While the United States was becoming embroiled in the war in the Pacific, back in Europe the true intent of the Nazi armies was becoming increasingly clear. As more and more of eastern Europe fell into German hands, the territory became a sort of backyard for the Nazis, where the ugliest parts of their plan could be carried out far away from prying eyes. By late 1941, the first Jews from Germany and western Europe were gathered and transported, along with many other minorities, to concentration camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and western Russia, where they were first used as slaves and then systematically murdered.
At this point, the notorious gas chambers of the later Nazi concentration camps were not yet common. Most victims were taken in groups to secluded areas where they were stripped of clothing, pushed into open pits, machine-gunned, and then quickly covered over, in many cases even before all were dead. Indeed, one of the reasons for creating the gas chambers and extermination camps was that many troops in the German S.S. experienced severe psychological repercussions carrying out the gruesome tasks put before them.
The German atrocities were not directed solely at Jews. Precisely the same fate awaited millions of non-Jewish Russian and eastern European civilians, as well as many Soviet prisoners of war. By December 1941, the number of Nazi murders was already in the hundreds of thousands and growing rapidly.
On January 20, 1942, a group of fifteen Nazi officials met in a villa in the Wannsee district outside Berlin in order to settle the details for resolving the so-called “Jewish question.” The meeting was led by Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police), and included several members of the S.S. along with representatives of several German government ministries. Neither Hitler nor any heads of government ministries were present.
The topics discussed at the Wannsee Conference included the logistics of expelling Jews from Germany by emigration, the possibility of mandatory sterilization, and the best ways to deal with people of mixed blood. The conference devoted considerable attention to the matter of who would be legally considered a Jew; ultimately, it set different conditions for pure Jews and those of mixed blood, in turn classified by first generation and second generation. Delegates also discussed how to handle Jews who would not or could not leave the country; it was decided that these Jews would be sterilized and sent to live in all-Jewish “retirement ghettos.”
The official record of the Wannsee Conference made no mention of mass killing of Jews or of extermination camps. However, the meeting did set a secret goal to remove 11 million Jews from Europe by whatever means and expressed concern that the mass emigration process already taking place was becoming expensive and more difficult to negotiate. The terms “final solution” and “absolute final solution” were used, although the specifics were not elaborated.
Nazi forces had begun the mass killing of Jews as early as 1939, when Germany first invaded Poland. These actions expanded greatly during the invasion of the USSR in 1941. By 1942, the so-called Endlösung, or “final solution,” took shape, as the murders become increasingly systematic and Hitler pressed his underlings to speed up the process. During the previous year, S.S. commanders had experimented with different methods, and gas chambers proved to be the method of choice.
Although prisoners died by the thousands from disease, overwork, or starvation in German labor camps throughout Europe, there were only seven designated extermination camps. Six were located in Poland, one in Belorussia. These camps existed purely for the purpose of killing, and most of the prisoners taken to them were dead within hours of arrival. A limited number of prisoners deemed fit enough to work were temporarily forced to labor in these camps, but they were underfed and overworked until they too were unfit for labor and subsequently killed.
More than 90 percent of the victims sent to these extermination camps were Jews, brought in from all over Germany and other German-controlled areas of eastern and western Europe. Romany (Gypsies) and homosexuals also lost their lives in the camps in significant numbers, as did some Soviet prisoners of war. The camps continued operation virtually unimpeded until the Allies finally liberated them near the end of the war.