Prelude to the Final Solution: The Nazi Program for Deporting Ethnic Poles, 1939–1941

(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), Modern War Studies, 328 pp., illus


The nationalist conflict between Germans and Poles, which lasted for more than a century, reached its nadir in 1939 after the Wehrmacht attack during the short war against Poland. The lengthy German occupation was marked by anti-Polish ethnic policies (Volkstumspolitik). In Prelude to the Final Solution: The Nazi Program for Deporting Ethnic Poles, 1939-1941, Phillip Rutherford describes the projects of expulsion and resettlement in the first nineteen months of the occupation, when the occupiers were pursuing the vision of a purely German Wartheland. His study is based on his doctoral dissertation at Pennsylvania State University under the direction of Dan Silverman which he completed in 2001.

In terms of institutional history, Rutherford emphasizes the role of the Staff for Evacuation (from April 1940, Central Office for Migrants [Umwandererzentralstelle: UWZ]) in the Gau of Reich Governor Arthur Greiser. The analysis, which provides details about four deportation waves, builds upon the work of Christopher Browning and Götz Aly, who have pointed out the nexus between the Nazi policy of expulsion in the western Polish territories annexed by and incorporated into the Reich and the plan to annihilate the Jews.[i]

The study is also among the various ‘prelude’ books on the Holocaust that have been published in recent years. In 1995, Konrad Kwiet identified the ‘onset of the Holocaust’ in the crimes of a police battalion in Lithuania in June 1941.[ii] By contrast, Jerzy Tomaszewski saw the ‘prelude to annihilation’ as early as 1938, in the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany.[iii] In turn, JochenBöhler dated the ‘onset to the war of annihilation’ to September 1939, when the Wehrmacht attacked and invaded Poland.[iv]Alexander B. Rossino, for his part, arrived at the conclusion that ‘the brief war with Poland in September 1939 was the first step in the overall escalation of National Socialist racial and occupation policies during World War II that ultimately resulted in genocide’; he explores this thought in his 2003 study which appeared in the series Modern War Studies. Rossino argues that ‘for Heydrich and other SS and Police Leaders,’ the main enemies in 1939 were ‘ethnic Poles and not Polish Jews’. Only in the course of time did this change: ‘the targets in the killers’ gun sights had by mid-1941 shifted decisively to Jews.’[v]

The present study can thus also be regarded as a continuation of Rossino’s work. Rutherford believes that the National Socialists learned a number of techniques and put them to the acid test in western Poland in 1939; these were later employed effectively in the mass murder of Polish Jewry. Hence, his intention is to explore ‘the wartime ordeal of Poles--an important chapter of twentieth-century European history that has often been neglected or even ignored by historians of the Third Reich and World War II--and also [to provide] a prehistory of the Holocaust’ (12).

The author shows that the decision to shift the population was not systematic and planned long and carefully in advance, but was rather ‘a series of shoot-from-the-hip responses to recent diplomatic developments’--springing from negotiations with the Soviet Union: ‘the actual program for resettlement and expulsion was, in a very real sense, thrown together at the last minute’ (62). It should be added that an important motivation behind the haste of the National Socialist regime to reach an agreement with the Soviet government lay in the concern to spare the German population living outside the Reich (Auslandsdeutsche) in Eastern Europe from possible reprisals: leading Nazis who had had experiences with Bolshevik gangs in the Baltic in 1918–19 had negative recollections, and the murder of ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) in Poland during the first days of the war was a fresh reminder.

The program of expulsion sprang from the anti-Polish ethnic policy and from the Nazi regime’s aim to totally remove the Jewish population from the Reich. Nonetheless, its preconditions were treaties on the resettlement of the Auslandsdeutsche, who were living in the Baltic republics and the USSR, and from October 1939 were being resettled in Reich territory. To create room for them, Jews and Poles were to be expelled expeditiously from the annexed territories.

