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Aktion Reinhard and the Emergence of "The Final Solution"

Last Update 14 November 2005

The years-long debate by scholars about the decision-making process for the "Final Solution" has produced a wide spectrum of interpretations and overviews. No direct evidence of the "order", written or unwritten, has surfaced, or is likely to do so. The debate continues, because it is crucial for understanding the historiography of the Nazi State. It could even be said that it will remain the "holy grail" of Holocaust research. Opinions vary about the most probable time or period that the decision was taken, but most recent research indicates that it was a gradual and complex process and that the crucial decisions were almost certainly taken in the summer and autumn of 1941.

Christopher Browning, who for some years has been a leading researcher on this subject, argues that it was a two-stage decision, one for Soviet and another for European Jewry, based on the euphoria of assumed victory in mid-July and early October 1941 respectively. If this is so, it should be added that those decisions were also implemented in two main stages - firstly in late 1941, to rid the Reich of unproductive Jews (confirmed by the Wannsee Conference, and secondly, in July 1942, being the period of accelerated deportations of all Jews under German occupation with the exception of Jews selected for labour.

Peter Longerich suggests that the deportations from the Reich in the autumn and winter of 1941/42 precipitated the clearance of ghettos in the Warthegau and the Lublin area in order to make room for the deportees (see below). It is proposed that the consequent commencement of mass gassings at Chelmno and Belzec were not "The Final Solution" in action as such, which was at that stage still being contemplated by at least some of the Nazi hierarchy in a post-war "territorial" context, but rather as specific operations to murder Polish Jews "unfit for work", albeit in the knowledge and with the consent of the Himmler - Heydrich Executive. Longerich further proposes that it was Hitler's declaration of war on the United States on 11 December 1941 that made the concept of using Western and Central European Jews as hostages against American participation in the war obsolescent and ultimately was responsible in part for the escalation to continent-wide genocide in the spring and summer of 1942. It had always been the intention to eliminate the Eastern European Jews, either through labour, starvation, shooting or finally by gassing. However, what had been initially conceived of as a post-war "solution" now became a wartime imperative.

Bogdan Musial in his case study of Jewish persecution in the Generalgouvernement 1939 - 44, concludes that the order was given in the first half of October 1941, based on the initiative of Odilo Globocnik and connected with his orders to Germanise first the Lublin District, and then the entire Generalgouvernement.
Dieter Pohl, Peter Witte and Götz Aly, among others, nominate late August and early September 1941 for the initial decision date. Certainly, there were a number of high-level communications as recorded in Himmlers diary for October - Globocnik's name appears in the diary on five occasions between 9 and 25 October 1941.

Christian Gerlach is even more specific about the timing, suggesting that Hitler took the fundamental decision at a meeting of Reich and Gau leaders in the Reich Chancellery on 12 December 1941. Gerlach posits that the Wannsee Conference, originally scheduled for 10 December 1941, was initially conceived of as dealing solely with the question of the deportation of Reich Jews. By the time it was actually convened on 20 January 1942, the agenda had changed to encompass the complete "Final Solution of the European Jewish Question". In his diary entry of 13 December 1941, the day after Hitlers private speech, Joseph Goebbels wrote:
"In respect of the Jewish question, the Führer has decided to make a clean sweep. The world war is here, the annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary result.

It is credible to conclude that there were three steps in the evolution of total genocide: in-situ mass killing operations post-Barbarossa (June December 1941); the first phase at Belzec (March - June 1942); and finally the second phase at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (July 1942 - October 1943). This was a progressive war of annihilation against the Jews, gradually brought to fruition by a crazed anti-Semitic, all-powerful persecutor.

The escalation of decision-making in the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" took place in October 1941. In mid September 1941, having previously vacillated over the fate of German Jews, Hitler ordered Himmler to carry out their removal. At a "Final Solution" conference at the RSHA on 10 October, the decision was made to deport Reich Jews eastwards where they would be held in camps.

