The German Administration

In some ways, the German institutions who were involved in ghetto matters deliver a contradictory picture: On the one hand, an overwhelmingly large percentage of the leading protagonists displayed strong to excessive antisemitic tendencies and there was a large degree of consent that the Jews were to leave German dominated Europe in some way (even if the exact means to achieve this remained undetermined until 1941/42). On the other hand, there were simultaneous struggles for supremacy between the different institutions and leading personalities, which were sometimes conducted on the field of Jewish matters. Disagreements also arose on how the Jews should be dealt with until a “Final Solution” could be found, a concept which was not yet clearly pictured in 1941. Even the squalid conditions in the ghettos in Poland between 1939 and 1941/42 had to be financed somehow. Christopher Browning has identified two schools of thought among the occupiers regarding these questions: While the “Attritionists” aimed at starving the Jews in the ghettos to death, only delivering food in exchange for any hidden valuables the inhabitants would produce, the “Economizers” thought that Jewish labour should be mobilised for the German war economy with the added advantage of having the working Jews pay for the cost of keeping the ghettos on starvation rations.

The following is a brief introduction to the main institutions which could be involved with German ghetto policy on the local and regional level. Others, such as the Organisation Todt, charged with construction work, the Reichsbahn and (in the General Government) Ostbahn as well as German (and local) companies also employed Jewish workers and thus the ghetto inhabitants, particularly when the deportations began.

The Wehrmacht

The first German organisation to enter the Central and Eastern European areas where most ghettos were set up under German occupation during the Second World War was the German Military, the Wehrmacht. Only its advanced and continued presence in the region made the implementation of Nazi anti-Jewish policy possible. In the Polish areas occupied in 1939, the setting up of Jewish councils and first anti-Jewish measures began under the authority of the military occupation administration, which ended on 25 October 1939, while the Wehrmacht played little part in the subsequent setting up of the ghettos under German civilian rule in both the Incorporated Areas and the General Government.

In 1941 and 1942, the role of the Wehrmacht in the affairs of the ghettos was mostly related to its supervision of the war economy through the Rüstungskommandos. Thus it took an interest in Jewish labour, e.g. in the textile or armaments industries, securing additional foodstuffs for labourers “necessary for the war effort”. During the ghetto liquidations, the intervention of Wehrmacht officials sometimes temporarily saved a small number of Jewish workers considered indispensable to the war economy.

While its units implemented many anti-Jewish measures throughout the occupied Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht rules allowed for the setting up of ghettos, but this remained a discretionary matter, in which local initiative was supreme [Document A09]. The easternmost areas of the Soviet Union occupied by German troops (the eastern regions of Belarus and Ukraine as well as western areas of Russia) remained under military administration, so that any ghettos established there fell under the rule of the Wehrmacht.

The German Civilian Administration

In the Incorporated Areas (e.g. the Reichsgau Wartheland, Eastern Upper Silesia, Bialystok region), the General Government as well as the Reichskommissariate Ostland and Ukraine, much of the matters relating to the ghettos was carried out by the German civilian administration. Each of these territorial organisations possessed a central administration with departments akin to ministries on the level of the Reichsgau, General Government or the Reichskommissariat, mid-level administrations with departments (Regierungsbezirke, Distrikte or Generalbezirke) and on the local level (Kreis or Gebietskommissariat). Following the “Führer Principle”, each of these administrative levels was headed by a presiding official, whose ambition, ideological zeal and connections could determine the fate of his subjects. As the leading German local officials, the Kreishauptmänner in the General Government were often responsible for issuing orders to set up a ghetto and determine various aspects in local anti-Jewish policy.

At the same time, central departments, e.g. on the level of the whole General Government or on the District level, could also issue general orders affecting all the ghettos in their area of jurisdiction. Of special importance to ghetto policy in the General Government were the departments of Labour [see d) Work], Health and “Bevölkerungswesen und Fürsorge” (Population Matters and Welfare), which for instance was charged with the supervision of the JSS (Jüdische Soziale Selbsthilfe/Jewish Self-Help) [see b) Jewish Administration]. The implementation of their orders depended on the cooperation of lower level bureaucrats, however. The paranoid concerns of health officials about the supposed transmitter status of the Eastern Jews resulted in the closing off of many overcrowded Jewish quarters, the sanitary conditions in which subsequently resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding the outbreaks of epidemics. The subsequent terrible conditions in the ghettos could then also self-enforce preconceptions and prejudices, leading to a further radicalisation of visiting Nazi officials [see Document A07].


One of the main problems for the civilian administration in the General Government was the fact that the SS and Police apparatus did not accept the right of the Kreishauptmann or Governor in a Distrikt to give direct orders to the respective police commanders in their area of jurisdiction. To work around this problem, the administration installed an administrative police unit composed of local “Volksdeutsche” (ethnic Germans), the Sonderdienst. Other local uniformed units – Polish Police, Ukrainian Trawniki Men and even Polish firemen – were sometimes also drawn upon in ghetto matters.

