Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen and the “Final Solution”: Systematic Extermination in the Warthegau Territory

On October 4, 1943, Heinrich Himmler gave a speech to Schutzstaffel Officers in Posen, Poland, where he spoke about the difficulties associated with the systematic extermination of European Jews demanded by the Nazi programme. While some historians attribute this “Final Solution” to the intentional outcome of early forms of antisemitism, others postulate its genesis was an undirected outcome in the evolution of increasingly radical antisemitic policies during the latter years of the Reich. Similarly, while many historians present Adolf Hitler as the architect of extermination, setting out specific policies, others suggest that a host of political, military, and bureaucratic institutions were responsible for producing a systematized genocide. Historians have even debated whether the “Final Solution” was initiated by an explicit “Führer Order.” Arguably, while Hitler authorized the measures that lead to the extermination of Jews in the east, he deferred responsibility for realizing its outcome to various Nazi officials and Reich institutions. Under these conditions, semi-autonomous entities including Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen contributed to the systematization of extermination in the Warthegau territory.

Early scholarship endorsed an “intentionalist” approach to the study of the Holocaust. These scholars of the Third Reich assert that the systematic annihilation of the Jews was conceived by Hitler early in his political career and that steps to the “Final Solution” were programmatically instituted as early as the mid 1930s. For “intentionalist” historians such as Karl-Dietrich Bracher and John Toland, early antisemitic policies were part of a well-defined programme of total Jewish extermination. According to Lucy Dawidowicz, Mein Kampf was the essential formulation of Hitler’s programme for the genocidal policies that followed in the late 1930s and 1940s. Other historians cite Hitler’s second book as foreshadowing the gassing of the Jews in the Warthegau territory in the 1940s. Consensus among “intentionalist” historians has suggested that Hitler envisioned systematic extermination during the early years of his political career, and that he initiated antisemitic policies in order to realize a programme of eastern extermination.

By contrast, the “functionalist” approach explains Jewish extermination as primarily the result of ad hoc policy-based solutions to the logistical constraints of eastward Jewish expulsion. For “functionalists,” Hitler was not solely responsible for the rise of programmatic extermination. Furthermore, this approach disputes the requirement of a “Führer Order” for the genesis of the “Final Solution.” According to a strict “functionalist” interpretation, held by scholars like Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen, Hitler uttered no explicit extermination orders to commence the “Final Solution.” Rather, the “Final Solution” evolved out of the fragmentation of Reich institutions and the subsequent discontinuity of antisemitic policies during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ultimately, the direction of systematic extermination gained traction as an outgrowth of early forms of extermination in the Warthegau territory. Although these interpretations do not absolve Hitler’s guilt in the Holocaust, they necessarily challenge the primacy of Hitler’s hand in the development of Jewish extermination policies in the east.

Recent scholarship by Ian Kershaw and Christopher Browning has taken a “synthesis” approach to reconciling the disconnection between “intentionalist” and “functionalist” explanations of the “Final Solution.” Although it is doubtlessly attractive to assert Hitler’s primacy in the Holocaust, the “intentionalist” interpretation on its own is somewhat problematic. According to Kershaw, it is dubious to understand Hitler’s early antisemitic language – hateful, but not altogether unique in the Völkisch Right – as foreshadowing programmatic genocide. For Browning, this “post-Auschwitz” perspective also ignores the authenticity of early eastward expulsion policies. While originally concerned with the expulsion of Jews from German economic life, the interim period was characterized by full-scale physical expulsion of Jews from German territory by Nazi authorities. The rise of systematic extermination can be best understood by examining the infrastructural strains of mass-deportation and ghettoization in the Warthegau territory, which provided conditions that demanded more thorough methods of dealing with the growing Jewish problem.

According to Browning, these often-ignored interim years in the Warthegau territory demonstrate not only the nexus of “intention” and “function,” but also evince the catalyst for the systematization of Jewish extermination. Hitler provided the impetus for antisemitic policies. The lack of early directives by the Führer resulted in policy creativity, including proposals for mass-sterilization as a means of alleviating the strain of Jewish expulsion. Institutional creativity in the bureaucracy was coupled with pragmatism at the front. According to Browning, the mass shooting of Russian Jews by the Einsatzgruppen, as well as early killing experiments of Russian prisoners of war, represents the genesis of Jewish mass-extermination. It was within this climate that the impossibilities of expulsion gave way to the inevitability of genocide. According to Christian Gerlach, the Wannsee Conference, where Party representatives and heads of the Reich leadership met to decide institutional coordination of the Jewish question, was the most important step in reaching “Final Solution.” Although Hitler did not take part in the meeting, his monocratic status necessarily directed the Reich leadership (at least implicitly) toward policies of total Jewish annihilation in the east.

A view to the “synthesis” approach suggests that it is unlikely that Hitler foreshadowed programmatic execution of the Jews as early as the 1920s. It is even less likely that Hitler envisaged the use of poison gas to liquidate Jews in the Warthegau territory. It appears that the use of poison gas became the preferred method of mass-extermination because of its efficacy and comparative humaneness. Kershaw acknowledges that the use of Zyklon B in Nazi death camps was likely connected to the use of gas and gas-vans in the T4 “Euthanasia Action.” According to Richard Breitman, the Einsatzgruppen came under psychological stress due to the nature of their “work” in the east. Himmler admitted the that task at hand was altogether more difficult than mere “party-talk” suggested. The ad hoc use of poison gas-vans, and the subsequent construction of Nazi death camps were for the Nazis advantageous. Not only was the use of gas practically efficient, but it also mitigated the psychological burden placed on the Einsatzgruppen and others undertaking to address the Jewish question.

A “synthesis” approach is the most appropriate for understanding the systematic extermination of Jews in the east. Contrary to the “intentionalist” claim, it is unlikely that Hitler’s early dogmatic writings foreshadowed an explicit extermination programme or, specifically, the use of gas in the Warthegau territory. It is evident that the systematic realization of the “Final Solution” was, at least implicitly, on the Führer’s authorization. Its genesis, however, was very much an outgrowth of evolving antisemitic policies in the Reich, resulting from logistical constraints of the mass-expulsion to the east. Its systematization was directly related to the ad hoc application of more efficient methods of extermination. Those methods were adopted, in part, as a means of limiting the strain placed on the Einsatzgruppen. Experimentation with gas-vans unequivocally led to the construction of gas chambers not simply as the most efficient mechanism of extermination, but also as the most “humane” for Himmler’s SS, who necessarily carried the burden of Jewish annihilation for the Reich.

Written by Jon Milani. Posted on December 18, 2012. Filed under History. Tagged: , , , .