On 19 October 1941, the Jews of Frankfurt were targeted for deportation by the Gestapo, and three months later, after the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942, German and Austrian Jews were dispatched in a wave of deportations to killing centres in the Soviet Union (Minsk, Riga, Kovno) and Poland Lodz, Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Auschwitz.) sometimes via the Durchgangsghetto at Terezin (Theresienstadt) in Czechoslovakia. When Philip Bouhler and Viktor Brack from the Führers Chancellery visited Lublin at the beginning of September 1941 (within two weeks of the cessation of the Aktion T4 gassings in the Reich), Globocnik spoke to them about his "special task" and referred to the Jews who were to be deported from the Reich.

The leading-decision makers in the Nazi hierarchy who argued for total Jewish extermination by gassing were now coming to the fore. Among the leading advocates in the Generalgouvernement who were in favour of gassing were Dr Wilhelm Dolpheid, SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr Ludwig Losacker, SS-Obersturmbannführer Helmut Tanzmann, and SS-Gruppenführer and Governor Otto Wächter. It is intriguing to note that in November 1941, Dr Dolpheid negotiated with SS-Oberführer Viktor Brack at the Führers Chancellery in Berlin for the use of the expertise of T4 personnel to solve the Jewish Question in his area. If this was the case, Dolpheid did not know the purpose of Belzec, which was already in the course of construction. Clearly, whatever the decision and whenever it was made, once it had commenced there was no let-up, regardless of whether the killings were to take place in the execution pits in the Galician forests, or in the gas chambers at Belzec.

On 17 July 1941, Globocnik was appointed Der Beauftragte des Reichsführers-SS für die Errichtung der SS- und Polizeistützpunkte im neuen Ostraum ("Plenipotentiary for the Construction of SS and Police Strongpoints in the new Eastern Area"). Similar strongpoints were also to be established in Poland, with Lublin as the foremost. Between July 1941 and April 1942, there was a plethora of coded radio transmissions between Globocnik and commanders of the SS- und Polizeistützpunkte in Riga (SS-Obersturmführer Georg Michalsen, Bialystok/Minsk (SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Classen), and Mogilev (SS-Hauptsturmführer Hermann Höfle. Also in the Soviet Union at this time and closely involved with Globocnik were SS-Obersturmführer Richard Thomalla (later to be overall supervisor of the construction of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka) and SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Dolp (in 1940, in general command of the labour camp complex centred on Belzec). When Globocnik was relieved of this construction task on 27 March 1942, with the exception of Dolp, all of these officers played important roles in Aktion Reinhard.

The realisation of the enormous task entrusted to Globocnik (and Christian Wirth), is brought into focus by Brack who had directed the euthanasia programme. During his meeting with Globocnik, Brack decided that additional personnel from T4 would be placed at Globocniks disposal. At his trial, Brack testified:
"In 1941, I received an oral order to discontinue the euthanasia programme. I received this order either from Bouhler or from Dr (Karl) Brandt. In order to reserve the personnel relieved of these duties and to have the opportunity of starting a new euthanasia programme after the war, Bouhler requested, I think after a conference with Himmler, that I send these personnel to Lublin and put them at the disposal of SS-Brigadeführer Globocnik. I then had the impression that these people were to be used in the extensive Jewish labour camps run by Globocnik (sic!). Later, however, at the end of 1942 or the beginning of 1943, I found out that they were used to assist in the mass extermination of the Jews, which was by then already common knowledge in the higher Party circles."
In fact, on 23 June 1942, Brack wrote to Himmler about sending additional T4 personnel for the accelerated operations due to begin on 1 August, referring to Globocniks role in this genocide:
"On the recommendation of Reichsleiter (Philip) Bouhler, I put my men at Brigadeführer Globocniks disposal for the execution of his special tasks. Having received a further request from him I sent him more people.
Brigadeführer Globocnik has stated that the campaign against the Jews should be carried out as quickly as possible, as unforeseen difficulties might stop the campaign altogether and then we should be stuck in the middle of the road. You yourself, Reichsführer, some time ago drew my attention to the necessity of finishing this work quickly, if for no other reason than the necessity to mask it. In view of my own experience I now regard both attitudes, which after all have one and the same end in view, as all the more justified.
(The letter in German and in English)
The very first sentence of this letter confirms that the SS garrison (T4) was in the pay of the KdF (the Führer's Chancellery) and in no way connected with the RSHA. Bracks use of the words, "my men" confirms the status of T4 personnel. What is being seen here then, are the establishing principals and protocols of how Aktion Reinhard would operate - independently and completely outside of all normal state functions. Brack was not simply an extermination planner sitting behind a desk, for he is known to have visited Lublin at least once. According to Josef Oberhauser, Bracks visit came as a surprise.

