After the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Nazis began killing vast numbers of Jews (as well as Roma, Communist officials, and others). Einsatzgruppen (subdivided into Einsatzkommandos), battalions of the “Order Police” [Ordnungspolizei], regiments of the Waffen SS, and locally recruited non-German forces all took part in systematic shootings of indigenous Jews. Beginning later that fall, some German Jews were deported to the east as well. For example, in 1941 and early 1942, the Nazis deported thousands of German and Austrian Jews to the ghetto in Riga, Latvia. On November 30, 1941, forces under the command of Higher SS and Police Leader Friedrich Jeckeln (1895-1946), together with Latvian auxiliaries under the direction of Viktor Arajs (1910-1988), systematically executed approximately 14,000-15,000 Jews outside of Riga. A week later, almost the entire remaining population of the ghetto was murdered.
Walter Bruns, a major general in the Wehrmacht, had learned of plans for a mass shooting of Latvian and German Jews and had tried to persuade various German authorities to prevent them from reaching fruition. Captured by the British late in the war, Bruns was one of many German POWs whose conversations were surreptitiously tape-recorded; British transcripts of these conversations, declassified in recent years, offer a rich trove of candid information on the attitudes of German officers, soldiers, and the SS. On April 25, 1945, Bruns spoke privately, and somewhat heatedly, to fellow German prisoners about the events in Riga. His remarks add to the weight of evidence that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (1887-1945), Chief of the Office of Military Intelligence of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, spoke directly to Hitler about the killing of Jews, but with no effect upon the basic Nazi policy (20). The difficulty of keeping such shootings secret was one of many factors that induced Himmler to move toward a camp-based system of killing.
Much upper-level discussion of what the Nazi leadership euphemistically called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was poorly documented – and intentionally so. But there is a surviving protocol for one – now infamous – high-level meeting of government, party, and SS officials on January 20, 1942. The Wannsee Conference, named after the Berlin suburb in which it took place, seems to have been called for three basic reasons: 1) to secure recognition of SS authority on the so-called Jewish question; 2) to present SS policy to a range of other authorities whose cooperation was needed for deportations and killings on a large scale; and 3) to thrash out potentially difficult nuances of policy regarding Mischlinge [partial Jews] and Jews in mixed marriages. Only on this last point was there much give-and-take.
The protocol of the meeting is not an exact transcript. Adolf Eichmann later testified that he had to remove some of the blunter language about mass murder at Heydrich’s insistence. The term “evacuation” appears frequently as a euphemism for mass murder. Another apparent deletion or unrecorded item was Heydrich’s statement that Hitler had entrusted him with this mission (21). But even the edited summary reveals the scope of the Nazis’ objective: to murder more than 11 million Jews, including those in England, Ireland, Finland, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. That the statistics on Europe’s Jewish population were inflated speaks to the fact that Nazi officials saw Jews lurking in every corner. One year later, in January 1943, Himmler asked Dr. Richard Korherr, the Inspector for Statistics with the Reichsführer SS, to prepare a detailed progress report on the Final Solution. Korherr continued to use the term “evacuation” as a partial camouflage for the Nazi program of genocide; at Himmler’s instruction, he removed another term, “special treatment,” from his draft (22).
(20) See Gerald Fleming, Hitler and the Final Solution, translated by James Porter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 80-87.
(21) Fleming, Hitler and the Final Solution, p. 46, n. 13.
(22) Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 242.