In the autumn of 1941, the massacre at Babi Yar was not unusual. It materialized from a planned destruction process that went into effect with the Wehrmacht 's (German Army's) invasion of Soviet territory on June 22. As the Germans advanced eastward, army units were accompanied by Einsatzgruppen, special squads whose mission was to round up Bolshevik political leaders and intelligentsia, many of whom the Nazis took to be Jews since Nazi ideology saw communism as dominated by Jewish influences.
Following procedures similar to those at Babi Yar, the shooting massacres expanded during the summer. Within a few weeks these mobile killing units devastated hundreds of Jewish communities, slaughtering more Jews than the Nazis had murdered in the previous eight years. About 1.3 million Jews (about a quarter of all the Jews who died in the Holocaust) were killed, one by one, by the 3000 men in the four Einsatzgruppen, their support troops, local police, and collaborators--all with the assistance of the Wehrmacht. Most of the 1.3 million murders occurred in 1941.
Although the organization of the Einsatzgruppen had been planned in advance of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the date when a decision was made to kill all of Europe's Jews has not been--and perhaps never will be--precisely determined. No direct written order of that kind from Hitler, for example, has yet been discovered. On July 31, Hermann Göring, the second man in the Third Reich, authorized Reinhard Heydrich to prepare the "Final Solution of the Jewish question," but Göring's authorization did not detail exactly what was to be done, or how.
Heydrich's mandate was to determine how to solve the Nazis' "Jewish problem" once and for all. According to Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, what Heydrich obtained was "an authorization to invent." As decisions were taken and events unfolded, invention was called for again and again. Every agency involved would face unprecedented problems because nothing like the "Final Solution" that eventually took place--the mass murder on such a large scale of an entire people, not for anything they had done but simply because of their "race"--had ever been attempted before in human history.
Hilberg sums up the situation succinctly: "Not just how to kill the Jews, but what to do with their property thereafter. And not only that, but how to deal with the problem of not letting the world know what had happened. All this multitude of problems was new." Nazi leaders such as Heydrich; his superior, Heinrich Himmler; subordinates such as Adolf Eichmann; and an immense bureaucracy attempted to solve such problems.
The policy to eliminate Europe's Jews, which was too important to be implemented without Hitler's initiative, probably went into effect during the summer of 1941, after the Einsatzgruppen killings had begun in June. Further signs soon appeared to indicate that Hitler had expressed his decision to destroy European Jewry completely. By late autumn, for example, construction of stationary gas chambers was under way at the Belzec and Auschwitz concentration camps in Poland. Even earlier, in September, experiments at Auschwitz showed that a pesticide called Zyklon B could be used to kill human beings in gas chambers. And on December 8, the day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States fully into World War II, the first large-scale gassing of Jews took place: 700 Jews from villages near the killing center at Chelmno, Poland, were executed by carbon monoxide gas in trucks specifically designed for that purpose.