Much has been made of a visit to Lublin and Belzec by Adolf Eichmann but when he made this visit is difficult to determine. According to the evidence he gave at his trial, his visit was in the late summer or early autumn of 1941, 2-3 months after the invasion of the Soviet Union. This is questionable, as the construction of Belzec only commenced on 1 November 1941, although the survey inspections must have been carried out before then, no later than the end of September or early to mid October 1941.
Moreover, the site had to be cleared first by cutting down the trees and the clearing of undergrowth. After that, only the concrete foundations for the first gas chambers had to be laid; the rest of the barracks probably no more than half-a-dozen were assembled from prefabricated parts. The fact that it took almost two months to build such a primitive camp was due to the appalling weather conditions blizzards, fog and temperatures as low as minus 25ºC that halted work for days on end. The fences and watchtowers were not erected until after New Year 1942.
Whatever the date of Eichmanns visit the "decision" must have been made well before construction commenced at Belzec on 1 November 1941. Eichmann clearly states that he met Wirth ("a police captain") at Belzec and was taken into the camp, where the final touches to the construction and sealing of the gas chambers were being made. After taking note of the operation, Eichmann returned to Berlin where he submitted his report to his immediate superior, Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo, and to Heydrich. Wirth did not take charge of the camp from the SS construction team until 22 December 1941, and then went away, returning after Christmas 1941 to convert one of the barracks into a gas chamber. Any suggestion that Eichmann was in Belzec in autumn 1941 is problematic. Yet a visit by Eichmann in December 1941 is also most unlikely.
In a recent publication, Christopher Browning has suggested a possible answer to this enigma. He proposes that Eichmanns meeting with Wirth in fact took place not at the site of the Belzec camp itself, but at a prototype experimental gassing facility Wirth had set up in the woods nearby. Sometime after Eichmanns visit, perhaps at the meeting of Himmler, Krüger and Globocnik on 13 October 1941, it was decided to construct the camp, not in an isolated and well hidden location, but rather next to the rail line in order to handle the flow of transports. There is some persuasive evidence to support this contention. Eichmann claimed to have seen two small peasant houses in the midst of a thick forest terrain quite unlike that where the camp was actually sited. Josef Oberhauser testified that Wirth took charge of Belzec on 22 December 1941. But Oberhauser did not himself arrive in Belzec until October or November 1941, and there is no evidence that precludes Wirth having been at Belzec prior to Oberhausers arrival, then departing, only to return in December to take charge of the camp. Given the visit of Bouhler and Brack to the Generalgouvernement in September 1941, it is quite conceivable that a representative of the euthanasia programme, such as Wirth, would have been present during the earliest stages of testing and planning, returning later to take charge of the camp as it neared completion. Finally, the commander of the Gendarmerie in the Lublin district, Ferdinand Hahnzog, also testified to the existence of a "primitive installation, consisting of a hermetically sealed shack hidden deep in the forest across from Galicia near Belzec".
The exact date on which Eichmann visited Lublin is immaterial apart, that is, from indicating the connection between Belzec and the decision-makers in Berlin. Any suggestion that Belzec was one of Globocniks localised cavalier solutions to the Jewish Question can be dismissed as fanciful. It is clear that Eichmanns visit could only have been either to an experimental site, as outlined above, or during the final phase of the construction, therefore dating it to probably after the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942. But in any winter visit Eichmann would have encountered a camp that was virtually complete and quite dissimilar from anything described in his various testimonies.

