New Perspectives on the Nazi Extermination Programme - Introduction

8 March, 2017
Claire Andrieu

This collection of eight papers focuses on the beginning and the end of the Nazi extermination programme. Raul Hilberg’s landmark study and the wealth of historiography devoted to the subject since the beginning of the 1980s have provided us with a good understanding of the mechanisms of the genocide of the Jews, of its beginnings in 1941 and the stage of its growing momentum of destruction between 1942 and 1944. Yet some notable gaps remain. The genocide of European Sinti and Roma (‘Gypsies’) still awaits its own Raul Hilberg, and what little research there has been on the final phase of the extermination programme, from the autumn of 1944 to the spring of 1945, is scattered over different works where it is only mentioned in passing in the last chapters. The groundbreaking recent work The Death Marches by Daniel Blatman, who has contributed to this collection, is an exception.

As is often the case, analysing the beginning and the end of a phenomenon rather than the middle throws new light on the centre of gravity here. Henry Friedlander has shown how Nazi policy was based on biological ideology before it became anti-Semitic. 1 Its aim was to develop a Volksgemeinschaft, a ‘people’s community’ purged of all genetic heritage (Erbgut) judged to be detrimental, to protect the ‘race’ from the ‘contamination’ constituted by the presence of people with mental illnesses and disabilities, and by Jews and Roma. Rather than being simply genocidal, the Nazi system was a regeneration of the gene pool, a regeneration in the literal sense, based on a pseudo-scientific constructivism. Blood and soil, Blut und Boden, was more than just a slogan. This mythology of the purity of blood chimed with German hygienist culture at the end of the nineteenth century. As the philosopher Heinz Wismann has argued, disguising the gas chambers as shower rooms was significant: ‘because it was a matter of cleansing, cleansing by killing’2. And he added: ‘There is a paradox to explore here: one creates what one seeks to eliminate’. We may therefore ask whether it was not in fact the drive to eliminate that was the cornerstone of Nazi ideology, which then constructs a suitable target, first ‘the Jews’, but also ‘the Gypsies’ and ‘the handicapped’. In this realm of compulsion, the popular fiction of ‘the Jew’ and of the ‘global Jewish conspiracy’ exerts a seductive, even enchanting power like none other, for it arouses those fits of existential anxiety that are so typical of the speeches of Hitler and Goebbels.

As early as 1933, Marcel Aymé had sensed this, as he showed in his parodic account of a tormented, obsessive pursuit of racial purity among Aryan military recruits:

‘Long Live The Race!’

A huge open space, on which 30,000 Hitler supporters are lined up. 75 rows deep. The orator mounts the platform.

The orator: Long Live Hitler!

The 30,000: Long Live Hitler!

The orator: Long Live Germany!

The 30,000 Long Live Germany!

The orator Death to the Jews!

The 30,000 Death to the Jews!

The orator I think I heard one voice less just now.

Let us see, I repeat: Death to the Jews!

And indeed one Jew, trying to escape, had disguised himself in Hitlerian uniform, and did not have the heart to shout ‘Death to the Jews’. He was swiftly torn to pieces ...

The orator: ‘Save his liver for my cat!’

[Suspicion spreads quickly through the ranks. Anyone who seems to have non-Aryan features is killed until soon there are only 9,000 survivors.]

[ . . .]

The orator: ‘Comrades! Hear my anguished cry!’

The 6,000: ‘Purge! Purge!

The orator: ‘Take your turn to sound the alarm!’

The 3,000: ‘Purge! Purge!

The orator: ‘Drive out this deadly menace!

The 500: ‘Purge!’

The orator: ‘So that the Aryan nation will live!’

The 10: ‘Long Live the Aryan Nation!’ [. . .]

The last one: ‘Purge! Purge!’

He tears off one of his arms, and then his head.

The orator: ‘Save your liver for . . .

But the heaps of livers collapse with a squelch. One whole liver falls into the mouth of the orator, who expires. It is all over3.


Although he would later publish stories in the collaborationist press during the Occupation, Marcel Aymé grasped the murderous doctrine that lay at the heart of Nazism – except that in reality the racial consolidation of the nation was an almost complete success. The elimination of elements considered heterogenous and hence pathogenic began in 1933, if we include the compulsory sterilisation measures taken to prevent the reproduction of men and women who did not conform to the Nazis’ racial criteria. Complete statistics are available for the first three years in which the law was implemented. Between 1934 and 1936, more than 160,000 people suffered this form of mutilation and more than 400 died as a result of the operation4. From 1933, there were also pogroms against Jews in Germany, and from 1938 in Vienna. As Michael Wildt has shown, the Volksgemeinschaft constituted itself as early as the 1930s5. Kristallnacht, on 9 and 10 November 1938, which was preceded by two days of pogroms in Electoral Hesse, killed at least 91 people, without counting Jews who were interned in concentration camps and died as a result of ill treatment6. Once the event had been set in motion, it was orchestrated from the top down. It was neither a blunder nor a prologue but an integral part of the Nazi programme of extermination, which exposed the extremism of the regime and its genocidal essence. Following other episodes of street violence, the pogroms organised in Germany between 7 and 10 November 1938 were a dress rehearsal. 

