The Final Solution: When Was The Decision Taken
To Exterminate The Jewish People?

                                                              

 

Peter Engholm

Monash University, May 2000

 

 

 

ABSTRACT:

This paper looks at when the decision was taken to exterminate the Jewish people; a decision by the Nazis commonly referred to as the ‘Final Solution’. It discusses two main theories that try to solve the question: the interventionist theory and the fundamentalist theory, but argues that none of these theories can be applied to find a relevant answer to the question. Rather, a “middle-path” theory, a moderate functionalist approach, is described and applied to come up with a period in time when it is most likely that a decision to exterminate the Jews was taken. Various arguments and theories are discussed and critically evaluated, and evidence presented leads to a conclusion that a decision for the ‘Final Solution’ most likely was taken sometime in July 1942.

KEYWORDS:

Nazi Germany, Europe, Jews, extermination, Final Solution, interventionist theory, fundamentalist theory, World War II

 

FULL TEXT:

Introduction:

It is widely acknowledged that some six million Jews were exterminated during the period of World War II that generally has been termed ‘the Holocaust’. These exterminations were the end product of a “complex labyrinth of social, political, economic, and military courses of actions that coalesced in Hitler’s Germany”[1], and combined with the fact that it was the most atrocious act ever carried out against a group or nation of people (being the view of the author), makes the Holocaust one of the most hotly debated aspects of World War II.

Naturally, a large branch of Holocaust studies is concerned with answering sociological questions such as ‘how’ and ‘why’ a whole nation, that at the time was consider highly culturally and technologically developed, could produce ‘wolves’ out of ordinary men and women, who ultimately were the ones carrying out or justifying the killings. It is not the aim of this paper to deal with that issue, but rather to look at another big question in regard to the Holocaust, namely when the decision to exterminate all the Jews ultimately was taken. This decision would have ended the Nazi’s search for an answer to the problem of how to deal with the Jews - the search for the ‘Final Solution’.

Due to various reasons, this has turned out to be an issue in which almost every scholar in Holocaust studies have different opinions about, and there is practically no date or period within the years of the War (and even before) that has not been suggested as the point in time when the decision to the ‘Final Solution’ was taken. For example, Lucy Dawidowicz argued that as early as 1919 Hitler decided to exterminate the Jews[2], and although most scholars would suggest that 1941 was the critical year for the decision to the Final Solution, different opinions exist when during the year it was taken, so that some argue it was taken in the spring, others during the summer, and a few would point to some specific date in December.

This paper looks at the various arguments that exist for determining when the decision to the ‘Final Solution’ was taken. It starts off with defining what the Nazi’s meant by the ‘Final Solution’, and how the term came to mean the genocide of the Jews. The paper then looks at two major views concerned with Hitler’s role in the decision-making process, namely the intentionalist and the functionalist view. It shall be argued that a third view, a moderated functionalist approach, seems to best deal with the issue, and the last section of the paper uses this view to find some point in time when it is most likely that a final decision to kill all the European Jews was taken.

However, as rightfully argued by Browning[3], finding an answer to the question is a matter of probability, not certainty, and he bases the argument on the fact that little evidence exists that can justify any such findings. Therefore, the conclusion reached in this paper should only been seen as an answer reached after carefully considering existing material, and not as a final answer to the question, for the ultimate answer to when the decision was taken for the Final Solution, is written in the stars and will forever be.

 

The meaning of the ’Final Solution’:

The term ‘Final Solution’ - Endlösung [der Judenfrage] - first appeared as Nazi terminology, used by the Germans themselves to designate their policy toward the Jews[4]. This means that it is important not to entail the appearance of the term in all primary documents and other material with a meaning of total extermination of the Jews. It is widely acknowledged that the official objectives of the Third Reich changed over time, so that in the beginning of the War (1939) the German Foreign Office told its representatives that: “the ultimate aim of Germany’s Jewish policy is the emigration of all Jews living on German territory”.[5]

However, as noted by Marrus[6], the language changed dramatically in 1940, when the term ‘Final Solution’ became increasingly linked with the evolving schemes for massive forced emigration of Jews to Madagascar[7], and at some point in 1941 it can be argued that the term took yet another swing toward the ‘final’ meaning, namely that of total extermination of all European Jews. But when did this happen?

