In a nutshell, it can be defined as the attempt by Nazi Germany to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Although others were caught up in the net, its original and unchanging goal was to kill the Jews. For more on this, see Are the Jews Central to the Final Solution elsewhere on this website.
The expression "final solution of the Jewish question" [Endlösung der Judenfrage] was first used by the Nazis themselves, specifically by Hermann Göering. It is therefore important to quote his order of July 31, 1941 to Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, in which the word appeared for the first time:
Complementing the task already assigned to you in the directive of January 24, 1939, to undertake, by emigration or evacuation, a solution to the Jewish question as advantageous as possible under the conditions at the time, I hereby charge you with making all necessary organizational, functional, and material preparations for a complete solution of the Jewish question [Gesamtlösung der Judenfrage] in the German sphere of influence in Europe.
Insofar as the jurisdiction of other central agencies may be touched thereby, they are to be involved.
I charge you furthermore with submitting to me in the near future an overall plan of the organizational, functional, and material measures to be taken in preparing for the implementation of the aspired final solution of the Jewish question [Endlösung der Judenfrage]
A reproduction of the order can be found on the Web.
It is interesting to note that the complete expression is "final solution of the Jewish question", a translation of the German "Endlösung der Judenfrage", the precise expression used by Goering. It is also important to remember that the expression "final solution" means that the "solution" was the last one attempted, which correctly suggests that other solutions had been attempted previously and discarded for one reason or another. One example of this is the so-called Madagascar proposal in which the Nazis for a time considered sending the Jews to that remote French possession. The idea was dropped in the spring of 1941.
Holocaust deniers like to claim that the final solution was emigration, e.g. the Madagascar example. But looking at events in sequence, it is clear that emigration was an interim solution, in the context of "removal" [Entfernung], and that when circumstances changed, an ultimate or final solution was decided by Hitler. Goering ordered that the organizational preparations begin (see above) and Hitler made the final decision to proceed.
These interim solutions had been preceded in the 1930s by initiatives isolating the Jews and forcing them to emigrate voluntarily from Germany. Solutions such as Madagascar were attempts to achieve involuntary emigration. The common theme remained the removal of the Jews from German society.
Precisely when those ideas were abandoned for a murderous solution, and why, are questions beyond the scope of this essay. Readers may be interested in related issues such as Hitler's role in the decision to murder the Jews, when the ultimate decision was made, and the activities of the Einsatzgruppen, the armed units who shot over a million Jews.
The Final Solution was the end stage of a process during which the leaders of the Third Reich considered various ways to address their "Jewish problem" as circumstances changed over time, and then culminated in one of them - the extreme and final solution - being chosen.
Hitler had been obsessed with the Jews much of his life. According to a boyhood friend he was already an antisemite by the time he was in his teens. In Mein Kampf, the word "Judenfrage" (Jewish question) - the exact word that Goering used in his order - appears 11 times, and there is a whole section on the Jewish question. The word "Jude" (Jew) appears no less than 340 times.
What is meant by a "solution" of the Jewish question? It is clear from Nazi documents and speeches that the "question", or problem, was the presence of Jews in German society. The solution had a common theme throughout the period; it was the removal [Entfernung] of the Jews. As early as September 1919, Hitler wrote in a letter: "Its [the antisemitism of the future] ultimate main goal must always be the removal [Entfernung] of the Jews". Note the similarity of this to a speech Hitler made on January 30, 1942:
We see clearly that this war could only end with the extermination of the Germanic peoples, or that Jewry must disappear from Europe. I already said it on September 1, 1939 [sic] in the German Reichstag...that this war will not end the way the Jews have foreseen it, namely that the European Aryan peoples will be exterminated; rather the result of this war will be the annihilation of Jewry. For once all the others will not bleed to death alone; for once the ancient Jewish law will come into play: an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.
It is the methods used to achieve that removal that changed over time.
The three elements of the expression should all be briefly dealt with in order to understand its meaning.
As pointed out above, the constant theme was the removal - voluntarily or involuntarily - of Jewry from German (and later, German controlled) society. Removal of people can take place in various ways.
Living conditions, laws, the attitude of society, economic well being - all of these can be adjusted in such a way that the affected people want to leave. That is what the Nazis did in the 1930s through dozens of laws and decrees, the most infamous of which were the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. This is coerced, yet mainly voluntary withdrawal.
Hitler's words in a speech coincident with the adoption of the Nuremberg Laws are interesting:
The third [law] is an attempt to regulate by law [the Jewish] problem, which, should this attempt fail, must then be turned over to the National Socialist Party for a final solution.
People can also be removed forcibly and concentrated in areas away from German society. That is part of the approach taken in the early part of World War II. It is referred to in Reinhard Heydrich's order to the Einsatzgruppen of September 21, 1939, which was titled "Jewish Question in the Occupied Territory". The relevant portions read as follows:
I refer to the conference held in Berlin today and once more point out that the planned overall measures (i.e., the final aim) are to be kept strictly secret. Distinction must be made between:
(1) The final aim (which will require extended periods of time), and
(2) The stages leading to the fulfillment of this final aim (which will be carried out in short terms).
For the time being, the first prerequisite for the final aim is the concentration of the Jews from the countryside into the larger cities. This is to be carried out with all speed.
In doing so, distinction must be made:
(1) between the areas of Danzig and West Prussia, Posen, Eastern Upper Silesia, and
(2) the rest of the occupied territories.