This account of the pogroms of 1938 reopens the question of the German Sonderweg. According to the Sonderweg theory, Germany took a ‘special path’ to statehood at the end of the nineteenth century, which may – or may not – explain the rise of Nazism. This concept is still subject to debate7. Equally contested is the idea of a specifically Nazi Sonderweg, for historians are reluctant to decide retrospectively whether these developments that we now know about were in fact inevitable. To avoid the danger of teleology, the historian Herbert Ulrich has taken up the concept of a ‘process of cumulative radicalisation’ proposed by Hans Mommsen, showing how at every crossroads in the Nazi empire it was the most violent solution that prevailed 8. This continuous radicalisation seems indeed to be at the very core of Nazism.

Historians now place the initial phase of the policy of brutal ‘cleansing’ earlier in the chronology. Gerrit Hohendorf explains that the murders of mentally ill and disabled people did not start in 1940, as has often been claimed, but in 1939. In Germany, preparations began in the spring of 1939. The first systematic killings took place in Poland after the invasion, between October and December 1939. Several thousand mentally ill people were gassed in mobile gas chambers, and an unknown number were shot9. In Germany and in Austria, the murders first took place in gas chambers within secret ‘euthanasia stations’. Between January 1940 and August 1941, 70,000 people were gassed in this way. A total of some 300,000 men, women, babies and children were put to death between 1939 and 1945 as part of the ‘euthanasia’ programme. Some of the personnel who carried out these acts of murder were sent to the extermination camps to make use of their proficiency in gassing human beings.

The implementation of the ‘final solution’, the genocidal policy directed at the Jewish population also started earlier than often thought. Johann Chapoutot explores the evolution of this concept, from its beginnings when finding ‘the solution to the Jewish question’ was a common subject for debate in the social sciences of Wilhelmine Germany. The ‘Polish laboratory’ played a decisive role in this. From the autumn of 1939 onwards, many tens of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles were systematically murdered, and October 1939 saw the first attempts to deport Jews from Vienna. From the summer of 1940, mentally ill Jews were exterminated in Germany and Poland, whether or not they were fit for work10. Similarly, the widespread notion that the genocide of Jews began as a result of the Wehrmacht’s failure to conquer the USSR, which forced the Nazis to abandon their plan to relocate the Jews to the East, seems unconvincing given how quickly the killings took place. The clearest example is that of Babi Yar, presented here by Karel Berkhoff. He shows how the murder of 34,000 people of all ages in a few days at the end of September 1941 – when the German army could still hope for victory – was already part of normal practice. Nor can the massacre of 23,000 Jews at Kamianets-Podilskyi on the 27th and 28th of August 1941 possibly be seen as collateral damage resulting from the stalling of the German advance in the USSR.

Not only were the foundations of the extermination programme in place well before the commonly accepted date of the summer of 1941, but its implementation also continued well beyond the summer of 1944. Yet except in the case of Hungary there has been relatively little research on the final year of the killing machine,  and what there is can usually only be found in studies of specific countries or regions. Raul Hilberg devotes only a few pages to the evacuations of the camps. Yet in the four months from January to the beginning of May 1945, some 250,000 of those held in concentration camps were killed, out of the 710,000 who had survived at the start of the year. To these were added the countless numbers of prisoners and internees of all ages who would be murdered by their camp guards or their ‘doctors’ right up to the very last days of the allied advance. Robert Rozett shows how in Hungary Nazi extermination continued to the bitter end. Between mid-May and 9 July 1944, when the Allies were already advancing through Normandy, and the Soviets had reached the borders of East Prussia and Hungary, Eichmann organised the deportation and murder in Auschwitz of some 430,000 Hungarian Jews. And in the first months of 1945, the evacuations of camps and the ‘death marches’ saw countless camp guards inflamed by murderous violence, which was further exacerbated by the chaos, and German and Austrian civilians taking an active part in the killing of evacuees or the capture and lynching of those who had escaped. Daniel Blatman describes the final chapter of the extermination programme, whose victims by then included, with little distinction, Jews and non-Jews, people classified as ‘political’ or ‘asocial’, slave labourers deported from the East and even some prisoners of war who had survived until then. In April 1945, after the liberation of Buchenwald, Himmler still gave orders that no prisoner in the camps should fall into the hands of the enemy alive. It is hard to doubt the extremism of the Nazis and the Sonderweg that it traced through history. Nonetheless, there are still issues that need elucidation, as for example the question of why deportations from Hungary were halted in July 1944, even though the Nazis were then able to demand they continue by deposing Horthy, the Hungarian Regent. Why were deportations from Theresienstadt halted after October 1944, or deportations from Slovakia resumed from September through to March 1944? At this final stage, Nazi policy started becoming increasingly incoherent, and it is doubtful whether this was merely due to Himmler playing a double game11.

