Beginning in the 19th century—long before the Nazis took power in 1933—some German and other European writers, philosophers, and theologians claimed that the presence of a Jewish minority in society was a problem that needed to be solved. Known as the “Jewish Question,” the status of European Jews became the subject of heated debate in an era when they were gradually being granted civil rights and equality.

Many who supported this belief often expected Jews to adapt or abandon their customs, behavior, traditions, and even religion in order to assimilate into society. Racial antisemites, however, denied that conversion or acculturation were real “solutions” to the “Jewish Question.” Rather, they believed that Jews were a separate “race,” whose behavior, traits, and character were negative and unchangeable.

Before the Nazi Rise to Power

A central goal of the Nazi Party from its beginnings was to solve the “Jewish Question” in Germany. In 1920, Adolf Hitler drafted the party’s Twenty-Five Point Program (the Nazi Party platform). In this document, he declared that only those of German blood could be citizens. The Nazis believed Jews belonged to a separate and “inferior” race. Thus, they would thus deny them the right to citizenship. They would instead permit Jews to reside in Germany only as guests and would subject them to special laws for aliens. Additionally, under the program, all non-German immigration was to be prohibited. All non-Germans admitted after August 2, 1914—the day World War I began—were to be immediately deported. This, in particular, was to be directed at eastern European Jews, especially those from Poland.

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The “Jewish Question” in Nazi Germany

Once in power, the Nazi Party began taking measures to solve the “Jewish Question” in Germany. First, they initiated policies and laws that transformed German Jews into second-class citizens. Then, they expelled Jews from Germany or forced them to emigrate. During World War II, Nazi Germany and its collaborators expanded this goal. They aimed to cleanse all of Europe of Jews through their forced "resettlement" in occupied Poland, the French island of Madagascar, or later occupied Soviet territory.

In 1941, Nazi Germany embarked upon a path of systematic mass murder—the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Security Police and the SD, held a secret meeting known as the Wannsee Conference. Heydrich informed the representatives of various German governmental agencies that he had been tasked with the preparation of the “Final Solution.” He indicated that it would affect some 11 million Jews then living in Europe. By this stage, almost one million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union had been murdered, most of the Jews in Serbia eliminated, and the first killing center established in Chelmno.