When was the Final Solution decided?

Question:

I am researching on the origins and implementations of the Final solution. I am particularly interested why was the decision to carry out the Final solution made in 1941 and not earlier or later. So far I have been reading Browning's 'The Path to Genocide'. Can you suggest any other sources and /or give me your own opinion.

Gordon McFee answers:

I am one of the volunteers who answers these questions, and believe me, you have asked a good one! :-)

I am sorry if this comes across pedantic, but to start with, historians don't agree when the decision was made, although almost all of them consider it was made sometime in 1941. The latest thinking tends to place the _final_ decision (that is, the decision to kill all European Jews) somewhere in late Fall, even as late as December 1941. So, the first part of the problem here is to define what we mean by the "decision". For the purposes of this answer, I will assume you mean the final decision. Since this is a matter of some debate, don't be surprised if some of my colleagues answer the question as well and their answers may differ from mine. And just to completely confuse things, the answer I will give for why the decision wasn't made before 1941 will also help explain why it wasn't made after 1941.

To start with, I believe Hitler had it in him to do great harm to the Jews from at the latest 1919. The venom that drips from his speeches throughout the 1920s is not manufactured, as some historians have suggested, but very real in my opinion. When the first clear conception to physically kill the Jews entered his head, I cannot say, but one thing is clear. He couldn't just go out and do it in the pre-war period. He had to think of Germany's international position, he needed investors in the German economy, and he had to maintain Germany's reputation. Antisemitic measures were one thing; a full-scale slaughter would have been quite another and would likely have led to international intervention at a time when Germany was too weak to withstand it. Thus, the first pre-requisite was the war.

You may remember Hitler's famous Reichstag speech in January 1939. I quote the relevant portion below:

Wenn es dem internationalen Finanzjudentum in und außerhalb Europas gelingen sollte, die Völker noch einmal in einen Weltkrieg zu stürzen, dann wird das Ergebnis nicht der Sieg des Judentums sein, sondern die Vernichtung der jüdischen Rasse in Europa!

If international finance Jewry in and outside Europe should succeed in once again plunging the nations into a world war, then the result will not be the victory of Jewry, but rather the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!

--Adolf Hitler, Reichstag speech, January 30, 1939

Since that quotation was referred to so many times by Hitler, Goebbels, Hans Frank, Albert Speer and others at future dates, I am inclined to believe he meant what he said and that he fully intended to kill the Jews if a world war ever broke out. We forget sometimes 50 years later that the war wasn't really a world war until the entry of Japan and the United States in December 1941. And you may remember that after the United States declared war on Japan, Hitler almost immediately declared war on the United States. He now had the world war he had talked about. And what does Goebbels' diary entry say the very next day? I quote it below:

Bezüglich der Judenfrage ist der Führer entschlossen, reinen Tisch zu machen. Er hat den Juden prophezeit, daß, wenn sie noch einmal einen Weltkrieg herbeiführen würden, sie dabei ihre Vernichtung erleben würden. Das ist keine Phrase gewesen. Der Weltkrieg ist da, die Vernichtung des Judentums muß die notwendige Folge sein.

In respect of the Jewish Question, the Führer has decided to make a clean sweep. He prophesied to the Jews that if they again brought about a world war, they would experience their annihilation in it. That wasn't just a catch-word. The world war is here, and the annihilation of Jewry must be the necessary consequence.

[Goebbels, Diary entry, December 12, 1941]

Similar quotes appeared in Hans Frank's diary and Alfred Rosenberg's notes within a week or so. Hence, I am inclined to believe that December 12 was the pivotal date. What had Hitler needed to arrive at this decision?

In a phrase, he had nothing left to lose, he probably suspected by then that his chances of winning the war had taken a serious turn for the worse, with the reverses in Russia just the week before, and now the entry of the United States into the war, and he decided that the time had come to burn his bridges completely. He now had the desire, the opportunity and the means to kill the Jews.

I think it is the congruence of these factors that led to the ultimate decision being made in 1941, and not before or after.

Hope this helps.

Gord McFee

back to the list of questions