The Holocaust
The term 'holocaust' means 'whole burnt offering'
author Paul Boșcu, May 2019
The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of entire groups determined by heredity. This applied to Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped.

The Holocaust was a genocide that happened during the Second World War. During this event Nazi Germany, aided by local collaborators in various european countries, systematically murdered some 6 million Jews from 1941 to 1945. During this era other groups were also persecuted and murdered such as the incurably sick, slavs, the Roma people, homosexuals and various religious and political dissidents.

For more than two years after war came, the priority of securing victory was held to require postponement of an absolute elimination of European Jewry. Between August 1939 and the summer of 1942, when the death camp programme achieved full capacity, the Nazis contented themselves with killing large numbers of people in many countries on an arbitrary and opportunistic basis.

After the invasion of Russia the Nazis killed Jews at whim on a scale largely determined by availability of manpower and resources. A handful of German officers displayed the courage to protest. Col. Walter Bruns, an engineer who chanced upon a massacre of Jews while out riding near the Rumbuli forest in Latvia in November 1941, submitted a formal report to Army Group North. He also made a personal visit to army headquarters at Angerburg to deliver a further copy. No formal response was forthcoming, save that the chief of staff urged that in future such killing ‘must be done with greater caution’.

Peter Longerich, one of the more authoritative historians of the Holocaust, has convincingly argued that the Nazi leadership’s commitment to executing the Final Solution through designated death camps was not made until the end of 1941: ‘The leadership at the centre and the executive organizations on the periphery radicalized one another through a reciprocal process.’ Construction of the first purpose-built extermination camp at Beł ec near Lublin began only on 1 November 1941. Longerich cites evidence that, until very late that year, key SS officers were still talking of mass deportations rather than extermination, and were chiefly preoccupied with how best to organise and mobilise Jews for slave labour. When the US commitment to the Allied cause became explicit, Hitler could no longer discern advantage in sparing Jews within his reach. ‘In autumn 1941,’ writes Longerich, ‘the Nazi leadership began to fight the war on all levels as a war “against the Jews”.’ The construction of gas chambers commenced at Chelmno, Bełzec, Auschwitz and elsewhere.

On 14 September 1942, Albert Speer authorized 13.7 million Reichsmarks to be spent on building huts and killing facilities at Birkenau as fast as possible. Four gas chambers, numbered I to IV, were all fully operational by 1943, and were worked at full stretch by the time 437,000 Hungarians were brought there in the late spring of 1944 and killed in only a matter of weeks. A dozen German firms were used in the construction of the gas chambers and crematoria, and Oberingenieur Kurt Prüfer, representing the contractors Topf & Sons of Erfurt, was so proud of his incinerator system at Birkenau that he even had the gall formally to patent it.

Heinrich Himmler visited Auschwitz on 17 July 1942, telling SS officers openly that evening that the wholesale massacre of European Jewry was now Reich policy. Two days later he ordered the death of all Poland’s Jews, with the exception of those few who were ‘fit for work’, who would be worked to the verge of death, and then gassed. ‘The occupied Eastern zones are being cleansed of Jews,’ wrote Himmler on 28 July. ‘The Führer has laid the implementation of this very difficult order on my shoulders.’

As the Russians advanced, Auschwitz was evacuated westwards in a terrible ‘death march’ of more than 50 miles in sub-zero temperatures. Those who could not keep up were shot and in all around 15,000 died.

Although hotly debated by historians, the exact date when Adolf Hitler ordered Heinrich Himmler to destroy the Jewish race in Europe through the industrialized use of the extermination camp is really almost immaterial. Hitler had always been, in the historian Ian Kershaw’s phrase, ‘the supreme and radical spokesman of an ideological imperative’ to destroy the Jews. Even before the war Jews were persecuted in Nazi Germany and Hitler made numerous threats against the Jewish population.

An unmistakable threat had been made even before the outbreak of war, on 30 January 1939, when he told the Reichstag: ‘In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. 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!’ Of course it had been Hitler himself with his invasion of Poland that had plunged the world into war but that did not make his warning any the less menacing. He repeated it on several further occasions in public speeches during the war, and was more specific about exterminating the Jews in dozens of private speeches.

The use of poison gas on Jews had even been mentioned in Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiography, in which he had written that in the First World War ‘the sacrifice of millions at the front’ would have been unnecessary if ‘twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas’.

The milieu in which the young Hitler lived in Vienna, as well as the political tracts he read while scraping a living as a hack painter, seems to have drawn him towards a loathing of Jews. Yet it was not until Germany’s defeat in 1918 that this anti-Semitism became murderous. The way that Hitler harnessed German anti-Semitism, which was common among small businessmen, shopkeepers, artisans and peasant farmers, was as deft as it was malevolent.

The genocidal killing of lebensunwertes Leben (those unworthy of existence) in Nazi Germany began not with the Jews but with the euthanasia meted out to the mentally and physically disabled, in total around 212,000 Germans and 80,000 others. The mentally ill were also killed in converted shower rooms, which provided the inspiration for what would eventually take place in Auschwitz. It is true that as many as a thousand Jews were murdered in German concentration camps in the six months after the Jewish pogroms of Kristallnacht on the night of 9 November 1938, but it was not until 1939 that the true extent of the Nazis’ plans for the Jewish race in Europe began to become apparent. Fortunately by then over half of the Jewish population of Germany had already emigrated, going to the USA, Argentina,Britain,Palestine,South Africa and Australia. Tragically, many also left for places such as Poland, France and the Netherlands that were to afford no long-term safety at all.

Hitler and Himmler had no difficulty in recruiting enough anti-Semites to do the work of extermination for them. Anti-Semitism was by no means confined to Germany, but it was particularly virulent there. Although the organized working-class left were not particularly anti-Semitic, the roots of the phenomenon went deep into much of the rest of German society. The foundation of the League of Anti-Semites in 1879, and the career of the thieving, blackmailing forger and headmaster Hermann Ahlwardt, who was elected to the Reichstag in the 1880s on a platform of spewing hatred against Germany’s Jews were potent signs of this. This was the groundwork for the anti-Jewish Nazi policies of the 1930’s.

The domestication of anti-Semitism took place in the 1880s and early 1890s, with novelists such as Julius Langbehn writing about the Jews in terms of ‘poison’, ‘plague’ and ‘vermin’. Richard Wagner’s widow Cosima, who lived until 1930, drew together a group of anti-Semites at Bayreuth, and the writings of the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain at the turn of the century also contributed to the concept of German history as an Aryan-versus-Jewish struggle. If anything it is surprising that it took a full half-century of such propaganda and hatred before Hitler incorporated violence against the Jews into a political platform.

Despite the growing influence of anti-Semitic ideologies in imperial Germany, the Second Reich still appeared to most Jews as a stable, prosperous, and highly cultured society where their civil rights were respected. After 1919, the newly created Nazi Party, along with other rightwing forces in Germany (and far beyond its borders), assiduously propagated the myth of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy to destroy Germany and Western Christian civilization. This ideological theme was to become a central driving force of the Holocaust.

The unexpected defeat in the First World War, the abdication of the kaizer, the threat of Communist revolution, the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, and the prospect of huge reparations payments to the Western Allies weighed heavily on Germans. German Jews, who numbered slightly more than half a million, were less than 1 percent of the population in the 1920s, and clearly oriented to the liberal-left wing of German politics. They had little political influence, but they were disproportionately prominent in publishing, journalism, the arts, the free professions, trade, private banking, and commerce, including the ownership of department stores, which began to develop at this time. Middle-class anti-Semitism in Germany was undoubtedly stimulated by professional jealousy and envy. It was also nourished by the intensive post-1918 propaganda of anti-Semitic organizations that branded Jews with the stigma of wartime profiteering, black-market dealings, stock-exchange speculation, and responsibility for defeat in the war.

A constant refrain of the political right was the singling out of radical socialists and Communists of Jewish origin for their roles in the abortive revolutions of 1918 and 1919, thus accrediting the idea that Jews were inclined toward subversive activity and revolution. And indeed, the Spartacist revolt in Berlin (a Communist uprising) was led by the Polish born internationalist Rosa Luxemburg, who, like a number of the early leaders of the KPD (German Communist Party), was Jewish. In the Bavarian capital, Munich, the first Independent Socialist prime minister, Kurt Eisner, was not only a Jew but also a bohemian intellectual, a Berliner, and a pacifist who had published documents attributing responsibility for the First World War to Germany. These attributes made him an almost perfect target for the hate of the conservative and anti republican elements in Bavarian society.

Over the course of 1918 and 1919, some of the most prominent Jewish revolutionaries, and a number of other radical Jews like the Independent Socialist Hugo Haase were either brutally assassinated or shot—a fate that also befell the Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht, who was not a Jew. This wave of assassinations culminated in the killing of Germany’s first ever Jewish foreign minister, the highly assimilated and versatile industrialist Walther Rathenau, by youthful right-wing nationalist fanatics in 1922. Rathenau, an ardent Prussian patriot who had contributed much to the efficiency of the German economy during the war, was demonized as an “Elder of Zion” and a “Jewish Bolshevik” by his blond, blue-eyed killers. Rathenau’s murder was a worrying omen for German Jewry.

The Nazis were always determined to exploit the licence granted to a government waging total war to fulfil objectives that otherwise posed difficulties even for a totalitarian regime. Hermann Goering asserted at a key party meeting in November 1938, following Kristallnacht: ‘If, in the near future, the German Reich should come into conflict with foreign powers, it goes without saying that we in Germany should first of all let it come to a showdown with the Jews.’

At the end of the 30’s Nazi policy still promoted the emigration of Reich Jews, but a November 1939 article in the SS journal Schwartze Korps asserted the commitment to ‘the actual and definitive end of Jewry in Germany, its total extermination’. Many such remarks were made openly and publicly by leading Nazis: Hitler made his notorious ‘prophecy’ in a speech to the Reichstag on 30 January 1939, asserting that war would result in ‘the annihilation of European Jewry’. The Western Powers treated such remarks as hyperbolic. Even when Hitler embarked on his campaign of hemispheric conquest, the democracies found it difficult to conceive that the people of a highly educated and long-civilised European society could fulfil their leaders’ extravagant rhetoric and implement genocide.

The most militant of the many disparate anti-Semitic sects that mushroomed in the aftermath of the First World War was the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, or Nazi Party for short), founded in Munich in 1919. Its official party program of 24 February 1920 stood for “the uniting of all Germans within one Greater Germany” on the basis of national self-determination. Between 1919 and 1924, it remained confined to Bavaria, appealing mainly to ex-soldiers, anti-Communists, anti-Semites. Nevertheless, its leader, Adolf Hitler, had already attracted some national attention in 1923 during a failed putsch in Munich.

The party called for the annulment of the Treaty of Versailles, demanding more land and soil for the German population; it advocated that the “yoke of interest-capital” be broken, favoring widespread nationalizations as well as profit sharing, land reform, the communalization of department stores, and other radical sounding measures.

Article 23 of the party’s program insisted that publishers, journalists, and “all editors and editorial employees of German-language newspapers must be German by race.” It also called for laws against “trends in art and literature that have a destructive effect on our national life” (an implicit reference to Jews). Article 24 observed that the NSDAP stood for “positive Christianity” and fought “against the Jewish-materialistic spirit within and without us.”

Article 4 of the NSDAP program made it clear that only “persons of German blood” could be nationals and therefore citizens. This automatically excluded Jews, who in the future, they hoped, would be permitted to live in Germany only as guests “subject to legislation for Aliens.”

Following his arrest after the failed Munich putsch, Hitler managed, with the help of a sympathetic judge, to turn his trial into a harangue against the “traitors of 1918,” a public indictment of Weimar democracy, and a platform for his own extreme nationalist and anti-Semitic views. Though guilty of high treason, he was sentenced to a mere five years’ imprisonment, of which he served just nine months in Landsberg prison, where he wrote Mein Kampf (My struggle). This book was to become the Bible of the Nazi movement and a core anti-Semitic text as well.

As a political autobiography, Mein Kampf offers us vital insight into Hitler’s background and the formative influences on his worldview. Hitler had been born in the small town of Braunau on the Inn, which lay on the border between Austria and Bavaria, on 20 April 1889. In his adolescent years, spent partly in Linz, he had come under the influence of the Pan-German ideology of Georg von Schönerer, the leading German nationalist in Austria, who advocated the Anschluss (union) of the two German states into one German Reich.

Another important Austrian role model for the young Hitler, to whom he devoted many pages in Mein Kampf, was the extremely popular and elegant mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, leader of the Christian-Social Party. He had come to power largely through the skillful, demagogic use of anti-Semitism, focusing his attacks on the prominent role of Viennese Jews in the liberal press, in the stock exchange, and in banking and industrial capitalism.

Hitler greatly admired Lueger and absorbed from him the lesson that anti-Semitism could be an extremely effective instrument of mass mobilization in crystallizing the resentments of the “little man.” But he disliked the easygoing opportunism behind Lueger’s policy toward Jews and Slavs, the Viennese mayor’s refusal to embrace the racial principle, and his tight alliance with the Catholic Church.

The other great influence on Hitler’s view of the Jews was the German nationalist composer Richard Wagner, whose operas he knew by heart and whose diatribes against the corrupting role of Jews in music and art he avidly consumed at an early age. For Wagner, the Jews represented the “evil conscience of our modern civilization” or, in a phrase much repeated by the Nazis, “the plastic demon of the decline of mankind.”

There were also other related themes that in retrospect seem to prefigure the Holocaust, such as the statement that twelve to fifteen thousand “Hebrew corrupters” ought to have been gassed in the First World War, so that “the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.” This does not necessarily mean that Hitler envisioned gassing the Jews in 1924, but it is important to understand his peculiar logic in order to grasp its full implications. Like many demobilized soldiers of his generation, he was convinced that the German Fatherland had been betrayed in 1918 by pacifists and Marxists, deliberately incited by the Jews. War, revolution, and the Jews were inseparably locked together in Hitler’s mind. Revealingly enough, his first known statement about political affairs comes in a letter on the “Jewish question” dated 16 September 1919, in which he defines Jewry strictly as a “racial,” not a religious, group. He describes its actions in a metaphor as resulting “in a racial tuberculosis of peoples.” Rejecting mere pogroms as a purely “emotional” response to the Jewish problem, Hitler called instead for a “rational anti-Semitism” that would revoke the Jews’ “special privileges.” The final objective, he wrote to his correspondent, “must be the complete removal [Entfernung] of the Jews.” This ambiguous term could mean either their forced emigration, their extermination, or perhaps a mixture of both.

