Loathsome though it seems to refer to this phrase, it is perhaps the most known military term for the events that are commemorated now as the Shoah, or the Holocaust.
The stages of ‘the Final Solution’
From the point at which the National Socialists came to power in January 1933, the path that led to the deaths of millions of European Jews had begun.
It began with the opening of Dachau in 1933, and with the passing of the first tranche of racial laws in the same year. The following anti-Jewish legislation and boycotts, the dividing of people into Aryan and non-Aryan, the November 1938 pogroms, and, eventually, the attempt to annihilate all Europe’s Jews – were all part of the same path.
The German government established concentration camps from the early 1930s onwards – although the distinction between these and the later extermination camps is a difficult one to make, given how many thousands were also killed in concentration camps, even before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Once the war started, Jewish ghettos were established, many of which were constructed in occupied Poland. Countless hundreds of thousands of European Jews were deported to these ghettos, to live in cramped and unsanitary conditions; many died of starvation, cold and disease.
By 1940, mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) were directly killing whole communities of Jews. At first mainly men were shot, but soon women and children, the very young and the very elderly, were also being shot and buried in mass graves located in or near their towns and villages. People living with mental or physical disabilities in hospitals were also killed in large numbers by the Einsatzgruppen – whose ranks consisted of regular police officers and members of the SS.
Jews were marched or driven in trucks to the killing sites, which were often trenches, quarries or anti-tank ditches. They were forced to hand over any valuables, to strip, and if no useable site existed in the area, the victims were often forced to dig the trenches that would form their graves. They were shot either standing by the side of these trenches, or forced to stand or lie down in them to be shot.
In these early days such mass shootings were common across a vast geographical area, as was killing small numbers of Jews at a time in ‘gas vans’. The exhaust fumes from the trucks were pumped directly into them, killing anyone locked inside. However, these close contact methods of killing were seen by the regime as both slow and inefficient, and as damaging to the morale of German soldiers. Thus, other mass killing methods were also being trialled.
According to the Holocaust Research Project, precise records were kept about these Einsatzgruppen activities. The commanders sent operational reports to Berlin – many of which were used at the War Crimes trials at Nürnberg after the war.
After the Wannsee Conference, held in January 1942, what most people think of as the ‘Final Solution’ began in earnest. Now, the systematic deportation of Jews began, to six extermination camps (all established in occupied Poland): Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek.
These camps were designed specifically to carry out genocide. It is estimated that around three million Jews were gassed in extermination camps.
In all, then, the ‘Final solution’ encompassed state legislation, starvation, deprivation, apparently random acts of state terror, conditions that would foster disease, as well as mass shootings, hangings and gassing. It accounted for the deaths of around six million European Jews.