As far as possible, the area mentioned (in item 1) is to be cleared of Jews; at least the aim should be to establish only a few cities of concentration. In the areas mentioned in item 2, as few concentration points as possible are to be set up, so as to facilitate subsequent measures.
Note the words "final aim" [Endziel], "stages leading to this final aim" and the fact that the final goal will require "extended periods of time". At that point, it is likely that Heydrich meant this in the context of "removal" being the final goal.
Heydrich's words are presaged by an article in the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter in March 1920: "In order that the unemployed Semites cannot secretly undermine us and agitate against us, they should be placed in collecting camps".
It is interesting that Heydrich talks about concentration of the Jews into larger cities. Obviously, this would make their removal, or emigration at this point, much easier to accomplish. This would be involuntary removal.
As suggested above, the physical annihilation of the Jews was the final development in a process that developed over time. Events forced the Nazis to discard some interim steps and opportunities allowed the Nazis to avail themselves of others. This is of course the ultimate, irrevocable removal of the Jews from German society because they are dead. It harks back to Goering's expression "complete solution". The Jews have not just disappeared from German society, they have disappeared completely. Himmler put it this way in his speech at Posen in October 1943: "The difficult decision had to be taken to make this people disappear from the earth". And again, at a speech at Posen in January 1944:
When the Führer gave me the order to carry out the total solution of the Jewish question, I at first hesitated, uncertain whether I could demand of my worthy SS men the execution of such a horrid assignment. But this was ultimately a matter of a Führer-order, and therefore I could have no misgivings. In the meantime, the assignment has been carried out, and there is no longer a Jewish question.
A solution is the way one chooses to resolve a situation or to solve a problem. It may also be the method by which a decision is implemented. In the case of the Jews, the solution varied over time and as a result of circumstances, but as already said, the end goal remained that the Jews be removed. In the "final" section above, we described some of the stages that the solution process went through. The voluntary solutions ranged from the first exclusionary laws of 1933 through the "Aryanization" measures such as the Nuremberg Laws of the mid 1930s through the measures enacted in the wake of the Reichkristallnacht of 1938. The involuntary solutions include the concentration and ghettoization actions referred to in the Heydrich order cited above and experiments and options such as the Madagascar project. Physical extermination is of course the "final" solution.
Depending on one's viewpoint, the actions of the early to late 1930s can be described as the preliminary solutions, those of late 1939 to 1941 as the intermediate solutions and the physical extermination as the final solution.
Jewish Question [Judenfrage]
The term, in its negative sense, was already used in the 19th century as a reaction to the emancipation of the Jews who had been ghettoized since the late Middle Ages. For radical antisemites, the solution of the Jewish question meant the exclusion and expulsion (hence, removal) of the Jews. In the Handbuch der Judenfrage , Theodor Fritsch described it as the "Jewish problem" [Judenproblem].
What then was the problem that had to be resolved or the question that had to be answered? Quite simply, it was the co-existence in German society of Jews. That in itself was rooted in the myth that dates back centuries, that Jews cannot be a legitimate member of any society because they are Jews first and members of the society second. The "problem" is that they insinuate themselves into the society, adopt its mannerisms, customs and language, but never really embrace it. More than that, they work against it because they want to bring the other members of the society down to their level.
This half-baked thinking was embraced by a series of antisemites, as far back as Martin Luther, and continuing up to Marr in the 19th century. It was adopted by most of the splinter groups to be found on the scene in southern Germany and Austria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and especially in the groups in Munich around the time Hitler was demobilized from the army in 1919.
Throughout the centuries, attempts had been made to assimilate the Jews, usually with the intention of converting them to Christianity. When those attempts failed, time after time, attention turned to other means of solving this problem. If Jews could not be assimilated, they should be removed.
Hitler adopted many of these notions into his philosophy and added his own. In various sections of Mein Kampf and his Second Book, he set out his views on the Jews. Pages 293-296 of Mein Kampf describe the Jews variously as agents of Marxism, the personification of the devil, liars and slanderers, perverters of the German people and destroyers of the German race. They also contaminated art, literature, theatre, religion, morality and ethics. As parasites, they destroyed the "Aryan state" through their cunning, intelligence, astuteness, knavery and dissimulation. They stood in a word as the antithesis of Hitler's ideal of the Aryan or true German. That was the problem they posed and the question that they caused to be asked.
Sadly, we know how Hitler answered the question and what his solution was.
So, we now see what the expression "final solution of the Jewish question" means in its completeness. Since the problem was the very existence of the Jews, and since intermediate attempts to resolve the problem by assimilation or voluntary, and then involuntary, removal had failed, an ultimate or final solution was required. We have mentioned that the means of removal changed from comparatively peaceful ones to the murderous one adopted by Hitler. By definition, the only solution left, the failsafe solution, the one that made irrelevant whether the Jews converted, assimilated or not, had become their murder.
Fleming, Gerald, Hitler and the Final Solution, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984
Hilberg, Raul, The Destruction of the European Jews, Holmes & Meier, New York, 1985
Dwork, Deborah & Van Pelt, Robert-Jan, Holocaust: A History, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2002
Reitlinger, Gerald, The Final Solution, Revised Edition, London, 1968
Leni Yahil, The Holocaust, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York (1990)
See also our Suggested Reading List