Mein Kampf is permeated by obsessions with “racial purity” as well as by the Social Darwinist principle of a relentless battle of each nation for its own self-preservation. In the case of the German Volk, its foremost vital need, Hitler wrote, was to acquire more Lebensraum in the east, at the expense of Soviet Russia, the menacing citadel of international Communism. Thus, for ideological, economic, and geopolitical reasons, Hitler called for an all-out war against “the Jewish doctrine of Marxism.” Its egalitarian doctrines contradicted “the significance of nationality and race,” denied the value of personality, and negated the “eternal laws of nature.” In an apocalyptic prophecy of the kind that he was to invoke frequently after 1939, whenever he referred to the “Final Solution” of the “Jewish question,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: “If, with the help of his Marxist creed, the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity.… Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” Though Hitler had abandoned the simple Catholic faith of his boyhood, one can find in these and other passages crude echoes of popular Christian beliefs, transmuted into the new “political religion” of National Socialism.

There were distinctive features to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. One element, which he himself directly related to “the visual instruction of the Vienna streets,” derived from his stylized encounter with the caftan-wearing Orthodox Galician Jews from eastern Europe. The way he tells it, this “apparition in a black caftan and black hair locks” first made him wonder about the foreignness of the Jew and whether this strange being could possibly be a German. The impact was apparently instantaneous: “For a few pennies, I bought the first anti-Semitic pamphlets of my life.” Once he had begun to take cognizance of the “Jewish question,” Hitler tells us that wherever he went he “began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity.” The climax of this psychodrama, which turned him (by his own account) from a “weak-kneed cosmopolitan” into a “coldly rational” anti-Semite, was the realization that the internationalist Austrian Social Democracy was “Jewish” in character: “When I recognized the Jew as the leader of the Social Democracy, the scales dropped from my eyes. A long soul struggle had reached its conclusion.” Of course, Hitler’s account need not be taken literally. No doubt he had an interest in rationalizing his anti-Semitism, demonstrating its iron logic and continuity. We know that Hitler did in fact mix quite freely with Jews in prewar Vienna and relied on them to sell his picture postcard sketches and paintings. The repressed sexual dimension to Hitler’s Judeophobia also seems striking: “With satanic joy in his face, the black-haired Jewish youth lurks in wait for the unsuspecting maiden whom he defiles with his blood, thus stealing her from her people. With every means he tries to destroy the racial foundations of the people he has set out to subjugate.” Hitler drew a direct parallel between this highly personal racist fantasy, drawn from the back streets of imperial Vienna, and the postwar occupation of the Ruhr by black French colonial troops. In both cases, he saw a Jewish conspiracy: “It was and it is Jews who bring the Negroes into the Rhineland, always with the same secret thought and clear aim of ruining the white race by the necessarily resulting bastardization.”

To what extent, if any, did paranoid anti-Semitism help Hitler to win power? It is probably impossible to measure its impact on Germans in any convincing way. We do know that the consequences of the First World War encouraged many disillusioned former soldiers not only to despise the postwar republic and its democratic politicians but also to blame the Jews for the debacle. Among the lower classes, many did indeed believe that Jews had profiteered from the war or the reparations. There were others, too, who resented Jewish immigration from the east or believed that the stock exchange and banking capital were mainly in the hands of Jewish financiers. Such arguments were hardly new. On the other hand, throughout the 1920s the Nazi vote remained modest. Even in the 1928 Reichstag elections, they obtained only eight hundred thousand votes and a mere twelve seats in parliament. National Socialist success in using anti-Semitism seemed limited outside of regions where there was a preexisting historical tradition or local factors favoring it. Nazi penetration of the countryside and of urban middle-class groups just as the Great Depression began to bite in Germany after 1929 helps to explain the remarkable increase in popularity after 1930. Anti-Semitism in this political context was a crucial policy adjunct, but it was not decisive.

Right-wing nationalists, conservative monarchists, and members of the old elites, frightened by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the prospect of an encore in Germany, were often receptive to the myth of a Jewish conspiracy.

Anti-Semitism resonated in Franconia, Hesse, Westphalia, and some areas of Bavaria but was relatively muted in the Rhineland, Baden, Württemberg, and Schleswig-Holstein. Even among ordinary Nazi Party members, only a hard-core minority (though a very vocal one) regarded anti-Semitism as the critical issue. It was evidently less important than anti-Communism, nationalism, or the woes of unemployment in attracting new adherents to the movement. Nevertheless, in Nazi agitation among high-school and university students, anti-Semitism was undoubtedly a crucial weapon in recruitment, helping the Nazis to “capture” a commanding position at German universities by 1930.

In the 1930 elections the Nazi movement leaped dramatically from 12 to 107 seats (18.3 percent of the total) in the Reichstag, making it the second largest party. In July 1932, the Nazis definitively emerged as the biggest party in the Reichstag, with 37.3 percent of the vote (230 seats), which was their peak performance under strictly democratic conditions. The staggering shift in their fortunes had coincided with their emergence as a catchall party appealing to the unifying ideal of Volksgemeinschaft (national community). They appeared to be a movement that, unlike all its rivals, was able to transcend regional, class, religious, and party barriers.

Though the Nazis made little impact on the solid electoral base of the Catholic and socialist parties, it did win over much of the youth vote, the disillusioned supporters of the weakened middle-class parties, some sections of the unemployed, unskilled workers, and much of the farming constituency. To achieve such a broad appeal, Hitler focused his message more intensely around integral nationalism. Between 1930 and 1933, he temporarily toned down the full-blooded anti-Semitism that lay at the core of his worldview.

Hitler had no difficulty in tailoring Nazi propaganda in order to attain power by legal means, once he recognized that anti-Semitism was not his most effective issue or central to the electorate. Instead, he underlined his unswerving rejection of a parliamentary democracy that had palpably failed. He acknowledged the urgent need to regenerate economic life in the face of mass unemployment and adapted his message to the longing for stability, law, and order felt by so many ordinary Germans. Hitler knew how to play with uncanny skill on the chord of wounded German pride and national humiliation while holding out the promise of a redemptive reawakening that would lift Germans from their despair.

It was the backstage maneuverings of authoritarian conservative politicians, wealthy industrialists, and army leaders that unexpectedly opened the door to Hitler. This conservative camarilla hoped to manipulate the Nazis for their own narrow purposes and dreamed of dealing the deathblow to the Weimar parliamentary system and finally smashing the left-wing parties. Especially naïve in this respect was the former chancellor and Catholic Center Party politician Franz von Papen. He desperately needed Hitler’s electoral appeal to further his ambitions, since he lacked any popular support himself. He persuaded the aging President Paul von Hindenburg to accept this coalition. On 30 January 1933, Hitler became chancellor and Papen his deputy in a cabinet that contained eight conservatives and only two Nazi ministers. But in the new age of mass politics, such cabinet arithmetic counted for relatively little. Hitler’s accession to power marked the end of Jewish emancipation in Germany. In the next six years, a whole century of Jewish integration into German society and culture would be comprehensively and brutally reversed.

During this realignment, the Nazi “war against the Jews”—not for the first or the last time—was temporarily suspended. The “Jewish question,” so central to Hitler’s own concerns, was quietly subordinated to the immediate task of seizing power. But any illusions that the assumption of office might moderate Nazi policy toward the Jews were to be swiftly and cruelly dashed.

On 1 April 1933, the German government officially proclaimed a one-day economic boycott of Jewish shops and businesses, organized by the fanatical Julius Streicher. It was ostensibly designed as a form of “self-defense” and a response to anti-German atrocity stories allegedly inspired by Jews abroad. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels asserted that the boycott was a “spontaneous,” grassroots action, but this was belied by the public response of Germans, which was decidedly mixed. For German Jews, it was, however, a tremendous shock to suddenly become the targeted victims of government-inspired hate and to be turned into hostages whose safety would henceforth be conditioned on the “good behavior” of their coreligionists in the outside world.

The new Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service pensioned off civil servants of “non-Aryan” origin. In deference to President Hindenburg’s sensitivities as a field marshal and war hero, Jewish war veterans (whose relatively large number appears to have surprised the Nazis) were temporarily exempted from this legislation. Separate laws disbarred 1,400 lawyers as well as 381 Jewish judges and state prosecutors. By the end of 1934, 70 percent of all Jewish lawyers and 60 percent of all Jewish notaries had been dismissed. By mid-1935, more than half the Jewish doctors in Germany had been removed from their profession. Within less than five years, the medical purge became total.

Goebbels moved rapidly against thousands of Jewish academics, artists, journalists, and writers, some of whom were Nobel laureates or enjoyed international reputations. Albert Einstein was only the most celebrated among the many prominent scientists and intellectuals who emigrated. No fewer than two hundred Jewish academics followed suit in 1933 alone. Altogether in the first year of Nazi rule, about forty thousand Jews left Germany, those who were young and single having the best chance to begin a new life abroad. The purges in the artistic and cultural spheres were especially swift.

Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy in the early years of Nazi rule had to be relatively cautious on account of his domestic and international situation. He could not initially afford to ignore President Hindenburg and the more conservative ministers in the Cabinet who expected him to preserve law and order while keeping in check the plebeian anti-Semitism of the more radical Nazis. The conservative nationalists were hardly “philo-Semites” or defenders of Jewish rights. Strictly legal measures that aimed at isolating and excluding the Jews appeared acceptable to them, as they did to many Germans, including the leaders of the Protestant and Catholic churches. Violent anti-Jewish street actions were another matter.

Jewish responses to this assault varied greatly. For some, the sudden vehemence of German anti-Semitism after 1933 came as a total shock, and there were those who hoped that it would pass away like a bad dream. Optimists easily persuaded themselves that Hitler was but a temporary aberration, a freak phenomenon who either would not last in office or would soon be forced by his blue-blooded coalition partners to moderate his policies. There were those who had built up family businesses over generations or were too deeply attached to the German language and culture to envisage any alternatives. There were the elderly, for whom a fresh start seemed inconceivable. Then there were the excessively well established, who had too much property to lose. Even after six years of humiliating and degrading persecution, philologist Victor Klemperer, an assimilated, converted German Jew, could write the following in his diary: ‘Until 1933 and for at least a good century before that, the German Jews were entirely German and nothing else. Proof: the thousands and thousands of half- and quarter-Jews etc. Jews and “persons of Jewish descent”, proof that Jews and Germans lived and worked together without friction in all spheres of German life. The anti semitism which was always present is not at all proof to the contrary, because the friction between Jews and “Aryans” was not half so great as, for example, that between Protestants and Catholics, or between employers and employees, or between East Prussians, for example, and southern Bavarians, or Rhine-landers and Berliners. The German Jews were a part of the German nation, as the French Jews were part of the French nation etc. They played their part within the life of Germany, by no means as a burden on the whole. Their role was rarely that of the worker, still less of the agricultural labourer. They were, and remain (even though now they no longer wish to remain so), Germans, in the main intellectuals and educated people.’ For thoroughly Germanized Jews, the “Jewish question” was altogether artificial, based on a zoological concept of “blood purity” that had no connection with reality. Hence it is not surprising that Klemperer despised the Zionist solution to the Jewish problem as “something for sectarians,” a historical throwback and absurdity that was “contrary to nature,” not to say a crime against reason. “It seems complete madness to me,” he observed, “if specifically Jewish states are now to be set up in Rhodesia or somewhere. That would be letting the Nazis throw us back thousands of years.” But it was those like Klemperer, clinging on at all costs in Germany, who seemed increasingly out of touch with events.

The Nuremberg Race Laws of September 1935 were the next step in the Nazi anti-semitic campaign. The laws “for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour” formally stripped the Jews of their remaining rights as citizens. They also forbade marriages and extramarital sexual intercourse between Jews and subjects of the state “of German or related blood”; they prohibited Jews from employing female German servants under forty-five years of age (presumably out of fear that Jewish men might seduce younger German women); they forbade Jews from flying the national flag or Reich colors. The Reich Citizenship Law also provided a new definition of who was, and who was not, a Jew.

The Reich Citizenship Law differentiated among three categories: (1) full-blooded Jews, who were designated as persons descended from at least three fully Jewish grandparents, as were those who belonged to or had later joined the Jewish religious community, had two Jewish grandparents, or had married a Jew; (2) the Mischlinge (part-Jews or persons of mixed descent) “first degree,” who had two Jewish grandparents but had not married a Jew or been a member of the local synagogue; (3) the Mischlinge “second degree,” who had only one Jewish grandparent. Time would show that differences among these labels could become life and death issues.

The declared objective of the Nuremberg Race Laws, according to Hitler’s own Reichstag speech, was “to find a separate secular solution for building a basis upon which the German nation can adopt a better attitude towards the Jews.” The Nazi leader could simultaneously claim both that he was seeking to solve “the Jewish problem by legal means” and that by disenfranchising the Jews, he was finally fulfilling a cardinal point in the NSDAP program of 1920—namely, that no Jew could ever be a Volksgenosse (racial comrade) or a Reichsbürger (citizen of the Reich).

Although German Jews had been reduced to second-class citizens, many had not yet given up hope that they might still find a niche within the Third Reich. They clutched at the straw that racial separation might indeed stabilize their position, as some official rhetoric seemed to imply, by offering them a “legally protected” framework. German Jews had been isolated from the rest of the population, but not all their means of livelihood had yet been destroyed.

The spectacular extravaganza of the 1936 Berlin Olympics encouraged the hopes and delusions of German Jewry for a little while longer, as the worldwide attention led to a toning down of the more vicious abuse and a halt to more blatant acts of anti-Semitic terror. The Nazis even permitted the token participation of a few Jewish athletes on their Olympic team to appease international criticism. But Hitler was only biding his time. Indeed, in a secret 1936 memorandum on his Four-year Plan, he made it clear that German Jewry would be expropriated in the event of the Reich going to war, an eventuality for which he was already planning.

Germans were ordered to be on their best behavior in order to radiate a positive image abroad of the new Reich as a law-abiding, peace-loving state. Significantly, Hitler postponed any act of vengeance against German Jewry for the assassination in February 1936 of the Swiss Nazi Party leader by David Frankfurter, a young Yugoslav Jew.

Toward the end of 1937, with full employment achieved, the drive to completely eliminate Jews from the German economy was noticeably accelerated. By this time Hitler had rid himself of the last remaining representatives of aristocratic conservatism in high positions, thereby gaining full control over the armed forces and foreign policy. A month later, Hitler annexed his former Austrian homeland. Vienna, with its prosperous community of nearly two hundred thousand Jews, quickly became a model for the rapid forced emigration of Jewry from the Reich.

After a particularly violent and brutal campaign of intimidation, Jews were forced by the SA to scrub the pavements of Vienna with small brushes, watched by crowds of jeering spectators. Jewish businesses were expropriated with electrifying speed, and Jewish homes looted. The Austrian tradition of anti-Semitism (which had molded the young Hitler thirty years earlier) flared up again with an intensity that caught even the invading Germans by surprise.

The Austrian model of radicalized anti-Jewish measures was immediately adopted in Germany itself. A full-scale “Aryanization” of the larger Jewish firms was initiated by Hermann Goering, the overseer of the Four-year Plan, as part of the broader policy of accelerated rearmament. A decree obliged all Jews to report their total assets; in June 1938, drafts for the obligatory “Aryanization” of Jewish businesses were already in place.

