Why Did Heydrich Write the Schnellbrief? A Remark on the Reason and on Its Significance
Heydrich’s September 21, 1939 Schnellbrief to Einsatzgruppen commanders has been one of the central documents in Holocaust research. It refers to a “final aim” of anti-Jewish policy, and to the need to concentrate Jews at rail junctions, count them, set up Jewish Councils, and use their labor potential. This is why the Schnellbrief is frequently cited in the research literature to this day.
Yet, in the document’s wide research use, as though taking its meaning and origins for granted, the reasons for its composition and its place in the developing anti-Jewish policy have never been examined. This article shows that since Judenräte had already been established during the two weeks preceding the Schnellbrief, the document was not the basis for this policy. Moreover, the issues addressed at length in the document were already discussed with the Einsatzgruppen commanders on September 21 and recorded in minutes. Thus, the Schnellbrief was not necessary for those performing the tasks. So, why was it written? The author argues that the answer to this question lies in the final paragraph, largely unnoticed by historians due to its bureaucratic character. This paragraph states that copies of the document will be sent to several central Reich ministries, in addition to the Einsatzgruppen commanders. The document’s purpose was to notify Reich leaders that the SS was in charge of anti-Jewish policy in occupied Poland, within the framework of general wartime policy there. This analysis fits with the broader context of how the SS gradually took over large parts of anti-Jewish policy in the Third Reich.