Marrus argues that most historians would agree with that European-wide mass murder emerged as the essence of the ‘Final Solution’ with the Wannasee Conference in January 1942.[8] Plenty of evidence indicates that death camps were in use during early spring 1942, and because the construction of these had started already in 1941, it only seems logical to agree with Marrus that after this Conference the meaning of the ‘Final Solution’ officially had developed into a Jewish death sentence.

This is not to say, however, that this was also when the decision to exterminate the European Jews was taken - quite the opposite. Most historians would argue that the decision had been taken before that; some would argue even long before that (Lucy Dawidowicz has been mentioned as an example), and that the Conference was held when the ‘Final Solution’ already was well on its way to be achieved. This paper now looks at various arguments for when (and if) this decision was taken, and it is important to first highlight the reasons to the discrepancy in the issue. These can be summarized in three main points:

  1. There is no official existing document - or any other evidence - stating a direct order by Hitler to exterminate all the Jews.
  2. It may be argued that the answer to the question not necessarily has to found in official statements or events in time, but in the mind of Hitler. That is, although Hitler did or did not issue an order at a certain point in time to exterminate all the Jews, this may have been his intention from much earlier on - even before he came to power - and hence, the real decision was made at that time.
  3. The problem of associating or linking a particular date to the decision relies heavily on that it was Hitler who made the decision. It could be argued that the Final Solution gradually developed as a notion, not only in Hitler’s mind, but in Nazi Germany as a whole, so that one can not discern a particular date for the decision - simply because no definite decision was taken. A sidetrack to this notion includes the argument that the extermination process started due to the belief that Hitler had issued an order, or that it was his will, although he never explicitly stated it.

Depending on what position one takes to point 2 and 3, one comes up with a different belief of when the final decision was taken. The next section of this paper briefly looks at two main schools of thoughts that have emerged around the question of the origins of the “Final Solution”: the intentionalist school and the functionalist school. As shall be shown, these two schools oppose each other mainly in what role or influence Hitler had on the ‘Final Solution’ that, consequently, impacts on the timing of the decision.

 

Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution: Two Approaches

The Intentionalist view

Christopher Browning defines the intentionalist view as one that “explains the course of Nazi Germany in terms of Hitler’s intentions derived from a coherent and consistent ideology and implemented through an all-powerful totalitarian dictatorship”.[9] Extreme intentionalists therefore argue that it was Hitler’s intention from the beginning - maybe even before his rise to power - to exterminate the Jews, and hence, the decision for the ‘Final Solution’ can be traced back long before the actual process began in 1941 and 1942. They claim that although Hitler never explicitly said his intention was to kill the Jews, it is possible to conclude that this was his intention from his early statements, such as the following, spoken by Hitler on January 31, 1939:

Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe![10]

These intentionalists look to Hitler’s anti-Semitism (which was first displayed in early 1919), and conclude that when he speaks about ‘annihilation’, or ‘removal’ of the Jews, he implicitly means the extermination of the Jews. Although these intentionalists may agree that an explicit order (verbal or written) may have been given in 1941, or some other year, to exterminate the Jews, they see this as flowing directly from Hitler’s murderous ideas on Jews, expressed throughout his political career. Hitler, according to the intentionalists, had long-range plans to realise his ideological goals, and the destruction of the Jews was at the center of this ideology.[11]

Gerald Fleming is an intentionalist who saw an “unbroken continuity of specific utterances” made by Hitler as the proof for his ultimate goal of extermination of the Jews, and tried with this argument to tear away the camouflage covering Hitler’s primary responsibility.[12] Similarly, Richard Breitman argues that for Hitler and the SS, “premeditated mass murder was neither a last resort, after other schemes had been tried and found wanting, nor an unforeseen escalation of persecution under the pressures of a bitter war-to-the-death on the Eastern front”[13].