In October 1938 seventeen thousand Jews of Polish origin residing in Germany found themselves expelled en masse by the Nazi authorities. Dumped along the Polish-German frontier in appalling conditions, they were refused entry by the Polish government. Among the Polish Jews who were suddenly abandoned in no-man’s-land was the Grynszpan family. Their seventeen-year-old son, Herschel, then living alone as an illegal and stateless immigrant in Paris, was outraged by the treatment of his parents and of the Jews in general. In an act of revenge, he shot Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary at the German embassy in Paris. The German diplomat died of his wounds on 9 November 1938. In response, the Nazis unleashed an unprecedented act of anti-Jewish violence and terror, referred to as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) after the crystal-like shards of glass from the shattered windows of Jewish shops across the land. At least one hundred Jews were murdered, many more injured, and thirty thousand summarily packed off to concentration camps.

Describing these events in Berlin on 10 November, the Manchester Guardian correspondent noted that the plundering and destruction of Jewish shops had been going on for nearly eighteen hours. “There are streets in the business quarters whole sections of which this evening are literally paved with broken glass, while in the kerbs and on the road are lying smashed office furniture, typewriters, telephones, bales of papers and other wreckage which had been hurled out of the windows by the wrecking squads.” The British correspondent went on to recount how the wreckers “entered the synagogues, throwing petrol over the pews and setting the interiors on fire. As far as could be observed the work of the fire brigades was largely to stand by and keep an expert watch that the fires did not spread from the synagogue interiors to neighbouring buildings.… The crowds watched the burning of the synagogues with apathy.”

The American consul in Leipzig, David Buffum, who left one of the more graphic accounts of the pogrom, wrote that the barrage of Nazi ferocity “had no equal hitherto in Germany, or very likely anywhere else in the world since savagery began.” After describing the destruction and violation of property, he added, “The most hideous phase of the so called ‘spontaneous’ action has been the wholesale arrest and transportation to concentration camps of male German Jews between the ages of sixteen and sixty, as well as Jewish men without citizenship. This has been taking place daily since the night of horror.”

The pogrom had been incited and masterminded by Propaganda Minister Goebbels. It was he who had made the initial incendiary speech on 9 November in a Munich beer hall (commemorating the failed Nazi putsch of 1923) after news had come of vom Rath’s murder. He called the diplomat’s death the first shot in a new war between the Germans and Jews. His diaries reveal not only that the Führer was informed of every step but that Hitler explicitly wanted to make the Jews pay for the damage and to expropriate their businesses. Publicly, however, the Führer preferred to distance himself, preserving an attitude of aloof detachment.

Kristallnacht was the most violent public display of anti-Semitism seen in German history since the Crusades. It also proved to be a significant turning point on the road to the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, the lessons that the Nazi leadership drew in its aftermath brought about a shift in its methods of persecution. At a marathon session in Goering’s offices at the Reich Air Ministry on 12 November 1938, it was decided to levy a fine of one billion marks on German Jewry for what was styled its “hostile attitude” toward the German Reich and its people. After announcing the fine, Goering added cynically, “Moreover, I have to say once again that I would not wish to be a Jew in Germany.” The most practical outcome of the meeting was the elimination of the Jews from the economy and the confiscation of all remaining Jewish factories and businesses.

The Nazi T4 euthanasia programme, which began in July 1939, killed German and Polish inmates of psychiatric units, categorised as ‘unfit for further existence’, at a rate of some 5,000 a month by 1940. Most were gassed, though some were shot, under Gestapo and SS supervision with assistance from doctors; between four and five thousand of the 70,000 victims were Jewish.

The T4 programme was historically important, because at an early stage it demonstrated the German government’s willingness to undertake an annihilatory process, minutely bureaucratised from Berlin, to eliminate a sub-group surplus to the Third Reich’s requirements. Once one minority had been slaughtered wholesale, no further moral barrier stood in the path of the Holocaust: the dilemmas facing the Nazi leadership related only to timing and logistical feasibility.

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, and especially after their victory over Poland, the Germans adopted a policy of forcing enormous numbers of Jews into ghettos, small urban areas where it was hoped that disease, malnutrition and eventually starvation would destroy them. Over one-third of the population of Warsaw, for example, comprising some 338,000 people, was forced into a ghetto comprising only 2.5 per cent of the area of the city. The penalty for leaving the 300 ghettos and 437 labour camps of the Reich was death, and Judenräte (Jewish elders’ councils) administered them on behalf of the Nazis, on the often false basis that they would ameliorate conditions more than the Germans.

Another, vaster ghetto – the Vichy-run island of Madagascar – was briefly considered by Hitler in the summer of 1940 as an eventual destination for Europe’s Jews, as was British owned Uganda and a massive death march into Siberia once the war in the east was won. The unhealthiness of these places – especially given Madagascar’s yellow fever – constituted their principal attraction. When in February 1941 Martin Bormann discussed the practicalities of how to get the Jews to Madagascar, Hitler expressed concern for the fate of the German crews at the hands of Allied submarines, though of course none for the fate of the passengers.

During the first months after German troops entered Poland, some 10,000 Poles were murdered – a mixture of Jews and non-Jews deemed inimical to German interests. Five designated SS Einsatzgruppen – death squads – followed the armoured spearheads. Their commanders were granted generous discretion about selecting victims, which some exploited to eliminate prostitutes, gypsies and the mentally ill.

After experiencing the practical difficulties of industrial killing, few SS officers yet felt able to accept a challenge as ambitious as exterminating the entire race. Through the winter of 1941–42 they focused upon packing the ghettos, then completing regional cleansing processes by killing all those Jews found outside them, most in rural areas. Ghetto living conditions were unspeakable: from August 1941 onwards, 5,500 Jews died each month from starvation and disease out of Warsaw’s total ghetto population of 338,000, and mortality was comparable elsewhere.

Late in July 1941, a new policy was adopted: confinement of east European Jews to ghettos, where they became easier to control and deploy for labour service, while freeing up outside accommodation. The Wehrmacht strongly supported this measure, because it resolved administrative difficulties in its rear areas. The SS extended the range of Jewish murder victims to include many more women and children.

Around 60,000 Polish Jewish soldiers were segregated from their fellow PoWs and earmarked for later disposal; all Poland’s 1.7 million Jews were designated for resettlement in ghettos. Early in 1940, the Nazis embarked on the enforced removal of 600,000 Jews from areas of the country now incorporated in the Greater Reich. Large numbers, displaced without provision for their shelter or feeding, perished within months.

Despite their desperate situation, Jews managed to set up study groups, lending libraries, and underground schools in the ghettos. There were committees that provided child care and charity for the needy as well as a wide variety of cultural activities. Ghetto dwellers sought, despite the tragic circumstances, to preserve (as best they could) their fidelity to tradition and Jewish religious values. Torah scrolls were salvaged, and Talmud study, prayer, bar-mitzvah celebrations, and Hebrew-language classes continued. Chaim Kaplan, a teacher, wrote in his diary on 2 October 1940, on the eve of the High Holy Days: “Again: everything is forbidden to us; and yet we do everything! We make our ‘living’ in ways that are forbidden.…It is the same with community prayers: secret minyanim in their hundreds all over Warsaw hold prayers together and do not leave out even the most difficult hymns. Neither preachers nor sermons are missing; everything is in accordance with the ancient traditions of Israel.”

It is sometimes forgotten that Jews were not the primary target of the Nazis in the first eighteen months after the invasion of Poland. The Nazis, having decided in agreement with the Soviet Union on the destruction of the Polish state, proceeded to eliminate its elites, to “transfer” parts of its population eastward, to extinguish any manifestation of its national identity, and to reduce the mass of its people to helotry. In 1939 and 1940, close to ten thousand Polish intellectuals, members of the nobility, and clergy were killed by the Einsatzgruppen in a deliberate effort to crush resistance.

In the wake of the killers came German economists, technical experts, and academic planners who calculated that much of Poland’s rural population was “nothing more than dead weight,” whose continued presence was an obstacle to industrial development and to Germany’s economic interests. “Negative demographic policy”—a technocratic concept emanating from Goering’s Four-year Plan Agency—envisaged organizing the deaths of millions of Poles (and later Russians) as a solution to problems of food supply as the war was extended.

By early 1941, when, under Special Action Order 14f13, SS murder squads were sent by Himmler into concentration camps to kill Jews and others whom the Reich considered unworthy of life, an altogether more direct approach was adopted that borrowed the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) from the Gestapo, which had used it for extra-judicial killings.

It is striking that, while Nazi leaders repeatedly and publicly averred their commitment to eliminating Europe’s Jews, detailed implementation of the Final Solution remained a closely guarded secret: even Hitler and his associates feared the global response, and especially the impact upon their own people, of public revelation of the death camps.

The policy of mass killings was applied on a Continental basis at the time of Operation Barbarossa, when four SS Einsatzgruppen (action groups) followed the German Wehrmacht into Russia in order to liquidate those considered ‘undesirable’, primarily Jews, Red Army commissars and anyone thought likely to become partisans behind the German lines. By the end of July 1941, Himmler had reinforced their number ten-fold when SS Kommandostab brigades, German police battalions and Baltic and Ukrainian pro-Nazi auxiliary units totalling some 40,000 men complemented the role of the Einsatzgruppen in an orgy of killing that accounted for nearly one million deaths in six months, by many and various methods.

In 1964, a former SS member explained how Einsatzkommando No. 8 had gone about its grisly business in Russia twenty-three years previously: ‘At these executions undertaken by shooting squads,’ he told a German regional court, ‘it would occasionally be arranged for the victims to lie down along the trench so that they could be pushed in easily afterwards. For the later operations, the victims had to lie face down inside the trench and were then shot in the side of the head. During the shootings at Bialystok, Novgorod and Baranowice, the corpses were well covered over, more or less, with sand and chalk before the next batch was brought up. In the later shooting operations, this was only rarely done so that the next batch of victims always had to lie down on the corpses of those who had just been killed before. But even in those cases where the corpses had been covered with sand and chalk, the next victims often saw them, because body parts would frequently be jutting out of the thin layer of sand or earth.’

The Einsatzgruppen were relatively few and small; they achieved some impressive massacres, notably in Ukraine, but their victims were still numbered only in tens of thousands. Energetic efforts by the SS Mounted Brigade in the Pripet marshes during early August 1941 accounted for 6,504 Jewish victims. The unit’s final report for the month cited 15,878 killings, though the real total was probably over 25,000. The logistical difficulties of wholesale murder proved immense, even when labour-saving expedients were adopted, such as herding victims into mass graves before shooting them. At such a sluggish pace, the process of ‘solving Europe’s Jewish problem’ would require decades, and in the late summer of 1941 SS commanders began to demand a much more radical and comprehensive approach. In September, Einsatzgruppe C proposed working the Jews to death: ‘If we entirely dispense with the Jewish labour force, then the economic rebuilding of Ukrainian industry … is virtually impossible. There is only one possibility … the solution of the Jewish problem via the full-scale deployment of the Jewish labour force. That would bring with it the gradual liquidation of Jewry.’

The German invasion of the Soviet Union, code-named Operation Barbarossa, was indeed inextricably linked with the decision to implement a genocidal war against all the Jews of Europe. It also cost the lives of twenty seven million Soviet citizens (more than half of whom were civilians), including three million Red Army POWs. In this gigantic confrontation all traditional conventions of behavior, let alone ethical or legal restraints, were wholly abandoned.

The four Einsatzgruppen battalions that operated on the vast Russian front from the Baltic to the Black Sea would, with the help of the Wehrmacht and Nazi police units, murder more than one million Jewish men, women, and children in the first eighteen months of the Russian campaign. In the Ukraine, beginning in Lvov, they found willing collaborators among local nationalists. A report for the period of 1–31 October 1941 dealt with the extermination in the Ukraine, including the notorious Babi Yar massacres of Jews just outside the capital city, Kiev. The report noted cryptically: ‘The bitter hostility of the Ukrainian population against the Jews is extremely great, because it is thought that they were responsible for the explosions in Kiev. They are also seen as NKVD [Soviet secret police] informers and agents, who unleashed the terror against the Ukrainian people. All Jews were arrested in retaliation for the arson in Kiev, and altogether 33,771 Jews were executed on September 29th and 30th. Gold, valuables and clothing were collected and put at the disposal of the National Socialist Welfare Association (NSV), for the equipment of the Volksdeutsche, and part given to the appointed city administration for distribution to the needy population.’

Some of the earliest massacres took place in the Baltic states, where the Einsatzgruppen were aided enthusiastically, especially by Lithuanians. Here is a typically stone-cold extract from a report by Karl Jäger, commander of Einsatzgruppe 3, on the extermination of Lithuanian Jews, dated Kovno, 1 December 1941: ‘I can confirm today that Einsatz Kommando 3 has achieved the goal of solving the Jewish problem in Lithuania. There are no more Jews in Lithuania, apart from working Jews and their families. These number: in Shavli about 4,500, in Kovno about 15,000, in Vilna about 15,000. I wanted to eliminate the working Jews and their families as well, but the Civil Administration [Reichskommissar] and the Wehrmacht attacked me most sharply and issued a prohibition against having these Jews and their families shot. The goal of clearing Lithuania of Jews could be achieved only through the establishment of a specially selected Mobile Commando under the command of SS Obersturmführer Hamann, who adopted my aims fully and who was able to ensure the co-operation of the Lithuanian Partisans and the Civil Authorities concerned. The carrying out of such Aktionen is first of all an organisational problem. The decision to clear each sub-district systematically of Jews called for a thorough preparation for each Aktion and the study of local conditions. The Jews had to be concentrated in one or more localities and, in accordance with their numbers, a site had to be selected and pits dug.… The Jews are brought to the place of execution in groups of 500, with at least 2 kms distance between groups … All the officers and men of my command in Kovno took active part in the Grossaktionen in Kovno. Only one official of the intelligence corps was released from participation on account of illness. I consider the Aktionen against the Jews to be virtually completed. The remaining working Jews and Jewesses are urgently needed, and I can imagine that this manpower will continue to be needed urgently after the winter has ended. I am of the opinion that the male working Jews should be sterilised immediately to prevent reproduction. Should any Jewess nevertheless become pregnant, she is to be liquidated.’ The pattern described here was typical for the eastern front and a faithful reflection of the ideological war of extermination and enslavement that Hitler had ordered.

Some time between mid-July and mid-October 1941 Hitler decided to kill every Jew that his Reich could reach, regardless of the help they could have afforded Germany’s war effort. The exact date is impossible to determine, since the Nazis attempted to obliterate evidence of the Holocaust itself, quite apart from its organizational genesis. In October 1941 all Jewish emigration from Europe was banned, and deportations of German Jews from the Reich began. The next month, mobile gas vans were used to kill Jews in Łódź in Poland and soon afterwards in Chełmno. The process of these local massacres was still very haphazard, but before the end of 1941 the SS were starting to kill Russian POWs and the disabled with Zyklon B gas.

