December 12, 1941

by Götz Aly
translated by Gord McFee
deutscher Originaltext

This article appears with the friendly permission of the Berlin Verlag and the author. The original German edition appeared December 13, 1997 in the Berliner Zeitung.

The historian Christian Gerlach proves that on this day Hitler made the fundamental decision to annihilate all European Jews.

Historians have long searched for the order to annihilate the Jews or - insofar as they excluded a Fuehrer-order - for other central documents. The Wannsee Protocol was rejected. Here second-level men were to be found, here they spoke not of an order, but rather an authorization of Hitler. Characteristically, a pre-arranged agreement applied to this meeting, ordered from above. At the least, documentary criteria had to be found that permitted plausible inferences as to place, point in time and personal construction of such a conversation. The research led nowhere.

Now however a 34-year old Berlin historian [translator's note: Geschichtswissenschaft is science of history] has precisely answered the old question. And to say it right up front: the proof is ingenious. He didn't publish it in one of the eternally boring academic tomes and in so doing made the right choice. The work appeared in Volume 18 (6th year, November 1997) of the unorthodox, independent magazine "Werkstatt Geschichte." Written with practically mathematical precision, the essay covers 37 pages, including 223 source notes. The title is: "The Wannsee Conference, the fate of German Jews and Hitler's fundamental political decision to murder all European Jews." The author's name is Christian Gerlach. He has found proof of an internal speech of Hitler's from 1941 that no other researcher had even mentioned before.

The weak dictator

Already Hans Mommsen, the foremost Holocaust researcher, grumbles: the young man is to be sure "exceptional," has however "gone astray," using "outdated methods," and above all, makes "too much noise." In fact Gerlach - in no way naive - falls between those two schools of thought that contemporary historians have occupied for decades, passed down and in every case retreated from even a centimeter only reluctantly.

On one hand, the so-called intentionalists impute an absolute desire of Adolf Hitler for genocide, evident already in the earliest program. Even the means of the extermination - poison gas - was determined by him in the "Kampfzeit" [the years of struggle preceding the assumption of power]. Others underscore the anticipated obedience, better put: the extensive freedoms of the "paladins." They operated freely in accordance with the highly flexible motto: "It is the Fuehrer's wish." If one ignores the now defunct variants ("if the Fuehrer had known!") or the similarly outmoded simplification ("puppets of the monopoly capitalists"), one is able to posit a thesis that is to be taken seriously of a vascillating, even weak dictator: he avoided conflicts, put off making decisions, thus his receptiveness of grand visions for the future, conquest and new orders.

In spite of many differences in details and in weighting, one thing is considered constant in the view of all the so-called functionalists: the German policy towards the Jews became progressively more and more radical. "It must be seriously considered," wrote never charged jurist Rolf Heinz Höppner in June 16, 1941, "whether the most humane solution is not to finish off the Jews who are unable to work by means of a quickly working agent. In any event, this would be more appropriate than to let them starve."

The letter was addressed to Eichmann who telephoned almost daily to Höppner, his agent in Posen. "Give me that in writing" Eichmann would have said, and put the written letter into the hierarchical process. Höppner did not want an order, he asked for the complete examination of his new recommendation. He found it audacious, "partially fantastic" but "completely feasible." In addition, he spoke exclusively of the murder of those unable to work, not all the 500,000 Jews for which he was responsible in the Warthegau and especially in the Lodz Ghetto. The others he wanted to confine in a work camp, all child bearing women sterilized, "so that the Jewish problem will be completely resolved with this generation."

By the end of September 1944, Eichmann still had been able to only circumspectly answer the incessant pressure of Höppner. In any event the document strengthens the theory of the progressive discrimination against the Jews to the point of complete segregation and impoverishment in which the long practiced policy of social death transformed itself into industrial extermination in conformity with internal logic, no longer directed by anyone.

Apart from the question of whether an order preceded the Holocaust, confusion reigned as well about the date of the decision. Some historians opined with good reasons for March 1941, others increasingly for September/October of the same year. The predominant opinion was nonetheless that "at the high point of the expectation of victory" in the eastern war on July 31, 1941 "all had become clear." Regardless however whether they saw Hitler as the originator or the moderator, almost all researchers held that the "Final Solution" had developed out of anti-Jewish measures. They emphasized the primacy of the ideological, and thus foreclosed on the possibility of even considering the moderating effect of other political and military factors on the policy towards the Jews. That held good for the externally changing occupation and germanisation policy, for the war, economic and food situations. Abandoned as well was the inductive interaction of people and leadership that Victor Klemperer so painstakingly reported on.

Now Gerlach has put a provisional end to the argument of the schools. He does not trouble himself with the invective of the (here as well as there) deeply ordered footnote fronts. He works strictly empirically. The point of departure for his research is his dissertation completed under Wolfgang Scheffler: "The German Economic and Annihilation Policy in White Russia," and his participation in the ground breaking - by a free association of young historians - annotated edition of the agendas and notebooks of Heinrich Himmler from the years 1941 and 1942. Important parts of these documents were first known and available in the Moscow archives in 1991.

Christian Gerlach claims and proves that Adolf Hitler made known his fundamental decision for the complete annihilation of the European Jews on December 12, 1941. On this day, Hitler spoke in his private rooms of the Reich Chancellery to around 50 Reich and Gau leaders, the supreme leadership of the NSDAP [Nazi party]. Almost all occupied offices of the State as well. The meeting was announced on the 9th by telegram for the 10th, that day postponed until the 11th and then again postponed to the following day. Heydrich had sent his invitations to the Wannsee Conference on November 29 and then set the date of the conference for December 9. On December 8, he postponed it for an unspecified time. Only a month later, the new invitations went out - for January 20, 1942.

