London, May 8, 1999
Hangman for Hitler
Five words in Heinrich Himmler's newly published diaries could change Holocaust history.
IAN TRAYNOR reports from Berlin.
IT WAS a chilly Friday night a long way from home and Heinrich Himmler was ready to unwind after overseeing several days of mass murder on the eastern front.
The SS chief placed a call to his daughter, Gudrun, in Bavaria, and had supper with a couple of Nazi bigwigs aboard his special train, "Heinrich". They then settled down to watch a new film, a musical comedy in colour set in small-town 19th-century Germany. It was November 1941, a few months after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and Himmler's SS death squads had just taken 13,000 Jews out of the ghetto in Minsk in Belarus and ordered them to lie down in freshly dug graves outside the city. They were then shot to make room for the first deportations to the east of Jews from Germany proper.
The next day, Saturday November 15, Himmler put through several phone calls to Hitler's "Wolf's Lair" headquarters and chatted with the Fuehrer's chief-of-staff, Martin Bormann. He rang Berlin and Prague and then had lunch and a four-hour discussion with Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi minister for the occupied eastern territories. Next day the two men travelled to East Prussia for supper with Hitler. First Himmler again called his daughter, then had a haircut.
The nub of those crucial discussions was revealed by Rosenberg two days later when he confided to German journalists that the occupied Soviet territories "are called upon to solve a question confronting the peoples of Europe: that is the Jewish question. It can only be solved through the biological elimination of the entire Jewry in Europe."
Rosenberg's remarks touch on one of the remaining central questions of the Holocaust -- whether the supreme Nazi leadership ever took a formal decision to exterminate the Jews. Now Himmler's long-missing desk diaries for 1941 and 1942 have just been published in Germany and the argument is poised to re-erupt. The SS leader's schedule for those two years was thought to have been lost in 1945 when his secretary burnt the entire contents of his filing cabinets.
Himmler himself, the Bavarian schoolmaster's son and trained agronomist who became Hitler's devoted acolyte and pre-eminent pseudo-theoretician of the master race, bit on a cyanide capsule lodged between his teeth on May 23, 1945, after surrendering to British troops near Lüneburg. He was then buried in an unmarked grave.
But the key papers resurfaced in 1990 among a huge KGB cache of Nazi documents secreted away in a north Moscow suburb for 45 years. The 570 pages of typewritten and handwritten appointments schedules were maintained by Himmler's staff, with scrawls, notes and observations lodged by the SS leader himself. The Hamburg team have combined them with other relevant archive material in Germany, the United States and elsewhere to produce a comprehensive chronology of Himmler's activities in the two-year period.
The result is 800 pages of diary entries and footnotes. Leading US Holocaust historian, Dr Richard Breitman, believes it will influence scholarship for years to come. He argues that Hitler and Himmler had long decided to embark on a systematic campaign to murder all of Europe's Jews.
"By March 1941 the Final Solution was just a matter of time and timing. This date is months earlier than the juncture most specialists have selected, but the evidence is compelling," says Dr Breitman. The "fundamental decisions" on the Holocaust were taken in advance of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, he insists.
Mr Peter Witte, one of the eight-strong diaries team, argues by contrast that Hitler and Himmler decided to try to murder all of Europe's Jews in the [northern] summer of 1941 and that Himmler then moved to refine the fundamental decision that autumn. The Himmler papers could shed light on his hunch, but the diary entries for June 25-August 12 are still missing, perhaps still with the Russian secret service.
And Christian Gerlach, a young Berlin historian specialising in the Nazi occupation of eastern Europe and another of those working on the diaries, claims that the defining moment came in December 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler found himself formally at war with America.
A note handwritten by Himmler dated December 18 and referring to a meeting just held with Hitler says: "Jewish question -- exterminate as partisans." Those few words could change the expert view on the Holocaust.
The diary entry comes exactly one week after Hitler declared war on America and six days after Hitler's December 12 secret speech in Berlin to 50 Nazi provincial governors [Gauleiters]. "Hitler's speech and his discussions in the following days with Himmler ... led first of all to the fundamental directives on the murder of all Jews in the occupied Soviet territories ... secondly to the intensification of plans to gas Jews, and thirdly signify the decision to murder German Jews as well," the eight researchers state in explanation.
But frustratingly, Himmler's diary entries for December 15-18 are missing. -- The Guardian