Another intentionalist, Raymond Aron, tries to rationally explain the horrors of the Holocaust by arguing:

If one is prepared to admit that the liquidation of the Jews, the Jewish poison, the corrupting blood, was Hitler’s primary aim, the industrial organisation of death becomes rational as a means toward this end: genocide.[14]

One problem with the intentionalist view is that there is little documentary evidence that Hitler’s early thinking included the physical extermination of Jews as a matter of official, but secret, policy.[15] Intentionalist tend to spend more time arguing that the ‘Final Solution’ was always in Hitler’s mind, which makes the original question about the time and existence of an order for the ‘Final Solution’ somewhat irrelevant. The whole process of early pogroms and sporadic killings, ghettoisation, the Euthanasia program, deportations and the killings by the Einsatzgruppen, becomes a planned process with the aim of total extermination set already at the beginning of the war. At the same time, there is clear evidence that at some point during the war the Nazis aimed to get rid of the Jews, not by killing, but by expulsions and deportations. As noted by Marrus, it is “not likely that Hitler thought concretely about European-wide killings, which he was not in a position to undertake until his stunning military success in 1940-41.”[16]

If it can be argued that Hitler did not intend to kill the Jews from the beginning of his rise to power, then one must take into account the events that followed and see how these influenced Hitler and Nazi-Germany’s stance toward the Jews. This is what some critics to intentionalists try to do by defending a more functionalist view of the issue, which now shall be discussed.

The Functionalist view

The functionalist view questions Hitler’s capability of long-term planning in the issue of the ‘Final Solution’, and argues that various competing power groups in Nazi-Germany led to the final decision to exterminate the Jews.

Martin Broszat argued that Hitler set the objective of Nazism: to get rid of the Jews, but without specifying how this was to be achieved. The decision on the ‘Final Solution’ emerged through improvisation, rather than deliberate planning.[17]  It was the result of a series of local initiatives aimed at solving local problems; a ‘way out’ of a blind alley into which the Nazis had maneuvered themselves”.[18] Broszat stresses that Hitler made no ultimate decision and issued no order for the Final Solution, that is, Hitler was merely a catalyst, not the decision-maker.[19] Building on this notion, Marrus adds that: “in a vague way, the top Nazi leadership hoped to see the Jews pushed off to the east, and uprooted large masses of people with this in mind”.[20]

With this view, functionalists take away the blame that intentionalists put on Hitler for the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’, arguing that the mere process in Nazi Germany inevitably led to an extermination policy. Christopher Browning quotes Raul Hillberg who argued that the Final Solution was an administrative process involving the participation of bureaucrats from every sphere of organised life in Germany, and that a consensus for mass murder emerged that “was not so much a product of laws and commands as it was a matter of spirit, of shared comprehension, of consonance and synchronization”.[21]

Hence, a functionalist view may not have an answer to when a decision for the ‘Final Solution’ was taken, simply because such as decision may never have been taken. Thus, the discussion so far leaves little opportunities for finding a particular date, or period in time, when Hitler gave an order to once and for all solve the Judenfrage. This paper now turns to a view - moderate functionalism - that acknowledges the role various events in Nazi-Germany played in the process toward reaching a ‘Final Solution’. In various ways, these events triggered the Nazi leadership, and specifically Hitler, to drastically confront the ‘Jewish problem’, and this ultimately led Hitler to take a final decision on the extermination of the Jews.

 

A Moderate Functionalist Approach to the ‘Final Solution’:

Christoper Browning settles upon a position that he terms “moderate functionalist”, which aims to take a ‘middle-path’ between intentionalism and functionalism. He argues that it is unlikely that Hitler had decided early on to exterminate the Jews, but it is just as unlikely to argue that Hitler was not the driving force for the decision on the ‘Final Solution’:

Hitler’s anti-Semitism is more plausibly seen as the stimulant or spur to a continuous search for an increasingly radical solution to the Jewish question rather than as the source of a logically deducted and long-established “blueprint” for extermination. (…) Hitler’s anti-Semitism thus constituted an ideological imperative which, given the competitive nature of the Nazi state, played a central role in the evolution of Nazi Jewish policy.[22]

