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The Holocaust began with extermination through work

Sustainable management is a simple concept: existing resources are used in such a way that, on the one hand, they bring as much profit as possible.

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The Holocaust began with extermination through work

Sustainable management is a simple concept: existing resources are used in such a way that, on the one hand, they bring as much profit as possible. On the other hand, they must not be so stressed that they fail temporarily or completely. In this sense, every reasonably organized economy relies on sustainability. But what if profits are only a side issue, but murder is the main purpose?

"The suffering and brutality in the camps around Belzec put Pitom and Ramses, well-known places in our history, in the shade," wrote Mordka Goldman, an employee of the Jewish self-help in the Lublin district, probably in the late summer of 1940, after a fact-finding trip to the extreme south-east of the General Government, as central Poland occupied by the German Reich was called from the end of October 1939.

He alluded to two biblical places where the Israelites had been forced to perform forced labor during their captivity in Egypt. But around the village of Belzec, according to Goldman, the situation was worse than in pre-Mosaic times: “It was about labor exploitation back then. In this case, under the official pretext of wanting to exploit the Jewish workforce, they simply want to exterminate the Jews.”

So far, Holocaust research has taken it for granted that the decision to mass murder was made in 1941 - either before the attack on the Soviet Union on June 22nd or after the final expansion into a world war with Hitler's declaration of war on the USA on December 11th. In the January 2023 issue of the “Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte” (quarterly yearbooks for contemporary history), incidentally the anniversary issue (the first issue of the “VZG” was published in early 1953), comes the essay “Where work was no way” by the Eastern European historian Frank Grelka from the University of Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) to other results.

"In the Generalgouvernement, the government of Hans Frank (who reigned supreme over occupied central Poland, ed.) did not understand productivity to mean the planned deployment of Jewish workers for the benefit of the German war economy, as in other occupied territories." According to Grelka, it was more about that , "to deprive the Jewish population as a whole of their livelihood as quickly as possible". In other words: The forced labor here was the "initial spark for the genocide".

Of course, this is not entirely new. As early as 1999, the London Nazi expert Peter Longerich had scheduled “the transition from Jewish policy to policy of annihilation” to “autumn 1939”: “What the regime undertook from 1941 was nothing other than the concretization and realization of the annihilation that had already been planned in 1939.” new essay underpins this interpretation with extensive details.

This could render obsolete the long-standing dispute over the exact timing of the decision to mass murder Jewish people. At the same time, Grelka's finding supports the thesis of Hans Mommsen (1930 to 2015), according to which there was no need for a central Hitler order "from above" because the initiative for mass murder came "from below", so to speak.

In any case, the dictator himself never even began to deal with the organization of forced labor in the General Government. His Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, on the other hand, noted in early November 1939, after an inspection trip through a predominantly Jewish slum of Lodz (which was renamed “Litzmannstadt” a few months later): “One has to make cuts here, and quite radical ones at that.” That was still the case , before the ghettoization enforced by the occupying power massively aggravated the living conditions.

His research led Grelka to come to the conclusion: “Since the beginning of the German occupation policy, genocide as an organizational principle manifested itself in the systematic waste of property and labor of Polish Jews.” The only question was over what period of time the desired extermination of the Polish Jews would take place was reachable.

The ordinance on the “introduction of compulsory labor for the Jewish population” of December 12, 1939, which provided for a duration of forced labor “as a rule” of two years and stipulated: “It will be extended if its educational purpose is not fulfilled within this period, provides clues should have been achieved.” However, this “educational purpose” was nowhere defined – it certainly meant death.

The occupation administration had long reckoned with a period up to the end of the 1940s in which the "Jewish question" in their sphere of influence could "be eliminated", as Grelka writes. Because the official penalty for those Jewish people who escaped the prescribed “work compulsion” was ten years in prison. This fits with an early observation by Polish-Jewish historian Tatiana Breastin-Berenstein; she had escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to the Soviet Union and had survived. As early as 1952 she stated that the discrimination would have been sufficient to achieve the annihilation of the Jews in the General Government; It was only open "how long that would have taken".

The living conditions of the Jewish forced laborers were mostly deliberately bad, as the "Vierteljahrshefte" essay shows. The Jewish councils, for example, had to buy food for them from the occupation authorities, which of course was overpriced and not sufficient. In this way, the ghettoized people were also plundered. In addition, the performance extorted from the forced laborers was often pointless - for example, the digging of the "Otto Line", an anti-tank ditch along what was then the border between the temporary allies Germany and the Soviet Union at a time when Hitler had long since ordered the attack on the USSR should therefore be exceeded soon. The result was mass extinction; almost half of the 7,223 forced laborers deported from Radom by the fall of 1940, namely 3,483, died.

It was about annihilation through work - more than a year before this idea was formulated in the minutes of the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942: "The Jews [should] be deployed in a suitable way in the East for work. In large work columns, with the sexes separated, the able-bodied Jews will be taken to these areas to build roads, whereby a large part will no doubt drop out due to natural decline. Any remnant that finally remains will have to be treated accordingly, since this is undoubtedly the most resilient part.” In view of Grelka's results, this notorious passage seems like a summary of the assassination policy practiced in the General Government in 1939-1941.

But the perpetrators went too slowly. The timetable of about a decade to "solve" the "Jewish question" in the General Government was apparently scrapped by late summer 1941. In any case, in September of that year the decision was made to build a murder factory at the former location of the forced labor camps for Jews in Belzec; construction work began in late October and was completed in early 1942. The two methods of mass killing previously practiced in the western parts of the USSR, shooting by squads of police and SS men and the use of converted trucks as mobile gas chambers, seemed too inefficient to the perpetrators.

The quasi-industrial mass murder, unique in world history, thus replaced the already genocidal practice of rule in the General Government. "Since he took office in October 1939, Hans Frank was concerned with the question of how to reduce the number of Polish Jews without having to use more state funds than absolutely necessary," writes Grelka. "Basically, it was about organizing the operation in such a way that the Jewish communities bled dry financially and the Jewish population was decimated." His reinterpretation of forced labor from 1939 to 1941 in the General Government shows that the level of murder was not as high as previously assumed . It was no longer a question of whether Jews should be murdered, but only of how.

The source studies by Frank Grelka in the anniversary issue of the "VZG" thus support Hans Mommsen's explanation that the Holocaust goes back to a "cumulative radicalization". Between October 1939 and January 1942 there were various actors in the Nazi apparatus (each including their subordinates) who, in parallel and independently of one another, wanted to "solve the Jewish question" that Hitler's racial fanaticism had raised. In addition to Hans Frank in the General Government, there were Arthur Greiser, the NSDAP Gauleiter of the annexed western Poland, now called "Wartheland", and the central SS administration in Berlin under Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.

Frank started first and initially relied on indiscriminate killings by means of extermination by (forced) labour. Greiser had the very first permanent extermination station set up in the village of Chelmno, now "Kulmhof", which began killing in December 1941. Heydrich initially relied on mass shootings by task forces. But in the Generalgouvernement the perpetrators did not move fast enough; So the regional SS chief Odilo Globocnik, who was subordinate to Frank, relied on stationary murder camps, first in Belzec, and soon in Sobibor and Treblinka as well. Heydrich quickly found that killing himself with his own hands was too "exhausting" for the members of his death squads. So he had Auschwitz-Birkenau expanded into the largest extermination camp.

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