Some special administrative units dealing solely with Jewish matters were also established: In Warsaw, the Resettlement Department of the Warsaw District under Waldemar Schön planned and implemented ghettoisation in October and November 1940, ending a period of municipal responsibility. Schön also set up the Transferstelle under Alexander Palfinger, who had recently left Litzmannstadt after losing a power struggle there. He brought with him his “Attritionist” policy. This consisted of closing off the ghetto and generating sufficient revenue through the handing over of hidden Jewish assets as well as Jewish production and work, which was directed centrally by his office. When his policy failed to reduce the need for subsidies from the general German occupation budget and an audit by the Reichskuratorium für Wirtschaftlichkeit, an economic efficiency think tank, laid open the inefficiencies at the Transferstelle, the authorities in Krakow, spearheaded by the Economic Department, pressed for a change of leadership in Warsaw in May 1941 [Document A02]. The newly set up Commissar for the Jewish Quarter was not only responsible for all matters in the Warsaw Ghetto, which he headed like a Kreishauptmann, but also for all Jewish matters throughout the Distrikt. Commissioner Heinz Auerswald thus also signed execution orders for Jews convicted of leaving the “Jewish Quarter” illegally or threatened terrible sanctions in order to gather up all Jewish fur coats for the German Eastern Front in the winter of 1941/42 [Document B01 and Document A05].


The Transferstelle, now under the leadership of the Austrian Banker Max Bischof, shifted emphasis to economic oversight and stimulation of private German, Polish and even Jewish enterprise in the ghetto, while continuing to handle the official food and supplies shipments to the ghetto in exchange for Jewish produce and wages [see also d) Work]. In Upper Silesia, the Organisation Schmelt under the eponymous policeman organised work, but also affected other Jewish matters. In Litzmannstadt Getto, the Gettoverwaltung under Hans Biebow was a municipal body, which for a long time managed to monopolise Jewish matters and Jewish labour not only in Litzmannstadt, but even influence communities in the rest of the Eastern Wartheland [Document D05].

In the Reichskommissariate, the administrative bodies were sometimes overtaken by measures by the SS and Police units, who had already begun to implement a total “Final Solution” [Document A08]. Economic concerns were even less effective here, even in the case of desperately needed Jewish specialists. Jewish labour soon became the province of the police and SS, who were aiming at increasing their general economic influence by utilising the few remaining Jews, who increasingly ended up in camps rather than ghettos.

The SS and Police

From the beginning, Himmler's SS and police apparatus sought to dominate “Jewish matters” throughout the occupied areas. The actions of the Einsatzgruppen during the Polish campaign also targeted Jews: Heydrich ordered the establishment of Jewish Councils [see Document A01] [nid:256], which the Einsatzgruppen sometimes implemented upon arriving on the heels of the occupying troops, but did not implement ghettoisation per se – Heydrich only aimed at the concentration of Jews from the countryside in towns with good train connections as a preparation for deportation within the context of a territorial “Final Solution”.

Such plans seemed within reach at this time, but the potential logistics involved were grossly underestimated – in addition to the fact that no suitable territorial destination was to be found.

After the setting up of civilian administrations in occupied Poland, the first few months saw setbacks for the far-reaching plans of the SS and police: Their aim at controlling central matters within the new territories were thwarted by the general civilian administrations. General Governor Frank successfully resolved a number of conflicts in his favour, including the issue of Jewish forced labour in the summer of 1940 [see d) Work], while some matters, particularly in the Lublin District with its ambitious SS- and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik, remained unresolved. In 1942, corruption charges against Frank led to a strong tipping of the scales, resulting in an almost total preponderance of the SS and Police in Jewish matters. In the Wartheland, the good contacts of Gauleiter Greiser to both Hitler and Himmler as well as his sharp antisemitic ideological and practical disposition aided cooperation between the SS and police apparatus and the civilian German administration to a much more substantial degree.

In the two years following the summer of 1940, the Security Police (composed of the Political Police, the infamous Gestapo, and the Criminal Police, the Kripo) set up a network of Jewish informers. In Warsaw, information on these informers is particularly detailed: Next to individuals, the police even had a whole Jewish organisation set up as its agency in the ghetto, the “Thirteen”, which was named after the address of its official office on 13 Leszno street. Its head Abraham Gancwajch sent regular reports. For a while it seemed as if the Gestapo was hardly interfering in internal ghetto matters, but in June 1942 the Gestapo shot many of the leaders of the clandestine Jewish political parties in the ghetto, probably in order to soften organised resistance against the mass deportation starting the following month.

The Order Police, which was assigned more routine police functions in Germany, was divided between the city Schutzpolizei and the countryside Gendarmerie. In the cities, police guards watched the ghetto borders, and after the implementation of a “shoot to kill” policy against Jews leaving a “Jewish quarter” without a permit in the General Government in autumn 1941 [see Document A04], some of them developed great zeal in murdering as many delinquents as possible.


In the case of the Lodz Getto, isolation was completed even earlier, in spring 1940; by the summer, the German guards were regularly shooting people deep within the ghetto far away from the fence. In the countryside of the General Government after autumn 1941, the Gendarmerie hunted for Jews moving around in the villages. Police station reports often just listed the number of Jews shot during a daily shift without any further elaborations.

In the summer of 1942, control of Jewish matters in the General Government passed to the SS and police apparatus – only concerns for the war economy could now delay the total extermination of the inhabitants of the ghettos as the order from above to annihilate Polish Jewry was carried out with zeal by the Aktion Reinhardt special commandos in conjunction with local Security Police units. In the Wartheland, overall civilian control of the extermination process in the Kulmhof/Chełmno extermination camp was maintained to a much greater degree than in the General Government due to Greiser's stronger position and energy in murdering the Jews under his control, while the actual tasks were carried out by Security Police units.

Recently it has been argued by Peter Klein that the special case of the ghetto in Theresienstadt may have been the ideal arrangement of a ghetto in the eyes of the SS as no other agencies interfered in their handling of matters there [Document A10].

Giles Bennett