With this view, it should be possible to find some point in time where it is more than less likely that a decision was taken for the ‘Final Solution’. The reason is that it acknowledges Hitler’s role as a strong dictator who ultimately would take the important decisions - such as the extermination of the Jews - but also, as Browning argues, it is implausible that Hitler was merely “awaiting the opportunity moment” to realise his murderous intentions.[23]

A statement by Hitler in 1939 would justify this conclusion when he was asked about his intentions. Hitler replied that there were “three kinds of secrets: the first we discuss just between ourselves; the second I keep entirely to myself; and the third are problems of the future that I have not yet completely thought through”, and Browning argues that the decision for mass murder of the Jews most likely belonged to the third category; the ‘Jewish problem’ was a problem to be dealt with in the future.[24]

The paper now looks at how to apply a moderate functionalist view to the problem of timing a decision for the ‘Final Solution’.

 

Timing the Decision for the ‘Final Solution’:

One document that initially stands out as a prime evidence for that a decision on the Final Solution had been taken, is the order by Hermann Göring to Reinhard Heydrich (Chief of the Reich Security Main Office and in charge of the Final Solution along with Himmler), issued July 31, 1941. In this order, Heydrich writes: “I hereby charge you to carry out preparations as regards organisational, financial, and material matters for a total solution (Gesamtlösung) of the Jewish question in all the territories of Europe under German occupation”.[25]

 It thus seems as if Hitler had ordered Göring to start preparing for the mass murder of the Jews, and thus a date of the decision for the ‘Final Solution’ could be set to late July, 1941. As noted by McFee, this order would eliminate previous held belief that the decision had been taken after that the Einsatzgruppen had enter the Soviet Union in late June, when the shooting of the Soviet Jews necessitated investigating other more practical methods of execution. For what would be the point of issuing an order in late July if a decision by Hitler had been taken earlier?[26]

Yet, other sources indicate the opposite, for example Dr. Rudolf Lange’s note in January 1942 that “the goal Einsatzkommando 2 had in mind from the beginning was a radical solution to the Jewish problem through the executions of all Jews”[27], and the statement by Hitler’s secretary who remembered that, after a meeting with Hitler in early spring 1941, Himmler sat at her desk with a troubled look on her face, put his head in his hand and said: “My God, my God, what am I expected to do”.[28]

However, as noted by McFee[29], it is most likely that any order given at these two instances regarded solely the extermination of Jews in Soviet Union, and not an order of total genocide of the European Jews. It could be argued that the European Jews were not a ‘major’ problem for Hitler or Nazi-Germany in early summer 1941, rather, operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Soviet Union) was knocking on the door and needed every bit of attention possible.

One of the most crucial elements for the timing of the decision to kill the European Jews would have been how this was to be done. It could be argued that after the successful executions of the Russian Jews in late June when it was clear that mass murder of the Jews could be performed, the Nazis could now merge three already existing programs which they had prior experience: concentration-camp system, euthanasia gassing, and forced emigration and population resettlement.[30] It could then be argued that a decision had been taken when the construction of the death camps started, and, at latest, when the initial shifting of the personnel from the euthanasia program started in November. Browning writes that testimony of ethnic German inhabitants of Chelmo confirms that in the fall of 1941, SS men came to inspect the town and returned some days later to confiscate many buildings and evict the Polish owners.[31]

A diary entry by Joseph Göbbels of December 12, 1941, would also suggest that the procedures for a ‘Final Solution’ was at that time already in full planning:

With respect of the Jewish Question, the Führer ha decided to make a clean sweep. He prophesied to the Jews that if they again brought about a world war, they would live to see their annihilation in it. That wasn’t just a catch-word. The world war is here, and the annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.[32]

Hence, the timing of the decision for the ‘Final Solutions’ may bee limited to between July and December 1941. Marrus argues that Hitler before the end of July probably issued his order for European-wide mass murder, thereby seeing the order issued by Göring as the evidence for that such an order just had been taken.[33]