Even the parallelism of the events gives Hitler's speech a certain weight. But what weight, when the first invitation to the Wannsee Conference had been already sent 14 days previously? The postponement followed, one could assert, the political confusion that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor - not desired by the German leadership - had caused. But Gerlach substantiates with convincing details that the originally planned Wannsee Conference had had an entirely different theme as that which actually took place six weeks later. It had only been anticipated to discuss problems that occurred with the deportations of the (Greater) German Jews. These had begun on October 15, under the pressure of the Lord Mayors, Gauleiters and government presidents, following an expressed approval of Hitler, that according to Himmler's agenda dates to September 17. The destination train stations were Lodz, Riga, Kaunas, Minsk. The difficulties and tension were enormous: they involved the precise differentiation between the so-called full and half Jews, protests from the population for the retention of those who worked in the armaments industry, questions of property, the tempo and priorities of the "resettlements." Only after Hitler's speech of December 12 was Heydrich able, as Gerlach shows, to broaden the theme and fix a conference on the "Final Solution of the European Jewish question."

Hitler spoke to his most trusted comrades on the occasion of the most vexatious crisis of his leadership. Aachen had suffered very heavy bombing attacks on December 8, Cologne the night before, the Luftwaffe had lost 2,093 planes on the eastern front since June 22, the tank motors were useless and frozen, the locomotives built in the western European style were stuck in the crudely built eastern railway gauge, 160,000 soldiers of the eastern Army had fallen, thousands froze in ditches and military hospitals. The troops were "finished," reported the generals. The counter offensive of the Red Army had begun. In the Reich, rumours spread about further reductions in the rations for meat and fat.

On the other side of the world, Japan had not, as the German treaty partner had suggested and hoped, made war on the eastern Soviet Union, but had attacked the USA. Germany had to react with a declaration of war on the USA on December 11. For Hitler, the world war had now begun. It was all or nothing. At this time, Hitler assumed the supreme military command ("the little bit of leading the operations"), ordered draconian harshness in the occupied European countries ("death penalty fundamentally appropriate"), and to the soldiers of the east front he only had to offer the call for "fanatical resistance."

What Hitler said about the Jewish question on December 12 is reported twice, in almost identical formulations: once in the diary entry of December 13 by the Berlin Gauleiter and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and once in the government diary of the Reichleiter and Cracow General Governor Hans Frank of December 16. "In respect of the Jewish question, the Fuehrer has decided," so says Goebbels, "to make a clean sweep. The world war is here, the annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary result. This question is to be regarded without sentimentalism. We are not here to have sympathy with the Jews, but rather with our German people. If the German people have sacrificed 160,000 dead in the eastern campaign, so the authors of this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives."

Two days later Rosenberg, Reichsleiter for Ideology and Minister for the Occupied Territories presented a draft speech to Hitler for approval and noted: "On the Jewish question I said that the comments on the New York Jews will now have to be changed a bit following the decision." On December 18, the Section Leader of General Policy in the Eastern Ministry, Otto Braeutigam, later chief of the eastern department in the Bonn Foreign Office, noted: "On the Jewish question clarity must have been achieved in the meantime through oral conversations."

On December 14 Himmler met the man who in Hitler's Chancellery was responsible for the murder of the German mentally ill - Victor Brack. Already annihilation in gas chambers had been described as the "application of the Brack remedy." Himmler noted the speaking points as "course in east ministry, euthanasia." At the same time, Brack's superior, Reichsleiter Phillip Bouhler had two meetings with Hitler. In all these conversations the same theme was discussed: the transfer of the "well practiced personnel" that had run the gas chambers of "euthanasia" to the extermination camps that would now be built and built up for the murder of all Jews. As Bouhler put it: the transfer of his people "to a definitive solution of the Jewish question."

Our cultural circle

The emphasis was on the word "definitive." Up to December 12, a million Jews had already been murdered: in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union first the able-bodied men, since the middle of August also women, children and the elderly. The ghettos were starved out. In the vicinity of Lodz, in Chelmno, mass murders by means of gas wagons had already begun on December 8. However, the murders here were subject to limits: the victims were first - exactly allocated - 100,000 Jews unfit for work, in the sense of the notion that Höppner had had in July. Planned and built since October, the extermination camp Belzec had a capacity that reached the gassing of 500 people per day. The conception of this camp was also based on the selection of the unfit for work. When the extermination installation was functional in March 1942, it was only used for six weeks, then closed and within four weeks built up to a daily extermination capacity of 2000 deportees; the construction of the other extermination camps followed.

Independent of Hitler's fundamental decision, the practitioners of the German racial policy had discussed the murder of the Jews in all occupied eastern European countries, asked for it, or already begun it. But before December 12, they did not have a complete concept. The unfit for work, the able-bodied, finally the eastern Jews overall they had gradually brought into the circle of destruction, and by exception only a few thousand German Jews. Local and regional initiatives document the widespread will for destruction, and incidentally the limits: the murder of the eastern Jewish "indigenous bestial hordes," as the General Commissar in Minsk put it, is something other that the murder of "humans, who come from our cultural circle." On December 16 he requested "official permission" for murder, that he could not in the case of German Jews give "on his own authority."

He did not yet know the contents of Hitler's confidential speech. After all, Hitler's overall responsibility is not in dispute. Hitler did not order, but approved in all clarity that which in many locations had already begun and many had long wanted. This helped the functionaries of the racist nation to gain their ultimate "planning security." Christian Gerlach has discovered the Archimedes point that allows more clearly than ever before the tracing and clarification of the political development of the Holocaust.