The "order" therefore, must be calculated from circumstantial evidence. The evidence suggests that in mid-summer 1941, orders had been issued on a "need to know" basis. More substantial evidence appears in late 1941 and early 1942. A corroborative factor and a signpost may be gleaned from the time when Globocnik received orders from Himmler to implement Aktion Reinhard. Eichmann, in his evidence at his trial in Jerusalem, stated that Heydrich informed him two or three months after the invasion of Russia that the Führer had ordered the physical annihilation of the Jews. Later, on a date not determined, Heydrich ordered Eichmann:
"to drive to Globocnik. The Reichsführer has already given him corresponding orders. Look, see how far he has gone with this project."
We have the highly unreliable autobiographical notes of Rudolf Höß, commandant of Auschwitz, who states that in the summer of 1941, he received the order from Himmler personally, to "prepare a site for mass extermination: The existing extermination camps in the East are not in a position to carry out the large Aktionen which are anticipated. I have therefore earmarked Auschwitz for this purpose."
Either the dating of this order or its wording are not credible, since there were no extermination camps as such in 1941. In any event, it is inconceivable that Globocnik was not made aware of this decision, and it is now accepted that he was informed verbally by Himmler during a conference in Lublin on 20 July 1941. Oswald Pohl and Hans Kammler were in Lublin on the same day.

Globocnik met Himmler again on 13 October 1941 to discuss proposals limiting "the influence of Jews" against whom it was necessary to take steps "of a security police nature". It is conceivable that it was at this meeting that Globocnik received authorisation to proceed with the construction of Belzec, where a preliminary survey may have already have been carried out. Following his return from meetings in Germany in October 1941, Hans Frank organised an important series of conferences in the district capitals of the Generalgouvernement. At the meeting in Krakow on 20 October, Wächter, commented "that an ultimately radical solution to the 'Jewish Question' is unavoidable."

One point that emerges is that highest SS authorities in conjunction with the KdF had made "the decision" but were uncertain as to how it was to be carried out. T4 technology and experience was useful, but the scale of destruction now proposed required much more technical support. This accounts for Belzecs importance as the experimental, prototype death camp.
Once this problem of the mechanism for mass destruction had been solved, there was only the organisation and implementation of resettlement that remained outstanding. For this, the Wannsee Conference was convened as the final piece of the jigsaw. Aktion Reinhard, according to Globocniks own statements, was to be divided into separate sections dealing with deportations, exploitation of the work force, utilisation of property and the securing of valuables.

The connection between the T4 euthanasia operation and the ultimate decision to implement the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" are inextricably linked. It cannot be simply coincidence that the technology for the destruction of victims in the gas chambers of the T4 killing centres was available at the optimum moment for the decision making process, in mid to late 1941, thereby sealing the fate of the Jews of Europe. After the "suspension" of T4 in August 1941 and within the period suggested above, this "recall" of T4 personnel is very significant. This sudden reversal was unquestionably the product of policy-making within the Himmler-Heydrich-Executive and was probably the result of several high-level meetings.

In November 1941, a conference of euthanasia personnel was convened at the euthanasia killing centre Sonnenstein where, according to the Hadamar "gassing physician", Hans-Bodo Gorgass, "... the action was not to be ended as had occurred in August 1941, but it will continue ... in some other form."
It is clear therefore that something was being considered for the T4 operatives. While many of the T4 personnel were in limbo, decisions were being taken elsewhere. Exactly what was discussed at these meetings is not clear, but shortly afterwards, Brack committed T4 personnel to undisclosed duties in the East. By January 1942, when construction of the Belzec camp was nearing completion, the T4 leadership were on the Eastern Front under the camouflage of Organisation Todt (OT).

