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1941: Mass Murder
 pg. 254 
Hitler and the Final Solution

Prior to Adolf Eichmann's 1961 Jerusalem trial, Captain Avner Less, an Israeli policeman, spent hundreds of hours interrogating the SS lieutenant-colonel, who would eventually be found guilty and executed for his crimes against the Jewish people. On one occasion, Less questioned Eichmann about "written orders" concerning the "Final Solution," the mass murder of European Jewry. "I never saw a written order," Eichmann claimed. "All I know is that [Reinhard] Heydrich said to me, 'The Führer has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews.'"

Recalling events that had taken place 20 years earlier, Eichmann was unsure about the exact date he had heard those words. He thought it might have been two or three months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. His recollection was firmer, however, about the chain of command. Heydrich, said Eichmann, must have gotten his instructions from Heinrich Himmler, who "must have had express orders from Hitler. If he hadn't had orders from Hitler, he'd have been out on his ear before he knew what had hit him."

Coming from an SS officer who played such crucial parts in implementing the Final Solution, Eichmann's testimony--hearsay though it was on these points--is instructive because it involves issues that still puzzle Holocaust scholars. Although Hitler's unrelenting hatred of Jews and his recurring rhetoric about "the destruction of the Jewish race" are thoroughly documented, orders about the Final Solution written and signed by Hitler have never been found. In fact, such a document may not have existed, for Hitler relied on oral communication to give his subordinates broad authorizations to implement his wishes.

Understanding what Hitler wanted involved interpretation of his tone of voice as well as his choice of words. Citing an affidavit by Albert Speer, the Reich minister for armaments and war production from 1942 to 1945, historian Raul Hilberg puts the point as follows: "When he [Hitler] spoke 'coldly' and in a 'low voice' about 'horrifying' decisions 'also at the dinner table,' then his audience knew that he was 'serious.'" Expert at interpreting Hitler, SS leaders such as Himmler and Heydrich took full advantage of their mandates to solve the "Jewish question" once and for all.

There is little reason to doubt Eichmann's judgment that the Nazi annihilation of European Jewry depended on Hitler's orders. As Hilberg says, "Hitler was the supreme architect of the Jewish catastrophe." The Final Solution was simply too important and vast to be implemented without his initiative. Precisely when Hitler expressed his decision, however, remains less certain. He probably gave his orders some time in the summer of 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union and the Einsatzgruppen killings that had begun in June. By the autumn of that year, plans for massive Jewish deportations and death camps in Poland were under way.
Photo: Archive Photos/Popperfoto

 August 2, 1941: Four thousand Jews are killed by about 80 drunken Germans at Ponary, Lithuania.
 August 2, 1941: An American Jewish woman is among the approximately 200 Jews killed at Kovno, Lithuania.
 August 3, 1941: Twelve hundred Jews are arrested by the local Einsatzgruppen at Chernovtsy, Romania; 682 are executed by German and Romanian police.
 August 3, 1941: Fifteen hundred Jews are murdered at Mitau, Latvia.
 August 3, 1941: Several hundred Jewish professionals are shot at Stanislawów, Ukraine.
 August 5-8, 1941: Eleven thousand Jews are murdered in the Polish city of Pinsk.
1941: Mass Murder
 pg. 254 
The Holocaust Chronicle
© 2009 Publications International, Ltd.