The SS had been using gas vans to kill more than 70,000 lunatic-asylum patients since 1939; it was an idea borrowed from Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, during which people had been gassed in specially converted trucks and vans parked outside Moscow, into which the carbon monoxide from the vehicles’ engines was introduced. Reinhard Heydrich pioneered the use of these mobile gas chambers for the SS, sometimes disguised as furniture-removal vans. In 1959 one of the chemists involved, Dr Theodor Leidig, explained what happened after victims had been packed into them: ‘I was told that the people who would be getting into the lorry were Russians who would have been shot anyway. The higherups wanted to know if there was a better way of killing them… I still remember that you could look inside the lorry through a peephole or window. The interior was lit. Then they opened the lorry. Some of the bodies fell out, others were unloaded by prisoners. As we technicians confirmed, the bodies had that pinkish-red hue which is typical of people who have died [of carbon-monoxide poisoning].’

On 12 December 1941, the day after his declaration of war on America, Hitler spoke to senior Nazi Party functionaries. ‘As far as the Jewish question is concerned,’ recorded Goebbels afterwards, ‘the Führer is determined to make a clean sweep.’ Hitler had referred to his January 1939 Reichstag speech, saying, ‘The world war is here, the extermination of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.’ Six days later Himmler made a note of a meeting he had held with Hitler, which read: ‘Jewish Question. To be extirpated as partisans.’ The policy was to be changed from killing Jews wherever they happened to be, while moving them eastwards and keeping them living in conditions also likely to kill them, to carrying out the Final Solution in specially adapted camps dedicated to the purpose. Sobibór camp was opened near Lublin in Occupied Poland in May 1942, and work was begun on Treblinka in north-east Poland the next month.

Final victory in Russia was still assumed to be imminent. Until this came, with a consequent liberation of resources, most of the Nazi leadership favoured deferring a ‘Final Solution’. Heinrich Himmler, however, was less patient: he saw swift eradication of Jews in the occupied territories both as a national priority and a means of extending his personal authority. It may sound trite to emphasise the centrality of the influence of the SS upon the Holocaust, but it is nonetheless necessary. The most powerful fiefdom in Nazi Germany pursued the extinction of the Jews almost heedless of its impact on the country’s war-making.

In September 1941, the Führer confirmed Himmler’s victory in his contest with Alfred Rosenberg for authority over eastern Europe: the Reichsführer SS was given explicit licence to conduct ethnic cleansing in the east. This decision marked the onset of the Third Reich’s systematic campaign of genocide. Amid expectations of looming victory, commitments were made that became significant impediments to Germany’s war effort when faced with the rising spectre of defeat.

Through the autumn and into the winter of 1941, the pace of slaughter accelerated: scores of towns and villages were systematically purged of Jews. In October, when a Soviet ‘stay-behind’ commando blew up the Romanian army’s newly established headquarters in Odessa, Romanian troops assisted by German SS killed some 40,000 of its Jews. Week after week the process continued, in towns the world had never heard of – Skadovsk and Feodosiya, Kerch and Dzhankoy, Nikolayev and Kherson.

The SS also shot large numbers of prisoners whom they identified as ‘of Asiatic appearance’, and began the work of murdering gypsies, which became systematic in 1942. PoW camps were combed for Russian Jews and commissars; those identified, at least 140,000 in all, were removed and shot. It seems important to emphasise that by the time the Final Solution was agreed, at least two million Soviet PoWs had already been killed or allowed to die. All moral barriers to mass murder had been broken down, ample precedent for wholesale killing established, before the major massacres of Jews were ordained.

In the winter of 1941, administrative confusion persisted about whether Jews capable of forced labour service should be kept alive. Local commanders adopted diverse policies: in Kaunas 1,608 men, women and children ‘ill or suspected of being infectious’ were murdered, followed by a further 1,845 in a ‘punishment operation’, and 9,200 more after a new screening. The head of the German civil administration in Slutsk in western Russia made a formal protest to the general commissioner in Minsk about the massacre of the city’s Jews. ‘One simply could not do without the Jewish craftsmen,’ he said, ‘because they were indispensable for the maintenance of the economy … All vital enterprises would be paralysed with a single blow if all Jews were liquidated.’ His complaints, he said, had been brushed aside by the commander of the police battalion carrying out the killings, who expressed astonishment ‘and explained that he had received instructions … to make the city free of Jews without exception, as they had also done in other cities. The cleansing had to take place on political grounds, and nowhere had economic factors so far played a role … During the action the city itself offered a horrible picture … The Jews, among them also craftsmen, were brutally mistreated in a frightfully barbarous way. One can no longer speak of a Jewish action, it appeared much more like a revolution.’By December, most Jews in the Baltic states were dead; thousands of collaborators recruited by the Germans as ‘local voluntary troops’ participated enthusiastically in the killings. For the rest of the war, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Ukrainians played an important part in implementing Himmler’s Jewish extermination programme.

In mid-October 1941, mass deportations of Jews from the Reich began, with people being dispatched variously to Łód, Riga, Kaunas and Minsk. Among the designated victims there were more than a few suicides, and in the light of events it is hard to suggest that those who took this course were ill-advised. All their valuables were seized at the departure stations, where body searches were conducted and passengers were required to pay fares. In the winter of 1941–42, a large number of Jewish deportees from Germany were shot immediately on their arrival at eastern destinations. These killings were carried out at the discretion of local SS commanders; no general order was issued, decreeing either their preservation or their extinction.

Hans Michaelis was a retired lawyer in Charlottenburg. Just before being transported, he sent for his niece. ‘Maria,’ he said, ‘I don’t have much time. What should I do? What is easiest, what’s the most dignified? To live or to die? To suffer a terrible fate or to end one’s own life?’ His niece wrote: ‘We speak. We examine both possibilities. We ask ourselves what his late wife … would have advised. Again he grabs the clock.’ Then he said, ‘I have 50 hours left here, at most! … Thank God that my Gertrud died a normal death, before Hitler. What would I give for that! … Maria, see how time flies!’ As at last they parted, she said, ‘Uncle Hans, you will know the right thing to do. Farewell.’ Hans Michaelis took poison.

A Berliner named Hilde Meikley watched the removal of local Jews: ‘Sadly I have to say that many people stood in the doorways voicing their pleasure as the wretched column went by. “Just look at those cheeky Jews!” someone shouted. “They’re laughing now, but their last hour has come.”’ The victims were permitted to carry fifty kilograms of baggage apiece.

The rhetoric of Alfred Rosenberg and Goebbels, acknowledging the fact of the deportations to the world, was uncompromising. Rosenberg told a November 1941 press conference: ‘Some six million Jews still live in the east, and this question can only be solved by a biological extermination of the whole of Jewry in Europe. The Jewish question will only be solved for Germany when the last Jew has left German territory, and for Europe when not a single Jew stands on the European continent as far as the Urals.’

To a remarkable degree, regional autonomy and logistical convenience – shortage of accommodation and food or, contrarily, of labour –still decided who lived and who died; but large-scale killings of eastern Jews, especially those unfit for work, continued through the winter. In Serbia, thousands of Jews and gypsies were executed in retaliation for partisan activity: local German commanders knew that prioritising such people as victims ensured Berlin’s approval.

In order for the Nazis to exterminate almost two million Polish Jews in less than two years between early 1942 and late 1943, they needed to use units such as the Reserve Police Battalion 101, which was alone responsible for shooting, or deporting to their deaths, 83,000 people. The battalion was mainly made up of middle-aged, respectable working- and middle-class citizens of Hamburg, rather than Nazi ideologues. There was a large number of quite complex psychological reasons why normal people allowed themselves to become mass murderers, and of course fanatical anti-Semitism was present in some people. Most of these reasons – wartime brutalization, societal segmentation, careerism, sheer routine, the desire for conformity, a macho ethos, and so on – do not end at the physical or historical borders of Nazi Germany.

Since no fewer than 210 members of the battalion were interviewed in depth in the 1960s, it was possible to ascertain that the recruits of Battalion 101 were not selected for their ideological ardour – only one-quarter were even Nazi Party members – and many joined up largely to avoid active service abroad.

Some battalion members reasoned that their non-participation would not alter the Jews’ ultimate fate. Although they said they disliked shooting infants and small children, they did it, just as they shot decorated Great War veterans who begged for mercy on account of shared comradeship in the trenches. They found it ‘disturbing’ that none of the mothers would leave their children, and so had to be shot together with them, although ‘It was soothing to my conscience to release [that is, kill] children unable to live without their mothers,’ said a thirty-five-year-old metalworker from Bremerhaven.

Georg Kageler, a thirty-seven-year-old tailor, killed his initial batch easily enough, but then fell into conversation with a mother and daughter from Kassel, who were destined to die next. He appealed to his platoon leader to be excused, and was sent to guard the marketplace while others did his share of shooting. Another man who quit during the slaughter explained that he became distressed by the poor marksmanship of a comrade: ‘He always aimed his gun too high, producing terrible wounds in his victims. In many cases the entire backs of victims’ heads were torn off, so that the brains sprayed all over. I simply couldn’t watch it any longer.’ One member of the battalion, Walter Zimmerman, later gave evidence: ‘In no case can I remember that anyone was forced to continue participating in the executions when he declared that he was no longer able to … There were always some comrades who found it easier to shoot Jews than did others, so that the respective commando leaders never had difficulty finding suitable shooters.’

Only twelve of the battalion’s 500 members – that is, 2.4 per cent – actually refused to take part in shooting 1,500 Jews in groups of forty in the woods outside the Polish village of Józefów 50 miles south-east of Lublin on 13 July 1942. During the remainder of that seventeen-hour day – interspersed with cigarette breaks and a midday meal – perhaps another forty-five or so members absented themselves for various reasons. The remaining 90 per cent simply got on with the job of shooting Jewish women and children at point-blank range, even though they knew that there would have been no retribution had they refused.

Some physical revulsion was shown by the members of the battalion, but not ethical. ‘At first we shot freehand,’ one recalled. ‘When one aimed too high the entire skull exploded. As a consequence, brains and bones flew everywhere. Thus, we were instructed to place the bayonet point on the neck.’ They recalled how the Jews themselves showed an ‘unbelievable’ and ‘astonishing’ composure in the face of death, although the sound of shooting made it perfectly clear what was about to happen to them. They represented a cross-section of German society and no one was coerced into killing Jews or ever punished for refusing to do so. Only a relatively small number of Germans approved of what was happening ‘out east’, yet the rest did not actively disapprove in any way. The vast majority were simply indifferent, and did not want to know.

Historian Christopher Browning shows that during the weeks and months that followed, most of Reserve Police Battalion 101’s members overcame initial revulsion, and became hardened killers. To be sure, they resorted to alcohol to render their duties tolerable, but they performed them with a growing accession of brutality. Lt. Hartwig Gnade, for instance, degenerated from a mere murderer into a sadist: at a mass killing at Łomazy on 16 August, while he waited for 1,700 Jews to finish digging their own mass grave, he selected twenty elderly, heavily bearded Jews and made them crawl naked before him. As they did so, he screamed at his squad, ‘“Where are my non-commissioned officers? Don’t you have any clubs yet?” The NCOs went to the edge of the forest, fetched themselves clubs, and vigorously beat the Jews with them.’

By the time Battalion 101 completed its contribution to the Holocaust in November 1943, its five hundred men had shot at least 38,000 Jews, and herded a further 45,000 aboard trains for Treblinka. Christopher Browning found no evidence that any sanction was imposed upon those who refused to kill; in one of the most highly educated societies in Europe, it was easy to find men willing to murder those whom their rulers defined as state enemies, without employing duress.

It is untrue that, as has often been suggested, the industrialized mass extermination of the Jews took place as a result of German frustrations on the Eastern Front, or even as a result of the entry of the United States into the war after Pearl Harbor, events which coincided with it but did not trigger it. In a Führerstaat (dictatorship), career advancement depended on pleasing the Führer, and Hitler – though careful not to append his signature to any documents concerning extermination, and to use only word of mouth in giving directions – was known within the regime to favour whichever policy was harshest towards the Jews.

Although Hitler attached his name to any number of Führer directives and Führerbefehlen (orders), such was the criminal magnitude of the Holocaust that he distanced himself as far as possible from personal blame, to the extent that his apologists even attempt to argue that he wasn’t responsible.

In all, around 1.3 million people died at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen before the more industrialized processes were adopted. We know the numbers because the Nazis sent back detailed reports of their massacres, which Hitler certainly saw and occasionally made tangential reference to in his discussions with lieutenants. On 25 October 1941, for example, at dinner with Himmler and Heydrich, Hitler said: ‘Let no one say to me, we cannot send them into the swamp… It is good if our advance is preceded by fear that we will exterminate Jewry.’ This was probably a reference to the SS reports of drowning Jewish women and children by their thousands in the Pripet Marshes.

No German official’s career ever suffered from being over-enthusiastic for genocide and many – such as Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant-General) Reinhard Heydrich – prospered because of their anti-Semitic fanaticism. When in mid-August 1941 SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler and Heydrich gave written instructions to escalate the killing of Jewish women and children as well as men in ever larger pogroms in eastern Europe, it happened, starting in Lithuania. Massacres of Jews – often through shooting at the edge of pits that had been dug by the victims themselves or by Russian POWs – took place at Ponary near Vilnius (55,000 killed), Fort IX near Kovno (10,000), Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev (33,771), Rumbula near Riga (38,000), Kaunas (30,000) and many other places.

The implacable nature of the Nazi campaign against the Jews derived from their special status as a Weltfeind (world-enemy). Implicit in this ideological conception was the proposition that even successfully solving the problem of German Jewry (for example by complete emigration) could never bring the “Jewish question” to a close. For at the core of the conflict was the demonic Jewish world power that would always seek to destroy Germany, National Socialism, and so-called Aryan civilization. The satanic quality of the adversary also meant that “international Jewry” would constantly seek to widen the war and intensify the struggle in order to spill ever more precious German blood on the battlefield. Within this logic of racial war, the most extreme measures could therefore be justified in advance as actions of self-defense.

The Wehrmacht both knew about and sometimes actively co-operated in the work of the Einsatzgruppen, despite its post-war protestations of innocence. For example, after the Babi Yar massacre, Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau issued an order celebrating the ‘hard but just punishment for the Jewish sub-humans’ and Gerd von Rundstedt signed a directive to senior officers along much the same lines.

Equal complicity in genocide was exhibited by Field Marshal von Leeb and General Hoepner, who ordered ‘the total annihilation of the enemy’, whom he identified as the Jews and Bolsheviks. The Germans had a long history of dealing viciously and arbitrarily with ‘undesirable’ elements among the domestic population of occupied territories, including suspected francs-tireurs in the Franco-Prussian War, Herero tribesmen in 1904–8 and Belgian civilians in the Great War. In 1940, some 3,000 black African soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered in the fall of France.

