What Really Transpired at the Wannsee Conference?

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There is much confusion about what transpired at the Wannsee Conference, held on January 20, 1942, in a villa in a suburb of Berlin. The conference “was about responsibilities and cooperation,” and perhaps an effort to centralize the Final Solution, according to German historian Christian Gerlach. Historian Yehuda Bauer argues the meeting was barely a conference at all. A group of bureaucrats at the level of interagency secretaries of state was invited by SS General Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), to implement an order by Adolph Hitler to murder some 11 million Jews living in enemy and neutral countries including Europe, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and Sweden.

In other words, the Wannsee Conference was not where these Nazi functionaries decided on the Final Solution.


Decision to Murder the Jews

Hitler made the decision “in principle to murder all the Jews in Europe, either on or around December 12, 1941….At least that is when it was made public,” according to Gerlach. During a speech on December 12 to approximately 50 regional and “sectional” leaders of the Nazi Party, Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, reported: “Regarding the Jewish Question, the Führer has determined to clear the table. He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their own destruction. They were not empty words. Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be the necessary consequence. We cannot be sentimental about it.”

Though the decision to change policy was conveyed to the appropriate authorities, this resolve did not translate quickly into increased mass murder or the construction of new extermination camps. Although complete centralization was not accomplished at the Wannsee Conference, Reinhard Heydrich, who chaired the proceedings, was pleased that the 15 officials at this interagency meeting, had reached “complete agreement” concerning the “practical enforcement of the final solution of the Jewish question.” Most important, no one raised any opposition to killing European Jewry, Gerlach said.

No decision about whether to include the German “half Jews” in the Final Solution was made at the conference or later, and the Nuremberg laws were never modified. The Propaganda Ministry, Hitler and other leading Nazi officials did not want to consider those in mixed marriages like Jews, primarily to preclude a barrage of angry dissent from outraged relatives, Gerlach reported.

In December 1941, when Hitler decided “in principle to murder all the Jews in Europe,” and at the Wannsee Conference, neither Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron; SS); Reinhard Heydrich; nor Adolf Eichmann, head of the Jewish section in the Gestapo, had a practicable program to annihilate the Jews. After Wannsee, Eichmann and his collaborator, Friedrich Bosshammer, developed a report outlining anti-Jewish polices throughout Europe, when deportations were to be scheduled and where the Jews would be taken.


Jews ‘Most Climate-Resilient Human on Earth’

To demonstrate the absence of any plan, Gerlach points to high-level discussions about deporting Jews to Siberia. Heydrich liked the idea, but on May 15, 1942, Hitler rejected the notion, since he believed Jews are the “most climate-resilient human on earth.” Sending them to Siberia would just strengthen them.

Gerlach added that as of February 1941, Heydrich and Himmler continued to assume the plan was for Jews to die a slow death over a period of time (in territories Germans never actually captured) instead of being murdered rapidly. Some lower-level officials agreed with their vision. In December 1941 and as late June 1942, there were reports from the East claiming the Jewish Question had been solved, and suggesting the surviving Jews be used as forced laborers on a large scale. The reports were submitted by “some of the most extreme mass murderers of Jews,” who believed that there was no need for complete annihilation.


A Final Note

As Yehuda Bauer has noted, Wannsee “was but a stage in the unfolding stage of the process of mass murder.” People accord Wannsee more significance than the participants themselves did. And yet, we know of few situations where high-ranking representatives of a modern government bureaucracy convened to confer on how to annihilate an entire people. The significance, Bauer asserts, “appears to be that given a murderous ruling elite and the identification of large parts of the middle class and intelligentsia with the regime as such—not necessarily with the ideological underpinning of the murder itself—the machine of the state will coalesce to execute total mass murder. The fact that the victims were Jews was not accidental…”

The danger for us today is there is historical precedent for future Wannsee summits. Political scientist Raul Hilberg alerted us to the need to study bureaucracies so that our descendants should be vigilant. The importance of Wannsee, Bauer says, “is that combination of the specific Jewish with the universal that exemplifies all of the history of the Holocaust.”

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