Browning’s belief is that Göring’s order did not necessarily following a direct order by Hitler, but argues that Himmler and Heydrich probably needed not more than a nod from Hitler to assume that he had given them “green light” to prepare an extermination program. He agrees with Marrus, though, that these preparations indeed started in late July, and by October the pieces were falling together with the first steps in implementing the final solution being the start of the construction of the Belzec and Chelmo camps.[34]

McFee argues that an order probably did not exist until December 1941, simply because what would be the point of the Wannasse conference, held in January 1942, if a decision had already been taken in July the previous year?[35] This argument lacks logic, especially in the light of the previous decision regarding the construction of the death camps in October. One could conquer McFee’s view with asking a similar question: What would be the point of constructing death camps in October if no decision to kill the Jews had already been taken? Also, the Wannasee conference was merely a meeting to discuss practical issues regarding the Final Solution, and Heydrich is also documented to have confirmed at the conference that an order had been given, stating that he “had been entrusted with the implementation of the Final Solution”.[36]

Another more controversial evidence of that the a decision for the ‘Final Solution’ had been taken, is a report by the British intelligence from September 1941 that indicates “evidence of a policy of savage intimidation if not of ultimate extermination” of Jews.[37] This shows that not only did the Allies know about the Holocaust when it happened, but also seemed to know what was going on already at the initial stage when a decision just had been taken!

Finally, it should be noted that whether or not a decision had been taken in July, it does not mean that it became ‘officially’ known immediately. In fact, it is more likely that the Wannasee conference served as an ‘information meeting’ where the Final Solution was presented ‘officially’ for Nazi party members. This partly explains why there is so little evidence of when the decision was taken. For example, the Reichskommissar for Ostland sent a telegram in November, 15, 1941, asking higher officers in Berlin: “Will you please inform me whether your inquiry of October 31 should be interpreted as a directive to liquidate all the Jews in Ostland?”[38]

 

Conclusion:

In summary, then, it can be reasonably established that Hitler’s decision to start preparing for the ‘Final Solution’ was taken some time in July 1941, and that the preparations started immediately after that. The decision may have been a verbal order, a written order, or merely a ‘hint’ from Hitler that this is what he wanted.

An intentionalist or functionalist approach fail to consider both Hitler’s crucial involvement in taking the decision and the events that led up to it. A moderate functionalist approach, which has been thoroughly discussed in the previous section, better deals with the issue by using primary evidence, deductive reasoning and pure logic to determine when the decision was taken. As no clear evidence exist in this matter, however, the question will never be fully answered. It will always be subject to interpretation and individual belief, and this paper is but one of many that has tried to find a logical and acceptable answer.

 

Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the author. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.

 

REFERENCES:

Books and Articles:

Breitman, R., “Plans for the Final Solution in Early 1941”, German Studies Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, October 1994, pp.473-512.

Browning, C.R. “The Nazi Decision to Commit Mass Murder: Three Interpretations”, German Studies Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, October 1994, pp.473-512.

Browning, C.R., “Bureaucracy and mass murder: The German administrator’s comprehension of the final solution”, in Cohen, A., Gelber J. & Wardi, C., Comprehending the Holocaust, Verlag Peter Lang, Frankfurt, 1988.

Browning, C.R., “The Decision Concerning the Final Solution”, in Furet, F. (ed.), Unanswered Questions, Schocken Books, New York, 1989.

Friedländer, S., “From Anti-Semitism to Extermination”, in Furet, F. (ed.), Unanswered Questions, Schocken Books, New York, 1989.

Marrus, M.R., The Holocaust in History, University Press of England, Hanover and London, 1987.

 

Internet Resources:

“Exchange of Letters Concerning the ‘Final Solution’ in the East”, The Jewish Student Online Resource Center, http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/nazi_statements.html.

“Statements by Leading Nazis on the Jewish Question”, The Jewish Student Online Resource Center, http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/nazi_statements.html.

“The Final Solution”, http:/www.mtsu.edu/~baustin/finsol.html.

“The Final Solution”, The History Place, http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/order1.htm.