The Wehrmacht was wholly complicit in Himmler’s operations, even though the SS did most of the killing. On 10 August 1941, Sixth Army commander Walter von Reichenau cited in an order the ‘necessary execution of criminal, Bolshevist and mainly Jewish elements’ which the SS must carry out. Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel of Seventeenth Army cautioned his units not to shoot civilians indiscriminately, but instead to concentrate upon ‘Jewish and communist inhabitants’.

The Wehrmacht provided logistical support for SS massacres, together with troops to cordon killing fields. On some occasions, army units participated in shootings, despite orders from higher commanders against such sullying of soldierly honour. Soviet partisan activity provided a pretext for ‘security operations’, such as that for which the orders issued by the Wehrmacht’s 707th Division’s commander in Belarus are preserved. ‘Jews,’ he wrote on 16 October 1941, ‘are the only support the partisans have for surviving now and over the winter. Their annihilation must therefore be carried out uncompromisingly.’

The Wehrmacht, which objected in Poland and Lithuania to murdering valuable Jewish workers, did, however, actively participate in the killings of Jews in the Soviet Union. The commander of the Sixth Army, Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, explained to his troops in an order issued on 10 October 1941 what the rationale for their conduct in the war against Bolshevism had to be: ‘The essential goal of the campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its power instruments and the eradication of the Asiatic influence on the European cultural Sphere.… In the East the soldier is not only a fighter according to the rules of warfare, but also a carrier of an inexorable racial concept [völkischen Idee] and the avenger of all the bestialities which have been committed against the Germans and related races. Therefore the soldier must have complete understanding for the necessity of the harsh, but just atonement of Jewish subhumanity. This has the further goal of nipping in the bud rebellions in the rear of the Wehrmacht which, as experience shows, are always plotted by the Jews.’

The somewhat haphazard, semi-public mass killings by the Einsatzgruppen had their drawbacks, principally the sheer amount of ammunition expended, the odd escapee and the very occasional distaste felt by the SS men themselves, all of which Himmler wished to minimize. Therefore on 3 September 1941, in the cellars of Block 11 at the Oświęcim barracks to the west of Kraków in Poland – known to history by its German name of Auschwitz – 250 prisoners, mostly Poles, were poisoned using Zyklon B crystallized cyanide gas, hitherto used for anti-lice fumigation of clothes and buildings. The use of Zyklon B in gas chambers became the primary way that the Nazis attempted, in the words of Heydrich, to provide ‘the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe’.

Zyklon (meaning Cyclone) and B for Blausäure (prussic acid) was originally intended by Auschwitz’s camp commandant Rudolf Höss to ‘spare’ a ‘bloodbath’, by which he meant the SS having to kill Jews and others individually. Höss himself was a very early Party member, joining in November 1922; the number on his membership card was 3240.

At the start of the Holocaust there was a good deal of confusion over the treatment of the people whom the Nazis eventually wished dead. Improvisation, rather than any solid blueprint, was the general rule, at least until a day-long conference held in a villa on the banks of Berlin’s Lake Wannsee in January 1942. Afterwards, no department of the Reich could plead ignorance that genocide was official government policy, despite the sinister euphemisms employed in the circulated minutes, known as the Wannsee Protocol. These were not used at the meeting itself, however, for as Adolf Eichmann recorded in a 1961 memoir, ‘one spoke openly, without euphemisms’. The historian of the conference Mark Roseman describes its Protocol as ‘the most emblematic and programmatic statement of the Nazi way of doing genocide’.

This did not inaugurate the Holocaust, as the mass killings at Auschwitz–Birkenau had been going on since the autumn. Nor was it simply a logistics meeting, as no railway or transport people were invited. Instead its purpose was to place the thirty-seven-year-old Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Security Police or SD, at the centre of the process, while also establishing undeniable collective responsibility.

‘Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved in the Final Solution of the European Jewish question,’ the Protocol read, before listing every country where they were to be exterminated, from the Ukraine’s 2,994,684 – the Nazis were nothing if not precise – down to the 200 who lived in Albania. Ireland’s neutrality did not prevent Heydrich from adding her 4,000 Jews to the list, which is perhaps an indication of how seriously Nazi Germany would have taken Irish claims to sovereign independence in the event of their successful invasion of the rest of the British Isles.

The Protocol also went into great detail about who exactly constituted a Jew, with paragraph 6 of section IV stating with regard to ‘Marriages between Persons of Mixed Blood of the First Degree and Persons of Mixed Blood of the Second Degree’ that ‘Both partners will be evacuated or sent to an old-age ghetto without consideration of whether the marriage has produced children, since possible children will as a rule have stronger Jewish blood than the Jewish person of mixed blood of the second degree.’

Genocide was industrialized rapidly after Wannsee, known at the time merely as the Conference of State Secretaries. The minutes of the meeting taken by Eichmann suggest that, although there were twenty-seven men present, Heydrich did at least three-quarters of the talking. Afterwards they drank brandy and smoked cigars.

Before Wannsee, only 10 per cent of the total number of Jewish victims of Hitler had so far been killed, but in the next twelve months a further 50 per cent were liquidated. ‘Not only did everybody willingly indicate agreement,’ Eichmann testified in 1961, ‘but there was something else, entirely unexpected, when they outdid and outbid each other, as regards the demand for a final solution to the Jewish question.’

The experts discussed how the policy was to be carried out with minimum disruption to the war effort, and these bureaucrats were just as guilty as the medical orderlies who poured the Zyklon B crystals into the gas chambers. Conventional morality bypassed both sets of people, even though a majority of the state secretaries were cultured, educated men with academic doctorates who could hardly claim to have been desensitized by a brutal society. The Holocaust could not have been carried out without the willing co-operation of scientists, statisticians, demographers and social scientists supporting this ‘radical experiment in social engineering’, all operating in an utter moral vacuum. Here was an amoral caste of technocrats presenting learned papers that advocated ‘population adjustments’, the ‘resettlement’ of ‘useless mouths’ and the removal of ‘inferior persons’. It culminated in the Generalplan-Ost, a general plan for an eastern Europe populated according to Hitler’s dream of German settlers, with a servile workforce.

There was considerable detailed discussion about the construction of extermination camps and the virtues of gas. The principal outcome of the conference was agreement that the SS would in future exercise absolute authority over the fate of Europe’s Jews; that no other Reich agency could appeal against its decisions; and that henceforward, policy would be directed towards the overarching aim of cleansing the entire Nazi empire. This was implemented with remarkable speed.

Out of all the concentration camps founded by the Nazis the Auschwitz complex has become the most potent symbol of the Holocaust. In all, around 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz–Birkenau, more than 90 per cent of whom were Jews. Auschwitz was the camp headquarters where 30,000 prisoners were kept, and nearby Birkenau was a 425-acre camp where around 100,000 lived, worked and died. The slogan Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) fashioned in metal above the front gate at Auschwitz was of course another cynical Nazi lie, as work there was intended to make the inmates die, and no inmate was ever freed by the Nazis in the history of the camp.

After they were rounded up in their local communities from all across German-occupied Europe, Jews were transported by train to Auschwitz or one of the other five extermination camps in eastern Europe. Typically they were allowed to take between 15 and 25 kilograms of personal belongings on the journey. This was intended to lull them into thinking that they would be resettled in communities ‘out east’. Such lies were needed in order to keep them docile, and to trick them into entering the gas chambers without panicking, fighting back or trying to escape. On the long journeys, often by cattle truck they were given little or nothing to eat and drink, and were provided with no lavatories.

Once the transports arrived at the siding at Birkenau, there would be the first Selektion (selection), where SS officials would choose the able-bodied men and women who would be taken to the camp barracks to join work details, leaving the old, the weak, the infirm, the children and the mothers of children, who would be immediately walked to the gas chambers and exterminated. No fewer than 230,000 children died at Birkenau, almost all within an hour of arriving there, whereas average life expectancy for men who survived the initial selection was six months to one year, and for women four months.

Death came in many forms besides gassing and executions, including starvation, punishment beatings, suicide, torture, exhaustion, medical experimentation, typhoid, exposure, scarlet fever, diphtheria, petechial typhus and tuberculosis. SS member Oswald Kaduk gave Jewish children balloons just before they were squirted in the heart with phenol injections at the rate of ten per minute. Those who were selected to be gassed were walked straight to the underground chambers, and were told that they were going to be given a shower. The word ‘showers’ was written in all the major European languages, and there were even false shower heads in the ceiling of the gas chambers. Once in the undressing room, they were told to hang their clothes on the hooks provided, and then they were herded into the chambers and the heavy metal doors were suddenly locked behind them. Green Zyklon B pellets were then dropped through holes in the roof, and within fifteen to thirty minutes – accounts differ – everyone inside was dead.

Much of the physically arduous task of running the gas chambers fell to the Sonderkommandos (special units), prisoners who also had to undertake the work of cleaning and preparing the chambers and crematoria. ‘The only exit is by way of the chimney,’ the Italian chemist Primo Levi was told on entering Auschwitz. ‘What did it mean?’ he wondered. ‘Soon we were all to learn what it meant.’ Although only SS Sanitäter (medical orderlies) actually introduced the Zyklon B gas pellets into the chamber, the Sonderkommandos did almost everything else except locking the hermetically sealed gas-chamber doors.

Typically, in one gas chamber alone – and Auschwitz–Birkenau had six working round the clock – 2,000 Jews could be killed in ninety minutes by a team of ten SS men and twenty Sonderkommando members. Many SS men volunteered for overtime in order to obtain rewards such as extra meat and alcohol rations. There were some twenty-four-hour periods when as many as 20,000 human beings were selected, gassed, cremated and their ashes disposed of in Auschwitz alone. ‘Many of them knew they were going to their death,’ recalled the former Sonderkommando prisoner Josef Sackar of the Jews he had escorted into the gas chambers: ‘They had an intuition. They were afraid, pure and simple. They were terrified. Mothers held their children tight… They were embarrassed… Some of them cried out of shame and fear. They were very, very afraid. The children behaved like children. They looked for their parents’ hands, hugged their parents. What did they know? They didn’t know a thing.’ Victims were told to remember the number of the hook on which they had hung their clothes in the undressing room. This too was intended to lull them into the belief that they were only going to be washed and deloused before getting dressed.

Once inside the gas chamber, the victims had no hope of survival. Rudolf Höss was adamant in the memoirs he wrote between his arrest in March 1946 and his hanging on his own gallows at Auschwitz that April that, compared with carbon monoxide, ‘Experience has shown that the preparation of prussic acid called Zyklon B caused death with far greater speed and certainty, especially if the rooms were kept dry and gas-tight and closely packed with people, and provided they were fitted with as large intake vents as possible. As far as Auschwitz is concerned, I have never heard of a single person being found alive when the gas chambers were opened half an hour after the gas had been inducted.’ Those thirty minutes were as horrific as it is possible to contemplate. In the state-of-the-art gas chambers of Crematoria II and III at Auschwitz, the pellets were lowered in containers down wire-mesh introduction columns and the gas was distributed relatively evenly, but in other gas chambers it collected on the floor and rose upwards, forcing the stronger people to climb on top of the weaker ones in a vain bid to avoid asphyxiation.

Unsurprisingly the Sonderkommandos were thought of by other Auschwitz inmates as the Nazis’ henchmen, and as ‘especially soulless and savage individuals’. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote that they existed on ‘the borderline of collaboration’ and it is true that the Nazis’ job would have been far more difficult and laborious if the Sonderkommandos had not existed, although they would undoubtedly have found volunteers among the Ukrainian, Baltic or Belorussian auxiliary units to undertake the tasks. Yet it should be remembered that the Sonderkommandos had no alternative except death, that they provided food for other inmates when they could, and that they were the only group of inmates to rise up against the Germans.

When on 7 October 1944 it became clear that the Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz Crematorium IV were about to be selected, they attacked the SS with stones, axes and iron bars. The ‘uprising’ was over by nightfall, and no prisoner managed to escape, but they killed three SS guards and injured twelve, blew up Crematoria IV with hand-grenades smuggled to them by women prisoners, and tried to escape from the camp, with 250 dying in the attempt and 200 executed the next day. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives – Ester Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztajn, Ala Gertner and Róza Robota – were hanged after a week of torture.

Several of the eighty Sonderkommando prisoners who survived the war submitted themselves to interview, and they attested that they turned themselves into automata in order to survive and bear witness against the Nazis. A sense of apathy and powerlessness, as well as the use of alcohol, helped push what has been described as ‘the intrinsic moral quandary of the Sonderkommando phenomenon’ into the background for these ‘miserable manual labourers of the mass extermination’. Surprisingly, suicide was rare among them.

The Sonderkommandos only distinguishing mark, other than their tattooed number, was a red cross on their backs. To differentiate the inmates, and dehumanize them, Jews were made to wear yellow Stars of David, and the rest of the inmates also wore colour-coded strips of fabric sewn on the prison uniform, thus Jehovah’s Witnesses wore purple, homosexuals pink, criminals green, politicals red, Gypsies black, and Soviet POWs had the letters ‘SU’. From 1943 prisoners were tattooed on arms or occasionally legs with numbers.

Each of the revolts that took place – in Sobibór, Treblinka and Auschwitz – in the Nazi extermination camps were carried out by the Sonderkommandos, the only inmates with the physical strength to fight back. It was also they who tried to provide evidence of the genocide for the outside world, by burying accounts of it in tin cans in the soil near the crematoria, which have since been discovered and published. One of these, written by Zalman Gradowski, asks, ‘Why am I sitting here quietly instead of lamenting, weeping over my tragedy, and why instead are we frozen, numb, drained of all emotion?’ The answer was that ‘The continual systematic death, the only life of anyone who lives here, deadens, confuses and dulls your senses.’

Because the Sonderkommandos were Geheimsträger (bearers of secrets) they had to live together, could not resign their posts and could only hope that the war might end before they were themselves selected. Because they had the first access to parcels that the gassed Jews left in the undressing rooms, they ate better than any other prisoners, which because they were involved in such heavy manual labour suited the Germans. They were allowed to wear civilian clothes rather than prison uniform, had beds with mattresses in rooms over the crematoria, had time to rest and, beyond the daily roll-call, were not constantly overseen by the SS. ‘We never ran short of anything,’ recalled Sackar, ‘clothes, food and sleep too.

As with any factory, the factory of death had shift labour, foremen (known as capos) and a conveyor-belt, time-and-motion attitude towards maximizing efficiency. The SS gave precise orders about what the Sonderkommandos were allowed to tell those about to be gassed, so that the victims went – at least for the most part – unknowingly to their deaths. Since it was unavoidable anyway, the Sonderkommandos did not want to terrify the victims more than they already were. ‘I avoided looking them in the eye,’ Sackar recalled of the people he escorted into the gas chambers. ‘I always tried hard not to look them straight in the eye, so that they wouldn’t sense anything.’ He admitted that he and his comrades had ‘become robots, machines’ but denied that he had been entirely desensitized to what was happening: ‘We wept without tears… We had no time to think. Thinking was a complicated matter. We blocked everything out.’ Sackar survived selection by the SS at Auschwitz by mingling with the other prisoners just as the Red Army was about to arrive in January 1945.

