For years historians have been debating Hitler's role in the murder of Europe's Jews. Most had given up hope of finding documentary evidence of a direct order from the Fuhrer. That, after all, was not Hitler's style -- he preferred the unambiguous but merely verbal articulation of his wishes. A written order was therefore unlikely to be found, no matter how thoroughly the archives were combed.
But a young German historian named Christian Gerlach has recently used a combination of known and newly discovered documents to present a host of evidence pointing to Hitler's `decision in principle' to murder all of Europe's Jews. Gerlach dates the announcement of that decision as December 12th, 1941.
To some this date might seem surprisingly late. Indeed, by this time countless Jews had already perished, most of them during the bloodbaths which followed the unleashing of Operation Barbarossa in the USSR nearly six months earlier. But did this mean that all European Jews were already targetted for annihilation? The crucial test case was that of the German Jews. Was the order issued to kill them, and, if so, when?
In September 1941, Hitler gave authorisation for German Jews to be deported from the Reich itself into occupied territories. Deportations were underway by October, but their reception on reaching these destinations was inconsistent. In the Lithuanian town of Kaunas some 5,000 German Jews were shot on arrival in November 1941. But those arriving in Lodz and in Minsk were spared, at least for the time being. On November 30th, Himmler noted after a telephone conversation with Heydrich, `Jewish transport from Berlin. No liquidation'. It was too late -- some 1,000 Berlin Jews had been shot that very morning in the vicinity of Riga. These incidents suggest a decision to kill all the Jews outside Soviet occupied territory was yet to be announced to those who would be required to carry it out.
In the second half of 1941 authorities in Berlin received an increasing number of enquiries from the Reich's representatives in the east as to what to do with the Jews under their jurisdiction. Apart from the question of how to treat deported German Jews, there were enquiries about how to deal with the so-called `Mischlinge', those whom the Nazis categorised as being of mixed blood. What about those Jews who were still capable of providing valuable labour in industries crucial to the war effort, or those who had been decorated for service in the. Great War, or those who had non-Jewish spouses? As for those who could not work, how were they to be provided for during the coming winter as food supplies dwindled? Perhaps, as many felt, they should simply be left to starve in the ghettoes.
What was needed was a clear directive from above, if not from the Fuhrer himself then at least from a senior figure such as Himmler or Heydrich, which would provide the officials in the East with clear guidelines on what to do with their Jewish populations. To this end Heydrich arranged a meeting with senior bureaucrats to be held in a villa in the elegant Berlin suburb of Wannsee. Here, Heydrich hoped, a plan would be formulated, approved and thereafter implemented. The outcome would clarify absolutely who was to be categorised as a Jew and how such people were to be treated.
Heydrich sent out invitations to the conference on November 29th, 1941, asking the invitees to meet in Wannsee on December 9th. But on the 8th he postponed the meeting indefinitely. Not until a month later were the invitations re-issued -- this time for January 20th, 1942, six weeks later than originally scheduled. Why was' there a postponement, and for so long? One explanation lies with events on the other side of the globe. On December 7th, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, to the surprise of their German ally and of the US. Hitler had hoped Japan would open up a front against the Soviet Union in the east, but he now felt obliged to support them in the west, declaring war on the United States on December 11th. …