On 20 January 1942 one of the most infamous meetings in history was held on the outskirts of Berlin at an elegant villa at 56–58 Am Grossen Wannsee. The meeting had been called by the second most important figure in the SS, Reinhard Heydrich, to discuss issues arising from the Nazis’ treatment of the Jewish question. Present that day were fifteen senior Nazi functionaries – most were civil servants or SS officers. The majority were highly educated – of the fifteen people who attended the Wannsee conference, eight held academic doctorates.
But, interesting as it was, the conference at Wannsee was not the most important single moment in the development of the Nazis’ plan to exterminate the Jews. The Nazis did not ‘decide’ upon the ‘Final Solution’ at Wannsee. In fact, Wannsee was a second tier implementation meeting, held in order to discuss a series of potentially contentious issues which had arisen because elsewhere much more important decisions about the fate of the Jews had already been taken. In the words of Professor Richard Evans: ‘it was a meeting in order to sort of smooth the bureaucratic path to the extermination of Jews.’
Which is not to say, of course, that what was discussed at Wannsee was not significant. For the Nazis, the principle and issues of definition which were examined at Wannsee mattered a great deal – and for the SS this meeting was vital in order to demonstrate that it was Himmler’s men and women who were in control of the practical side of the ‘Final Solution’, not any other state institution.
Because a copy of the minutes taken by SS officer Adolf Eichmann survived, it is possible to determine the significant areas that were discussed at the meeting – even though the minutes, since they were intended to have a relatively wide distribution within the Nazi leadership, were deliberately couched in euphemistic language. Heydrich began the meeting by confirming a change in Jewish policy – one that had been decided earlier. The overall Nazi plan was no longer that the Jews under Nazi control should be forced out of the Reich through ‘emigration’. Instead, the Jews’ fate would now be determined within the Nazi Empire. Those Jews capable of work would now be made to do forced labour and those unfit for work would – the implication is unmistakable from Eichmann’s record – be killed. This point of principle – the killing of a massive number of Jews – was not an issue at the meeting. No one objected. What was more contentious was the legal definition of just who constituted a ‘Jew’ in Nazi Germany.
This question of who was ‘Jewish’ and who was not had always been a difficult matter for the Nazis. Given their belief in pseudo-science, many Nazis, including Himmler, had always hoped that a ‘scientific’ test for Jewishness could be developed. Perhaps, they hoped, Jewish ‘blood’ was different from other blood. But since their hopes were based on prejudice, not science, these attempts to work out who was Jewish and who was not came to nothing. So the Nazis fell back on defining Jewishness by the number of Jewish grandparents an individual possessed. Something that only pushed the problem back two generations, since how could one ‘define’ a Jewish grandparent? Ultimately, for the Nazis, someone was only Jewish because they (or the Nazis) thought they were Jewish, and their grandparents had thought they were Jewish in their time.
The meeting then progressed to the question of what to do with the enormous numbers of Jews in the occupied Soviet Union and Poland. After all, these Jews – unlike the Jews of Western Europe – did not need to be ‘evacuated’ anywhere. They were already roughly in the location of the proposed work and killing facilities. Eichmann recorded that ‘various possible solutions’ were discussed for them – words in the minutes which concealed a discussion of different ways of murder. Once again, there appears to have been no protest of even the faintest kind amongst these highly intelligent men about the deadly nature of the proposals that were being put forward. The belief amongst these Nazis that they were ‘merely’ killing ‘sub-humans’ – albeit dangerous ‘sub humans’ – was pervasive.
But much more important than Wannsee in the evolution of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ were the discussions held the month before between Hitler and other leading Nazis. On 12 December 1941, just a few days after Pearl Harbour, Adolf Hitler had given a speech to the Nazi Gauleiter and Reichleiter which reminded them of his ‘prophecy’ of 30 January 1939 that the Jews would be ‘exterminated’ if they succeeding in causing ‘world war’.i Then, on 13 December, Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary that Hitler was ‘determined to make a clean sweep’ as far as the Jews were concerned. ‘The World War is here, the extermination of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.’ii On 18 December, Heinrich Himmler recorded in his appointments book that Hitler had said that the Jews were to be killed ‘as partisans’iii – another reference to masking the killings.
So it’s clear from the evidence that Hitler was directly involved in the Jewish question in December – and involved in a way that called for their ‘extermination’. It was, no doubt, against this background that the Wannsee conference then discussed the practical issues associated with implementing Hitler’s desire.
The Wannsee conference had originally been scheduled to be held at the end of 1941, but was postponed in the light of Pearl Harbour. It thus remains a curious ‘what if’ of history as to what exactly the conference would have discussed if the Japanese attack on the American fleet, and Hitler’s consequent pronouncements, had not taken place.
Almost certainly, in any case, the Nazis were on a journey that was taking them to an ever more ‘radical solution’ to their self created Jewish ‘problem’. Key milestones along that road, from the summer of 1941, were: the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the shooting of first adult Soviet Jews and then women and children; the deportation of Jews from Germany in the autumn of 1941; the construction of Belzec extermination camp beginning in October 1941; and the first killings at Chelmno extermination centre in December.
But it seems almost certain that the events of December 1941 added extra impetus to the Nazis’ decision to murder all the Jews of Europe. And Wannsee played its part in the practical implementation of that process.
i Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, BBC Books, 2005, p. 111
iii Peter Longerich, The Unwritten Order: Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution, Tempus Books, 2001, p. 92
The colour photo of the villa at Wannsee is copyright Gary A. Fagan, and is used with permission.
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