It remains uncertain as to when the Nazi leadership decided to implement the "Final Solution," the plan to annihilate the Jews of Europe. The genocide of the Jews was the culmination of a decade of German policy under Nazi rule and the realization of a core goal of the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler.
In the years of Nazi rule before World War II, policies of persecution and segregation targeting German Jews focused on the goal of expulsion. After the Nazi party seized power in 1933, state-sponsored racism generated anti-Jewish legislation, boycotts, "Aryanization," and massive street violence, as in the Kristallnacht (commonly known as the "Night of Broken Glass") pogroms. With all of these measures, the Nazi leaders sought to drive the Jews out of Germany by systematically isolating them from German society and by eliminating them from the German economy, removing any opportunity for them to make a living in Germany.
The Germans began World War II by invading Poland in September 1939. The Nazi leaders then shifted priorities in anti-Jewish policy from expulsion from German-controlled territory to concentration of European Jewish populations in locations suited to future permanent removal. It is not clear that the Nazi leaders were already envisioning mass murder as their "solution" to their so-called Jewish problem.
As a temporary measure, while the top leadership considered long-term options, German authorities established ghettos in the Generalgouvernement (that part of German-occupied Poland not directly annexed to Germany, attached to German East Prussia or incorporated into the German-occupied Soviet Union) and in the District Wartheland, commonly called the Warthegau (an area of western Poland directly annexed to the German Reich). From late 1939, German SS and police authorities deported Polish, German, Austrian, and Czech Jews to these ghettos.
The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Leaders of the SS and police and leaders of the German armed forces had concluded pre-invasion agreements. In accordance with these agreements, SS and police units—including Einsatzgruppen of the German Security Police and SD and battalions of the German Order Police—followed German troops into newly occupied Soviet territory. Acting as mobile killing units, they conducted shooting operations aimed at annihilating entire Jewish communities. By autumn 1941, the SS and police introduced mobile gas vans. These paneled trucks had exhaust pipes reconfigured to pump poisonous carbon monoxide gas into sealed spaces, killing those locked within. They were designed to complement ongoing shooting operations.
The German occupation authorities carried out shooting operations of Jews and others they deemed to be potential enemies of permanent German rule in the east; these operations lasted until the Germans evacuated the Soviet Union in the first half of 1944. The SS and police often did not have sufficient manpower to carry out these operations, so they were assisted whenever necessary by local auxiliaries whom they recruited and by units of the German armed forces. The Germans and their collaborators killed between 1.0 and 1.5 million Jews in shooting operations or in gas vans in the occupied Soviet Union
Four weeks after the invasion of the Soviet Union, on July 17, 1941, Hitler tasked SS chief Heinrich Himmler with responsibility for all security matters in the occupied Soviet Union. Hitler gave Himmler broad authority to physically eliminate any perceived threats to permanent German rule. Two weeks later, on July 31, Reich Marshall Hermann Göring, acting as Hitler's second-in-command, authorized Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Main Office for Security (Reichssicherheitshauptamt; RSHA) and Himmler's direct subordinate, to make preparations for the implementation of a "complete solution of the Jewish question." Henceforth, the SS in general and the RSHA in particular enjoyed Hitler's decision-making authority to manage the implementation of the "Final Solution." [The RSHA consisted of the Security Police (Gestapo and Criminal Police) and the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst-SD)]
In October 1941, Himmler authorized SS General Odilo Globocnik (SS and police leader for the Lublin District of the Generalgouvernement) to implement a plan to systematically murder all Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement. In 1942, this project received the code name "Operation Reinhard" (Einsatz Reinhard), a reference to Heydrich (who had been authorized to manage the implementation of the "Final Solution" and who was assassinated by Czech agents in May 1942 in Prague).
To carry out the mass murder of an estimated two million Jews, Globocnik created a Department on his staff for Operation Reinhard. One of his assistants, SS Major Hermann Höfle, would coordinate the deportation of the Jews with local civilian and SS and police authorities. Criminal Police Captain Christian Wirth, a veteran of the "Euthanasia" program, established under Globocnik's supervision three killing centers in German-occupied Poland: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II. Globocnik and his staff managed the mass murder of up to 1,700,000 Jews in the Operation Reinhard killing centers and in shooting operations throughout the Generalgouvernement. The vast majority of the victims were Polish Jews, although German, Austrian, Czech, Dutch, French, Yugoslav, and Greek Jews also died in the Reinhard killing centers.
A subsidiary aim of Operation Reinhard was to exploit a small minority of Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement as forced laborers before killing them. As the ghettos in Poland were systematically liquidated, those selected to live temporarily were deported to Operation Reinhard labor camps and to the concentration camp Lublin/Majdanek. This camp was established in 1941 under the authority of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps in Berlin. Though conceived of and functioning in practice primarily as a concentration camp, housing political prisoners and Jewish forced laborers, Majdanek served from time to time as a killing site for Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement. It had gas chambers, in which the SS killed tens of thousands of Jews, primarily forced laborers too weak to work.
To implement the "Final Solution" in the District Wartheland, the regional German authorities constructed the killing center Chelmno, about thirty miles northwest of Lodz. The SS and police killed at least 152,000 people, mostly Jews, but including a few thousand Roma (Gypsies) in gas vans.
To murder the Jews of "Greater Germany" as well as Jews residing in German-occupied or German-influenced areas of western, southern, southeastern and northern Europe, Himmler designated Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) in the spring of 1942 as a killing facility. Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with the Auschwitz main camp, was subordinated to the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps in Berlin. Originally planned as a vast forced-labor camp for Soviet prisoners of war and, later for Jewish forced laborers, Auschwitz-Birkenau began to operate as a killing center in the spring of 1942. The SS authorities murdered approximately one million Jews from various European countries at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Norway, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, German-occupied western and southwestern Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, and Hungary.
In German-occupied Serbia, a part of prewar Yugoslavia, the Germans killed Jews in gas vans and in shooting operations, much like the procedures in the occupied Soviet Union.
In implementation of the "Final Solution," German authorities and their collaborators killed up to six million Jews—two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe in 1939—by poison gas, shooting, and other means.