For decades, it has been the ultimate enigma among historians of what the Nazis called the final solution: how can it be proved empirically that Hitler ordered the annihilation of Europe’s Jews, and when did he do so?
Despite a half-century of research, no single document has provided evidence that the Nazi leader gave a written order for the Holocaust. Without that crucial piece of paper, generations of historians have veered from the right-wing revisionism of David Irving of Britain, who sought to discount Hitler’s role, to a belief, embraced by American scholars like Richard Breitman and Daniel J. Goldhagen, that Hitler made the decision in early 1941 — a thesis supported by the systematic killing of Jews later that year.
Against that, the eminent German historian Hans Mommsen has cast Hitler as a weak dictator and the Holocaust as the result of a horrendous bureaucratic process unfolding with its own momentum. Generations of German students have learned that the detailed planning for history’s biggest genocide first emerged from a conference of senior Nazis in a villa at Wannsee, near Berlin, 56 years ago today, on Jan. 20, 1942.
But now a 34-year-old German scholar, Christian Gerlach, has set off a debate among historians with a new and contentious theory, based on a notation by Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief, discovered in previously secret Soviet archives and on other documents. The documents supposedly establish that Hitler did, indeed, make a personal decision to put to death German and all other European Jews under Nazi occupation, and announced it to his most senior Nazi followers on Dec. 12, 1941.
In addition, Mr. Gerlach argued in a recently published article that the decision was touched off in part by America’s entry into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
According to Mr. Gerlach, Hitler decided it was time to redeem a prophecy made in early 1939 that a new world war would mean the annihilation of all Europe’s Jews, not just those in the Soviet Union.
The subsequent Wannsee conference chaired by Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich was therefore called to make clear that German Jews, many of whom had already been deported to concentration camps in Eastern Europe, were also to be included in the final solution, Mr. Gerlach argued.