As the example of Regent Horthy in Hungary demonstrates, it was possible to stop, if only temporarily, deportations organised on behalf of the Nazis. The case of Bulgaria show this even more clearly, since here the deportations were halted by public opinion, from the spring of 1943. In her pioneering contribution, Nadège Ragaru explores how a small coalition of parliamentarians and prelates managed to persuade the government to suspend the round-ups which would lead to the deportation of Jews from the ‘old’ Kingdom. It was the sight of trains carrying deportees from Thrace and Macedonia, territories recently annexed by Bulgaria, that provoked this rebellion. This surprising and sudden change, contrary to the rule in the rest of German-occupied Europe, remained an exception. Its history is only beginning to be written, after decades of Communism. Research into the memory of the Shoah, reviewed here by Sébastien Ledoux, clearly shows that historiography of the extermination has focused almost exclusively on Western Europe. Extending this research to the countries of Eastern Europe will provide us with a new and more complex picture.

This collection of papers on the Nazi extermination programme also reflects the renewed interest in the victims. Historiography in the last few decades tended to focus especially on the executioners and their tools, subjects about which relatively little was known at the time, and which are now quite well documented. Our knowledge of the victims, of how they lived under conditions of the most extreme stress, comes mostly from personal testimonies, and historians are now trying to analyse their world beyond the neat framework of compassion and heroism. Anna Hajkova explores the persistence of gender relations and prejudices in the prison society of Theresienstadt and their often terrible consequences within the extermination programme inflicted on the ghetto-town.

The memory of the Shoah did not simply dissipate or die out after the war, and it will not vanish or cease to evolve in the future. Its historiography will also continue to develop. At present, it emphasises the temporal continuities, from 1933 to 1945, from the first signs of the extermination programme in 1933 up to its industrialisation under cover of war. In its focus on the beginnings (1933–1940) and the end (1944–1945), this collection leaves out the years that were the most terrible ones for the Jewish populations, 1941 and 1942, during which more than three-fifths of them were murdered12. Only the Nazi fiction of a ‘global Jewish conspiracy’ could arouse the murderous fury, composed of anxiety and exaltation that would trigger this genocidal programme and ensure its effectiveness. But a close look at the first and the final year of the extermination system throws light on the entirety of the murderous programme. The creation of a new race through the physical elimination of all those considered not to conform to the Nazis’ racial ideology began in 1933, and it was successful. In 1945, after the murder of hundreds of thousands of the disabled and of Roma, and of millions of Jews, the Aryan race had become a reality, at least in the Great Reich, which was now only composed of Aryans. Through the irony of history, this ethnic cleansing had coincided with a massive programme of importation of prisoners of every origin, prisoners of war, forced labourers, slave workers rounded up in the East, deportees from every country, slowly exterminated in concentration camps. The combination of these two policies – the creation of the Aryan race and the bringing in of millions of people deemed ‘impure’ – had a galvanizing effect, leading to further violence. In four months, from January 1945 until the arrival of the Allies, more than half a million prisoners of every category, ‘political’, ‘asocial’ and ‘racial’, were indiscriminately killed. Only military force could at last put a stop to this system, which seemed destined to become ever more extreme, ever more murderous. 

  • 1. Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution, Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • 2. Heinz Wismann, ‘Commentaire du modérateur’, in Documents: Revue des questions allemandes, special issue on ‘Place des femmes dans le système concentrationnaire’ [Colloque du 12 mai 2005; organisé à la Maison Heinrich Heine, Fondation de l'Allemagne de la Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris], October 2005, pp. 49–50.
  • 3. Marcel Aymé, ‘Vive la race!’, Marianne, 3 May 1933, p. 15. On the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France :
  • 4. Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide, pp. 28–29.
  • 5. Michael Wildt, Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft and the Dynamics of Racial Exclusion: Violence against Jews in Provincial Germany, 1919–1939, trans. Bernard Heise, New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, in association with Yad Vashem, 2012 (2007 for the original German edition).
  • 6. Alan Steinweis, Kristallnacht 1938, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London: 2009.
  • 7. Dieter Groh, ‘Le “Sonderweg” de l’histoire allemande: mythe ou réalité?’, Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, 1983, vol. 38, no. 5, pp. 1166–1187.
  • 8. Ulrich Herbert, ‘La politique d’extermination: Nouvelles réponses, nouvelles questions sur l’histoire de l’Holocauste’, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, no. 47–2, 2000/2, pp. 233–264, here p. 253; Hans Mommsen, ‘Die Realisierung des Utopischen: die “Endlösung der Judenfrage” im “Dritten Reich”’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, Jg. 9 (1983), H. 3, p. 381–420.
  • 9. Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, Adalbert Rückerl, et al. (eds.), Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas, trans. Mary Scott and Caroline Lloyd-Morris, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994 (original German edition, 1983), chap. 3.
  • 10. Ibid., p. 40.
  • 11. Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler: A Life, trans. Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010 (original German edition, 2008), chap. 26, ‘Collapse’.
  • 12. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 3rd ed. 2003, vol. 3, p. 1321.

Cite this item

Claire Andrieu, New Perspectives on the Nazi Extermination Programme - Introduction, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 8 March, 2017, accessed 23/04/2017,, ISSN 1961-9898