The Final Solution was a euphemistic name used by Nazi leaders for their plan to exterminate all of the Jews in Europe. The plan’s full name was the “final solution to the Jewish question.” The plan led to the murder of six million Jews during the period from 1941 until 1945, when Allied forces liberated Europe from the Nazis.
Anti-semitism was a key part of Nazi policy from the time the party came into power, but during the early years, the party did not explicitly talk about extermination. However, Hitler himself had talked about his genocidal plans well before he ever came into power. In 1922, he told the journalist Josef Heil:
If I am ever really in power, the destruction of the Jews will be my first and most important job. As soon as I have power, I shall have gallows after gallows erected, for example, in Munich on the Marienplatz-as many of them as traffic allows.
When the Nazi party did come into power, in 1933, the party’s anti-Semitism took the form of anti-Jewish legislation and the violent Kristallnacht pogroms. Later, after the onset of World War II, the Nazis began to set up ghettos to contain the Jewish populations in countries under Hitler’s control. Conditions in these ghettos were unsanitary and dangerous; residents faced overcrowding and severe food shortages.
The Nazi leadership considered deporting Germany’s Jewish population, instead of murdering them. In fact, until at least the end of the 1930s Hitler thought that mass deportation was the best way to achieve his dream of eliminating Germany’s Jewish population. The goal behind all of the Nazi party’s anti-Jewish violence and legislation was to convince as many Jews as possible to emigrate. In 1939, Hitler delivered a speech to the German parliament in which he criticized western governments for failing to give asylum to Jewish immigrants. Hitler warned that if there was a war, he would bring about the “annihilation” of European Jews.
However, the leadership’s thinking apparently changed after the invasion of Russia. During the invasion, which the Germans called “Operation Barbarossa,” members of Hitler’s special forces showed that they were willing to carry out mass murders, leading Hitler to believe that his forces would be willing to carry out a genocide. Hitler had picked 3,000 men to serve in the special force, known as the Einsatzgruppen. Their orders were to find and murder all Jews – men, women, and children. Heinrich Himmler later wrote in October of 1943:
We were faced with the question: what about the women and children? – I have decided on a solution to this problem. I did not consider myself justified to exterminate the men only – in other words, to kill them or have them killed while allowing the avengers, in the form of their children, to grow up in the midst of our sons and grandsons. The difficult decision had to be made to have this people disappear from the earth.
Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic violence in Germany was leading to an outbreak of anti-Semitism across the western world. In France, a group calling themselves the Cagoulards, or “hooded men,” espoused fascist and anti-Semitic views. Fascist and anti-semitic groups also formed in the UK, where they were known as the British Union of Fascists, and in the United States, where they were called the German-American Bund.