Prelude to the Final Solution

The Nazi Program for Deporting Ethnic Poles, 1939-1941

Phillip T. Rutherford

The fate of Polish Jews under the German occupation has been well documented, but not as much is known about the wartime ordeal of non-Jewish Poles. Phillip Rutherford investigates Nazi policies of "ethnic cleansing" to reveal the striking anti-Polish nature of the crusade to Germanize newly occupied territory and to show that these actions were a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.

Rutherford explores the origin and implementation of Nazi resettlement schemes in occupied western Poland, where Germany sought to reclaim territory for its expanding population by booting out the "ethnically inferior" Poles who had lived there for generations. Focusing on the Wartheland region, he examines four major deportation operations carried out between December 1939 and March 1941, including the day-to-day logistics and actions overseen by the powerful German Central Emigration Office.

“An important appraisal of the ethnic cleansing of Poles prior to the deadly reality of the Final Solution.

—The Historian

“An important publication. . . . Rutherford gives interesting, even though repulsive, portraits of many ‘ordinary Germans’ involved in the occupation policies. He demonstrates convincingly how the Nazi policies toward Jews and Poles were linked and interdependent. This is obligatory reading for everybody interested in the history of Poland during World War II.

—Journal of Modern History
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Drawing on both German archival and Polish-language sources, Rutherford considers a subject often marginalized by historians, but one that underscores the crucial relationship between the Nazis' early anti-Polish actions and their later annihilation of the Jews. He shows in detail when, where, and how the Nazis' operations evolved into a highly efficient "science" of human roundups, expropriated property, and human cargo shipments en masse.

Ultimately, the need for forced labor drove the Nazis to deport fewer Poles than they had planned. In light of the unresolved tensions between racial ideology and economic necessity, Rutherford makes a convincing argument that Nazi deportation policy vis--vis the Poles underwent a steady deradicalization. He concludes that, while the concept of cumulative radicalization seems to lead inevitably to the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," it falls short of explaining all Nazi racial policies.

Nevertheless, what the Nazis learned about the logistics of deportation at the expense of the non-Jewish population of western Poland was eventually put to horrific use in the mass murder of European Jewry. Without it, it's unlikely that the Holocaust would have proceeded as swiftly as it did. From that perspective, Prelude to the Final Solution provides a chilling portrait of the Nazis' training for genocide.

About the Author

Phillip T. Rutherford is assistant professor of modern European history at Marshall University and is a former Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series