If, like most of us, the sum total of your knowledge of the Holocaust was formed mainly by high school history curricula and the occasional documentary or feature film, then you’re likely to recall one Nazi gathering in particular: The Wannsee Conference, which took place this week, 80 years ago, in a suburb of Berlin. You probably learnt that Wannsee was a key event, the forum where senior German officials planned the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”
On the other hand, if you’re one of those oddballs who spend their time reading contemporary research and books on the Holocaust, you’ll be aware that most historians no longer see the meeting at the SS lakeside guest-house as such a significant event.
The conference, chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, director of the Reich Security Main Office, had originally been scheduled to take place six weeks earlier at a different location, and was to have dealt chiefly with various legal and other aspects of German Jews’ deportation eastwards. After a couple of postponements and a change of venue, when the conference eventually did take place, its scope had been broadened to discuss the wider issues of deporting Jews from the entire European continent as well as the Eurasian landmass of the Soviet Union – in total, 11 million Jews.
But most of these matters, according to the protocol, seem to have been discussed rather cursorily in a meeting that lasted only 90 minutes. The only matter that was discussed at any detail was that of which German Jews should be deported.
January 20, 1942 wasn’t a pivotal moment. The “Final Solution” was already well in motion by then. For nearly seven months, since the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the four Einsatzgruppen, SS death squads, were bringing up the rear of the Wehrmacht, carrying out mass-massacres of Jews in the newly-occupied areas. Indeed, one of the participants at the conference was Rudolf Lange, an Einsatzgruppe officer, who took a break from overseeing the extermination of the Jews of Latvia to attend.
At Chelmno, an industrialized killing center using gas vans had already been in operation for two months and the first of the death camps, using fixed gas chambers, was already in construction at Belzec. At least a million Jews had already been murdered by this stage.
So why was the Wannsee Conference even needed? Some historians believe it was little more than a bureaucratic power-play by Heydrich to make it clear to the representatives of the relevant ministries and departments that he, as personal representative of SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, was in charge of carrying out Adolf Hitler’s vision of a Europe cleansed of Jews.
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There are different schools of thought among historians as to how premeditated was Hitler’s planning and ordering of the Final Solution. The “intentionalists” claim that the Holocaust was Hitler’s plan all along; the “functionalists” believe that the mass extermination evolved gradually, the result of initiatives taken by Nazi officials at different levels who may have been inspired by Hitler but never got a direct order. And there are those who are somewhere in between. But no matter which school, the importance they attach to Wannsee is of a trouble-shooting meeting, discussing logistical and other problems arising from mass deportations and exterminations that were already in progress.
So why does the Wannsee Conference feature so prominently in our accepted narrative of the Holocaust? To a large part, this is due to how history is written: With whatever sources are available at a given time. Not only is the conference the best-documented event of its kind – we know exactly when it took place, who attended, and its rather picturesque location. Its existence was also revealed quite soon after World War II ended, when the only surviving copy of the conference’s protocol was discovered in 1947 in the German Foreign Ministry’s archive.
And it’s this protocol which first introduced the world to the term “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”: The term “final solution” appears 13 times in the protocol. But documents discovered decades later prove it wasn’t the first time that term was used by Nazi leaders; other, much more consequential meetings had preceded Wannsee, where plans were prepared and orders given.
For example, Hitler addressed the senior Nazi Party leadership in his Reich Chancellery office in Berlin, six weeks before Wannsee, where some historians believe he informed them of his decision to go ahead with the total extermination of the Jews, and that it was already taking place. But any record of that speech, if it ever existed, has yet to be discovered.
Then, of course, there’s the identity of the man who, at Heydrich’s orders, coordinated the conference and took the minutes which served as the basis for the protocol, Adolf Eichmann. It was Eichmann’s role as the “expert” specializing in organizing the deportation of Jews and, later, the focus on him at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 as “architect” of the Final Solution which also gave the Wannsee Conference its magnified importance.
