Mass Murder of Jews in Europe Started Months Before Hitler Met Mufti, Historians Say

Netanyahu’s claim that until the meeting Hitler did not want to exterminate the Jews does not match what really happened.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Hitler meeting with Husseini in Berlin, 1941.
Hitler meeting with Husseini in Berlin, 1941.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked public and historical uproar on Tuesday when he claimed that the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was the one who planted the idea of the extermination of European Jewry in Adolf Hitler’s mind. The Nazi ruler, Netanyahu said, had no intention of killing the Jews, but only to expel them before speaking with Husseini.

With his speech to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Netanyahu entered a long-standing debate among historians of the Holocaust period as to Hitler’s real intentions, and when and what he personally decided.

Netanyahu described in his speech a meeting between Husseini and Hitler on November 28, 1941: “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to Palestine].’” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.”

The question “What should I do with them?” and the answer, implying that Husseini was the person who convinced Hitler to start with the Final Solution, is the most controversial historical issue. The fact is that the systematic and mass murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators had already started months before the meeting between Hitler and Husseini.

Netanyahu speaking before the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, October 21, 2015.Credit: AFP

Historians are truly divided over the question of what Hitler intended to do, and when he reached these decisions: Whether the mass murder was part of an organized plan prepared long in advance when he first started on his political rise, or whether such a decision was only made much later, during the war as a response to other events.

According to one school of historical thought, known as the “institutionalist” approach, Hitler formulated the Final Solution well back in the 1930s. This view contradicts Netanyahu’s claims, and these historians interpret Hitler’s speech on January 30, 1939 in the Reichstag as the declaration of the start of the mass extermination. In this speech Hitler said: “Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

A different historical school, the “functionalist” approach, says that no official order, clear and unambiguous, has ever been found concerning the start of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference, held on January 20, 1942, dealt with the practical issues of implementing this mass murder, but in itself was not the date or forum where the decision on the Final Solution was made.

Whether the mass murder was part of a preplanned and precalculated Final Solution, or whether it grew out of “local solutions,” in practice the mass extermination of European Jewry only began after the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 – a few months before the meeting between Hitler and Husseini.

SS units of the Einsatzgruppen accompanied the Wehrmacht troops into the Soviet Union, and by the end of 1941 they had already murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews – men, women and children. There are historians of the period who think this was simply the first stage of what was to evolve later into the Final Solution, including the death camps. But as Prof. Saul Friedlander has written in his book “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945,” it still seems the Germans did not yet view this stage as part of an overall plan for exterminating all the Jews of Europe.

Regardless of the historical debate, in practice – even if Hitler had not yet decided to exterminate all the world’s Jews, as Netanyahu has claimed – it was only in the summer of 1941 that the Germans started carrying out the systematic mass murder of Jews in the regions they had recently captured from the Soviets.

For example, in July 1941 some 5,000 Jewish men were murdered in Paneriai, a suburb of Vilna, Lithuania. This was the first in a series of acts of mass extermination that continued all summer and fall, writes Friedlander, adding that starting in August women and children were also killed. It seems the goal of the Germans at this stage was the extermination of all the Jews who were unable to work, he says. At first only Jewish men were killed, then soon after all the Jews were killed, without any apparent differentiation. These murders were conducted by the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units and other SS units, as well as the many battalions of Ordnungspolizei (Nazi police). All these units were aided from the beginning by local groups, and later by support units of the local population organized by the Germans – and sometimes by regular Wehrmacht troops too, says Friedlander.

There is no lack of other such examples. In early August, Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the SS, ordered the destruction of the Jewish population of Pinsk in Belarus. Some 24,000 Jews were murdered before the annexation of eastern Galicia to the new Nazi-controlled government of Poland on August 1. Later, Waffen SS troops shot and killed some 900 Jews near Kiev. On September 29, two months before the meeting between Husseini and Hitler, the Germans shot to death 34,000 Jews from Kiev at Babi Yar. On November 12, 1941, two weeks before the meeting, Himmler ordered the murder of 30,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto.

Over a month before the meeting between Hitler and Husseini, Hitler started explicitly mentioning the “destruction of the Jews” once again, for example on October 19 and 25. In one of his best-known phrases from that period, Hitler said that his soldiers would be doing a service to humanity when they exterminated the plague of the Jews.

Social media storm

So what was actually said in the meeting between Hitler and Husseini? Friedlander writes that Hitler made it clear to his Arab guest that Germany’s fight against the Jews would be “uncompromising” and would also be aimed at the Jews living in Palestine.

Hitler is quoted in the minutes of the meeting as telling Husseini he “would carry on the battle to the total destruction of the Judeo-Communist empire in Europe.” In addition: “Germany was resolved, step by step, to ask one European nation after the other to solve its Jewish problem, and at the proper time to direct a similar appeal to non-European nations as well.”

Netanyahu’s remarks quickly sparked a social media storm, though the prime minister made a similar claim during a Knesset speech in 2012, when he described Husseini as “one of the leading architects” of the Final Solution.

The claim that Husseini was the one to initiate the extermination of European Jewry has been suggested by a number of historians at the fringes of Holocaust research, but is rejected by most accepted scholars.

The argument concerning Husseini’s role was recently mentioned in a book by Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, “Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East.” The authors, like Netanyahu, draw a straight line between the mufti’s support of Hitler and the policy of the Palestinian Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat.

But even these two researchers do not claim that the dialogue described by Netanyahu ever took place. They say Hitler reached the conclusion to exterminate the Jews because of his desire to nurture Husseini, who opposed the transfer of Jews to pre-state Israel.

“An absurd image”

Israel Prize laureate historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer severely criticized Netanyahu’s comments on Wednesday. Bauer, an emeritus professor of Holocaust studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and academic advisor to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, told Army Radio: “I am not saying the mufti was not an anti-Semite ... He was most extreme. Everything is true, but this story as if Hitler received his inspiration from the mufti, this is something completely idiotic.”

As to Netanyahu’s distortion of history, Bauer said: “I think he is simply trying to create a sort of completely absurd image, which continues from the period of the 1920s through to our times without a break and without any facts, etc. It is baseless.”

When asked whether Netanyahu’s claims were correct about Hitler asking Husseini what to do about the Jews, and in response Husseini said: “Burn them,” Bauer says it never happened. “Hitler did not ask questions. He did not need some Arab to tell him what to do.”

Prof. Meir Litvak, a historian at Tel Aviv University, also criticized Netanyahu’s remarks. “It is a lie and the height of historical distortion and it is shameful, because what is being done is the reduction of Hitler and Hitler’s being presented in a more positive light than what was, and also a rather vulgar understanding of the historical processes,” he told Army Radio.

“Hitler did not need Husseini to convince him,” said Litvak. “Hitler spoke about the extermination of the Jews in a famous speech in 1939 in which he foretold that if a war that the Jews cause breaks out, then the result will be the destruction of the Jewish race. He repeated these declarations.”

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