Berlin, Germany July 31, 1941

On this date in 1941 Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering formally empowered SS-Gruppen­fuehrer Rein­hard Hey­drich to under­take “prep­a­ra­tions in organ­i­za­tional, tech­ni­cal and material respects for the com­plete solu­tion to the Jewish ques­tion in the German area of influ­ence in Europe.” At this time neither Goering, nor his boss Adolf Hitler (who com­mu­ni­cated his views on the fate of Jews via Goering), nor Hey­drich, sinis­ter head of the Reichs­sicher­heits­haupt­amt (Reich Security Main Office, RSHA) had given any thought to, much less developed any com­pre­hen­sive plan for, the racial “puri­fi­ca­tion” of Europe by sys­tem­atically murdering all Jews within or on the periph­ery of the German sphere of influ­ence. Senior Nazi offi­cials directed their thoughts to “evac­u­ating” Jews to areas out­side the Reich (in 1940 to the inhos­pi­ta­ble island of Mada­gas­car in the Indian Ocean or to unoc­cu­pied Vichy France), though the anti-Semitic Hey­drich, since at least the 1939 inva­sion of Poland, was keen on seeing as many Jewish expel­lees “erad­i­cated” through hunger, thirst, exhaustion, or disease en route to or at their destination.

Heydrich transitioned over a two-year period from, first, stuffing Euro­pean Jews into urban ghettos to facil­i­tate their future depor­ta­tion to a yet un­known des­ti­na­tion (a short-term solu­tion); to heightened bru­tal­i­za­tion, perse­cu­tion, arrest, and small-scale, step-by-step expul­sion of Jews to the most-distant reaches of the newly expanded Reich (a terri­torial solu­tion); to, finally, plotting racial geno­cide on a gar­gan­tuan scale, an obses­sion inten­si­fied and affirmed by the Third Reich’s power elites in the winter of 1941–1942 after Germany and the United States declared war on each other. The Wann­see Con­fer­ence of senior govern­ment and Schutz­staffel (SS) offi­cials in a suburb of Berlin on Janu­ary 20, 1942, called by Hey­drich, ensured that he, as the des­ig­nated leader, loyally supported by civil and Nazi Party authori­ties, were of one mind in ener­get­ically imple­menting the final solu­tion of the Jewish ques­tion (German, End­loe­sung der Juden­frage), where­by most Jews in Nazi-con­trolled Europe and in its allied South­east Euro­pean puppet states would be rounded up en masse, deported to occupied Poland, and murdered in specially built SS extermination camps.

The terrible final reckoning—the genocide of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion—was first tried out on Soviet POWs using the power­ful chemi­cal fumi­gant Zyklon B in Septem­ber 1941 at Auschwitz I, a con­cen­tra­tion camp in German-annexed Poland. Begin­ning in Novem­ber that year, a key ele­ment in the Nazis’ “Final Solu­tion,” Oper­a­tion Rein­hard (German, Aktion Rein­hard in honor of Hey­drich), saw the con­struc­tion of the first pur­pose-built gas cham­ber for mur­dering Jews—this at Bełżec in South­eastern Poland. In a few short months Sobi­bór and Treblinka were added to the secret list of Rein­hard killing cen­ters (see map below). POW and forced labor camps were estab­lished at Majdanek/­Lubin and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, also in occupied Poland, and they too assisted in advancing Oper­a­tion Rein­hard’s mission of murdering Jews on an industrial scale.

Operation Reinhard formally ended in early Novem­ber 1943, almost a year and a half after Hey­drich him­self was mortally struck down by two Czecho­slovak patriots in Oper­a­tion Antro­poid. During Oper­a­tion Rein­hard, close to 2.5 mil­lion Jews were anni­hi­lated, but the mass murder of Jews and other “unde­sir­ables” (e.g., Soviet civil­ians and POWs, Serbs, Roma (Gypsies), gays, polit­i­cal oppo­nents, and “invalids,” or the dis­abled) con­tinued almost to the end of the Euro­pean War in May 1945. In all, the Holocaust (in Hebrew, Shoah, or catas­trophe) claimed the lives of roughly 6 out of 11 million European Jews.

