Before the start of World War II, around 9.5 million Jewish people lived in Europe. By the time the war ended, the Nazis had killed 6 million European Jews in concentration camps, or pogroms, or ghettos, or mass executions in what we refer to today as the Holocaust. The Nazis used the term Endlösung, or Final Solution, as the “answer” to the “Jewish question.” But when did this monstrous plan get put in motion?
Adolf Hitler had provided clues to his ambition to commit mass genocide as early as 1922, telling journalist Josef Hell, “Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews.”
But how he would enact such a plan wasn’t always clear. For a brief period, the Führer and other Nazi leaders toyed with the idea of mass deportation as a method of creating a Europe without Jews (Madagascar and the Arctic Circle were two suggested relocation sites). Deportation still would’ve resulted in thousands of deaths, though perhaps in less direct ways.
When exactly Hitler settled on straightforward murder as a means of removal has been harder to pinpoint. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes, “It cannot be stressed enough that the Nazis did not know how to eradicate the Jews when they began the war against the Soviet Union [in the summer of 1941]… They could not be confident that SS men would shoot women and children in large numbers.” But as Operation Barbarossa, the name for the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R, proved during the mass shootings of June 1941 and the massacres at Kiev in September, the Order Police and Einsatzgrüppen were more than willing to commit mass murders. This meant Hitler could take the solution to the Jewish problem to its “furthest extremes,” in the words of Philipp Bouhler, the senior Nazi official responsible for the euthanasia program that killed more than 70,000 handicapped German people.
According to scholars Christian Gerlach and Peter Monteath, among others, the pivotal moment for Hitler’s decision came on December 12, 1941, at a secret meeting with some 50 Nazi officials, including Joseph Goebbels (Nazi minister of propaganda) and Hans Frank (governor of occupied Poland). Though no written documents of the meeting survive, Goebbels described the meeting in his journal on December 13, 1941:
“With respect of the Jewish Question, the Führer has 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 catchword… If the German people have now again sacrificed 160,000 dead on the eastern front, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay with their lives.”
In addition to Goebbels’s diary entry, historians cite the notes of German diplomat Otto Brautigam, who on December 18, 1941, wrote that “as for the Jewish question, oral discussions have taken place [and] have brought about clarification.”
This meeting, which would be followed by the January 1942 Wannsee Conference (where the decision on exterminating all European Jews was further reinforced), was hardly the start of violence against Jews. Attacks had been happening in Nazi Germany’s occupied territories for years. What differentiated this period from earlier attacks was “an escalation of murder,” says Elizabeth White, historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“At some point I think, with the development of killing centers, [the Nazis] felt that they had the means and opportunity to realize the vision of a Jew-free Europe now rather than wait until after Germany had won [the war].”
Australian historian Peter Monteath echoes that conclusion, writing in 1998 that the December 12 decision “made it clear that the principle of killing Jews in the occupied territories in the east was to be extended to all European Jews, including those in Germany and Western Europe.”
In the decades that followed the Nuremburg Trials, in which Nazi officials, charged with crimes against peace and humanity, hid behind the excuse that they were just following orders, historians grappled with questions of blame and guilt. Had Hitler and top Nazi officials been solely responsible for the genocide? How complicit were lower-level Nazis and members of the Order Police?
“We had big gaps in our knowledge because most of the documentation about how the genocide was carried out on the ground was captured by the Soviet Red Army and wasn’t available until after the Cold War,” says White. The fall of the Soviet Union led to a feast of wartime bureaucratic records, allowing historians to realize how much leeway Nazi officials were given. It became readily clear that the number of Nazis involved in enacting the Final Solution was much larger than previously believed.
“The way Hitler worked was he would make these pronouncements, and people would go off and figure out, what did he mean? How are we going to do this?” says White. “You could work towards the Führer by being innovative and ruthless.”
In other words, rather than giving explicit orders to each member of the Nazi party, Hitler made numerous statements vilifying Jewish people and declaring the need to exterminate them.
After the December 12 meeting, these proclamations took a more precise tone: the Nazis needed to kill all Jews, including German Jews and Western European Jews, and they needed to do so systematically. What had started as uncertain and sporadic violence quickly turned into wholesale slaughter, complete with gas chambers and concentration camps. Six weeks later, SS chief Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi official responsible for the implementation of the Final Solution, ordered the first Jews of Europe to Auschwitz.
The Holocaust had truly begun.