For those who survived the initial Selektion on the railway siding there were plenty more. Regular barrack inspections would take place to ascertain whether prisoners still had the strength to work effectively, and those who could not, according to the most arbitrary criteria, were gassed. Selektion also took place in the prison hospital where SS doctors would regularly cull the ‘hopelessly ill’ patients. To visit Auschwitz–Birkenau today is to be brought face to face with sights that bring home the horror as powerfully as any book or academic study ever could. Ladders were required to climb up the mountains of shoes that were taken from the victims. Huge piles of shaving brushes, toothbrushes, spectacles, prosthetic limbs, baby clothes, combs and hairbrushes, and one million articles of clothing are displayed there.

The utterly debased sadism and crudity of the SS and their auxiliary-unit henchmen quite literally knew no bounds. Unremarkably representative was SS Staff Sergeant Paul Grot, at Sobibór, who was recalled by one of the only sixty-four survivors of that camp, Moshe Shklarek, for the way that he would ‘have himself a joke; he would seize a Jew, give him a bottle of wine and a sausage weighing at least a kilo and order him to devour it in a few minutes. When the “lucky” man succeeded in carrying out this order and staggered from drunkenness, Grot would order him to open his mouth wide and would urinate into his mouth.’

The historian Gideon Greig has identified seven areas of camp life where the absolutely pitiless phenomenon of Selektion regularly operated, against which there was no appeal.43 Selektion officers would carry canes, which could be used as weapons but were more often used to direct inmates without having to come into physical contact with them. ‘All those able to find a way out, try to take it,’ recalled Primo Levi of the process, ‘but they are in the minority because it is very difficult to escape from a selection. The Germans apply themselves to these things with great skill and diligence.’ Driven by thirst one day, Levi opened the window of his hut to break off an icicle to drink, but a guard snatched it away. ‘Why?’ Levi asked, only to receive the reply, ‘Hier ist kein warum’ (Here, there is no why). Yet in a sense there was; the SS did not want Levi to drink water because they did not want strong inmates, but rather weak, preferably dying ones as the numbers ‘selected’ could always be immediately replenished. Hearing a fellow prisoner thanking God that he was not selected, Levi recollected thinking: ‘Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.’

Most of the Jews’ belongings had already long been expropriated and used by the Nazis, but these were left behind when the guards fled the Russians in January 1945. Seven tons of human hair were left, which otherwise would have been used in the German textile industry. Suitcases, of which there are thousands upon thousands in enormous piles, were chalked with the name and birthdates of their owners. When the prams were taken away from Auschwitz, in rows of five rolling towards the railway station, it took an hour for them all to pass. Writing to SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl in January 1943 about ‘the material and goods taken over from the Jews, that is, the emigration of the Jews’, Himmler even went into detail about what would happen to the crystals to be found in their watches, because in warehouses in Warsaw ‘hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – are lying there, which for practical purposes could be distributed to the German watchmakers’.

At Auschwitz between 400 and 800 people could be packed into huts that had originally been designed for forty-two horses. Lice and fleas were endemic, although rats did not survive long because of the protein they provided. The standing cells in Prison Hut 11, which fitted four people at a time in a space 5 by 5 foot square, for up to ten days at a stretch, were used for starvation and suffocation, and the breaking of the human spirit, yet there were examples of great heroism and self-sacrifice. For example, Father Maksymilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest from Warsaw, volunteered to take the place in a starvation cell of another Polish prisoner, Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had a wife and children. Of the ten in the cell, Kolbe was one of those still alive a fortnight later, and so was murdered by lethal injection. He was canonized in 1982.

Viktor Frankl was an inmate of Türkheim, a satellite concentration camp of Dachau, between October 1944 and liberation in April 1945, where he was sent after a short stay at Auschwitz. ‘I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner,’ he wrote, ‘who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand that was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.’

The human nature of even the most noble people was warped in the struggle for existence. ‘Only those prisoners could keep alive who… had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves,’ recalled Frankl. ‘The best of us did not return.’ Primo Levi, who somehow survived Auschwitz, likewise explained why it was useless to befriend the weak there, because ‘one knows they are only here on a visit, that in a few weeks nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some nearby field and a crossed-out name on a register.’

Anything approaching human dignity was next to impossible to retain; as Frankl recalled: ‘It was a favourite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job it was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage. If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished by a blow from the capo.’ And thus the mortification of normal relations was hastened. It was because of experiences like this that another survivor, Elie Wiesel, later a Nobel laureate, was to say in 1983: ‘Auschwitz defies perceptions and imaginations, it submits only to memory. Between the dead and the rest of us there exists an abyss that no talent can comprehend.’

Himmler certainly had an efficient and enthusiastic lieutenant in Reinhard Heydrich, whom Hitler called ‘the man with the iron heart’, meaning it as a term of praise. After being dishonorably discharged from the Navy he joined the SS and quickly ascended the ranks of that organization. Once war had begun, Heydrich took charge of the brutal operations in Occupied Poland, with mass deportations of freezing victims in the dead of winter. After Germany had invaded Russia in June 1941, he was promoted to Obergruppenführer, and it was he who created the Einsatzgruppen. After being appointed director of the occupied Czech territory he was assassinated by members of the Czech resistance in 1942.

Born in Halle of musical parents, and a gifted violinist himself, Heydrich was an able sportsman and seemingly model student. Yet, despite his cultured background, he joined the thuggish proto-Fascist organization the Freikorps in the 1920s, where he acquired a taste for street violence. In 1922, aged eighteen, he met the future spy chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and through him joined the German Navy, rising to chief signals officer by 1930. Yet his naval career came to a sudden halt due to a sex scandal: he refused to marry the daughter of a steel magnate whom he had made pregnant, because he was engaged at the time to Lina von Ostau, whom he subsequently did marry.

Gaining the nickname the Hangman, Heydrich used the services of lieutenants such as Adolf Eichmann and Odilo Globocnik to kill the maximum numbers of Jews, and in July 1941 he received written instructions from Göring to undertake the Final Solution. This was his prized chance to prove to the Führer that he rather than Himmler would be the principal architect of the genocide programme. In September 1941, Hitler appointed Heydrich acting Reich protector of Bohemia and Moravia, that is dictator of the occupied Czech territories. He ruled the region through torture and terror, sending hundreds of thousands to the concentration camps that he was busily converting into extermination centres. He soon earned the new sobriquet the Butcher of Prague.

Dishonourably discharged from the Navy in February 1931 for conduct unbecoming a German officer, Heydrich secured an interview, with his wife Lina’s help, with Heinrich Himmler, who had become head of the SS two years previously. Himmler was quickly impressed by Heydrich’s cold efficiency, and offered him the chance to set up the SS’s intelligence and security service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), which soon became feared for its utter ruthlessness.

On Wednesday, 27 May 1942, four British-trained Czech resistance fighters – Josef Valčik, Adolf Opálka, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabčik – who had been parachuted into Czechoslovakia especially for the attempt, ambushed Heydrich’s dark-green Mercedes at the bottom of the Kirchmayerstrasse in Prague. Although Gabčik’s Sten gun jammed, Kubis managed to hurl a grenade which blew a hole in the car’s bodywork. The Czech anaesthetist who tended him recalled that Heydrich’s spleen had been punctured and his rib pierced by metal splinters and that horsehair from the car upholstery had entered his back on the left side above the diaphragm. It took Heydrich seven days and twelve hours to die from septicaemia.

In July 1934 Heydrich became a key figure in the Night of the Long Knives, thus bringing him to the admiring attention of both Hitler and Goebbels. By 1939, when the SD, Gestapo and Kripo (criminal police) were amalgamated as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), it was Heydrich who was appointed its first director. Hitler then entrusted him with creating the wholly invented ‘border incident’ at Gleiwitz which triggered the invasion of Poland.

Heydrich received a state funeral in Berlin; the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra played a funeral march from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Hitler laid a laurel wreath, although privately he blamed Heydrich’s ‘damned stupidity, which serves the country not one whit’ for having driven publicly through the streets of Prague. The four assassins of Heydrich were betrayed to the Germans, but none was captured alive, each fighting to the death or committing suicide sooner than surrender.

In retaliation for Heydrich's death units from the SD and Wehrmacht Field Police surrounded the mining village of Lidice, outside Prague. The entire population was rounded up. The 173 men and boys over the age of fifteen were shot there and then, and the 198 women and 98 children were taken off to extermination camps for subsequent execution. All the buildings in the village were burnt to the ground, and the village’s name was erased from all records. Thirteen children were allowed to survive because they had blond hair; they were taken to Germany to be brought up as Aryans. In another village, Ležáky, seventeen men and sixteen women were shot and fourteen children gassed. An official statement was made to the effect that Lidice had been punished ‘to teach the Czechs a final lesson of subservience and humility’.

In the spring of 1942 Himmler refined a scheme to exploit concentration camp labour for both armaments production and the private profit of the SS. However, systemic incompetence and corruption ensured that little of value to the Reich was produced under SS auspices; on the contrary, the camp programme was a drain on Germany’s transport, manpower and general economic resources. At the beginning of June 1942, amid further mass deportations from the districts of Lublin and Galicia, the SS extended the policy of dispatching victims immediately on their arrival in camp reception areas.

Though millions of prisoners were put to work, mostly of a primitive kind, the SS never seriously attempted to reconcile its desire to extract useful services from its slaves with a consequent need to treat them with minimal humanity. Because its foremost aspiration was to produce mass death, it failed to produce much else save a ghastly harvest of human hair, gold teeth and discarded clothing.

The concept of resettling Jews in the east had been abandoned, although a figleaf of pretence was sustained. Germany’s leaders now anticipated that their 1942 summer offensive in Russia would end the war, and the usefulness of Jewish slave labour. The Slovakian government allowed the shipment of 50,000 of its citizens to Auschwitz. A programme of deportations of western European Jews was introduced, conducted in collaboration with national security forces.

In April 1943 some 850 soldiers of the Waffen-SS entered the Warsaw Ghetto, intending first to ‘evacuate’ the remaining Jewish population there, and then to destroy it, under orders from Himmler. The Jews had been warned by the arrival of Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian auxiliaries of what was about to happen, and the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB, or Jewish combat organization) took up positions around the Ghetto, ready to make the SS pay as dearly as possible. It was to continue like that for nearly four weeks, as the combatants had to fight hand to hand and street by street.

The Ghetto Uprising came as a surprise to the Germans. On the first day they lost twelve killed as the ZOB threw grenades and Molotov cocktails at their attackers, managing to set one tank alight. So serious a reverse was it that the chief of the SS in Warsaw was replaced, and SS-General Jürgen Stroop took over. ‘The Jews and bandits defended themselves from one defence point to the next,’ Stroop reported of one attack soon afterwards, ‘and at the last minute escaped via attics or underground passages.

The leader of the Uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz, and his closest comrades refused to surrender to the SS, which surrounded them in a bunker at 18 Mila Street; instead he and his comrades committed suicide. Eight days later the Uprising reached its terrible denouement when Stroop blew up the Warsaw synagogue. By then he had captured or killed 55,065 Jews, and those Poles (‘bandits’) who had fought alongside them, who were executed on capture. Stroop had lost only sixteen men killed and eighty-four wounded.

Vastly outnumbered in terms of fighters and outgunned in equipment, the Jews fought with a furious determination born of utter desperation, as Stroop slowly made his way into the centre of the Ghetto. ‘One saw constant examples of how, despite the threat of fire, the Jews and bandits preferred to return into the flames than to fall into our hands,’ Stroop reported to SS-Obergruppenführer Krüger in Kraków. ‘Yelling abuse at Germany and the Führer and cursing German soldiers, Jews hurl themselves from burning windows and balconies.’

Warsaw was a signal for Jewish resistance in Lvov, Częstochowa, Białystok and, even Treblinka and then twelve days later at Sobibór. With the huge preponderance of armaments enjoyed by the Germans, little useful militarily could be achieved.

The deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz began in March 1944. SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Adolf Eichmann led the special task force that deported 437,000 of them there over eight weeks. He later boasted to a crony that he would ‘jump laughing into his grave’ for his part in the deaths of four million Jews.

In a 1961 diary entry after his conviction in Israel of genocide, Eichmann wrote: ‘I saw the eeriness of the death machinery; wheel turning on wheel, like the mechanisms of a watch. And I saw those who maintained the machinery, who kept it going. I saw them, as they re-wound the mechanism; and I watched the second hand, as it rushed through the seconds; rushing like lives towards death. The greatest and most monumental dance of death of all time; this I saw.’ The trial and subsequent execution of Eichmann was very much the exception, however. Out of the estimated 7,000 men and 200 women guards who served at Auschwitz during the war, only 800 were ever prosecuted. The rest merely disappeared into private life.

Thereafter, as Allied victory loomed, Jews who had survived thus far found their prospects improved: more people were willing to risk hiding them. But most of those whom Hitler had chosen as his pre-eminent victims were already dead.

The issue of whether the Allies ought to have bombed Auschwitz will long be with us. Although it was logistically possible by early 1944 the decision was nonetheless taken not to bomb a camp that the Allies had known since 1942 was being used for genocide. While it was true that the unmarked underground gas chambers and crematoria might well have escaped, it is argued that it might have been possible to bomb the railway lines running to and from the camp, and would anyway have been worth the attempt. The fear of killing large numbers of inmates was a major consideration but a much more regularly used argument at the time was that the best way to help the Jews was to defeat the Germans as quickly as possible, for which the RAF and USAAF needed to bomb military and industrial targets instead.

The possibility of dropping arms to the inmates in the hope of an uprising, or even of landing paratroops there, was considered by the US War Refugee Board in its Weekly Report of 10 to 15 July 1944, but not passed on to the military. The American Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, rejected an appeal to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria on the grounds that it ‘could only be executed by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources’. Far less convincingly, McCloy also argued that any such action ‘might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans’. The synthetic-oil and -rubber plant at Monowitz was bombed by the Fifteenth US Air Force in August 1944, from Foggia in southern Italy, with the loss of only one out of 127 Flying Fortresses. Much damage was done, and the morale of the prisoners of Auschwitz–Birkenau was boosted, for as one of them, Arie Hassenberg, put it: ‘We thought, they know all about us, they are making preparations to free us, we might escape, some of us might get out, some of us might survive.’ He also declared: ‘To see a killed German; that was why we enjoyed the bombing.’

In June 1944 the US War Department replied to a request from American Jewish organizations for the bombing of the Košice–Preskov railway line between Hungary and Auschwitz by saying that it ‘fully appreciates the humanitarian importance of the suggested operation. However, after due consideration of the problem, it is considered that the most effective relief to the victims… is the early defeat of the Axis.’ Moreover, there were no fewer than seven separate railway lines which fed into the Lvov–Auschwitz route, of which Košice-Preskov was only one. Auschwitz had initially been chosen precisely because it was a nodal point for eastern and southern-eastern European railway junctions.