Reinhard Heydrich (1904–1942) is widely recog­nized as one of the great vil­lains of Nazi Germany, a nation that had a sur­plus of loath­some indi­vid­uals. Robert Ger­warth’s bio­graphy of Rein­hard Hey­drich, titled Hitler’s Hang­man: The Life of Hey­drich—“hang­man” being a moniker Hey­drich would have worn with pride—exa­mines Hey­drich’s years as a ruth­less, amoral, and cyn­i­cally effi­cient acolyte in Hein­rich Himm­ler’s SS, where he directed the Reich Security Main Office, which over­saw the Gestapo (Secret State Police) and the Sipo (Security Police); his role as a leading planner of the “Final Solu­tion” and the Holo­caust of Euro­pean Jewry; and his eight months as Acting Reich Pro­tec­tor of Bohe­mia and Mora­via, a semi-auto­no­mous but Nazi-admin­is­tered terri­tory in what is today’s Czech Republic (Czechia). Up till his fatal en­coun­ter with two Czecho­slo­vak nation­alists, Hey­drich was widely viewed as the most dan­ger­ous man in Nazi Germany. Ger­warth explains why in this author­i­ta­tive bio­graphy of evil incarnate.—Norm Haskett

Racial Purification and Reordering Through Genocide: The Jewish Holocaust in Central and Eastern Europe

Jewish Holocaust: Map of Nazi Death Camps in Central and Eastern Europe

Above: The estimated total number of people murdered in exter­mi­na­tion camps in German-occupied Poland is over three million. This number does not include the hun­dreds of thou­sands of mass shootings of Jews by Hey­drich’s Einsatz­gruppen (special task forces) and special SS “anti-parti­san” units that flooded into Poland after Septem­ber 1, 1939, and later Ukraine and Belo­russia (Belarus) during Hitler’s bloody cam­paign against the Soviet Union. Jews made up the largest per­cent­age of pan-Euro­pean victims murdered in camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau (Poland), 1,100,000, of which ~87 per­cent were Jews; Treblinka (Poland), 700,000–­800,000, almost all were Jews; Bełżec (Poland), 430,000–­600,000, almost all were Jews; Sobi­bór (Poland), 170,000–­250,000, almost all were Jews; Chełmno (Poland), 152,000–­200,000, most were Jews; and Majdanek (Poland), 78,000, 75 percent were Jews.

Jewish Holocaust: Zamość Jews deported to Bełżec death campJewish Holocaust: Smoke from Majdanek death camp

Left: Deportation of Jews to Bełżec from Zamość in South­eastern Poland, April 1942. The first of the Nazi killing sites in the former Polish terri­tories, Bełżec operated from mid-March 1942 to the end of June 1943, when the last con­voy of Jews arrived. Between 430,000 and 600,000 Jews are believed to have been system­at­ically mur­dered by the SS at Bełżec. This makes Bełżec the third-dead­liest exter­mi­na­tion camp, exceeded only by Auschwitz and Treblinka. Only seven Jews performing slave labor with the camp’s Sonder­kom­mando (Jewish forced laborers) survived World War II. The lack of viable wit­nesses who could testify about the camp’s oper­a­tion is the primary reason why Bełżec is so little known despite the enormous number of victims.

Right: Smoke allegedly rising from a burning pyre of corpses at Majdanek in October 1943. The forced labor cum extermi­na­tion camp, ini­tially estab­lished in Octo­ber 1941 to hold Soviet soldiers captured in Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa, had seven gas cham­bers. Some 18,400 Majdanek-held Jews were killed in a single day in Novem­ber 1943. Exe­cu­tions by hanging and firing squad (780 shot in Janu­ary 1944 alone) occurred regu­larly. Of the more than 2.5 mil­lion Jews killed in the course of Oper­a­tion Rein­hard, some 60,000 Jews (56,000 known by name) were most certainly exter­mi­nated at Majdanek. Majdanek was the first major con­cen­tra­tion camp liber­ated by Allied forces, this by Red Army troops on July 24, 1944, and the horrors found there were widely publicized. The Amer­i­can news­weekly, Time Maga­zine, pub­lished an article on Majdanek’s horrors on August 21, 1944.

Biography of Reinhard Heydrich, “Hitler’s Hangman”

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