It remains uncertain whether Hitler intended from the start to exterminate the Jews. By mid-1941; however, mass murder was clearly the path he had chosen. Even though the Kristallnacht riots of November 1938 had accelerated Jewish emigration from Germany & the former Austria, there were still some 350,000 Jews living in the Reich when the war began in September 1939. To this number were soon added two million Jews living in Poland, & later, millions more in Western Europe & occupied Russia.
On July 31st, 1941, just a month after the start of Operation Barbarossa, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring ordered Reinhard Heydrich – then head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the security arm of the Schutzstaffel (SS) – “to carry out all preparations with regard to a total solution of the Jewish question in those territories of Europe which are under German influence.” To begin this task, Göring, who had been named Hitler’s successor in 1939, wanted Heydrich to round up all the Jews in Europe & confine them to urban ghettos in Poland, where they could be closely monitored while means for their ultimate disposal were being arranged. Regarding these means, Göring told Heydrich “to submit to me as soon as possible a draft showing the measures already taken for the intended final solution of the Jewish question.”
Heydrich’s plan, once approved, was presented to the Nazi bureaucracy on June 20th, 1942, at a meeting in Wannsee, an upscale suburb of Berlin. The fifteen officials present included representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, the Foreign Office, the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), & the governor-general of Poland. According to Heydrich, all 10.8 million Jews estimated to be living in Europe at the time would be “involved” – a euphemism typical of the language with which the Nazi elite described their “final solution.” That day at Wannsee, in working out the practical details of Heydrich’s plan, the Holocaust was formally launched.
In the meantime, special SS squads known as Einsatzgruppen (task forces) were already killing hundreds of thousands of Jews in the East. Following the wake of the advancing Wehrmacht, these units obviated the need to ghettoize Russian Jews by shooting them on the spot. In September 1941, for example, Einsatzgruppen massacred thirty-three thousand Kiev Jews beside the ravine at Baby Yar. By late 1942, when implementation of the “final solution” finally shifted to the largest Polish death camps, the SS had already killed an estimated 1.4 million Jews.