Reinhard Heydrich
Reinhard Heydrich Photo by Wikipedia
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Artiom Degel
Commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto. Photo by Artiom Degel

On this day in 1939, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office (which included the SS, Security Service), sent out a Schnellbrief (express letter) to members of the Einsatzgruppen death squads, in which he included his first instructions for the rounding up of Jews into ghettos. Nazi Germany had invaded Poland just three weeks earlier. Now, Heydrich, who had been authorized earlier in the year by Hermann Goering to come up with a solution to the “Jewish question,” confronted the fact that Germany now occupied a country with some three million Jewish residents.

Over a long period of time, Heydrich developed his ideas about the need to eliminate all Jewish influences from the Third Reich. Although there never was an overall order regarding the creation of ghettos (whose establishment was left to the discretion of regional commanders), Heydrich explained that concentrating Jews in urban centers would ease their later deportation.  The September 21 communiqué also offered instructions about the organization of Jewish councils and expropriation of Jewish property and businesses.

By July 31, 1941, 11 days after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Goering extended Heydrich’s mission, authorizing him to develop “a total solution of the Jewish Question in the area of German influence in Europe.” As the Einsatzgruppen entered the newly occupied lands, in many cases, they simply murdered Jews on the spot.

On January 20, 1942, Heydrich ran the notorious Wannsee Conference in Berlin, at which he presented his plan for the Final Solution for Europe’s 11 million Jews. Those Jews who didn’t “fall away” while serving as forced labor for the Reich would, he explained, would “be given special treatment.” That May, Heydrich himself was attacked while visiting Prague by a team representing the Czechoslovak government in exile. Wounded, he died on June 4. But the implementation of his program for the Jews proceeded as planned, and the establishment of the Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor death camps was named “Operation Reinhard,” in his memory.