Rooted in 19th-century antisemitic discourse on the “Jewish question,” “Final Solution” as a Nazi cover term denotes the last stage in the evolution of the Third Reich’s anti-Jewish policies from persecution to physical annihilation on a European scale. Currently, Final Solution is used interchangeably with other, broader terms that refer to German extermination policies during World War II, as well as more specifically to describe German intent and the decision-making process leading up to the beginning of systematic mass murder.
While the Nazi Party program adopted in February 1920 did not contain direct or indirect reference to the term, Nazi propaganda presented a radical elimination of anything deemed Jewish from all aspects of German life as prerequisite for national recovery. After Hitler’s rise to power, party activists and bureaucrats competed in transforming the broad-based consensus that something had to be done about the “Jewish question” into government policy aimed at varying degrees of segregation, expropriation, and physical removal. In the process, applying force became increasingly attractive; however, use of the term in German documents produced prior to 1941 should be understood less as an expression of a preconceived blueprint for genocide than as an expression of radical, as yet unspecified intent.
With the beginning of war and the organized murder of “undesirable” non-Jewish groups among the German population in the so-called Euthanasia program, hazy declarations of intent and expectation from the top leadership – most prominently Hitler’s Reichstag statement of January 30, 1939, that a new world war would bring about “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” – provided legitimization and incentive for violent, on occasion already murderous measures adopted at the periphery that would in turn radicalize decision making in Berlin. Heydrich’s Schnellbrief to the Einsatzgruppen commanders in Poland dated September 21, 1939, on the “Jewish question” refers to secret “planned total measures” (thus the final aim) (“die geplanten Gesamtmaßnahmen (also das Endziel”)); nevertheless, most Holocaust historians today agree that at the time this solution was still perceived in terms of repression and removal, not annihilation. The more frequent use of the term Final Solution in German documents beginning in 1941 indicates gradual movement toward the idea of physical elimination in the context of shattered plans for large-scale population resettlement (including the “Madagascar plan”) and megalomanic hopes of imperial aggrandizement in Eastern Europe. American scholar Christopher Browning notes that “a ‘big bang’ theory” fails to adequately describe German decision making; instead, the process was prolonged and incremental, driven by “a vague vision of implied genocide.”
If there was a caesura towards the implementation of the Final Solution through mass murder, it is marked by the German “war of destruction” waged against the Soviet Union from June 22, 1941. Provided with instructions that called for the rapid pacification of conquered areas and that stressed the “sub-human” nature of broad strata of the population as well as the need for drastic measures to fight the deadly threat posed by “Judeo-Bolshevism” to the Nazi grand design, German soldiers, SS-men, and policemen murdered Jews from the first days of the campaign. Regionally different patterns of persecution unfolded until the end of 1941; its most prominent feature – the broadening scope of the killings from male Jews of military age (Heydrich’s notorious letter to the higher SS- and Police heads in the occupied Soviet Union dated July 2, 1941, listed “Jews in party and state positions” and “other radical elements” among those to be executed) to women and children – underscores the absence of a central order and the preference of the Berlin authorities for controlled escalation.
The murderous events in the occupied Soviet Union had – as envisaged in a directive by Alfred Rosenberg’s Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories – provided the German leadership with experiences on how to arrive at a “solution to the overall problem” (“für die Loesung des Gesamt-Problems richtungsweisend”) that could be applied elsewhere. On July 31, 1941, Goering signed a document that charged Heydrich with “making all necessary preparations with regard to organizational, practical and material aspects for an overall solution (“Gesamtloesung”) of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe” and to draw up a plan “for the implementation of the intended final solution (“Endloesung”) of the Jewish question.”
By the time of the Wannsee Conference held on January 20, 1942, the term Final Solution had become a common phrase among German government and party officials. Now reduced in its actual meaning to mass murder, its geographical scope expanded beyond German-dominated Europe: the protocol of the conference listed 11 million Jews in different countries to be engulfed in the “Final Solution of the European Jewish question,” including England and neutrals like Sweden and Switzerland. The culmination of the Final Solution in mass deportations from various parts of Europe to the killing centers and death camps in Eastern Europe resulted, like earlier stages of the process, not from one single top-level decision, but from a complex mix of factors, with the Berlin center reacting as much as it was actively shaping events.
Its historical significance makes the term Final Solution the most important example of the ability of Nazi language to integrate potentially different if not divergent approaches towards the so-called Jewish question into a conceptual frame of reference that helped facilitate systematic mass murder and to hide the Third Reich’s genocidal policies behind technocratic abstractions, thus providing legitimization for perpetrators and enabling bystanders to claim not to know what was going on. Despite its inherent problems, most notably in evoking the illusion of coordinated planning and systematic implementation, the term Final Solution remains crucial for recognizing the process character of the Holocaust as a key element in a broader history of state-sponsored mass murder during the Nazi era.
G. Aly, “Final Solution”: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews (1999); C.R. Browning (with contributions by J. Matthäus), The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939- March 1942 (2004); R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (20033); P. Longerich, Politik der Vernichtung. Eine Gesamtdarstellung der nationalsozialistischen Judenverfolgung (1998).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.