943 in several extermination camps, along with Auschwitz, also in Sobibór and Treblinka. “Aktion Reinhardt” was first discontinued in October 1943, and the camps razed to the ground in an effort to destroy incriminating evidence. The horrific finale of the mass murder took place in May/June 1944 as 439,000 Jews from Greater Hungary were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau: 80% of them were murdered directly upon arrival. The camp was now truly the centre of the mass murder.

The “decision-making process” culminating in the murder of the European Jews was not straightforward, and there were thus several historical junctions where events could have taken a different course. The springboard was anti-Semitism, which since 1900 was increasingly exploited as a simple explanation for the difficulties posed by modernity. The First World War then most certainly brutalised European societies. But Hitler’s own path to power was itself very complicated. Ultimately, it was decisive that Hitler not only targeted the Jews but also conquered large parts of Europe. As Raul Hilberg noted more than fifty years ago, of crucial importance was the simple fact that the perpetrators thought that it made sense to murder the Jews. Thus, under specific conditions but with broad participation, a crime against humanity of unprecedented dimension could take place, a crime that we can perhaps give an account of, but ultimately defies understanding.


Based on a lecture manuscript entitled “Auschwitz and the Path to Mass Murder” by Dieter Pohl; abbreviated and condensed by Anna-Raphaela Schmitz, sources selected by Sonja Schilcher.