“The Wannasee Conference”, The Holocaust History Project, http:/history1900s.about.com/education/history1900s/library/holocaust/blholocaust.htm.

Kurtzman, K., “British knew of Holocaust from beginning, data shows”, Jewish Bulletin Online, http://jewishsf.com/bk970523/usknew.htm.

McFee, G., “When did Hitler Decide on the Final Solution”, The Holocaust History project, http://www.holocaust-history.org/hitler-final-solution.

 

FOOTNOTES:



[1] “The Final Solution”, http:/www.mtsu.edu/~baustin/finsol.html.

[2] Christopher R. Browning, “The Decision Concerning the Final Solution”, in Furet, F. (ed.), Unanswered Questions, Schocken Books, New York, 1989, p.97.

[3] Browning, “The Decision Concerning the Final Solution”, p.96.

[4] Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History, University Press of England, Hanover and London, 1987, p.31.

[5] Marrus, The Holocaust in History, p.31.

[6] Ibid., p.32.

[7] The Madagascar plan was a widely publicised plan to ship all German Jews to the island of Madagascar, off the east African coast. Madagascar had formerly been a French colonial possession. The plan was never realised, however - nor were other similar plans for an African colony, such as Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa.

[8] Marrus, p.33.

[9] Browning, “The Decision Concerning the Final Solution”, p.97.

[10] “Statements by Leading Nazis on the Jewish Question”, The Jewish Student Online Resource Center, http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/nazi_statements.html. Cf. Marrus, The Holocaust in History, p.37.

[11] Marrus, The Holocaust in History, p.35.

[12] Ibid., p.36.

[13] Richard Breitman, “Plans for the Final Solution in Early 1941”, German Studies Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, October 1994, pp.473-512.

[14] Saul Friedländer, “From Anti-Semitism to Extermination”, in Furet, F. (ed.), Unanswered Questions, Schocken Books, New York, 1989, p.4.

[15] “The Final Solution”, http:/www.mtsu.edu/~baustin/finsol.html.

[16] Marrus, The Holocaust in History, p.38.

[17] Marrus, The Holocaust in History, p.42.     

[18] Friedländer, “From Anti-Semitism to Extermination”, p.17.

[19] Browning, “The Decision Concerning the Final Solution”, pp.97-98.

[20] Ibid., p.41.

[21] Christopher Browning, “Bureaucracy and mass murder: The German administrator’s comprehension of the final solution”, in Cohen, A., Gelber, J. & Wardi, C., Comprehending the Holocaust, Verlag Peter Lang, Frankfurt, 1988, p.159.

[22] Browning, “The Decision Concerning the Final Solution”, p.101.

[23] Marrus, The Holocaust in History, p.43.

[24] Christopher R. Browning, “The Nazi Decision to Commit Mass Murder: Three Interpretations”, German Studies Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, October 1994, pp.473-512.

[25] “The Final Solution”, The History Place, http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/order1.htm.

[26] Gord McFee, “When did Hitler Decide on the Final Solution?”, The Holocaust History project, http://www.holocaust-history.org/hitler-final-solution.

[27] Browning, “The Decision Concerning the Final Solution”, p.103.

[28] McFee, “When did Hitler Decide on the Final Solution?”.

[29] Ibid.                                                          

[30] Browning, “The Decision Concerning the Final Solution”, p.110.

[31] Ibid., p.111.

[32] McFee, “When did Hitler Decide on the Final Solution”.

[33] Marrus, The Holocaust in History, p.43.

[34] Browning, “The Decision Concerning the Final Solution”, p.106, p.118.

[35] McFee.

[36] “The Wannasee Conference”, The Holocaust History Project, http:/history1900s.about.com/education/history1900s/library/holocaust/blholocaust.htm.

[37] Daniel Kurtzman, “British knew of Holocaust from beginning, data shows”, Jewish Bulletin Online, http://jewishsf.com/bk970523/usknew.htm.

[38] “Exchange of Letters Concerning the ‘Final Solution’ in the East”, The Jewish Student Online Resource Center, http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/nazi_statements.html