Certainly in the decades after the war, when there was still widespread disbelief that a civilized, cultured society could have carried out planned industrialized mass murder on such a scale, the Wannsee protocol with its punctilious accounting of the 11 million Jews to be exterminated, itemized according to country and German occupation zone, served as crucial proof of the Nazi plans, only half-realized.
Just looking at the facsimile of the list, with its numbers, is a powerful reminder to this day. But by now there already is a massive body of incontrovertible historic proof, and any serious attempt at Holocaust denial has miserably failed.
So with the hindsight of history, how should we view the Wannsee Conference today?
One thing to bear in mind is that despite the huge importance of historic research, that’s not the only thing forming public perceptions.
Even if from a purely historical perspective, Wannsee no longer occupied a major place, for the non-professional observer and non-academic student of history, the conference and Eichmann’s protocol of it, even though it isn’t the verbatim minutes, are still the most complete account we have of a group of senior Nazis getting together to discuss the destruction of Europe’s Jews. And as such, it remains essential reading today. It is a unique insight into the minds of the perpetrators and the circumstances in which they were able to carry out their crime.
Reading the protocol, even taking into consideration that this was a “sanitized” version prepared by Eichmann, in which the actual killing is never mentioned, there is at no moment any doubt about what they are discussing. Perhaps the most chilling quote comes from Heydrich’s address, summarizing Nazi policies towards Jews up until then. “The aim of all this was to cleanse German living space of Jews in a legal manner.”
There is probably no sentence that more clearly epitomizes the scale, intention and Nazi rationale for the Holocaust, from Hitler’s original rantings against Jews in Mein Kampf, through the Nuremberg Laws after he came to power, all the way to the deportations and murder of millions. And how clearly those who followed Hitler understood him. And of course, it was all carried out “in a legal manner.”
The Wannsee documents describe how, even before the war, Jews desperate to leave Germany and Austria had to pay special taxes, whether as individuals or through Jewish communal organizations, to provide the Reich with foreign currency. The Nazis were not only determined to get rid of the Jews, but to fleece them of as much of their property as possible in the process.
Then there is the close correlation between Hitler’s desire to vanquish the Soviet Union and the use of the occupied territories to eliminate Jews from all of Europe, or as it is referred to “the possibilities of the East.”
We also get a fascinating glimpse of whom the Nazis felt would help them to carry out the Final Solution. Quisling collaborators across Europe were expected to eagerly cooperate.
For example, “In occupied and unoccupied France, the registration of Jews for evacuation will in all probability proceed without great difficulty.” Likewise, “in Slovakia and Croatia the matter is no longer so difficult.” In fact, the “Foreign Office sees no great difficulties for southeast and western Europe.” Where was the situation less clear and obstacles foreseen? In fascist Italy, where there would be need for discussions with the local chief of police “with a view to these problems.” But above all, they were concerned with the repercussions at home, within Germany.
The concern that deporting Germany’s own Jews could cause unrest is clear from the detailed discussion of exempting elderly Jews who fought in the First World War, and of various “persons of mixed blood.” It seems that if it wasn’t for the housing crisis at the time within Germany, and the demand of local party bosses that Jewish homes be vacated, they would have much preferred leaving the deportation of Germany’s own Jews to the end of the Final Solution.
In many ways the Wannsee protocol is an even more important document when read in the understanding that this was not the pivotal moment when the Final Solution was ordered. It certainly doesn’t read like one, more like the record of a meeting in which the CEO of a large enterprise makes it clear all his subordinates are on board and clear what their roles are to be.
The conference in a leafy villa by a lake couldn’t have been more removed from the occupied zones where Jews were being rounded up, from the killing fields where the Einsatzgruppen were dispatching thousands of Jews a day in hails of bullets, and from Poland, where the death camps were being built.
But to try and grasp the full extent of the Holocaust, we can never forget that it was from such meetings in well-appointed conference rooms like that one on Am Großen Wannsee 56–58, filled with sunlight from the garden outside, where the Final Solution was devised and directed, by educated men speaking in legal jargon and technical terms. That’s why we need to keep going back to Wannsee.