A leading role was played by the Higher SS and Police Leader in the Wartheland, Wilhelm Koppe, and his appointed organizer for the expulsions, Albert Rapp. They recruited a staff for evacuation (Evakuierungsstab) from the ranks of the Security Police. As early as the fall of 1939, economic necessities began to restrict the projects of expulsion; for example, deportations conflicted with the policy of utilizing Polish workers wherever needed (82 ff.). Hence, only Jews were to be deported indiscriminately, and the Judenräte were compelled to participate in these deportations. In the first deportation wave, 1–16 December 1939, when the so-called first Nahplan was implemented, the National Socialists expelled some 88,000 persons in the cold of winter, packed them into overcrowded trains, frequently in unheated freight cars, and sent them to localities where few or no preparations had been made to accommodate them. Some 10,000 of these expellees were Jews (especially from Łódź). Most were sent to the Lublin District (53). The military commander in the Wartheland, General Petzel, sought to block individual attempts by Wehrmacht men to undermine the actions of the SS resettlement staffs; he issued an order on 3 February 1940, specifically forbidding members of the Wehrmacht from becoming active on behalf of the expellees and their concerns.

On 1 February 1940, the internal administration of the Generalgouvernement (GG), already swamped by refugees and persons who had been bombed out of their homes, had in a very short period of time to take in 611,000 individuals, including more than 450,000 Jews, from the western Polish territories annexed by the Reich.[vi] As the SS perceived this, the mistakes of the firstNahplan, which often had led to the ‘wrong’ people being deported, should not be allowed to repeat themselves. The SS policy towards ethnic Germans, which implemented a ‘racial’ examination for the ‘migrants’ (Umwanderer) delayed the further course of the deportations. The expulsion policy was also to be centralized. Heydrich continued to press for the total removal of all Jews, but given the shortage of transport capacity, the ‘evacuators’ furor to deport populations was directed against those Poles who had to make room for the resettlement of in-migrating Auslandsdeutsche. In the end, among the ca. 40,000 expellees of the Zwischenplan (Intermediate Plan), only several hundred were Jews (124). The secondNahplan stipulated the deportation of 120,000 Poles, to begin on 1 March 1940. The transports lasted until 20 January 1941, encompassing a total of 133,508 persons, especially Polish farmers, who were resettled largely into the GG east of the Vistula. Most of the others were deported as forced labourers to Germany, and a small portion were sent to Germany as candidates for ‘naturalization’ as members of the German folk. The deportation of the Jews was thus actually put on hold, with priority given to accommodating 120,000 Germans living outside the Reich (131). Only once, in early April 1940, were 2,663 Jews deported from Posen (Poznań) in the GG (170).

The UMZ began implementing the third Nahplan on 5 February 1941; with this policy, the German authorities agreed to resettle 81,000 residents of the Warthegau. But because of the further deployment of the Wehrmacht east of the GG, which required mobilizing all the transport capacity available, the deportation projects ground to a halt on 15 March 1941. Down to that point in time, a total of 19,226 persons had been deported, among them 2,140 Jews. ‘Evacuation’ was now supplanted by a scheme for the Verschiebung des Polentums (displacement of Polish nationhood). By the end of January 1942, a total of 82,093 persons were resettled inside the Gau; if deportees are counted as well, in 1941–42 a total of 130,826 inhabitants of the Warthegau lost their homes (193). Since workers were needed, the deportations were further curtailed; at the same time, ‘racial’ examinations of Poles conscripted for forced labour and sent to Germany were scrapped (202).

Rutherford concludes that concerns for utility and economic reasons contributed to the greater restriction of the National Socialist ethnic struggle (Volkstumskampf), even before the shortage of workers became acute. After conquering Poland, ‘the Pole’ qua enemy receded ever more into the background, while ‘the Jew’ as enemy No. 1 came more and more to the fore. In the National Socialist ‘Final Solution’, Rutherford sees ‘an ad hoc policy of last resort implemented only after the failure of all territorial solutions to the Jewish Question, not the consummation of a systematic, premeditated program for total physical annihilation’ (215). While the policy towards Jews was subject to a ‘cumulative process of radicalization’ (Hans Mommsen), the policy on Poles followed other laws: ‘Nazi Volkstumspolitik vis-à-vis the Poles in question de-radicalized in practice from a policy of deportation to one of displacement, combined with the widespread Germanization of hundreds of thousands of otherwise “racially inferior” Poles’ (220).