With the Allied Chiefs of Staff still concentrating on the aftermath of the Normandy invasion the bombing of Auschwitz was not likely to get high-level consideration. Nonetheless, the camp inmates – many of whom would have been killed – wanted the camps to be bombed. When the nearby IG Farben factory was attacked and forty Jews and fifteen SS were killed, the inmates inwardly celebrated, despite the nearly three-to-one ratio of deaths between oppressed and oppressor.

The War Refugee Board officially called for the bombing of Auschwitz on 8 November 1944, drawing a comparison with the RAF Mosquito precision bombing of Amiens prison that February, during which 258 inmates had escaped, although 100 had died. By then it was almost too late, as the last gassings in the camp took place on 28 November, a mere twenty days later. With the autumn weather in southern Poland providing only patchy opportunities for bombing from bases many hundreds of miles away, good visibility was necessary for the kind of precision attacking that would be needed, very far removed from the kind necessary merely to bomb the nearby industrial plants.

The post-war suggestion that de Havilland DH-98 Mosquito bombers should have attacked Auschwitz – no one came up with any such scheme during the war – has been exploded by a United States Air Force Historical Research Center archivist, Dr James H. Kitchens III, who has pointed out that ‘flying over 620 miles in radio silence, crossing the Alps in some semblance of cohesion at low altitude, then sneaking through German air defenses with enough fuel to make a coordinated precision attack on five [gas chambers and crematoria] targets and return home beggars belief.’

What might well have happened, given the inaccuracy of even so-called precision bombing – only 34% of bombs dropped by the USAAF fell within a thousand feet of their targets– was that the gas chambers would have survived whereas thousands of innocents in the nearby huts would have perished. For this reason, some Jewish groups in Britain and America specifically opposed the bombing of the camps.

For the past three decades aerial photographs of Auschwitz have been published which were taken by an Allied air crew on 25 August 1944 and which clearly show, once enlarged, the positions of the gas chambers and crematoria and even a line of people making their way to their deaths. It is therefore widely assumed that the Allied air forces could have destroyed the facilities with relative ease. In fact, however, these photographs were printed from the negatives for the first time only in 1978, and during the war the technology was not available to enlarge the photographs to the extent that the group of people would have been identifiable. The leading expert on Second World War photo intelligence, Colonel Roy M. Stanley, has stated that ‘This 1978 photo analysis contains an understanding and correlation of what was happening on the ground that would have been impossible for a 1945-vintage interpreter.’

Rationality might have dictated that, once the war looked as if it might be lost, the rail, military and human resources put into the Holocaust ought to have been immediately redirected to the military effort instead, and the Jews who could have been forced into contributing to the war effort ought to have been put to work rather than exterminated. Yet a quite separate, entirely Nazi, rationale argued that the worsening situation on the Eastern Front required if anything an intensification of the Holocaust, rather than a winding down.

Speaking at the Sportpalast, only days after Field Marshal Paulus’ capitulation at Stalingrad, perhaps Germany’s greatest single defeat of the war, Goebbels made a Freudian slip during his harangue against the supposed ‘Jewish liquidation squads’ that he claimed were stationed ‘behind the onrushing Russian divisions’ (a neat inversion of what the Einsatzgruppen had done behind the onrushing German divisions). ‘Germany in any case has no intention of bowing to this threat,’ Goebbels told his enormous audience, ‘but means to counter it in time and if necessary with the complete and radical extermin— [Ausrott—]’ – he then corrected himself and said instead – ‘elimination [Ausschaltung]’. This was greeted with applause, shouts of ‘Out with the Jews’ and laughter. Broadcast live to tens of millions of Germans, the speech was Goebbels’ best known, and was delivered under a huge banner stating: ‘Totaler Krieg = Kürzester Krieg’ (Total war = shortest war). Across the Reich, the man closest to Hitler could be heard hastily correcting ‘Ausrottung’ to ‘Ausschaltung’. Germans took note.

Because Hitler did not spell out his thinking in regard to the relative importance of the Holocaust and victory on the Eastern Front, we can only surmise. It is not impossible that the reason that the Holocaust was intensified when defeat seemed likely, rather than halted as logic might imply – albeit to be reinstated after victory was won – goes to the heart of Hitler’s view of his own place in history. Even if Germany lost the war, he believed, he would always be the man responsible for the complete extermination of the Jewish race in Europe. That would be his legacy to the Volk, even if the Allies managed to defeat the Reich.

Putting his dream of a Judenfrei (Jew-free) world even before the need for victory was a measure of Hitler’s fanaticism. He knew that German Jews had fought bravely for the Kaiser in the Great War, winning many Iron Crosses and producing impressive officers. A Hitler who in 1933 had ditched anti-Semitism once he had come to power might have been able to harness millions of the brightest and the best-educated Europeans to the German war effort by 1939, including its award-winning nuclear scientists. A conservative nationalist German might possibly have achieved that, but Hitler’s Nazism meant that he never wanted to.

If the Nazis bore responsibility for the Holocaust, they were assisted in their crimes by some, if not most, of the regimes of occupied Europe. Anti-Semitism, albeit less homicidal than in Germany, was commonplace. The Nazi empire lacked resources to cleanse the occupied territories without the assistance of indigenous bureaucracies and law-enforcement agencies. Among the explicit purposes of the German government was to ensure that as many foreign regimes as possible were complicit in the massacre of Jews. In this, it achieved considerable success. Countries like Romania, Ukraine, Lithuania, Croatia, Hungary, Vichy France were all complicit to a degree or another.

In the nineteenth century, Romania had rivaled tsarist Russia in its persecution of Jews and intransigent insistence on regarding them as aliens. Under enormous pressure from the Western Allies, it had grudgingly granted citizenship to its Jewish minority after the First World War, a step the Romanian government canceled in December 1937. At that time, Romania had a very large Jewish population of 750,000. By 1940, several hundred thousand Jews had lost their civil rights, possessions, and jobs. Neither the Romanian government nor the fanatical ultranationalists in the fascist Iron Guard movement needed any prodding from Nazi Germany. Romanian nationalism had become almost synonymous with anti-Semitism and slogans connecting the Jews with Communism, capitalism, and plutocracy fell on fertile soil.

In January 1941, the Romanian Iron Guard carried out a savage pogrom in Bucharest in which 170 Jews were murdered. The following month, Romania entered the war, and its legions were soon involved in massacres of Jews in the east, especially in the Crimea and southern Ukraine. In Odessa alone, Romanian troops killed about thirty thousand Jews. Romanian troops were further used to send thousands of Jews on forced marches into designated killing areas, to drown them in the Dniester, or push them into the German zone of the Ukraine. The deportations of nearly 150,000 Jews to the newly annexed province of Transnistria were especially horrific. The Jews were herded into freight cars and often died of suffocation as the trains traveled through the countryside for days on end. Not surprisingly, three quarters of the Jews in Transnistria perished. Although Ion Antonescu’s government acted with ruthlessness against the nonassimilated and non–Romanian speaking Jews, it was much less inclined to cooperate with German demands to deport to the east the accultu-rated Jews of the Romanian heartland.

The Holocaust had begun on Soviet soil and was directed initially at the three and a half million Jews living there, including the recently annexed Baltic states. One of its most striking features there was its openly public character, so different from the secretive way gassings were later conducted in the death camps of Poland. The example of the Ukrainians is particularly pertinent since their collaboration with the Germans assumed such a wide-ranging character. In the Ukraine, local police zealously rounded up Jews and herded them into ghettos, isolating them from their neighbors and weakening their physical and psychological resistance. When the mass shootings began in the late summer of 1941, it was they who took Jews to the killing sites, seeing to it that they would not escape. Their motives were mixed. Some were primarily influenced by sheer personal greed, careerism, or peer-group pressure, and others by a vicious anti-Semitism and a burning hatred of the Soviet regime. As had happened elsewhere in eastern Europe, Ukrainian nationalists in the 1930s frequently identified Jews with the hegemonic oppressor—in this case, the Russians.

In Lithuania, too, the Germans and their local collaborators had begun to murder Jews systematically, almost immediately after the invasion. Reinhard Heydrich’s instructions to the Einsatzgruppen had been to encourage the local population “to act spontaneously” against the Jews. In the event, Lithuanians needed no prompting, such was the zeal and frenzy with which they carried out pogroms. Altogether, more than 90 percent of Lithuanian Jewry was killed in the Holocaust, the highest single death rate for any major Jewish community in Europe. None of these horrors would have been possible without what historian Dina Porat has described as “a fatal combination of Lithuanian motivation and German organisation and thoroughness.” She points out that though the Germans provided the framework and legitimacy for the killings, Lithuanian national aspirations and hatred for Communism were the fuel driving the murder machine. Feelings that had been bottled up during the oppressive Soviet rule of Lithuania (1940–1941), when its indigenous citizenry saw their independence erased, exploded into a crazed anti-Semitic fury once the Germans arrived.

Croatia stands out as another place where genocide became closely allied to fanatical nationalism. The ruling clique under Ante Pavelić required no encouragement from the Germans to kill Jews and even less to murder almost half a million Serbs. For the Croats, the prime enemy remained the Christian Orthodox Serbs, who were designated to be exiled, killed, or returned to Catholicism. Genocide was official, state-directed policy in wartime Croatia, and it did not spare thirty-eight thousand Jews and twenty-seven thousand Gypsies.

Hungary was an exceptionally tragic case, for had the Germans not invaded the country in March 1944, far more Jews would have been spared than in Romania. The collaboration of the Hungarian Army, the gendarmerie (who played the key role), politicians, civil servants, fascist Arrow Cross militia, and transport workers was essential.

France had both the largest Jewish community in western Europe and an indigenous tradition of anti-Semitism. The Jews of France were already well integrated into French society, culture, and politics under the Third Republic. In the 1930s, however, the earlier climate of tolerance had become frayed, as thousands of refugees (many of them Jewish) entered the country. The military debacle of June 1940 and the subsequent German occupation was the prerequisite for the institution of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime in the southern half of the country. The vast collaborative effort in which the French police engaged with the Germans proved to be the critical factor in the deportations. Altogether, eighty thousand persons (one quarter of all French Jews) died in the Holocaust, which was a terrible stain on modern French history but a relatively low body count in the larger European situation.

There were, as we have seen, countries that preceded or even rivaled the Germans in their brutal treatment of Jews. But there were also opposite cases where the “Final Solution” was partially or wholly sabotaged. There were governments or resistance movements in occupied countries, who refused the Nazi Final Solution. These include Bulgaria, Denmark, Sweden, and the Dutch, and French resistance movements, among others. The Italian sabotage of the Holocaust was at first sight all the more astonishing given that Italy was the leading ally of Nazi Germany in Europe.

A dramatic example was Bulgaria, whose fifty thousand indigenous Jews survived the war, despite considerable German pressure on its wartime ally to deliver them up for deportation. In contrast to Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, and Hungary, its native fascist movement was small and without political influence. Above all, Bulgarians were strikingly free from the anti-Semitism that was so pervasive in most of eastern Europe—a critical factor in their opposition to surrendering native Jews to the Nazis. The predominantly Sephardic community, which was well integrated into national life, was simply not regarded by most Bulgarians as a threat to their society. When Hitler asked King Boris III of Bulgaria to transfer the Bulgarian Jews for work in Germany’s eastern territories, the monarch resisted. Not even the arrival of the zealous SS Jewish expert Theodor Dannecker in Sofia, early in 1943, succeeded in changing the situation. The Jews were resettled from the capital to rural areas, which, much to German displeasure, dispersed rather than concentrated them. The Germans soon abandoned their efforts, and not a single native Bulgarian Jew was deported during the war. But the 11,363 Jews living in the newly occupied territories of Macedonia and Thrace were deported by the Germans with the help of Bulgarian police units under their command. The sovereignty of the occupied territories had not yet been determined, and possibly there was not much that King Boris or the Bulgarian state could have done.

Denmark was the one country in Nazi-occupied Europe where the entire Jewish community was saved as a result of massive popular opposition to Nazi policy. Although it had been conquered in April 1940, the country was treated by the Nazis as if it were a neutral state, retaining an independent government with which the Germans did not interfere until the fall of 1943. Unlike in neighboring Norway, there were no enthusiastic collaborators organized into a serious fascist or Nazi movement. Not only was the Jewish community in Denmark small, relatively homogeneous, and highly assimilated, it had the good fortune of being in a country where a democratic civic consciousness extended through all of society.

The open resistance demonstrated by Denmark to Nazi Jewish policy during the Holocaust was in fact unique, though it was much helped by having an understanding neighbor in Sweden, one by no means immune to anti-Semitism but willing to take in Danish Jews without conditions. Finland, too, which categorically refused even to discuss with Nazi officials the deportation of its two thousand Jews, proved that resistance to German demands was feasible. Ironically enough, the Nazis experienced their biggest failure on the “Jewish question” among their Scandinavian “blood brothers.” With rare exceptions, their fellow Nordics proved most unhelpful.

Holland shared with the Scandinavian countries a fairly modest level of anti-Semitism, and there was widespread hostility to the anti-Jewish measures imposed under the German occupation. Support and assistance for Jews was particularly prevalent among Dutch Calvinists. Equally, Catholic Archbishop de Jonge of Utrecht forbade his constituents to assist Germans in rounding up Jews. But the Nazis were able to crush most of the local Dutch resistance with comparative ease, not least because of the flat, open terrain that made guerrilla warfare unfeasible. In the end the Nazis, aided by local police, managed to round up more than 80 per cent of Dutch Jews and send them to the death camps in Poland.

In Belgium, there were relatively few collaborators with the Germans, except among the Flemish-speaking population. Even the fascist Rexist Party headed by Léon Degrelle (which lost influence after 1939 among the French-speaking Walloons) was much less collaborationist than Mussert’s National Socialist Movement in Holland. As a result of these factors, the death count—about twenty-five thousand Jews in Belgium (44 percent)—was considerably lower than in Holland.

In Italy dictator Benito Mussolini knew perfectly well that the forty-five thousand Jews in Italy were model patriots, thoroughly integrated into Italian society. Mussolini implemented his own version of anti-Semitism through the Italian educational system, in the press, on the radio, and throughout cultural life. Most Italian Jews were shattered by the shock of their sudden social exclusion, having been robbed of their citizenship and deprived of their livelihoods in a nation that they had served loyally and well. But inexcusable though these actions were, their impact was partially mitigated by the scale of the exemptions, the resourcefulness of the Italian Jews themselves, and the help they received from their neighbors. Even Italian government officials and some veteran fascists seemed to be infected by this popular mood and a general unwillingness to toe the Nazi line.

It is a striking fact that wherever the Italian Army was in occupation during the war years, the Jews did not come to any serious harm. For example, when they left France in 1943, the Italian military helped to transport Jewish refugees across the mountains; while in those parts of Yugoslavia occupied by Italy, Jews fleeing from the Croatian Ustashe and the Nazis were helped by Italian soldiers. Many were taken on Italian Army trains, dressed in military uniforms, and brought to Italy, where they were concealed.

