The Last Nazi Hunters

The Last Nazi Hunters.

Before the start of World War II, around 9.5 million Jewish people lived in Europe. By the time the war ended, the Nazis had killed 6 million European Jews in concentration camps, pogroms, ghettos, or mass executions in what we refer to today as the Holocaust. The Nazis used the term Endlösung, or Final Solution, as the “answer” to the “Jewish question.” But when did this monstrous plan get put in motion? Adolf Hitler had provided clues to his ambition to commit mass genocide as early as 1922, telling journalist Josef Hell, “Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews.” According to scholars Christian Gerlach and Peter Monteath, among others, the pivotal moment for Hitler’s decision came on December 12, 1941, at a secret meeting with some 50 Nazi officials, including Joseph Goebbels (Nazi minister of propaganda) and Hans Frank (governor of occupied Poland). Though no written documents of the meeting survive, Goebbels described the meeting in his journal on December 13, 1941: “With respect of the Jewish Question, the Führer has decided to make a clean sweep. He prophesied to the Jews that if they again brought about a world war, they would live to see their annihilation in it. That wasn’t just a catchword… If the German people have now again sacrificed 160,000 dead on the eastern front, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay with their lives.” In addition to Goebbels’s diary entry, historians cite the notes of German diplomat Otto Brautigam, who on December 18, 1941, wrote that “as for the Jewish question, oral discussions have taken place [and] have brought about clarification.” This meeting, which would be followed by the January 1942 Wannsee Conference (where the decision on exterminating all European Jews was further reinforced), was hardly the start of violence against Jews. Attacks had been happening in Nazi Germany’s occupied territories for years. What differentiated this period from earlier attacks was “an escalation of murder,” says Elizabeth White, historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “At some point I think, with the development of killing centers, [the Nazis] felt that they had the means and opportunity to realize the vision of a Jew-free Europe now rather than wait until after Germany had won [the war].” This long read spells out the German response to her collective guilt over the Holocaust. Credit: The Smithsonian.

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