The Himmler-Heydrich-Executive / KdF were now engaged in compiling lists of other T4 personnel for "special duty". One such list, entitled Sonderführer, was sent to HSSPF Krüger in Krakow. It consisted of an unknown number of men who were probably to serve alongside the Ordnungspolizei (Orpo) who were becoming increasingly more active. Although it is not known where these men were eventually sent, it is possible they went to Chelmno to assist the police units gathering there. Another list of 92 T4 staff compiled by Wirth, Brack, Blankenburg and Prof. Heyde were designated for special duty in Lublin. These men were not executives but the T4 artisans: drivers, builders, guardsmen, clerks and the SS-NCOs and policemen employed in the Sonderstandesämter of the euthanasia killing centres. Even Wirth, and later Stangl, were at this point intermediary cogs in the machine that was gathering momentum.

It can be ascertained on the basis of post-war interrogations that the KdF gathered these men for the Final Solution programme under Globocniks direction, to form the nucleus of gassing specialists to staff the first prototype death camp at Belzec. To bide their time and keep this specialist unit together, many were sent to the Russian front to aid wounded German soldiers ("Aktion Brandt"). Central to this group of medical experts was Dr Irmfried Eberl (later commandant at Treblinka) who set up a medical unit near Minsk. Absent was Wirth, the inspector and trouble-shooter of T4. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some T4 medical orderlies gave deadly injections to brain-damaged soldiers. There were many male and female T4 nurses in these units, as well as the SS bus drivers who had been "burners" in the T4 killing centres. The statement by nurse Pauline Kneissler, who started her career in murder at the T4 centre Grafeneck, that she and her unit administered lethal injections to brain-damaged, blinded, mutilated troops and amputees, is accepted as fact.

Before the T4 men could finally be put to work, they had to have a killing centre. In this connection, Bouhler and Brack met Globocnik in Lublin in September 1941 and certainly discussed Aktion Reinhard and the transfer of personnel, then inspected the Lublin Airfield Camp. On 25 October 1941, Amtsgerichtsrat Dr Alfred Wetzel, responsible for Jewish affairs at the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, wrote to Heinrich Lohse (the Reichskommissar Ostland) with a proposal, advanced by Brack, to use Dr Widmanns gas vans in Riga to kill Jews unfit for work.
In his so-called "Gaskammerbrief" ("Gas Chamber Letter"), Wetzel suggested the "Brack remedy" for Jews no longer able to work, while Jews "fit" for labour might be transported east for further use. Bracks suggestions were never implemented in Riga as originally planned, but Aktion Reinhard strategists now called in his offer to loan T4 personnel for the gassing of Jews in the Generalgouvernement.
On 14 December 1941, Brack kept a noon-time appointment with Himmler, ostensibly to discuss his recent proposal and perhaps also to secure or arrange the delegation of T4 personnel to Lublin.
The first trickle of T4 personnel began to appear for duty at Belzec in December 1941. Schwarz and Oberhauser were the first SS-men to arrive in Belzec at the end of October 1941. The rest, 10 men, arrived from the T4 centre Bernburg at the very beginning of January 1942. Only a small group were selected for the initial postings to Aktion Reinhard. Other T4 personnel returned to their euthanasia institutions on a temporary basis. In each mans pay book the red page endorsement read, "not to be employed at the front line". This was meant to ensure that the no secrets could leak in the event of capture. Aktion Reinhard was so secret in formation and extreme in its purpose, that extraordinary measures were adopted. One of the effects was an arrogant disregard for outside authority by Aktion Reinhard personnel. They had no reason to pay any attention to any authority other than the KdF, via T4, and SSPF Globocnik. They were "untouchable" and everyone knew it. This was condoned by Berlin in that no outside interference was tolerated from any quarter. This being so, any measure could be either adopted or circumvented in the interests of State secrecy. However, none of the SS, including the police leadership, could get out of Aktion Reinhard. An order from the KdF forbade any transfer even to front line duties.

Edited from an unpublished manuscript by Robin O'Neil.
Browning, Christopher R. The Origins of the Final Solution, William Heinemann, London, 2004.
Longerich, Peter. The Unwritten Order Hitler's Role in The Final Solution, Tempus Publishing Limited, Stroud, 2003.

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