So many prominent Nazis spoke openly about their intentions towards the Jews that it remains remarkable that the Allied national leaderships were reluctant to accept their words at face value. Informed citizens in both Britain and America, and a few even in Germany, drew appropriate conclusions about what was happening, reinforced by eyewitness testimony from eastern Europe. Within some Allied nations there was ambivalence, or worse, in defining attitudes to the greatest of all Nazi persecutions. Anti-Semitism was etched deep into Russian and Polish history and attitudes. In Soviet correspondents’ wartime dispatches, all references to explicitly Jewish suffering were excised by the censor.

Mrs Blanche Dugdale, a passionate British crusader for Jewish interests, wrote a letter published in the Spectator: ‘In March 1942, Himmler visited Poland, and decreed that by the end of the year 50 per cent of the Jewish population should be “exterminated” … and the pace seems to have been hastened since. Now the German programme demands the disappearance of all Jews … Mass-murders on a scale unheard-of since the dawn of civilization began immediately after the order was issued.’ Mrs Dugdale gave an account of the deportations, identifying Beł ec, Sobibór and Treblinka as death camps. ‘Certain it seems that Polish Jewry will be beyond help if the murder-campaign cannot be stopped before the war ends.’

Helmuth von Moltke of the Abwehr, the leader of the anti-Nazi Kreisau Circle resistance group, informed the British by secret letter via Stockholm in March 1943: ‘At least nine-tenths of the [German] population do not know that we have killed hundreds of thousands of Jews. They go on believing they have just been segregated … farther to the east … If you told these people what has really happened they would answer, “You are just a victim of British propaganda.”’

In Moscow at Easter 1942, for instance, one of countless rumours sweeping the city asserted that Jews had been committing ritual murders of Orthodox children – the ghastly old east European ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish people. In 1944, the NKVD reported hearing people assert that ‘Hitler did a good job, beating up the Jews.’

The revelation of the death camps posed a dilemma for Moscow, which the Soviet authorities never entirely resolved. They could not applaud the Nazis’ slaughter of the Jews. To acknowledge its enormity was to require a sharing of the Russian people’s overpowering sense of victimhood, which they were most unwilling to concede. In 1945, when Russians heaped abuse on their defeated enemies, observant Germans noticed that almost the only charge not laid at their door was that of persecuting the Jews.

In Poland, where anti-Semitism was widespread, some people cited reports that Jews had welcomed the Red Army in September 1939 as evidence of their perfidy. When Jews in the Warsaw ghetto staged a brief and doomed revolt in 1943, a Polish nationalist underground paper wrote on 5 May: ‘During the Soviet occupation … Jews regularly stripped our soldiers of their arms, killed them, betrayed our community leaders, and openly crossed to the side of the occupier. [In one small town] which in 1939 was momentarily in the hands of the Soviets … Jews erected a triumphal arch for the Soviet troops to pass through and all wore red armbands and cockades. That was, and is, their attitude to Poland. Everyone in Poland should remember this.’ In the spring of 1944 some Jewish soldiers deserted from the Polish corps based in Scotland, citing disgust at anti-Semitism, which they said was no less apparent in the exile army than in their homeland.

Anglo-Saxons were not immune from anti-Jewish sentiments. British soldier Len England expressed shock at the attitudes of many of his barrack-room comrades, of a kind later vividly portrayed in Irwin Shaw’s description of US Army service in his novel The Young Lions. England wrote: ‘Two of the most intelligent people I have yet met are confirmed Jew-baiters. The argument usually runs like this: where are the Jews in the army? There are none because they all have managed to get the soft jobs and have wangled out of conscription. In just the same way, the Jews were always the first to leave danger areas. The Jews hold the purse-strings, the country has been taken over by them. Individual Jews may be pleasant enough, but as a race they are the root of all evil.’ Murray Mendelsohn, a US Army engineer who had emigrated from Warsaw as a child with his family, was conscious of latent, if not active, anti-Semitism in his barrack room. His education and intelligence incurred the suspicion of his comrades, many of them former miners and construction workers. They nicknamed him ‘brain’ without admiration, ‘Not because I was that smart, but by comparison. I learned to be very inconspicuous.’ When the men of Easy Company 506th Airborne cursed their hated first commander, Lt. Sobel, they did so as the ‘fucking Jew’. Even in June 1945, when the concentration camps had been exposed to the world, an increasingly deranged Gen. George Patton denounced liberals who ‘believe that the displaced person is a human being, which he is not, and this applied particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals’.

Arthur Schlesinger, relatively highly informed by his work for the Office of Strategic Services, wrote of his own state of knowledge about the fate of Europe’s Jews in 1944: ‘Most of us were still thinking of an increase in persecution rather than a new and barbaric policy of genocide … I cannot find colleagues who recall a moment of blazing revelation about the Final Solution.’ Likewise British intelligence officer Noel Annan: ‘It took some time … for the enormity of Germany’s crimes against the Jews to sink in. In intelligence we knew of the gas ovens, but not of the scale, the thoroughness, the bureaucratic efficiency with which Jews had been hunted down and slaughtered. No one at the end of the war, as I recollect, realised that the figure of Jewish dead ran into millions.’ In the entire archive of Britain’s wartime secret service, no mention occurs – or none at least which survives – about persecution of the Jews or the Holocaust, probably because SIS was never invited to investigate these issues.

Though Winston Churchill decried in the most passionate terms reports of the Nazi extermination programme, his government – like that of Franklin Roosevelt – was unwilling to accept large numbers of Jewish refugees, even if the Germans could be persuaded to release or trade them. Anti-Jewish sentiments were certainly not just a German characteristic.

When Americans were polled in November 1938 about whether they believed Jewish fugitives from Hitler should be granted special immigration rights to enter the US, 23 per cent said yes, 77 per cent no. In August 1944 some 44 per cent of Australians who were asked if they would accept a settlement of Jewish refugees in the empty north of their country rejected the notion, against 37 per cent in favour. As late as December 1944, another survey of American opinion on the admission of Jews to the US showed that 61 per cent thought they should be given no greater priority than other applicants.

A British Colonial Office official commented cynically on a December 1942 report about the death camps: ‘Familiar stuff. The Jews have spoilt their case by laying it on too thick for years past.’ A Foreign Office official likewise deplored special pleading by ‘these wailing Jews’.

The Polish underground worker Jan Karski made his way to London in the autumn of 1942 after a fantastic odyssey across Europe, to provide an eyewitness account not only of his country’s sufferings, but explicitly of conditions in the Jewish ghettos, and of the extraordinary achievement he claimed, in having penetrated the Nazi death camp at Beł ec. While he was received courteously enough by Polish exile prime minister Gen. Sikorski, by foreign secretary Anthony Eden and later in Washington by President Roosevelt, he was afflicted by a dismal sense of awareness that the horrors he described somehow lost their force and magnitude in safe, unoccupied Allied capitals. ‘In London these things bulked small,’ he wrote. ‘London was the hub of a vast military wheel, the spokes of which were made up of billions of dollars, armadas of bombers and ships and staggering armies that had suffered great loss. Then, too, people asked where did Polish sacrifice rank next to the immeasurable heroism, sacrifice and sufferings of the Russian people? What was the share of Poland in this titanic undertaking? Who were the Poles? … We Poles had no luck in this war.’ Karski was discouraged by his own leaders from over emphasising the Jewish persecution, lest it should detract from the force of his account of the plight of Poland as a whole.

Many Europeans and Americans who had been appalled by reported German atrocities in Belgium in 1914 concluded angrily after the First World War that they had allowed themselves to be fooled by Allied propaganda, for it emerged that the killings of civilians had been exaggerated. A world war later, the Western Powers were determined not to be similarly deluded again. It was to the perverse credit of British and American decency that many people were reluctant to suppose their enemies as barbaric as later evidence showed them to have been.

George Orwell wrote in 1944: ‘“Atrocities” had come to be looked on as synonymous with “lies”. The stories about German concentration camps were atrocity stories: therefore they were lies – so reasoned the average man.’ Surveys found that most Americans continued to regard the Germans as fundamentally decent and peaceful folk, led astray by their leaders. None of the above diminishes in the smallest degree the responsibility of the Nazis, and of the German people, for the Holocaust. But it should be acknowledged that, even when overwhelming evidence became available, the Allied nations were slow to respond to the death camps.

Though little could have been done to save their inmates, any more than the millions of Russian prisoners who died in German hands, an insouciance pervades Allied documentation of the period which does scant credit to Britain or the United States. Even if Jews were not persecuted in the Anglo-Saxon societies, nor were they widely loved. There remained until 1945 a resolute official unwillingness to assess their tragedy in a separate dimension from the sufferings of Hitler’s other captives, and of the occupied societies of Europe. Such insensitivity merits understanding, but rightly troubles posterity.

While a vast number of Germans were directly or indirectly acquiescent in the massacre of the Jews, a small minority displayed high courage in succouring the persecuted, at mortal risk to themselves. Such extraordinarily courageous people preserved a shred of the honour of German civilisation.

A young Berlin shoemaker named August Kossman, a communist, hid Irma Simon, her husband and son in his little apartment for two years. Teenager Erich Neumann’s mother, a café owner, sheltered a young Jewish family friend in Charlottenburg for five months. A Jewish fugitive named Max Krakauer compiled a list at the end of the war of all those Berliners who had assisted his long struggle to escape death, and recalled sixty-six names. Rita Knirsch’s mother sheltered a young man named Solomon Striem, a family friend, saying to her daughter, ‘Rita, you must tell nobody about this! … I cannot just turn this poor hunted man away.’

The German war in the east involved much more than exterminating the Jews: Gypsies, too, were earmarked for destruction; between 250,000 and half a million Gypsies were sent to their deaths between 1939 and 1945, coterminous with the Jewish Holocaust. Gypsies did not, of course, hold the same place either in Christian consciousness or in the Nazi worldview as did Jews or Judaism, but prejudice and hostility toward their nomadic way of life was nonetheless widespread.

The Nazis were particularly hostile toward the Gypsies as an “antisocial” element and as “people of different blood” who fell under the Nuremberg race laws of 1935. Heinrich Himmler’s decree of December 1937 permitted their arrest on the extremely elastic grounds of asocial behavior, even without the commission of any criminal act.

As early as 1936, some groups of Gypsies were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Further legislation in 1938 to deal with the “Gypsy plague” aimed at a strict separation between “pure” (Sinti and Lalleri) and “mixed blood” Gypsies, as well as between Germans and Gypsies. According to the Nazi Office for Racial Hygiene and Population Biology, more than 90 percent of the German Gypsies were defined as non-Aryan “mixed bloods,” the favored government policy toward which was sterilization.

During the war, Nazi policy became even more radical, and in the fall of 1941, five thousand Austrian Gypsies were deported to the Lódz ghetto. Then, in early 1942, some Gypsies were murdered along with Jews in the Chelmno death camp. Gypsies started arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau in February 1943; a great many died from hunger, disease, and “medical experiments.” In 1944, women and children were gassed. In the Baltic states and the Soviet Union, Gypsies were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen; in Yugoslavia, they were killed by the Croatian fascist Ustashe regime; in Hungary, they were persecuted and rounded up by Arrow Cross fascists. In France, they were interned and later sent to camps in Germany. Two thirds of the Polish Gypsies died under Nazi occupation.

There was an ideological link between the murder of Jews and Gypsies in the Nazi vision of radical ethnic cleansing or “purification” of the Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). The fate of the Gypsies, as Himmler made clear in September 1942, was not a matter for the law or the courts, any more than was that of the Jews. Hence, they were totally at the mercy of the police and the SS.

The Gypsies, however, were deemed a “social menace,” not a total and universal enemy like the Jews, engaged in a universal conspiracy against Germany and the “Aryan” world. The “Gypsy question” had, for example, only marginal importance in the Nazi political agenda, and Hitler himself referred publicly to Gypsies on only two occasions, in stark contrast to his relentless obsession with the Jews. Moreover, those Gypsies who were considered “racially pure” were never regarded as a danger to the German people and were even thought of as having noble blood. Thus, the horrible crime against the Gypsies as a social group did not aim in principle at their total annihilation.

Hitler inflicted more misery on his fellow human beings than anybody in the history of the human race. He may not have been more vicious than some great evil-doers in the past but he had more terrible means at his disposal. Yet it is more than naive, it is dangerous to see Hitler as uniquely guilty. His ideology came in forms which seemed attractive and right to millions of his fellow countrymen. His resentments were theirs; his prejudices and preferences like their own. He used the engines of a modern state to murder and enslave millions, and that engine functioned smoothly almost to the very end.

Posterity is fascinated by the ease with which the Nazis found so many ordinary people willing to murder in cold blood vast numbers of innocents, of all ages and both sexes. Yet there is ample evidence in modern experience that many people are ready to kill others to order, once satisfied that this fulfils the wishes of those whose authority they accept. Hundreds of thousands of Russians were complicit in the deaths of millions of their fellow countrymen at the behest of Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria, before the Holocaust was thought of. Germany’s generals may not themselves have killed civilians, but they were happy to acquiesce in, and even enthuse about, others doing so.

Something went terribly wrong in Germany, and historians have long been poring over the remains to try to see where, when and how. Immediately after the war they wrote books about the mind of Germany which set Germany apart from ‘the West’ from Martin Luther’s time to the present. Others saw the decisive moments in the rise of Prussia, the reign of Frederick William I or Frederick the Great. In the 1960s a school emerged in Germany which saw the turning point in and during the First World War. That was followed by one which pushed it back to Bismarck’s time and there are those who claim it was all the fault of the Bolsheviks and Germany was just reacting to prior Soviet terror or waging preventive war on Russia before Russia attacked Germany. Whatever the case may be that is for posterity to decide.

Something went terribly wrong in Italy too and the rise of fascism was really ‘prior’ to the emergence of Nazism. Hitler always acknowledged his debt to Mussolini and rightly. Mussolini invented the modern mass movement of the right. He learned his techniques from Lenin and drew his ideology from the accumulating detritus of irrationalism, voluntarism, futurism and anti-modernism in all its poisonous variants. The fascist regime had secured its power, jailed its enemies and begun to build its great Roman monuments while Hitler’s party lurked in the shadows of the Weimar Republic, not able to collect 3 per cent of the votes.

Unreason knows no limits. It cannot measure profit against loss or assess means and ends. It rejects the liberty of the mind and threatens the person of the thinker. It cannot tolerate free speech, blasphemous books, satire and irreverence. It mobilizes the turbulent energies, emotions and wishes inside each of us and hurls them against the limits of the human condition. In doing so it destroys itself and lays waste its surroundings. Behind the martial façades of fascism and national socialism its acolytes were afraid. They feared and hence tried to escape the judgement of reason. The ruins of Europe and the piles of skeletons were the outcome.