Although Rutherford’s bibliography lists a few important Polish studies, the author has barely incorporated them into his work. He relies instead on the archives of the Nazi organs of persecution and administration, and thus views events from the vantage of the expellers. The reader thus learns little about the perception of the victims.[vii] Rutherford translates the (völkische) Flurbereinigung demanded by Hitler with ‘(ethnic) housecleaning’ (43, 47), but the actual meaning is ‘land consolidation’--elimination of the territorial fragmentation of the ethnic German population (Volksdeutsche) beyond the eastern border of Germany (at the expense of other ethnic groups). When the author maintains that the dilemma between the exploitation of Polish workers and the deportation of the Poles was never resolved (48), he fails to recognize that the occupiers overcame this issue by deporting young workers to Germany for forced labour! The index has numerous gaps.

Unfortunately, the author did not limit himself to including only clearly attributed photographs; the captions are repeatedly misleading. Thus, the photograph on page 145 was supposedly taken ‘near Litzmannstadt’ (Łódź). But since a uniformed Polish police officer in dark blue is visible in it, the source could only have been from the Generalgouvernement. According to the author, the photograph on page 152 shows ‘a group of dejected new arrivals at the UWZ camps’ in the Warthegau. But a book on German occupation crimes in the area of Zamość has the same photo, trimmed at the edges, with the caption: The resettled population is waiting for ‘racial’ examination.[viii] The attributions of the illustrations on pages 95, 146, 152 (lower), and 153 appear questionable, as it is difficult to establish whether the persons shown are deported Poles or Jews, Auslandsdeutsche, resettled Volksdeutsche, or others.

But overall, the author has made an important contribution to illuminating the triangular relation between Germans, Poles, and Jews in the annexed western Polish territories, thus deepening by a considerable measure the initial spadework of an earlier study by Yisrael Gutman and Shmuel Krakowski.[ix]And in view of attempts to reduce events during the years of occupation to misleading theses,[x] this analysis, based on the documentation of the perpetrators, is all the more important, specifically at the current juncture. It would now be appropriate to examine whether, and if so to what extent, Rutherford’s findings can be considered valid for developments in the Warthegau after 1941, and for the other occupied Polish territories.


Klaus-Peter Friedrich


Translated from the German by Bill Templer


[i]Götz Aly, ‘Final solution’: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews (London, New York: Arnold; New York: Oxford University Press 1999); for Christopher R. Browning, see: The Origins of the Final Solution. The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939–March 1942 (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2004).

[ii]Konrad Kwiet, ‘The Onset of the Holocaust: The Massacre of the Jews in Lithuania in June 1941’, in A. Bonnell, G. Munro and M. Travers (eds.),  Power, Conscience and Opposition. Essays in German History in Honour of John A. Moses (New York: Peter Lang 1996), 107–21.

[iii]Jerzy Tomaszewski, Auftakt zur Vernichtung. Die Vertreibung polnischer Juden aus Deutschland im Jahre 1938, (Osnabrück: Fibre Verlag, 2002).

[iv]JochenBöhler, Auftakt zum Vernichtungskrieg: Die Wehrmacht in Polen 1939 (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer 2006).

[v]Alexander B. Rossino, Hitler Strikes Poland. Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity, (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003) (Modern War Studies), 235, 233 f.

[vi]Archiwum Państwowe w Lublinie, Urząd Okręgu Lubelskiego(Office Lublin District) 498/133, p. 1.

[vii]For example, the author ignores the basic study by Maria Rutowska, Wysiedlenia ludności polskiej z Kraju Warty do Generalnego Gubernatorstwa 1939–1941 (Poznań: Instytut Zachodni 2003) (Prace Instytutu Zachodniego, 71). In addition, Rutowska makes use of numerous eyewitness reports, which Rutherford does not take into consideration.

[viii]Zygmunt Klukowski, Zamojszczyzna, 2 vols., Vol. 1: 1918–1943, ed. Agnieszka Knyt, (Warsaw: Ośrodek KARTA, 2007), Annex (the illustrations in the Annex are unnumbered; it is photo no. 27, taken from the collections in the Muzeum Zamojskie).

[ix]Yisrael Gutman, and Shmuel Krakowski, Unequal Victims. Poles and Jews during World War Two (New York: Holocaust Library,1986).

[x]See, for example, the misguided interpretation of Ewa Kurek, Poza granicą solidarności. Stosunki polsko-żydowskie 1939–1945 (Kielce: Wyższa Szkoła Umiejętności, 2006).