January 20, 1942, is the date of what has become known as the Wannsee Conference, named for the villa in the Berlin suburbs where this 90-minute meeting of Nazi-German bureaucrats took place. In popular memory, the conference, and the accompanying Wannsee Protocol (the minutes of the meeting) that emerged after the war, are seen as the critical moment when the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was explicitly decided upon by the top Nazi brass. In fact, Wannsee really served as an opportunity to bring together the officials who would be in charge of carrying out the long-planned “evacuation” of the Jews of Europe to the east, and introducing them to Reynhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Main Security Office, who had executive authority for it. And even in the written minutes, the language used to describe the intended genocide of European Jewry is largely euphemistic.
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Participants knew that the plan they were discussing had already been decided on by Hitler and his principal deputy Hermann Goring, and much of the physical framework of the extermination was already in place. By October 1941, the first deportations had begun. But after the initial successes of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which began in June 1941, the Third Reich faced the real possibility that an additional 4 million Jews from the western USSR would soon come under German control. Deporting, murdering and disposing of the bodies of so many people would require serious logistical planning. One focus of the Wannsee meeting, then, was to present an outline of the estimated numbers of Jews living both in countries already occupied by Germany and those whose conquest was aspired to. In total, participants were told that Europe was home to more than 11 million Jews, only some half of whom were living in countries already under German control.
The minutes, which were recorded by Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer who eventually became a principal overseer of the plan, describe how, “in the course of the final solution,” Jews would be sent to undertake tasks of physical labor in the east, “in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes.” Those who survived, according to the protocol, who “will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, [which will] have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history).”
Much of the minutes, too, are taken up defining “who is a Jew” for purposes of deportation, as the Nuremberg Laws had been vague about people whose “racial” line was only one-quarter or one-part Jewish, or who were married to Jews but not Jewish themselves. Heydrich went on for more than an hour, focusing at length on this subject, and there was some discussion about how the populations and regimes of different countries under occupation could be expected to react differently to the expulsion of their Jews.
Thirty copies of Eichmann’s protocol were distributed, to all the meeting’s participants, and all but one was destroyed by war’s end; only in 1947 did a U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials find a copy of the text in the papers of Martin Luther, a by-then-deceased Foreign Ministry official who had been at Wannsee. Later, during Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation and his 1962 trial in Israel, he was asked about the conference, and he explained that Heydrich had instructed him, in preparing the minutes, to be vague, and to render “certain over-plain talk and jargon” into “office language.” Nonetheless, he reported, toward the end of the meeting, after some Cognac had been served, the participants loosened up and talked more freely “about methods of killing, about liquidation, about extermination."
In 1992, the Wannsee House became a Holocaust memorial and library.