There is no document in our possession that indicates specifically by whom, at what time, and in what way it was decided to embark on the total extermination of the Jews. Many scholars believe that such an order was never issued in writing: instead, it was given orally, by Hitler, or with his knowledge, in the summer of 1941. On July 31, 1941, shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazi Reichsmarschall Herman Göring ordered Reinhard Heydrich, head of the RSHA, “to make all the necessary preparations… for the Final Solution of the Jewish problem in the German sphere of influence in Europe”.
Immediately following the invasion, the mass murder of men, women and children began, but in November 1941, the German policy toward Jews took a fateful turn. Mass murder by gunfire failed to meet the Nazis’ expectations and was taking a cumulative toll on the German soldiers’ performance. By then, too, the Nazi leadership realized that the Blitzkrieg had not gone well, that the war against the Soviet Union would not end quickly, and that killing by gunfire was not efficient enough and failed to achieve its goal. As a result, a decision was made in November or December to shift to organized, systematic murder on an industrial scale.
Already in the summer of 1941, Rudolf Höss, commander of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (near the Polish town Oswiecim), had received orders to explore new methods of mass murder using poison gas. The Germans had already employed gas in the Euthanasia Program and had murdered tens of thousands of the physically and mentally handicapped until the program was halted due to pressure from the German public and clergy. However, the methods and knowledge gained during the Euthanasia Program served as the basis for the systematic mass murder of the Jews – the “Final Solution”.
The first experiment with mass murder by gas was performed in Auschwitz in September 1941. The victims of the experiment were Soviet prisoners of war. The Germans pumped Zyklon B, a cyanic gas, into a sealed room and within a few minutes the victims had all been killed.
On January 20, 1942, a meeting was held in Wannsee (a suburb of Berlin), chaired by Reinhard Heydrich with the participation of 15 officials and representatives of the Reich authorities. At this meeting, the Reich Security Main Office coordinated the extermination plans vis-à-vis the relevant ministries and authorities. Heydrich spoke about the inclusion of 11,000,000 Jews in the Nazi program for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The minutes of the Wannsee Conference record that: “Due to the war, the emigration plan has been replaced with deportation of the Jews to the east, in accordance with the Führer’s will.”
As a result of the meeting a network of extermination camps was established in which 1.7 million Jews were murdered in 1942-1943.